Dr. Franchise: The Rise of Skywalker and Disney’s Own Mystery Box

So I just saw the new Star Wars Episode IX (titled Rise of Skywalker) teaser like everybody else with internet access. Disney’s entire approach to Star Wars has been strikingly modern yet ill conceived. I mean, The Force Awakens (2015) (also directed by Episode IX’s JJ Abrams) was an utterly safe movie that thought the best way to get people to care about the universe again was making us ask questions. Who is Snoke? Who are Rey’s parents? Where is Luke Skywalker?

That sort of suspense has been Abrams’s marketing bread and butter for most of his career. I think the biggest example of suspense over substance here was probably Cloverfield (2008). People were investigating lampshades for signs it could be Godzilla and when the film came out and the monster ended up being a generic gray alien seen in glimpses on a shakey cam, the film was underwhelming. Mystery works for getting people to talk about the movie, because if they showed everything important about Cloverfield or even The Force Awakens in the trailers, most people would’ve probably been unimpressed.

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I like to think Rey rebuilt Anakin’s saber for the sole purpose of making Kylo Ren angry.

Yet the “mystery box” (Abrams’s term for an emphasis on unanswered plot points and the allure of the unknown) has become Disney’s way to market these blockbuster films in the internet age. Vague trailers mean more discussion, more attention. Look at Avengers End Game, the movie is like two weeks away and I can’t honestly tell you what the film’s about. The internet eats this stuff up. Thousands of words dedicated to bizarre theories of Mace Windu being Snoke or Rey being the daughter of Jar Jar Binks are used for the marketing of the film for fans. Continuity and ambiguity are being weaponized so fans feel like their forum voice is strong and valid. Reminder to like and subscribe for more Dr. Franchise.

So it works well enough for people to see the movie and talk about it in eager anticipation for Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017) to answer these burning questions. Surely, this trilogy was carefully planned with a strong direction like George Lucas did in his six Star Wars movies, right? Well, no. I love The Last Jedi, but the film did not seek to answer the mysteries fans spent cumulative decades of speculation on. In fact, major themes sought to undercut or reject those sort of efforts. It was a challenging film, but not something general audiences would immediately and easily love, much less traditional Star Wars fans.

The Last Jedi not only threw away most mysteries, but it also left everybody wondering where the franchise was going. It’s now clear that these movies were made alone, with no idea what was going to happen in the successor. Disney getting JJ back is a sign that they have some major regrets about audience perception, but I argue that I don’t think any of this is The Last Jedi or Rian Johnson’s fault. The faults of the trilogy come from the need for mystery to keep the hype machine running. Wheels spin endlessly for resolutions and questions they don’t have answers to. A Star Wars movie every year has removed the special quality Star Wars movies once had in popular culture. Now, they’re just what’s popular at the box office.

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Billy Dee is the first of the old cast since Carrie Fisher to actually want to be in this thing.

Thankfully, I’m a doctor specializing in all forms of popular culture intellectual properties. I know what people like in these things and I know the sicknesses that plague the industry. Let’s look at what’s going wrong, what’s going right, and what I hope will happen after seeing this teaser trailer.

Diagnosis: Nobody Knows How To End This Thing

First off, I should mention a disclaimer that we have literally only seen a teaser trailer. Anything I say here might totally be wrong and my skepticism might be misplaced. Still: the hype machine will not die, the internet needs its Star Wars articles, and I love being proven wrong.

Disney executives don’t know what they’re doing, but does Abrams? Can my boy Juicy J save the film? The Force Awakens was good enough right? Well, judging from his style and films he’s made — Super 8 (2011), Mission Impossible III (2006), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) especially — execution and the ultimate answers to the mysteries are often underwhelming to the hype. It worked in Force Awakens because the general public just missed Star Wars, but now these characters are established (yet a little lacking compared to what has come before) and most people are going into this film with some form of skepticism, even if it’s healthy.

So we only have less than two minutes of footage here, but what does Abrams show us in Episode IX? He shows a Mark Hamill voice over, Daisy Ridley’s Rey doing a cool trick over a First Order TIE Fighter (I don’t know what those are called now so I’m calling them like I see them), a shot of Leia, a shot of Lando,  Kylo Ren killing a guy, a Death Star in ruins, and it ends with the laugh of the major antagonist of the last six movies.

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This film is going to keep the sequel trilogy’s tradition of giving plenty of unflattering faces for the very pretty Daisy Ridley. Poor Daisy.

