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It is an odd thing to examine the landscape we find ourselves in in 2017. If you can recall what things were like before December of 2012, fans of the Star Wars series could only dream that there would be further cinematic outings featuring that universe, and if that were to come to fruition it would only ever likely come once George Lucas kicked the bucket and found himself as a means to describe a similarly dead parrot. And yet here we are five years and two cinematic entries into the series later and the landscape has decidedly changed. As fans of the Star Wars universe, we have had to twist our way of thinking and align it with the reality that whether we want them or not, we will be seeing yearly entries into the cinematic canon. How long will it be before Disney tries their luck with more than one film in a calendar year? We can’t know for sure, but having seen success with their Marvel output, I would wager a guess that it can’t be too far away.
A more interesting question going forward is whether or not future installments will branch away from what we consider to be the central narrative of the series thus far, the chronology that began with The Phantom Menace and is still directly continuing with The Last Jedi later this year. Every film thus far has been a link in a chain. Is it possible to tell a story in this universe that does not have ties to the central stories of Episodes I-VIII+? When Rogue One was released in December, it was an experiment. A Star Wars film featuring no Jedi? That would be a stretch for a good many casual fans. Indeed a good amount of chatter on the web featured confused commenters wondering why there was another death star, unaware that this was meant to serve as a prequel to A New Hope. Given the overall box office success of the film, earning a total $1,055,724,829 worldwide based off of a reported 200 million dollar budget, it is highly likely that the takeaway Disney got from the release of Rogue One is that so long as the words “Star” and “Wars” are somewhere in proximity to the title they can expect astronomical returns on their monetary investment.
The upcoming Han Solo film directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller featuring Alden Ehrenreich in the role originated by Harrison Ford will be another major test for Disney. They want to see if audiences will allow and support the recasting of central characters for spinoff projects. When people think of Han Solo they think of Harrison Ford. It is not a James Bond situation where the name conjures multiple actors to mind depending on the personal experience of the audience in relation to the series. Han Solo and Harrison Ford are inseparable at this point. It was made the third act of The Force Awakens resonate in the manner that it did, as any attempt to have a new actor carry on the performance would have undercut the emotional reaction the audience was expected to have regarding the end of his arc in the larger narrative. Having someone play the character at a point prior to the moment we first meet him in A New Hope is not as bitter a pill to swallow in the minds of most audience members. At least this is the hope of executives planning the next several years of spinoffs and sequels bearing the Star Wars brand.
Rogue One, upon first viewing can be viewed as a bit too tethered to the original trilogy. The script uses the established saga as a crutch on which to give the story means to amble forward. Under close scrutiny, large holes appear in the narrative construction and the depth of the characters can be called into question. However, that raises the question of whether or not the film needs to divest itself of its own legacy in order to be valid. Simply because nobody in the cast is named Skywalker or carries a lightsaber does not mean that it isn’t an integral part of the greater story being told in the main saga. It is retroactively thus, and that may feel like a bit of a cheat. However, the film crafts a story that directly ties to central moments of A New Hope. I cannot speak to how well the film plays on a structural, emotional, and objective level without a prior connection to A New Hope, as I have had that film etched into the back of my brain since I was five years old. Analytically speaking, only two moments require a connection on the part of the audience;
- Anything involving Darth Vader
- CGI Princess Leia
Aside from those instances, the film’s narrative stands on its own and establishes its own internal logic and narrative force. The conflict presented within Jyn Erso as a character may not be as rich as others in the central saga, though much of that can be attributed to the logistical reality of a standalone film versus a multi-part epic. Her struggle to reconcile her feelings toward her father and his desire to undermine the Imperial war machine with her sense of self-preservation drives the central theme of the film; personal investment in societal change. The script takes strides to contrast Jyn with characters who fall on a spectrum of ideals, specifically through Chirrut’s mysticism-driven ideals that insist that what happens is the will of the universe (see force) and Cassian Andor’s deeply personalized sense of purpose in rebellion.
There is enough thematic and narrative meat to allow Rogue One to stand on its own. Ultimately its ties to the greater Star Wars canon are simply embellishments for the sake of the initiated that do little to detract from the experience for casual observers. The film could take greater pains to force an investment in the characters on the part of the audience, but the end product is ultimately serviceable in every regard. There is little here that could be critiqued to a degree as to classify Rogue One as a poor film. While some may not enjoy the film enthusiastically, from an objective point of view the film functions well in every regard; composition, editing, effects, score, etc. They all work. Where the film deserves a critical eye is in regard to the script itself, which does seem to fail to develop our central characters fully. While some might argue that this is a trapping of an ensemble production, it is clear that the film was probably another full draft away from being where it needed to be in terms of character development. It is unclear how much of this is as a result of the much ballyhooed reshoots and editing bay shenanigans, but if we take things at face value there is still enough to find issue with.
