That's the question that kept running through my head while reading Katie Kilkenny's excellent piece for The Atlantic, "Selling the Soul of Star Wars." Kilkenny herself seems unsure how to feel as she contextualizes what we know of the new trilogy so far (spearheaded by creative leads JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson). This is what we know so far: the new trilogy will be leaning on practical effects vs. CG (we've seen that in both "official" teasers and unofficial leaks) and is bringing back familiar faces while casting Oscar-winning actors who don't have the star power of your typical summer blockbuster cast.
But there's a weird dynamic at play here. All of Abrams's and Johnson's affection for the original films drive home how much the new ones will be, at base, unnecessary cash grabs-the equivalent of old action figures sold on eBay, schemes for money and not for art. The prequels seem almost pure by contrast. George Lucas was the guiding creative vision behind the franchise from the beginning, and his vision told him to invest in lush CGI, hire Hayden Christensen, and tell the story of Anakin Skywalker's descent from wee midichlorian-surfeited boy to angsty, lanky-haired Jedi. Lucas found the story touching, even if his viewers didn't.
But in this case it's a good thing that the franchise is deviating from Lucas passion project to an audience-pandering corporate model. Yes, the Disney buyout dumped Star Wars into its brimming bank of lucrative narrative-universe properties. And of course, all this nostalgia is just setting up an initial framework that woos the fan viewership with an Avengers-like launchpad so they'll buy into a barrage of spinoffs (coming soon: Boba Fett and Chewbacca). But what for Disney is profitable recycling is for Hollywood at large a challenge to the entirely-too-low standards of the blockbuster in the digital age.
These two grafs were split up by a very relevant green-screen-laden production shot from Episode III, but they're important to read together. Yes, Disney expects Star Wars will make it a lot of money. That isn't inherently bad even if it's emotionally conflicting — a giant, soulless company showing an element of humanity with ulterior, for-profit motives. (As my colleague Chris Plante put it, "We don't want to feel like we're buying into a magic trick even though we love the magic trick.")
Disney expects Marvel to make a lot of money, too, and movies like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy show that fan-favorite directors can create films that are both critical darlings and summer blockbusters.Whether Star Wars Episode VII is either of those has yet to be determined (it probably wont' be until its December 18th, 2015 premiere).