Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. In my mind, those movies simply were an impossibility. George Lucas had announced his retirement; he wanted to make independent movies, maybe even relax. If more Star Wars movies were ever going to be made, I believed it wouldn’t be until the point he had let the Star Wars universe go, and that would be a monumental step for the man who had tightened his hold on the franchise reins to make the Prequel Trilogy. As the Richard Bach saying goes: if you truly love something, set it free.
Looking back on the events of the past few years, the signs were there that Disney and Lucasfilm were engaged in a complicated courtship. Still, when the news broke it was stunning and epic. It’s incredible enough that Disney is purchasing Lucasfilm, its subsidiaries including ILM and Skywalker Sound, and the Star Wars intellectual property for $4 billion. But more Star Wars theatrical films are also on the way? Episode VII already in the works for a 2015 release?
Obviously FANgirl’s focus is Star Wars, but I’m also a lifelong Disney fan. Earlier this week on the ForceCast and his blog post at the Official Star Wars Blog, Steve Sansweet reminded everyone that George Lucas is, too. He went to the opening of Disneyland as a boy, viewed Walt Disney as an inspiration and role model for his career, and has a longstanding working relationship with the Disney Parks and their Imagineers. Both Lucasfilm and Disney have gone through their ups and downs in recent decades, but Disney has proven its ability to protect its brand, improve its product, and sell to an increasingly broad audience. Either consciously or subconsciously, Disney princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleepy Beauty, whose castle is the focal point of the Disneyland park, influenced George Lucas as he began creating his cast of characters in the Galaxy Far Far Away. It’s somehow fitting that Princess Leia – the gold standard of strong female heroines – is now a Disney Princess. For many reasons, Disney is a natural fit to steward Star Wars into the future.
In addition to discussing Star Wars, my efforts with FANgirl Blog have emphasized calling for better stories and portrayals for female characters, and raising the voice and influence of female fans. Recently we’ve started to see some progress on those fronts across the Star Wars brand. With Disney’s ownership and influence, I think that trend is poised to accelerate.
For the last two decades, starting with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Disney has been moving forward in creating better stories about women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that newly hired Lucasfilm employee Brenda Chapman blogged about her role as the first female story artist at Disney less than two weeks before the merger was announced.
I was just happy that Ariel had an obsession with the human world, and not just waiting around to get married. She saves the prince she falls in love with and then gets what she’s always wanted and her prince, too. She didn’t wait around for her prince to show up like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. She was a go-getter.
And Belle. She was my favorite. She was smart and brave. She wasn’t fooled by good looks. She rescued her father, making a huge sacrifice to save him. She stood up for herself and was able to break through Beast’s angry exterior to see that he was a good soul beneath it all. She wasn’t waiting to be saved. In fact, Belle saved the Beast at the end.
~ Brenda Chapman
And it hasn’t just been animation either – Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain America, and The Avengers, and Once Upon a Time on television, have continued to raise the bar for female characters and their stories.
The recognition of the importance of female fans was noticeably more visible than previously at Star Wars Weekends this year. The Jedi Training Academy had a female Master and more female assistants, a script change to emphasize both boys and girls as participants, and even souvenir shirts in pink at Tatooine Traders. Acknowledgements to “fanboys and fangirls” were made at several stage shows, and Cat Taber and Ashley Eckstein made special mention of strong female characters in their appearances together, too.
The trend continued at Celebration VI. In his Season Five preview panels, Dave Filoni made special reference to the 34% girls audience for The Clone Wars and declared that hiring Ashley Eckstein to voice Ahsoka was his best decision of the series, in large part because of her role as an ambassador for female fans. In recent interviews, including one just last week, he’s returned to this theme, emphasizing the importance of the female fans to the franchise. I expect Disney and Lucasfilm will find lots of common ground in their mutual plans to have female fans heavily engaged in their franchises.
