Why The Star Wars Franchise’s Decline Is A True Loss For American Culture

Why The Star Wars Franchise’s Decline Is A True Loss For American Culture

If it were only 'Star Wars' being destroyed, we might pass over it as a mere unfortunate mistake, but hardly a major fictional franchise or character remains that has not suffered, from Marvel Comics to James Bond.
David Breitenbeck
By

At this year’s annual Disney fan expo, D23, a new “special look” trailer was released for the upcoming “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker,” the third film in the sequel trilogy kicked off by 2015’s “The Force Awakens” and continued in 2017’s “The Last Jedi.”

Both of these movies are truly terrible from a writing perspective (although the latter film is much worse), while clumsily undoing and undermining everything that happened in the original films, including some stunningly wrong-headed choices regarding the main characters.

A rundown of their flaws could easily fill an entire book. They are some of the most hollow and incompetently written films you will ever see. This has resulted in a severe fracturing of the franchise’s massive fan base, between those who try to defend the films and those who loathe them.

‘Star Wars’ Is on Its Death Bed

Appallingly, Disney and Lucasfilm, with the help of sympathetic journalists, have cheerfully fanned the flames of this divide, and thus they shield themselves by encouraging the idea that some fans hate the films on account of their political or social biases, the race or sex of the main characters, or simply as a sign of the viewers’ immaturity. The term “toxic fandom” has entered the mainstream, as if it’s the viewers’ fault they don’t like the films.

The result of all this is that “Star Wars,” as a film franchise, is dying, if not already dead. “Solo” became the first film in the franchise to lose money, and interest in the upcoming third film is comparatively low, with a full trailer not even due out until this month. To destroy what was perhaps the world’s most valuable cinematic intellectual property in less than five years is admittedly an impressive achievement — perhaps the sole impressive thing about what is now known as the Disney era.

The imaginative power of Star Wars’s IP has been systematically stripped away into a confused and contradictory mess loaded down with contemporary politics. The simple, yet rich story of the originals (and even of the prequels, for all their faults) now suffers from a soulless and pointless tumor that grinds the rich characters of the originals into the dirt in order to set up hollow new ones.

“So what?” you might say. “Why does this matter? It’s just a fantasy film franchise. There are other, more important things in the world. Who cares?” Evidently, quite a few people care. But here is why it matters.

We’re Losing Wholesome Entertainment

In the first place, in practical terms, this means the loss of yet another source of wholesome and uplifting entertainment. Not much of that remains in mainstream American culture. This is important because the stories we tell and listen to affect how we see the world. They are part of how we communicate values and ethics. They are part of how we pass on our understanding of life and humanity. And they are an essential element in the continuity of culture.

A hopeful tale of good triumphing over evil, leavened by rich characters driven by familial love, courage, and decency, and bounded over by a mystical power delineating good and evil, cannot but have a positive effect on its audience as a whole. It isn’t the best story possible, nor the only such source, but in terms of mainstream media, there are precious few such stories left, and they grow fewer every day.

“Star Wars” was an atavism in its own time, a throwback to an earlier, more hopeful trend in Hollywood in contrast to the grim, nihilist fare that was all the rage in the late 1970s. It sparked a renaissance of that kind of storytelling, but now we are in an arguably worse state of affairs.

In our day, mainstream media is increasingly preaching a socio-political agenda. No hope, no uplift, no joy is permitted. Only instruction. Something that made people happier and better, something that helped communicate a healthy understanding of the world, has now been gutted for the sake of scoring political points. That matters.

‘Star Wars’ No Longer Transcends Politics

In the process, not only is a source of joy and cultural transmission eliminated, but also one of the few unifying cultural artifacts we had left. It used to be that whatever your political, religious, or social views, whatever your skin color or sex, you could still talk about “Star Wars” and find a common connection with your fellow fans.

The stories cut across the petty concerns of the day to touch on universal ideas that anyone could enjoy and find meaning in. Even when the films were bad, they still kept to that timeless, apolitical tone, so you could discuss why they were bad without bringing contemporary issues into it.

That is now no longer the case, thanks to these new films and the behavior of the filmmakers. Kathleen Kennedy, Rian Johnson, and others not only made terrible films, but subsequently hid from criticism by implying or outright claiming the fans didn’t like their product only because of the demographics of the actors involved or of their immaturity.

They ignored the many, many substantive criticisms (Johnson famously said he wouldn’t change anything about the film) in favor of holding up any comments on race or politics as representative of the film’s critics. They implied their fans are racist, sexist “manbabies,” while inserting overt political messages in the films themselves, and in so doing, they sowed suspicion, division, and bitterness among their fans.

The result is that one of the few remaining places where Americans could meet on common ground is now gone. That matters.

Movies Are No Substitute for Institutions, but Still Matter

We live in a fragmented, broken society. The humanizing and directing forces of religion, family, nation, and community are all but gone for most people. In the face of this famine, many people have turned to pop culture for the sources of meaning and identity they lack in the world.

This situation may, in itself, be lamentable, as even the best work of popular fiction is a poor substitute for church, family, or flag. If these works were falling to make way for something higher and better, that might be one thing. But they aren’t. They are falling, and nothing is replacing them. Nothing but the foul, dehumanizing influence of politics. The same brand of politics, I may add, that destroyed those higher influences in the first place.

In other words, you could liken the situation to a man being despoiled of all he owned, save a single toy of sentimental value. Then the same robbers who despoiled him of his valuables broke the toy, and in answer to his laments, replied that a grown man shouldn’t play with toys anyway.

It is the Prophet Nathan’s story of the man with the lamb. Even if that fantasy franchise was not really worth much in itself, for many people it was still all they had left in terms of sane, wholesome, uplifting influences. You killed it and then laughed at them for caring.

Many Franchises Are Falling Apart

If it were only “Star Wars” being destroyed in this way, we might pass over it as a mere unfortunate mistake. These things do happen. It isn’t only “Star Wars,” however. It is everywhere. Hardly a major fictional franchise or character remains that has not suffered this process, from DC and Marvel Comics to “Ghostbusters” to James Bond.

The Marvel films held out for a long time, but then came the execrable “Captain Marvel,” which followed the Lucasfilm playbook almost exactly: make a terrible, franchise-devastating film and then imply fans are acting in bad faith when they don’t like it.

They are now laying plans to follow the hyper-politicized plan of the comics, spelling doom for the franchise. More and more, the stories people grew up with, the stories that meant something to them, are being destroyed by a combination of bad writing and politicization, leaving a saddened, confused, and divided audience behind them and shutting off the few remaining refuges from our increasingly divided political scene.

Finally, on top of all the concerns already raised, there is simply the fact that quality does not need to justify its own existence. Whenever something that once was great — whatever it might be — is destroyed, the world is that much poorer for it.

The fall of “Star Wars” or Marvel or Disney itself is the fall of something that once was great, the elimination of a unique ornament upon human culture. To respond by asking, “Who cares?” is only to reveal the emptiness of our own souls. G.K. Chesterton put the answer into the mouth of Alfred long ago:

For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.

David Breitenbeck is a professional writer and Catholic traditionalist living and working in southeast Michigan. He is the author of several books, including "The Ten Commandments of Murder" and "The Wisdom of Walt Disney," available on Amazon. In addition to his books and his blog – Serpent’s Den – his work can be found at The Federalist, The Everyman, Catholic Match, Aleteia, and other places around the web.

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