How can a Star Wars story stand alone?
The box office success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) welcomes a new creative strategy for the future of the Star Wars franchise: a departure from the episodic continuity of the Skywalker saga, towards an anthology of self-contained instalments that explore off-shoot and spin-off stories. Rogue One’s brand and marketing campaign heavily focuses on its function as a standalone movie, and while this might signal a significant shift for the Star Wars franchise (which has long-depended on the consistency of the Skywalker family) it is not a new or radical approach to sequels and franchises. Indeed, the contradictions and tensions of having to ‘stand alone’ whilst also being connected to something bigger and more expansive is central to understanding the formal development of sequels and franchises. For this reason, Rogue One’s overt embracing of this paradox in its marketing campaign sheds lights on the industrial and creative workings of franchise development, and serves as a case study for considering what it means to have self-contained ‘standalone’ instalments in the context of franchise production. In this way, a closer examination of this strategy might enhance our understanding of franchise cinema as a significant mode of production in contemporary entertainment; furthermore, it can shed light on the developing possibilities of franchising as a sustainable mode of production for the entertainment industry.
Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm Ltd., has indicated that following Episode IX (2019), the Star Wars franchise may focus on producing these anthology movies that, she explains, ‘don’t necessarily have to tie into something specific’. Such a shift underscores the polarised creative logic that franchise development has grappled with since its emergence as a significance industrial strategy in the new millennium; that is, fundamental to understanding the workings of franchise cinema is acknowledging the tension between open and closed form and the balancing of repetition with variation. The anthology strategy that frames Rogue One boldly stands astride these polarities in a way that reinforces the contradictions of franchise development: while embracing the ambiguities and openness of not having to ‘tie into something specific,’ it also makes that openness a condition of its resolution and purpose. Therefore, with the anthology series, Lucasfilm embraces the contradictions of its own strategy by exploring the in-betweens and sideline stories of the Star Wars universe.
In the business of creativity
The term ‘franchise’ is frequently invoked as a catch-all label of disparagement directed at Hollywood’s prolificacy for sequels, prequels, reboots, and spin-offs and is too often considered uncritically synonymous with commercial exploitation and regressive nostalgia. Of course, it cannot be denied that such qualities are common in movie franchises, but such factors are not objectively determined by the franchise mode of production. Alternatively, movie franchises can be defined as fostering a dependent relationship between industrial conditions such as intellectual property and licensing, and an experimentation with the conventions of creative form, such as interconnected cinematic universes, transmedia storytelling, and standalone anthologies. Whilst the Star Wars anthology series presents an example of the standalone strategy, examples like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) both demonstrate different ways of experimenting with interconnected and transmedia storytelling, although with different creative strategies and varying degrees of success. Similarly, with this new anthology strategy, Rogue One challenges the reliable conventions of the Star Wars franchise by embracing the often-contradicting polarities of industry and creativity. It overtly structures its publicity campaign and branding around it simultaneously being both related to and distanced from Star Wars, but also admits to experimenting with, and pushing the boundaries of, its own conventions.
In Film Sequels, Carolyn Jess-Cooke considers the abundance of sequels in the twentieth-first century as signalling a process of experimentation with form and genre within the context of franchising. Similarly, Bob Iger–CEO of The Walt Disney Company, has described Rogue One as ‘an experiment, of sorts’ that moves the franchise away from the well-known and loved formula and conventions of previous Star Wars episodes. In the same article, Iger states that the Star Wars anthology strategy demonstrates that Disney is ‘in the business of taking big risks’. Such risks can already be seen playing out at Marvel Studios (a subsidiary of Disney) with the MCU and its experimentation with genre, remediation, and multiple authorship. However, despite a publicity campaign heavily focused on a strategy driven by the slogan ‘it’s all connected’, the MCU struggles to make significant and compelling connections across its movie releases and television series. Therefore, the Star Wars and MCU franchises are examples of how negotiating the tension between industry and creativity also requires experimentation and risk.
