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Feature Article

Star Wars Report Card 2017

The Force will never be the same.

2017 was a big year for Star Wars--but these days, it's always a big year for Star Wars. Disney's been cranking out new material set in a galaxy far, far away since 2014, and it's not going to stop any time soon. Still, fans have been speculating about The Last Jedi ever since The Force Awakens ended on a massive cliffhanger two years ago. 2017 also saw the release of a major but controversial Star Wars video game, a number of new comic books and novels, and the start of Star Wars Rebels' final season. Did Disney and Lucasfilm deliver?

Yes and no. Here's how Star Wars fared in 2017.

The Most Divisive Star Wars Movie Ever Made

The Last Jedi shouldn't work at all. It subverts and dismantles the tropes that have defined Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back. It gleefully tears apart The Force Awakens' carefully constructed (but possibly empty) puzzle boxes, and leaves many of that film's plot threads dangling. It's full of slapstick comedy, even during otherwise serious scenes. It makes Star Wars' black-and-white morality system infinitely more complicated. It's unabashedly and proudly weird.

And yet, The Last Jedi also adds much-needed depth to The Force Awakens' new characters, especially Poe Dameron, elevating them beyond simple archetypes. It recontextualizes the original trilogy in unexpected ways. Director and writer Rian Johnson threw tradition out the window, making Star Wars truly unpredictable for the first time in years.

Critics and casual viewers seem to love The Last Jedi. Hardcore fan reception is mixed, and with good reason. The Last Jedi thumbs its nose at the past two years worth of fan theories and speculation, implying that none of it matters. More than one character in the Last Jedi says that it's time for the past to die, and the movie embraces that message wholeheartedly. Depending on your point of view, that's either thrilling or terrifying. Fans either want Star Wars to change, or they want it to stay the same. Right now, there doesn't seem to be much middle ground.

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Traditionalists might find some solace in the upcoming Star Wars spin-offs. This summer, Lucasfilm fired directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller while they were shooting Solo, the Han Solo-centric feature film, and replaced them with Ron Howard. In September, Disney announced that Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow won't direct Episode IX as planned; The Force Awakens' J. J. Abrams will take his place.

As directors, Howard and Abrams are proven crowd-pleasers, but they're also safe and not exactly diverse choices. The Star Wars universe is big enough to accommodate all kinds of voices and stories, but the latest hiring decisions have raised concerns that Disney will stick to too closely to conventions. Of course, in November, Lucasfilm announced that Johnson is getting his own Star Wars trilogy sometime after Episode IX, focusing on brand new characters. Who knows? Maybe there's room for both the old and the new going forward.

Battlefront II Crashes In Controversy

In the lead-up to Star Wars Battlefront II, Electronic Arts and DICE said all the right things. Star Wars Battlefront II has locations and characters from all three Star Wars eras. It has more (and better) maps than its predecessor. It's got a single-player campaign with a story. It has space battles. All of the game's downloadable content is free.

EA delivered on all of those promises, but with one big catch: in Star Wars Battlefront II, you upgrade your characters with cards collected from semi-randomized containers called loot boxes. You can buy those loot boxes with credits you earn by playing the game, but Battlefront II doesn't dole out in-game cash very quickly. As designed, it's easier to buy loot boxes with real-life money.

In essence, people who are willing to pay extra can get a big competitive advantage. Understandably, that was not a popular decision. In response to pressure from fans (and, reportedly, Disney itself), EA removed the ability to purchase loot boxes using real dollars, but that only fixed part of the problem. Earning credits is still a slow and tedious process, and the system heavily favors players who can afford to invest a bunch of time into the game.

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The backlash spurred some governments to investigating whether loot boxes should be treated as a form of gambling. Thanks to Battlefront II, politicians have called for the gaming industry to self-regulate loot boxes, or abandon them entirely. Meanwhile, some players are attaching rubber bands to their controllers in order to level up instead of, y'know, actually playing the game.

That's a shame. There's a solid, if simple, shooter at Battlefront II's core, but the loot box controversy is going to be the game's enduring legacy. It's not clear whether relief for beleaguered gamers is on the way, either. In October, Electronic Arts shut down Visceral Games, effectively canceling Uncharted director Amy Hennig's mysterious, story-heavy Star Wars title. Technically, development on the title shifted to EA Vancouver, but EA's statements make it sound like it won't be the same game--if it comes out at all.

The Books Are For Side Stories

Disney and Lucasfilm released nine Star Wars novels in 2017, and the majority of them are pretty good. However, three years after Disney reset the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the pattern is clear. The big moments happen on-screen. Print expands the world and fleshes out the characters but doesn't really progress the plot.

This year, that meant readers got a lot of origin stories. If you want to know how Leia met The Last Jedi's Vice Admiral Holdo, or what the Rebel bunker on Crait was originally used for, Claudia Gray's Leia, Princess of Alderaan will fill you in. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn tells how the Grand Admiral rose to power before tormenting the cast of Star Wars Rebels. Rebel Rising explains what happened to Jyn Erso before she ended up in a prison cell in Rogue One, while Christie Golden's Battlefront II: Inferno Squad gives the video game's cast some much needed depth.

