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Star Wars needs its new characters so much more than its endlessly recycled ones

Move over, Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke Skywalker, and make room for the next generation

Djin and Grogu look at each other in a forest setting in episode 13 of The Mandalorian. Image: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

The Star Wars franchise is constantly producing a stream of profitable new merchandising and material, including video games, novels, comics, and animated shows. But the film and TV side of Star Wars feels like it’s struggling. Over the past five years, Disney has repeatedly announced plans for new movies, then unceremoniously canceled them or just kept them silently back-burnered. Disney Plus’ recent Star Wars live-action shows keep promising new directions for the franchise, then pulling back and mixing messages. There’s no clear vision or coherent narrative direction for the screen versions of the franchise, even though they’re the most visible and mainstream part of Star Wars. Everybody seems to want something different out of this grand, sprawling story.

So Polygon is gathering some thoughts about the franchise’s future under the loose banner of What We Want From Star Wars. These opinion essays lay out what we love about the Star Wars universe, and where we hope it’ll go in the future … or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s become a cliché at this point to note how much time the Star Wars franchise has spent repeating itself — or, to put it more bluntly, hiding behind the past. The original Star Wars trilogy has such a stranglehold over Star Wars’ collective imagination that it’s been incredibly hard for the franchise to move past it. Since 1983’s Return of the Jedi — in other words, for nearly 40 years now — the vast majority of Star Wars material has focused on history rather than the future, filling in the galactic backstory that led up to that original story arc. Even stories that move past Return of the Jedi’s ending have often either obsessively imitated the original Star Wars run, or narratively looped back to it, prioritizing old, familiar characters over new ones.

But the new characters are so obviously the lifeblood of the Star Wars series. Lucasfilm’s fixation on prequels like Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story, or on building entire series around characters like Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, has become not just frustrating, but downright baffling. Given the scope of the Star Wars setting, it’s clear it could continue endlessly mining the past, resurrecting old characters even after the original actors die or retire. Animation, special effects, and prequels that cast younger actors in older roles all make it possible to recycle characters endlessly. But it’s long past time for the series to commit to and focus on its newer characters, and take up all the opportunities that approach would offer.

Deepfake Luke Skywalker from The Mandalorian, standing in a doorway with his hands folded
Deepfake young Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian
Image: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus

After 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, fans should probably just give up on the hope of Star Wars meaningfully moving its story forward in time. The sequel trilogy that Rise of Skywalker wrapped up makes a production out of passing the torch from the original trilogy’s Luke, Leia, and Han to the new generation’s Rey, Finn, and Poe. But “moving the story forward” in this case mostly meant moving it backward, with a depressingly familiar new version of the Empire to fight, a lightly reskinned new version of Luke Skywalker to fight it, and the same old Emperor resurrected to serve as the villain behind it all.

It’s been clear that the Lucasfilm brain trust has struggled to find a new kind of blockbuster-sized, epic adventure story in the space after the Empire’s defeat in Return of the Jedi. That seems surprising — one of the absolute best things about Star Wars has always been the incredible breadth and depth of its setting, and it seems like there would be a billion big life-or-death dramas going on in every corner of that galaxy, ones that have nothing to do with the Empire or the Sith. But even if Lucasfilm isn’t sure how to tell new stories in the future of the franchise, it’s had plenty of success at bringing in new characters to at least give Star Wars stories a different form and face.

And over and over, when the series pulls away from trying to make new Darth Vaders and new Luke Skywalkers, it’s created whole new waves of fan enthusiasm. The most obvious recent example is The Mandalorian’s Din Djarin and Grogu. That dynamic duo clearly owe some of their creative DNA to Boba Fett and Yoda, but they have little in common with them, and don’t primarily read as attempts to capitalize on the old characters’ popularity. Din Djarin’s struggle to live up to a code he considers noble and right, even though most of his own people find it bafflingly backward, feels unique among Star Wars screen stories. And Grogu’s endearing alienness and opacity is something the franchise has been lacking for a long time, in its endless run of inhuman creatures that mostly just read exactly like familiar types.

Both of these characters are intriguing because they’re so unusual in the Star Wars setting. They both offer the sense that there’s still a lot left to discover about them, even apart from the question of where their story will take them next. And they’ve both prompted a lot of the widespread cultural engagement that any franchise is looking for. (“Baby Yoda” was an outright phenomenon.)

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano in The Mandalorian wielding two white lightsabers
Ahsoka Tano in The Mandalorian
Image: Lucasfilm

The same can be said of some of the breakout fan-favorite characters who have emerged from the Clone Wars series, most notably Ahsoka Tano and Asajj Ventress — characters designed from the ground up to have their own unique, engaging motives and histories. There’s a clear nostalgic value to characters like Rey, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, who are intended as narrative stand-ins for original-trilogy characters more than they’re intended to drive new stories. But Ahsoka and other fan-favorite animated characters have helped the Star Wars animated shows open up the kinds of stories Star Wars can tell, and the kinds of points of view they represent.

Arguably, the characters who have most excited and inspired the fandom over the past decades have been the ones that most break from the original trilogy’s familiar story pattern. Grand Admiral Thrawn, first introduced in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, made the leap to animation, video games, and comics specifically because Star Wars fans were so taken by his uniqueness as a character. (He may be coming to The Mandalorian soon as well.) New droid characters like Rogue One’s snarky reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), The Mandalorian’s assassin-turned-nanny IG-11 (Taika Waititi), and Solo: A Star Wars Story’s toweringly angry droid freedom fighter L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) all earned followings for the way they not only brought humor to their stories, but expanded Star Wars’ understanding of what droids could want and do.

Even BB-8, cute, underused R2-D2 re-skin that he is, earned a fervent following throughout the sequel trilogy. As much as people loved BB-8 and wanted to buy toy versions, though, he lacked the voice or the story to be more than a fun visual effect or a running gag. Still, while he never got the space to be his own character, the way fans latched onto him highlights the fact that while so many people may enjoy seeing their own nostalgia reflected back at them in Star Wars, they’re also hungry for novelty, for anything they haven’t already seen a hundred times before in the movies and shows.

The Mandalorian crouches in snow next to Grogu in season 1 of The Mandalorian
Djin and Grogu in The Mandalorian
Image: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus

But for a character to really break out as more than just a novelty in Star Wars — or in any long-running franchise, for that matter — someone has to devote the time to telling their story and representing their point of view. Someone has to care about seeing them as story-drivers and story-generators, rather than just casually used and casually discarded accessories to still more stories about the original trilogy’s characters.

That shouldn’t be as much of a barrier as it is. The payoffs seem obvious: more fan engagement and interest, a story universe that can feel like it’s moving forward even if it’s focusing on the past, and stories where the fans don’t already know the ending before the first episode of a show ever airs. If Disney wants to be ruthlessly practical about it, there are also more merchandising options in new characters, more spinoff potential, and maybe even hooks that would turn new Star Wars movies into events again. Star Wars fans may love the franchise’s past enough to get excited whenever it brings an old favorite to the fore. But they also love having fresh new things to geek about, whether that’s a Thrawn movie, a big reveal about Baby Yoda’s past, or a whole new character who lets them love Star Wars in a way they never expected before.


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