"Star Wars" is losing its steam. I’ve enjoyed all of the movies, having watched nearly all of them on the first night of release. There are, however, some foreboding trends in the recent films that we need to redirect. The suggestions in this article are worth 10 billion dollars. I expect 10 billion responses, and they are all welcome.
The franchise has been in my blood since that first viewing in 1977 at the River Oaks Theatre in Calumet City, Illinois when I was six years old. I have dedicated so many hours to viewing, memorizing, and imagining "Star Wars" that I should probably go through therapy on it. Maybe an exorcism. If I put in that much effort to memorizing the Qur'an, I'd be leading prayers during Ramadan rather than quoting Greedo and Jabba to myself.
My interest in all this, thus, is not the ten-billion-dollar payday. I want more great stories. Marvel, for example, has shown that the whole enterprise can get revamped in such a way that fanboys enjoy the ride, rather than protest it.
So, to save "Star Wars," Lucasfilm must do the following:
1. A Trilogy Sympathetic to the Empire and the Sith
The films present the Jedi as Sufis or Buddhist Jesuits while the Sith are raging power hungry zealots. And while the Rebels and the Jedi get most of the attention in this universe, the darkest films are "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Revenge of the Sith." "Empire" is the best of all the movies, and "Revenge of the Sith" has amassed 900 million dollars. Meaning, there is a gold mine of storytelling available in the Empire/Sith galaxy.
In the prequels, the Empire launches because of a failed trade deal in a multicultural republic, transforming it into a mighty fleet of boring, angry, short-sighted White people. Except that the Stormtrooper uniforms change and the weapons get larger, everything else stays the same: they are dull imperialists. Other empires and civilizations from the Medicis, to the Incas, to the Tang, to the Fulani Sokoto, however, tend to be interesting.
One of the appeals of the "Godfather" movies is that the Don wields immense power, even from expressions, like when Michael Corleone hugs his brother Fredo at their mother's wake, while glancing with steely eyes at Al Neri, conveying an order for Neri to kill Fredo. That power is a few steps short of the ability to use the Force. Another appeal of the "Godfather" films is that main characters are all villains who do horrible things, yet they are the sympathetic characters who hold our loyalties. Such is the practice of an empire: even the most sophisticated empires decline into destruction and genocides.
With this form in mind, there are two specific approaches that Lucasfilm should take.
First, the Empire should form from practical needs the way the original mob formed: they are the guild or union that supports those people that powerbrokers exploit. The crime in the mafia develops later. Likewise, the Sith should emerge as their own religion independent of the Jedi.
Second, "Star Wars" must shift to engage with a global non-European audience. Marvel's "Black Panther" has tapped into African cultures and narratives with tremendous results; there is much history to pull from the other continents.
The Western Imperial tenor of the Episodes VII and VIII is overplayed but was relevant in 1977, three decades after the end of World War II. "Star Wars" should shift the inspiration from the British and German imperialists of the twentieth century to the Mongols and Ottomans of the 1200s-1900s.
The Mongols were one of the largest empires the world had yet seen. We tend to see Genghis Khan as a tyrant who made pyramids of skulls or as hypermasculine Klingons, ready to kill. They conquered much of the Muslim empires of the world with their own system of ethics. Further, their descendants formed numerous Turkic Muslim empires, including the Ottomans (the longest-running dynasty in history), the Seljuks (which were the eventual home to Rumi), the Mughals (the stuff of Bollywood Epics), the Ghaznavids, and the Safavids. One of the most popular television shows in Muslim homes right now— despite being blatant Turkish propaganda—is Ertugrul, chronicling the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. The relationships between Ottoman Sultans and Sufi Tariqas, which defined significant portions of their history and legacy, would fit perfectly in the Lucasfilm universe.
While the Jedi were keepers of the Republic's peace, the Sith should be disciplined religious activists, working as a revolutionary movement toward justice. The Sith of the current "Star Wars" canon would be the zealots impatient with the original movement.
Thus, even as a different religion, the Sith will still be the yang to the Jedi’s yin.
2. Take on the Establishment
While above I suggest a series sympathetic to the Empire and the Sith, I am not endorsing anything sympathetic to our current political establishment. Rather, I was speaking of looking into the histories of other empires from other parts of the world.
George Lucas' "Star Wars" films were very heavy on political commentary, whether speaking about World War II, Vietnam, or—in the prequels—addressing changes in American society. Marvel has ventured into that terrain with force: The Iron Man films have been very critical of the American legislators seeking to profit on war; "Iron Man 3" dared to suggest that Osama bin Laden (as illustrated with The Manchurian) is a not the real villain we imagine him to be; "Black Panther" addresses the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade; "Thor: Ragnarok" describes a "Hunger Games"-type world consumed by entertainment.
The recent "Star Wars" films, however, have played things safe in plots and characters, and especially politics. Indeed, "The Force Awakens" shows a White Supremacist Empire, but there was nothing imaginative about it. Thus, I'm suggesting that "Star Wars" reach into its roots because our nation is each day reforming itself into a modern police state.
