The “Star Wars” Franchise as a Case Study of a Popular Media Practice
By: Vincent Villani
It’s no secret that in recent years, the media industry has been drenching screens of all sizes with a wave of constant sequels, reboots, spin-off films, and series based on already popular and successful properties. Present in most of these films and series is a storytelling device known popularly as fan service, or the use of certain elements including props, settings, cinematography, etc., within media that refers to an already established property.
Fan service is not a new trend in the media by any stretch of the imagination. However, it has become quite rampant in recent history. Looking at 2019 content releases alone, one can plainly see the number of sequels, remakes and spin-off projects that have been produced. Each of these products contained some form of fan service and have varying degrees of success in its implementation.
Now, I’m not saying fan service is an inherently negative thing. When utilized well, it can add interesting new depth to an existing property and build upon its mythos. However, when relied on too much or used in a seemingly lazy fashion, it can tarnish the viewing experience and may indicate a lack of substance. Finding this balance of the right amount of fan service has become a point of contention between media professionals and the general public.
No media property has demonstrated these extremes and everything in between in recent history than the Star Wars franchise. From cinemas to streaming services, Star Wars has been a constant pop culture presence since the 1980s and gained new life in recent years with a wave of new, original content.
The Star Wars franchise has opened itself up to a new generation of fans while doing their best to keep their older fans invested in their newer content, usually utilizing fan service to accomplish this goal. This has had different degrees of success which vary from product to product.
The two projects that stand out for their use of fan service throughout are the Disney+ series, “The Mandalorian” and the 2019 blockbuster film “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Both of these products implement fan service at the core of their narratives. However, they had very different receptions from critics and fans alike.
We’ll begin with “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
The Star Wars sequel trilogy as a whole, while generally well-received by critics, has had a hard time winning over the majority of Star Wars fans.
As the final installment in Star Wars’ sequel trilogy, all eyes were on “The Rise of Skywalker” during its production. Both of the previous films in the trilogy were praised by critics but received little support from the vocal ends of the Star Wars fanbase. Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” in particular, received spectacularly harsh criticism upon release, which seemingly prompted changes for the future of the trilogy.
After taking over the project following the departure of original director, Colin Trevorrow, J.J. Abrams was asked to do the impossible with “The Rise of Skywalker,” please the critics, finish telling the story he established in “The Force Awakens,” and try to turn the opinions of nay-sayer fans.
Unfortunately, he did not accomplish every goal. “The Rise of Skywalker” was met with generally harsh responses from critics but a more positive one from fans. The film’s rushed pacing and heavy reliance on the last-minute addition of Ian McDiarmid’s character, The Emperor, a fan-favorite antagonist from the original Star Wars films, as well as moments of pure fan service that served little purpose within the narrative were all talking points of the film’s biggest critics. These same points were simultaneously the aspects that fans who enjoyed the film cited as its positives.
Now onto “The Mandalorian.”
While the franchise films were in production, Lucasfilm and Disney produced “The Mandalorian” for Disney+. Showrunner Jon Favreau headed a talented team of writers and directors to bring audiences an original Star Wars story to the small screen.
This sci-fi neo-western style series follows a masked, nameless stranger (of Clint Eastwood archetype) through the Star Wars universe. The series features fan service at the core of its narrative. It features the main character interacting with stormtroopers and traveling to planets from the original films, for example.
However, “The Mandalorian” tells its own story and does its best not to allow fan service to become its best quality. Audiences are drawn to watch each new episode to learn more about the eponymous Mandalorian (played by Pedro Pascal) and see where his next adventure takes him.
Critics and fans both agree that “The Mandalorian” holds its own as a strong original story that contains the right amount of sci-fi action and all-around fun that made Star Wars popular in the first place. Both groups seem to agree that it’s a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously and contains the right amount of fan service; enough to draw fans in, but not so much that it becomes the series’ defining quality.