When the announcement was made that LucasFilm has sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney and that they were going to make Episodes 7, 8, and 9, my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up. The response was overwhelmingly positive, ranging from enthusiastic "I can't wait to see new Star Wars movies!" type reactions to lukewarm "they can't be worse than the prequels!" hopefulness.
Everyone seems to universally agree, Disney has done a great job with the Marvel film universe including The Avengers, so Star Wars will be in good hands. Well, let me go ahead and piss in your Cheerios a bit: Star Wars Episode 7 is going to suck. Yes, worse than the prequels. Yes, worse than Episode I. Okay, maybe not that bad, but it will still suck a lot, just in a different way.
So let me take you on a trip through my pessimistic mind, where I've gone past the point of cautious optimism and have come down squarely in the camp of assuming Episode 7's suckitude is a foregone conclusion.
First, we need to all get on the same page about how Hollywood works. I know, you're thinking, "I know how it works, it's all about money," and you're right, but you may not realize the magnitude of your being right. My wife still constantly asks questions like "why did he take this role?" or "why did they make a sequel to this?" or "why won't that make a sequel to that?" and I cannot stress how simply these questions can be answered: "money."
People still tend to think about the filmmaking from a creative standpoint. When people think about Episode 7, they can't help but think about what they'd do, but they think about it from the perspective of a filmmaker, like a director or a writer. They think about what they'd want to see on screen, or what audiences would respond to. Stop it. There is only one mindset to put yourself in to make predictions about movies: the studio CFO.
So let's try to figure out what will happen with Episode 7, but not with questions like "do you think Harrison Ford will reprise his role?" or "should they use an EU story or something completely new?" because these questions can be answered easily with "depends on money." Let's instead try to figure out what will happen by only asking ourselves how much money something will make, and if it will be more or less money than something else.
If we keep ourselves gazing into the future exclusively through the green-tinted lens of studio bank accounts, we will have a much easier time making predictions, and we will be surprised at how good our predictive power is.
So let's begin by asking ourselves why Disney purchased the rights to Star Wars for $4.05 billion.
Let's be Disney for a second. It's 2005. You're an empire, a household name, worth billions of dollars. You're making tons of money, but the fact is, you could be making more.
You see, the core IPs like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are no longer popular or important, so a huge portion of your revenue comes from your films, which you've parlayed into a cash-printing machine with the "Disney Princesses" brand. Your "Disney Stores" in malls across the country are absolutely filled wall-to-wall with pink Disney princess crap, fake wands, dolls, clothes, and of course, the home videos that you sell but then retire but bring back "for a limited time" to drive up sales. Stand outside a Disney Store for a little while and you'll watch every little girl pull her parents into the store. But you know what you won't see? Boys.
Disney's marketing and business strategy has managed to corner the market on little girls, but "Disney" is synonymous with "girly" to little boys, and they have about as much interest in Disney-branded wares as the guy stuck holding his girlfriend's purse in Victoria's Secret. Boys like toys too, and their parents' money is going elsewhere. This is clearly a serious problem.
Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, the exact same year that Cars was released. Cars was the last independently-produced Pixar film without Disney's influence. Was it a coincidence that Disney's interest in Pixar was so strongly linked to the release of Cars?
No! They're fucking Hot Wheels with eyeballs glued on!
Cars is a merchandising masterpiece, the goods are extremely cheap to produce, since they're just cars with eyeballs, there's a ton of variation in terms of colors that can allow toys to be branded as different characters with only minor changes to the assembly line that builds them, and, most importantly, boys fucking love them.
Go walk into a Disney store today. You still have all the Disney princess stuff on one side, but the other side has been absolutely overrun with Pixar stuff, most notably Toy Story (it markets itself, they're literally just old toys with a new logo on them) and Cars.
And what was Disney's first order of business after acquiring Pixar? Get them to make Toy Story 2, of course! What followed soon after? Cars 2, Pixar's most critically panned movie to date. But who cares, they got to release a whole new line of Cars toys. Cars! Cars! Cars! And Planes!
Go look at the front page of Disney's web store, you'll notice that the pictures of kids playing with toys have a noticable trend: girls are featured playing with classic Disney princesses, boys are playing with Pixar properties, usually Toy Story or Cars. What were boys playing with in these pictures before Disney bought Pixar? Fuck-all, that's what, which is why they bought Pixar.
Disney's purchase of Pixar was about one thing and one thing only: it allowed them to market to boys. And in that way, it has been a wild success.
