By the mid 2000s it was clear: George Lucas had betrayed us Star Wars fans. From his director chair he shot lifeless actors on lifeless green screens as he produced the terrible prequels and updates to the original films.
In response, we the fans began to take ownership of Star Wars away from George Lucas. We became the moral owners and protectors of Star Wars. It was our galaxy now. We were Star Wars. He was not.
The Star Wars prequels and special editions have caused a lot of debate. Yet, their role in how they have shaped a fan community is often overlooked. The prequels illustrate the fascinating ways fan culture survives and evolves.
There is no question that the Star Wars of the 1990s and 2000s were bad if not terrible. However, you might love Star Wars more today because those movies exist. And you may even love Star Wars more directly because those movies were terrible.
The prequels and special editions changed fans' psychology. We became purists and protectors of the original trilogy. We wore shirts that said "Han Shot First" to damn changes in the special editions and we vocally scolded the CGI and mannequin actors that inhabited this new Star Wars. We become more than fans, we became critics and arbitrators of what was and was not truly Star Wars. We were no longer just followers of the Star Wars religion. We were the preacher--speaking purist doctrine against the changes and midichlorians.
In this revolt, the original films became something sacred. And we forgave many things about the originals. Gone were most Star Wars fans' old gripings about the weaknesses of Return of the Jedi, poor acting moments, plot holes, and for some, those annoying ewoks. There was now only the terrible prequels and the perfect originals. Our love for Star Wars grew under the threat of these bad movies and associated criticisms by non Star Wars fans.
In addition at a basic level, these terrible movies did one more thing for the fandom. They kept Star Wars alive. By simply existing they kept Star Wars front and center in our lives, conversations, and pop culture.
When I was a child this meant more toys, more costumes, and more going out to the movies with my parents who told me tales of a galaxy far, far away called 1977. As a teenager, this meant more video games, books, and continued conversations about the Star Wars universe.
Humans have a "use it or loose" brain. If we do not talk about something, we forget that something. Just think back to any random class you took in high school - things you knew well once are forgotten without continued conversation and focus.
Star Wars in theaters kept Star Wars top of mind. It kept the neural connections firing and well rehearsed. We all know the original Star Wars movies better because the prequels and special editions kept us playing as kids and talking as adults. Fandoms need new content and continued social facilitations to maintain them. In those ways, the prequels did fully provide.
The prequels prevented Star Wars from fading away in part by just existing. But they also evolved the fandom to new places. Star Wars become ours back when it needed us most to raise up our replica lightsabers and defend it.
Troy Campbell is an assistant professor of marketing and consumer behavior at the University of Oregon's Lundquist College of Business. He is a former Disney Imagineer and lifetime Star Wars fan.
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