Those are all interesting stories, but none are essential. You can enjoy and understand The Last Jedi, Rebels, Rogue One, and Battlefront II without reading a word of prose. 2017's Star Wars novels are well-written and full of interesting trivia (except for Delilah S. Dawson's Phasma, which, like its title character, was a wasted opportunity), but they're not crucial to the Star Wars mythos. Treat them like excuses to spend more time with your favorite characters, and you'll have a much better reading experience.

A Period Of Transition at Marvel

Compared to past years, Marvel's Star Wars comics lost some momentum. Previously, the line kept the stories vital by taking advantage of comics' unlimited special effects budget to tell big stories (Luke and his team stealing a Star Destroyer, for example) and by treating small plot points like big revelations. We didn't really need to know what happened when Darth Vader learned that the pilot who destroyed the Death Star was his son, but Jason Aaron and John Cassaday made that moment a pivotal scene in Star Wars history.

By those standards, 2017 fell short. The Screaming Citadel arc, which teamed up Luke Skywalker with the rogue archeologist Doctor Aphra, pushed Star Wars even further toward its fantasy roots and never quite came together. Jason Aaron's last issues on the main Star Wars title ended his run with a whimper, not a bang.

But there were bright spots. Other than the Screaming Citadel issues, Doctor Aphra's ongoing series is full of thrilling, quirky crime/adventure stories that feel right at home in the Star Wars universe. Even better, they aren't governed by a predetermined endpoint. Since Doctor Aphra and her friends are new characters, anything might happen to them.

Not only that, but Doctor Aphra's writer and creator, Kieron Gillen, just took over scripting duties on the main title. The new Darth Vader series is off to a good start, and the various character-driven mini-series are optional but well-made. In 2017, Marvel's Star Wars line may not have been at its best, but honestly, that's an awfully high bar to clear.

Don't Forget About The Small Screen

Last spring, Star Wars Rebels wrapped up its third season on a couple of down notes. Darth Maul's quest for revenge against Obi-Wan Kenobi ended with a lightsaber duel that felt awfully rushed. The season three finale, "Zero Hour," concluded with our heroes defeated, their plans in disarray, and Grand Admiral Thrawn hot on their tails.

As Rebels' fourth and final season ramps up, however, the stakes are getting higher and higher. Season four kicked off with a resolution to the Mandalorian Civil War, saw the Ghost's crew finally meet up with the rest of the Rebel Alliance on Yavin IV, and is quickly moving toward Grand Admiral Thrawn's endgame. With both Ezra and Kanan Jarrus's fate in question--there aren't any Jedi wandering around in Rogue One or Episode IV, after all--Rebels is kicking into high gear, and should stay there until the series' finale.

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But then what? The animated Forces of Destiny series, which focuses on Star Wars' heroines, is fun, but its short episodes are designed for YouTube, not television. Disney announced that a live action Star Wars show will be coming to its exclusive streaming service, which is set to launch in 2019, but without any further details it's hard to get too excited.

Other Matters, In Brief

  • Carrie Fisher passed away at the tail end of 2016, and fans mourned throughout 2017. Through Star Wars Celebration, Comic-Con, and the recent press tour, the entire year has been filled with moving tributes to Fisher. Whether it was meant to or not, The Last Jedi served as the perfect send-off to Star Wars' leading lady.

  • Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, Disneyland and Disney World's answer to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, keeps sounding better and better. It's not scheduled to launch until 2019, but if Disney's Imagineers can pull off everything they're promising, fans are never going to want to leave (the immersive hotel/resort in construction at Disney World sounds great, too).

  • As always, Star Wars merchandise ran the gamut from great to terrible to incomprehensible. On one hand, the Jedi Challenges augmented reality headset is allegedly tons of fun, Fantasy Flight's board games continue to be great, and those black series action figures are pretty slick. On the other, is anyone going to buy a bag of lettuce just because Rey's face is on the package?

  • If there's a friendlier and more positive fan convention than Disney's semi-annual Star Wars Celebration, we sure haven't heard of it.

Verdict

In 2017, Star Wars became predictable. Disney and Lucasfilm have a formula--release a film every year, and then build comics, books, toys, and other tie-ins around that--but it's a formula that works, and it looks like they'll be sticking to it for a while. Star Wars doesn't have to be high art. It just has to be entertaining, and Battlefront II aside, it was.

Even The Last Jedi; love it or hate it, Episode VIII is going to keep Star Wars fans talking for years to come. For the people who liked it, The Last Jedi marks a turn away from tradition, making the Star Wars universe less predictable and more exciting. Those who didn't, meanwhile, will nevertheless spend their time dissecting the film's merits (or lack thereof) and guessing what everything will mean for the final entry in the sequel trilogy. After all, when it comes to Star Wars, speculation and debate are part of the fun.

The GoodThe Bad
The Last Jedi pushed Star Wars into uncharted territory, making the series fresh again.Star Wars Battlefront II was an epic misfire.
Star Wars Rebels' final season is shaping up to be one of its best.The Last Jedi proved too different and experimental for some fans, and seems designed to frustrate people who wanted answers to The Force Awakens' mysteries.
Lucasfilm and Disney continue to recruit top-tier talent to produce comics and novels.The spin-off media feels increasingly irrelevant to Star Wars' ongoing story.
With the upcoming theme parks, television shows, and Rian Johnson's new Star Wars trilogy, Star Wars' future looks awfully bright.
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