I’ve been working on part two of my thoughts on expanded universes series, and it keeps getting away from me—which is perhaps only appropriate. “It grew in the telling,” Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, a sentiment echoed by George R.R. Martin. Which is not to compare my modest blogging project here to their work, but to observe that even writing about world-building is, well, an ever-expanding project, never mind actually engaging in the process.
I have a lot written, and the problem is that the subject wants to run off madly in all directions. And given that this problem was exacerbated when, a few days ago, I went to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, I figured that perhaps a few words about Star Wars in general, and Solo in particular might help things out.
So just to be clear: SPOILERS AHEAD.
First, a Review
What gravity the Star Wars films possess—which is to say, the establishment of high stakes (the fate of the galaxy, e.g.) and a certain amount of dramatic tension—is pretty much absent here for reasons more pithily summed up by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker: “We already know what will happen—Han will meet Chewbacca, make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, win the Millenium [sic] Falcon in a card game, and end up a rakish bachelor—and this puts any genuine suspense out of reach.” I’d say that this is the inherent problem with some prequels, i.e. knowing where the story ends up, if it also wasn’t an inherent aspect of most genre fiction. The more important question is how we get there. Solo lacks the aforementioned narrative stakes we find in, say, Rogue One, and this film telegraphs its end point(s) even more obviously. There’s little in the way of character-based tension, and nothing in the way of difficult or problematic choices that lead us to where we know Han ends up. It would have made for a more nuanced evolution if Han were even a little bit morally compromised. But no: he begins with altruistic intent (keen to escape his bondage with the girl he loves), and ends with an altruistic act (giving up a fortune for a revolutionary cause), and at every point in the story he makes the choices he does in the name of the former. His betrayal at the end by both Beckett and Qi’Ra is such an obvious plot twist that it doesn’t deserve the name. (Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra is, indeed, the most interesting character in the film. Beckett not so much, for reasons I’ll get into below).
The point is that this Han Solo is so very … Disney. When we meet Han in A New Hope, he is a familiar generic character: the Byronic gunslinger modeled on every such character in a western not played by Gary Cooper. Such characters are fascinating because we know, without knowing the particulars, that they have tortured, morally compromised pasts (which is why Lucas’ much-vilified change to the Greedo scene is as much a sin against genre as against Han’s character)—but that they will ultimately use their talent for lawless violence in the service of capital-G Good, and thus find redemption.
But the Han Solo at the end of Solo needs no redemption, for he has not transgressed, except against a totalitarian regime and organized crime bosses. I suppose it remains to be seen whether we’ll get a bunch of other films in which we see Han develop his more cynical mien, but as an “origin” story, we don’t hit the closing credits with much more than a knowledge that Han Solo has always had a snarky and roguish sense of humour, but no sense that these aspects run deep. As I said, this is the Disney Han, with more in common—unlike Harrison Ford’s version—with such handsome rogues as Aladdin than with any of his western genre precursors.
In fact, the contrast I found myself making was between Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly—first, because Nathan Fillion as Mal did cynical self-interest even better than Ford did (though to be fair, he had twice as many hours as a principal character to develop it, and a much better team of writers). But also because the brief glimpses we get of Mal’s origin story do an exceptional job of explicating just why he’s now such a cynical bastard with occasional gleams of altruism. We really don’t need that with Han Solo, because he comes to us in A New Hope as a fully formed trope, but if you’re going to rip of Firefly, you might as well take a lesson from its narrative nuances.
Second, the whole train heist sequence, to say nothing of Beckett’s original crew, felt totally lifted from Joss Whedon’s space western. The second episode of Firefly, which was aired first (because, as we know, Fox execs have the critical acumen God gave walnuts), featured a train robbery by spaceship that goes badly. In and of itself, this isn’t cause to suspect plagiarism; what is, is the parallel between crews: the gunslinging cynical wisecracker in a long coat, the no-nonsense Black woman as first officer, and the glib, cheerful pilot (respectively, Mal, Zoe, and Wash in Firefly, Beckett, Val, and Rio in Solo); and once Chewbacca is on board, we have a very tall dude to act as muscle, Solo’s analogue to Firefly’s Jayne Cobb.
Philosophers talk about epistemic closure, but this feels a lot like generic closure: Firefly owes its existence to Star Wars generally, and the character of Malcolm Reynolds to Han Solo specifically. Which isn’t to say that what Whedon did with the series wasn’t new and interesting, but that it wore its homage (ironic and otherwise) on its sleeve. That we’ve come full circle here—in which an entry in the new Star Wars canon apes tropes from a television series that was aping tropes from the original films—is perhaps unsurprising in a mass entertainment context in which recycling and rebooting is a much safer financial bet that creating new material.
Unfortunately, the whole “expanded universe” trend of the moment does seem to be at least as motivated by an aversion to novelty as any genuine interest in the exercise of world-building. And on that note …
Solo and the (Revamped) Star Wars Expanded Universe
In Solo’s penultimate scene, we discover who the Big Bad behind the Crimson Dawn and all the other cartels is. And the threatening hooded figure in the hologram is … Darth Maul! Whom we last saw falling down an airshaft in The Phantom Menace, bisected by Obi-Wan Kenobi’s light saber (well, technically by Qui-Gon Jin’s, but … well, nevermind).