In 2009, Disney tried to further its reach over the young male demographic by purchasing Marvel Entertainment. This happened immediately after Iron Man was released to great commercial success. Remember, once upon a time Iron Man was a huge gamble for Marvel, a largely B-list comic book character (sorry, nobody knew who Iron Man was before the movie came out, but everyone knows Superman and Batman and Spiderman) being portrayed by a drug addict actor. There was no notion of this being the first film in the "Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1" or any such crap. Sam Jackson made a cameo appearance after the credits to mention the Avengers as a tease, almost a joke.
But Iron Man did extremely well, so Marvel immediately went to work planning out an entire film continuity to culminate with The Avengers, and then lead to even more "Phases" later on. As soon as the ball started rolling on this, and Iron Man toys were flying off shelves (into the hands of boys), Disney bought them. The Marvel films produced prior to Disney's purchase (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk) have a very different feel than those produced after (Iron Man 2, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers). Iron Man and Hulk seem to regard the entire cinematic universe concept as something worthy of a winking tease after the credits. Iron Man 2's central plot is tied intricately with SHIELD, bringing back Sam Jackson's Nick Fury and introducing Black Widow. Thor and Captain America are similar, there is an urgency with which these films work toward establishing the upcoming Avengers film. Stuff is happening before the credits roll, and it's not merely to tease fans, it's to advertise to them. Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America all feel like trailers for the Avengers, because that's exactly what they are.
The goal here is to get butts in seats for The Avengers, in order to sell an entire lineup of toys. In other words, it's not enough for a boy to want an Iron Man action figure. He needs to feel like Iron Man is part of a set, and he needs to also acquire a roster of heroes and villains to complete it. And what is Phase 2? What new characters from Marvel's rich history are being introduced to filmgoing audiences? Well, we're getting sequels to all the old stuff (Iron Man 3, Captain America 2, Thor 2) and one new IP, Guardians of the Galaxy. Ever wonder why Guardians of the Galaxy, one of Marvel's lesser-known comic lines, is getting a film before Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, The Wasp, Black Panther, Wonder Man, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Namor, Luke Cage, Vision, or Iron Fist? It's because the Guardians have six members, and that's six times the number of toys sold.
Yes, The Avengers is a really great movie, but it had to be, it was the payoff. Let's be fair and admit that none of the other post-Disney Marvel films rise above being "good" at best. Few of them are truly bad, but most are forgettable except the one that was the point of it all, The Avengers. Further, Iron Man 3 has been clearly "Disneyfied", a very family-friendly Christmas (?!) film with a kid sidekick character, a repainted War Machine (new action figure!), and an entire ARMY of unique and different Iron Man suits (Hulkbuster! Space! Blue For Some Reason! Collect Them All!).
But I'm getting off topic. This isn't about why Avengers Phase 2 is going to suck (it will) or why Guardians of the Galaxy is going to be an unwatchable mess of salty garbage (it will be). This is about Star Wars.
Understanding Star Wars
So now that we've established Disney's M.O., we can get a better picture of why they purchased LucasFilm. Star Wars is one of the most successfully marketed IPs of all-time, with action figures and video games and toys and fucking Angry Goddamn Birds and anything else you can think of. It has a recognizability that can't be matched, so it's no surprise that Disney wanted it to shore up the Boy Market.
And immediately after getting it, Disney announced plans to make Episode 7. This is critical, because 3 new episodes mean more toys and more market saturation. But not only that, there would be spinoff movies, TV shows, and a new Star Wars film every year. Video Games? That's easy, close down LucasArts and give an exclusive license to the same company that has had an exclusive license to the NFL for nearly a decade and one of the most succesful video game companies around, EA.
There was a lot of discussion about who would be making the new Star Wars film. Lots of people were crossing their fingers for Brad Bird, who had a working relationship with Disney from having made The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Folks who were hoping for this weren't thinking like a CFO; The Incredibles and Ratatouille, though critically lauded, aren't moving toys. From Disney's perspective, Bird is kind of a failure.
So why J.J. Abrams? Well, for one reason, he's safe. Just like Captain America and Thor, all of Abram's films manage to hit just a few shades above mediocrity. Never particularly excellent, but never bad. He's not a risk, and he'll do what the studio wants. His Star Wars films will not be bad or bomb, and that's really all that Disney needs, because they're going to make money hand over fist no matter what.