Staying true to the conceits of the genre and franchise is another area where Disney can provide a good example to Star Wars in improving stories with female characters and connecting with fans. Disney understands well that one of the conceits of its animated films is that they’ll have a happy ending. Fans can come to the theater with the confidence that their expectations will be fulfilled. In recent years, the Star Wars EU specifically has lost this fan confidence, in large part because the stories have failed to stay true to the conceits of the franchise. Four of the six films have happy endings, and all six – even The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith – end on a hopeful note. Even if Star Wars isn’t quite happily ever after, it’s certainly hopefully ever after – and hope has probably been the biggest missing ingredient in the recent EU.
“The reaction from the network executives was unanimous, ‘You cannot do this, you’ve taken away any chance of this show having a happy ending’.” As dudes, we were like, ‘That’s what’s cool about it!’ But then we thought if eight women were having the same reaction, maybe we should listen.”
~Edward Kitsis, speaking to Entertainment Weekly
ABC executives rejected the writers’ original proposal to kill off Prince Charming in the pilot of Once Upon A Time because it would have eliminated the prospect of happily ever after from the start. Although Revenge of the Sith gave fans a hopeful ending, the EU storytelling that came after retained the grim, dark tone of the final Star Wars movie. The fairy tales and hopeful endings of the Original Trilogy spirit were abandoned for adventures more along the lines of roleplaying games, videogames, and comic-books. Elements that made Star Wars popular – heroic triumph, teamwork, and romance – were overshadowed. Even the “lighter” Fate of the Jedi series, which concluded with a wedding of Star Wars royalty that on first blush might seem very Disney, failed to use the conceit of hopefully ever after to allow the fans to trust the storytelling journey. Sadly too, beyond Episode III out of universe, the strong and positive portrayals of the heroines Star Wars had become famous for – Princess Leia in the OT, Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Mara Jade in Timothy Zahn’s books, Jaina Solo in the early New Jedi Order – were harder to find.
Disney’s stewardship undeniably will change this dynamic. Fans have long supposed that Lucas had little to no interest or involvement with the Expanded Universe. The extent to which that was true is irrelevant. Once the decision was made to sell Lucasfilm to Disney, every part of the company will have to adjust to a new reality. Disney is a publicly traded company, and its shareholders will expect a return on all components of their investment. Now, Lucasfilm’s leadership will be accountable to owners who have a direct interest in conducting oversight of the EU’s success.
Lucasfilm and Disney began working on the acquisition eighteen months ago, around the time of Star Wars Weekends 2011 when Star Tours was relaunched. Changes before and after that point – including, for example, the introduction of Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars, Dave Filoni’s résumé building as a Star Wars storyteller and creator of strong female characters, the licensing of female merchandise through Her Universe, and the hiring of Jen Heddle to oversee the books and comics – all indicated that Star Wars is for all fans. Without a doubt, Disney’s calculus in its decision to hire Joss Whedon to write and direct The Avengers included in part his reputation for positive portrayals of female characters that would encourage more fans into the theaters to see a movie about what traditionally has been considered male-centric comic book heroes. Within the EU, Dark Horse paralleled this type of open-arms gesture by signing Brian Wood for its new Star Wars comic, which also doesn’t require detailed knowledge of the Expanded Universe that has scared away potential fans in the past. The EU has made numerous steps in the right direction in recent months, but the disenfranchised fans have still been cautious. The Disney brand reputation for good storytelling, especially when it comes to its female characters, will provide the needed infusion of consumer confidence and help jump-start fans’ faith. Between the Disney mindset of “hopefully ever after” and the extra incentive to meet stockholder expectations, I expect only good things to come in the Expanded Universe.
For the films, the timing is right to bring in new writers, directors, actors, and other creators. The storytellers who will give life to these new movies will likely be in the primes of their careers when they’re chosen, and that will put them in the generation raised on the Original Trilogy. Recapturing its themes and spirit will be easy for people who’ve internalized it since childhood. For many fans, The Empire Strikes Back is their favorite film so far, reaffirmed most recently in the Star Wars Insider Awards voted by fans and revealed in Issue #137. It’s also one of the two movies George Lucas didn’t direct and the one for which he had the least involvement in writing the script. With new writers and directors taking the helm, but Lucas still involved as creative consultant, fans may see the best of both worlds come together on the big screen, much as they have so successfully in recent seasons of The Clone Wars.
