2019 is looking to be a big year for movie events, with Disney leading the way. “Avengers: Endgame” is mere weeks from premiering, having broken pre-sale records along the way. Also on deck is “Aladdin,” and new “The Lion King,” “Frozen 2,” and what is possibly the most anticipated franchise follow-up in the history of modern cinema, “Star Wars Episode IX.” The trailer for “Episode IX” was revealed today, clueing fans in to the title — “The Rise of Skywalker” — as well as key plot points like the return of the series’ original villain, Emperor Palpatine. All told, Disney has executed a triumph of marketing panache that blends sentimentality and modern CGI action movie tropes with a billion-dollar franchise.
The new trailer, much like the ones before it, is a heavy nostalgia play that also works hard to give fans moments they don’t expect.
The new trailer, much like the ones before it, is a heavy nostalgia play that also works hard to give fans moments they don’t expect. “Episode IX,” as the number implies, is the third movie in the third trilogy, the last chapter of a multi-generational tale. Though they were made slightly out of order — with the middle trilogy done first, the prequel trilogy at the turn of the millennium, and now the final trilogy in the 2010s — the fact that these movies all take place in the same universe, with a through line that connects three generations of characters, is a testament to George Lucas' original vision.
But nostalgia isn’t enough; these new "Star Wars" films also have to feel of this sociopolitical moment, instead of the 1970s or the 1990s. The trailer achieves this delicate balance by bringing back the old, with Billy Dee Williams reprising his role of smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold Lando Calrissian, and Ian McDiarmid returning as the evil Emperor Palpatine, the original villain from the first two trilogies. An epic battle between good and evil beckons.
The most significant new element is symbolized by the opening scene featuring Rey, the hero of the new generation. Rey takes on a ship heading directly for her with a slow-motion leap for the ages. It’s a scene that was simply not possible to do in the 1970s, had anyone even considered it. The message is clear: Fans may think they’ve seen it all, but this old dog still has new (CGI) tricks up its sleeve.
The trailer and title reveal were the pinnacle of the Star Wars Celebration, a single franchise convention running five full days in Chicago. Started back in 1999 in conjunction with the prequel revival, the event has run every few years, sometimes as a way to keep up fan enthusiasm during non-movie years. Run by Lucasfilm in conjunction with ReedPOP since 2010 (the latter is responsible for major conventions such as New York Comic Con), the celebration was already established when Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion back in 2012. Much like other quirky fan-driven segments of the franchise, like “May the Fourth,” the new overlords wisely left the celebration in place.
Indeed, marketing has been key to the success of Disney’s “Star Wars” revival. The once-powerful franchise was moribund when Disney came along, while the rival “Star Trek” franchise was making big bucks and “The Avengers” was racking up opening weekend records. Meanwhile on TV, “Game of Thrones” was dominating critics best-of lists.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when Disney announced it was not only buying Lucasfilm but putting Episode VII into production, there were a lot of doubts. It wasn’t until 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” brought in $2 billion, making back literally half of Disney’s investment, that the full power of the franchise was unleashed.
And a lot of that had to do with a marketing campaign that started with the 2015 Star Wars Celebration. Held in Anaheim, the “Episode VII” panel featured the debut of BB-8, the reunion of original trilogy cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, and the introduction of the new faces that would carry the franchise forward. It also premiered one of the most magnificently cut trailers of the decade. The combination of the franchise’s iconic ships crashed in the desert combined with the symbolism of the beloved original stars passing the torch down to a new generation was intense.
The new trailer continues this tradition. While Rey’s feat of derring do will likely be the most talked about moment, the trailer’s crashed Death Star is arguably just as important. Bad guys have been building these symbols of destruction forever in “Star Wars,” almost to the point of comedy. And yet it is comforting to be reminded that though evil rises, it also falls again. The trailer may have brought back the ultimate bad guy from the original trilogy, but chances are he won’t survive the film.
If today is any indication, the “Star Wars” franchise continues to delight and surprise fans, who walked out of the celebration panel looking sated. The balance between the new generation of heroes and nostalgia had been struck once again — and Disney is marketing the film perfectly. As the Skywalker rises, so will the excitement for this film. May the force be with them, always.