09 November 2012

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good studio at your side, kid.


I have to admit it: When the news broke last week, I didn't really care. In a way I still don't, partly because I'm forty-two years old and my tastes have moved on from the Star Wars universe. I can't even remember the last time I watched any of the movies. I imagine I'll see them again some time in the next year or so, as my son is now four and will soon be old enough to handle them without getting too freaked out. But for the time being I have no interest in going there, and I think any pleasure I derive from the movies will be of the vicarious sort, as I watch Liam experience the thrill of the Death Star trench battle for the first time. This is because I am getting old and boring, and should not be taken as a commentary about the quality of the movies themselves, as they are great mental bubblegum and are mightily entertaining.

Another reason the news about Disney buying Lucasfilm didn't faze me much is simply because, honestly? It was bound to happen sooner or later. Not because Disney is a monolithic absorber and amalgamator of popular culture (which it sometimes is, but no less so than other media giants such as the Turner networks or Viacom), but because I never expected Star Wars to stay in George Lucas' back pocket forever, anyway. Let's face it, gang: Intellectual properties get bought and sold all the time, and there is nothing out there anymore that is not unfuckwithable. DC has in the past bought entire stables of comics characters from other companies, notably Fawcett and Charlton, and has messed with many of them to such a degree as to make them almost unrecognizable. Case in point: Steve Ditko's Blue Beetle, himself a 1960s "modernizing" of an older Charlton character, who was unceremoniously bumped off in meaningless Tasha Yar fashion several years ago. (Comics fans are still stinging about that too, believe me--though I don't recall anyone screaming that they ruined Ditko's creation. It was just another raw deal from DC, and fans and creators alike have had plenty of those.)

Similarly, Marvel just bought the rights to the vaunted Miracleman series (though whether they'll actually do anything with it is anybody's guess)--and the Doyle estate has gone shit of bat in the last couple of years, allowing both the BBC and CBS to bring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into the modern day, to varying degrees of qualitative success. And let's not even start on the Thursday Next novels, or the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies nonsense. So really, Lucas booting the Adventures of Luke Skywalker over to the House of Mouse is just another example of the modern notion that a popular story is also a popular commodity, which can be traded and bought and sold and priced just like gasoline or peanuts or hog futures, and if people want it enough they will pay for it.

Too, it's worth noting that we as the movie-going, TV-watching, "expanded universe"-reading public are complicit in this commodification of pop culture. We keep lapping this stuff up, and if we didn't it wouldn't be sold to us. Note that Star Wars is still going strong, whereas Disney's indifferently met Narnia adaptations are dead in the water. That's market forces at work, folks. In fact, it's not outside the realm of possibility to speculate that Disney went after the Lucasfilm properties precisely because its own presumptive epic went nowhere, and they were hungry to get more of that market, especially in the wake of The Avengers. (And I'll get to that in a minute.) Simply put, Disney saw how people are still hungry for new Star Wars content, and not being stupid, decided that four billion was not too steep a price given the potential returns in merchandising, sequels, TV shows, books, sequels to the sequels, and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo. We want more and better Star Wars content--in fact, in the wake of the three prequels most of fandom has been demanding exactly that--and Disney is willing to gamble that they're the ones who can give it to us. And Lucas, by all accounts tired and ready to retire from the front lines of movie-making, has given them the go-ahead. And I for one say more power to them.

There's been a lot of bitching and a lot of jokes, just as there were when Disney bought Marvel, and all of it has just been as off-base as the guff about Marvel was--though some of it has been pretty funny. The image at the top of this post is my favorite of the lot. (It's inaccurate, but still hilarious.) Fans are carping that Disney will ruin the franchise, but honestly? Disney isn't in the habit of ruining things. It wouldn't be a successful multimedia conglomerate if it was. The truth is that since the 1990s, Disney has been in the midst of a renaissance that, barring a few missteps, has been pretty awesome to watch. Pixar of course had a hand in that, but even after Disney bought Pixar out from under John Lasseter, the string of good-to-damn-good-to-great stuff has been ongoing--to the point where Wall-E and Up have become two of the finest animated films ever made. And the spillover has enabled Disney to make wonderful films like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph--and early word of mouth on the latter is that it's one of Disney's best movies in years.

The Muppets were a bit of a conundrum for Disney, but after flailing around with the property for a few years Disney found a solution in Jason Segel, who injected new blood into Henson's felt-skinned offspring with The Muppets, an occasionally-uneven but heartfelt love letter to Kermit and co. And here is where Disney took the lessons of Pixar to heart, and remembered that the quality of the product is every bit as important as the product itself. There have been markedly fewer of the direct to video "classic" Disney sequels in recent years (which is all for the better as they were bad and Disney should feel bad for making them), and more and better original content as Disney has realized that if they want a hit, all they need is to find the people with the best ideas, turn them loose with minimal interference, and sing "Hakuna Matata" all the way to the bank.

Case in point: Joss Whedon.

To be fair, Marvel has been meticulously building its Avengers property brick by brick for years now, to varying degrees of success: The two Iron Man films went from awesome to muddled, Thor was deliciously overblown, the two Hulk movies were problematic in their treatment of the characters though each had its merits and drawbacks, and though I still haven't seen the Captain America movie I really, really want to (this weekend, probably), and the reviews were pretty outstanding. So Marvel was on a roll. Even so, The Avengers was a pretty ballsy move. And Whedon took all those meticulously set-up pieces and turned in one of the best, most badassed, exciting, and above all fun movies in recent memory . . . possibly since the original Star Wars. Not a hint of Disney-ification to be found. They turned Joss loose and trusted him, and it worked like gangbusters.

Now: Imagine that attitude applied to the Star Wars franchise. A good story, not beholden to Lucas' whims and overbearing, overwhelming control-freak-ism. And imagine what Brad Bird could do with it. Or Alfonso Cuaron. Or Whedon. Or Joe Johnston.

Like I said, I didn't care much about the news, when I first heard it. Now, though? The more I think about it, the more I thing that a Disney-owned Star Wars movie could be the best thing to happen to the franchise in decades.

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