All Rise

The Clone Wars finished and Rise of Skywalker arrived on Disney Plus this week with the exact combination of joy for the former and ‘oh… hi…’ for the latter you’d expect. Rise is far more the traditional Star Wars movie than Rian Johnson’s defiantly, flamboyantly good space noir predecessor. In some ways — nearly all of them in the last twenty minutes — that’s good. In other ways — in all of which Kelly Marie Tran is reduced to an extra — that borders on unforgivable. It’s Star Wars playing Hotel California and honestly it coasts on the charm of the conceit. Despite that, the emotional beats were solid – I laughed and cried in all the intended spots. It’s a good time, for most. But Star Wars, now more than ever, is bigger than the Skywalker Saga.

So, join me on a journey to the Unknown Reaches of the Star Wars universe. Things are weirder and more interesting now Rise has happened.

Let’s start with these two books. Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse, Hugo-award winning badass, is an incredibly clever idea as well as a piece of a larger capitalist constellation of content creation.

That’s the last time I’ll alliterate this week I SWEAR.

The book fills in the gap between Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker, exploring how the Resistance grows from a terrified handful of wounded veterans and rookies, literally fleeing the scene of the crime in the back of a van, to the growing but terribly outnumbered force we see in Rise. It’s a heist story and a thriller, set in the Star Wars universe.

Better still, it’s a story that centers people we’ve spent less time with. Wedge Antilles, Wedge FREAKING ANTILLES, plays a pivotal role as does Norra Wexley from the Aftermath trilogy and Zay Versio, the daughter of characters from Star Wars Battlefront II. Time and time again, Roanhorse uses characters who’ve been in the background of previous stories and guides them to their moment to shine. First Order defectors, young hotheads and old hired guns all come together to stand not in rebellion but resistance. It’s a lovely, well-executed conceit, simultaneously giving the heroes we know lots to do but also grounding them in a force just as individualistic and likable as they are.

Rae Carson, over in the Expanded Edition of Rise of Skywalker, has a differently challenging job. She has to both correctly adapt the emotional trajectory of the movie and fill in as many narrative holes as humanly possible. And, being charitable, there are a fair few holes to fill. Carson excels at it, even managing to give one of the parachuted-in ‘Emergency Girlfriends’ some welcome character. More importantly, she focuses in on a core principle common both to the Roanhorse book and the Star Wars universe as it now stands:

Everyone matters.

In a scene I don’t recall being in the film, the galaxy’s foremost cape enthusiast gives everyone’s favorite Droid Dad pilot a clear look at the difference between the Resistance and the Rebellion, tying it directly into the incredible visual of the fleet arriving over Exegol. The Rebellions was a ragtag but organised army. The Resistance is a disparate galactic movement dedicated to opposing evil wherever it appears.

Everyone matters, everyone’s important and the nods to the characters of Resistance and Rebels in the Exegol sequence really drive that home. The First Order is the Empire’s children in ill-fitting uniforms. The Resistance is everyone else and they are not here for the First Order’s space nazi bullshit.

These novels are the first step out of the Skywalker Saga. Acknowledging that for this universe to survive, it literally cannot be limited to the endless exploration of three generations of two bloodlines. Everything here, from the battle over Exegol to the explicit note that Rey will not be staying on Tattooine, makes it clear the Skywalker Story has taken its curtain call, and this story is done.

What next then? The obvious answer is Baby Yoda. Not just the little chap, adorable though he is, but what he represents.

The Mandalorian is an extraordinarily good piece of TV that moves with the confidence and elegance of its main character’s reputation. It’s also, after a very shaky start where there are no apparently women in all of space, the most diverse Star Wars has managed to date, both in front of and behind the camera. Directors ranging from Bryce Dallas Howard to Taika Waititi worked on season one while actors like Richard Ayoade, Giancarlo Esposito, Carl Weathers and… Taika Waititi were on-screen talent. The result was a universe that felt diverse, deeply beautiful and on occasion intensely dangerous. An exploration of the Star Wars scenes other characters hurry through on their way somewhere more shiny and important.

