I swear to god this isn’t clickbait.
Over the last few years I’ve thought about fanfiction a lot. Fanfic has changed significantly in my lifetime; once a weird corner of fandom devoted to self-serving wankery, fanfic has emerged as one of the central aspects of fan culture. Fanfic has become not only an accepted way of interacting with existing properties, it’s become downright lucrative, with Fifty Shades of Grey and The Mortal Instruments books becoming movies and TV shows. What was once hidden away is now in the spotlight, and it has gone from being disreputable to being a cornerstone of political progressivism in fandom - fanfic is how women, trans and non-het people claim white straight guy properties for themselves.
The rise of fanfic to a central position of fandom happened simultaneously with the destruction of the wall between fans and creators… and I mean that on every level. Now, for the first time ever, fans have constant access to their favorite creators online, making their voices heard in ways that were impossible in the past. Before blogs, Tumblr and Twitter fans had to interact with creators in person or by sending letters, which were easily ignored. Feedback was delayed - it could be months between the airing of a TV show, release of a comic or premiere of a movie before creators heard from the fanbase. Today creators get that feedback instantly, and fans have become more and more central to the things they love, their input becoming more and more important.
Bigger than that is the rise of fan as creator. It began in the Bronze Age of comics, when guys like Roy Thomas made the jump from editing fanzines to creating comic books. Over the decades this trend has increased, partially because properties last so long and never go away. Something that a writer or filmmaker first encountered as a kid 20 or 30 years ago is possibly still a thriving franchise today, or at least poised to make a comeback. Fan as filmmaker is the next step, and often filmmakers are judged by their devotion to the property they’re tackling. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns bona fides included his adoration for Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. Neill Blomkamp was seen as a good choice for a new (now aborted) Alien movie because of how much he loves Aliens. JJ Abrams was seen as a bad choice for Star Trek because he didn’t like the property, but as a good choice for Star Wars because of his oft-expressed love for it.
The destruction of the wall separating fans from creators has also altered the very idea of what fan fiction is. As fans grow up and take the reins of their favorite properties is it only the permission of corporate owners that makes their work any different from fanfic? This has been the argument for a while, an argument that claims anyone who has worked on Spider-Man after Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were sort of fanficcing it.
Perhaps. Spider-Man, however great the character and his early adventures are, doesn’t quite feel like the work of a singular author. Spider-Man was always intended to be a serialized character and I’m sure Lee considered the fact that some day someone else would write him. After all, Stan had dreams of being a novelist - he wasn’t intending to spend his whole life working at Marvel. Most mainstream superhero comics have the same feeling - the creators, on some level, knew they would be handing their character off to another person someday, somehow. The same thing goes for a TV show or a corporate-owned movie franchise. You’re making your mark now on the Alien series, but eventually someone else is going to come on in and make theirs. You’re caretaking the company’s characters.
Some works, though, don’t have that same sense of belonging to the company. Some works, even though they do belong to the company, feel intensely personal. Other creators have come in and done great work with Jack Kirby’s New Gods, but most non-Kirby Fourth World stories have felt like fanfic to me, even though it’s authorized by the corporate masters. The Fourth World was pure Kirby, a distillation of his interests and obsessions and philosophies, and everyone who came after him was always working in his shadow. Whatever they did it was Not Jack. I suspect many of them would agree.
Star Wars (which shares some real similarities with the Fourth World, by the way) is the same kind of thing. The original film is such a pure distillation of George Lucas’ id that it, more than most other films, is the work of a single author. The story of the making of the first Star Wars is filled with people who had absolutely no idea what the hell Lucas was doing, who didn’t understand his story, who couldn’t grasp his world, and who were absolutely blown away when they saw all the pieces come together. Star Wars is George Lucas.
It’s telling that the movie he likes the least (supposedly) is the one from which he was most detached, The Empire Strikes Back. The Prequels, while pretty terrible films, also reflect Lucas’ own obsessions and interests - anyone familiar with his early outlines and drafts for “The Star Wars” will recognize a lot of the concerns (and unbearable dryness) onscreen in The Phantom Menace and beyond. Good or bad, the Prequels were films only George Lucas could have made.
Star Wars and George Lucas were inseparable not only in our culture but legally - he owned the franchise. It was his to do with as he pleased; he was the corporate master as well as the creative visionary. He stands unique in this regard, the only guy in the world of franchise blockbusters to own his cake and eat it too. Like I said, Star Wars is George Lucas.
Or it was. The seismic shift that happened when Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney wasn’t the Mouse House getting their hands on that galaxy far, far away but George Lucas leaving it behind. Star Wars was first the culmination of George Lucas’ entire life, and then it was the nagging center of it. When he shed Star Wars - and make no mistake, that’s what he did, going so far as to give the money he earned in the deal away - it sort of stopped being Star Wars. If Star Wars is George Lucas, it can’t be Star Wars when there’s no George Lucas. Right? Does Star Wars then become automatically fanfic, an idealized version of itself as seen by people outside of that singular vision?
