Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, & Critics

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Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, & Critics Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and John Shelton Lawrence, Editors. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Volume 14 in the Popular Culture & Everyday Life Series.

With a new scholarly history of ''writer-director-producer'' George Lucas's cinematic space empire long overdue, Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, & Critics promises at last to get to the bottom of the most profitable American storytelling business of the last thirty years. On its face, little about the Star Wars realm is familiar, but the film, television, and print works in its "expanded universe" have proven remarkably successful at stroking the egos of Earthlings, for whom Lucas's galaxy "far, far away," stewarded by a benevolent sect of monastic "Jedi Knights," often seems preferable to our own. The title of this new, irresistible anthology, though, suggests slightly more business history than editors Matthew Kapell and John Lawrence are prepared to provide; short, autobiographical chapters on toy merchandising punctuate extended literary criticism of the six Star Wars films and their popular reception.

This reception, of course, has been mammoth. Steeped in the mythic archetypes of Joseph Campbell and borrowing images from various popular entertainments, the original Star Wars film trilogy of 1977-1983 enflamed imaginations with stories of individual empowerment, "redemptive violence," and what (according to Homer Simpson) really brings Americans into movie theaters: revenge fantasies. (The second "prequel" trilogy of 1999-2005 made piles of cash but attracted fewer converts.) This collection of seventeen essays examines both eras, but leans heavily on the most recent additions to Lucas's "sacred canon," bringing traditional analytical modes up to date.

A collective fantasy none treat as real but many respect, the six Star Wars films are amenable to the kind of laborious textual analysis customarily reserved for religious texts. The first trilogy's story of a bored teenager goaded into political rebellion by a telepathic space hippie struck multiple chords in 1970s America; a less inspiring story of an interstellar democracy's descent into despotism enriched (or muddied) the later films. Of course, the Devil can cite Scripture to suit his own purposes, and so rich is the Star Wars galaxy in familiar mythologies, evocative visuals, and bombastic poetry that even the most improbable interpretations ring at least partly true. As with any creed, this new anthology reminds the reader, acolytes have selectively reinterpreted Star Wars to suit their own personal beliefs. …

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