Because I tend to follow links down the nerd-hole, my response to this was less “WTF?” than “Really … you’re going there?”
See, in Rogue One, we met a character played by Forest Whitaker named Saw Gerrera—a former member of the Rebellion who had been ousted because he was considered an extremist. Because I read a bunch of online reviews of the film and clicked on the aforementioned links, I learned that Saw was a character from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, and that his appearance in Rogue One evoked something resembling geekgasms among the most dedicated Star Wars fandom.
Why this is interesting to me beyond simple trivia is a question that brings us back to something I alluded to in my Infinity War post—namely, that we (so far as I’ve been able to figure it) get the phrase “expanded universe” from Star Wars, specifically from all of the stories (novels, comics, video games) embroidering the narrative of the original trilogy and the prequels. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and commissioned J.J. Abrams to launch the new Star Wars franchise with The Force Awakens, a decision was made to basically invalidate the entirety of the “expanded universe.” Which, all things being equal, was somehow unsurprising, considering that doing otherwise meant Disney and Abrams would have been obliged to adapt a rather involved series of novels (starting with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire) that detailed the lives of Luke, Han, Leia, et al after The Return of the Jedi.
Instead, they chose to ignore them, and in the process render them “non-canon.” Though I’ve never been a follower of the expanded universe, it was quite obvious that this decision—to coin an expression—caused a great disturbance in the Force.
I’m less concerned by this disturbance (not least because I was not personally disturbed) than by the debates that emerged about what, then, was considered “canon” in the Star Wars expanded universe. And again, I’m less interested in the details of this debate than the significance of the word canon.
In my next post I’ll get into the ways in which terms such as “mythology” and “universe” have come to be used in relation to the popular culture phenomena, but here “canon” seems as good a place as any to start. For myself, as a professor of English, the most significant definition of canon is what we might otherwise designate as “the great works”—that it to say, works of literature that define a given tradition. The English Canon traditionally starts in the Middle Ages with Chaucer (though might also include earlier works like Beowulf), and includes Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, the Romantics, up through such modernists as Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. The problem with the idea of literary canons is that, like the list I just gave, is that they are by definition exclusionary and tend to privilege certain voices—every single author on that list is white, and only a single one is a woman.
I don’t want to get into an argument on this particular topic (I’d say that’s a whole other series of blog posts, but really it’s a library in and of itself), but rather bring up this definition of “canon” as one that is (or has been for about three decades or more) constantly under negotiation (when not, as is more common of late, being challenged outright). In its religious definition, “canon” denotes something transcendent or immutable, as in the Catholic church’s canon law. It also, and this is its relation to the literary understanding, designates those works of scripture which are accepted and considered the proper word of God (as opposed to the Apocrypha).
So on one hand we have the absolutism of religious doctrine, and on the other the more nebulous and negotiable conception of what works define a tradition. The analogues here to the Star Wars expanded universe should perhaps be obvious, though obviously irksome to theologians and literary snobs. (I’m sure there’s a down side to it all, though).
What I’m interested in here and the next few posts are the ways we engage with such fictional worlds, and the way they’re created and delineated. Last post, I talked about paratext as something that circumscribed and defined texts proper. The whole question of what we call “canon” is a large-scale example, whether in terms of what counts as biblical scripture or what narrative elements define the Star Wars universe, versus what we count as “apocryphal.” (When Disney and Abrams eliminated the extant expanded universe at a stroke, they made the glib suggestion that fans could consider those stories as “legends” in the context of the new canon—something that undoubtedly infuriated many, but raised the interesting prospect of seeing an expanded universe within an expanded universe).
But to return to the question of what is “canon”: the appearance of Darth Maul at the end of Solo, replete with robotic legs to replace those removed by Obi-Wan, would seem to confirm what many fans speculated after Rogue One—namely, that the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels were included in the new canon. Apparently, Rebels resurrected Darth Maul (who managed to stay alive through the sheer force of his hate and, presumably, the sheer force of the Force), and made him the head of a criminal underworld conglomerate. Eventually, he had showdowns with both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine himself; which leads one to surmise that we’ll be seeing more of him in the Star Wars spinoffs to come. And given that there’s been the suggestion of more “Star Wars stories” dedicated to Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, it would seem that these “stories” will not quite be the one-offs that were originally hinted at, but something more resembling Marvel’s universe-building: it becomes easy to see how Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Qi’Ra, as well as Boba Fett and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul may all find themselves crossing paths in a series of underworld vs. tyranny vs. rebellion films. Which, after all my kvetching about Solo, might redeem that film if in hindsight it proves just to be some elaborate throat-clearing to get the necessities of parsecs and rakish bachelorhood out of the way.
OK, I had some more thoughts on canonicity, but I will save them for what is now part three of my thoughts on expanded universes series. Until then, work hard and be good, my friends.