“When I decided to do the second film, I said to myself that this is the second act of a three-act trilogy.
“When I met with the stars, I said, ‘I have been thinking about the film and I have come to a conclusion, this is a fairy tale, not science fiction. As a fairy tale, you have to play it straight, dramatic.’ So I read Freud and Jung about what fairy tales are and that gave me a fix for what the film should look like.”
~ The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner
Five years ago if you had asked me if there would be a new Star Wars movie with a female character who could top Princess Leia, I wouldn’t have even put that in the category of “Wildest Dreams.” The only way Princess Leia could have been better, in my mind, would have been if she were the movies’ main character. Two days ago, “not even in my wildest dreams” became “it will be something I see on the big screen.” I have a new hope I will see a female hero lead a Star Wars movie in my lifetime.
What Episode VII will be, it’s hard to say. If it features a new character or a familiar character in a new story, the possibilities are almost endless. If they pursue an adaptation of an existing EU story, though, they’ll have to choose carefully. Some stories, like the Legacy comics, the New Jedi Order, or the Thrawn Trilogy, make great use of Star Wars themes and include strong female characters. Others, like novels from The Joiner King through Apocalypse, would require significant changes to the plots and characterizations to bring the stories and specifically the female characters up to meet the standards Disney will expect as the new brand stewards. The Legacy of the Force series, for example, has some great thematic elements in concept that could translate well to theatrical films, but the actual execution in the books missed a tremendous opportunity to build a hero in opposition to the dark-side descent of its villain. Although E! Online quoted an unnamed Lucasfilm source as stating that Episode VII will be “an original story,” there has been no official word, much less any specific indications of plot, characters, or other story elements.
With so little information given about Episodes VII, VII, and IX, speculating on what the Sequel Trilogy’s storyline will be won’t get very far, but we can still probably draw a couple of inferences just from the bare revelation. Numbering the movies as Episodes in the series indicates a direct connection to the Skywalker family saga portrayed in Episodes I to VI. Freestanding stories with other characters would presumably have freestanding titles – perhaps Joe Johnston’s Star Wars: Boba Fett? – rather than saga-style Roman numerals. Similarly, the actual numbers used indicate that the story is the Sequels, chronologically after Return of the Jedi in-universe. How many years later, though, is unclear – although the comparison to the Prequels and the overall shape of George Lucas’ macro vision going all the way back to the original story designs strongly suggest that the natural timeframe for the Sequel Trilogy is roughly one generation after the Original Trilogy. But even those deductions tell us very little about what the Sequel Trilogy might look like in plot or featured characters.
“I have story treatments of VII, VIII, and IX and a bunch of other movies, and obviously we have hundreds of books and comics, and everything you can possibly imagine. So I sort of move that treasure trove of stories and various things to Kathy, and I have complete confidence she’s going to take them and make great movies.”
“The main thing is to protect these characters. Make sure that they continue to live in the way that you created them, and that the universe of Star Wars continues to grow.”
“Star Wars in particular is a strong global brand, and one of the greatest family entertainment franchises of all time, with hundreds of millions of fans around the globe. Its universe of more than 17,000 characters inhabiting several thousand planets spanning 20,000 years offers infinite inspiration and opportunities – and we’re already moving forward with plans to continue the epic Star Wars saga.”
As a fan with a long investment and deep passion for the Expanded Universe, I’ll admit I have some amount of apprehension about the impact of the Sequel Trilogy and the other subsequent Star Wars movies on the EU side of the franchise. One of the biggest factors differentiating Star Wars from any other franchise is its longstanding and extensive single continuity. I would be very disappointed to see the EU abandoned, because I don’t believe that a reboot is necessary to reinvigorate Star Wars or the EU. Even short of that, I’d hate to see some of the great characters and stories already created in the post-ROTJ timeline – like Jaina or Mara, Thrawn or Soontir – fall by the wayside if they could be used effectively in the movies.
