When art becomes just another trusted brand
Image from Flickr user Ben Northern
By James Orbesen
105 days separate September 4th and December 18th. These are important dates for those faithful to a galaxy far, far away. September 4th was Force Friday, the day when merchandise for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was set to appear. And appear it did. Devotees lined up outside Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, Wal-Mart, anywhere that sold plastic wrapped in plastic, for the chance to buy the newest toys for the newest Star Wars film. From action figures to Lego sets to dolls to remote control BB-8s and beyond, it was gobbled with an intensity surpassed only by the desperate and the starving.
This is easy to dismiss. The crass consumerism is apparent and, really, what can we draw from this hunger for Star Wars toys? But, accurately, Star Wars is not just toys. Star Wars is a culture onto itself. It’s been so subsumed and absorbed by the larger populace, moving from some sort of niche territory to become the institution of pop culture. Darth Vader is likely as recognizable as Santa Claus, Ronald McDonald, and Jesus.
“May the force be with you,” has become a pop culture meme, ranking alongside “Beam me up, Scotty,” and “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” These were once short hands, signifying knowledge of a specific cultural product. Now they’re markers of the norm. If you don’t know them, and you don’t recite them, then you’re the odd one.
Saturday, the 5th, I strolled through my local Target, intent on picking up toilet paper. I decided to pass the Force Friday section, a few aisles done up in The Force Awakens marketing, nestled where the store typically puts its holiday decorations (space for Christmas was already being cleared). Of course, coming so late, I missed out on all the best toys. The racks were empty, the shelves were bare, all that remained were a few outliers, perhaps left behind since most stores celebrating Force Friday instituted limits on the quantities of duplicates each customer could buy.
The scene was not unlike that of a despoiled church, the altar askew, the treasures taken, and the instruments of salvation absconded with or, due to ignorance, scattered across the ground. Big banners hung from the ceiling featuring characters both new and familiar. Psychic residue from large crowds now departed clung to the aisles. It wasn’t unlike the vibe directly after a long, crowded party, when the warmth of a mass of people lingers and the walls still hum from their auditory wake.
I picked through the ruins, holding up a life sized (for a child) doll of Kylo Ren, marveling at Lego sets featuring Poe and his X-Wing, toying with the action figures of John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey. I couldn’t help but feel I was some sort of archaeologist, looking at graven images, in awe of the invention and craft, but not quite sure the purpose or role these objects played.
I was struck at how eagerly fans scooped up toys based off characters they did not know.
Plastic has always been a big part of Star Wars. In fact, the franchise is known almost as well for its toys as it is its films. But what Force Friday is all about, these toys and the (overwhelmingly) men who bought them, is faith. Aside from the quantity of products available, across multiple platforms (Star Wars is also a Lego thing, and a video game thing, and its own toy line, and its own series of films, cartoons, shorts and, yes, Holiday Specials) I was struck at how eagerly fans scooped up toys based off characters they did not know.
Who is Poe? Well, he’s played by Oscar Isaac. From what little we see of him in the teasers and trailers, he flies an X-Wing, much like Luke did. He wears orange and seems to get a kick out of flying, almost like a futuristic Tom Cruise-cum-Maverick. That’s about it. Yet, the character is featured in marketing, play sets, action figures, dolls, and consumed wholesale. But who is he? Why do people care about him? No one knows who Poe is because we have not seen the film. The titled intimacy of Lego’s kit “Poe’s X-Wing” spells it out. It’s called Poe’s X-Wing. Who? Poe who? Does it matter?
Faith has always been a core principle of Star Wars. The Force itself is a physical manifestation of spiritual belief. Obi-Wan can cloud the minds of others through will. Luke Skywalker can summon his lightsaber from an ice mound if he believes he can enough. The Emperor shoots lighting. Even the way Yoda describes the Force is both as an energy field and a physical presence. Though it surrounds us, it also binds us, an action with connotations both physical and meta.
And much like faith is center focus in Star Wars, the films’ fans are equally faith-driven. This has been evident from day one. The very term blockbuster is a faith-based creation. If you line up, baking in the hot sun, sweating, dripping, not unlike a penitent in a hair shirt, then you go through that pain based off word of mouth, taking someone’s opinion at face value, or you go back and watch it because you believed so fervently in the film projected in front of your face.