But the real reason is finally made clear when you read this article. To give you a summary, J.J. Abrams had a grand vision for Star Trek when he rebooted it. He wanted an entire franchise of films, television shows, toys, video games, comic books, and other merchandise. But while Paramount owns the film rights to Star Trek, CBS still owns the characters and all merchandise rights, which they license to Paramount. So Abrams was unable to turn Trek into the mega-franchise he wanted.
But a mega-franchise is exactly what Disney is looking to rebuild with Star Wars. What they saw in J.J. Abrams was someone who was on the same page as them, someone who had the same goals as them for an entire media empire, saturating every corner of film, television, and merchandise. This is why J.J. Abrams was selected, because he wants to do exactly what Disney wants to do[^1].
And just to really drive home what I'm talking about here, also note that the writer for Episode 7 is Michael Arndt. "He wrote Little Miss Sunshine, that was good!" you say? Yes, but he wrote that as an independent filmmaker, which is largely just a resume for commercial work. Disney didn't hire him because of Little Miss Sunshine, they hired him because he wrote Toy Story 3, a film whose script takes place partly in the bedroom of a young girl with her own set of marketable toys, and partly in a daycare that's literally filled wall-to-wall with thousands of marketable, merchandisable toys (including a cuddly classic teddy bear villain).
So Why is Episode 7 Going to Suck?
All of this, of course, examines the motivations for Disney purchasing LucasFilm, and why they are making Star Wars Episodes 7, 8, and 9. None of this alone explains why Episode 7 is going to be crap, though it certainly hints in the direction.
To figure out why Episode 7 is going to be crap, we have to first ask ourselves why Episodes 1, 2, and 3 are crap. Most of the reasons people cite are the ways that the prequels are crap, not the whys. It sucks because of Jar-Jar, because of Jake Lloyd, because of Midichlorians, because of a lightsaber-fighting Yoda, because of shit dialogue, because of the forced love story, etc. But these are all the manners in which the prequels have chosen to be crap, but not the motivators.
The prequels suck because they are a callous cash-in. Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd are there because they increase appeal to children. Lightsaber-fighting Yoda is there to sell more Yoda toys. And the dialogue and love story are godawful because none of that shit matters since you can't sell toys of it. The prequels have little soul, there isn't much artistic about them. They are largely commercial vehicles with only a hint of artistic integrity behind them, and that is ultimately why they are terrible. This started even with the original trilogy, but Lucas was surrounded by people who didn't let him have his way, a restriction not present for the prequels.
But George Lucas, for all his faults, at least cares about the artistic integrity, even if it's not his highest priority. He, on some level, likes to think he's still an artist, he even argues that he's only making money in order to keep creative control of his work. In other words, as poisoned at Star Wars was by the callous commercial drive behind them even being made, George Lucas tried to retain some shred of fuck-giving about the audience and the fans. Disney has no reason to retain any of that, short of simply ensuring that Episode 7 isn't so terrible that the die-hard fans won't show up for 8 or 9.
And frankly, the die-hard fans who want Episode 7 to be good to avoid "raping their childhood" have to show up anyway, because their unrequited love of Star Wars had them introduce their kids to Star Wars very early on, and their kids will want to see the new trilogy. So as far as Disney is concerned, fuck all of those guys, they're forking over the cash anyway.
All of the motivations that led to the prequels being crap are not only partial motivations for the new Star Wars films, but they are the entire motivation behind not only films, but a $4 billion purchase by a company whose M.O. is well-known. Disney has laid out the fact that they plan on doing spinoff films and TV shows, and they've licensed all video games to the worst company of 2013. Disney is absolutely laying its cards on the table here, and hiring middle-of-the-road director J.J. Abrams only makes it even more clear.
Abrams is even less of a artistic filmmaker and more of a businessman than George Lucas himself. And now he's kicking off the new Star Wars empire, which is being overseen by the most commercially-focused company to ever siphon money out of your wallet through your children. Lucas, for all of his storytelling ineptitude, at least had a love of these characters that was clear through every mind-numbingly crappy movie he made. Disney and Abrams have none of that, aside from Abrams's general fandom of the series, which comes second to the dollar signs dancing in his eyes.
Every piece of news that gets you excited for Episode 7 is manufactured to do exactly that. Disney wants to use you to build the hype machine for Star Wars before the film comes out, so that you can go see it, then walk out after a movie about as forgettable and generic as Abrams's Star Trek reboot and say "eh, it was alright I guess." All Disney needs from you is to help hype the movie up before it comes out, and not talk shit about it once it's been released so that you and your friends will see the next one.
