Discover more from The Bulwark
‘Ahsoka’ and the Star Wars Cultural Cul-de-Sac
Taking stock of what we’ve lost in the shift from a galaxy far, far away to an entertainment franchise whose products are everywhere.
IN THE CLIMACTIC EPISODE OF AHSOKA, the latest Star Wars installment on Disney+ written by Dave Filoni, there’s a sublimely absurd moment, dripping with unintended irony. Ahsoka, a wayward Jedi mentored by Anakin Skywalker between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, tears through stormtroopers with the wild abandon of George Lucas at Panda Express. We then cut to a trio of crones in Alice Cooper makeup, reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth, who spew some gobbledygook, reanimating the fallen soldiers. The shambling corpses remain equally unimpressive against the hero, who dispatches them again with ease. The entire spectacle becomes an eerie echo of the Star Wars brand as it currently stands with the stormtrooper-zombies as an apt metaphor: once vital and defining, now reduced to a walking shadow, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Since Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, the Star Wars brand has been caught in a relentless spiral of diminishing returns. It has been dispiriting to watch this revered cultural monolith slowly lose its celestial luster and blend into the vast cosmos of “content.” To downplay Star Wars’ significance is to indulge in a brazen revisionism of cultural history. Disney didn’t drop a cool $4 billion for just any franchise; they weren’t bidding on Farscape. What they acquired was an unparalleled cultural behemoth. At this point, it’s just another blip in the entertainment galaxy.
The switch in formats is a big reason: The franchise has been relegated to TV since the last two films, Solo and The Rise of Skywalker, underperformed at the box office. While numerous cinematic projects have been announced or teased—Rogue Squadron from Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman); a Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) adventure; a whole trilogy from Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi)—none have been made and most have been shelved or canceled. Streaming, the new frontier, brought us The Mandalorian, initially a beacon of episodic freshness, which subsequently sank into a narrative quagmire. The Book of Boba Fett? Overburdened. Andor might’ve won critical hearts, but I found it dull. The Obi-Wan series, despite McGregor’s much-vaunted return, felt like a misstep into nostalgia rather than innovation. There’s a recurring theme here: a fixation on a singular epoch, an aversion to pushing the envelope.
While galaxies expand, Star Wars, paradoxically, feels increasingly circumscribed.
THE FUTURE DOESN’T LOOK SO BRIGHT, either. Take The Acolyte: As it looms on the horizon as a Sith-centric tale set centuries before Luke Skywalker ever laid eyes on a lightsaber, one can’t shake the sensation that it’s treading familiar ground. It sounds like the prequels, but without the crux of Anakin’s tragic fall. Meanwhile, The Mandalorian feels adrift, with its titular hero potentially moving to the sidelines in the upcoming fourth season, making way for yet another character clad in laser-proof beskar armor.
All the Disney+ shows are meaningless and inconsequential at least in part because they’ve been superseded by the now-loathed sequel trilogy. Take Baby Yoda, for instance. Even if he evolves into a badass bounty hunter with Force powers, his narrative weight feels predestined to vaporize, given his noticeable absence in the sequels. Every dramatic arc, every high-stakes twist in these shows, ultimately winds up feeling like a parade in a cul-de-sac. We know that the New Republic’s sun is setting, making way for the First Order’s dawn. So, with all these new tales, penned post-hoc, there’s an unshakable aura of them being fleeting fireworks: bright, loud, but ultimately ephemeral in the grand continuum of the Star Wars lore.
That leads to the cardinal problem the saga is currently burdened with from a story point of view: the actual character of Ahsoka, played by Rosario Dawson. It’s baffling that Star Wars has gone all-in on the character—created for a children’s cartoon after the prequels were completed—and that she now holds a bond with Anakin Skywalker that surpasses the profound father-son relationship between Luke and Vader. The cinematic saga hinged on Luke’s unwavering faith in the sliver of goodness within Vader, culminating in one of the most poignant redemptive arcs in pop-cinema history. Attempting to retrofit Ahsoka’s role into this dynamic risks diminishing the emotional gravitas that defined the original films. This isn’t just tinkering with the story; it’s akin to rearranging the DNA of the Star Wars ethos.
The second big problem is, perhaps, best represented by Ahsoka’s antagonist, Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen). The TV shows are now coming to resemble the Star Wars expanded universe’s B-tier tales, the most-beloved of which was undoubtedly Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. It’s a curious twist, considering Disney and Lucasfilm effectively wiped the expanded universe from existence after the company’s purchase. But by blurring the lines between film, books, and television—and let’s be real: film remains the gold standard, and all of the television shows remain subordinate to what happens on the big screen—they’ve inadvertently recreated that cluttered universe they tried to sidestep. Disney’s attempt to reset the compass has led to an overwhelming amalgamation of every conceivable media format into a singular canon. Instead of a sleek, refined vessel, we now have a sprawling universe that sometimes feels more like a labyrinth accessible only to the most fervent, detail-oriented fans.
In other words, dorks.
THE MODERN PLAYBOOK OF CORPORATE CULTURAL ASSIMILATION is both simple and effective: Secure the rights, inundate until ubiquity begets banality, then sit back and watch as the machinery of nostalgia and habit ensures a steady stream of revenue from merchandise and digital leashes. The strategy, while genius in its economic assuredness, risks reducing works of art into mere commercial commodities, losing the essence in pursuit of ubiquity. In this relentless cycle, the art isn’t just commodified; it’s transformed into a perpetual profit machine, its original magic diluted in the floodwaters of overexposure.
Of course, Disney shelling out billions wasn’t about honoring Lucas’s vision; it was a calculated move for a cultural cash cow. And Lucas himself was never averse to cashing in; the real legacy of Star Wars isn’t laser swords but merchandising and the flood of revenue that can be generated via molded plastic and screen-printed t-shirts. But we’re living in an era where nostalgia is the golden ticket. Companies bank on our memories, not to honor them, but to monetize them. It’s the unholy alchemy of turning creative gold into commercial lead, all while ensuring the registers keep ringing. The endgame? A torrent of cultural content that’s vast in volume but shallow in depth.
Star Wars, in its inception, was more than a mere cinematic event—it was a cultural revolution. Its gravity was unparalleled, pulling us into a universe that felt infinite and thoroughly novel. But as with all revolutions, time and commerce have tempered its edges. Where once there was an expansive canvas of mythos and wonder, now there’s a stifling ubiquity. It’s a realization, sharp and unyielding, that a galaxy once limitless in its scope and imagination has been boxed into predictable corners. The saga that once soared among the stars now treads familiar ground. And in that shift, we’ve lost something profound.