Driving home from the Boston airport on a slushy New Years Eve, I was taken by an illuminated sign that read “Drive safely you will, Yoda says.” Chalking this up to Massachusetts cheekiness, I drove along—quite safely—and forgot about Yoda’s vehicular admonishments. But the onslaught continued. At a local CVS, I passed by Star Wars Cover Girl mascara and Star Wars Duracell batteries. “Power your galaxy,” it ordered. My galaxy is fine, Duracell. On television, Star Wars themes champion Jeeps powering through the wilderness and patrons sinking their teeth into Subway subs. Hillary Clinton ended a democratic debate with a nod to Yoda. What in Star Wars’s DNA allowed it to achieve such a mythic status in global culture, and how did it get on the freeway?
At a fundamental level, Star Wars self-consciously follows the archetype of the hero’s journey, a seventeen-step narrative structure theorized in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 The Hero With a Thousand Faces and found in everything from The Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz to The Matrix. Campbell’s argument is that myths from around the globe are built on the same elementary ideas, namely the three-act template of the “monomyth,” which includes the departure, the initiation, and the return. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung saw these foundational structures to be the building blocks of both the unconscious mind and our collected unconscious. Since everyone is born with the same subconscious model of the hero figure, these narratives transcend language and nationality. In other words, Star Wars transcends time and place—it all occurs a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—to welcome audiences of all ages and races. Comprised of pursuits, battles, and dangerous missions, the series eschewed the classical Hollywood model reliant on dialogue, thus rendering even language superfluous. Thus Star Wars proved that action and effects didn’t support the story. They were the story, and audiences everywhere lapped it up.
Ironically, while Star Wars’s model welcomed all viewers, its original audience was predominantly teenage boys. Hollywood hegemony dictated that mega-movies appeal to all demographics; grandma and grandkid should both enjoy Gone with the Wind and Ben-hur. Star Wars, however, with its virile themes of war and conquering the galaxy for a princess—the original Death Star sequence is a thinly veiled insemination scene—appealed to the pubescent male teens who viewed the film countless times. This phenomenon caused a seismic shift in Hollywood’s agenda.
Star Wars also ballooned from its sheer scope. It was the first film to create a universe with its own preexisting history and future, and Lucas repeatedly references external places and events to emphasize the sheer magnitude of his creation. 1970s Hollywood was dramatically different; movies weren’t Taylorized and endlessly replicated as they are now. That’s why we don’t have a Wizard of Oz 9: The Munchkins Rebellion or The Sound of Music 3: The Hills ARE Alive. However, after the success of the original 1977 film, George Lucas could flesh out his colossal universe over a trilogy and replicate his films like the clones on Kamino. Thanks to Lucas, Saw and Fast and the Furious now have seven films to their franchises.
Star Wars, along with Jaws in 1975, also heralded the era of the summer blockbuster. Summertime was formally viewed as a cinematic dead zone. Audiences were on the beach and soaking up the sun, not stuck inside a dark, dingy cinema. Movies were a winter activity. But Jaws brought people from the beach and into the theatre, and taught them to stay there. Star Wars repeated the magic two years later, and an industry was born. Die Hard (1988), Batman (1989), and Jurassic Park (1993) all followed suit. These single films would rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, and the revenue from these films alone allowed small movie houses to expand into the multiplexes we have today. These blockbusters fundamentally shaped when and how we watch films today.
Finally, we return to the cosmetics and batteries. George Lucas was a mastermind merchandiser. He worked for a small fee for 20th Century Fox in exchange for the merchandising rights to his films. Seeing the panoply of iconic characters such as C-3PO and R2D2, he transformed these figures into figurines. The notion of collectibles created a cult of followers who cherished limited edition merchandise they’d never take out of the packaging. While Walt Disney pumped out Mickey Mouse watches and theme parks, Lucas was really the first one to flood the market with movie collectibles; he has raked in over $20 billion from the merchandise alongside a meager $4.4 billion from the films. The very ontology of today’s blockbusters, such as Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, is centered on commodities. That’s why these “team” movies are so lucrative; why have one hero when you can have five? That’s five times the figurines!
By expanding the Star Wars universe off-screen, Lucas allowed fans to participate in the action and continue the dramatics of the films between premieres through cosplay and conventions. Like the vacuum of space, the time between premieres is desolate and yearns to be filled. By putting the films literally into the hands of its fans, Star Wars guaranteed its sustainability in the cultural ether. Indeed, with every fake lightsaber battle or costume party, the mythic Force of Star Wars strengthens. So when we put on Star Wars lipstick or follow Yoda’s driving advice, we are participating in our own off-screen micro-dramas. The action doesn’t end at the credits; it begins there.