I haven’t decided if this statement is more of a compliment to James Gunn’s last two Guardians of the Galaxy films or a knock on Disney’s last two Star Wars films. There’s a part of me that feels like it’s both because as I’m getting surprised and delighted by one, I’m getting underwhelmed and discontented by the other. After coming back from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on the unofficial Star Wars holiday, “May the Fourth,” I couldn’t help, but come to this conclusion: the Guardians of the Galaxy series feels more like the original Star Wars films than the current run of Star Wars films.
To be clear, I’m not talking about lightsabers, the Force, good-and-evil, or any of the Star Wars-related lore that has been staples of the franchise since its inception. This isn’t about Star Wars as a universe as much as it is Star Wars as a work of art. And in 1977, Star Wars represented a scrappy underdog film helmed by an auteur director with a vision for a universe so strong, it felt like it came from a place of love and passion. While it recycled material from other popular film serials and Kurosawa’s samurai films, it put those elements into a new context in order to resonate with sci-fi/fantasy fans. Furthermore, it took many risks by casting several unknowns with the exception of only one well-established actor (Alec Guinness) in a role with only a modest amount of screentime. Eventually, the success translated into a sequel that brought character development, depth, and interesting relationship dynamics to a collection of brand new settings.
Similarly, in 2012 when a Guardians of the Galaxy movie was announced, even the most diehard Marvel fans seemed to scratch their heads. That obscure comic with talking raccoon and a tree who says 3 words? The director from the bleak R-rated superhero black comedy Super would be directing this? They cast the schlubby comic-relief from Parks & Recreation and a former WWE wrestler as leads?! They cast their most recognizable actors as an alien in heavy makeup, a CG role, and a CG role with only 3 words for every line?! Had Disney lost their minds?! How could such an esoteric, no-name property with such bizarre B to C-list casting choices turn a profit?
Well, not only did it turn a profit, but it became the third highest grossing film of its year behind blockbuster mega-sequels like Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. However, something that those films didn’t receive was an overwhelming amount of love for the film’s artistic value to both itself and the franchise that it was under as a whole. Eventually, the success translated into a sequel that brought character development, depth, and interesting relationship dynamics to a collection of brand new settings.
Though a risky venture, Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t exactly a wholly original idea. Film audiences had seen Indiana Jones before. Yeah, they’ve seen movies where a collection of unlikely misfits get together and save the day. Yes, they’d seen smarmy likable heroes, tough independent women, brutish comic relief, and animal sidekicks, but they’d never seen them in the newly reinvented superhero genre. They have never seen a talking tree who could steal their hearts or animal sidekicks with an arsenal like Rocket’s. They’d never seen post-2000s space operas set to hit songs from the 1960s-’80s. And they’d never seen a property so esoteric and unafraid to alienate four-quadrant demographics quite like Guardians of the Galaxy did.
Or, at least like Star Wars did. A long time ago…
The problem with Star Wars right now is that it’s approaching the question of “What feels like Star Wars?” from a lore perspective rather than from an artistic perspective. To be fair to Disney, I don’t think that this problem started with them so much as it started with the Star Wars prequels and maybe even with Return of the Jedi. While Return of the Jedi did have enough creativity and gall to have the Empire overthrown by a bunch of teddy bears with sticks, it relied on bringing back two things because the Star Wars fanboys would’ve complained if they didn’t: the Death Star and Han Solo. In Return of the Jedi, the Death Star is an excuse to have a bunch of spaceships shooting at each other, while Han Solo returns because fans need to have the cool, wisecracking Han Solo character back, regardless of if he actually does anything in the film.
So far, Disney’s released two Star Wars films since 2015 and has plans to release one every year until it stops being profitable (well, they might not have said exactly that, but c’mon). 2015’s Episode VII – The Force Awakens is main series sequel that’s basically a retread of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope: the good guys are underdogs, the bad guys have an incredibly powerful lightsaber wielder and a gigantic weapon of mass destruction, there’s a lonely protagonist trapped in a desert area pulled into the major conflict, the protagonist pals around with a droid with essential information, there’s a Cantina scene where things escalate, there’s a shadowy evil master pulling all the strings, there’s a giant space battle to destroy to weapon of mass destruction, and there’s a mentor character who meets an unfortunate end. 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a spin-off that tries to break away from the typical Star Wars formula by setting itself in the heist movie genre, but isn’t able to A) create any interesting new characters, B) escape from the suffocating fanservice that its story is set in, or C) justify its own existence in the larger context of the Star Wars universe. To its credit, it manages to show some shades of gray in the Rebel Alliance and create a war movie atmosphere; two points that feel absolutely moot since that story ended over 40 years ago in a text crawl. And for the next few years, we have a Han Solo spin-off to look forward to, more Luke/Leia/Chewbacca, and a rumored Boba Fett spin-off. These films bear the name of Star Wars but merely call back to a time where Star Wars was innovative.
To put it simply, Disney’s LucasFilm is wholly afraid to take risks. More specifically, they’re afraid to move on to different characters than ones from the Original Trilogy, they’re afraid to move past the Death Star and the generic evils within them, and they’re afraid to explore the universe past the same old space opera archetypes that Star Wars fans have been exposed to since the late ’70s and early ’80s. It seems that they’d rather pursue a cinematic universe set around everything related to the Original Trilogy than to actually do anything new with the $4 billion property. Yes, putting out nostalgic Star Wars films will make money in the short-term, but after all the novelty of the OT diminishes, people will get tired of it and move on. Making great, innovative Star Wars films would extend the shelf life of each film’s profitability, just as this strategy has for Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As of right now, I’m around 20 hours removed from my viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and it feels fresher than ever. It has all of the character development, depth, and interesting relationship dynamics that The Empire Strikes Back had. It isn’t content to merely call back to its predecessor; it makes significant and meaningful contributions to the foundation that was built. It’s a space opera that isn’t afraid to go to new, weird places or form bonds with new, exciting characters. Likewise, it isn’t afraid to put a twist on old characters who were nowhere near as developed in the previous film. For me, Guardians of the Galaxy will be my Star Wars until Star Wars can move past its stagnation.
Despite my grievances, Disney’s LucasFilm is free to make a bunch of Star Wars movies that are safe and stuck in the past. They own it, they control it, and they have every right to do what they want with it. However, LucasFilm can stuff all the references, Original Trilogy characters, Original Trilogy settings, and Original Trilogy plot points in their Star Wars sequels, prequels, and spin-offs all they want. They can choose to take the quick and easy route. But doing so will guarantee that they won’t capture the magic of Star Wars.