Let’s face it: the new Star Wars movies aren’t that good. There are a few enjoyable moments to be found and the cast, both new and returning, do a good job with the material they’re given. But in general, the new films either borrow too heavily from the original trilogy (OT), are poorly executed, have too many gags that take the viewer out of what should be a relatively serious adventure, or suffer from some combination of the three.
We can view the decline in the quality of Star Wars as a positive development, from a certain point of view. Much like how the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales have been told countless times in different forms of media and with varying degrees of quality, popular demand for an expansion of the Star Wars universe shows that these films have become as much a fixture of modern culture as the fairy tales of old.
By the same token, the government-granted monopoly in the form of copyright held by Lucasfilm (now owned by Disney) on a galaxy far, far away means that a select few are able to produce works, to the detriment of Star Wars fans of all stripes.
There will always be duds in any expansive fictional universe (look at some online fan fiction, if you dare). Committed fans of the Star Wars franchise are sorely disappointed because the post-OT Star Wars films fail by catering to too many audiences at once.
Whether it’s shoehorning characters like Jar Jar Binks, designed to appeal to small children, into serious, dramatic scenes, or throwing in one too many lightsabers, the Star Wars franchise has treaded down the dark path of commercialization, rather than filmmaking.
There’s nothing wrong with commercialization. The wide array of Star Wars products out there have brought joy to many people (myself included!) There are, however, serious tradeoffs when moviemaking becomes a business, rather than artistic, endeavor.
I am not a professional film critic–most of my critiques of the post-OT franchise come from various internet reviewers. If you enjoy the new films, more power to you. But for those of us who are disappointed and want to hear someone else tell the story of Star Wars freely, current copyright law prevents the production of such “derivative works” without the permission of the rightsholder.
To be clear, I am not suggesting the wholesale abolition of copyright. I think it’s necessary to offer some protection for the original content itself, even if terms should be significantly shorter than they are today. Rather, I argue that anyone should be free to take the characters of Darth Vader, R2-D2, Yoda, etc. and use them to produce a new, original work.
It is currently legal to do so in the form of fan fiction, but it’s illegal to do so in a way that could attract the funds necessary to produce a full-length feature film that would rival the current monopoly Disney has over the Star Wars canon. (For those of you who dated in high school, the Star Wars “canon” is made up of the films, TV shows, and some other works officially sanctioned by Lucasfilm.)
Indeed, the ability to produce spinoffs has allowed committed fans to explain away some of the holes in the newer films. Books, comics, and TV shows have all included elements to explain away shortcomings in the films. But there’s no reason the ability to fill plot holes or tell new stories must have Disney’s blessing.
A number of exciting projects have been shut down or seriously limited thanks to our current copyright system. Late last year, Lucasfilm shut down a project to remake the 2003 Knights of the Old Republic Game. A venture to make a YouTube Darth Vader fan-film survived a brush with copyright infringement, but only on the condition that the creator not monetize or crowdfund it.
There’s no shortage of good ideas out there, from completely new stories to ideas that would “fix” the new films. Mark Hamill’s critiques of Luke’s role in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are insightful, and would have been excellent changes to the film. There are countless fans out there who would be willing to have their hand chopped off by a lightsaber, or at least donate to a crowdfund, to see a Star Wars sequel trilogy based on his ideas.
Instead of fan service or “subverting expectations,” the Star Wars saga needs some genuinely new ideas. And while it’s not impossible for them to come from the powers that be, we need to make it possible for many others to add by opening up the field.