A significant part of the risk involved with the Star Wars standalone strategy is its overt experimentation with the dynamics of sequential form, as Rogue One reveals the contradictory underpinnings of sequels and franchise development. R. Barton Palmer describes sequels as being fundamentally paradoxical; he considers the sequel to be ‘both an emergent singularity and also a part of what has gone before, as an entity for but not entirely in itself, as a textualization that is sufficiently insufficient, never hermetic, but rather always open to extension’ (45). This presents the sequel not only in relation to continuation and open form, which are central to its most simply and conventional definition, but also as a perpetual motioning towards singularity and closure. In this way, Palmer considers the formal mechanism of sequels as a delicate negotiation of being ‘just enough’ and ‘not enough’. Similarly, Rogue One boldly positions itself as autonomous in the way it distances itself from the rest of the franchise, with new characters, a different stylistic tone, and narrative closure; at the same time, it plays a vital role in reimagining the vast expansiveness of the entire franchise, by filling plot holes, revealing background stories, and adding character development to familiar characters. Therefore, in Rogue One the classical preoccupation with closure is not altogether abandoned or undermined, but is reformulated, re-operationalised, and subsumed into a dynamic textual structure that is continually shifting and revising its conditions and conventions.
Even though such contradictions might be conceptualised in compelling creative ways, this also works in tandem with the industrial objectives of this strategy. The anthology strategy facilitates the industrial longevity of the franchise, as it sets up a creative logic that facilitates The Walt Disney Company’s plan to continue making Star Wars movies indefinitely. There is an additional paradox with this point, because it is the concept of referred or emergent closure that provides the flexibility for Disney to continue making movies ‘that don’t necessary have to tie into something specific’, to recall Kennedy’s expression mentioned above. For Disney, therefore, the early success of the anthology strategy with Rogue One proves that a negotiation with closure also has benefits for the continuing sustainability of the franchise. Nonetheless, in sequel form the concept of an hermetically autonomous text can at any moment be overshadowed by narrative expansion—a possibility that also looms over contemporary moviemaking practice with the increase of franchise cinema—and this formal dynamic also provides a failsafe function. Rogue One is, therefore, perhaps a productive example of what Palmer is describing when he talks about sequels as ‘an emergent singularity and also a part of what has come before,’ because the standalone strategy not only embraces the paradoxes of sequel logic but it also boldly embellishes and complicates the marketing campaign that brands it as both ‘standalone’ and ‘a Star Wars story’.
Standing alone in a galaxy far, far away
Rogue One can be further seen as carrying the weight of contradiction if we accept that it is not as independent and disconnected from the rest of the Star Wars franchise as its marketing campaign implores us to think. The standalone premise allows for the omission of multiple Star Wars conventions, like the opening crawl, the Jedi, any mention of the Skywalker family, or the John Williams score; nevertheless, Rogue One is Star Wars. Its connections with the rest of the franchise are frequently discussed on online sites as ‘Easter eggs’ that one should look out for in subsequent viewings, which demonstrates how Rogue One exists within the same universe or world as previous Star Wars episodes. However, I suggest that identifying such connections merely at the level of ‘spotting the hidden clues’ falls short of some of the more compelling creative and conceptual associations across the Star Wars franchise. More significantly, therefore, it is Rogue One’s capacity to reimagine and reinvigorate previous instalments that most powerfully complicates its ‘standalone’ status and quite possibly makes it one of the most significant contributions to the Star Wars franchise to-date.
Of the most common critical and popular responses to Rogue One is the way it unexpectedly reappraises previous Star Wars episodes. This underscores the hypertextual nature of sequels, as among its creative achievements is its capacity to transform the meaning and resonance of previous instalments, specifically Episode IV–A New Hope (1977) but also the entire franchise. In describing the dynamics of transtextual relations, Gerard Genette describes hypertextuality as ‘any text derived from a previous text either through simple transformation, which I shall call from now on transformation, or through indirect transformation, which I shall label imitation’ (7). This conveys a textual relationship that involves a transformative function, which can be understood across a spectrum from direct to indirect modes of hypertextual connection. For example, the premise of Rogue One is derived from the opening crawl of the first Star Wars movie A New Hope (fig. 1).
