What’s wrong with ‘Star Wars’ (and How to Fix It)

Once again, I found myself writing a lengthy response to a post on Facebook, and just before I hit send, I thought “gee, this would be better as a post over at the Junk Shop.” So here we are. This time it’s the Star Wars Saga, and here’s the post that sparked it, posted by one of the old CBR crowd, Tonya Crawford:

I suppose I have grown too old or too cynical for Star Wars. Oh, the latest movie was fine, really. I’m not hating on that. I just…. have no hope for this ‘galaxy far-far away’ anymore. I mean, look, it deteriorates from a republic into a monarchy. Said monarchy lasts about 18 years before a republic is re-established. The, in another, what, 18 to 20 years, THAT republic is also wiped out and a dictatorship attempts to arise. And after what amounts to 40 years of off-and-on war we’re expected to believe they’re going to make something stable this time? “A New Hope”…. yeah, I’ve got NO hope that these guys are actually going to be able to put together something functional that will withstand the test of time. They only had the sketchiest plan for winning the war and as far as I can see they had no plans for ‘winning the peace’.

The first response to this post was the suggestion that “maybe, just maybe, Star Wars was a really cool idea that got taken way too far.” My reaction to that, and the reason we’ve assembled here today, was that some parts were taken too far, while others were not taken far enough.

(It’s about to get all spoilery up in here, so if you are that one person on the planet who has managed to completely avoid not only the entire catalog of Star Wars movies, comics, cartoons, novels, video games, merchandise and ubiquitous pop culture references, you’re probably going to want to stop here until after you catch up.)

Starkiller Base from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Starkiller Base, AKA Death Star 3.0, because regurgitation is the sincerest form of repetition.

Episode 7, The Force Awakens, wanted to be simultaneously a remake and a sequel, carefully plodding on the same path Episode 4 trod, only turned up in volume; a bigger space-cannon, a bigger threat, bigger force-tricks, but not really adding a whole lot or moving anything forward. This decision required a reset to the status quo; if you’re going to rehash the Deathstar yet again, you have to put the Empire back into power, But that’s symptomatic of a bigger problem, one that starts in Episode 1, AKA The Phantom Menace.

The big problem is that Lucas forgot what he was doing. The original trilogy follows the conceit that this is an old-style movie serial; every episode leads into the next in one continuous story. But when Lucas came back to do the Prequels 20 years later, he had decided he was telling this big epic “Saga,” so he chose to leap back to 30-odd years prior to Episode 4 and made three films turning the villain into a tragic anti-hero. In the process, he showed us everything we didn’t need to see and none of the things that would have logically preceded the part of the story that he’d already given us. We got to see everything that was implied or referenced indirectly in Episodes 4-6, scenes that were unnecessary for plot purposes and serve only to spoil the surprises and twists of the original trilogy. Anyone stupid enough to show a new viewer the movies in the order they’re numbered has just ruined Star Wars for that viewer, which is why the “Machete Order” had to be invented. The Prequels are not prequels, they are flashbacks.

Think of the big moment at the end of Episode 5: Darth Vader tells Luke “I am your father.” Prior to the prequels, that was a big dramatic moment, a shocking “everything you know is wrong” shift of the status quo. The audience screamed when that scene played out the first time.

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in 'Empire Strikes Back'.
“Luke, the audience has known I’m your father for the past two movies; why are you surprised?”

But now, thanks to the clumsy, trite, and ham-fisted handling of the Prequels, somebody watching the movies for the first time would merely be confused; “are you telling me that Empire Strikes Back is just building up to a dramatic reveal of facts we knew two movies ago? What the hell is the point of that?”

Bob Zemeckis once explained his approach to the Back to the Future trilogy by saying “When audiences clamor for a sequel, what they’re really doing is expressing their enthusiasm for the movie they just saw. And that means they’ll have a love-hate relationship with whatever comes next, because they want it to be the same movie, but different. If it’s too similar, they don’t like it. And if it’s too different, they really don’t like it.” Lucas and later Disney took that and ran it into the ground. The Prequels were simultaneously a lot of self-referential continuity-rewriting and a complete missing of the point of a prequel.

