40 Years Later, Star Wars is the most important franchise in genre

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May 26, 2017, 8:07 AM EDT (Updated)

Across 40 years, eight live-action films, two animated series, hundreds of novels, comics, video games, billions of dollars of toys and accessories, from t-shirts to jewelry to dresses to lunch boxes to candy and beyond, Star Wars has conquered the galaxy. On this, the film's 40th anniversary, it's easy to talk about the way it has made us feel for generations, the moment you knew you were a Star Wars fan, or even just how damn cool Darth Vader still is. But Star Wars is more than any one of those things, and somehow even more than all of them combined. Four decades old, it has become the modern mythology upon which most other genre entertainment can rest, as the most important single franchise in the business.

What determine's a franchise's importance? Well, if you want simple numbers, Star Wars has them. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first movie of the new sequel trilogy, set over 30 box-office records on its way to over $900 million in domestic box office and over $2 billion worldwide. When just the second 90-second teaser trailer for the film was released, Disney's stock valuation went up by $2 billion. They sold over $3 billion worth of toys and licensed products in 2015, its year of release. To say Disney got a bargain by buying Lucasfilm for around $3.4 billion is probably an understatement. Even the untested "Star Wars Story" model of standalone films pulled in over $500 million domestic and over $1 billion global with Rogue One, good for second place overall in the franchise in both categories.

But much more than that, it's how Star Wars is felt in our everyday lives. May 4th has been taken over as "Star Wars Day," a silly in-joke for fans because "May the Fourth" sounds like "May the Force" that has become a massive event, fully supported by Lucasfilm and many of their partners including Hasbro, EA Games, Disney XD, and many more. New "Star Wars Land" theme parks are under construction at both Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida, due to open in 2019 (the same year as the release of the final chapter of the current trilogy, Star Wars: Episode IX, as well as the next Star Wars Celebration convention). These massive undertakings have been described as the "single greatest project Disney Imagineering has ever undertaken," and will engulf park goers in the world of Star Wars itself.

Further still, it's harder to find someone that doesn't understand at least some Star Wars reference, whether that's "May the Force be with you," or "No, I am your father" (one of the most misquoted lines in Hollywood history -- in itself a notable show of its zeitgeist influence), or a simple Wookiee roar. The music of John Williams is likewise recognizable to most -- if you hum the main theme to Star Wars or the Imperial March, or your ringtone is even the more modern Duel of the Fates, people will perk up when they hear it (trust me, I've had all three as ringtones at one time or another, and always get excited smiles and looks when they go off).

So it's financially an incredibly viable property, and it's recognizable worldwide -- you can wear a Star Wars shirt in London or Tokyo, in New York or Frankfurt, and get a smile or head-nod or point or high five in any of those places. But Star Wars was also, when it came out, something brand new. A merger of science fiction and fantasy, or samurai tale and old western serial, it came from the mind of George Lucas and the artistic mind of Ralph McQuarrie, and all the people who worked on it, as a new myth, a world you can recognize because of its similarities much more than you'll be put off by its fantastical differences. When Star Wars debuted, no one had seen anything like it -- sure, we had other science fiction epics, and other fantasy epics, especially in literature, and no one is discounting what series like Lost in Space or Star Trek did to make sci-fi mainstream, but Star Wars took hold of something different. It was high fantasy, with knights and wizards. It was old west, with dingy saloons and shootouts.It was science fiction with epic space battles. It was, simply, Star Wars, and it changed the face of cinema.

Suddenly, people realized they could tell all sorts of stories within these settings. The science fiction, and even horror, renaissance of the 1980s wouldn't have existed without the popularity of Star Wars. Cinematic legends like James Cameron and Ridley Scott and Stephen Spielberg directly acknowledge what Star Wars did for their own filmmaking. The simultaneous birth of Industrial Light and Magic as a visual effects powerhouse has affected hundreds of films, far beyond the franchise that birthed it.

For all the guff the Prequels get, they were likewise a sign of the times. They got more political, and acknowledged a worry that the entire human race was feeling at the start of the new century. They showed a moral ambiguity that the original trilogy only lightly touched on, a razor-thin line between light and dark, and the ever-present need for balance. It was a cautionary tale, but one we already knew would end poorly, and it was unafraid to do so.

Now, Star Wars renews itself, as only this franchise has been able to do so fully in a repeated fashion over the decades. Some people came to Star Wars with the original trilogy in the theaters. Some through Timothy Zahn's novels that effectively launched the Expanded Universe. Some saw the prequels as their first Star Wars, or The Clone Wars, or even Rebels, and now The Force Awakens. The torch has been passed, from George Lucas to the likes of Dave Filoni and Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams, and now Rian Johnson. The Force Awakens, like the Prequels before it and the Original Trilogy before that, brought forth its own sense of modern day into the galaxy far, far away. Here we had a galaxy at peace, but on the precipice of darkness. It reflected what came before, and showed the cyclical nature of all fantasy stories. It also became more representative of the world around us in race and gender than previous generations had; that's something Star Wars knew it had to do, and it's something that other franchises are following suit with.

The melding of genres, the balance of optimism and realism, of fantasy and frantic life, of honoring mythological archetypes while creating stories that always feel modern and fresh, are all things that Star Wars quite simply did first, and does better than anyone else. Star Wars has touched lives, has inspired heroes, has affected the way we view comedy and politics and romance and drama and epic fantasy and war.

So thank you, Star Wars, for 40 years of pure awesome. We can't wait to see what the next 40 have in store.

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