“Star Wars at Christmas?” “Put it back in May where it belongs.”
Some Star Wars fans had “a bad feeling about this” when The Force Awakens was scheduled for December 18, 2015. But complaints were forgotten when the movie opened to rave reviews.
Me, I’ve associated Star Wars with Christmas since I opened my first Star Wars toys on Christmas morning in 1977, while the original was still in theaters. Dozens of those original action figures—capes, lightsabers, blasters, and all—keep vigil on my bookshelves still today, almost 40 years later. They kindle creativity in me. Star Wars only hinted at a cosmos of storytelling, and during those holiday vacations from homework, I dreamed up my own stories about that galaxy far, far away.
Apparently so did many others who grew up to be filmmakers. And now, with Disney’s promise that Star Wars movies will be an annual event, we can assume that droids and stormtroopers will become as common as reindeer and snowmen in December.
I haven’t heard protests about the Christmastime release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (By the time you read this, I’ll have seen Gareth Edwards’ movie. And, let’s face it, so will many of you.) But I have heard other concerns: Will this episode—the first that doesn’t focus on Skywalkers—feel like the real thing? Or will it just feel like a money grab? Does Edwards understand what makes Star Wars unique and beloved?
Wait a minute: What does make Star Wars unique and beloved?
I think I know. And it has everything to do with Han Solo.
Solo has been, from the beginning, my favorite character. (My 1977 Solo toy plays a central role in my action-figure review of The Force Awakens—which became, overnight, the most popular thing I’ve ever posted online.) Solo represents all of Star Wars’ contradictory tensions in one character. He starts out as a cocky gunslinger, independent, roguishly “secular.” “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side,” he boasts. But we rejoice when he “gets religion.” In time, he commits to a “family” of rebels, risks his life to serve the oppressed, and says “May the Force be with you.” In their hearts, all moviegoers sense that this is an ideal narrative—something better than “Vigilante Hero Stops Evil with Smart Shooting.”
Still, I have mixed feelings as I rotate those action figures around my home-office bookshelves. They represent one contradiction that always threatens to spoil Star Wars. Almost every character comes with a death-dealing accessory. I cringe when I see Star Wars video games, saddened to see players engage the story by shooting—by the use of coercive violence rather than the exercise of mindful restraint.
That’s because I believe that Star Wars storytellers’ emphasis on a spiritual transformation is, far more than any special effects revolution, the real secret to the saga’s enduring popularity. Obi-Wan, Luke, and eventually Han all have defining moments of selfless surrender. Yes, they carry weapons. But they are distinguished by how they put them down and open their hands in risky offers of grace.