Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Fandom Awakens

A teenager asked me the other day if I liked Star Wars. She wanted to show me this book of Star Wars sheet music she had just purchased.

“Of course,” I said.

I was more surprised, though also heartened, that this youngster counted herself a fan. Star Wars is one of the biggest properties on the planet, obviously, but I was not certain how truly cross-generational its popularity was today.

I am too young to have experienced the original trilogy in theaters, but I watched those movies dozens of times on home video as a child. Growing up in the ‘80s, I didn’t have as many options as kids these days. There was no Internet (my family didn’t even own a computer), not nearly as much TV (certainly not as much current-run television), and not nearly as many movies (neither in theaters nor in my family’s limited VHS collection). So I would end up watching the same couple of shows and movies over and over again, most of which were older than myself. Regardless, I loved Star Wars—the epic space battles and lightsaber duels, the operatic drama, the heroism and hopefulness, the R2-D2 and, of course, those adorable Ewoks.

Later, I would try to share my love of Star Wars with my younger sister, a child of the ‘90s, but, although she found some of the mascot characters cute, somehow the sci-fi medievalism and dashes of Eastern philosophy never quite captivated her imagination the way they did mine. I resigned myself to supposing that it was a generational thing. Although Star Wars seemed to be growing more lucrative all the time, the average age of its fans was also skewing older. Maybe the fans were really just the ones who had been there all along. They were simply older now and thus had more disposable income through which to exert their influence on the market, as well as a broader forum, the Internet, on which to geek out together. Younger generations, meanwhile, had different interests.

Another twenty years later, the kids and teenagers of today seem far more interested in things like Minecraft, Snapchat, joke memes stolen from Black Twitter, and, the flavor of the month, Minions (that spin-off from Despicable Me). They’ll watch the Marvel movies, but only the very young will have anything to say about them. The prevailing attitude toward Star Wars seems much the same; everyone is going to watch the new movie, but only because everyone is going to watch it. At the individual level, hardly anyone under the age of eighteen seems to feel much one way or the other about it. Or so I thought.

“It’s my favorite movie of all time,” said this teenager.

“Which one?” I asked.

Clone Wars.”

Well, that was a new one on me. I don’t usually even remember that the 2008 Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated film is one of the choices.

“That was the first movie I ever saw in theaters,” she said.

Ah, that explained it, I thought. Doing the math in my head, I calculated that she must have been about four years old at the time Revenge of the Sith came out. Although I, along with most critics, regarded Clone Wars as the "seventh-best" Star Wars film to date, what was that against this child’s nostalgia?

She said that she had seen and enjoyed all the other movies, but she preferred the art style of Clone Wars, as well as its characters. For her, when she thought of Obi-Wan Kenobi, she did not picture Alec Guinness or Ewan McGregor. This was her Obi-Wan:


She said she really loved the Clone Wars TV show too, and it occurred to me then that, indeed, there must have been another entire generation of Star Wars fans that was raised on Clone Wars, a series that I myself mostly skipped. I had considered myself a huge Star Wars fan, and I had thought that the kids today had arrived too late to “get” Star Wars. But maybe I was the one who was born too early, because, actually, this teenager had seen more Star Wars than I had.

Clone Wars was axed so abruptly after the Disney acquisition that it’s easy to forget now that the show was massively popular with kids, even up until the end, its demise having nothing to do with its level of success. I think back and can remember now that, for a good while there, the animated incarnations of Anakin and Obi-Wan were basically the lead versions being pushed by Lucasfilm. I would see that art all the time in the toy aisles, on lunch boxes and backpacks, and in video game tie-ins. And how many years did we have full of short clone troopers going door-to-door at Halloween?

That merchandise is all gone now, but the Clone Wars show did what it was supposed to. It cultivated a generation of new Star Wars fans, who, when they take over this world in about ten or twenty years, may prove as vocal and obnoxiously precious about their Star Wars as today’s thirty- and forty-somethings are about the original trilogy.

“Are you looking forward to Episode VII?” I asked her.

“I guess,” she said. “I just know that Disney bought it, and I hope they don’t ruin everything.”

Yikes. I wasn’t sure if this was her “too cool for Disney” phase, a more specific anti-imperialist sentiment toward the Disneyfication of their acquired brands, or just the cynicism that accompanies young adulthood. For the record, in addition to being a Star Wars fan, I also love Disney’s worlds, and I generally approve of what they’ve done with Marvel. And I’ve never had much use for pessimism, so I remain guardedly optimistic about The Force Awakens.

“Well, have you seen Rebels?” I asked, referring to the current Star Wars animated series, which I enjoy and consider a positive indicator of where Disney is taking Star Wars.

“Yeah, that’s why I’m worried,” she said. “It’s too kiddie and Disney-like for me.”

Christ. I guess the Clone Wars animation style was decidedly not “Disney-like,” but it was still a children’s cartoon. To scorn Rebels for being “too kiddie” compared to Clone Wars is simply not rational. It’s like someone my age accusing The Phantom Menace of being too kiddie compared to the original trilogy, apparently forgetting that these movies were always meant to be kid-friendly, and that we probably loved the old movies largely because we were kids when we watched them. (Don’t even get me started on the old dudes who hate Return of the Jedi because it has Ewoks. Yes, to each generation its own image of Star Wars, but please shut up, old dude.)

“And they got Ahsoka all wrong,” she added.

And so continues the cycle of hating the new version of whatever thing you liked when you were a kid….