Originally published on Legendarium Media here…
The overwhelming reaction to the latest Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, which was released on October 19, has prompted me to think more carefully about the role of Star Wars in pop culture. People clearly responded to the trailer on a deeper emotional level than simply excitement for the latest blockbuster action film. IMAX reported $6.5 million in advance ticket sales just a few days after the trailer, easily shattering the previous record of $1 million. It’s often said that people invest so much in Star Wars because it is a “modern myth.” But what does that really mean? The term “myth” conveys something more than “just” a story. Myths are stories that hold some sort of “deeper truth” for a community. As I’ve written over these past few weeks, I think it’s clear that Star Wars contains deeper truths about life and morality (as is also clear from books like Star Wars and Philosophy).
But is Star Wars truly a global myth? Before the 20th century, we traditionally identified myths with specific, relatively homogeneous cultures. Greek myths came from ancient Greece, Chinese myths came from the Han Chinese, etc. Although there was some cultural cross-fertilization (most notably how the Romans appropriated Greek mythology wholesale), myths often served to define national or ethnic identities. Kings would often use myths to justify their divine right to rule. With globalization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we have seen an unprecedented spread of ideas and cultures across the globe. Pop culture has become especially pervasive. Star Wars: Episode VII will play in theaters in nearly every country in the world, along with Star Wars merchandising.
That said, the global reach of Star Wars isn’t sufficient to qualify it as a “global myth.” After all, many other pop culture franchises, including Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Marvel, have fans around the world. I’ve seen Avengers backpacks in some of the poorest parts of Asia and Harry Potter sold at bookstores in South America. But to be a global myth, I believe a story has to not only speak to people from around the world, but also to draw upon cultural and intellectual traditions from around the world. Star Wars does that in a way and to an extent that I believe no other major franchise comes close to accomplishing.
First, Star Wars engages with the “Big Questions” of life—morality, mortality, etc.—in a way that is universally accessible. Because it’s set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” it transcends time and space. All cultures have at some points told stories about the heavens. With the Force, Lucas took care to blend elements from several religious traditions. There is no God, just a set of moral principles. The Jedi suspicion of attachments echoes that of Buddhism, whereas Vader’s redemptive arc hearkens to Christianity’s promise of forgiveness. Moreover, the characters approach these Big Questions differently; Qui-Gon is a true believer, Luke a new believer, and Han a skeptic. This provides viewers with multiple viewpoints through which to understand the themes in the story. This is in contrast to a franchise like Star Trek, which addresses philosophical and ethical issues from a distinctly American perspective.
Second, unlike Harry Potter, which mostly draws upon Western traditions, Star Wars draws upon a truly global range of cultures and traditions. The first act of A New Hope evokes the American Western, with farmers in a desert, warlike natives, and a seedy bar. The romance scenes between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in Attack of the Clones seem awkward because they draw upon more formalized traditions of courtly romance from Medieval Europe. Lucas also drew inspiration from Japanese cinema, particularly Akira Kurosawa’s work. Many of the Star Wars costumes were based on Japanese designs. Concept artist Ralph McQuarrie famously based Darth Vader’s outfit on that of a samurai warrior. Star Wars even contains influences from sub-Saharan Africa. The visual design team for The Phantom Menace looked at tribal masks when designing the battle droids and the tattoos on Darth Maul’s face. In short, Star Wars not only appeals to people and cultures from around the world, but is also a product of people and cultures from around the world.
Despite all that, Star Wars hasn’t yet truly had its moment on the global stage. When the Original Trilogy came out in the late 1970s, the world was in the midst of the Cold War and still divided into capitalist and communist blocs. Moreover, the economic boom in Asia had only recently begun, so the original Star Wars phenomenon was inaccessible to the vast majority of the world’s population. When the Prequel Trilogy came out at the turn of the century, the United States and Western Europe were still the biggest markets for pop culture. On average, over 45% of box office revenues for each of the Prequel films came from domestic markets (compared to less than a third for most Marvel films today). We are now in a new era of globalization for pop culture. I for one will be fascinated to see how the rest of the world responds to The Force Awakens.