“The Force Awakens” did the most damage to the Star Wars brand, not the “The Last Jedi”
By Kent R. Kroeger (May 13, 2020)
Along with Doomcock, ThatStarWarsGirl, and Geeks+Gamers, YouTube vlogger Nerdrotic (aka Gary Buechler) is a member of the Praetorian Guard for George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise.
Though frequently mocked by the corporate-controlled entertainment media for their religious-like devotion to the Stars Wars myth, Star Wars is not their religion, it is their hobby.
Granted, they use religious terms like ‘canon’ to frame their critiques of how The Disney Company has fundamentally altered the Star Wars myth, but they do so to contextualize their uniformly negative reaction to the Disney Star Wars trilogy that was recently concluded with 2019’s release of The Rise of Skywalker.
They are fans of the Star Wars franchise. No more, no less.
The point of deepest contention between Disney Star Wars critics — sometimes called the Fandom Menace — and the mainstream entertainment media hinges on whether Disney should have respected Star Wars canon (i.e., historical precedent) when producing the trilogy and standalone movies (Rogue One, Solo).
“There has to be a basic foundation,” Buechler said in a recent live broadcast on YouTube. “(For Star Wars) Luke Skywalker was the hero that threw away his light saber to save his father (Darth Vader). He wasn’t going to go to the dark side. That was Luke Skywalker. ”
In contrast, Buechler considers the Disney trilogy’s rendering of Luke Skywalker as unrecognizable to the original character: “Luke Skywalker is not the one (in the Disney trilogy) who had a bad dream and was going to kill his nephew. His sister’s son. His best friend’s son.”
Buechler admits Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, and The Force Awakens/Rise of Skywalker director J. J. Abrams aren’t required to honor the fans, but if they want those fans to reliably show up for the Disney Star Wars projects, “they need to respect the love people had for that franchise.”
Unfortunately, says Buechler, the Disney people in charge of Star Wars have not demonstrated that respect.
Jeffrey Riley, a Nerdrotic YouTube follower, perhaps put it best: “Canon is history. If content loses its history, it stops existing.”
And how has Disney responded to these criticisms from fans? “Too bad, so sad,” seems to be their collective reply.
Matt Martin, a member of the Lucasfilm Story Group and creative executive for the animated Star Wars series Rebels, says of critics like Nerdrotic: “Canon is all fake anyway.”
If by ‘fake’ Martin means ‘fiction,’ there is no argument. Star Wars fans don’t consider the original Lucas-produced trilogy movies to be documentaries. They know these movies are science fiction.
Their message to Disney, instead, is that — as fans — they no longer recognize the Star Wars story line; and if Disney had wanted them to turn out in large numbers for the Disney trilogy movies, they would have considered the opinions of the Star Wars fan base.
For example, Han Solo’s unheroic death at the end of “The Force Awakens” represented the tipping point for me and Disney Star Wars movies.
Han Solo deserved better. And Star Wars stopped being fun.
However, for other Star Wars fans I’ve met who say they are done with Disney Star Wars, the cause of their divorce runs the gamut from Han Solo’s ignominious demise in The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker’s minor role in all three Disney trilogy movies, General Leia Organa’s demonstration of a previously unknown Jedi ability to fly in space without a spacesuit, to the use of light-speed in The Last Jedi to destroy the First Order’s Star Dreadnought.
Star Wars creator George Lucas has publicly complimented The Last Jedi’s director Rian Johnson for taking chances with the Jedi myth. Speaking on his behalf, director and close Lucas friend Ron Howard says, “He’s all for the galaxy expanding and experimenting. That’s what he prefers the most.”
‘Expanding and experimenting’ is one thing; taking a blow torch to the most basic precepts of the Star Wars mythology is an entirely different matter. Not even Lucas can get away with that in the eyes of some fans.
Feel free to mock Star Wars fans for caring about ‘fake’ canon, but if Disney is still a for-profit business — and Disney’s stockholders assume the company is — they should have done a better job understanding the core Star Wars fandom even if they didn’t want to cater exclusively to their desires and expectations.
Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Kathleen Kennedy probably has a similar quote.
Where did Disney go wrong with their Star Wars trilogy?
A minor dispute among Star Wars fans has developed over when and how the world’s most lucrative science fiction movie franchise started its slide. Was it by Rian Johnson’s canon-mocking The Last Jedi? Was it J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens? Was it the last movie in the trilogy — The Rise of Skywalker — that placed the Star Wars franchise on life support? Or did the Lucas-produced prequels deliver the decisive blow long before Disney acquired the franchise?
While I can’t prove how the Star Wars franchise was damaged, I’m confident I know when it happened (see Figure 1): The Force Awakens caused Disney’s Star Wars troubles, not the more reviled Last Jedi.
Worldwide Google searches on the term ‘Star Wars’ have followed a predictable pattern since 2004 (the first year Google search data is available). In the month of a Star Wars movie premiere, Google searches spike, and then fall off until the next Star Wars movie (or until the next May the Fourth Be With You).
The assumption underlying my conclusion is that Google searches are a reliable and valid proxy for assessing public interest in media properties such as Star Wars. There is empirical evidence to support this assumption.
