A long time ago, in a small town far, far away, a young man named George Lucas had an idea for a story:
A simple young farmboy gets a magic sword from an old wizard so he can defeat an evil knight, rescue a princess, and save the world.
Actually that wasn’t really Lucas’ idea. Everybody has that idea. Granted, they don't always do it with knights. Sometimes it’s cowboys; sometimes it’s samurai. Sometimes the farmboy is a farmgirl. Sometimes the wizard is a scientist and sometimes the evil knight is a dragon or a cyborg. Sometimes it’s guns instead of swords.
But Lucas knew all that. He was a Northern California kid who grew up watching movies and racing cars, a tyro moviemaker at a moment when American film had become very serious. The movies of the 1970s had genre goofs like The Exorcist and Rocky, but the gold-standard stories were adult things about violence, sexuality, and the treachery of dreams. Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, The Godfather. Heroes in these movies lost—like, all the time. Sometimes the whole movie got you to like bad guys, and sometimes they died anyway!
Lucas rebelled against all that. He looked back to the Flash Gordon serials and war movies of his youth, and grabbed all his favorite irreducible elements of boy-hero-king chosen-one stories—a historian named Joseph Campbell had helpfully assembled a list. Lucas kept the swords, the magic, and the knights.
Then—and this was, perhaps, his greatest innovation—Lucas kept everything else, too. Wizards, dragons, princesses, horses, cars, motorcycles, airplanes, ships, ray guns, teddy bears, his family dog, pirates, car chases, Nazis, gangsters, samurai, dogfights, gunfights, swordfights, fist fights, gladiators, spies, castles, and robots. In space, traveling at hyperspeed.
Star Wars, the universe George Lucas created, covers as of this writing nine feature films, with several more in various stages of production as well as at least a half-dozen television series, hundreds of books and comic books, dozens of computer games, and a vastly profitable empire of licensed merchandise, including, perhaps mostly famously, dolls and Lego sets whose popularity literally rescued that beloved toy company from bankruptcy.
A Musical Number
Composer John Williams’ justifiably famous orchestral music for Star Wars masks an abiding secret: The movies are actually musicals. Or rather, they’re paced like musicals, with solos (Luke staring at Tatooine’s twin setting suns) and duets (“I Love You”/ “I Know”), and big Busby Berkeley/Gene Kelly–Stanley Donen numbers (Death Stars, pod races, etc.). Except the movies actually have straight-ahead musical numbers, too. Episode IV’s Cantina scene is the standout—those big-headed jazz players are Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, and they swing through two numbers. A disco version of the Cantina theme went platinum.
But that’s not all! How about Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band, playing in Jabba the Hutt’s palace in Episode VI? Or the de-canonized “Yub Nub,” sung by Ewoks to celebrate the Rebel victory, which passed from memory into the West with the release of the Special Edition.
In Force Awakens, our heroes once again find themselves looking for information in a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and booze). But this time the music diverged at last from Williams’ brass and strings. Why? The song, a sprightly Huttese rap number called “Jabba Flow,” was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. Star Wars is musicals! The secret is out at last.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth movies take place, timeline-wise, before the first, second, and third movies … and the eighth movie takes place between the sixth and first. The various ancillary stories in books, comics, and games tell stories from a history spanning tens of thousands of years and an entire galaxy, but the official position of Walt Disney Studios, which bought Lucasfilm in 2012, is that almost everything other than the movies produced up to that point is non-canonical—apocrypha among holy texts, albeit still beloved by some fans.
Star Wars is, in short, a vast, familiar, astonishingly well-executed story that emerged from the mind of one filmmaker and is now worth billions of dollars, drives entire industries and subindustries, and has become a seemingly permanent facet of global culture. It’s profoundly silly, yet also profound—a grand, nostalgic romance full of wisdom and love that three generations equate inextricably with childhood, adventure, and the definition of good and evil.
