When the first Star Wars movie was released, its financial success was about as predictable as that of the first Harry Potter book. Nobody expected a big success. In fact, George Lucas was so sure of the movie’s failure that he skipped the opening gala and took a vacation in Hawaii to ease the pain of the coming disaster. When the final installment of the nine-story saga finally opened in 2019, the pressure to produce a super-blockbuster was so huge, an opening-weekend box office revenue of $175 million (more than a hundred times what the first movie earned in the same time span) was considered a major disappointment.
The first movie opened in 43 theaters. The numbers crawled up relatively slowly until, at its peak, it was shown in 1750 theaters across the US. Viewers young and old raved about it. Stuffy old cinema critics were puzzled, but most reviews were kind. It earned nearly $300 million by the end of the year, a record at the time. The last movie opened in 2019 at God knows how many theaters across the world and raked in $900 million dollars in three weeks, and certain to make a billion dollars within a month of its release. And it has earned the ire of critics and fans across the globe, with some people going so far as to call it the worst of the lot. How Star Wars came to such a circumstance is a long and curious story.
The first movie (retroactively named “A New Hope“) opened in 1977 when the Cold War was still very much in progress and the doomsday scenario of a world blown up was a very real threat. The Pahlavi dynasty still ruled a fairly secular Iran and military threat from the Middle East was barely an afterthought, while Leonid Brezhnev held helm of a very threatening Soviet Union. America had also just come out of nearly two decades of war in Vietnam, the first war in American history whose horrors were broadcast in gruesome detail to civilian living rooms, the first since the Civil War to divide the nation in starkly contrasting sides, and the first ever in which America lost. It was also the first time in which Americans wondered whether they might be the bad guys. Hollywood was heavily influenced by the shift in national opinion. The Westerns no longer painted “Indians” as one-dimensional evil doers, and Native Americans were increasingly portrayed as victims. The clear cut world of “good guys versus bad guys” established in Gary Cooper’s High Noon gave way to the grey moral ambiguities of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Movies that used to be clean-cut, upbeat, optimistic, and fabulous became gritty, dark, realistic, raw, and, dare I say, preachy.
And of course it did not end with Westerns. Science fiction gave you Soylent Green and The Planet of the Apes. Mystery gave you The Conversation. War movies gave you Johnny Got His Gun. Road trip movies gave you Easy Rider. Comedy gave you Dr. Strangelove. Even love stories were about death (Love Story) or conceit and disillusion (The Graduate).
And that was the backdrop over which George Lucas declared (quite heretically at the time) that there were too many “Isn’t-it-terrible-what’s-happening-to-mankind movies” and opted to make “an honest, wholesome fantasy”. He wanted to go back to the era of Buck Rogers and his instrument for doing so was Star Wars. It was not a very original story. 12-year-old me was working on something very similar a few years before A New Hope was released. But clearly, the movie filled a void. American audiences needed to see a fantasy story in which a Big Bad Empire with a capacity to blow up whole worlds got soundly beaten by the scrappy, under-equipped good guys. Why were the good guys so overpowered? Good guys traditionally were in Hollywood movies, for one thing, but also because this was a time when the once invincible American industry was losing ground to imports, the American military had just lost a war, and Watergate (among other things) eroded trust in the government, the victory of the rebel alliance was cathartic to many people who were aching to see a story of a resurgent underdog.
At the time of its initial release, and a few years afterwards, Star Wars was not a big hit in Japan. In fact it was almost completely ignored by a public which was still very much obsessed with Space Battleship Yamato which opened in the same year. Yamato was much better tailored to the psychology of the local audience of the time, just as Star Wars was very much suited to an American audience of a very specific time.