The sequels tried to take everything back to the start of Episode 4 while pretending that they were moving forward. Mostly, they (like the Prequels) serve to make the universe much smaller. We’re told there are dozens, possibly hundreds of planets, populated by a large variety of species and cultures, fighting an epic 100 year war for freedom and justice, that turns out to be nothing more than a lot of noise surrounding three generations of two families having a spat. Everybody in the universe is related to everybody else, and everything revolves around Skywalkers and Palpatines as if they were Hatfields and McCoys. That is about the most boring setup anyone could come up with, lavishly camouflaged with CGI eye-candy, robots, spaceships, and pew-pew-pew laserbeams. YAWN.

So let’s see how it can be fixed.

First, let’s get back to the original concept. Star Wars (AKA Episode 4: A New Hope) is, as it claims, the fourth episode of a larger adventure story, an attempt to recapture the fun and excitement of the great movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s; series like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Captain Midnight, and an infinite number of cowboys, jungle girls, hard-boiled detectives, and superheroes. In all of these series, each episode follows directly on the events of the previous installment. If we see a rebel ship being hotly pursued by a gigantic Star Destroyer in the first minute of Episode 4, it’s reasonable to assume the the last few minutes of Episode 3 should have been a cliff-hanger setting up that situation. Instead we got the birth of twins some 20-ish years earlier.

Star Wars Episode 4 opening
This should have been preceded by a cliffhanger.

And we have the same problem with the Disney sequels, where the big celebration at the end of Episode 6 is followed by a leap 40 years into the future where everything we saw before has suddenly been undone. Nope. That doesn’t work.

But as promised, there’s a solution.

Diahann Carroll in the Star Wars Holiday Special
Nobody wants this to be in canon, right?

First, we put the original Prequels and Sequels on the shelf next to the Ewok Movies and the Holiday Special, properly regarded as ill-conceived mistakes that we all agree to turn a blind eye to. If it’s absolutely necessary, these films can stay in canon, to be considered separate stories in the Saga, but we’re going to just ignore them for now. And now we need to replace Episodes 1 through 3 and 7 through 9. Fortunately, the first half of that is easy.

Easy, of course, is exactly what Disney/Lucas has been doing; Solo and Rogue One have been branded “A Star Wars Story” and treated as separate stand-alone stories while filling in the direct narrative of the original films, working around the Prequels, in essence creating a stealth prequel arc.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
The real “Episode 1”

If we take Solo as the replacement Episode 1, then all we need is a new Episode 2 that picks up with Qi’ra’s rise to control of the Crimson Dawn organization and ends with events that lead into Rogue One. Perhaps this could include the introduction of Cassian Andor and the reprogramming of K-2SO. This would also be a good place to introduce Leia, C-3PO and R2D2. Now you have a six-episode series that makes sense and doesn’t constantly spoil itself; you also have more pieces in the game to move around and build a satisfying concluding arc.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Here’s your real Episode 3.

A few ground rules about that new Episode 2: It is absolutely imperative that the integrity and surprises of Episodes 4-6 be preserved. That means nobody named Skywalker can be seen or mentioned; when we meet Luke on his uncle’s moisture farm, we can’t know anything about him or his family. Darth Vader is the terrifying Lord of the Sith, not Luke’s whiny deadbeat dad. Yoda can’t be in it, because we want the fun of discovering that the weird little nosy alien who drives Luke crazy in The Empire Strikes Back is actually the legendary Jedi Master. Princess Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are as we see them in A New Hope, with no baggage attached. If either Obi-Wan or Ben Kenobi are mentioned, it cannot be revealed that they are the same person, and it cannot be revealed that Ben is a Jedi. We should not find out anything that will be revealed in Episodes 4-6. The universe is bigger than the Skywalkers and friends, and the series can explore those people and events. Ideally, not a minute of the Episode 2 do-over would take place on Tattooine.

