This is Part 3 of a three-part series of articles examining the perception and significance of canon in fictional media. Click here to read Part 1, which discusses Dragon Ball and comic books, and click here for Part 2, which discusses Doctor Who.
Before starting, I would like to apologize for the lack of posts over these last few weeks. To make a long story short, between work and school, time got away from me.
But here it is: the big one. While it hasn’t been around for as long as Doctor Who, which I discussed last time, Star Wars has still been around for decades. Over forty years, as a matter of fact. Ever since the beginning, there have been spin-off books and tie-in media, such as radio dramas, encyclopedias, and, of course, Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which is often seen to be the first entry into the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, now officially referred to as Legends.
That is where the current splintering (no pun intended) of hardcore fans of Star Wars and its Expanded Universe stems from today. As of April 25, 2014, Lucasfilm Ltd., which was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2012, declared that all Expanded Universe works up to that point would be retconned in order to make way for the then-upcoming sequel trilogy, which began with The Force Awakens in 2015. The only exception to this was the 2008 animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and, of course, the six films making up the Star Wars saga. The old EU would be officially referred to as Legends from then on, and certain stories such as books from this old continuity would still be published with a Legends banner.
I remember millions of fans expressing outrage at this announcement. They were upset that the countless novels and stories which took place after Return of the Jedi that were officially endorsed by Lucasfilm were not going to be directly adapted to the screen. The return of Emperor Palpatine and the revelation that he was actually preparing the galaxy for the invasion of the monstrous Yuuzhan Vong was no longer canonical. Han and Leia’s three children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin, would be replaced by Kylo Ren in the upcoming films. Grand Admiral Thrawn, a beloved villain, would be cast aside.
Over thirty-five years of stories was declared to be non-canonical, and many fans took that as a statement declaring that they did not matter or had no value. However, they are still a resource to be tapped by future authors. If there are elements from the old Legends continuity that an author likes, they can reintegrate it into the new canon. This has already been done with Thrawn in the animated series Rebels, which, alongside its preceding series, The Clone Wars, also recanonized the survival, return, and true fate of Darth Maul at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine.
The important question to be asked here is this: Should a story’s quality be directly tied to its canonical status? I have been presenting this question since Part 1 of this series of articles. But while the flames seem to have died down a bit in the years since the Legends declaration, 2017’s The Last Jedi ignited them once again…
The Case of Luke Skywalker
Holy hell, did the flame wars return. In Legends, Luke Skywalker reestablished the Jedi Order following the events of the original trilogy and became an almighty, nearly infallible hero. In The Last Jedi, he went into self-exile and cut himself off from the Force because he got so caught up in his own mythological status that a single moment of weakness led to everything he built to be quickly torn down.
Fans were livid, shocked that the hero of the original trilogy was not an ultra-powerful badass like he had been in the old canon. There were many who expressed legitimate anger over Luke’s decision to leave everything behind after his one failure, expressing that “he wouldn’t have done that in the old EU”. Except this is not Legends. It was never going to be Legends.
I can not go into much detail discerning the differences between Legends Luke and canon Luke, as I am unfamiliar with Legends and do not have much inclination to explore such a vast well of mostly literary works, which is why I have presented very basic descriptors for Legends Luke. What shocks me is the level of outrage many have expressed over the creative decisions regarding the character. The phrase “ruined [my] childhood” comes to mind, but in actuality, how does this film released in 2017 really impact one’s childhood from decades past? Should it affect one’s youth? Realistically, no. The past is past. And while one could make the argument that Kylo Ren’s declaration of letting the past die, “kill it if you have to,” this is something that can only be done voluntarily. One only lets their past die if they wish it to be dead. If one does not want their childhood affected by this film, then why are they so fixated on the idea that their past has been altered or “ruined” as though the decision was out of their hands and orchestrated entirely by Disney?
That is not to say that what has been done with Luke should be blindly praised, however. If you do not like the direction taken with his character, that is fine, but expecting something that had no basis in this new story and then becoming upset that your expectations were not met (something which can be applied to many elements of the new films)? That is ludicrous. Childish, even.
The canon of Star Wars, unlike what I have covered previously, is firmly labeled and established, meaning that discussing the notion of canon is almost meaningless here because there is not much to discuss in terms of what is or is not canonical. Ultimately, the vast majority of people who go and see the films either do not know or do not care about the expanded universe. The films are not made for the hardcore fans who go deep into the lore and expanded universe; they are made for general audiences. That is not to say the movies are inherently bad, but that the EU is ultimately unnecessary. It is there for those who want a bit more or are curious, but in the grand scheme of things it is more of a footnote of sorts.