You know what movie is seriously pretty fun? Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You no doubt saw it last year—probably multiple times—and your initial reaction was likely either “OH MAN, BEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME, FINN HEART POE 4-EVA” or “Enh, it’s totally fine, too many New Hope nods, Rey is cool tho.” Those were the prevailing online attitudes about the movie throughout its winter-long, record-disintegrating box-office run, and they made perfect sense: This was the first Star Wars movie in a decade, and it needed to not only restore what had become a robotic-feeling franchise to greatness, but to also re-energize the base of (admittedly somewhat older) Star Wars devotees who felt the series had already peaked decades ago.
The Force Awakens had to be a million different things to a gazillion different fans, including myself, and that may be why, on first viewing, I wasn’t overjoyed or underwhelmed. I was simply…whelmed.
But after a bunch of re-viewings, and a few scene-specific replays upon last week’s home-video release, it became clear that, when removed from the suffocating context of huge expectations and attention, The Force Awakens is all it needs to be: Namely, a really good Star Wars movie, with zippy dog-fighting sequences and sly Solo one-liners and some really dope menswear. The dippier elements of the movie—much like the rusty elements of the original trilogy—feel less frustrating, even less visible, when you allow yourself to wade into all the creature-weirdness and space-skirmishes and just the general Admiral Ackbarness of the whole thing. I’ve loved this franchise for nearly four decades, and I never expected to get that kind of grin-spurring, head-swimming buzz from a Star Wars movie ever again. I was (thankfully) wrong.
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And Force Awakens isn’t the only Star Wars entry to provide that rush. You can also get that same good-stuff/good-times vibe from Marvel’s multi-title Star Wars run, which makes the ’70s and ’80s comics mostly feel like canon-futzing fan-fiction-gone awry. You can feel it when binge-ing episodes of Star Wars Rebels, or viewing the spot for the new Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens videogame. And you can especially get in touch with that goofy Star Wars inner-joy by watching yesterday’s new Rogue One trailer, which has all the familiar touches and technology that made the original saga so repeat-watchable and immersive (AT-ATs ahoy!) as well as some tantalizingly forward-looking new elements, like those martial-arts-inspired fight sequences. It may be an obvious point to make, but damn, it feels good to be a Star Wars fan these days. Which is a relief, because for years loving the galaxy far, far away was far, far from fun.
I’m not referring to the prequel years that began with 1999’s The Phantom Menace and ended with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. As clunky and disorientingly inhuman as I found those films, there are plenty of Star Wars fans who love them, and who am I to silence their “Yippee!”-yelling affections? Instead, I’m referring to the period roughly between 1985 and 1995, when being a fan of Star Wars was about as satisfying and coolness-confirming as being a fan of the Philadelphia Stars. That period was divided into two dissatisfying eras: The first was the late ’80s, in which fans were thrown dull, dry bones like Ewoks: The Battle of Endor and Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure—the sci-fi equivalent of making a Rocky spin-off that focuses on the turtles from Adrian’s pet shop. Then came the early ’90s, where the best Star Wars toys you could get were Bend-Ems, these smiley-faced, wide-armed figurines that made the characters look like Source Family members who’d melted in the sun.
Star Wars wasn’t forgotten at that point; it had simply been phased out of the wider pop-cultural sphere, perhaps because its sizable fanbase of ’80s kids were becoming teenagers and/or college students, and perhaps because there was comparatively cooler sci-fi going on at the time, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jurassic Park, and The X-Files. By 1994 or so, the most saga-excitement you could hope for were some decent battles in AOL’s Friday-night Star Wars trivia IM room—where the celibate came to celebrate!—or maybe a ho-hum expanded-universe novel full of characters with names that sounded like they’d been spit out by George Lucas’ Hambone-Moniker Generator (TM). Star Wars was nerdy, and not cool-nerdy, so while you could find a new Chewbacca t-shirt at the mall, you wouldn’t want to put it on until you were in the car, out of view of the world.
From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, being a fan of Star Wars was about as satisfying and coolness-confirming as being a fan of the Philadelphia Stars.
Then, in 1997, came the special-edition Star Wars theatrical reissues, which—for all their Greedo-grafting fuck-withery—brought several secret fans out of hiding, and reminded lapsed aficionados of what they’d been missing. That kicked off another fizzy bit of Star Wars feel-goodness, one that peaked (at least for me) with the very first Phantom Menace trailer and ended with the very first Phantom Menace screening. Again: Maybe the prequels were your thing. But I imagine that, by the final, Frankenstein-like moments of Revenge of the Sith, even Rick McCallum (remember Rick McCallum?) was like, “Hm, maybe I shoulda pushed for a Radioland Murders reboot instead.” Sith was followed by a few cool videogames and other OK bits of Star Wars-ness, yet for the most part, it was the beginning of a cooling-down period for fans (and, hey, I know there was that Clone Wars cartoon, and that some people dug it, but if I need to see an expressionless Hayden Christensen, I’ll watch a Hayden Christensen movie).
Those greatly disturbed down-periods for Star Wars lovers help explain why the last few months have felt so amazing—for many, many years, it felt like the good old days were never coming back. But the main reason, really, is that Star Wars v. 3.0 (or whatever version we’re on) is not merely good; it’s really, really great, like John-Williams-themes-constantly-playing-in-your-brain great. It’s blasting toward a creative summit that’s very rare in modern pop culture, but also one that is worrisome because it could easily lead to a period where the emphasis on spin-offs and reboots and merch means that every big story, no matter how beloved, begins to feel like a chore. Right now, though, Star Wars is on a streak, like a basketball team that executes every impossible back-dribble lay-up or curveman’s alley-oop (Are those things? I was too busy watching Star Wars movies to ever understand basketball) effortlessly.
Which is why it once again feels so satisfying to get lost in the sprawling, now-cool nerdery of Star Wars: It feels safe. There’s no doubt Star Wars will once again experience some sort of glut-driven decline; every series has its dark periods, especially this one, and we’re only a few bad movies away from another caravan of crap. But for now? For now, there’s the Darth Vader comic, and the promise of Rian Johnson, and Rey getting the lightsaber as that music swells underneath (oh, and AT-ATs blasting people at what looks to be an EDM atoll at Ibiza). Star Wars is awesome again, and every day is a good one to be a fan. Laugh it up, fuzzballs.