A greater commitment to diversity isn’t new to the franchise (Rogue One, take a bow! AND OUR EMOTIONS!) but seeing it as policy rather than happy accident makes a pleasant change. Especially when compared to, oh I don’t know a single gay couple getting one and a half whole seconds of eminently removable for overseas markets screen time…

Fake laugh. Real pain. Etc.

But despite, or because, of the intensely annoying conservatism of The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars continues to slowly, and surely, become something for everyone. As the Skywalker Saga is finally put to rest the franchise finds itself forced both by creative and capitalist necessity to seek out new directions and voices.

And yes there was a Star Trek joke here and yes I deleted it. I’m growing. As a person.

The Mandalorian is the most obvious example of this but there’s so much more on the way. Leslye Headland, co-creator of the incredible Russian Doll, is developing a Star Wars show. Cassian Andor, sad space Wooster to K2’s murderous Jeeves, is getting his own show. Taika Waititi will direct and co-write, along with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a standalone Star Wars movie. I can promise you absolutely none of these projects will look like any of the others. I can also promise you they’ll all look like Star Wars.

Likewise this:

An entirely new setting giving us a new narrative lens with which to view the entire franchise.

So if the first step out of the Skywalker Saga is the acknowledgement of how things are different in the future, and the second is the diversification of the franchise, then The High Republic is the third. The diversification and exploration of the past and, through that, placing the largest franchise in Western movie history as a definitive, but finite, jigsaw piece of a larger puzzle.

That’s an impossibly cool, ambitious thing to do. It’s also the sort of ‘Content! For! Ever!’ conveyor belt that franchises like this have baked into their narrative DNA. More people, more money, rise and repeat.

Of course this isn’t the first time the series has tried to branch out this wide. Rian Johnson’s Star Wars trilogy continues to trundle through development in the exact way Benioff and Weiss’ does not. The mooted Josh Trank Boba Fett movie was cancelled, Solo’s writers and directors were removed and Rogue One was completely rebuilt. Star Wars isn’t good at sharing its toys or changing how it plays with them, but it seems to be making the attempt.

Frankly, it has to. Otherwise the inherent conservatism of the franchise will continue enabling the exact sort of racist abuse John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran have faced for years.

And fans will keep taking matters into their own hands:

This is Bucketheads. It’s great, balancing nice action with nuanced character work. Check the sidebar and you’ll see a dozen more fan movies with countless more to be found beyond that. The fan film community for Star Wars is in rude health. So much so you don’t even need a film crew.

Enter TikTok! The world’s most user friendly data minerAs long as you’re pretty enough!

While the intellectual property implications and deeply awful past business practices of the platform mean I’ll never be on it, I am in awe of the creators who are. TikTok feels like a wellspring of creativity, comedy and potential that hasn’t quite coalesced into the unstoppable force I suspect it will someday become to the mainstream. It’s approached it several times, and each time it has, it’s been through role playing. One of the biggest role playing hashtags is in the middle of some rebuilding thanks to this but two of the others (#starwarsoc and #jedioc) are doing great.Star Wars as a sandbox for everyone to play in. Remix and mashup culture attacking the largest entertainment monolith on the planet and finding the exhaust port. Isn’t that awesome?

It’s not just for individual characters either, look at hashtags like #starwarsrogueraven to see folks starting to stitch longer form stories together. Sanctioned? Hell no! Enthusiastic, inventive and often brilliant? Absolutely!! These folks are the new Sam Raimi’s, backroom rocket scientists learning their craft and turning a limited toolbox into the exact thing they need to get the job done and save the day.

Sounds…kind of like a widespread but well organised Resistance doesn’t it?

Rise of Skywalker was, for many, a disappointment. But for everyone, it’s an opportunity and a choice. Turn back towards what we hoped we’d get and didn’t, trapped forever by the disappointment and entitlement that so much of genre fiction orbits. Or? Let the past live as foundation. There’s a whole galaxy to play in and detail and explore. So go play.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.