A curious thing happened to me while watching Obi-Wan Kenobi, the latest piece of event television to emerge from Disney’s wider Star Wars universe.
Part III contained what is arguably the singular momentous storytelling beat for Star Wars since Rey found an old Luke Skywalker at the end of The Force Awakens. Ewan McGregor’s middle-aged, beaten down ‘Ben’ Kenobi faces down his former protege Anakin Skywalker at the peak of his Darth Vader transformation, long before any kind of redemptive beat we will eventually see in Return of the Jedi. They draw lightsabers. They fight. Vader, in his immortal James Earl Jones-style drawl, tells Obi-Wan he is weak. It is pure Star Wars catnip.
Yet I felt nothing. Granted, Star Wars isn’t exactly ‘my’ franchise. I’ve always enjoyed it but the passion for it doesn’t exist as it does for Star Trek or The X-Files or James Bond etc… That being said, I am as readers of this blog will know, someone who laps up popular culture in many forms and frequently the return of characters, or existing franchises, does excite me. Vader’s reappearance properly for the first time since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, to fight Obi-Wan Kenobi no less, should have thrilled me. Except it just left me numb.
It felt like an example of just where mainstream IP has taken us, and is continuing to take us, in the age of the streaming service. Back to a lesser re-tread of a classic, beloved moment in cultural history.
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s battle between two of American storytelling’s most iconic characters is not the sole example of this but is an extremely potent one.
Star Wars has had a fairly traumatic recent history since Disney bought out LucasFilm a decade ago now. As George Lucas’ prequels grow with distance in critical stature (although anyone who tries to argue Attack of the Clones is some kind of misunderstood masterpiece needs to go for a walk), the recent sequels seem to somewhat depreciate. Though The Mandalorian has largely been a success, The Book of Boba Fett was derided, attempts to launch numerous films have stalled following the considered failure of the stilted Solo, while the announced future of Star Wars TV projects is littered with unknown prospects.
It is an extended universe struggling to find itself.
No wonder, then, that what started as an intended feature in the vein of Solo would transmute into a longer form TV series for Obi-Wan Kenobi, a character who has that rare and precious thing for corporations such as Disney: household name recognition.
Even people who have never watched Star Wars probably have some notion of Obi-Wan, or have at least heard his name. For those who casually watched the movies, he could be enough to pull them in for a series. For fans, it is akin to the Second Coming (which is appropriate given Obi-Wan’s visual imagery). The existence of the series makes sense on a commercial level, even if Disney have had to churn some narrative gears in order to find a way to logically see Kenobi return to the Star Wars fold.
In watching the series, however, there is a distinct feeling of lesser returns. First and foremost, Obi-Wan and Vader are movie characters. While Obi-Wan Kenobi is another example of the shrinking gap between big and small screen in terms of reach and production quality, a gap still exists. Vader, particularly, loses something on a smaller canvas. Even if he and Obi-Wan battling a good decade or more before A New Hope works canonically (as apparently it does), it doesn’t have anywhere near the power of Obi-Wan and Anakin’s fiery conflict in Revenge of the Sith. It also doesn’t compare with when Vader faces off against Alec Guinness’ original Kenobi in A New Hope, which brings me to my second point. These aren’t just movie characters, they are mythic archetypes.
Much has been written on how Lucas crafted the initial assembly of Star Wars icons from, in part, the cultural Monomyth as presented by Joseph Campbell in the late 1940’s (a topic around which I built my book Myth-Building in Modern Media), but it was a crucial factor as to why Lucas made such a success of his against the odds space fantasy at a point cinema had largely jettisoned such openly pulp science-fiction storytelling.
Audiences reacted to the hero (Luke) rescuing the princess (Leia) from the tower with the help of a kindly Merlin figure (Obi-Wan) and a dashing rogue (Han) in order to defeat the evil King (Vader) who had kidnapped her. It was a timeless fable rendered in a futuristic fantasy world that, crucially, Lucas set in the distant past as if to underscore the point. A New Hope didn’t create anything new on a narrative level but it reworked and updated archetypes that had existed for centuries and packaged them into family entertainment.
Granted, Star Wars was never able to return to that same level of narrative simplicity afterwards, nor would it be expected to. And this isn’t me suggesting that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a bad show – it’s perfectly solid, in fact, with McGregor imbuing the screen with genuine gravitas. It feels nonetheless as much a cynical attempt to mine the intellectual property of Star Wars for nostalgia as it does the desire to tell a story that needed to be told. Lucas left plenty of wiggle room in A New Hope for backstory, with Kenobi hinting at ‘Clone Wars’ and such, so there is no reason why previous moments in the history of the Skywalker saga can’t be explored, but we are now in well covered territory. Obi-Wan Kenobi is simply sketching in the margins.
We are seeing this everywhere when it comes to long-standing IP that has broadened into a wider franchise. As much as I feel Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is the best produced modern Trek project since the franchise returned to television in 2017, it is without question the least innovative product to come from that universe in some time. Discovery and Picard might have big problems when it comes to writing, structure and in places casting, but to give them credit both have attempted to try different narrative approaches to Star Trek. Strange New Worlds is being so well received because it is a hybrid of 1960s colour and 1990s storytelling structure (albeit shot through with a 2020s pessimism in places). All of these series, nonetheless, are trading as heavily on nostalgia as Star Wars and have been for the last 20 years. This is just one example.
What we’re seeing with these series is a determinism from large scale corporations behind such IP (Disney, Paramount etc…) to mine audiences’ desire to recapture what they felt in the past. How else do we reconcile a battle between Vader & Obi-Wan that takes place before their seemingly first reunion in A New Hope since Anakin’s transformation?
This has been expressly created to make us nostalgic for two distinct eras of Star Wars – the original and the prequel eras, all in one. That’s quite a stroke and it’s quite calculated. IP is now the province of media outlets who refuse to push these franchises into territory where their mission statement might evolve, in part because they recognise that a vocal section of the fandom for these franchises don’t want such a change. They just want Strange New Worlds or Obi-Wan Kenobi on repeat, forever.
For the first time ever, in recent years, I have wondered if Star Trek—a franchise I have adored my entire life—should maybe just come to an end. It hasn’t been anywhere close to my lists of the best television being produced for a long long time. Star Wars’ output wouldn’t be there either, albeit how good parts of The Mandalorian are.
The best television currently happening revolves around innovative writing that comments on various aspects of our culture, politics or changing social structures – series that skewer media monopolies such as Succession or semi-satirically side-swipe at corporate practice like Severance. There is science-fiction out there covering such areas but you won’t find it inside mega IP products like Star Wars. Even shows as technically decent as Obi-Wan Kenobi, made with clear love by those involved, are doing nothing to challenge or enrich us as human beings.
What they provide is what nostalgia always provides: security and comfort. For some, for many, that’s enough. That will always be enough. I’m just tired of living in the past and seeing these storytelling institutions reduced both in scope and style. If they can’t end and make way for new icons, they can at least attempt to stop relying on the old masters, Jedi or otherwise.
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