The History of Star Wars
The story, in broad strokes, is this: Two noble knights from an order called the Jedi discover a boy destined to be a powerful wielder of the mystical energy that connects the universe, called the Force. One of them dies protecting him from the Jedi’s evil counterparts, the Sith, but the other—Obi-Wan Kenobi (along with his master, a wise gnome named Yoda)—tries to train the boy, Anakin Skywalker, to fight on the side of good.
It doesn’t take. The movies aren't totally clear on this point, but at this moment at least, Jedi aren't supposed to succumb to emotion or form attachments—the Dark Side of the Force, which the Sith worship, relies on "negative" emotions like anger and fear, so maybe it has something to do with that. Unclear. At any rate, Anakin nevertheless falls in love with and marries the good Queen Amidala. That gives an evil politician named Palpatine, himself secretly a Sith Lord conspiring to become Emperor of the galaxy, leverage over the powerful Anakin. After some confusing political and military machinations, Palpatine becomes Emperor and has most of the Jedi exterminated. Obi-Wan defeats Anakin in battle, wounding him so badly that he requires a mechanical suit of armor to keep him alive. Anakin becomes the Sith Lord Darth Vader.
Amidala dies before Vader finds out that she has given birth to two children: Luke and Leia. Yoda and Kenobi escape the massacre of the Jedi. They send Leia to live on the peaceful planet of Alderaan and Luke into hiding on the desert world of Tatooine, where Kenobi watches over him.
Years later, Leia becomes a leader in the Rebellion against Palpatine’s Empire, and sends word to Kenobi that the war needs his help. Kenobi recruits Luke (without telling him about his family history) and together with a disreputable rogue named Han Solo and Solo’s partner, a tall, shaggy alien named Chewbacca, they travel on Solo’s spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, to rescue Leia from a planet-destroying battle station called the Death Star.
This accomplished—despite the destruction of Leia's adoptive homeworld and the apparent death of Kenobi—Luke, Leia, and Han continue to fight the Empire and its eternally replenished ranks of white-suited Stormtroopers. Luke travels to Yoda's hiding place, a swamp planet, to continue his training as a Jedi. Yoda’s admonition to Luke—“Do or do not. There is no ‘try’”—has gotten more nerds through more hard tasks than any other bit of self-help.
In a duel on the floating city of Bespin, Vader tells Luke that he is Luke’s father. (This was a formative reveal for fans at the time, though anyone who’d read Campbell probably saw it coming from several parsecs away.)
Han and Leia fall in love. Eventually, Luke manages to turn his father away from the Dark Side of the Force just in time for him to save Luke from Emperor Palpatine. The rebels blow up a second Death Star and save the galaxy.
Or so it seems, because almost four decades after that movie, Return of the Jedi, the rebels, reconstituted into a “resistance,” are fighting the First Order, apparently reorganized from the dregs of the old Empire. Han and Leia’s grown son Ben has taken the name Kylo Ren, and uses the Dark Side of the Force. New kids—a remorseful former Stormtrooper named Finn and a junk scavenger with Force abilities named Rey—join Leia, now a general, in the fight. Kylo kills Han, but the Resistance destroys yet another planet-killing weapon, and Rey manages to locate the missing Luke Skywalker and become a Jedi herself.
To little avail. The First Order kicks the crap out of the Resistance, knocking them down to just a small fleet on the run. Rey and Kylo eventually find that they are alike, in a way—both struggling against the weight of all the story that has come before them. Eventually all that’s left of the Resistance can fit on the old Millennium Falcon, on which Rey and her allies escape—thanks in part to Luke sacrificing himself to buy them time. Kylo kills the apparent leader of the First Order and assumes command.
Where We Are Now
That was all canon—the story of Star Wars so far. There’s more, of course. Outside the movies, other material, like the generally terrific animated TV shows Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, is also canonical, monitored by a “story group” at Lucasfilm that approves names, places, events, and generally attempts to keep the vast warp and weft of the universe raveled, or at least knotted off until some other writer can get to it.
