Unmasking “Star Wars”
© 2005 Keith G. McWalter
I lined up, I bought my ticket, I watched with a grin on my face. “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” is a great entertainment and a satisfying conclusion to George Lucas’s epic space opera. But the story line, the characters, and special effects have become so thoroughly ingrained in the popular culture that, even as a middle-aged moviegoer, it’s hard to fully appreciate how much the “Star Wars” series has changed the making and watching of movies, and even harder to remember how much it owes to other sources. But let’s try.
Even experts can’t put the films in perspective. I was amazed to read a snarky, condescending review of “Episode III” in none other than the New Yorker, in which the critic, Anthony Lane, complains that Lucas, who depicts the “galaxy far, far away” as a rather squeaky-clean, brightly-enameled place, had “learned nothing” from “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” movies where the future looks as grimy and graffiti-covered as our knockabout present. One can quibble about Lucas’ aesthetic leanings, but good grief, let’s recognize that were it not for the original “Star Wars,” those two movies, and countless others of the genre, would simply never have been made.
It is difficult from this remove to recall how different movies were in the ’70s, when “Star Wars” was first released. There was, for one thing, a much deeper divide between the “serious” films and “movies.” The “auteur” era of film-as-art was waning, and the summer blockbuster film was just being born. Directors were either intellectuals or hacks. “The Godfather” (1972), violent and brooding and brilliantly directed (though based on a dimestore novel), was the generally-accepted epitome of filmmaking. Spielberg’s “Jaws” was a phenomenon in 1975, but it was essentially a grade-B horror film redeemed by craftsmanlike execution. “Chinatown” (1974) was an intellectual riff on film noir cliches. But most of Hollywood’s output of this period was a wasteland of redneck car chases, blaxploitation, and Burt Reynolds. Science fiction (with the exception of Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange,” more policital polemic than sci-fi), and what had once been and would again be called “adventure” films, were nowhere to be seen.
Into this rather somber scene splashed “Star Wars” in 1977, and no one really knew what to make of it. It had (even then) astonishingly inventive special effects and sound, it had an episodic, multiple-cliffhanger storyline out of some ’30s movie serial, and what’s more, it had an old-fashioned, full-blown musical score. And what a score it was — rousing, varied, hummable, memorable. High school bands have never been the same since. The whole movie (and you had to call it a movie, not a “film”) was like nothing ever seen before. It was undiluted, G-rated fun. To everyone’s shock (not least among the studio suits who had rejected it), it made gobs of money overnight. And hey, even Pauline Kael (Mr. Lane’s predecessor at the New Yorker) liked it.
“Star Wars” permanently changed what was considered a “bankable” movie. In its wake, the dreams of “Star Trek” fans for a movie version of the old TV show would be realized. A “Superman” movie, of all things (big score, comic book plot) would become reality. And yes, “Alien,” “Blade Runner” (Han Solo meets “Chinatown”), Spielberg’s “Close Encounters” and “E.T.”, as well as his “Indiana Jones” series, all owed their plausibility as movie projects to the success of “Star Wars.” The big-budget, effects-laden, brainlessly fun summer movie blockbuster was ascendant, for better or worse. Both the sci-fi/disaster movies of recent summers (“Independence Day,” “Deep Impact,” “Armageddon,” “The Day After Tomorrow”), and the comic-book movie wave (The “X-Men,” “Batman,” and “Spider-Man” series, and this summer’s “Fantastic Four”) are direct descendants of “Star Wars” in spirit and execution.
How did Lucas do it? How did he dream up a whole galaxy and populate it with these wildly original characters? Friends, he didn’t. Yes, he took computer graphics to an undreamed-of level, and yes, his visual pastiche of World War II dogfight films, Errol Flynn swashbucklers, and Robert Heinlein-style science fiction was a unique stroke of directorial bravado. But the characters and ideas are mostly borrowed — often outright lifts from another medium.
No, I don’t mean from Joseph Campbell’s treatises on myth; I mean from comic books.
The Jedi Knights are a familiar retread to anyone who read “Green Lantern” from D.C. Comics in the ’60’s. Green Lantern was one of an interplanetary corps of specially-trained warrior-protectors, each given a “power ring” (read: light saber) with which to do battle. The Green Lantern Corps consisted of a wild array of human and alien life-forms (meticulously replicated in the arena scene in “Episode II”) overseen by a group of Guardians of the Galaxy (the Jedi Council), who were, like Yoda, humanoid midgets. Consult your local comics fanboy for further visual evidence.
Then there’s the central plot-point of the entire Star Wars saga: the father-son relationship between the villain (Darth Vader) and the hero (Luke), so shockingly revealed in “Episode IV.” This is a direct lift, as any comics afficionado knows, from Jack Kirby’s classic comic book series “The New Gods,” in which the mysically-endowed, nearly omnipotent villain, Darkseid (yes, we’ll come back to that) is revealed to be the father of the ethically-conflicted young god-like hero, Orion. (“The New Gods” preceded “Star Wars” by a convenient 5 years or so.)
But the most blatant borrowing is Darth Vader himself, a near-replica of Kirby’s scarily malevolent Darkseid (pronounced “dark side” in proper teutonic locution), whose goal, in the world of warring good and evil that Kirby created, was to gain control of the elusive “anti-life equation” and stamp out free will in the universe. Like Darth Vader, Darkseid’s facistic essence was visually represented by his headpiece, a stylized take on a Nazi wehrmacht helmet.
One could go on, but bed (and my fiance’) calls: in Kirby’s “New Gods,”, the “good” gods commune with a mystic power called “the Source” for spiritual and oracular guidance. Sound familiar? See also Dr. Doom, another Kirby creation from his work on Marvel Comics’ “Fantastic Four,” for a template of the disfigured, hooded, half-machine nemesis who hides his scarred face behind a mask.
Suffice it to say, when Lucas stole, he stole from the best: the late Jack Kirby was a towering master of the comic book medium, gifted with one of the most fertile imaginations in all of 20th century graphic art. You could pillage his work for years and not come up dry. Come to think of it, that’s just what’s been going on these last few years in Hollywood: the X-Men, the Hulk, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four — most of the Marvel characters being blown up to big-screen scale were his creations (or at minimum his co-creations). He’s gone, but the revenue lingers on.
So the cycle is indeed complete. Thank the gods for “Star Wars.”