Image courtesy of Lucasfilm Animation
I’ve been having a weird sense of déjà vu lately. As the release of The Force Awakens draws closer, I’ve been pouring over various articles in magazines like Empire, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly, attending midnight premieres of The Force Awakens products on “Force Friday” and purchasing tickets in advance, so my family and friends can go see the film on opening day. All of these activities have been a lot of fun, but they have also all reminded me of all the excitement and expectations that led to the release of a little Star Wars film called The Phantom Menace. In the winter and spring of 1999, before The Phantom Menace released, there were articles in Vanity Fair and other magazines, midnight product launches, advance ticket sales, and unrealistic expectations that led to crushing disappointment. Like many fans, I went into the theater at midnight on May 19th, 1999, expecting greatness. What I found was a fun racing sequence, a few epic lightsaber fights, political machinations that I didn’t care about at the time, and a bumbling clown of an alien named Jar Jar Binks. At first, like many, I tried to convince myself that I still really loved it, but eventually, I realized that I didn’t love it. It wasn’t the tasty burrito of starships, lightsaber fights, and witty banter that I could eat everyday of my life; it was more like that holiday food that you pick at once a year because it is the holidays, and you want to join in the party. My expectations weren’t met, and as the other prequel films came out, I found that I didn’t really care to go see them at first.
On November 5th, I read an article titled “Fans’ Love-Hate Relationship with the Star Wars Franchise” in the arts and film section of The Wall Street Journal. My response upon finishing the article was one of complete and utter sadness not because the article wasn't good, but because the article recounted the stories of people who, like me, had been burnt by the prequel films, yet I found that the depths of pain that Jar Jar and company had caused me paled in comparison to that inflicted upon the people in this story. If the prequels had given me a rugburn of disappointment at the time, these people needed skin grafts. One of the stories that was told was of a fan named Chris Guinta who “moved from Maryland to San Francisco to make sure he got into a particular premiere of ‘The Phantom Menace’ the following spring.” Mr. Guinta was so excited for what he thought was going to be a new trilogy of greatness that he also “had tickets to the first seven showing of the movie and [he] only ended up going to four.” Like me, he was disappointed. In fact, he is still hurt by the prequels and at one point the article describes how he didn’t want his children to know about the prequels; eventually, Mr. Guinta is quoted as saying, “I had to tell them that, yeah, there’s three other movies. But we don’t like them in this family”. The bruise that the prequels left upon this man’s fandom wounded me in turn. I can understand where he’s coming from to a certain extent.
As a high school English teacher with a myriad of Star Wars posters in his classroom, my students regularly want to discuss their likes and dislikes of the saga with me, and when they tell me that the prequels are better than the classic trilogy, I’m sure that they must see me stagger back like I just took a haymaker to the chin. Despite our preferences, I will fight for their right to make that claim because the prequels are their Star Wars, and my disappointment with those films may have more than a little bit to do with the unrealistic expectations that we placed upon them. I went into The Phantom Menace expecting the same feeling I’d experienced when I was a child in middle-school: a sense of awe, excitement, and the irrational belief that somehow I could be a Jedi or Rebel pilot if I could just find that switch to take my regular, everyday life into hyperspace. Another fan quoted in The Wall Street Journal article, a Mr. Junot Diaz, recounts similar expectations when he says, “A key part of my relationship with ‘Star Wars’ is the longing, the dream that what I experienced as an 8-year-old immigrant kid in 1977 might one day recur. It’s a lot of hope to have.” It is a lot of hope to have. I would even claim that it’s too much hope to have. We cannot rightfully hope to reclaim what we had when we first saw Star Wars. It’s different now. We are, too. No film could have stood up under the hope beating in my chest during that summer of 1999. Anakin will never be Luke, but he is just as important a part of the Star Wars saga that I would have missed out on if I weren’t able to move past my disappointment with the prequels. In fact, thanks to the persistence of my wife and the work of Dave Filoni and crew on The Clone Wars, I would say that Anakin has become one of the deepest, most interesting characters in the saga. Now, I’m not excusing the prequels. There were choices made with its characters and plot that myself and many others will find perplexing. I still feel like I’m being told that Anakin and Padme were in love much more than I was ever shown it in the films, but I’m unwilling to place all the blame upon the film. I have to shoulder part of the blame too because I set the prequels up for failure by expecting too much.
I find myself experiencing a weird sense of deja vu lately, but I’m not worried about it. I know that despite all the excitement that is coursing through my veins and pounding in my heart to the steady rhythm of “Rey, Poe. Rey, Poe. Rey, Poe, Finn,” my expectations are much more realistic than those I had going to see The Phantom Menace. I am not expecting an experience to match the bright light of the classic trilogy I fell in love with as a child. I am expecting to see some fun X-Wing action, a droid that defies the boundaries of cuteness, and a story that adds some small amount to this universe that I love. Based on the trailers, I think I can trust Lucasfilm to do that. If we keep our expectations realistic, I think Mr. Giunta, Mr. Diaz, myself, and many others will find that we will enjoy this new film a lot more. Let’s not let our expectations deal us another knockout punch. Let’s roll with the punches and let any injuries done to us by The Force Awakens only be the scrapes that come with being a dedicated fan.
Keeping your expectations realistic and based on what we've seen in the trailers and TV spot, what is one or two things that you feel you can expect from "The Force Awakens?" Please share your thoughts, comments, or suggestions with me @mapplebee7567 on Twitter.