Figure 1: Worldwide Google searches on ‘Star Wars’ from 2004 to present
Had 2005’s Revenge of the Sith inflicted major damage to the Star Wars franchise, we would have expected the next Star Wars film (2016’s The Force Awakens) to have relatively deflated Google search totals. To the contrary, worldwide interest in Star Wars peaked leading into the release of The Force Awakens.
Revenge of the Sith is no longer a suspect, but what about The Force Awakens? — generally considered the best of the Disney trilogy movies (receiving a 93 critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
If we set 2016’s Rogue One aside as a unique case (it was a standalone Star Wars movie), and focus on the second Disney trilogy movie — The Last Jedi — the impact of The Force Awakens becomes apparent. Worldwide Google search interest in ‘Star Wars’ fell 55 Google Index points (where an index score of 100 represents the month with the most Google search interest in Star Wars).
Buechler theorizes Abrams’ unflattering deconstruction of the original saga’s protagonist — Luke Skywalker — and transforming Han Solo from a competent, space-savvy smuggler into a depressed, divorced dad did the critical damage.
Other Star Wars vloggers such as Doomcock have suggested the Disney saga protagonist — Rey — never became a fully-developed character on Luke’s level.
Regardless, the key point in Figure 1 is that blaming Star Wars’ decline on the visually impressive, but storytelling monstrosity — The Last Jedi — is misplaced. By the time of The Rise of Skywalker, public interest in Star Wars was 60 Google Trends Index points below the similar period leading into The Force Awakens. Whatever the cause, Disney squandered their $4 billion Star Wars investment with a series of trilogy movies that alienated preexisting fans and created few new ones.
That is a recipe for a brand management disaster.
Fear not Star Wars fans. The franchise is wounded, not dead.
If I seem pessimistic about the future of Star Wars, let me share two reasons why Star Wars fans should remain optimistic: (1) Other popular culture franchises have survived mediocre middle acts, and (2) the world still thinks and writes about Star Wars more than any other science fiction movie franchise.
On the first point, the Tom Cruise-produced Mission: Impossible movie series suffered a mid-season slump only to come back stronger than ever. After two profitable, if unspectacular movies at the series start (released in the Summers of 1996 and 2000), the third Mission: Impossible installment (directed by J. J. Abrams oddly enough — Is there a pattern forming in his career?) was met with critical but not financial success (see Figure 2).
In the aftermath of Mission: Impossible 3, the franchise’s lowest grossing movie, Paramount Pictures could have easily pulled the plug on any future Mission: Impossible movies. The series seemed to have run its course.
Instead, Cruise brought in a new creative team (director Brad Bird and writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec) and released Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol in the Summer of 2006 to wide critical praise and strong box office numbers. The two subsequent movies (Rogue Nation and Fallout) have been similarly successful and two more sequels are planned for release in 2021 and 2022. [Is there a harder working person in Hollywood than Tom Cruise?]
Figure 2: Mission: Impossible box office and production costs
The sustained success of the Mission: Impossible franchise can also be seen in Google search data (see Figure 3). From a Google Trends Index score of 55 in April 2006 (Mission: Impossible 3), the three subsequent releases have witnessed peak Google Trends Index scores of 78 (Ghost Protocol), 100 (Rogue Nation) and 88 (Fallout), respectively. Fallout’s figure, however, is deceiving as its spike in Google searches covered a two-month period (instead of one as for the other Mission: Impossible movies). Fallout is the highest grossing Mission: Impossible movie to date.
Figure 3: Google Search Interest in ‘Mission: Impossible’ (US, 2004 to present)
“All franchises have their implausibilities, whether it’s Transformers’ sentient cars or the Fast and Furious’ sentient Vin Diesels. But only the Mission: Impossible franchise has gotten better reviews with every installment, climbing its way up the Rotten Tomatoes rankings as though wearing electromagnetic gloves,” says Cruise biographer Amy Nicholson.
What has sustained Mission: Impossible’s success? Strong creative leadership from the producer/actor (Tom Cruise), screenwriters, and various directors utilized during the six-movie franchise.
Lucasfilm and Disney Strong creative leadership on the top-side has not been the case for the Disney Star Wars saga. But there is no reason why it couldn’t be going forward.
What should maintain Disney’s optimism is that the Star Wars franchise remains among the most talked about in all of popular culture. While Star Wars may have been surpassed in total box office by the Marvel Comics Universe movies, it is still a heavyweight among science fiction movie franchises when it comes to worldwide public interest (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Comparing Google Search Interest Across Science Fiction Franchises (Worldwide, 2004 to present)
Since 2004, Star Wars claims four of the Top 5 monthly Google Trends Index scores. The Marvel Comics Universe has the fifth ranked month (when Avengers: Endgame was released in April 2019).
Disney would obviously trade their high Google Trends Index scores for Endgame’s worldwide gross receipts. But Google searches do represent something tangible — public interest — and to this day Star Wars maintains a large reservoir of that across the globe.
The modest success of the Disney+Mandalorian series, a sparse story about a lone bounty hunter in the outer reaches of the galaxy, far from the authority of the New Republic, who takes on the responsibility of protecting a child of Yoda’s species in a post-Battle of Endor galaxy.
Star Wars fans will show up if you give them a good reason.
No, Star Wars is not dead. It isn’t even dying. But it is ill.
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