Star Wars fans are enjoying a new golden age. During the 70s and 80s Star Wars, like the Force, was everywhere – it surrounded us, penetrated us and bound our galaxy together. Then, after Jedi finished its cinematic run in 1983, nothing… the galaxy fell silent and the franchise entered its first dark age.
Yes, in the early post-Jedi days there were the Ewok movies Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor to tide us over. And yes there were the animated shows Ewoks and Droids. But it wasn’t the same. Star Wars was chugging along on nothing but simple nostalgia.
Despite George Lucas’ insistence that he had no desire to return to the saga after finishing Jedi, Lucasfilm, sensing a disturbance in the Force, soon began brainstorming new ways of resurrecting the fading franchise.
The first major step was to release Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novel in 1991 as part of the Thrawn Trilogy of books. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, it reached No1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Zahn’s trilogy went on to sell 15 million copies. This climaxed with the release of Shadows of the Empire in 1996. The multimedia event, dubbed ‘a film without a film’, treated fans to a new novel, comic books, soundtrack, trading cards, video game and action figures.
Both projects proved to Lucas that there was still a big appetite for his galaxy far, far away. It also proved there was a new generation of fans hungry for fresh stories and merchandise. These were dutifully delivered via Expanded Universe. The galaxy, though, was about to get much bigger.
Having retitled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope – followed by Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – fan demand for episodes I, II and III became a deafening roar. Now happy to oblige, Lucas once again turned his attention to the universe he abandoned in 1983.
The Second Golden Age
Enter the Star Wars Special Editions, which ushered in, from a certain point of view, the franchise’s second golden age.
Hitting cinemas in 1997 to mark the 20th anniversary of A New Hope, Lucas’ aim was to build on the enduring popularity of Star Wars. He not only wanted to renew the films in the minds of older fans, but connect with a younger generation of followers. The filmmaker also had another motive.
Having begun writing Episode 1 in 1994, Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) required a canvas to test the special-effects needed to bring the prequels to life. The original films were just the ticket. Taking advantage of the breakthroughs in SFX technology, ILM went back to complete the trilogy the way Lucas always intended – he claimed A New Hope fell short of his ideal creative vision because of the compromises made due to time and money. What followed was a full-scale restoration project incorporating new visual effects and an enhanced digital sound mix across the entire original trilogy.
They were a huge success, going straight to number one on their opening weekends, earning $138, $68 and $45 million respectively. By the end of 1997, A New Hope was the eighth highest grossing film of the year. As for attracting new fans; the Special Editions were a triumph as newcomers enjoyed the remixed sound, crisp visuals and improved SFX for the first time.
Not all the changes in the Special Editions were well received. For diehard fans, the digital polish, additions and many controversial changes (‘Han shot first’) sullied the films, inciting considerable criticism of Lucas. What they did do, however, was revive the ailing franchise and serve as an essential springboard for the long-awaited prequels.
With production on the new trilogy in full flow, the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 ushered in a new, lucrative expansion of the franchise not seen since the release of A New Hope. This latest epoch boasted brand new films, soundtracks, toys, books, comics and animated TV shows. Star Wars was again at the heart of popular culture, inspiring countless magazine articles, blogs, podcasts, fan websites, costuming groups (the 501st Legion), fan-made films (Troops) and films about fans (Fanboys). Whether you loved or hated the prequels, the second golden age was now in full swing.
All was not well in the kingdom of fandom, though. After the hysteria and hype, criticisms of the Lucas scripted and directed prequels quickly began to sour the relationship between the maker and fans. Despite finding a new generation of followers, Lucasfilm could not silence the anger of older, hard-core fans who hated the films, particularly the goofy, kid friendly tone and over reliance on CGI. The relationship between Lucas and fandom, already strained from the changes made in the Special Editions, was coming to an end. ‘Lucas Bashing’ across the internet quickly became the norm as a million voices cried out in pain. It was to signal a harsh finish to the second golden age.
As the end credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith in 2005, the saga was put into cold storage. Once again the Star Wars universe began to contract and Lucas, fed-up with the online abuse, announced that there were to be no more films… ever.
For the best part of a decade fans laboured under the fact that there would be no more silver screen adventures from that galaxy far, far away. Then, out of the blue on the day before Halloween in 2012, came the shock announcement that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4.05bn. The creator, embracing retirement, said it “was time to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of film-makers.”
Enter the House of Mouse
Since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney a new, third, golden age has dawned. Despite early scepticism and uncertainty, loyal followers of the Force have been treated to two new films, with many more on the way. The first two movies of the Disney era – Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the spin off movie Rogue One – were, for the most part, critical and box office smashes. Both were praised for bringing the saga back to its roots, relying less on CGI and returning to practical and traditional effects. They also brought back a sense of fun and adventure.
The franchise also continues to thrive on TV with the animated show Rebels, while the Expanded Universe, now known as Star Wars Legends, has been retconned. Looking to the horizon, a Han Solo film is in the works (due May 2018) and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now. J.J. Abrams will also return to round out the sequel trilogy with Episode IX in 2019. And if that’s not enough to keep you busy, there’s a Ben Kenobi movie in development as well as Rian Johnson’s recently announced new film trilogy. Oh, and there’s a live action TV show to come, too. In short, Star Wars has been given a new lease of life under House Mouse. All that is required is to sit back and enjoy this period as the franchise settles into a new golden age.