In an indirect or imitational hypertextual relationship, Rogue One literally adapts a passage from this crawl that states, ‘Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR’; in this association, the literalness of this connection that makes it an indirect transformation, but it also functions as a springboard detail that facilitates direct hypertexual engagement. Therefore, as a direct or simple transformation of this adaptation, Rogue One gives name, voice, motivation, and consequence to the mention of ‘rebel spies,’ as well as the explanation of the origin, development, and flawed design of the Death Star. However, I consider that the hypertextual and transformative relationship between Rogue One and A New Hope is not a result of the paradoxes of the standalone strategy itself, but facilitated by the temporal relations between instalments: Lucasfilm has thus far indicated that future standalone instalments will continue to engage with ‘prequel’ or spin-off stories.
As a prequel, Rogue One is inscribed with distinct temporal dynamics, in which the before is after and the after has already happened. As Paul Sutton states, ‘the prequel claims originary status for itself while at the same time remaining a literal sequel’ (148); this notion destabilises the concept of the ‘original’ while it also conceives of the prequel as formally and temporally paradoxical entity. This form corresponds with the hypertextual device that Genette identifies as analeptic or backward continuation: ‘meant to work its way upstream, from cause to cause, to a more radical or at least a more satisfactory starting point’ (177). Therefore, analeptic narrative is injected with a simultaneously ‘backward’ and ‘forward’ momentum; however, this is not a reversal of time but a causality that exists within a temporal paradox. For example, Rogue One slips into sequential place before A New Hope, as the climactic end involves a tag team effort to get the stolen plans of the Death Star to safety before being intercepted by Darth Vader However, the significance of this culmination is indebted to the well-known insight of what happens next: this penultimate sequence is a forward movement towards a starting point that has already happened, thus reigniting the subjective experience of A New Hope and giving new value and significance to something that is already so familiar. This temporal dynamic can be productively understood through Sutton’s conceptualisation of the prequel as a ‘logic of afterwardness,’ which, ‘despite its precedence, [the prequel] is able to effectively remake the film or films to which it is in fact structurally and narratively anterior’ (142). For Sutton, the prequel is a complex mechanism of temporality, but it also facilitates an active mode of spectatorship, in which to focus on the afterwardness of the prequel is ‘to speak of the reconstructive and creative aspect of spectatorship’ (149). For viewers, the relationship between Rogue One and A New Hope is founded on a nexus of textual, cultural, and subjective memory, which much be constructed and reconstructed through the conditions of a complex temporal dynamic between the before and after.
Even though it might be more compelling to emphasise the prequel’s ‘afterwardness’ rather than its ‘backwardness’, to suggest that Rogue One engages a mode of spectatorship that transforms or reconstructs previous instalments also relies on a recollection of the past that inadvertently positions franchise reception within the domain of nostalgia. Rogue One (and Episode VII-The Force Awakens (2015)) has certainly received countless critics based on its nostalgic style and tone. Moreover, franchising is frequently disparaged as ‘the nostalgia business model’, and this is generally framed as a criticism that continues to add to the already negative sentiments surrounding this increasingly dominating mode of entertainment production. The cynicism towards nostalgia in this context is attributed to an apparent yearning for a past gone by, in which franchise instalments are insularly understood as a perpetual return to the old. This viewpoint would perhaps suggest that most franchises exemplify what Frederic Jameson defines as ‘the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past’ (19) and ‘the insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode’ (20). However, Linda Hutcheon disputes such ideas on the basis that Jameson’s ‘own rhetoric and position can themselves at times sound strangely nostalgic’ (n.p.), suggesting that the use of nostalgia as a pejorative label of regression only considers one side of a temporal dynamic: its backwardness. However, the nostalgic subtext that seems to underline franchise texts does not exist in isolation of other textual or spectatorial forces; for example, the transformative condition of hypertextuality, as Genette explains, resituates the old within the context of the new, in which new texts are “grafted” over older texts (5). Such a dynamic should also influence how we think about nostalgia in these contexts because, as this piece has perhaps exhaustively repeated, paradoxical dynamics are fundamental to the formal mechanisms franchise development, and this includes its historical and temporal implications.