Beyond The Last Jedi and the as-yet-untitled Han Solo film, we really do not know much about the future of the franchise. What direction will they go? In what ways will they course correct from Rogue One? Do they need to course correct at all? Everything at this juncture is speculation, and however things pan out, the first steps of this marathon have worked out well for Disney and Lucasfilm.
Professional wrestling, also affectionately or derisively referred to as sports entertainment, is a narrative endeavor. The athleticism, the ring-work, the production value; all of it is, ultimately, in service to narrative function. The play is the thing. It is for this reason that many people refer to the product as a type of soap opera, the hybrid blending of legitimate fisticuffs and Young and the Restless. One need only look to the bleed between the weekly programming of WWE and the storylines presented on E!’s Total Divas, a bleed that has become so muddled that the climax to one of the marquee matches at WrestleMania XXXIII featured the resolution of a years-long plot point from the aforementioned reality show. Wrestling is very seldom about the actual craft in the ring. There are legions of fans who would balk at such a thesis but looking at the product as it is presented currently, whether one is speaking of WWE, Lucha Underground, or even New Japan Professional Wrestling, the action happening in the ring only ever works if the narrative placing the performers between the ropes has cohesion and connects with the audience.
But what happens when it doesn’t?
WrestleMania XXXIII’s final bout featured a confrontation between Roman Reigns, a young superstar on an upward trajectory whose meteoric ascension has largely been attributed to preferential treatment from the ownership of the company, and The Undertaker, a performer whose legacy spans over two decades and who to many fans represents the essence of a bygone era. It was billed and sold as a clash of two dominant forces jockeying for the title of ultimate alpha dog, but what seems to have happened is that the narrative surrounding the match eclipsed the narrative that propelled the confrontation. The time of enjoying professional wrestling as a product in earnest seems to be long past. In the bygone era to which Undertaker largely belonged, “kayfabe,” or the veil that separated our reality from the one presented in the ring was opaque. Currently, you would be hard pressed to find any superstar without an Instagram or Twitter profile. The audience understands that these wrestlers are, first and foremost, performers inhabiting the space of a character. These characters are working within the frame of a narrative devised by writers and the spectacle that follows is no different from watching a stage production of Hamlet. As a result of the emerging transparency that the modern era has provided, the audience is acutely aware of things that happen off-stage. As such, much as a film can be rejected because of audience perception of the writer, director, or actors involved, so too can the same be said for modern angles in professional wrestling.
This creates an interesting dilemma for those tasked with weaving the narrative threads within the greater context of the product they are trying to create. In the case of Roman Reigns taking on The Undertaker, the company clearly wanted to sell an epic clash where the torch was passed between generations. It is a moving narrative when done correctly, and there are very few characters in the pantheon of professional wrestling who bring as much presence as The Undertaker. The issue arising from this particular pairing stems from the fact that the creative powers that be want to push Roman Reigns as being emblematic and representative of the modern era while the crowds largely do not want to accept him as such. While he is a talented performer in most regards, fans have often pointed to his less than charismatic delivery of scripted material and his lack of versatility within the ring as proof that he does not deserve the preferential treatment he has received.
At WrestleMania XXXII in 2016, Roman Reigns was crowned champion in the main event and the boos were so resounding that the audio levels had to be adjusted in order to sell the narrative that this was meant to be a moment of triumph. The audience rejection of Roman Reigns as the figurehead of modern WWE had begun long before and yet the narrative never shifted; never evolved to meet the desires of the audience. This raises an interesting point of contention among fans; are creative writers of ongoing narrative such as professional wrestling beholden to the whims of the audience they ostensibly serve? A comparable situation would be an enterprise such as serialized comic books. Writers have been known to roll initiatives back or alter plans based on critical and commercial reception from time to time, so why does professional wrestling seem to eschew this mindset?
The long and short of it seems to be a difference in the size of the audience and a lack of mainstream competition. While there are numerous professional wrestling organizations putting on quality entertainment on a weekly basis, nobody can touch the production value or entrenched popular culture cache of WWE. In return, the writers of their product largely do not tell stories that bend to the whim of their audience.
But is that entirely a negative? Does it not speak to a more concentrated form of narrative purity? There are no easy answers in this regard, however it does serve a central purpose that very little else could manage to provoke and that is engagement and discussion. It generates speculative creativity on the part of the audience with regard to how the story could have played out in another universe. It sparks arguments whether the narrative climax cohesively serves the story being told. It makes the fans talk.
And, for better or worse, people are talking.