I bought Terry Brooks' novelization of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on April 29th, 1999, the day of its release. Four alternate covers were released, and naturally, I got the one featuring Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi, just as I had gotten the Obi-Wan edition of Premiere magazine's Star Wars issue, and spent much of the summer of 1999 buying Mountain Dew, a soft drink that I hated, so that I could accumulate as many Obi-Wan cans as possible, hoarding them as if they were some kind of valuable future energy source.
Three weeks later, I saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace for the first time on May 19th, 1999, the day of its release.
Why was I so into young Obi-Wan, when I had yet to see him in action in anything longer than a two-minute trailer? I can think of a few reasons: 1) I was in eighth grade, 2) I was obsessed with Star Wars, and 3) Ewan McGregor was a babe.
We've learned from an early age to let pop culture properties colonize our minds
I had also grown up during the Disney Renaissance — a pivotal rite of most Gen Y-ers — and learned from an early age to let pop culture properties colonize my mind well before their proper release. After having my little world turned upside down by The Little Mermaid at the age of four, I learned to be obsessed with each subsequent Disney animated feature as a matter of course. Obviously there was no Ain't It Cool News for me to trawl on the Apple IIs in the school computer lab, but there was merch. Prior to the internet and the development of my reading comprehension skills, consumer products were my primary information source for the movies I was interested in. I have a strong memory of getting a picture book adaptation of Beauty and the Beast via school book order, well before the film's release. I did not know who this Belle was or what kind of stuff she was going to get up to in the movie, but I had what I felt was solid evidence that she was my new favorite girl, whose perfection I must start studying as early as possible. When Jasmine from Aladdin started showing up on backpacks and pencil cases at the local Kmart a couple years later, the process started again.
Disney knows they can start feeding us early
I suspect more than a few people reading this right now came of age during this timeline, which is why Lucasfilm, now owned by Disney, knows the roadmap to the geek-out part of our brains so well. They know they can start feeding us early. They know that in the aggregate, no matter what we say publicly in comments sections, our desire for information will outweigh our fear of spoilers. Our appetite arrives fully formed — once a brand has earned our trust (apparently no matter how badly it squandered it in the last 15 years), we want to believe that we will like its products, whether they're wrist computers or films or cute robots that we already know (via marketing!) will be in that film. They can stage a four-day "Celebration" for a movie that won't be released for another eight months, and thousands of people will show up. They can curate an exhibit of props and artifacts from that same movie — again, which nobody has seen — and those same thousands will hungrily snap photos.
I saw countless tweets like this as I scrolled through the #SWCA hashtag during the peak of the Celebration this past weekend. The name "Kylo Ren" was dropped with the same level of familiarity and acceptance as Han Solo's. Several fans expressed the desire to cosplay as him. Here are some questions I wish I could ask their authors:
- How do you know who Kylo Ren is?
- What information do you have about him that makes you think he will be your favorite?
- Why are you excited to see his costume?
- Why are you excited to see his lightsaber?
How do you know who Kylo Ren is? And why are you excited to see his costume?
Some of these questions are rhetorical, but they are not accusatory. Being excited is great; there is nothing wrong with being excited for a movie. But more and more it seems like the excitement is not for a story but for a brand. It's an abstraction of nostalgia that has turned into plain old brand loyalty — don't kid yourself, it's the same impulse that led your grandma to buy the same brand of white bread for three decades. Meanwhile, the actual film itself is sliding into the margins. If people can get excited about memorabilia for a future event — completely sidestepping the part where the event is awesome enough to merit their pre-cogged nostalgia — how long until we don't even have to bother making the movie? It's getting easier and easier to picture a blockbuster economy that is one infinite hype cycle, where the movie never comes out, and nobody notices.
I am not pretending to be above this; I signed a billion-year fan agreement with the Star Wars Universe probably around age seven, and I am more or less contractually obligated to see every film ever released under that banner until I die, and perhaps afterwards. And maybe there is something specific to Star Wars fans that this kind of endless fan service works particularly well on. We've been starved, neglected, and abused for years — often at the hands of our own creator / patriarch figure. There was a period of time where one couldn't even buy the real versions of the original trilogy on DVD. The idea of mainstream culture embracing the thing we loved with the same acceptance they did for the Marvel universe seemed like a far off, impossible fantasy.
An abstraction of nostalgia that has turned into plain old brand loyalty
But Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm promised more than a new slate of movies. We live in a very different ecosystem than the one The Phantom Menace opened to in 1999. Now that geek culture is fully mainstream (and more importantly, lucrative) and we have the cultural and informational bandwidth to support it, the Star Wars content buffet can be unrolled in earnest, by a corporation that knows how to deliver it with unsettling efficacy. Now, we not only get the original theatrical Blu-Ray release, we get spin-offs and critically respected directors and theme parks. We are still very responsive, and our years of deprivation training have only intensified our impulses — at this point, we'd jump off the Brooklyn Bridge if Disney told us there was a new The Force Awakens trailer at the bottom of the East River.
This past weekend's Star Wars Celebration was Disney's way of saying, "You look hungry. Come in, you're safe now — eat." And eat we did. Let's hope we're not sick by Christmas.