But by the time Anakin Skywalker blew up the control ship in Phantom Menace, the Cold War had been over for nearly a decade. When Poe Dameron blew up Starkiller Base, kids born at the end of the Cold War were in their late twenties. A new set of anxieties had completely replaced the Cold War anxieties of nuclear annihilation. In retrospect, the years between 1999 and 2005 were the perfect time, had it been executed better, to tell the story of a democratic republic collapsing into the hands of an empire based on fear. “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause”, arguably the best line of the prequel trilogy, could have been a reflection of post-9/11 America, a time when liberty was willingly traded away for security. But the years between 2015 and 2019 were the years of growing wealth disparity, environmental collapse, and generational division. Not a great time to solve world problems by blowing things up. Marvel’s Iron Man story line concluded with a sacrifice of a billionaire.
And given that, it seems almost inevitable that the script flew off stage and Kathleen Kennedy became the main villain of the final trilogy instead of Kylo Ren. At a time when half of America was rebelling against political correctness and the other half was building “safe-places” to protect it, Kathleen Kennedy tried to enforce diversity by replacing the creative division of Lucasfilm with an all-(white)-women team (later to be supplemented with a few black women and a sprinkling of men). It might have been a noble effort in all earnestness, but it was the beginning of a long line of choices that increasingly gave, to some people at least, the impression that she cared more about the appearance of being “woke” than in telling a good story.
It is in fact unfair to blame too much on Kathleen Kennedy. Her decision to bring in more women than men, or at least appear to do so, was standard PR playbook for women of her generation. She is a boomer, after all, born in 1953. She had no idea her formerly lofty ideals were already dated and stale. And by the time she took helm, Star Wars was a too-big-to-fail monstrosity and a multi-billion-dollar industry. Every single child in the developed world owned at least one Star Wars toy. And it was now owned by the same people who sold Toy Story and Lion King. Movie critic Richard Corliss once compared movie production to a car racing down a winding cliff-side road, one wheel already over the side, its occupants all clawing and punching at one another for control of the steering wheel. That must have looked like a typical day for Kennedy. Toy makers, game makers, streaming services, and content creators of every kind wanted to shape her products to their advantage, while social justice warriors within her own ranks no doubt infused their views, not to even mention the run-of-the-mill in-fighting between producers, directors, writers, studio executives, and actors. It is a miracle that the movies even got made at all. One is left wondering, just how often she had actual control of the steering wheel.
And yet, in the collective fiction of our hive-mind consciousness, Kathleen Kennedy is the inevitable villain. She is the Emperor Palatine, a role which, by accident or design, she embodied exceptionally well. She even took to calling her detractors (all of whom were passionate Star Wars fans and her loyal customers) misogynists and “incels” (which I only recently learned was a shorthand for “involuntary celibate”).
American culture, since the time of Huckleberry Finn, had endorsed the narrative of wise and worldly youths being ignored and dismissed by pompous, obtuse, and self-important grown-ups. In all her public rebuttals and counter-criticisms, Kennedy tried to frame herself as the misunderstood rebel, but managed to look like the out-of-touch, mustache-twirling mayor. She is the product of the era when stories were cast on screen from the magical realm of the projector’s room. The worldly youths of the current generation live in a world that is much more participatory, much more meta, and much more prosumer-based. They are the Rebel Alliance of the 21st century, not the executive producer who must abide by ink-and-paper contracts with toy companies. Kennedy may still not understand that the greater narrative has leaped off the screen long ago and involved all the participants including herself in an epic Last Action Hero-style meta-fiction.
But worst of all, her Star Wars productions came off as preachy. A movie series that started off as an antidote to the preachy moralizing think pieces that dominated Hollywood in the late 70’s, cast into a sea of mindless CGI thrill rides of the 21st century, now looked like it had been turned into a Woke Megaphone held in the claws of a modern-day Cruella De Vil.
In short, Star Wars has lived to see itself become the villain. It grew into the sort of movie it was made to rebel against, like the young rebel who overthrows a tyrant to become a tyrant himself. What a fitting trajectory for a story that was based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory. The character arc of the Star Wars Saga is in itself a Greek tragedy.