Why We Can't Stop Arguing About Star Wars (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Chili)
Is anyone out there as tired talking about Star Wars as I am (“well, you’re the one writing about it, jackass”)? For over 40 years, the adventures of the Skywalker family have captivated, frustrated, and splintered us. So much so, I’ve added on to an old saying – there are 3 things you don’t discuss in public: religion, politics, and Star Wars. No joke, over the holidays I talked with a family member who passionately railed against The Last Jedi while I nodded politely, fearful to out myself as a fan of Rian Johnson’s middle chapter (I meekly said later “I liked The Last Jedi.” Always remember I am a coward). Do a quick search on the social media app of your choice and you will immediately be inundated with “hot” takes telling you who got Star Wars right, who got it wrong, and who should even be allowed to talk about it. Tensions reached such a fever pitch after the release of The Last Jedi, I spent most of this year exhausted at the thought of Rise of Skywalker’s impending release, fearful of not only having to relive all of the arguments of the past, but having to endure fresh new arguments that will devolve into finger-pointing and hyperbole. So before I wade into waters murkier than the Degobah swamp, let’s start with something we can all agree on.
I love chili. Most people I know love chili. Nothing sounds better on a cold night than a warm, comforting bowl of chili. What I love about chili is not just the comfort it brings, but the versatility of it. I’ve eaten my fair share of chili in my time on this earth and if there’s one constant, it’s that everyone makes their chili just a little different. Hell, right now you can purchase The Chili Cookbook, which promises 60 different recipes (new life goal – try them all). So what on the surface seems like a simple dish can spawn variations that challenge your very idea of what chili can be. And ultimately, your chili preference will typically fall with whatever kind of chili you were first served or ate regularly growing up. Some of this is regional (San Antonio remains steadfast against beans in their chili, despite my letters), some of it is steeped in family history. I remember the first time my wife made chili using her family’s recipe. It was good, but it took a minute to realize it was not the same as my mom’s chili (for the record, my wife goes easier on the beans and heavier on the tomatoes. We’ve worked it out, it’s fine). We all love chili, but we all seem to have different ideas of what exactly makes chili great. It’s a disconnect that we’ve all somehow learned to live with. Have I talked enough about chili in this Star Wars article yet? Yes? Ok, here we go…
In 1977, Star Wars (which will be referred to as A New Hope for clarity’s sake) was released and was hailed as a fresh new vision unlike anything we’d seen before. Except we had, only in bits and pieces. Rewatching A New Hope, it is easy to see the multiple genre influences at play. Much like his contemporary Steven Spielberg, Lucas took elements of the movies he loved growing up and mixed them together. A New Hope is concoction of Samurai films, Spaghetti Westerns, Science Fiction, and Swashbuckling Serials. With these ingredients as its base, Lucas would add world-building elements, mythology and topped it off with an overarching philosophical perspective. The result was cinematic experience that that drew universal acclaim and launched the most identifiable and beloved brand in movie history.
And we’ve never stopped arguing about it since.
Despite the now glowing reputation of 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back (many call it the best Star Wars movie), its initial reception was a harbinger of the in-fighting that would plague the fan base to this very day. While many embraced and hailed the darker tone and mind-blowing twist, others derided it for being too dark, too melodramatic, and less fun than its predecessor. Even the twist, now one of the most iconic moments in movie history, was met with skepticism over whether what they’d just seen was the truth. When Return of the Jedi was released 3 years later, it too was met with criticism, but in the opposite direction. This time, the film was taken to task for being too light and kid-friendly, particularly the inclusion of the simultaneously adorable and violent Ewoks. Ultimately, Return of the Jedi felt like a direct response to the criticisms levied at The Empire Strikes Back. If this all sounds painfully familiar, it should. The same divisions, almost verbatim, reared their heads during The Last Jedi’s theatrical run. Much like Empire, The Last Jedi felt like too much of a deviation from The Force Awakens (the movie that most closely resembles A New Hope, more on that in a bit) for a very vocal section of the fan base. This was complicated by a sub-contingent within this group whose surface complaints seemed to mask some deep-seated misogyny and racism directed towards the more diverse cast. And since it was 2017, this all played out on social media, where nuance goes to die. At their most extremes, liking The Last Jedi meant you didn’t really understand Star Wars and not liking it meant you were an anti-inclusion troll (Author’s Note: The toxic fan culture that is very much still thriving today is a topic for another article by a much better writer than myself. This article is meant to deal with issues raised by fans who aren’t racist, sexist assholes). Having seen The Rise of Skywalker, one thing that cannot be denied is the desire to make the final chapter of the trilogy feel more like the first chapter than the second, much like George Lucas did with Return of the Jedi. This course correction was lauded by some, decried by others and ensured that the fighting over Star Wars would continue.
