Disney purchased Lucasfilm and all it encompasses on October 30th, 2012. This week, to mark the ten-year anniversary of this momentous acquisition, AIPT will be reflecting on Disney’s impact on what is one of the most popular and influential media franchises to ever exist – Star Wars.
The crown for the number one movie at the all-time U.S. domestic box office doesn’t belong to Titanic, Avatar, or even Avengers: Endgame. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens still reigns supreme seven years after its debut. This may seem like a fact that could be useful in a game of trivia at your local dive bar, but it also elicits the question: How? How could the opener of a trilogy best described as polarizing be so successful? How did a film that now seems relegated to the metaphorical zeitgeist bargain bin of today’s culture pull off such an incredible feat?
To start, as is the case with any successful box office return, timing is everything. Three of the top four movies on the all-time domestic box office list debuted in December (the exception being Avengers: Endgame, which came out in April of 2019 and is, well, Avengers: Endgame). Historically, December has been the home to big movies like The Lord of the Rings franchise and James Cameron epics, but it has never been as jam packed with blockbusters the way the summer months are. The most successful December movies have been able to reel in dollars over the Winter holidays (when the movies are a great get-out-of-the-cold activity for people) and pile on those earnings in the proceeding months (when there isn’t much stiff competition).
But for The Force Awakens to be successful as it was, its good timing wasn’t just due to a lack of December competition. Let me take you back. When Episode VII released, it had been ten years since the release of the last Star Wars theatrical movie and thirty-two years since the release of a Star Wars movie that actually propelled the narrative’s timeline forward. The prequels were done. This was brand new Star Wars, the likes of which many fans hadn’t seen in their lifetime. The timing of its release meant that the audience’s appetites were more than whet.
Disney and Lucasfilms were aware of this and played into it with their marketing strategy. In the first teaser for The Force Awakens, a black man in a stormtrooper outfit is the first person you see. You’re introduced to an adorable ball-like droid rolling around. A lengthy cloaked Darth Vader-like figure appears on screen with a crossguard lightsaber among many other unfamiliar faces and images. Their goal was to emphasize the newness and let people know that The Force Awakens wasn’t going to be their granddaddy’s (or even their older brother’s) Star Wars. This was going to be something that old fans could be intrigued by, but new fans could claim as their own.
But before the teaser ends, the iconic Millennium Falcon flies across the screen, teasing at what was to come. By the second teaser nostalgia grabs people’s attention with a voiceover from Mark Hammill, Luke’s hand touching R2-D2, and Han Solo showing up to say, “Chewie, we’re home,” before Chewbacca roars.
Disney’s strategy wasn’t just to market to people looking for fresh Star Wars. It was to reel in the old fans as well with some touches of nostalgia. Anybody who saw the teasers and trailers were able to find something they connected with, creating a buzz around the movie that paved the way to getting so many people to the theater.
But, with that said, none of this matters if The Force Awakens isn’t good. To become number one all-time at the domestic box office, you need incredibly strong word-of-mouth surrounding the movie and for some fans to want to see it multiple times. In other words, the movie needs to be entertaining, interesting, riveting, and mysterious enough to gross $930,000,000+ domestically, and Episode VII was all of that, despite how later films might have tainted fans’ view of the sequel trilogy as a whole.
The new characters were fun, with engaging and playful chemistry between Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8 right off the bat. Seeing the old characters felt like a return to home. The use of practical sets gave The Force Awakens a more lived-in feel the prequels lacked. The space battles and lightsaber duels were cool and the whole experience felt like classic Star Wars: an exciting romp through space.
Granted, this may all sound subjective, but the domestic box office numbers back me up on this. The Force Awakens didn’t make all its money because it was boring and people didn’t like it. People saw this movie, told their friends to see it, and saw it themselves again because it was an enjoyable theatrical experience. For example, I saw it three times on opening day and enjoyed it more and more after each viewing.
The biggest criticism I heard of The Force Awakens is that it feels too much like Episode IV – A New Hope, but I’d argue that its similarities to Episode IV are some of its strongest features. The movie follows the rhythms of A New Hope not only to give the movie a familiar throwback feel, but also because the movie (and its characters in a meta sense) are exploring what it means to live in the shadows of that movie.Rey and Finn are familiar with the legends of Luke and the Force. Kylo Ren is trying to be like his granddad, Darth Vader. Han Solo and Chewbacca are in essence trying to relive their glory days despite them being so far in the past. All these ideas are fun to have swirling in your head as the Millennium Falcon is trying to escape Jakku and lightsabers are clashing in the snow on the Starkiller Base.
Episodes 8 and 9 and the discourse surrounding them have led the sequel trilogy to generally be considered the worst of the three trilogies. I’m not here to offer my opinion on that, but I do think if you extract Episode VII — The Force Awakens from the rest of the trilogy and watch it for what it is, you’ll find a fun Star Wars film that holds the crown for the number one movie at the all-time U.S. domestic box office, and deservedly so.
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