Every major franchise- from James Bond to Harry Potter, comes with its own history and lore. But ‘canon’ is not just worldbuilding. No, canon is all the data and information about the universe that is given to the viewer or reader. That’s why its important: we need ‘canon’ in order to make sense of the narrative.
But ‘canon’ is often the driving force behind a narrative. Usually, canon represents everything already established about the universe- from its lofty themes to the minor characters.
With Star Wars (under Disney) rejecting the Expanded Universe (EU) in order for a new slew of films, canon is certainly a controversial topic. But it is difficult to not notice writers who treat ‘canon’ as an inconvenience, or something that disrupts a greater artistic vision.
This was evident with the latest Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker. In it, Rey is revealed to be the granddaughter of Palpatine, contradicting the previous information that she’s a ‘nobody.’ Also, the sequel trilogy pays little attention to Star Wars canon: from how the force manifests to weak characterisation.
That’s why the sequel trilogy feels like a Disney interpretation of the SW mythos, as opposed to an organic continuation of what has already been established. There is no engagement with what makes Star Wars an appealing series to begin with: the immersion power.
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The first six Star Wars films employed classical storytelling: we have the hero’s journey with Luke Skywalker, and the tragedy with Darth Vader. Such observance to Greek modes of storytelling served the series well. There’s a reason why these stories resonate, because we can see them present in our own lives. Star Wars prides itself on its universal themes and evergreen approach to the hero’s journey.
Does that mean Rian Johnson, or any writer, can’t subvert themes? Of course not. It’s certainly possible for any talented writer to present meaty characterisation and complex themes to any story. But it can be done without disregarding canon.
Luke Skywalker’s characterisation in The Last Jedi isn’t faulty because he’s unlikeable, or a jerk. Neither is Rey being a ‘nobody.’ Such choices are actually quite interesting, and don’t contradict anything. But these changes are superficial if they aren’t followed through. That’s why the storytelling in The Rise of Skywalker is ultimately, gutless.
There is no excitement about ‘canon’- Rey calls herself a Skywalker, and the audience feels little. Contrast that to the first six films, where ‘Skywalker’ is not just a buzz word, but a meaningful family name that carries history.
Anakin, Luke, and Leia are not interesting characters because of their last names. No, they are interesting characters who happen to share the same last name. I don’t believe Disney understands that nuance.
Neither do they comprehend the fundamental meaning of canon.
Canon represents the histories and narratives that create civilisations. It’s the mythos and legends that play out in every human soul. If anything, canon encourages us to find meaning and truth within the chaos of our lives. Great storytellers respect canon, and use it as a springboard for meaningful writing.
It’s also okay for fans to be excited over canon. Maybe they imagine themselves walking on a planet like Naboo, or wielding a cool lightsaber. That isn’t lame, it’s a testament to the power of fiction.
On a more economical note, fans invest serious money into the Star Wars brand. Whether that’s merchandise, events, film tickets or books, fans launched A New Hope from its humble beginnings to a billion dollar franchise. Does that give fans a license to demand whatever they please? No. Can fans be incorrect in their interpretations? Of course!
But assuming bad will from fans, because they want canon to be respected is quite childish. It’s concerning to see studios treat fans with an almost contempt. It’s unprofessional, and considering said fans work hard to purchase your product, some respect is warranted.
Until then, writers will benefit from learning the power of canon, and how it can transform stories.