On the other hand, I’m quite comfortable with the idea that adapting novels or comics to the movie medium necessarily does require changes, some of them significant, in transforming the story from one medium to another. Earlier this year, Lex discussed the storytelling differences in The Hunger Games between the novel and the film, and I’d fully expect similar kinds of changes if the Thrawn Trilogy or the Legacy comics were adapted for the screen – and personally, I wouldn’t view those as story reboots or continuity errors in Star Wars any more than I did in The Hunger Games franchise. And Disney is well positioned to help Star Wars build on its existing story content, whether it’s the Star Wars equivalent of a retelling of a classic like Disney’s Tangled, an original story like Pixar’s Brave, or a new tale with existing fan-favorite characters like Marvel’s The Avengers. At this point I don’t expect to see an existing Star Wars EU story adapted into the Sequel Trilogy itself – we might as well start abbreviating it ST now, right? – but hopefully there will be enough respect for the existing Expanded Universe that some of its great stories will be made into movies in the promised ongoing release of additional films.
Ultimately, I think back to when I first heard about the existence of Ahsoka Tano, Skywalker’s Padawan, in The Clone Wars. My initial reaction was skepticism – but the results for the story, the characters, and the franchise have worked out incredibly well. That gives me cause for optimism that the Sequel Trilogy will be able to succeed in the same way.
In recent months we’ve seen a clear trend in the Expanded Universe, from both Dark Horse and Del Rey, to return to the Original Trilogy roots of the franchise, both in characters and the spirit of the stories. That’s the core of the Star Wars brand, and it’s no surprise the EU is trying to find its footing there. I fully expect the Sequel Trilogy will draw heavily on the spirit of the Original Trilogy, too – the spirit of an action-adventure space opera with humor and romance as well as drama and war, and an ending that brings catharsis and a sense of “hopefully ever after.” I certainly hope Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin Solo and the rest of that EU generation aren’t jettisoned in the process. For the generation who had dreamed of seeing Princess Leia pick up a lightsaber after Return of the Jedi, her daughter Jaina Solo was their first true Star Wars Jedi Princess. But in the end, I want the Star Wars franchise to offer the best possible heroines for the next generation of fans to idolize and emulate – the same way Disney princesses and Princess Leia inspired me.
More Star Wars movies? The potential for a Disney heroine wielding a lightsaber? What could be better? I’ll tell you.
Last year on Wear Star Wars Share Star Wars Day I chronicled my travels across Tanzania where I witnessed first hand how the daily trek for life-sustaining water impacts the ability of women and children to learn. Just this past month the plight of Malala Yousafzai highlighted how important education is to the world, and to women and girls specifically. Education is the one tool that can help individuals create better lives for themselves. With knowledge comes the ability to farm, build infrastructure, and intellectually resist malicious propaganda. The bulk of the profit made when Star Wars passes to Disney will be used to further Lucas’s philanthropic support of education. The Star Wars fandom is comprised of educated individuals; we read, we write (in some cases voraciously), and we debate in person the philosophical and moral ramifications of a fictional universe. The fact is, though, that for millions of people the ability to see the movie or simply read a Star Wars comic or book is not possible without better opportunities for education. As far as this fangirl sees it, there’s only a “hopefully ever after” in this week’s news, and that’s the best way for George Lucas’ story with Star Wars to come to its conclusion.
I am dedicating the majority of my wealth to improving education. It is the key to the survival of the human race. We have to plan for our collective future – and the first step begins with the social, emotional, and intellectual tools we provide to our children. As humans, our greatest tool for survival is our ability to think and to adapt – as educators, storytellers, and communicators our responsibility is to continue to do so.
~ George Lucas’ 2010 Philanthropy Pledge
Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She also writes about Star Wars for Random House’s science fiction and fantasy blog Suvudu.com and for Star Wars Insider magazine.
In her spare time, Tricia puts the finishing touches on her first novel, Wynde. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.