Saying Goodbye to Star Wars Canon

By  · Published on December 21st, 2015

When the Stories You Love Get Taken Away

This article contains spoilers in the first paragraph about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. More accurately, it contains a description of the one part of the movie that was spoiled for me before I got a chance to see it. If you are spoiled by me openly discussing the thing that other people were openly discussing around me, I refuse to take any blame for this, as I am only perpetuating a cycle of Star Wars spoilers that dates all the way back to The Empire Strikes Back. All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.

For those of you sticking around, prepare to wince.

Our tickets for Star Wars: The Force Awakens were for 7:55 AM on Sunday morning. At 7:35 AM, one of the movie’s biggest moments was spoiled for me by an eight-year-old in the seat next to me.

“Hey dad? My friend Billy already saw this and he says that Han Solo dies.”

It wasn’t the last time this kid would talk during our two hours in the movie theater – his constant confusion at every character or vehicle seen onscreen meant regular questions for his dad, despite the obvious fact that his dad had not seen the movie either – but he could have spent the entire film in complete silence for all it mattered. The damage had been done. His father shot me a horrified look before angrily whispering at his son that he needed to be quiet; my fiancée put a tentative hand on my shoulder and told me she was sorry. And the whole time, all I could think was, well, that’s not exactly canon, is it?

I don’t spend a lot of time writing about it, but I am, or was, a pretty big Star Wars fan. That’s nothing special. The last thing that the internet needs is another thirty-something writing about the influence of the Star Wars franchise on his childhood. For the most part, you can fill in my Star Wars history by plugging in any number of Star Wars clichés. Nerdy and slightly lonely childhood? Check. Small town kid with dreams of getting out? Check and check. These are certainly important parts of who I am and how I began my love of film, but if this were a unique experience – if it made me, to borrow one of my fiancée’s favorite phrases, a “special snowflake” – then the new Star Wars film wouldn’t have set all kinds of box office records this past weekend. It’s important to keep things in perspective.

But here’s where me and the rest of Star Wars fandom slightly diverge: as much as I love the original trilogy, my love of the universe was always rooted in the books. I became a Star Wars fan just right around the time that Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy was released. This was several years too late for Return of the Jedi and several years before The Phantom Menace; for me, the Expanded Universe and the various video games and card games that popped up around it were my connection to the franchise. Over the next five years, every book I could get my hands on – from Splinter of the Mind’s Eye to the Rogue Squadron series – was an opportunity to immerse myself a little deeper into the lives of characters that I loved. And just as some people may fondly remember wearing out their VHS tapes by watching The Empire Strikes Back over and over again, I have cherished memories of sitting and reading for hours upon end.

All of that was gone now. Oh, not the time I spent reading or the days of enjoyment it gave me, but the idea that the stories I read are connected to the Star Wars universe as a whole. We’ve known for a while now that Disney would be wiping the slate clean after purchasing the Star Wars license, but whatever that may have meant on paper paled in comparison to a random eight-year-old telling me that Han Solo was about bite the dust. And while the idea of diverging from the source material – even imaginary written source material like the Star Wars universe – is something I would encourage in any movie adaptation, for obvious and entirely selfish reasons, the idea of losing Star Wars canon gave me pause.

Of course, the concept of canon is only imbued with as much weight as we give it. It’s a silly comparison, but if, as Benedict Anderson said, nations are imagined communities, then canons are nothing more than imagined continuities, an agreed-upon group of backstory and future actions for make-believe people. Marvel and DC rejigger their characters’ histories every time sales on an individual run dips below a certain point; the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series was following the established canon for years until suddenly it wasn’t. Now we have two competing-yet-similar stories playing out on the page and on the screen. I read multiple pieces this weekend that attempted to fill in some of the story gaps from Star Wars: The Force Awakens from the books and the comic series, and I even caught myself thinking, “Well, how am I supposed to know that if I don’t read Aftermath?” before I laughed at my own hypocrisy.

And while the new Star Wars movie borrows a bit from the Expanded Universe canon – the idea that Han and Leia’s children would be strong in the force and that Luke would always have trouble keeping his students from falling to the dark side, for example – it clearly is determined to create new characters who aren’t only interesting due to their relation to the original cast. This is done through the narrative, of course – with the aforementioned death of Han Solo and the absence of Luke Skywalker for the entire first film – but it’s also done organically through the magnetic appeal of the new cast members. Even the staunchest supporter of Expanded Universe canon would be hard-pressed to trade away one minute of screen time for John Boyega or Daisy Ridley; meanwhile, Adam Driver has created perhaps the most interesting villain in Star Wars history. I had my problems with The Force Awakens, but after seeing what this cast can do, I’d be fine if J.J. Abrams and company quietly killed off all of the mainstays. Star Wars is relevant again because of the new cast members, not the other way around.

That being said, there’s an inevitable sadness in watching these characters come to an end. For the past twenty-odd years, the characters of Star Wars have existed frozen in time, never aging or regressing from their final climactic moments in Return of the Jedi. All of that is wiped away by the new film. Abrams has given us a Han and Leia whose marriage has failed, a Luke Skywalker whose faith has been shaken, and a second generation of the family who have already fallen to the dark side by the time we are introduced to them. This is a Star Wars movie that cannot hide the fact that the original cast has gotten old, that we’ve gotten old, and that even a story that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away has a darker side to it. How many marriages can survive the loss of a child? It makes sense. It feels right. And I wish it never happened.

I’m not old, not by any real measure of the word, but I’m too old to go diving back into countless comic books and novels and cartoons that will comprise the new Star Wars canon. I’ll still watch the movies – I might even still love the movies, especially now that the transitional material is out of the way – but my days of identifying myself as a superfan are over. I guess that’s why I’m not too upset with the eight-year-old who ruined Star Wars: The Force Awakens for me. If he falls in love with the franchise the way that I did – if he continues to keep his curiosity alive – then maybe he’ll be part of the next generation of fans who devours the Star Wars Expanded Universe. And you know what? A fan starting with The Force Awakens — one who is introduced to a diverse cast and unarguably the best group of actors the movies have ever seen – is probably going to be the best type of Star Wars fan there is. Spoiler alert of your own, kid: my generation of Star Wars fans spends hours on the internet arguing about whether Rey kicked too much ass. Try and do better when it’s your turn.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)