Today, on the day when people celebrate Star Wars because the date sounds like a lisping version of a quote from the film, I’m just going to come out and say it: no franchise is more overrated than the Star Wars franchise. I know overrated is kind of a shitty word, and I’m not an enormous fan of that concept in general, but I don’t know how else to say it. The ratio of quality Star Wars to the excitement of Star Wars fandom is so out of whack that the only way to express it is ‘overrated.’
The reality here is simply mathematical. Out of six Star Wars films two qualify as good. That leaves four poor-to-terrible movies, an overwhelming majority of the series. If you picked a Star Wars film out of a hat odds are it would be garbage. It’s hard to think of a franchise with the pop culture weight of Star Wars that’s so generally miss rather than hit. Let's put it this way: the Fast and the Furious franchise has a better ratio of good entries to bad entries. A way better ratio.
Star Wars’ enduring popularity really comes down to movies that are well past their 30th anniversaries. There’s a younger fanbase for the new, horrific movies, but that’s a generation raised without much quality pop culture. The Prequels dominate that generation simply through their size; they hit the culture like a Mack truck, and did pretty much the same amount of damage.
In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that Star Wars isn’t even that great a film. In fact, the film’s legacy hurts it; Star Wars is a smaller, zippy adventure through a wonderfully sketched (not etched in stone) universe. Later films, expanded universe novels and cartoons and a slavish, laser-focused fanbase has weighed the film down with portent and solemnity, made it a much more serious text and less of a simply great popcorn experience.
That weighty solemnity extends to the film’s lite-brand theology, which borrows elements from Eastern religion. It’s the vagueness of the Force philosophy that has allowed millions to project their own spiritual longings onto the Jedi framework; I always found it interesting that Lucas’ broad stroke religion hit American culture at the same time that the New Age movement was really going places.
To say that Star Wars is only a very good film is almost the action of a provocateur at this point. Its importance is undeniable, but its sheer greatness can yet be questioned. The truth is that George Lucas only made one masterpiece in his career, and that’s the weirdly underappreciated American Graffiti. That’s a great film, a film steeped in meaning and humanity. Star Wars is a movie steeped in escape.
Even I can’t deny the sheer greatness of The Empire Strikes Back. I think if Empire hadn’t been Empire, the Star Wars juggernaut would have never gotten rolling. It’s the greatness of Empire that distorts all of the rest of Star Wars’ history, the outlier that totally fucks up your calculation of a median number.
Empire is great in the ways that adventure movies should be great. Where Star Wars was a group of archetypes having a familiar adventure, Empire is a movie filled with characters. There’s a generous helping of humanity here - love, betrayal, hope, despair - that Lucas never ever got near after American Graffiti. And the structure of Empire is the ultimate ‘And then...’ story, a breathless race from high point to high point. It’s a distillation of great storytelling, a structure that keeps up rapt and a cast of characters that keeps up invented.
Which makes all the rest of the films such incredible letdowns. Return of the Jedi is passable - and it even has extraordinary moments - but it can’t compete with the greatness that preceded it. Back when there were just three films this soft, market-oriented entry felt like the anomaly; Star Wars was still much more than this. But then Lucas, goaded by fans, couldn’t leave well enough alone.
I won’t even bother talking about the Prequels - those who defend them cannot be countered with reason. What I will talk about is the remarkable shallowness of the modern Star Wars fandom. Lucas’ universe has the feeling of largeness (that largeness was eventually chipped away in the Prequels, but the less about that, the better), but the modern fandom has a handful of the same touchstones: Boba Fett, Slave Leia, Darth Vader, Yoda’s unique sentence structure. How many different riffs on Han Solo in carbonite can anybody really want? Somehow these are the things that keep coming up again and again, as Star Wars is strip-mined of these iconic images. More than that, the movies are reduced to these images. The icons have become disassociated from the cinema.
In a lot of was Star Wars has itself turned into religion. The iconography is set in stone. Dissent will not be tolerated (I assume my position here, while hopefully argued evenly and without excess vitriol, will get me labeled a troll). Despite a long history of awfulness, faith abounds that the next thing will be better. The Second Coming is imminent, they say. Like most religions Star Wars has grown from a few small texts and has been reinterpreted again and again by others and burdened with extraneous, agenda-driven nonsense.
The worst thing about Star Wars being so very, very overrated? The worst thing about the monolithic presence of this franchise, whose each entry devalues the whole? There’s one truly magnificent movie and one very good movie that are being swallowed up by cancerous growth of the larger entity. They’re two flowers, choked out in a lot full of weeds. And there’s some guy named JJ Abrams bringing in a backhoe and a whole bunch of new weeds.
What if we had just let Star Wars be movies? What if we hadn't, as a culture, decided to blow the whole thing way out of proportion?