Clearly, Abrams is tugging heart strings with recycling deleted Carrie Fisher footage for this film. He’s using Lando as one of the last actors in the original series who can still be used, and generally just playing things very safe. Everything in this trailer feels like an apology to people that didn’t like The Last Jedi, and the Emperor’s laugh serves and the mysterious hook to get people to still care. Do I want the Emperor to come back? Maybe, I guess he’s better than Snoke, but Snoke never was given a chance to be an appealing villain. Snoke was used to make Kylo Ren’s character better, but now we as an audience have conflicted feelings about our new main antagonist. If Palpatine is a small part I’m sure it’s fine, but also the way he’s presented in this trailer is anything but small. If he’s a huge presence in the film and the “big bad” of the trilogy this film is going to feel really out of place and none of the trilogy is going to feel cohesive. See where sometimes mystery bites him in the butt?

We didn’t see the core conflict. When we left everything in The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren was in charge of the First Order and wanted to wipe out the handful of Resistance members remaining, but now everybody knows he got royally embarassed by Luke Skywalker and there might be chance for him to turn good again? There’s a vague idea that The First Order and the Resistance are going to be at it again, but how have the dynamics changed? Have they changed? What exactly will carry over and what will be abandoned? All these questions I shouldn’t have to ask, these aren’t mysteries that replace my interest. These questions are core to me wanting to see the movie, and it’s something the trailers might never answer.

Treatment: Rest, Relaxation, And Not Ruining Things

I personally think the best hope anybody can have for this movie is that it’s not awful. I’m not much of an optimist. Now to be fair to Abrams, he doesn’t usually make awful films, just mediocre ones.  These will most likely be better than the prequel trilogy, but what’s important is that this film can’t soil the Star Wars brand any further. That might be why they’re playing things so safe, but they’re trying to solve a problem the wrong way. They need to make a good movie first. Have our supporting cast actually interact with each other instead of having them do their own things, have great stakes without being stupid, have a nice conflict where we want our heroes to win instead of worrying about who birthed our heroes or seeing old ones come back.

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So worst case for Leia is Grand Moff Tarkin, but I’m personally hoping for a Brian O’ Conner.

Of course there are going to be callbacks and old friends. What do we want from our specific characters? Rey (now apparently a full fledged Jedi) should do unconventional and new things we wouldn’t think Jedi could do. I think that’s part of the point of “a new generation”, right? Where prequel Jedi want to take a lightsaber and zen their problems away, and Luke thought Space Hitler’s gestapo could be turned to good, Rey has probably seen in these past two films that these solutions aren’t realistic. I think her choosing something bold like conquering and changing the Dark Side and the First Order or even just allowing it to coexist are strong alternatives that would lead to their own creative possibilities. Poe needs to be the strong leader he was set up to be after his arc in The Last Jedi. Leia needs to be treated with as much respect as possible considering how she’s gonna be used. For Kylo, it’s heads or tails of what his arc is gonna be. As a giant child, he either can grow up or revel in his own temper tantrum. He’s too rabid to be much of a leader, which I think will easily play into the dynamics of the film. Maybe Hux will overthrow him, maybe Palpatine will become the Senate again. I don’t think Kylo is going to die or anything. Secretly I ship him and Rey, so I’m at least hoping Kylo doesn’t die. If they have him stay evil the best thing they can do with him is have him go away to lick his wounds for the next few decades.

I think another hope would be to have a strong ending. The saga resolutions, though usually mediocre as films, have strong endings that are bold and memorable. It shouldn’t be some regurgitated mess. Rey doing something different is a great example of this. Yet more importantly than something creative, we need to feel an emotional resolution, and this film’s trailer does not promise that whatsoever. If the writers can’t pull that off, then they need to have an ending worth talking about. Maybe something to connect it to the next supposed Star Wars trilogy — which is based around the Old Republic? Maybe just stick Nick Fury in the credits for a Star Wars/Avengers crossover. That’s a billion dollar movie.

There are internet whispers that this film might involve time travel. This paragraph is a PSA to not listen to internet rumors everybody. For every one that is right there’s hundreds on Reddit and 4chan that are just made up for attention. Most of them are predictable and sad, not even funny or creative. I make fake Endgame leaks on /tv/ all the time, trust me on that.

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I’m glad Nathan Drake and Finn are looking really fresh in the desert.

It seems as if they want to leave the main series alone after this for a while. I completely agree. These movies need time to resonate with audiences again. We need to remember these movies fondly before we look forward to the next ones, and if they don’t do that they will ruin the Star Wars brand eventually. In the mean time, I’m going to become the producer on the Disney streaming service’s new Star Wars show, Late Night With Max Rebo. You’re welcome.

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