Of course, one could consider the animated series Star Wars Rebels as that Episode 2, as it does lead  directly into Rogue One, but it doesn’t follow up on any of the events of Solo. I’d like to see Qi’ra and Crimson Dawn gradually become power players in the Empire, further emphasizing the corruption and evil of the government, and showing how the Empire was able to gradually subvert the Republic rather than overthrowing it.

Star Wars Rebels, season 3
Episode 2.5

That solves the problem of the Prequels. Now we have to move to the final arc, which shouldn’t be set 40 years later.

The new Episode 7 should pick up immediately following the victory on Endor’s Moon. Leia and Han, as leaders of the Rebel Alliance, have to return to base and take on new roles in building the government; but naturally, nature and organized crime abhor a vacuum, so Qi’ra and Crimson Dawn are still going to try to cut themselves a big piece of power and maneuver themselves seats at the top of the new government, just as they did in the Empire. Maybe Crimson Dawn secretly financed the Rebels, seeing an opportunity to take over what’s left of the Empire once the Rebels win? The final three episodes can document that scheme and its outcome, while Luke sets about rebuilding the Jedi in a way that seeks to prevent what happened to Anakin ever happening again, and tries to restrain the next generation of Sith.

Since the final trilogy would end with Luke, Han and Leia still young and active in the rebuilding of the government, we can ignore anything with Kylo and Rey and pretty much everything that happened in the first attempt at Episodes 7-9. Those people haven’t been born yet, so they don’t concern us. Also, no new Death Stars in the new trilogy. The Empire is defeated, Order 66 is a furtive underground movement, but they should be about as powerful and effective as the polo shirt wearing douchebags who marched on Charlotte with tiki torches. The villains here are the Crimson Dawn mafia run by Qi’ra, leading to an inevitable confrontation with her childhood sweetheart Han. We’ll leave it to the fanfic community to patch the gap between the end of this serial and the start of The Force Awakens, or perhaps another animated series like Clone Wars and Rebels could fill the gap and fix the worst errors, as those series did for the years between Episodes 3 and 4.

I would end Episode 9 with the wedding of Han and Leia. This would mirror the celebratory ending of Episode 4, the kind of feel-good victory that the audience wants, and allows the arc to conclude on a high note.

Simply put, the Star Wars series should feel like a single cohesive story that takes place over a relatively short period of time, not a multi-generational Saga. The Skywalker Saga is a different story; Star Wars should be a linear narrative, the rise of the Rebel Alliance and defeat of the Empire. Since Luke Skywalker is not introduced until Episode 4, it’s fairly obvious that neither he nor his story were originally intended to be the central figures of the series. George Lucas once claimed that the central characters were Threepio and Artoo, but somehow he forgot about that. A much better structure would be to build out three separate story arcs; Episodes 1-3 are part of a series about the collapse of the Republic 20 years earlier, and Episodes 7-9 are about an attempt to revive the Empire decades later.

13 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Well, according to Gary Kurtz, the original plan was not to end the original trilogy with the Emperor’s death, but have him be the threat brought forward in a sequel trilogy. A sister was to be out there, hidden, but not Leia. Leia was supposed to leave the story to take up leadership of the survivors of Alderaan (those, like her, offworld). Luke would eturn to finih his training and learn of a sister. The Emperor would step out of the shadows and be the big baddie, leading to a final confrontation.

    The past was minor; Lucas even admitted that 2/3 was in Phantom Menace and 1/3 in Revenge of the Sith, though it was far slimmer than you think. Basically, he rewrote his earlier draft to Star Wars, with the background material of Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader. Kenobi would meet Vader, try to train him and he would fall to the Dark Side. As originally conceived, Vader was just a treacherous Imperial General, while there was a Prince Valorum, who was leader of the Sith Knights, who served the Empire. Valorum would switch sides when he sees the treachery of Vader. After Star Wars, we were told, in interviews (and the novelization) that there had been a confrontation between Vader and Kenobi, around lava, leading to Vader’s suit. Originally, though, the suit and the stormtrooper armor were pressure suits, as the Empire would attack Deak Starkiller’s ship, from space. They had to cut their way in, from airless space and then attack. There is a conceptual painting of Deak, in what looks like scuba gear, facing off against Vader, because of the exposed environment.

