Saturday, February 04, 2017

Book 7: Star Wars Amalgamated Products, Ltd.

Before you go thinking this is another boring discourse about how Star Wars is just another brand like Coke or McDonald's, like the one I did almost just exactly a year ago, I will say I actually enjoyed this book a lot; it's better than Aftermath book 1, and that owes probably equally to the fact that the characters in this book are now more established, and also some of the beloved characters from Star Wars are also back: Leia and Han are here, as is Chewie (albeit in a mostly nonexistent role), but also to the fact that this book far more than Aftermath seems to fit into the story that the movies are telling, as in Aftermath the rise of the First Order and the cult of Vader are both sort of foreshadowed, plus at the very end (SPOILER ALERT) Jakku finally comes into the picture.

So it's a good book, is my point, but it's a good book in that respect because it fits into a pre-existing world that has existed in my life for 39 years now.  Reading this book now, around the time I finally saw (and enjoyed) Rogue One really drives home the idea that establishing a brand in something is super, super important if you really want things to be iconic, to last forever. Or is it something more than a brand? I'm gonna go somewhere with this.

Mr Bunches and I have been rewatching the Indiana Jones movies, as they're now streaming on the various services we use. That is, I have been rewatching them, and he has been watching them for the first time.  Meanwhile, the second season of The Magicians has started, and I am again setting aside time on Friday nights to watch each new episode of that show, rather than waiting for  it to come online and stream the whole season the way I do with shows like American Horror Story.

All this watching and reading and re-booting has made me wonder why it is that some movies and books -- some fictional places -- seem to demand or allow for expansion, both into other areas of the fictional universe with new stories, and into new generations of people who love those things the way (or almost the way) the first generation did.  Mr Bunches gets genuinely excited about Indiana Jones and he loves Star Wars. He's 10, and so wasn't even alive when the prequels were completed, and the Indiana Jones movies were completed decades ago (except for Crystal Skull, which apparently I alone consider a good movie.)

It's not just like old things do this; the Avengers and the Marvel Universe have this same expansive, inviting quality, a quality that's entirely missing from the DC movies (but not from the TV shows, as I've watched some of Arrow, The Flash, and Legends Of Tomorrow and enjoyed them, as well as felt that they were something I'd continue to enjoy.)

Some universes just seem closed off, self-contained, dead, in a way: The DC movie universe has that feel, as does the world of The Matrix, and even the world of Harry Potter.  Sure, I know they tried to expand that out with some kind of play about Harry's kid and that "Fantastic Beasts" thing, and I will also note that possibly the Potterverse feels closed off to me because it mostly was set up for kids when it came out, not adults like me, so it never caught hold of me the way Star Wars did, but I don't think that's quite it.  After all, I was never a fan of Captain America, Iron Man, or The Avengers as a kid, and yet I really enjoy those movies.  I even enjoy Guardians Of The Galaxy and am kind of excited for the sequel, and that's one of the weaker links in that universe.

Plus, while Star Wars certainly appealed to kids, there were plenty of adults who were crazy about it back when the first trilogy came out. I can remember my parents discussing, at length, with some of the other adults at a family gathering, what might happen after Empire.

So what makes Star Wars appeal to generation after generation, and have staying power, while the Potterverse and The Matrix, to pick them out, feel closed off, like universes that are going to eventually wither on the vine and die?

People talk a lot about how Lucas 'revolutionized' scifi with his grittier, dirty, feel, and how the special effects were so great, but if either of those were really the driving force, then the special effects of The Matrix and the grittiness of Blade Runner would have spawned spinoffs and expanded universes and the like. But they haven't, not to any great degree.

I was watching a documentary about the history of the Star Wars toys, and although the documentary itself was short on anything truly interesting -- it was 95% "hey, look at my toys" and 5% "here's something you didn't know about this issue, pretty much the exact opposite of what I'd hoped -- it did touch on one issue that I felt bore repeating, as I know I've mentioned it before.  The toymakers, when they first got hired to do this stuff, would occasionally just think up things that weren't in the movies but were vaguely related to them, or seemed to be organically generated by the movies.  Things that even if we didn't see them, could have been there.

Those toys, I think, played a key role in embedding Star Wars into a generation of kids, allowing us to recreate the movies themselves and have our characters go on even more adventures, but toys alone can't explain it, either, as there's certainly no shortage of toys based on movies. (One possible difference between Star Wars toys in the 80s and other movie toys in the 2000s is that by the time the 2000s had come around, the toy market had changed to focus on collectors [largely collectors that had grown up on Star Wars toys] and also the way kids played had changed, becoming more video-game oriented and less action-figure oriented.)(That statement is 100% based on my anecdotal experiences and opinions and I am not going to go google toys to find statistical proof of that idea because I'm going somewhere with this.)

Where I am going is this: some universes seem expansive and let you fit into them in any way you want.  Other universes direct you to exactly where they want you to go.  It's those latter universes that seem closed-off and don't inspire the hundred-jillion fanfics and expanded universes and comic books and toys and spinoffs and series and all the other products that have made Star Wars a brand while Harry Potter remains some books and movies.

Here's something to think about. I'm going to stick with Harry Potter because I think if there's anything that could directly compare to Star Wars, pop-culture-wise, it's the Potterverse. Both have a youthful everyman hero with unknown powers. Both have an evil disfigured ruler with a weird familial connection to the hero. Both have a strong, smart female character who's probably more capable than any guy in the series. You can't really compare Ron and Han Solo, but pobody's nerfect, right?