Boba Fett, perhaps the second most important visual cue of Star Wars after Darth Vader, was a character sold to children without any sort of prior background. The unexpected success of Star Wars led to an unexpected demand for toys. And Kenner, the manufacturer, struggled to fill the gap. Often, parents, shopping for their children, were forced to buy coupons or cardboard stand-ins of toys, explaining to their children that once supply was increased, the real toys would be on their way.
What Force Friday demonstrates is the willingness of fans to toss down cash on the belief that what they’re purchasing has meaning, and the glad-handing of producers and executives catering to that.
No one knew Boba Fett until the 1978 Holiday Special. He was an incidental character, a small bit in a larger project. And when he briefly appeared in Irvin Kershner’s 1980 The Empire Strikes Back, kids went nuts, as they should have. He was a special mail order figure, something you had to send away for, based on infinitesimal screen time. Only his look and mystique moved product. According to lore, Boba Fett’s action figure, originally featuring a spring fired missile pack, killed someone, a choking incident, or so it was reported. This only increased that appeal of the figure, so intent were fans on this figure they had no knowledge of.
The desire to believe is deep and human and a little problematic, but it isn’t evil or wrong. What is, though, is attempting to manipulate that faith. What Force Friday demonstrates is the willingness of fans to toss down cash on the belief that what they’re purchasing has meaning, and the glad-handing of producers and executives catering to that. Now, that can be said about any product. We buy Dial soap, Cascade dishwashing packets, and Clorox bleach because we believe these are good products. We buy a can of Pepsi because we have faith in how good Pepsi is. Apple releases a new iPhone and, without any sort of hands-on, empirical data, people line up for hours and drop hundreds of dollars to go from a 5 to a 6.
But, unlike those brands, Star Wars is art. Okay, maybe a can of pop is art, but Star Wars is not a commodity. It is the result not just of work and labor but vision. Film should not be a commodity, though it is often treated as one. And for those who say, yes, films are art, but also a business, then I feel that’s a path to a slippery slope.
If The Force Awakens, when it premiers on December 18th, is just noise and static, does anyone believe it won’t still be the biggest movie all year? At this point, audiences can sit blindfolded, ears plugged, shoving popcorn in their faces, and still be happy they’re in the presence of another Star Wars film. Much like the prequels, it doesn’t matter the quality of the film; success is assured. This only comes about by playing on the hopes and dreams of the faithful.
When films become commodities it means films become Dial soap. Is it good? I guess.
Why do you think Disney released a teaser of The Force Awakens more than a year before the film was set to debut? The answer is simple. Like any trailer or teaser, it is simply to generate buzz. Plenty of that resulted. One only has to comb YouTube for the innumerable fan reaction videos, people shouting, crying, jumping, screaming in ecstasy over this new, and I use this word emphatically, product.
Who is Poe? Do you really need to know? He’s in the newest Star Wars film and you should buy this product accordingly. Trust us. It’s Star Wars. You know it’ll be good.
That line of thinking is insidious and it takes advantage of audiences. Maybe one can argue fans are using their dollars to satisfy their own desires. I’d reply that these are manufactured desires, that Force Friday was an obvious attempt to capitalize on the passions of devotees and to squeeze as much monetary blood as possible.
As studios continue to consolidate, dig their heels in, and grow increasingly conservative with their offerings, as Disney, which owns both Star Wars and Marvel, fattens, as Universal, which released the biggest film of 2015 so far, Jurassic World, a reboot, moves forward with even more dredging, this desire to prey upon the faithful will only get worse. There will be more Force Fridays, asking fans to offer up their cash before they even pay for their first ticket.
If that proves to be effective, do films even have to be good? Because if it says DC, Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Jurassic (whatever), people will go. They have faith.
There are outliers, like this summer’s Fantastic Four, a failure despite featuring semi-well-known characters. But there was also Furious 7, the seventh Fast and Furious film. Seven. And it broke records. Director James Wan drove it to the bank.
When films become commodities it means films become Dial soap. Is it good? I guess. More importantly, as studios will likely press, does it get the job done? I think we all know what that really means.
James Orbesen is a professor from Chicago and author of the forthcoming bookon the comics of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly (Sequart). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Jacobin, PopMatters, and elsewhere.