[Rogue One spoilers follow]
For some time now, we have witnessed the mainstreaming of geek culture, entered into a world overrun by comic books and video games, with geeks everywhere embraced by a pop culture which now caters to our obsessive tendencies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes it to an entirely new level, though. This is a movie which exists merely to fill in a New Hope continuity gap (how did the Rebels get the Death Star plans) and retcon away a plot hole (why did the Death Star have such a glaring and ultimately fatal design flaw?). It’s the stuff of little read, but passionately adored tie-in comic books and fan-written novels but now exists as a $200 million movie. Rogue One is the type of story geeks have been telling each other for decades; the rest of the world has finally caught up.
But is that a good thing? Could all of that money and manpower been better spent on something new, on something which actually looks forward rather than backward?
I posed this question to WeMinoredInFilm co-founder Julianne earlier today, asking her, “Rogue One is a good movie, but is it a necessary one? Did the world really need a big budget movie about that one time a bunch of rebels died stealing New Hope’s McGuffin?”
Her sensible response was, “Well, did the world really need the prequels?” Touché. One person’s unnecessary bit of crass moneymaking is another person’s beloved pop culture event. She continued, “Intellectually, I might know that a movie about stealing the Death Star plans is unnecessary, but emotionally I don’t, not when the movie is as good as Rogue One.”
She’s not wrong. Rogue One is like a Howard Zinn version of a Star Wars movie, shifting its focus away from the leaders and archetypical figures and over to the grunts, shining the briefest of spotlights on those heroes of war who don’t get to be at the victory parade, the non-chosen ones who ultimately make Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey possible. It is a heist movie stacked on top of a war movie, and though it suffers from excessive table-setting in its first third (as well as from a puzzling Forest Whitaker performance) it is ultimately a stunning achievement of franchise filmmaking, bold and stirring in the ways most others are predictable and condescending.
However, Rogue One is also a gap filler in every sense of the phrase, filling not just a gap in the Star Wars saga but also the release cycle, a fan fiction novel brought to life just to keep us entertained for a year while we wait for Episode 8. Will its inevitable immense financial success lead others to follow its example, looking not just to extend franchises into sequels and TV shows but also into gap-filling stories? What if we get an Indiana Jones movie about what he was doing in-between Temple of Doom and Raiders (remember, Temple is technically a prequel, not a sequel)?
To be clear, the story of how exactly the Rebels obtained the Death Star schematics which ended up in Princess Leia’s hands and then hidden inside of R2-D2, thus kickstarting everything that happens in A New Hope, has been told many, many times before. Of course, that was all wiped out when LucasFilm drew a line in the sand after the Disney purchase and ceased to recognize the so-called Expanded Universe of Star Wars games and books as being canonical. However, as io9 recently chronicled, video games like Force Unleashed and Empire at War as well as a choose your own adventure novel called Jedi Dawn have all taken stabs at it. Across the various outlets, a narrative emerged depicting a two-year Rebel operation called “Operation Skyhook” which entailed various Rebel operatives reaching into 7 different corners of the universe to obtain every shard of the Death Star schematics, which were sensibly split up and scattered to the wind to protect the extremely confidential nature of the data.
And that’s how this kind of thing used to work. A film franchise told its own main story, and left video games, comic books and various novels (official and unofficial) to pick up the scraps to fill in the obvious gaps. For example, ever wonder how exactly the Asgardians rebuilt their bridge in-between the events of Thor and Thor: The Dark World? There’s a comic book all about that. Curious why exactly the Oracle is a completely different person in The Matrix: Reloaded? Go play Enter the Matrix on the PS2 to find the answer (although, obviously, the true answer is simply the actress who played her in the first movie died).
However, as I wrote earlier this year the grey area between what we’ve been told to be true and what we’ve actually seen with our eyes is now quite often the only opening needed for franchise-obsessed Hollywood executives, who inherently abhor risk and increasingly rely on name brands which presumably carry built-in audiences. That’s how we got a prequel about Sleeping Beauty‘s villain Maleficent, a Rocky spin-off which finally revealed what became of Apollo Creed’s family after his death in Rocky IV, a Hannibal TV show which not only prequeled Silence of the Lambs but also Manhunter and Red Dragon and will soon get a new Star Trek show about what happened in-between Undiscovered Country and The Next Generation.
To be fair, Rogue One does fit into LucasFilm’s longer-term devotion to filling in the gaps of the Star Wars story. They’ve just usually done that through animated TV shows.
But there’s the rub: In the brave new world of franchise-building where you’re constantly playing with pre-made toys, when you notice a gap in a familiar story which can be exploited for obvious marketing purposes the true question is not “what happened there?” but instead “does anyone care?” Turns out, no one really cared about how Peter Parker’s parents died (Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2) or how Peter Pan and Captain Hook first met (Pan). Clearly, though, a crapton of people clearly care about the acquisition of the Death Star plans in Rogue One. The same will probably be true of the Han Solo origins movie.
What Disney has pulled off with Rogue One is not dissimilar to what Fox originally intended to pull off with its X-Men franchise after The Last Stand, I.e., expand the universe into a series of prequel spin-offs. Somewhere along the way, Fox seriously dropped the ball on Origins: Wolverine, and then cut their losses by converting their Origins: First Class and Origins: Magneto projects into one. Out of that came a new trilogy of X-Men films, almost by accident since that wasn’t their original intent.
Disney’s strategy, however, is very much by design, following the path Bob Iger and Kathleen Kennedy laid out for Star Wars years ago, namely to fill in the gap in-between new trilogy installments with standalone movies set within the Star Wars universe but not connected to the ongoing narrative started in Force Awakens. There was once a time that such stories were the exclusive province of the various other mediums which serve to simply compliment and augment the films while feeding our geeky need to explore every nook and cranny of a beloved franchise. In fact, that’s still going on right now with the various canonical Star Wars comic books and novels (the Darth Vader comic book is particularly compelling, btw).
But Rogue One takes all of that a step further, offering up a movie to all the fans over the years who wondered how exactly the Rebels got those darn Death Star plans. It doesn’t actually advance the story. We don’t learn anything about Force Awakens mysteries like Rey’s mom or Supreme Leader Snoke. Instead, we get a compelling story about a bunch of doomed also-rans in the Star Wars universe (as well as fodder for new merchandise and cosplaying ideas). It opens up a future for Star Wars movies where any stories are possible, and marks a transitional moment in geek history. This is when fan service went mainstream, and one of the most iconic franchises in film history ceased being a saga told in separate installments and turned into a fictional universe we can revisit, not to see the latest events befalling the Skywalker family but to just visit the world and look around with geeky delight.