About That Holiday Special
It’s terrible. That’s what you have to know about the Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired around Christmas of 1978 on CBS. A crew of 1970s TV comedy and variety show writers dropped in to gin up something about trying to get Chewbacca back to his home planet for “Life Day.” The entire original cast is there, but they don’t look happy about it, or even sober. It never aired again, and is only available in bootleg form.
Except, hang on a second. Because you know how a subset of Star Wars fans inexplicably love Boba Fett, a badguy bounty hunter in blue armor who has all of five lines across the first trilogy and then dies in the pit of the Sarlacc on Tatooine? And in the prequels turns out to be the cloned son of the guy who gets cloned into the first stormtrooper army? And watches a Jedi chop his dad’s head off?
Well, the Holiday Special explicables that inexplicable love. It introduced the character, in a cartoon that ran as interstitials during the broadcast … and then, before Episode V came out, the Boba Fett action figure was a special giveaway. As advertised, it was supposed to have a missile-launching backpack—a feature that Kenner scotched for fear of putting a kid’s eye out. But desire for that doll was palpable in the late 1970s. If you have one in mint condition today, you should sell it. It’s worth $150,000.
Yes, the Holiday Special was terrible. But without it, the prequel movies wouldn’t have made any sense.
But more than perhaps any other entertainment brand, Star Wars also has a meta-canon. The behind-the-scenes tale of its creation and continuation are in many ways as much a part of global culture as the movies and ancillary material themselves. George Lucas, who grew up of limited means, learns to wield a magical lantern—filmmaking—from Francis Ford Coppola, an old master, and challenges the Hollywood establishment to take over the world. The story of Star Wars is important; so is the story of the story of Star Wars.
The fact that Lucas made the first movie, Episode IV in the cycle, is on its face astonishing. No one would produce it. Studios turned it down. Alan Ladd Jr., a scion of Hollywood who was running 20th Century Fox at the time, agreed. Lucas thought the movie, unusually, would make most of its money on toys and tchotchkes.
To realize the kind of visuals he needed, Lucas started a special effects production unit that came to be called Industrial Light and Magic. Creators there—first outside Los Angeles, and later in Marin County—invented or reinvented many of the technologies that have become their own kind of canon in filmmaking. They resurrected the widescreen film format Panavision; they learned to create detailed models and computers that could control cameras swinging around them in repeatable maneuvers, so that they could overlay multiple shots to simulate swarms of spaceships. ILM’s work with intricate models eventually gave way to the computer-generated digital images that now dominate visual effects.
But before the effects were done, Lucas screened a rough cut of the film for a few associates. His fellow young-upstart director Brian DePalma thought the weird Flash Gordon throwback wasn’t going to work, and made fun of him relentlessly. But Lucas’ other close friend, director Steven Spielberg, disagreed. Spielberg thought it was going to be huge.
Lucas’ then wife, Marcia, was a well-known and respected film editor; her work on the movie during production and post-production has gone largely unheralded except among film nerds. While Star Wars is partially known for silly cross-screen wipes to transition from scene to scene, the lightning-quick action sequences and a tempo that allowed for suspense, romance, and humor seem more likely to have come from her than from Lucas’ own script. Harrison Ford—who played Han Solo—famously quipped on set, “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.”
The movies also benefited from a winning cast. Ford hadn’t starred in much when he made Star Wars—he has a small part in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, playing a military officer named Lucas and nicknamed “Luke,” and a major role in Lucas’ nostalgic ensemble movie American Graffiti. Mark Hamill, who played Luke, had done TV. Carrie Fisher was Hollywood royalty, the daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher. Before she played Leia she played a precociously sexual teenager in Warren Beatty’s Shampoo. Fisher’s audition for Leia—like so much other Star Wars ephemera, it has been made public—is a revelation; she was, indeed, one of the few actors who could say that shit.
