After the release of Revenge of the Sith, I was done with Star Wars. The prequel trilogy had violently driven home that the entire franchise was damaged. The well had been poisoned. George Lucas was revealed to be a talentless hack director, whose early successes still had something special about them, but he hadn’t been able to follow up on them in any measurable way (that didn’t involve teaming up with Steven Spielberg). He wasn’t a bad producer, but even there his track record was lackluster at best.

When he followed up Revenge of the Sith with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it was clear, the man was rudderless.

So for me, Star Wars was a dead franchise. I could still enjoy the original trilogy if I shut off my brain and ignored large chunks (particularly of Return of the Jedi), and I’m tempted to this day to check out some of the Expanded Universe novels. But there was really nothing about the franchise that interested me anymore. Lucas had effectively destroyed any affection I had for what had been one of the highlights of my childhood.

Then along came Dave Filoni.

Coming into Lucasfilm Animation from Nickelodeon, where he had directed some episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Filoni was the breath of fresh air that the franchise needed. And he seemed to understand all of the problems that I’ve been outlining over the past few painful, painful days.

First off, in 2008 he directed Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated feature set during the three-year gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It was basically a straight-up adventure film where Anakin (voiced by Matt Lanter) and Obi-Wan (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) were assigned to rescue Jabba the Hut’s kidnapped son and negotiate a treaty between the Hutts and the Republic. The film introduced a few new characters; Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) was Anakin’s new Padawan, Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman), Count Dooku’s (Christopher Lee) secret apprentice and a deadly Sith assassin, and Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker), a clone trooper who would eventually become a central character in the world of The Clone Wars.

Plotwise, the film is pretty simple, but at the same time, it captures the swashbuckling nature of the Star Wars universe that had been lost in the prequel series.

Then, Filoni and Henry Gilroy developed the concept into an animated series for Cartoon Network. The Clone Wars debuted on October 3, 2008 and ran for 5 seasons before switching networks to Netflix for its 6th season. It was just announced recently that a 7th and final season would be coming in 2020 for the newly launched Disney+ streaming service.

The Clone Wars took all of the potential that Lucas had wasted over three films and six years and breathed new life into the entire franchise.

I haven’t seen all of Clone Wars, but I have been cherry picking the best episodes and storylines over the past few weeks and I am not exaggerating when I say that it is better than anything Lucas has done with the franchise since Return of the Jedi. This show even, dare I say it, redeems Anakin, making him an actual character with depth who displays growth. Obi-Wan, while not developed to the extent that Anakin is (because which character really NEEDED the work put in?), becomes a bit more than a simple, somewhat reckless, swashbuckling hero that he was in the films, and even Count Dooku and his assassin Asajj get fantastic narrative arcs that not only just make them fully-realized characters, but expand on the mythology of the universe.

But best of all is Ahsoka. She begins as a rough-around-the-edges Padawan but eventually evolves into one of the series’ most fascinating characters.

And did I mention that Filoni also brought back Darth Maul (Sam Witwer) and turned him into Obi-Wan’s nemesis?

There’s just so much fantastic storytelling in this series that I can’t even begin to do it justice. By the time the series ended, we had explored magic, the source of the Force, questions of individuality and choice in the clone troopers, and even laid the groundwork for Anakin’s eventual transformation in a much more satisfying way than Lucas ever did.

Granted, with over a hundred episodes, Filoni was almost guaranteed to be able to provide a much more satisfying exploration of the characters than the films were ever going to be able to even try. But it’s more than that, really. The series demonstrates an understanding of how to develop characters through both action and dialogue, while at the same time, expanding both the mythology and the politics of the Star Wars universe. Season six, in particular, laid the groundwork for all of the shit that went down in Revenge, explaining exactly what the hell Order 66 was, Palpatine’s power grab, and also had Yoda exploring the nature of the Force in a way that had never been attempted before.

It is, without question, a series that every Star Wars fan should watch.

Then, on October 30, 2012, Disney announced that they were buying Lucasfilm for $4.05 BILLION DOLLARS.

And the world went a little mad.

You probably remember it. Disney owned Star Wars¸ Indiana Jones, and all of Lucasfilm’s shit. Video games, animation, the lot. And in 2014 they’d own the merchandising too.  

There were worries that Disney would fuck up the brand, but, I mean, come on. Lucas had already fucked that shit all up. But by 2016, Star Wars toys had once again become the top-selling brand with over $700 million in sales. For a while, it looked like Disney understood the property and knew what they needed to do to keep it vital. If there was a dark spot that everyone could agree on, it was that the Expanded Universe was no longer canon. All of those stories and all of their potential for exploration were deemed persona non grata (although Disney reserved the right to pick and choose ideas and characters that they could introduce down the line).

On the plus side, Clone Wars was still in the mix, so we didn’t lose all of Filoni’s work there.

Filoni’s second series, Star Wars Rebels, premiered in the fall of 2014 and like Clone Wars before it, set out to flesh out the years in between the feature films – this time, set fourten years after the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi. The stories are all set just before A New Hope and as with Clone Wars do an amazing job expanding the mythology and history of the Star Wars universe in ways the feature films could never hope to do.

