Welcome to the second issue of my newsletter about the Star Wars shared universe! It's timed to coincide with NYU Abu Dhabi's virtual commencement, and it'll conclude with pieces by members of the NYUAD Star Wars Research Collective who are graduating today. You've already heard from one senior, Harper Cho, in the first issue, which you can find here.
BACK COVER BLURBS
Yesterday I received a proof of the front and back covers for Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe from the assistant philosophy editor at Bloomsbury, Lucy Russell, and I was thrilled to discover that it features three very generous blurbs from scholars whose work I respect a great deal: Douglas Brode, Marc Dolan, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick. I'm deeply grateful to them for taking the time to read the book (and, yes, for saying such nice things about it).
By BHRIGU BHATRA
[Warning: Contains spoilers for the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.]
It seems that everyone (read: Star Wars fans) has an opinion about Lando Calrissian’s droid companion, L3-37. Played by the English actress, writer, and producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, L3 is quite hard to ignore, and out of all the characters in Solo: A Star Wars Story, it is she who generates the most discussion. Different factions of reviewers online either adore L3’s style of humor and wholehearted dedication to droid rights—or hate her for the same reasons. For those who dislike her, an easy excuse is ready: L3 is the Star Wars version of the SJW, the social justice warrior. She ceaselessly forces her opinions about droid rights on everyone in the movie and ruins the fun of the adventure story. For those who loathe her, L3’s presence explains the less-than-lukewarm reception that Solo gathered at the box office. This spectrum of reactions also surrounds L3’s death scene in the movie.
The fans who hate L3 and SJWs usually have some unsavory opinions about feminism that I would like to avoid elaborating here. What I am more interested in is the spectrum of reactions that feminist fans have brought into the discussion. Most high-profile reviewers from the Vulture,Indiewire, and the Atlantic cheer for the first “robot revolutionary” and are impressed with L3’s final death sequence and her upload into the Millennium Falcon. In the Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber notes that her fate “nearly suggests a droid has a soul—and it definitely says the soul of Solo is this robot.” L3’s final fate approximates the special honor that is granted to the greatest of the Jedi: becoming a Force Ghost.
Other feminists roar with laughing approval at L3’s snappy humor and then look askance (as Kate Gardner does in The Mary Sue)at the death scene, none too impressed with narrative choices that seem to strip away free will and agency from a character who strives for these qualities. They lament the decision to lower the volume of L3's voice into the background hum (and occasional creak, and minor explosion) of the Millennium Falcon as the organics do their thing. Worst of all, L3 persists with her full consciousness in the Millennium Falcon without Lando and instead has to stick with Han, who as we see in the original trilogy, is a none too fond of droids.
I agree with the feminists who criticize L3’s fate, but want to expand the critique a little further. Traditionally, droids play a comedic role in the Star Wars movies, usually through some elements of physical comedy that give the implication that it is alright for droids to be physically abused, as if their bodies have no value. L3 consistently rejects that notion throughout Solo, especially when we first meet her throttling a droid fight organizer. L3 is also surprisingly sexual, again highlighting that a droid’s body has dimensions that are new for the audience, and which must be respected. Kornhaber notes this idea when he writes that “her tall silhouette, it must be said, has noticeable hips,” but then he falls back on the idea that the soul of L3 is what matters, not her body. Throughout the movie, L3 tries to bring the audience around to respecting the bodies of droids in order to respect their rights. The fact that the only thing of value that remains after her death is her programming is a sad irony indeed.
SABERS AND SOUTH KOREA
By DANIEL LEE
The Star Wars franchise has made enormous waves throughout countless countries. South Korea, however, is not one of those countries.
The most successful Star Wars entry in Korea was The Force Awakens, which only ranked at 23 in the 2015 box office. While there are many theories that attempt to explain the franchise’s lack of popularity in the country, it is widely argued that the botched theatrical release of the original trilogy explains its failure. The original film was released in South Korean theaters in June 1978, more than a year after its US release; Return of the Jedi was released in 1987, four years late; and The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have a South Korean release date listed in IMDb until the special edition in 1997! (Yes, the third film in the trilogy was released before the second!) Apparently, Twentieth-Century Fox imposed fees for Empire Strikes Back that Korean theaters refused to pay. Film scholars have argued that the non-sequential and limited theatrical releases of the original trilogy account in large part for the franchise’s failure to establish a firm fanbase in South Korea.
Nonetheless, as South Korea has shown exponential growth in influence as a global media and tech producer in recent years, the Star Wars franchise has attempted to capitalize on the country’s marketing platforms. Accompanying the release of The Rise of Skywalker in 2019, the Korean tech conglomerate Samsung released a “special edition Galaxy Note 10+” in a bundle that featured a Kylo Ren-themed black-and-red color scheme on the smartphone and its accompanying earphones. The back showcased the emblem of the First Order, and removing the phone’s stylus triggered a lightsaber sound effect. Earlier, with the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, the K-Pop boy band EXO was hired to promote the film. The band released the dub-step-influenced song, Lightsaber with a music video showcasing the pop-stars wielding lightsaber hilts in convenience stores and bars. The band’s involvement in the film’s marketing campaign later caused controversy when a premiere event featuring the main cast members was swarmed by EXO fans who had come to watch the band’s performance. Following the event, Boyega tweeted he was “thinking to audition for EXO … to have an excuse to stay in Seoul.”
THE CURIOUS CASE OF STAR WARS IN CHINA
By JAMIE UY
The Force is not strong with Star Wars in China. Despite Disney's impressive marketing stunts for The Force Awakens—involving, but not limited to, stationing 500 Stormtroopers at the Great Wall and commissioning an exclusive Chinese theme song from pop star Lu Han—Star Wars films continue to do dismally at China's box office. The New York Times reported that Avengers: Endgame made more in its opening weekend in China than all the Star Wars premieres combined. Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen, who was cast alongside famous Chinese actor and director Jiang Wen in Rogue One to little fanfare, stated in an interview with SyFy Wire that “Chinese audiences didn’t grow up with Star Wars culture so unfortunately it didn’t work.”
What can we learn from the curious case of Star Wars in China? Star Wars as a phenomenon depends heavily on generational fandom and nostalgia. The original trilogy was not shown in China due to the Cultural Revolution banning Western art. The themes of individualism, agency, and rebellion espoused in the films certainly did not help endear Star Wars to the authorities of collectivist, Communist China. The artifacts of Star Wars history in China—few and far between—show how the US American space opera circulates across borders and becomes radically transformed by new cultural encounters. For example, an unlicensed lianhuanhua (Chinese picture storybook) adaptation of Star Wars from 1980 shows the Lars homestead as a modern house with a rice cooker, and characters wear Soviet space suits. More recently, a stunning Star Wars illustration by Chinese poster artist Huang Hai released for Lunar New Year 2021 draws on Chinese brush calligraphy and ink painting to reframe the story of the Jedi and the Sith through Eastern aesthetics.
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I'd love to hear your ideas and questions about Star Wars, as well as film, philosophy, literature, and cultural studies!