When the first Star Wars actually did come out, in May of 1977, it was a massive hit. Lucas famously watched the lines crawl around the block at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater from a Hamburger Hamlet across the street. Together with his friend Spielberg, whose masterpiece Jaws had come out two years prior (and his other masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind also came out in 1977), the two men had created the modern summer blockbuster.
They were movies that made so much money that studios couldn’t not make more. When blockbusters hit, they are, by the standards of any industry, extraordinarily profitable, but barely half a dozen major studios can assemble the resources and capital to make them. Plus, there are only 51 weekends, roughly, in a year for them to come out, narrowing the bottleneck even further. With an occasional exception, blockbuster pressures relegate the serious, adult-oriented movies that Lucas had rebelled against to permanent indie, small-potatoes status. They had rewritten the economics of filmmaking. Lucas' rebellion was a success.
Their new math wasn’t limited to the box office. Lucas’ willingness to trade his fee for merchandise turned out to be … prescient. The demand for Star Wars toys at Christmas in 1977 was so great that stores sold empty boxes with rain checks. The market for toys licensed from movies and comic books was, at the time, dominated by a small company called Mego that primarily made 8-inch-tall plastic, posable figurines with cloth costumes—competitors to Hasbro’s GI Joe, all these so-called action figures were basically Barbies aimed at boys. Mego held the licenses for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Universal Studios’ monster movies, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and various cowboy properties. But Mego declined to add whatever the hell Star Wars was, forcing Lucas to go to an even smaller company called Kenner.
Kenner decided to build dolls half the size of Megos, far less posable, made entirely of vinyl rather than including clothing. They were cheap enough to make that instead of following the then-customary practice of making dolls only for the hero, his sidekick (it was almost always a man), the villain, and a minion, Kenner made dolls for every character and alien in the movie, in multiple costumes. And all the spaceships. And most of the sets. Because kids wanted all of them. As a result, Kenner achieved industry dominance, Mego disappeared, Hasbro rebooted GI Joe along the same lines, and Lucas got very, very rich.
Spielberg mostly escaped the trap of making sequels; Lucas embraced it. And why not? His largely incomprehensible treatment for The Star Wars began long before Episode IV and ended long after it. So more Star Wars was inevitable. Lucas involved other filmmakers in the next two movies and then returned to one-man-band status for the prequel trilogy, Episodes I through III, which came out starting in 1999. They were technical triumphs, but audiences and critics received them poorly. The humor didn’t land; the actors didn’t sell the weirdness. Lucas’ near-total autonomy in the movies’ production, combined with the vast amounts of money spent and made on them, suggested not so much a Rebellion anymore but an Empire.
In the 2000s, Walt Disney Studios went on an acquisition binge, buying the computer animation studio Pixar in 2006 and the comic-book company Marvel in 2009. Both flourished under the Disney shingle, and in the latter case helped Disney expand its audience among boys and men. So Lucasfilm made sense as an acquisition target, too. It was by then a home for the preeminent visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic, and ancillary Star Wars products like cartoons, games, and books—but no movies. Disney paid $4 billion for the company in 2012.
Kathleen Kennedy, a longtime Spielberg collaborator, became head of Lucasfilm’s head, and quickly green-lit more Star Wars—movies, TV shows (to air on Disney cable channels, of course), books, and comics (published by Marvel, natch). All the Star Wars.
The Disney-era plans for the overall brand come at a fraught time, culturally. Kennedy explicitly set out to bring women and people of color into the franchise as fully-developed characters, something people rightly criticized Lucas for failing at. It broadened Star Wars’ audience—more kinds of people being able to see characters who look like themselves deepens Star Wars’ universality, and anecdotally, fan conventions now have as many girls as boys cosplaying their favorite characters. Kennedy’s diversification also, it turned out, alienated a small but vocal portion of the fanbase that had been emboldened by other counter-revolutionary movements in nerd-dom like Gamergate and kerfuffles over science fiction awards.