John Williams doing the score, Drew Struzan doing the poster, Mark Hamill and company doing their roles, Lawrence Kasdan doing consulting? It's all part of a calculated effort to get you to build the movie up before it comes out. You're part of the machine.
Exactly How Is It Going To Suck?
Alright, prediction-time. I think there are some pretty specific ways that Episode 7 is going to suck. Now, a lot of these depend on direction: Disney is either going to try to get an even larger slice of the young boy market, which means the film will be extremely kid friendly, or they're going to try to use Star Wars to finally grab some of the teen boy market, which means it will be more mature and dark.
My money is on the former, Disney plays a long game and knows that the young kids who love Star Wars will just grow up into teens that love it, so most of these predictions are based on the idea that they're going to skew kid-friendly. If Disney goes the other direction, these won't really apply.
- Painfully kid-friendly. Don't think Jar-Jar, because that would make the film dip below the level of mediocrity it's aiming for, but think more like Iron Man 3, with the needless child character and irritatingly jokey dialogue. It's entirely possible the film would center on a main cast of padawans around the same age as the characters from Super 8, maybe slightly older. If not the central focus, this group of characters will be a B-story, possibly to take over in Episode 8.
- Tons and tons and tons of new characters. I mean, seriously, it will be absurd. You can probably expect a bunch of "twin" characters too, meaning characters that travel in pairs or triplets, and who could all easily be combined in a single character. That's because they should be a single character, but having two characters play a particular role to the story is a good way of selling two toys instead of one.
- Stupid, pointless plot twists and mysteries. J.J. Abrams and his dumbass "mystery box", he won't be able to resist, especially considering that Star Wars contains one of the greatest plot twists of all time. These new films are brand-new material, audiences won't be able to see anything coming like they could with prequels, the temptation will be too great for Abrams. In all honesty, I'm waiting for the day it's announced that Damon Lindelof has been brought in to work on the script.
- The cool guy. Every character is going to be Han Solo. To put it another way, every character is going to be Tony Stark. Everyone is going to be witty and snarky and clever, because boys like Han Solo more than they like Luke, so everyone is going to be Han Solo. Character interactions will largely consist of giving each other shit.
- The dark one. I think to try and re-engage the teenage boys that they're going to lose by making Episode 7 kid-friendly, they're going to make Episode 8 the "dark one" of the trilogy, the Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith. Disney won't do this is if they decide to use a spinoff, like a "Boba Fett Movie" or something to appeal to that crowd, though, which is very possible. In fact, the more I think about it, the more probable I think that is, so nevermind on this one.
- Complete and total market saturation. Remember how insane the marketing was before Episode I? It was everywhere, you couldn't buy anything at a fast food joint without it having Yoda's stupid face on it. Expect that, dialed up to 11.
- Sex. They want mass-market appeal, Disney is going to be trying to go after everyone. It's already been established that sex can be in Star Wars (gold bikini) and get away with it. Maybe a hot female adult Jedi in a belly-baring space outfit, you could have her colored blue or green and get away with a lot of extra skin showing. For examples of how this will play, look at the scene of Uhura changing in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek 1, Carol Marcus's underwear scenes in J.J. Abram's Star Trek 2, or Pepper Potts's sports bra scene in Disney's Iron Man 3 (all three of these scenes were featured in the trailers for their films, by the way). And yes, you absolutely can get away with this stuff in a Star Wars movie while still having it be kid/family-friendly, all you have to do is not acknowledge it (notice nobody ever tells Leia how great she looks or anything in Jedi).
- Violence. Revenge of the Sith was dark in a way that hurt it's marketability. It was dark thematically, with children dying and lots of betrayal and hopelessness. It upsets young children, and a lot of parents are reluctant to show it to their kids. That won't do, it hurts toy sales. So Episode 7 will not be dark in the same way, but it will be violent in that a lot of people are going to get shot and sliced. It won't be bloody, but it will be enough to keep a boy's interest. Expect a surprisingly large number of unimportant characters, probably with masks or helmets, to get killed or shoved off things to fall to their deaths. There's a good chance it will be rated PG-13 for "sci-fi action and violence" the way that Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek 2, Mission Impossible III, and Iron Man 3 are rated PG-13. It won't enough to piss off moms, but it might get the PG-13.