It’s at this point that it should be acknowledged that all of the Star Wars movies are wildly successful. The Force Awakens currently has the highest domestic gross of all time. When adjusted for inflation, Star Wars movies comprise 5 of the top 20 highest grossing movies ever made. At least one movie from every trilogy is represented, including 1999’s infamous The Phantom Menace. Success and failure has a different metric when it comes to Star Wars. When you add in the toys, books, video games, theme park attractions, and virtually any other object slapped with a Star Wars logo, it is clear that Star Wars is one of the most beloved brands in the history of the world.
So why can’t we stop fighting about it?
Some of this is on Disney. The biggest sin that the Disney era Star Wars has committed is attempting to tell a full narrative trilogy while allowing the films to contradict each other. Regardless of which one you prefer, there’s no question that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are so disparate from one another that the shifts created when watching them back-to-back is enough to cause whiplash. I’ve enjoyed all three films separately, but the trilogy itself is undone by a lack of a consistent vision. It’s no wonder we can never agree on Star Wars because Star Wars can’t agree with itself. But perhaps this disparity was inevitable, which brings us back to chili. When George Lucas made A New Hope, he made a chili that no one had ever tasted but everybody loved. To do so, he used ingredients from recipes he loved, but ultimately used so many that attempting to recreate it is akin to making someone else’s chili without a recipe. Inevitably, the proportions are going to be off. Some flavors may dominate while others disappear. It’s a recipe so precise that Lucas himself has never been able to duplicate it and eventually sold the ingredients to Disney. And so as each film has been released, we’ve been given another variation of the recipe by a team of cooks. All with different flavors, while still being called chili. Whether you like it or not depends on how you respond to the dominant ingredients. The chief complaint I heard about The Last Jedi is how it subverts the previously understood mythology of the series. Luke is withdrawn and grizzled, the Jedi’s nobility questioned and the concept of who can have The Force opened up to anyone. I found these criticisms odd because that’s precicely what I loved about it (To this day, it’s still hard to not engage with someone who doesn’t share my admiration because, again, coward). Much like adding beans to a San Antonio chili, this change in the recipe felt like a revelation to some and blasphemous to others. And since our tastes are formed at an early age, for a generation of fans who grew up with and have such a deep-seated attachment to Star Wars, any deviation from the chili they grew up just won’t taste right. It’s probably not a coincidence the most universally praised of the Disney-era Star Wars movies is The Force Awakens, the one film that most faithfully tries to recreate the original recipe, and even it was criticized for feeling like a knock-off.
So where does Star Wars go from here? The answer may lie, not with the Skywalker saga, but in recent attempts to branch out and tell smaller stories. Many fans have responded well to The Clone Wars, an animated series focusing on the mythology and world-building elements. Similarly, Rogue One, a standalone film that felt more like a Samurai movie set in space, was well-received to the tune of $1 billion worldwide. And most recently, praise has been heaped upon the first season of The Mandalorian, an unapologetic homage to the Westerns George Lucas loved growing up. Perhaps the secret to moving Star Wars forward in the new decade is to stop trying to recreate the magic of A New Hope. Perhaps instead of failed attempts of duplicating a magic recipe, Disney is better off playing around with the recipe. If the world has room for 60 different types of chili, maybe it has room for a few different types of Star Wars. And if there are enough variations, perhaps we can all stop arguing over it, find a recipe that suits our tastes and talk about how we love Star Wars. Perhaps over a bowl of chili.