Restarting the franchise after a mostly fallow decade came with another challenges. Children and teenagers—a primary audience—knew it mostly from Lego sets, not movie theaters. Kennedy’s challenge would be to reinvigorate Lucas’ vision, update it for the 21st century, but also retain its fundamentally retrograde romance, stacking it up against a half-dozen other studios who’d all learned the blockbuster lesson. Thus far she has been a cold-eyed defender of the faith, replacing one director for extensive retooling on one movie and outright firing the directors off two others.
Science fiction and fantasy epics had become, in the years since the first Star Wars, not a puzzling anomaly for studio execs to take chances on but, in fact, the norm.
What's Next for Star Wars
Carrie Fisher died suddenly in 2017, after completing her scenes for The Last Jedi, the second movie of the new trilogy that began with The Force Awakens. By some accounts this threw the story into some chaos, as Leia was to be central to its plot. Fingers crossed that Billy Dee Williams will show up to reboot his roguish Lando Calrissian from Empire and Jedi; Donald Glover plays a younger version in the upcoming prequel movie about a young Han.
Also in various stages of pre-production or production are movies about a young Boba Fett (an evil, armored bounty hunter) and an entirely separate trilogy to be run by Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed Last Jedi.
The animated TV show Star Wars: Rebels is coming to a conclusion after four seasons, but Disney is in the process of creating its own streaming service similar to Netflix or Amazon Prime but solely for Disney-created content. It may also, according to rumor, feature another Star Wars TV show, the first to be live-action as opposed to animated.
At the Disney theme parks in Anaheim and Florida, Star Wars Lands are under construction; the Florida park will also have a Star Wars-themed hotel. According to publicity materials, visitors will be able to assume a Star Wars character, and the “cast” of the Land and hotel will react to them in-story. Since the Star Wars Land is regulated by the Story Group and, ostensibly, in canon, this means that our universe now at least crosses over with—and in fact may be a sub-universe of—Star Wars. We are all canon.
The particular strength of the Star Wars shared universe—as opposed to, say, the Marvel shared universes, the DC Comics–based shared universe at Warner Brothers (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc.), or the ones that other brands have tried to spin up—is its depth. Possibly because of the nostalgia Lucas built into his very first movie for the days before the dark times of the Empire, the Star Wars universe feels like it exists even when you’re not looking at it. In the language of psychology, Star Wars is a paracosm, a complete world populated with autonomous characters. That’s why it’s possible for young-adult books about teenagers training to be Rebel pilots to coexist with half-billion-dollar movies about Rey and Kylo Ren, comic books about Darth Vader, augmented-reality apps that let you insert Stormtroopers into Instagrams, and Barbie-like fashion-play dolls of Jyn Erso, the hero of the Disney-era prequel Rogue One.
That paracosm is so vivid, so enduring, that Kennedy and Lucasfilm can continue to pursue an aggressive release schedule, one movie a year, for … well, forever, actually.
To really understand the significance of that vision—of that Force, if you will—you have to watch another movie. It's not a Star Wars movie. It’s called Reign of Fire, and it’s a kind of wonderfully terrible postapocalyptic story—the last remnants of humanity are fighting the scourge of, no kidding, a sky full of fire-breathing dragons. Christian Bale, Gerard Butler, and Matthew McConaughey, before they were better than this, play the heroes. It’s as dopey as it sounds. People skydive from helicopters to attack dragons.
In the middle of it all, there’s a quieter scene. Inside the medieval castle that’s one of humanity’s few remaining fortresses (stone being fireproof), the battered adults put on a play for the children. A white prince is swordfighting a Dark Lord who breathes with a scary, mechanical rasp … and the Dark Lord says, “I am your father!” All the children gasp and scream. At the end of days, humans are teaching the last children on Earth one of the great myths of our people.
Sometimes the dopeyest movies get things the most right.