Star Wars and the Potterverse have an equalish number of movies, but Star Wars far out-pop-cultures Potter when it comes to tie-ins, spinoffs, tv shows, comic books, and the like. There have been a jillion television shows and comics and books and ancillary characters and Xmas Specials for Star Wars, and Lucas long ago gave up all but the loosest control over the universe he created, to the point where when Disney came back in to close things down a bit -- something that may come back to bite them in the butt - - they had to declare what was real and what was not.  Canon.

Meanwhile, over in the Potterverse, JK Rowling maintains her Palpatine-esque grasp on every aspect of the Potterverse, occasionally making pronouncements about what is acceptable and what is not, or filling in gaps and trivia herself, rather than letting people come up with their own versions.

Star Wars gave the appearance of a fully-created universe, but it was so barely-sketched in in the first trilogies that nobody even knew what a Bothan was, let alone remembered where they fit into the story.  IO9 did a piece, when Rogue One was hyping up, about how people misremembered when the "Many Bothans died to bring us this information" line actually took was uttered,  and noted in the story that Bothans themselves were invented in the Expanded Universe and haven't even been accepted as "canon".  Lucas just threw a bunch of stuff out there: the Senate, the Empire, Jedi, The Force, a galaxy, there were other planets, some of which were only mentioned in passing.

We as kids, viewers, fans, were free to imagine all sorts of other things that could fill that in, and the Star Wars product makers helped; one thing noted by the documentary was that the toys were in such demand that they began making action figures of characters that hardly appeared in the movie at all; not only could you get Greedo (whose interchange with Han hinted at an entirely different awesome set of stories) but you could get Walrusman and Hammerhead

and a bunch of others, people (?) who were never in the movie for more than a second. Raise your hand if you remember Dengar!  Dengar never even had a line.

Compare that to the Potterverse, where everything is plotted so specifically.  While Rowling occasionally hints at other places in the world of wizards, when they come up they, too, are exhaustively detailed and scripted out, making reading the Potter books about as self-directed and expansive as playing a video game. (See, told you I was going somewhere with that.)

With some pop culture universes, you're almost invited, if not required, to fill in parts of the stories with your own imagination, and that in turn leads you to feel free to create other things to fit into that universe, too.  With others, there's just no room.  You have to walk in the direction the author wants you to walk, look at the things the author wants you to look at.  The Potterverse is like that.  So is Lord Of The Rings; there's not much spinoff running around that, either.  In these latter worlds, it can seem almost sacrilegious -- non-canon! -- to veer too much off the beaten path, and any formal efforts at doing so are beaten down by lawsuits and by fanatical fans who debate, endlessly, the minutiae of their world while at the same time failing to raise their heads from the trees to see the rest of the forest.

Star Wars isn't like that. It's fun, wild, expansive, inviting.  It's the kind of universe where you can imagine almost anything, because so little was given to you -- or mandated on you.  That's maybe why the prequels also failed where the original trilogy, and now the new set of movies, succeeded: in the prequels, the story had to march to get to a certain point, had to turn Anakin into Darth Vader and Obi-Wan into Ben, had to get Palpatine into power, and along the way Lucas decided that the loosey-goosey way he'd built the original trilogy wouldn't work anymore. He gave us the Galactic Senate and trade wars and midichlorians, and in doing so, filled in a lot of the mystical empty spaces fans had wanted to fill in for themselves.  If the Force is simply bugs in the blood, then it's not magic like the way some people wanted it, and you can't learn to use it a little bit or expand on it. It's just... rules.
By backing away from that specificity and letting the gaps exist, the new movies allow new characters to move in.  I've rewatched The Force Awakens a few times and I like Rey and Finn as much as I liked Luke and Leia in the first set of movies; they're not carbon copies but new characters, and I know that if I'd seen that movie when I was 10, I'd have spent my childhood pretending to be Finn instead of Luke -- something I could do because I didn't get an exhaustive background and genealogy on Finn, the way I might have if Finn had showed up at Hogwarts.

So Aftermath: Life Debt builds on those ideas by taking characters I hadn't yet learned to like, and making them more familiar, but also by showing additional worlds and people that never existed in my mind prior to reading this new book. The fall of the Empire lets spin-off fiefdoms arise, and a vast new array of issues and foes and friends, while all still fitting comfortably into the Star Wars universe because in the end just about everything fits there, if you want it to.

What Star Wars does so well and what so few other would-be brands fails to do is it turns us into the marketers: we create the product in our minds, and Star Wars simply latches on to them. Nearly 40 years in, the Star Wars galaxy -- now truly beginning to be long long ago, if not so far away -- has become a perpetual motion machine of sorts, creating new ideas and then products from them and new products to create new ideas.  It wouldn't surprise me if at age 70, me and The Boy and Mr Bunches and some grandkids and maybe a great-grandkid go see Star Wars Episode XVIII, and then stop off to get some holo-figures of a minor warlord named Xem who was in the background of one scene in the trailer. I'll say something old-mannish like Man, Star Wars sure outlasted Harry Potter and everyone'll say Harry who?  And talking about Harry Potter will seem like your grandfather now telling  you about Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle.

1 comment:

Andrew Leon said...

Hey! I like Crystal Skull!
Also, you should watch The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles with him. Those are great.

I don't think Potter will fade away. I could be wrong about that. I suppose we'll find out in about a decade.

I'm beginning to waffle on Star Wars books. I gave them up back in the 90s because, mostly, they were just BAD. Other than Zahn's books. But everything coming out now is canon and some of it seems to be essential canon and some other of it seems to be going off in interesting directions. But the bad taste in my mouth from the SW books I read in the 90s, especially Kevin Anderson, hasn't gone away yet, so I haven't been able to bring myself to do it.

I think the reason people hate the midichlorians is because they missed the metaphor. What Lucas did there was subtle and ingenious.