It starts at Walmart.
It’s midnight, April 2, 2005. I’m 12. In just moments, the first toys from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith will arrive.
We wait as a tired Walmart employee stocks the shelves. Some of us have loved Star Wars since 1977, collectors who—unlike me—will leave their figures pristine in the packaging.
But we’re together, Star Wars fans, kids and collectors waiting with excitement.
Now it’s November 2019.
More specifically, it’s Triple Force Friday—the hyped-up merchandise release-day for The Mandalorian, Jedi: Fallen Order, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
Now, at 26, I return to that Walmart.
There’s not a single new figure.
Even at Target—which devoted an entire seasonal section to The Last Jedi—you can barely find a new figure. Only a handful survived the midnight rush: a Stormtrooper, a few Reys — their designs barely changed from the last film.
Long after Revenge of the Sith, you could still find a crop of Star Wars toys at any local supermarket. But now, with the Saga finale just out of theaters, you can hardly find a figure on the shelves.
I’m a Star Wars optimist. I’ve enjoyed every film of the Sequel Trilogy. But this experience forced me to admit the truth: Something is wrong with Star Wars.
Star Wars invented movie merchandising. The films provided “toyetic” designs—what kid in 1980 didn’t want to fly a snow-speeder around the yard on a winter day?—and Kenner supplied a focused line of 3 3/4” action figures to populate vehicles and play-sets. This model kept Star Wars in the hands of kids—and collectors—for over 30 years.
But times have changed.
Under Lucas, the films emphasized new designs and bold aesthetic choices. Today, we’re back to X-Wings and Stormtroopers—but of course with minute changes to justify buying more toys.
With notable exceptions like BB-8 and Baby Yoda, we’ve had few fresh designs from the Disney era. The concept of “toyetic” design might not seem like a big deal to grown-up fans. We’re happy to settle for nostalgia. But the new—the toyetic—is what ignites the imaginations of kids. I can still remember my breathless 11-year-old excitement at finding Anakin’s Jedi Starfighter at the LEGO store.
11-year-old me wouldn’t have felt that feeling for a new version of Luke’s X-Wing or a revamped TIE Fighter. That excitement came from something new.
But despite the lack of toyetic material, we find not one, but three current action figure lines: the collector-focused 6” Black Series, the 3 3/4” Vintage line in throwback Kenner packaging, and the 5” “Galaxy of Adventures” line. The “Galaxy of Adventures” line features classic characters rendered in cartoon proportions, matching the eponymous YouTube series.
If you’re counting, that’s two lines for collectors—the only toys that look like the films—and one line for kids. None of them fit together. Only one—the collector-focused Vintage line—fits with vehicles or play-sets.
What can we conclude, except that Disney/Lucasfilm has given up on kids seeing these movies and wanting to play in this world? That they’ve decided the now, after several generations, the films only appeal to the old guard, and the kids just want a cartoon?
We have two separate versions of Star Wars.
And it’s not just the toys.
“Star Wars is for 12-year-olds,” says George Lucas.
The 12-year-olds of today were born in 2008. That’s three years after Revenge of the Sith.
What does it mean to them when Han says, “Chewie, we’re home”? What do they feel when an X-Wing zooms across the screen?
Lucas understood the importance of a young audience. Many older fans would despise his prequels films—but that was all right. Their fandom was already lifelong. By focusing on kids, Lucas created another generation of lifelong fans. I’m one of them.
But the new films have decidedly embraced nostalgia.
Of course, I love nostalgia. I got misty-eyed for the reunion of Luke and Leia. I laughed when Lando said, “I hate you,” and Han said, “I know.”
But did 12-year-olds laugh at that joke?
That’s the unseen cost of nostalgia. It means these movies aren’t for kids anymore. And, at the risk of becoming a motivational poster, kids are the future.
Instead, for kids, we have shows like Resistance and Forces of Destiny, kid-focused to the point of tonal inconsistency with the films. It’s “Star Wars for kids,” which is only a problem because it should be redundant. Star Wars should already be for kids. The need to dumb it down for children indicates a flaw in the main franchise.
We have two realms of Star Wars media existing, ostensibly, in the same fictional canon.
We have two separate versions of Star Wars.
Star Wars could have gone stale long ago, tucked away with other nerdy niche-interests in bargain basements and collectible shops. But Star Wars stayed fresh. It refused to collect dust. It refused to become nostalgia. A new generation gave it life with the Prequels, and another with the Clone Wars cartoon.
The new is always a risk. Stormtroopers and TIE fighters come with proven financial success. And, after all, it’s us nostalgic grown-ups who shell out for movie tickets and conventions.
But maybe that’s why business-savvy Lucas emphasized toys. Because we’re also the ones who shell out when our kids come begging for the latest action figure, and the vehicle to go with that action figure, and the play-set to go with that vehicle.
It’s the kids who lose out here. It’s the toy aisle, not the box office, that’s whittled to nothing.
We should see starry-eyed children dragging parents to the theater for the new Star Wars. Instead, we see parents trying to pass the baton to their kids, only to find the baton is no longer made to be passed.
In 2005, I stood in Walmart next to fans twice my age. We all waited for the same thing. At heart, we weren’t kids and collectors.
We were Star Wars fans.