Because we really need our pop culture franchise to be dominated by an increasingly limited number of visions, Deadline and other outlets are reporting that J.J. Abrams will direct Star Wars Episode VII:
Star Trek director J.J. Abrams will be helming the next Star Wars movie. “It’s done deal with J.J.,” a source with knowledge of the situation told Deadline today. Argo director Ben Affleck was also up for the gig, the source says. Michael Arndt is writing the script for the first installment of the relaunch of George Lucas’ franchise by Disney.
There are two issues here: how well-suited Abrams is for Star Wars in particular, and the consolidation of big franchises under a very limited number of perspectives (especially since the perspectives are those of white dudes).
On the question of Abrams as a fit for Star Wars, I’m deeply ambivalent. I think the franchise has been at its weakest when it’s delving too deeply into the details of its mythology. In the initial trilogy George Lucas and his collaborators had the wisdom to retain the emotional power of the Force as a cinematic device by leaving it relatively mysterious. Once the movies started delving into midichlorians and the manifestations thereof, the Force started to seem clunky and silly, no longer something those of us at home could dream of accessing. Abrams and his collaborators have a weakness for focusing on mysteries and exploring them to death, be they Smoke Monsters, strings of numbers, or aliens rampaging around New York City. I do think there’s an extent to which Abrams will be protected from this tendency by Arndt’s script, and the larger plans of Disney, which will presumably will be thinking about projects like television shows and Zack Snyder’s rumored stand-alone Star Wars movie. But I do think that Abrams’ interests in mysteries are actually a relatively a poor match for the greatest strength of the Star Wars movies: using a mysterious concept to open up a larger world, rather than focusing obsessively on the mystery itself.
But really, the profound disappointment I felt on hearing this news is less about my specific feelings about Abrams as a director. It’s more that franchises like The Avengers, Star Trek, Justice League, and Star Wars are opportunities for writers and directors to exert enormous cultural influence, and to accrue the kind of capital and credibility that can become enormous springboards for their more personal projects. The Avengers, for example, gave Joss Whedon an opportunity to bring his unique spin on female characters to Black Widow, who’d been poorly served in Iron Man 2. And its success won him a long-running and one assumes extraordinarily lucrative position overseeing the franchise: his ideas about superheroism will play a major role in American moviegoing for as much as a decade to come, and the money he makes from it gives him the opportunity to pursue more passion projects like his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. That is an extraordinarily precious thing, and it makes me terribly sad to see that power concentrated in one person, rather than spread out to a number of people with different interests and perspectives on the kinds of questions raised by our biggest franchises.
There should be debates about what it means to have extraordinarily powerful people emerge in our society, which is why I’m glad that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel apparently is going to explore a much more ambivalent reaction to the rise of superheroes than either The Avengers or Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies ever contemplated. There should be arguments about what our future is going to look like, which is one of the reasons Abrams’ Star Trek, which was a dramatic retreat from the socially engaged tradition of the franchise, was a disappointment even as it was highly entertaining. And while Star Wars is a space opera, it’s also always been about totalitarianism, religious extremism, torture, and the moral value of political engagement, too. The source and meaning of mystery isn’t the only issue worth considering. And white, male geek gods aren’t the only people with profound investment in these franchises, and the way they express these questions.