    The best approach, period, for my money, was Archie Goodwin’s, in both the Marvel comics and the syndicated newspaper strip. We got more adventures, saw smaller stories and slices of the Empire, new characters with pasts (like the bounty hunter Valance, an ex-stormtrooper, with a hatred of droids). We got characters like Baron Tagge, who had a grudge against Vader and was a rival for power within the Empire. That was what I wanted to see explored. He did a flashback of Ben Kenobi, as a Jedi, in a blue/black uniform, on a starship. The Jedi were a military group, while Kenobi’s clothing on Tatooine was practical desert wear, not a monk’s robes. Archie got the space opera and serial trappings and ran with it. George forgot it and fell into Hollywood blockbuster thinking.

    1. Le Messor

      “Leia was supposed to leave the story to take up leadership of the survivors of Alderaan”
      As you may know, there was a comic that was kind of about that.

      ” George forgot it and fell into Hollywood blockbuster thinking.”
      The Prequels leave one with the impression that George Lucas has never seen Star Wars.

  2. Le Messor

    “When audiences clamor for a sequel, what they’re really doing is expressing their enthusiasm for the movie they just saw… they want it to be the same movie, but different. If it’s too similar, they don’t like it. And if it’s too different, they really don’t like it.”

    Do you know what movies I think most make that false? Star Wars, that’s what. I mean, it’s conventional wisdom, and it seems to hold up most of the time – but the original trilogy were three very different movies that continued the story.

    “a complete missing of the point of a prequel.”
    Prequels have a point now? When did that happen?

    “everything revolves around Skywalkers and Palpatines as if they were Hatfields and McCoys. That is about the most boring setup anyone could come up with”

    Hey! I resemble that remark!

    “the weird little nosy alien who drives Luke crazy in The Empire Strikes Back is actually the legendary Jedi Master.”
    I kinda thought that was obvious from the moment he first showed on screen.
    I was eight.

    I agree with most of the problems you outline (that they’re problems). I like your ideas for episode 2 and to a lesser extent 3, and 5-7.
    Solo, though? That was… not a great movie. It “showed us everything we didn’t need to see” (At last! We see how he got his name! (Admittedly, it’s better than the ‘revealing seen in the bathroom shows how Han Solo’ got his name bit that some people speculated would be part of the Special Editions.) It was dull, colourless, and forgettable.
    Maybe the solution would be to keep Solo as Episode 1, but not the Solo we got. A new version that keeps a lot of the important beats (because your Han vs Q’ira idea will be compelling, but only if we still see them as ex-lovers), but done better. And in colour.
    Thoughts?

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Nobody wants this to be in canon, right?

    …I do…

    The main problem, I think, was doing the prequels at all, and that’s all on Lucas. Back in the late 1990s, he should have scrapped the whole idea of the prequels and simply continued the story of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca – I think *that’s* what all of the fans really wanted and would have preferred.
    I know that – derivative and unoriginal as it was – The Force Awakens worked for me simply because it featured some familiar characters while introducing new ones. It basically brought home to me the fact that those movies should have been made twenty years earlier at least, before all of the main original cast members had become senior citizens.

  4. Solo suffers precisely the fault you find with the prequels, giving away too much. By the end of the movie it’s obvious Han’s a hero waiting for the chance to be heroic; his doing the right thing at the end of Episode 4 would be unsurprising.
    For good prequel material, the Clone Wars series was first-rate.
    I think your post is well reasoned but I just don’t buy your premise that the movies all had to follow each other closely like a classic serial. Lord knows the prequels had 99 problems (and then some), but that ain’t one of them.

  5. fit2print

    I am not that one person on the planet who managed to completely avoid the entire catalog of Star Wars movies but I’m very nearly him — I saw the original trilogy, then quit on the franchise after, to use my preferred term, Abominable Prequel #1. Having read the above (spoilers be damned) I remain satisfied that I made the right call at the time and see no need to rethink it.

