The Paradox of Nostalgia and Prequels in the Star Wars Universe

By  · Published on December 20th, 2016

To take viewers back, the narrative needs to keep moving forward. Also, it’s all about character.

Watching Rogue One last weekend, I came to two major conclusions about the Star Wars franchise. First, that prequels in the Star Wars universe were doomed to peak at mediocrity. Second, I decided, four years after the fact, that the Star Wars franchise is a good fit for Disney (I realize I’m a little late to that argument). These two conclusions both stem from certain realizations about the very particular nature and importance of characters in Star Wars.

The characters of Star Wars are what I like to call sub-archetypal. An archetypal character implies universality, and, while characters in Star Wars tend to fit into particular slots like pieces in a puzzle (hero, mentor, etc.), their real strength lies in a special kind of individuality that the term “archetype” fails to cover. To make a scientific analogy, because that’s what I like to do, the difference between a traditional archetypal character and the characters that define the Star Wars franchise is the difference between a genus and a species. Note that, to take the analogy one step further, a well-rounded, nuanced character would be an individual organism within said species. This may sound like a criticism of Star Wars characters, but it’s not. In the case of franchises, character development is a Goldilocks scenario – you want the sort of instantaneous recognition that requires a certain degree of specificity, but you also want to leave some room for interpretation because that invites people to come and fill certain details for themselves. It draws them closer and makes them care more, not less. It’s what spawns fandoms – and fan works. It’s the foundation on which many of the most enduring franchises are built.

It’s also something that Disney excels at, and always has. Of course, there are a lot of technical components that make Snow White and the Seven Dwarves groundbreaking, but, as far as storytelling (and marketing) goes, the real genius has less to do with Snow White or the Evil Queen or Prince Charming and more to do with the dwarves, and how the film, in a very short space of time, manages to establish seven unique individuals – Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey – instead of seven generic dwarves. The original Star Wars trilogy excels at this kind of character development (see: General Ackbar, Mon Mothma, Nien Nunb, Greedo, Boba Fett).

Disney is not the only company to understand the importance of characters and how to market them. I’m not even saying they are the only ones to master it. What I’m saying is that this emphasis on character is at the core of their identity in such a way that makes them a good fit for the Star Wars franchise. The merchandise has reached frankly ridiculous levels, yes, and admittedly a tiny bit of my soul withered away when I saw Star Wars-themed pancake molds at Williams-Sonoma a few weeks ago, but if it had to be something, hey, at least it’s a franchise I like. The bottom line is that while they may market it to within an inch of its life, Disney understands how to create and maintain the sort of characters that are so fundamental to the Star Wars franchise, a belief that was reinforced by The Force Awakens last year.

So hopefully that illustrated the very particular kind of character development that Star Wars excels at, but it doesn’t really demonstrate why characters are more important than plot (and everything else) when it comes to Star Wars. For that I’ll turn to a personal anecdote, which requires some background.

I was raised on Star Wars. My 5th birthday cake was the Millennium Falcon (per my request) and the action figures (both original and prequel trilogy characters) were some of my favorite toys, and frequently co-starred alongside my Polly Pockets (they were vaguely the same size, I didn’t discriminate) in elaborate narratives staged on sets made from Legos and Magna-Tiles.

I was also, however, raised on VHS tapes, which is probably why my younger sister nearly made it to high school before seeing a Star Wars movie. Aghast at the oversight, we went out and bought the Blu-Ray box set of all six films. She didn’t have to be dragged kicking and screaming to watch them, per say, but she was far from enthusiastic (there were definitely some my family is so lame eye-rolls thrown in there). After some debate, we decided to start off with A New Hope.

Not even halfway through the film, my sister turned to me. “I’m R2-D2 because he’s sassy,” she said. “You’re C3PO.”

With that, she was sold. She’s still not about to go out and read all the Extended Universe novels or include a lightsaber replica on her Christmas wish list, and if I answer a question of hers with a Star Wars quote I’ll almost certainly get an exasperated how-are-we-even-related sigh, but she watched all the rest of the movies without complaint and had no qualms about waiting in line for an hour to see The Force Awakens on opening weekend, which counts as a victory in my book. And all of this only happened because she identified with a droid who doesn’t even look vaguely anthropomorphic and talks in bleeps.

That is why the strength of Star Wars lies in the characters.

But what does any of this have to do with Rogue One?

Rogue One is pretty much perfect when looking at the potential of prequels in the Star Wars franchise because it’s a solidly made film. Since there aren’t any glaring issues, the problems inherent in being a prequel are thrown in to sharp relief.

As a film, Rogue One more or less reached its full potential, which is commendable. Its potential was just decidedly underwhelming – which brings us back to character. More specifically, to that eternal debate of character vs. plot-driven narrative.

The strength of Star Wars lies in its characters, but prequels, by their very nature, will always be plot-driven because the plot literally came first.

Characters in prequels fall into one of two categories. The first are established (often beloved) characters, meaning that the film is treading in a veritable minefield and inevitably is going to anger a good number of fans – the only question is how many. While this is usually the more common category in prequels, Rogue One is somewhat unusual in that it deals predominantly with the second category: new characters. The problem with introducing characters in prequels is that the fact that they need to be introduced, begging the question “why?”. Or, to put it more bluntly, characters introduced in prequels might as well be wearing giant neon signs that read Don’t Get Too Attached.

It’s not even that the characters in Rogue One are uninteresting. You just can’t get drawn into them in the same way you could if you were introduced to them in a sequel. There’s the incentive to keep a safe distance. While it would be theoretically possible to forget the question marks looming over their heads, every single cameo or easter egg (of which there are many) serves as a reminder. Even if you get attached regardless, it’s not the excitement of not knowing what will happen next that draws you in, but the push and pull of hoping against hope that not every character you like will die. That’s not the point of Star Wars. That’s the point of Game of Thrones.

Watching The Force Awakens felt like being a kid again in the best way possible. I quickly connected with the new characters, wanted to know what would happen to them. The plot was a little too repetitive for some, but that was the point. The Force Awakens is what happens when you take an existing formula (A New Hope) and modify the ingredients. When you do that, it becomes more and more about the ingredients – the characters – than about the formula – the plot – which is, honestly, exactly what I want from Star Wars.

There are plenty of critics arguing that Rogue One is the better film. The arguments they make are absolutely valid but, for me, they’re also irrelevant. Rogue One is a war film set in the universe of Star Wars. It’s a perfectly okay film. But, to be utterly cliché, it just doesn’t have that magic. For myself and many others, the Star Wars franchise has a childhood connection that gives it a unique ability to inspire child-like awe. Rogue One misses out on that. Because prequels can’t be character-driven in the sense of the original trilogy or The Force Awakens by the very nature of being prequels, it’s hard to imagine a prequel ever truly succeeding in that regard. Watching a Star Wars film, I want to be taken back and in order to really do that, the narrative (and the characters) need to move forward.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.