3. Reboot the Canon
Marvel has shown that the canon can be as many as 18 films from different galaxies in the same universe, all converging into the same story. The "Star Wars" canon should do the same. The true canon for the hardcore "Star Wars" fanboys are the original release editions of the original trilogy, including the pre-“Episode IV” release of “A New Hope.” Meaning, the canon has already been modified. Now it needs to be rebooted.
At the very least, Lucasfilm should remake "Episode I." It need not be called “The Phantom Menace,” and it need not have the same story. By adjusting the ages of the characters, all of the cast can be replaced, except for Samuel L. Jackson, because he’s Samuel L. Jackson.
The prequels, by the way, lacked a Han Solo figure. That should be Ben Kenobi. Kenobi would be far more interesting as someone who has reformed himself from punk to hero in the path toward Jedi-hood. Meaning, unless we make him complex, he will be even more boring than Solo is in the recent movie. Further, Ben Kenobi almost had a foil in Darth Maul. Kenobi needs a foil.
The original "Phantom Menace" could then be placed on that same shelf that we find the "Star Wars Holiday Special" and the original “Revenge of the Jedi” movie posters.
"Star Wars" will stay alive if it shifts its foundation from cinema to television, so that it is like "Star Trek." This change might sound blasphemous, because a slogan for the release of the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy proclaimed, “This is why they make movie theaters.” But the universe and its movie theaters have changed since then. Further, the recent "Star Trek" movies were "Star Wars" versions of the "Star Trek" narratives.
The various "Star Wars" television series’ have been popular; Jon Favreau’s forthcoming live-action series seems promising. Consider “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” as a model for any of these:
Move "Solo" characters like Han Solo, Lando, Qi'ra, and Enfys Nest to a television series, intertwining their four stories. Solo and Lando could separately travel the galaxy discovering many different worlds, occasionally crossing paths with each other. Meanwhile, Qi’ra has her rise in the Imperial ranks while her foil Enfys Nest forms a grassroots rebellion.
But, the current Solo is out of place in 2018. To make Solo interesting, he must be something more like Logan/Wolverine, who is himself a complicated soloist. The current Solo is a 1950s western hero. A few years ago, the Lost series had its own Han Solo in Sawyer, who was far more complex than Han Solo.
Do the same for Ben Kenobi, with something akin to the old Kung Fu TV show, except (as mentioned) he needs a strong foil. Do the same for Bounty Hunters, including the various characters we have already seen, including Boba Fett, Bosk, and IG-88.
"Star Wars" need not be limited to space operas. A variety in tones has succeeded with the Ewoks and Droids animated series from the 1980s. The Ewoks series was full of humor, and the Droids series was reflective. The Star Wars books and comics have all sorts of approaches. Further, Logan and Deadpool show that strong superhero stories need not be limited to young audiences, while Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy prove that they also need not be so serious.
The mega-popularity of the 8-10 episode season format of Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube Red gives a tremendous opportunity for experimentation across genres. "Star Wars" already has a strong enough foundation of material to expand into HBO/Showtime series like "The Wire," "Game of Thrones," and "Boardwalk Empire." In these series, the Stormtroopers would hit their targets, by the way.
5. Add Complexity
The mega-popularity of the Marvel and Harry Potter series show that the modern audience enjoys complexity. When we discover complications, we get more curious. The Marvel heroes and villains tend to have very few dimensions, but their plots have been deliciously complex, taking ethical questions from first-year philosophy classes.
In "Captain America: Civil War," each of the Avengers has to choose between adherence to authorities for the sake of law and order or the unencumbered pursuit of criminals. At the same time, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have their own clashing loyalties over Bucky Barnes. In "Avengers: Infinity War," each of the Avengers, as well as the supervillain, Thanos, has to decide if their loyalty to their vows (Dr. Strange, Drax), or their love for their beloveds (Thanos, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord), or their own survival (Gamora, Vision), outweighs the salvation of the universe.
Black Panther, however, accomplishes both. Killmonger, a relentless, complex villain arrives. He throws the single-dimensional hero T'Challa into many difficulties, including tough choices rulers have to make for the greater good, while wrestling with the legacies of predecessors facing the same decisions, while also deciding if control of Vibranium is best for societal preservation or global altruism.
Aside from Episodes IV-VIII, all of the other "Star Wars" films have provided backstory more than any interesting dimension. The fascinating characters in "Solo" were Lando Calrissian, Qi'ra, and Enfys Nest. We want to know more about each of them. All the other characters—including Solo himself—were one-dimensional, being only heroes, villains, or tricksters, whom we neither miss nor mourn. And "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" was a wonderful film, yet all of the characters were easy to forget because they were without dimension.
The DC Comics films after the Dark Knight Trilogy and, to some degree, Man of Steel, have had single dimension characters with single-dimension villains, in single-dimension plots. Wonder Woman is the closest to an exception with a multi-dimensional heroine and team of supporters. For some reason, DC otherwise has a different problem. "Man of Steel," "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," and "Justice League" each have second halves full of apocalyptic destruction, which is very boring for the viewer.
I want "Star Wars" to succeed. For it to succeed, it must grow in new directions. If it does, it will make ten billion dollars in the next few years. If it does not, it will fizzle out just like the "Star Wars Holiday Special."