'Phantom Menace' Bores, Annoys
In 1999 George Lucas released the first “prequel,” Episode I (13 years after Episode VI came out). The Phantom Menace told the story of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi encountering the child who will grow up to be Darth Vader. The movie introduces a very good bad guy, the double-bladed lightsaber-wielding Darth Maul, but also (seemingly) kills him. It also features a comic-relief character named Jar Jar Binks whose dumb slapstick and ethnically offensive accent were not so great, frankly. WIRED’s 1999 review of The Phantom Menace agrees.
Life After Darth
In 2005, on the eve of the release of Revenge of the Sith—we’re up to Episode III here—George Lucas gave a rare interview to WIRED’s Steve Silberman. Lucas reflects on three decades of Starsing and Warsing, and talks about his desire to expand beyond the franchise with projects like Red Tails, his movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. But old projects still call to him; Lucas was working on the (poorly received) fourth Indiana Jones movie and on yet more tinkering on the original Star Wars films. He’d already released “special editions” of the original trilogy, adding in more visual effects with new digital tools. By the time of this story he’s converting them into 3-D.
You Won’t Live to See the Final Star Wars Movie
Star Wars comes back to movie theaters a decade later, in 2015, with The Force Awakens. By now Disney owns the franchise, Kathleen Kennedy is in charge, and Lost creator (and cinematic Star Trek rebooter) JJ Abrams is in the director’s chair. Because he is the director. But what Kennedy and the Disney machine are planning for Star Wars is something entirely new: a Forever Franchise, an eternally expanding, interconnected universe of movies, TV shows, books, and cultural cruft.
What Rogue One Teaches Us About the Rebel Alliance's Military Chops
The more Star Wars that gets made, the more canon there is to do exegesis on. And if Star Wars is a sort of ever-expanding set of biblical texts, nerdy publications like WIRED are its Talmud, where scholars and the faithful come together to try to comprehend the Word. Sometimes the Word is … confusing. Because for a heroic band of iconic, lawful-good warriors, the Rebellion is very, very bad at doing military things. In the Disney-era prequel movie Rogue One, that’s painfully clear in the dumb way a team of nominally heroic commandos try to storm a fortified Imperial base.
Inside the Battle of Hoth: The Empire Strikes Out
On the other hand, the Empire isn’t actually that great at dominating the galaxy. Two classic WIRED examples: First, in The Empire Strikes Back, Imperial forces have a chance to crush the Rebellion once and for all on the frozen world of Hoth. But the Empire makes a series of errors, including the inexplicable reliance on vulnerable ground forces instead of space or aerial bombardment.
Defense Nerds Strike Back: A Symposium on the Battle of Hoth
That story makes a series of important tactical criticisms of Imperial forces as led by Darth Vader—so much so that multiple military experts responded. Their overall takeaway? Other Imperial defeats, like the destruction of not just one but two Death Stars, were far worse. And The Empire constantly makes the mistake of letting Vader and the Emperor focus all their resources on Luke instead of, you know, beating the Rebels.
Architects and Engineers Shove a Lightsaber through the Death Star's Bad Design
Speaking of Death Stars, according to a bunch of very good designers and architects, the Death Star is a very bad design. And plus, hey, wasn’t blowing it up a war crime? Most of the people on board were just grunts and contractors.
Leia Organa: A Critical Obituary
WIRED isn’t the only place writing metafictional essays that simultaneously critique and revel in the Star Wars universe from inside. Possibly the best example of the form is this obituary for Leia Organa, written in honor of Carrie Fisher’s death, sums up everything wonderous about Star Wars. It recasts the stories in a more adult light and tells them from an almost Rosencrantz and Guildensternian (or Zepponian, if you’re a Buffy fan) perspective, asking what the adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia must have looked like to citizens of the Republic/Empire/New Republic/First Order. More importantly, though, it gives Leia her due as the tactician and leader that, candidly, only books, comics, and fan fiction got right until the Disney era. This lovely piece of writing will make you smile-cry, which is what Star Wars is supposed to do.
This guide was last updated on February 2, 2018.
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