There are very few things in my childhood that I remember as vividly as watching the opening to A New Hope. The scene is a near perfect example of how to world build by simply allowing that world to exist. Nervousness is communicated in the tense moments before Stormtroopers quickly overtake the Tanitive IV. Ruthlessness is demonstrated in the dispatching of the rebels. Terror is felt via the imposing presence of the Empire’s dread enforcer, Darth Vader, the only representative of the Empire allowed to wear black in order to drive home that terror. My favorite scene in cinema is now getting its own prequel film in the form of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; which will detail the events leading directly to the attack on the Tanitive IV. While most won’t see the film until later this week, an outspoken bunch have already decided that Rogue One won’t be getting their money.
No, this is not a contingent of fans still saddened that the story of the game Star Wars: Dark Forces has been replaced with this new story (though, that is still a pretty great game), but instead a group protesting the film’s perceived political agenda. In the past few days a hashtag began to make noise online, #DumpStarWars, calling for a boycott of the new film in response to a belief that it possess a message critical of former reality show host and President-Elect Donald Trump. Rogue One completed photography and even re-shoots before the election; but boycotters are motivated by now-removed tweets by writers on the film Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta that do not name Trump, but were clearly not in support of his victory. This is hardly the first time Star Wars and controversy have gone hand in hand, but with the current political climate the hashtag made it’s way to the Rouge One red carpet premiere; where Disney CEO Bob Iger was quoted saying:
“I have no reaction to [this] story at all. Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.”
With all due respect to Mr. Iger, I don’t need to have seen Rogue One to know that this cannot possibly be true. One only has to look to the immediate events the new movie exists to set up to see just how wrong Iger is. This is Star Wars we’re talking about, so of course it isn’t hard to dig up information about the origins of the Stormtroopers (spoiler: it’s Nazis) or George Lucas’ feelings about the Vietnam and Iraq Wars; a line spoken by a corrupted Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith is literally a quoting of Bush II, for example. However, politics are weaved in and out of Star Wars even further; both symbolically and literally.
The symbolic image of evil is built into Darth Vader’s design-remember, all black-and the uniforms and adornments of Imperial officers are modeled on SS Officers of Nazi Germany. The Rebel Alliance is made up of aliens, women, and people of color. The extermination of the Jedi hinted at in Hope and brought to fruition in Sith was intended as a Holocaust analogue. You might recall that The Phantom Menace begins with trading negotiations, and a gif made popular in recent weeks features Padmé Amidala mourning the death of the Republic by “thunderous applause.” Two years ago, JJ Abrams was comparing the First Order to surviving Nazi cells in Argentina. Even the opening moment of A New Hope has a political dimension. The Tanitive IV was indeed transporting the Death Star plans, but to the Empire, the crew was on a “diplomatic mission.” In fact, until this moment, Leia was not a known rebel-she was a politician. That’s canon, by the way: Leia appeared in Star Wars Rebels last season, using her status to transport supplies to rebel cells. Yet, we’re supposed to believe that Rogue One somehow does not contain any of these same leanings. If that’s true, Rogue One isn’t a Star Wars story.
Of course, I don’t believe Bob Iger is an idiot. You don’t become the CEO known for resuscitating the Disney brand by not being savvy. Savvy he is, and the man wants Rogue One to be successful. There’s no way a CEO is going to let something like this crash and burn if he can do something about it. That’s also my greatest issue with Iger’s comments.
See, before the big Disney purchase, Star Wars was (underneath the merchandising) an art piece. One man’s vision, for better or worse. It contained his desires and views, maybe even a bit of his own political leanings. George Lucas never apologized for that. He never found it necessary to tell the press that it was a coincidence Grand Moff Tarkin looked like Hitler’s best friend. Yes, he did keep changing the films and canon around, but it was always in service of the vision itself, the same vision that created A New Hope decades ago. I have no doubt in my mind that Lucas’ reaction to #DumpStarWars would look somewhat different than Iger’s. But when Lucasfilm came under the Disney purview, that changed. What was once decided upon by one man now goes through a story panel of over 13 members. It also needs to be greenlit from above to secure funding. Most of the time, that is not a bad thing. At the same time, movies made by committee have a whole lot more to lose, because they usually cost a whole lot more money.
This isn’t just a Star Wars issue, either, but a fear that I now possess for genre fiction as a whole, especially as it becomes a dominant force in our culture. Indeed, we are now seeing things on screen that were once thought impossible, but at what cost? One doesn’t have to look far for examples in compromise. Instead of a Superman movie advocating for the positives of immigration, we’ve now been subjected to two films of that immigration narrative written by Jewish men being hammered into a Narnia-esque (read: Judeo-Christian) mythos courtesy of Warner Brothers. Warner also bankrolled Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, a movie with plot points featuring child abuse but will have an accused domestic abuser in its sequels. Spider-Man: Homecoming recently was embroiled in controversy over just the possibility of a traditionally white character being played by a person of mixed race. Disney, Sony, and Marvel all stayed completely quiet on the issue, refusing even to debunk the rumor that started it. We all probably don’t need a reminder of this year’s Ghostbusters reboot that was besieged by people not at all unlike the #DumpStarWars crowd, but that project wasn’t done any favors by confusing comments from the production group and lackluster marketing.
Somehow, “geek culture,” which should be the most inclusive and welcoming, decided that it could have its cake and eat it too. Likely spurred by a fear of lost profits, these mega-franchises have decided the best course of action is to avoid all controversy, even if it means be beholden to the worst our society may have to offer. This cannot be, and it most certainly cannot happen with Star Wars. From Orwell’s 1984 to Roddenberry’s vision in Star Trek, to the complex political maneuverings of Bioware’s Mass Effect series, of all genre entertainment, science fiction has always been a forerunner in pushing for better societal change and warning of the opposite. As sci-fi’s biggest mainstream forebear, Star Wars has an obligation to uphold the the vision of a future we may still have ahead of us. If it is allowed to live in fear of the less, let’s say ‘future-inclined’ maybe skipping a first-week showing, that won’t happen; and it is far less like any other major franchises will want to pick up that mantle.
What’s more, franchises and companies shouldn’t have to live in that fear. As Rouge One had its red carpet premiere, the teaser for the eighth Fast & Furious film was released to the public. That franchise did not make it to eight films on a predominantly white, straight, and male audience. The previous film, Furious 7, debuted with a $147 million box office and would eventually go on to break records set by Disney powerhouses Frozen and The Avengers. A staggering 75% of moviegoers were non-white. Additionally, of that viewership, 49% were female. We live in a world of eight movies in the Fast & Furious franchise almost entirely because the market is wide open. Bob Iger wants the entire world to enjoy Rogue One, but that world is not a world that takes offense to the Empire being compared to white supremacists. If the films like Star Wars really do want to speak to our culture, it is time for them to make a decision about what audience they really belong to. Can they, and will they, choose to take the gamble, or play it as safe as possible? I want to believe that they can and will.
In Rebels season one, protagonist Ezra Bridger broadcasts a message of inspiration to the people of his home planet in defiance of the Empire. In it, he speaks of himself and his crew: “We’re rebels, fighting for the people. Fighting for you.” May Star Wars continue to rebel.