Certainly, the notion of nostalgia will continue to follow the Star Wars franchise, whether in response to its anthology or episodic instalments, and franchising more generally, and there is much more to be explored and said about the topic. At the very least, nostalgia needs to be discussed with more critical and conceptual nuance than merely as a mark of creative regression or commercial exploitation. For example, Hutcheon discusses how the sentiments of nostalgia must be understood in tandem with irony, as two components of popular culture that are not only essential to postmodernity but are now also important to understanding the paradoxes of our own production of culture and entertainment, in which franchising holds a dominant place. Writing at the end of the twentieth-century, Hutcheon identified a new order of culture: an ‘ironized nostalgia’ that ‘undermines modernist assertions of originality, authenticity, and the burden of the past, even as it acknowledges their continuing … validity as aesthetic concerns’ (n.p.). This theorisation productively corresponds to the paradoxes of Rogue One, as it simultaneously transforms and reappraises the ‘original,’ uses contemporary visual effects to incorporate unused battle footage from A New Hope, and reconstructs the faces of Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia using CGI–all examples that reaffirm the aesthetic authenticity of the ‘original’ while actively subverting its ordinary status. In this way, ‘ironized nostalgia’ perhaps more compelling conveys the historical paradoxes of the standalone strategy, as it accounts for the longing for an aesthetic familiarity whilst embracing modes of formal subversion.
Even though I have questioned the extent to which Rogue One ‘stands alone,’ I suggest that the engagement with this anthology strategy as part of the Star Wars franchise is valuable as a case study for realising the mechanisms that drive franchising—that is, that the standalone anthology premise is a development strategy that reflects the critical paradoxes of movie franchises. The success of Rogue One indicates a new creative direction for the Star Wars franchise, but it also reveals the potential for experimentation, risk-taking, and formal innovation within franchise development. The anthology strategy speaks to the underlying tension that the franchise mode of production must continually negotiate, which is how to balance traditional (standalone) narrative closure with the open and indistinctly postmodern tendency of closure-resistant sequelisation, while also contributing compelling world-building value to the holistic experience of a franchise. The ultimate question posed by Rogue One, and any future anthology instalment, is: can it really ‘standalone’ in a franchise as vast, long-running, familiar, and culturally embraced as Star Wars? This question has framed this post, and I suggest that in positioning itself as a ‘standalone’ movie in a long-running transmedia franchise Rogue One explicitly acknowledges and embraces the paradoxes of creative form, as it is simultaneously self-contained and serialised, open and closed, and autonomous but connected to other texts.
Genette, Gerard. 1997. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Hutcheon, Linda. 1998. ‘Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern’ http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism/hutchinp.html Accessed March 12, 2017
Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.
Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. 2009. Film Sequels: Theory and Practice from Hollywood to Bollywood. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Palmer, R. Barton. 2012. ‘Some Thoughts on New Hollywood Multiplicity: Sofia Coppola’s Young Girls Trilogy.’ In Film Trilogies: New Critical Approaches, edited by Claire Perkins and Constantine Verevis, 35–54. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sutton, Paul. 2010. ‘Prequel: The “Afterwardness” of the Sequel’. In Second Takes: Critical Approaches to Film Sequels, edited by Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Constantine Verevis, 139-151. Albany, N.Y: SUNY Press.