Rebels ran for four seasons, through 2018 on Disney XD before moving over to the Disney Channel itself. During its run, Filoni served as the supervising director, although he stepped aside in 2016 when he was named overseer of all future and current Lucasfilm Animation projects. He still returned as supervising director for the final season, though

As Overseer (or, technically, Head of Lucasfilm Animation), he also created and the newest Star Wars animated series, Star Wars Resistance in 2018, which is set during the lead up to the new Disney sequel The Force Awakens. He did not work directly on the show as he did Clone Wars and Rebels due to the fact that he is developing the upcoming final season of Clone Wars. He did establish that he would be providing direction and notes to the story team in much the same way Lucas did on the start of Clone Wars.

I assume that means, he won’t really be around much.

I haven’t seen a single episode of Resistance but the first season won a Saturn Award for Best Animated Series. I have it on good authority, however, that the second season goes downhill.

That seems to parallel the audience reception for the Disney sequels and spin-offs.

At least until The Mandalorian dropped.

Personally, the new Disney prequels have been a mixed bag. For me, The Force Awakens, was a bit too much of a redo of A New Hope, which is exactly what I expected from J.J. Abrams. The man is not a very good director. A fantastic producer, but when it comes to directing, he’s never had an original idea and has made his bank on recycling concepts and hoping that nostalgia will patch all of his filmmaking holes.

Then The Last Jedi arrived, and while it was a beautiful film, it suffered from typical Rian Johnson problems, in that except for this first film Brick  and his latest film Knives Out, he becomes too enamored of his clever ideas and fails to construct a compelling story to connect the dots. Neither film was bad – especially not in a George Lucas-level fiasco – but neither have connected with me, personally.

Abrams was too obsessed with recreating feelings we’d already had, and Johnson was too obsessed with subverting the expectations of what a Star Wars film should be. The Force Awakens was a film where the director lost his identity in fan service and The Last Jedi was a film where the director imposed his identity on the franchise, dismissing fan service entirely.

There has to be a happy medium.

Rogue One  tried to do just that, telling the story of the Rebels who stole the Death Star plans and delivered them to Princess Leia just before the opening shot of A New Hope. There’s a lot of great work in there, digging into the gritty underworld that was the Rebel Alliance. The characters were a bit lacking, but personally, I loved this film. It was exactly the sort of Star Wars film I wanted. It didn’t rely on characters we already knew, the Force was invoked but not relied upon, and ultimately, it had a finality that really made it a unique experience in the context of Star Wars.

Solo, by contrast, wasn’t a bad film, but suffered from having to work in a ton of fan service without giving us a film-worthy plot. It’s still miles ahead of any of the prequel films, so there’s that. But Disney was beginning to show some weaknesses in its take on the franchise.

And if anything proved that it was the toy sales, which were way down despite The Last Jedi being the top grossing film in the U.S for 2017. Remember, this is a franchise that lives and dies with its toy marketing. The Last Jedi, by trying to subvert expectations, may have helped contribute to a destabilizing of kids’ interest in the films.

Was The Last Jedi not toyetic enough?

I don’t think Johnson cares. But Disney should. The core of what Star Wars has always been is swashbuckling adventure where fuck-ups overcome their shortcomings, sometimes entirely by accident, and win out over fascistic government control. Disney had no problems tossing Phil Lord and Christopher Miller off of Solo when the tone didn’t match the official line, and they didn’t fret about bringing in Tony Gilroy to tighten up and “fix” Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One. That they didn’t intervene in Johnson’s film demonstrates a couple of things.

The control over films that expand on Star Wars history is much tighter than it is on the films that move the franchise forward. At the same time, the leeway given to Johnson is unheard of. Sure, back when Empire was written, they were making it up by the seat of their pants. Vader wasn’t Luke’s father until well into rewrites and Leia wasn’t Luke’s sister until well into production on Return. They had no idea what they were doing.

But this isn’t the early eighties. This is a billion-dollar franchise that relies on both film revenue and toy/merchandise sales. The idea that they would give Johnson free reign to do whatever he wanted is ludicrous, but here we are.

And toy sales suffered thanks to Johnson’s directorial aesthetic.

I think that, finally, The Mandalorian has hit that sweet spot.

Created by Jon Favreau and (surprise!) Dave Filoni, The Mandalorian has done what no Star Wars film has done since Empire Strikes Back: it has united the fans. While there are a few random voices here and there around the internet who bemoan the reliance on Spaghetti Western tropes and symbolism, overall, reaction to The Madalorian has been exceptionally positive.

I blame Filoni.

And Baby Yoda.

Hell, if anything’s gonna spur toy sales into the stratosphere, it’s gonna be Baby Yoda.

Until Filoni is given the keys to the kingdom, though, we’re going to have to sit through whatever J.J. Abrams has in store for us in Rise of Skywalker. After that, we may finally get to start exploring just what the Star Wars universe has to offer. And hopefully, Dave Filoni will be the guiding hand on everything we see moving forward.

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