2:15pm PT by Graeme McMillan
'Star Wars': Can Every Story Be Equally Canonical?
This past Wednesday saw the release of the first issue of Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Shattered Empire, a comic book series that acts as prologue to this December's Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie. It's part of a number of comic books and prose novels teasing the world(s) of the upcoming movie — all of which, according to official Lucasfilm decree, are canonical stories.
While ancillary material like comic books, novels or video games is nothing new for Star Wars — the first issue of Marvel's 1977 comic book predated the movie's release by a month, while the prose adaptation was actually released six months ahead of the movie — it's only in the last year that each one has "counted" in terms of the core mythology of the franchise; prior to that, they were disposable offshoots that were often contradicted by, or at least considered entirely peripheral to, the real thing.
(This isn't anything unusual; Star Trek fans might remember that the DC comic book series set between the third and fourth movies had to find a way to once again alienate Kirk and crew from Starfleet and turn Spock back into a functional child when it was discovered that the continuity between the movies didn't really allow for the developments it had set in motion.)
Despite being officially declared canon, fans reading Shattered Empire or Chuck Wendig's Star Wars: Aftermath (the prose novel that offered the first in-depth look at the new post-Return of the Jedi continuity) might have been disappointed to see only glimpses of the characters and situations that have been teased in trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens proper. While there are definitely hints and groundwork laid in place for the movie, it's clear that The Force Awakens is still a movie that will stand alone and work for casual audiences who haven't even considered picking up additional reading material before buying a ticket.
But how long will that last?
Genre cinema has been trending towards an all-inclusive, everything-counts mentality for some time. What arguably started with the Marvel Cinematic Universe model proving that tying multiple franchises together would strengthen the appeal of all of them, and create a hunger for more grew with the addition of Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, adding another medium and format to the "official" version of events.
What Star Wars did took things another stage further, ensuring that any story told in any medium was as "real" as any other — even Marvel hasn't attempted to attach its labyrinthine comic book mythology into the movies yet — but, by ensuring that the movies remain as newcomer-friendly as possible, it's still not quite got to the point where everything counts equally, and the comics, books et al. become required reading for those who want to keep up with the entire saga … which, surely, has to be the next step in the evolution.
From a business standpoint, it's a no-brainer: it drives traffic to the spin-off products, and makes the brand more cohesive: everything is Star Wars, as important as everything else and all necessary for the fans to keep up. But from an audience or creative standpoint, things get slightly more complicated. For one thing, there's the effort necessary to ensure that all of pieces in different media actually fit together as intended — more difficult than it might seem, given the difference in production time for a movie compared with a TV show or comic book — but, more importantly, there's the question of when the audience might decide that it's too expensive, costly or simply too much effort to keep up with a favorite story.
Everyone who watches movies buys books or comics, for example; sales figures alone bear that out — compare the box office success of The Dark Knight, say, to the estimated monthly sales for the Batman comics — and the lack of excitement surrounding Marvel's Agents of SHIELD when compared with the movies it ostensibly shares a universe with demonstrates that, really, it's possible that the majority of the audience doesn't really want to have to treat stories as scavenger hunts or homework. After all, showing up for two movies a year is one thing. Add in extra-curricular reading, appointment television and whatever else might end up involved? Suddenly the fun seems to fade from the whole endeavor.
Somewhere, someone will disagree with this and think that it's all a matter of presentation and positioning, and that it's merely a problem to be solved. Good luck to those who believe that, and who are tasked with trying to make it a reality. Just hope that it's being done on a property as big as Star Wars, where even if it fails, there will likely be enough hardcore fans to prevent the loss of too much money.