Most fanfic is, on some level, fan service. I’m speaking broadly here about a genre that contains billions of words and thousands of hours of fan films, but that’s mostly what fanfic boils down to - fans giving themselves what they want. Bringing together characters they like, killing ones they don’t, redeeming villains they love, exploring concepts barely glanced upon in the original property. They right perceived wrongs, give new endings and reconstruct emotions and relationships. Fan fiction often reminds me of masturbation - it’s the fans giving themselves what they want. That’s usually dramatically unsatisfying, and very often the best stories are the ones that drive fans the craziest. Getting what you want is fun at first, but it’s like letting a kid have free reign of the fridge - they end up with a bellyache and maybe even scurvy if you don’t step in soon enough. You gotta eat your vegetables, and fanfic rarely is interested in greens.
George Lucas gets this. When asked what he thought of The Force Awakens he said “I think the fans will love it. It’s the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” The kids, Lucas was saying, love getting ice cream for dinner.
And The Force Awakens is ice cream for dinner. It’s full of familiar things, sometimes with just a new name on them. It’s filled with familiar characters, who have - in true fan fiction style - reverted to fan-favorite versions of themselves. Han and Leia have been reset to their pre-Jedi selves, a move that is enormously unsatisfying for people who want to see these characters grow and change but enormously satisfying for fans who want to see the characters behaving like their favorite versions of them. It’s a film by fans for fans, filled with endless winking references and stocked with recycled versions of unused concept art that will be familiar to the hardcore. When making the first Star Wars Lucas hated that Mark Hamill ad-libbed a reference to THX-1138; in The Force Awakens one of the main characters is named after George Lucas’ favorite experimental short in film school. Another is named after the company that published Star Wars books.
At its best fanfic uses existing characters and settings as shorthand; you know Kirk and Spock, so a story featuring them allows you to get to the meat or explore emotions without doing a lot of heavy lifting. This is what The Force Awakens does as well, using the perpetual motion machine of nostalgia to power a story that’s all shortcuts. Even the new stuff is built out of the material of the old stuff, denying audiences the shock of discovery but giving them the comfort of familiarity. It’s a fan giving the fans what they want.
None of this is a value judgment, and if anything I think many fans would agree that the familiarity is part of what they love about The Force Awakens. “It feels like Star Wars,” is the refrain, and that sense of familiarity is so valuable that many are willing to overlook a THIRD Death Star because it fits into that comfortable familiarity. But this is all part of the fanficcy aspects of The Force Awakens, the way it reinforces and reiterates what we already love, if slightly changed around and mashed up to be a bit more fan-friendly.
The Force Awakens is the ultimate triumph of the fan, a movie that is being celebrated for rescuing Star Wars from the guy who created it. JJ Abrams is the fan who gave his fellow fans the Star Wars they wanted, making a movie that is as much a rebuttal of the Prequels as it is a sequel to Return of the Jedi. The line between fan and creator has been obliterated, and the line between official product and fan fiction is gone. JJ Abrams doesn’t have to tweet his opinions about Star Wars at George Lucas - he gets to make his own Star Wars movie.
Must all Star Wars without George Lucas be essentially fanfic? JJ Abrams has made fanfic because he’s attempted to ape what Lucas has done before without truly putting his stamp on it (although to be fair I have come to believe that Abrams has no stamp to leave. He’s a mimic). But I do believe it’s possible to take the Star Wars universe and put a personal mark on it. The Star Wars universe is completely the creation of a singular genius, so the key is to not copy that vision. There are two ways to play with your Star Wars toys, after all - you can use the dolls to recreate the scenes from the movie or you can use the dolls to tell your own stories, and maybe even mix and match them with dolls from other toy lines. There is something impressive about the guy who puts his action figures into dioramas that perfectly reflect what he saw in the movie, but I’m more interested in the guy who takes the action figures apart and swaps the arms, legs and heads. I look at the next two Star Wars films - Rogue One from Gareth Edwards and Episode VIII from Rian Johnson - and I hope that we won’t be seeing even more carefully constructed diorama recreations.
The most interesting fanfic is the kind where the fan takes a property they love and says “I don’t see myself in here, so I’m putting myself in it.” I don’t mean that in general Mary Sue terms, but social progress terms - making characters queer, introducing characters of color, bringing in characters of other backgrounds. They bring their own perspective, often a shockingly new one, to the familiar. That’s about people putting their mark on the material, and when Lucasfilm finally hires a filmmaker who isn’t just a white guy who grew up on Star Wars is when we’ll truly be entering a truly new phase of the saga, one that is no longer in the shadow of George Lucas. With new Star Wars coming at us every single year for the rest of our lives the odds are strong that something fundamental is going to change.
For Star Wars to escape the stigma of just being corporate-appointed fanfic someone needs to redefine what Star Wars is. If Star Wars has, until now, been George Lucas, the right move isn’t to just ape what Lucas has done but to do something blazingly new. Which, ironically, is what Lucas would have done anyway - it’s hard to remember, but in 1977 there was nothing like Star Wars. Out of all the people who have played with Jack Kirby’s New Gods I’ve always felt that Grant Morrison was perhaps the most successful, and for one simple reason - he used the New Gods to tell Grant Morrison stories, not to try and tell the kinds of stories that Kirby would have told. That’s the lesson, and that’s the future of the franchise: filmmakers need to use Star Wars to tell their own stories. It's time to break away from the nostalgia and the familiar and the vision of George Lucas and use his toys in ways he never even imagined.