    To be fair, I’m more of a Trekker than a … sorry, I don’t even know the equivalent term for a die-hard Star Wars series fan… and even in my preferred, I dunno, universe (?) I’ve only seen the original TV series and roughly half of the movies but still… when has first-hand knowledge (or the lack thereof) ever stood in anyone’s way when responding to a post on the internet?

    At any rate, I realize I’m about to offend roughly 99.4% of the fans of genre movies of just about every description, from SF to fantasy to action to horror to heaven knows what else, but… I truly wish that whichever higher power decides such things would simply establish a rule (with both retroactive and future applications) banning the production, exhibition and broadcast of any installment after #3… of everything that attempts to tell a more or less continuing story.

    In other words, once the trilogy is complete, no more installments with ambitions of extending the narrative that began in the first film. So the original Star Wars trilogy? No problemo. Just wrap up the entire saga there. LOTR trilogy? Fine but no more. The Hobbit series? Also A-OK. Full stop. Others in the fully approved column: Original Bourne trilogy. Original Dragon Tattoo series. Rise/Dawn/War for the Planet of the Apes. The Dark Knight series. Umm…. that’s a very short list and I’m already out of titles where I consider all three of the original trio of films tracing an ongoing storyline to be, if not of exactly equivalent quality, at least well worth watching.

    Sadly, under my proposed regulation, franchise family black sheep like “Alien 3,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “The Godfather 3,” “Hannibal” and (shudder) “The Matrix Revolutions” plus far, far too many others to mention would still exist but at least we’d have been spared the likes, well, everything else beyond the third film tracing a connected narrative in (again) too many movie series to even count — not one of which (to my recollection) should ever have been made (Yes, “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” fans, I acknowledge that perhaps those series are the exceptions that prove the rule but since I’m not exactly a member of the target demographic and haven’t seen a single one of the movies in question, I’ll refrain from passing judgment).

    I hasten to add (or reiterate) that here I’m suggesting that series that endeavor to trace one more-or-less continuous narrative should be limited to three films (thus, I’m not counting more episodic movie franchises like Die Hard, Mission Impossible, 007, the Ocean’s heist series and Indiana Jones (though god knows each of those series includes some duds… in some cases more than a few).

    Where was I going with this comment again? It appears I’ve lost the plot, which is of course exactly what I’m suggesting happens to those series that foolishly attempt to extend their stories beyond the time-honored length of a trilogy. I mean, really, if three installments was good enough for Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Cormac McCarthy (begins to run low on highbrow examples)…. umm…. James Ellroy and Paul Auster, how could it be too few for (to put it politely) somewhat less-than-highbrow Hollywood?

    Note: This comment is the first in a seventeen-part series. Collect ’em all!

    1. Le Messor

      I loved the way you wrote that. I lol’d.

      Skipping the later Star Warss isn’t a terrible choice.
      I’d say you’re missing out by doing the same with the Nex Gen era Star Treks, but they are very, very different to TOS, so I’m not gonna push it.
      Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were based on book serieses, so might not need your rule. (Though the first three Potter movies were my favourite, they started to get dark and dull after that; and my understanding, from people who’ve watched and read The Hunger Games, is that splitting the final book into two movies was annoying – so I think it could’ve benefited from your rule. I *think* it was a trilogy of books?)

      BUT*, on a more serious note:
      I don’t like artificial rules added to how creative endeavours are created. It creates an artificial saminess.
      How about if any saga – like Star Wars – needs to be planned out properly before it gets committed to nine episodes?
      Also… The Hobbit Games should’ve been less than three movies. Seriously.
      AND The Highlander Games was episodic; but there can be only one.

      * One appreciates large ‘however’s, plus one may not prevaricate.

  6. jccalhoun

    I think Solo and Rogue One is really the wrong way to go. Do we really need to know where Han Solo got his gun?
    I think there are decent movies buried in the Prequels (Some of the fan edits make them entertaining by cutting out as much of the kid and jar jar as possible) but the biggest problem with the Disney trilogy is that they didn’t seem to have a real plan for the three movies when they started. I didn’t love Last Jedi (I think Poe and Fin’s subplots were total time filler) but Rise of the Skywalker just kind of goes out of its way to shit on it and making Last Jedi basically disposable in terms of the overall story.

