May the 4th lays bare the erosion of Star Wars’ mystique under Disney

I was 6 years old when I saw “Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi” in a movie theater. As I tottered past the lobby posters on the way out, my dad and uncle grinning beside me, I was more slack-jawed and dreamy than I’d ever been.

I wonder if that experience is even possible anymore with Star Wars. The parade of animated, live-action, video-game versions and other spinoffs has barely flagged since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 and began revving up the assembly line. The diminishing returns are clearer than ever in the wide-ranging quality (from the brilliant “The Last Jedi” to the atrocious “Rise of Skywalker”) and what feels like corporate demands for more, more, more.

May the 4th, the unofficial Star Wars holiday, also feels more official with each passing year — like an in-joke that’s become public, and less funny for it. Significantly, “Return of the Jedi” is celebrating its 40th anniversary, having been released on May 25, 1983. That can’t help but remind me of watching Star Wars movies on my belly in my grandparents’ carpeted living room, or taping them on VHS and poring over them endlessly at home. Some first-wave Star Wars fans are old enough to be grandparents themselves.

By contrast, my kids, ages 6 and 10, sail right past the Star Wars movies and TV series on Disney+ because they’re just one of many eye-popping, instantly consumable entertainment products battling for their brains. Shared universes are easy to find, as are (fortunately) shows with race- and gender-diverse heroes and stories. The Star Wars brand, until fairly recently, was none of these.

Is it still a brand, though? Or an interconnected, wide-ranging morality tale? Or a design style? With each new iteration, the aesthetic gets thinner as pill-shaped lights, clunky androids, blinking 1970s control panels, and other signifiers of what creator George Lucas called the “used future” pile up. The quality control is high, with entertaining series such as “The Mandalorian” packed with dopamine hits of fan service. The endless visual and narrative mirroring is clever. And, truly, the new ideas and settings are more thoughtful than Lucas’ late-’90s, horribly rendered Special Editions, which have tragically become the default versions.

Even if Star Wars feels like an organized religion, it’s really just supposed to be entertaining. One kid’s “The Phantom Menace” (the most reviled, perhaps, of all Star Wars movies) is another’s “Return of the Jedi,” depending on how old they were when they first saw it. Star Wars is straightforward serial storytelling, and even its career highlights (such as the genius streaming series “Andor”) follow those pulpy contours.

Disney has all kinds of releases planned for May the 4th, including the animated series “Young Jedi Adventures,” a new Star Wars-themed “Simpsons” short, the second installment of the “Star Wars: Visions” anthology and, yes, countless toys and merchandise. While you’re at it, why not rewatch the third season of “The Mandalorian,” which just ended? Or play the $70 “Jedi: Survivor” video game that was released on April 28? (To be fair, I’m definitely going to.)

It’s a complex relationship, this nostalgia mixed with fan culture mixed with increasing corporate ubiquity. I wish I enjoyed getting together with other fans to feel some sort of camaraderie about it. Local May the 4th celebrations tend to take the form of themed beers, trivia nights, cover bands and costume parties — events with a decidedly 21-and-up profile. That’s great, but I won’t be there.

My addiction to Star Wars is perhaps too strong, given the grumbling critiques about how much fluff it’s been cut with. It pains me when something Star Wars-related is a failure. Yes, it’s entirely up to me whether I continue supporting it by consuming each new product. Which I probably will.

But I’ll also be happy if it goes away for awhile, because how else am I supposed to miss it? Star Wars needs its mystique, its rarity and weirdness, to feel special. May the 4th reminds me that Disney has stripped that away almost entirely.

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