- Black and White Morality. The only way to get away with the above level of violence is to have characters that are totally good killing characters that are totally bad. There is no room for the shades of gray morality we see with Anakin Skywalker (a "good guy") embracing the dark side. When a "good guy" kills someone questionably, that makes kids cry, and they don't want the toy of that guy. The hints at somewhat mature thematic elements we see as Anakin turns to the dark side in Episodes 2 and 3 will be gone, this will be as "good vs evil" as a movie can get. Like maybe the bad guys being an entire evil race of aliens (manipulated, of course, by a Palpatine-esque character, mystery box up in here).
- Tons of winking nods to the original trilogy. These aren't the same as the "it'll rhyme, like poetry" stuff from the prequels, it'll be in-jokes for fans in the audience. This is to make sure that when you walk out, you say "it was alright, I guess" at worst. Which is, of course, why these nods will be at the original trilogy, not the prequels. I kind of even expect a couple winks towards the most popular stuff from the EU.
- Boba Fett returns, he survived the Sarlaac pit in the EU, the guy who does his voice would work cheap, this seems like the perfect sort of mystery box/fanwank I'm expecting. Also clears him up for a spinoff film, which would be very lucrative. Just call it a hunch I guess, maybe this one is a long shot. The only reason I can think of for not doing this is Patton Oswalt's joke rant, but frankly everyone on the internet assuming the new Star Trek villain was Khan didn't stop Abrams from making it Khan
None of these things make Episode 7 bad and it's not going to be bad, per se, at least not technically. It's going to be forgettable, mediocre, bland, and safe. It's going to be better than the prequels in the mechanical sense and in terms of the technical quality of the filmmaking (and it will likely use real-live sets!), but it's ultimately going to be soulless like everything else J.J. Abrams has made. That's how it's going to suck.
You're not going to hate Episode 7 the way that you hate Episode 1. But you have to admit, as terrible as Episode 1 is, there's a memorability to its awfulness that Star Trek doesn't have. Star Trek is just a movie, it exists, and you saw it, and you were entertained by it at the time, but it's probably not a movie you own on Blu-ray or one that would invite you to say to a friend "You've never seen Star Trek!?! Let's go watch it RIGHT NOW!" the way you might with Star Wars. Oh, you'll own the new films eventually, but it's not because you love them, it's because they came in a Millinium-Falcon-shaped collector's box set, possibly with other Star Wars films, and you feel somehow obligated to love everything with "Star Wars" printed on it somewhere.
Ultimately Star Wars 7 will suck because it won't have any heart, it will have the same commercial cash-in feel that marks movies like Star Trek, The Amazing Spiderman, and to a great extent the Star Wars prequels. It will suck because the 3 or 4 films you truly love will be buried in a sea of movies, TV shows, spinoffs, and merchandise that dilute the property so much that you can barely muster any fucks to give anymore.
It will suck because it will be the final nail in the coffin for your childhood or young adult fandom, the movie that switches you from loving "just over half" of the canonical Star Wars films to "just under half" and you start wondering what it means to people when you tell them you "like Star Wars." It will also be kicking off the entire new franchise under Disney, which will saturate popular media with Star Wars crap to the point where you find it embarassing ever have liked any of it, because it seems pretty clear that it's "just for kids."
Even if you're one of those people who showed up at the midnight premeire of a Star Wars movie, possibly dressed in Jedi robes and carrying a plastic lightsaber, the day will come when a Star Wars movie, a fucking Star Wars movie has been released in theaters that you not only don't dress up for, not only don't see at midnight, but that you don't even bother seeing at all. Episode 7 probably won't be that movie, but one of them will be, and Episode 7 is the brand new nuclear-powered ditch digger burrowing deep into the ground of "not caring" that started for you with Episode 1, but is now kicking up dirt at 130 MPH. It won't look right, it won't feel right, and it will not only fail to recapture your childhood the way that the prequels failed to, it will fail to capture your interest much at all.
Get ready, Episode 7 is going to suck.
[^1]: Another part of Abrams getting the part, I think, was because the announcement came just before the relase of Star Trek Into Darkness, which meant that the media circuit for Star Trek 2 was diluted with questions about Star Wars. Seriously, go watch an interview with Abrams on TV and see how long it takes before he's peppered with Star Wars questions and nobody is trying to promote Star Trek at all. Remember that every dollar Paramount makes is, in some ways, a dollar Disney doesn't make.