    While I didn’t fan gush out about Baby Yoda, I think Mandalorian is the way to go. Lucas gave the impression that there was a huge universe out there but we are just going to focus on people around the Skywalker family? Let’s get past that. Whether it is a true Next Generation or even an Old Republic, I think they need to leave the BIG GALACTIC DRAMA behind for a couple films.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      “…the biggest problem with the Disney trilogy is that they didn’t seem to have a real plan for the three movies when they started.”

      Neither did George. despite his revisionist interviews, he was making this poo-doo up as he went along. There is no “saga” until Empire, when they scripted themselves into a corner with both Father Skywalker and Darth Vader characters; then found a way out by making them the same character and switching some of the Father Skywalker plot role to Ben Kenobi. Everything after, including the prequels, stems from that decision. Star Wars was a self contained movie, with no major backstory, other than what was presented and no follow up in mind. That’s part of why Splinter of the Mind’s Eye got done. Lucas hedged his bets with Star Wars doing modest business and had Alan Dean Foster develop plots that could be done on a lower budget, with props, costumes, and sets retained. The first produced was Splinter, with Luke, Leia and the droids on a mission to recruit new allies and crashing on an Imperial planet with a secret. It was all contained within a limited environment, with little space effects footage required. Then, Star Wars was a hit and Splinter was just another side adventure, like the Marvel comics and the Han Solo books that followed. Splinter violates many ideas Lucas claimed were already set in stone, but don’t come about until the Empire script redraft.

      Not having a plan of where to go is fine, with the serial structure of additional adventures. For a saga to work, it has to be plotted from beginning to end. Jedi ends up rationalizing away a lot of inconsistencies between Star Wars and Empire, then the Prequels try to prop up weak arguments.

      I liked Rogue One, as a story of the Rebellion and how they got the plans, though I think it jumps around too much between settings Also, Vader being a one-man slaughterhouse makes you immediately ask why he didn’t do that when they board the ship at the beginning of Star Wars. The answer is because they didn’t conceive of him being a one-man slaughterhouse but the henchman of the villain. It was the audience reaction that elevated Vader’s role from then on.

      Solo was too disjointed for me. The idea of Solo as a groundpounder, not a pilot in the Imperial Navy flies against things Lucas stated as canon. Also, why are there groundpounders when you have stormtroopers? it doesn’t make sense. Better to have done a story about him getting booted out of the Imperial Navy or a caper film, but not the mixture we got.

      1. Le Messor

        “Splinter violates many ideas Lucas claimed were already set in stone, but don’t come about until the Empire script redraft.”
        Not to mention Luke and Vader meeting before Empire.

        “Vader being a one-man slaughterhouse makes you immediately ask why he didn’t do that when they board the ship at the beginning of Star Wars.”
        Maybe he was still tired from the slaughter two minutes ago? 🙂

      2. The Brian Daley Han Solo spinoff novels from the late 1970s went with Han as a cashiered Naval officer: he’d tried exposing some sort of corruption in the ranks, so the bad guys framed him, discredited him (“I had one witness — and nobody was going to take the word of a Wookie.”) and drummed him out of corps.

  7. Chris Schillig

    Having had time to digest the latest movie (and finding it the least enjoyable of all the new Disney entries), I’ve come to the conclusion that 7, 8, and 9 would have been better without the characters from the original film returning at all. Their story reached a satisfying conclusion. No need to regurgitate it and give them reasons to go back into action.

    I know fans would have howled with outrage if the principal actors weren’t given prominent roles, but the story would have been so much more intriguing with Rey, Finn, Poe and company forging their own way, minus all the trappings of who was or wasn’t a Skywalker and which Original Trilogy character needed a slightly bigger story arc.

    That’s hard for me to say, as it would have cost us some of Luke Skywalker’s most satisfying moments on film in TLJ, but ultimately, it’s still the course of action that would have most appealed to me, at least.

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