1. The diversity debate: Before the new trailer launched last night, I gave an interview to a podcast where the host and I talked about, among other things, how immediately effective Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is as an audience surrogate in the original. He doesn’t know much about the world outside Tatooine, so he can ask questions and get answers in a way that advances the plot and doesn’t slow down the storytelling. He becomes political over the course of the series, but when “A New Hope” starts, he’s defined by a very universal desire to get off his uncle’s moisture farm and see more of the galaxy. He gets frustrated and confused at times when the story seems deadlocked, as in “Empire Strikes Back” when he’s stuck in a round of training with Yoda, and Han and Leia are cooling their heels while on the run. He grows into heroism and moral clarity as our understanding of the universe expands.
Part of what’s striking about the trailer for “The Force Awakens” is the explicit way it positions a woman — Rey (Daisy Ridley) — and a man of color — Finn (John Boyega) — as the inheritors of Luke’s role. “I’m no one,” Rey, who seems to be eking out a subsistence living on another desert planet, tells an unseen interlocutor toward the beginning of the trailer. “I was raised to do one thing,” Finn says, despairing, over scenes that imply that he’s a former Imperial pilot. “But I’ve got nothing to fight for.” Their searches for new identities and missions may start from a place of greater specificity than Luke’s did, which makes sense given how familiar the “Star Wars” universe is now. But they’re positioned as the universal figures for everyone to identify with. Maybe this will mean Rey’s gender and Finn’s race won’t play much of a role in their character arcs. But the framing suggests that people who look like Finn and Rey can be universal frigates for audiences’ dreams just as much as Luke Skywalker was, no matter what some Twitter racists think.
2. The rise of fan theories: Because we live in the era of Internet-driven races to be first! and right! before everyone else, efforts to solve the trailer for “The Force Awakens” began pretty much immediately on its airing. The biggest driver of speculation was a decided lack of Luke Skywalker in a trailer that pointedly showed us both Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia* (Carrie Fisher), and the identity of the Sith with that incredibly impractical crossguard lightsaber. Some speculation suggests that Luke himself is the Big Bad. Other theories point to potential Skywalker offspring, since “The Force Awakens” appears to be set at some remove from the events of the original trilogy. If I were pressed to give an answer, I’d guess that for all that Disney has thrown out the “Star Wars” Expanded Universe — the books, comics, games, etc., that fleshed out George Lucas’s creation after the events of Return of the Jedi — J.J. Abrams might have held on to Han and Leia’s kids from that universe, Jacen and Jaina Solo.
But all this is beside the point. I profoundly don’t want to know more about the Guy With The Impractical Lightsaber And Some Intergenerational Issues before I see “The Force Awakens” for the first time. I want to be shocked and either delighted or devastated the way I was by Darth Vader’s “No, I am your father” all those years ago. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to having glimpsed a plot twist before anyone else. There’s far greater pleasure in being profoundly surprised. Part of the power of the original “Star Wars” trilogy was its bigness and unfamiliarity. The contours of the current cultural conversation are designed to make these very big pictures feel picked to pieces by the time they actually arrive in theaters.
3. The status of canon: Right now, a great deal of pop culture is dominated by large franchises that are adapted from existing works but have complicated relationships to their source material. The Marvel movies are headed toward a “Civil War” storyline, but it’s not clear to what extent that plot arc will match up with the big comics event. Abrams, who tackled the revitalization of the “Star Trek” universe before diving into “Star Wars,” solved the problem of integrating his new versions of old characters by suggesting that they existed in an alternate reality. But while comics fans may be used to stories rebooting, and “Star Trek” has moved from crew to crew over the years, “Star Wars” is fascinating precisely because there were decades of continuous storytelling set in the universe (even if things like “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,” a novel with some very racy Luke-Leia stuff, were superseded by the movies as as “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” revealed that the two were siblings).
The “Star Wars” Expanded Universe kept the franchise vital and alive during the years when it didn’t seem like we’d get more movies beyond the original trilogy, and it was solace during the dark years of Episodes I-III, when it seemed like George Lucas might permanently tarnish his legacy. Certainly, I have much more attachment to Michael Stackpole’s “Rogue Squadron” books than I do to the three most recent “Star Wars” movies. It absolutely makes sense that Disney decided to scrap the Expanded Universe, opening up storytelling space for moviemakers rather than committing them to an uneven batch of plotlines. But it’s also clear that some of the main ideas from the Expanded Universe are carrying over into the revitalized movies, among them, that killing the Emperor doesn’t make unifying a galaxy any easier. As I’ve said earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if some specific characters that made for particularly good drama end up carrying over, too. Whatever happens, though, the official death of the Expanded Universe is probably a good reminder for fans everywhere that just because the latest official story differs from stories past doesn’t mean that a big corporation like Disney can take the stories you love away from you.
4. Corporate synergy: Speaking of which, there’s something truly astonishing about the fact that a “Star Wars” trailer debuted during Monday Night Football, signaling both the convergence of the jock and nerd worlds (which really are both just intense enthusiasm with different objects) and the full might of Disney, which owns both Lucasfilm and ESPN. If this is a moment of triumph for people who grew up being treated like they were weird for loving stories about aliens**, it ought to be a bittersweet one: Rather than occupying the position of scrappy rebels against a dull, majority culture, our enthusiasms have become a massive business and the plaything of gigantic corporations. It’s one thing to get more of what we want. But it’s also worth thinking hard about the challenging role science fantasies such as “Star Wars” might have once played in American culture and to keep a sharp eye out for the ways in which these genres get blunted by the corporations that stand to make planet-size piles of money off them.
* Very minor thing I am curious about: Will Leia go by Leia Organa, as in the movies? Or Leia Organa Solo, as in the Expanded Universe?
** I am fascinated to think what it’s going to be like for a generation of science-fiction, fantasy, comics and gaming enthusiasts to grow up with ours as the majority culture, rather than thinking of nerds as an isolated and marginalized subgroup.