Disney is the Best Thing to Happen to “Star Wars” Since “The Empire Strikes Back”

I’ll stand by the comment, as usual.

Joel Eisenberg
Dec 11, 2020 · 6 min read
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New Lucasfilm “Star Wars” logos; copyright 2020, The Walt Disney Company

Some of you will see that headline, above, and thank me for your biggest laugh of the day. Or, you’ll accuse me of having lost my mind.

Let’s play the long game. I’ll begin with this: I lost my mind a long time ago. Now I have nowhere to go but up.


Season One of “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ did something no other “Star Wars” production has done since 1977: It was nominated in the top category of the top awards program of its industry.

1977’s “Star Wars” was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, losing to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.”

The first season of “The Mandalorian” was nominated in the Outstanding Drama Series category at the Emmys, losing to HBO’s “Succession.”

Both “Star Wars” and “The Mandalorian” took home several other prizes at the two stalwart awards programs, but the nominations in their respective top categories were arguably their biggest victories.

“Star Wars” is becoming respectable again.

For The Disney Company, whose Disney+ is fast approaching 100 million subscribers (86 million at the time of this writing), “The Mandalorian” has been by far its biggest hit.

Yesterday, this news was announced during Disney’s investor call:

Word around social media to the announcement of multiple new “Star Wars” projects has been largely positive.

Personally, I say this is the most encouraging news in the brand’s history since the release of “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Here’s why.

The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.05 billion. Their investment has been long since returned, but let’s take a quick look at the state of “Star Wars” prior to the purchase.

Various television animated series had aired to varying degrees of success, including the acclaimed “The Clone Wars.” The EU (Expanded Universe, presently “Legends”) was abundant within novels, games, and comics. The films, however, which brought the fans to the table, were in short supply.

There were six, if we discount the theatrical pilot of “The Clone Wars” (or, well before, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” and two Ewok made for television movies). The initial theatrical trilogy comprised of “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” overwhelmed any other pop-culture franchise that had passed before in terms of financial success.

For many years, fans clamored for follow-ups.

We eventually witnessed a new hope, no pun intended: “Special Editions” of the original trilogy were released to great fanfare (and some discomfort that the beloved films were being tinkered with, which later became a major issue). Finally, the prequels were released, beginning with “The Phantom Menace” in 1999, followed by 2002’s “Attack of the Clones,” and 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith.”

Many older fans decried Episodes I-III killed the franchise. The characters did not have the same chemistry, they said; the stories were not as compelling. Newer and younger fans were not as negative. The films all earned money … but Lucas was done.

He said his story had been told.

We waited for years for Episodes VII-IX and then … nothing.

Until Disney.

I’ve expended a great deal of ink on the reception of the Disney “Star Wars” product, especially the long-awaited sequel trilogy. See my Star Wars collection here for those observations.

As we all know by now, the reception was not necessarily as desired, whether due to a small but vocal group of fans, or an overall lack of enthusiasm regarding any new product. Still, Disney also brought us the roundly acclaimed “Rogue One,” and the multiple-Emmy-winning “The Mandalorian.”

Let’s face it. The studio was doing something right, regardless of the sequel trilogy’s reception. Sure, “Solo” underperformed, but word of the brand’s demise — yet again — was, understatedly, premature.

Prior to our pandemic, various films were announced — both one-off and new trilogy product — that to date have not been officially canceled.

During yesterday’s Disney investor call, however, social media rallied behind the following news:

  • Hayden Christensen was returning as Darth Vader in Ewan McGregor’s new “Obi-Wan Kenobi” series on Disney+. Ironic, considering once upon a time his performances in “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” were not generally well-received.
  • Patty Jenkins will be the first woman to direct a “Star Wars” feature film with “Rogue Squadron.”
  • Ahsoka Tano will be featured in a new Disney+ miniseries starring Rosario Dawson, who was a fan favorite as the character in a recent Season Two episode of “The Mandalorian.”
  • Lando Calrissian will be featured in his own series on Disney+. No word whether Donald Glover or Billy Dee Williams will reprise their role(s).

For the rest, read the StarWars.com piece on the Disney call linked above.

The bottom line is this: Thanks to fans-turned-creatives such as Dave Filoni, in large part responsible for the long-term success of “The Clone Wars,” “Rebels,” and “The Mandalorian,” and also executives such as the unfairly oft-excoriated Kathleen Kennedy — head of Lucasfilm — we are presently in the midst of a “Star Wars” renaissance.

Fans are receiving what they’ve asked for, and though surely many will still complain Disney either has killed the brand outright or has substantially overexposed it since their 2012 purchase, money talks.

“The Mandalorian” has become the figurehead of Disney+, and even considering the disappointing performance of “Solo” the “Star Wars” features under the Disney banner have earned collectively billions of dollars on their worldwide releases alone, not counting merchandise or television licenses.

Again, money talks. Complaints are plentiful and mistakes will be made, but Lucas’ product — the prequel trilogy particularly and, for some, “Return of the Jedi” — was not universally acclaimed either.

As to the mistakes? I’d be remiss if I did not mention it so I sincerely hope they will not be again of this nature: Disney bowing to racist social media comments and largely excluding Kelly Marie Tran, and to a lesser degree John Boyega, from “The Rise of Skywalker” was risible. Fan response to Jar Jar Binks, conversely, who was accused of being a black stereotype was of George Lucas’ own making. The role was substantially cut down in Episodes II and III. But Lucas was also accused of employing the Jewish stereotype of Watto in “The Phantom Menace,” and Asian stereotypes in the Galactic Trade Federation heads, also largely cut from subsequent films. He suffered blowback from his initial choices, which was not surprising.

On the racial front, Disney needs to be smarter than both they and Lucas have been moving forward. They took a leap and made the effort to be as diverse as we are; they need to stand by that effort to the brand’s creative benefit without pigeonholing.

Further, the tone of this article will be reconsidered if Disney continues to stall on due payments of Alan Dean Foster, author of “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.” What had transpired in that regard is unconscionable.

This piece, though, is about Disney’s new presentations, and to that end I want to remain focused. The studio behind-the-scenes nonetheless needs to clean up some serious mess and work on their integrity, none of which I or anyone should take lightly.

Regarding the upcoming product, there will be dogs in this fight. It’s inevitable. And fans will become angry.

But present successes and plans for the future far exceed, by any measurable standard, the exploitation of the brand since the release of 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Why since “Empire?” Because “Return of the Jedi” was already anxiously awaited by the time of “Empire’s” release.

George Lucas created the universe. We owe him a debt. But he also struggled mightily with his creation, as no one could have foreseen its impact.

The sale was made. The terms were accepted.

It was the right move for the fans.

Hopefully, intelligence and prudence will prevail on all fronts.

To the expectation of lessons learned and being learned, I for one am ecstatic Disney purchased “Star Wars,” as there are clearly many stories still to tell in a galaxy far, far away …

Thank you for reading.

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