If I were a gambling man, I’d bet dollars to donuts that Star Wars Celebration is on your bucket list. Assuming you have a bucket list, of course. I don’t; I have more of a list of Cool Things I’ve Already Done, because in addition to not being gambling man, I’m also not a man who sets goals for himself that he’s not likely see to fruition. After all, tickets for the event sold out seemingly instantaneously and a man of my economic stature would very nearly have to win the lottery to afford it anyway. And as we’ve already established, I’m not a gambling man.
But as fate, luck, and media credentials would have it, this year’s Celebration was held in Chicago, and I happen to be Cinema Sentries’ Chicago Area Correspondent. And so it came to pass that I was able to attend Star Wars Celebration 2019.
The experience was unique from the outset in that traffic was very accommodating and I even found a free place to park super close to McCormick Center. The weather was pleasurable and I enjoyed my leisurely jaunt to the building. Arriving only about a half an hour early, I chatted with the friendly, yet thorough security guards and strolled on into the building to find a sizable, though not overwhelming crowd. A bunch of folks were craning their necks upward, so I thought I’d take a look and there it was – that banner! Holy cow, did you see it? The one featuring not just Episodes I-VII, but also Solo, and Rogue One, as well as giving us a look at characters from Clone Wars and Rebels depicted in sort of a live-action style. And it was seriously a glorious thing to behold.
Not only was this majestic tapestry a beautiful piece of artwork; it was just really neat way to see the entirety of Star Wars film history, as it currently stands, laid out end to end. (Except Resistance, but that show’s only one season deep, so putting them on there may be jumping the gun for now. They’ll show up in a few years.) Anyway, the point is, it was a pretty awesome way to start the show and certainly a sign of things to come.
So, it was Thursday and it despite being a huge event full of people, it didn’t feel cramped or uncomfortable at all. You could tell this was the first day and that it was still practically the middle of the week. But that was cool – it would give me time to check out the exhibition floor without feeling rushed or crowded. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) attending many a comic convention over the past two decades, I tend to avoid an overwhelming crowd if possible. The line to get in snaked throughout the building and down the hall, but it moved pretty fast and before I knew it, I was staring at a gigantic Stormtrooper head made up of what appeared to be several billion Lego Stormtroopers. So that was pretty impressive too.
Walking onto the floor was…well, to be completely honest with you, it was a whole lot like pretty much like every comic convention I’ve been to, just without the comics. I mean, there were plenty of comics; they were just all Star Wars comics. The vendors and the layout were suspiciously familiar and–okay, lets rewind a little bit and I’ll give you some useful background information before we go any further.
I’m not really a collector. I’m a totally huge super geek who’s into comics, pro wrestling, and science fiction, and Star Wars is practically a religion to me. And while it’s not boasting to say that I have a fairly deep knowledge of the history of this type of stuff, whether it be Marvel Comics continuity or behind-the-scenes information about the making of the Indiana Jones series, I’m not really a big collector of the ephemera that surrounds and accompanies it. I have maybe a handful of toys and action figures that sit on a shelf and a couple cool old McDonald’s and Burger King glasses from back in the day, but I’ve never spent more than $5 on it at any given time. It’s super cool if you do, and I’d love to come over and check out your stuff! But it’s not really my thing. So when I walked onto the floor Thursday, I have to admit that my initial reaction was that it was not a letdown by any means, but I wasn’t bouncing off the walls either.
And while I still had a great time perusing the aisles and chatting up the vendors while checking out the pristine action figures and playsets still mint in package, very little of it appeared to be something I couldn’t find at Wizard World or some other convention later this summer. But it was the first day and I assumed it would be bigger and brighter and flashier as the show rolled on. Thursday was clearly the designated shopping day for a lot of folks since there weren’t a whole lot of panels, and since the crowds were thin, we could all peruse whatever we wanted to at our own pace. I had a backpack full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and granola bars, no kids with me and all the time I could possibly need – the world was my oyster.
I’ve actually never eaten an oyster, but if they taste anything like Star Wars Celebration, it’s a very kind and welcoming taste. That was one of my big takeaways from the show, both from the two hours I spent on the floor Thursday and the whole stinkin’ day I spent there Saturday (no, I didn’t go Friday. We’ll get into that in a minute): it was just so unbelievably warm and fuzzy. I saw a plethora of cosplayers dressed up as a myriad of different characters from the Holy Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, the Extended Universe, and everything in between. I saw Darth Vader with a giant bunny head, a Stormtrooper helmet with Van Gogh’s Starry Night painted on it and people in super rad costumes based on characters with less than 10 minutes of screen time. And the one scene that kept replaying in my head the entire time was Han and Chewie walking onto the Millennium Falcon saying, “We’re home.”
Now, I may not like crowds and I may not gamble and I’m not necessarily the most patient person either (we’ll get to that in a couple paragraphs when I discuss all the panels I didn’t go to), but I do my best to be polite. I always say “excuse me” when I bump into people at a crowded convention, which happens a lot. Very rarely has that kindness ever been reciprocated until I went to Star Wars Celebration, where every single human, Rodian, and Twi’lek was smiling and happy. Even the Stormtroopers were nice! And why wouldn’t they be? It’s a convention exclusively for fans of Star Wars, the greatest thing in the history of all creation and half the people there are wearing movie-quality costumes and you could even sit on a speeder bike! Despite the convention floor being somewhat less than exciting, it would be impossible to be anything less than ecstatic.
Oh yeah, and there was a life-size X-Wing and TIE Fighter. And the inside of the Millennium Falcon and the bunker on Endor (surrounded by Ewoks) and the hallway of the Tantive IV (complete with R2-D2 and C-3P0) and there were people in totally super sweet costumes who would take pictures with you and it was anazing. When I went back on Saturday, it was like everything I saw on Thursday, multiplied by a million, especially those positive attitudes. There was seriously such a good vibe that weekend, it was downright palpable – palpable, I tell you! All my concerns that Celebration was “just a comic con without the comics” were whisked away like Luke Skywalker’s robes in The Last Jedi. Only, you know, not all super sad and stuff. But I admit there were a few times where I came close to shedding a few tears of joy.
So anyway, back to that part about me not being patient. I didn’t feel like dealing with Chicago traffic on a Friday and I knew there was no way I was going to wait in line for that Episode IX panel (and most likely get turned away anyway) and my wife had the day off work, so I skipped Celebration that day and stayed home so I could hang out with her. Besides, I could just watch the trailer online. I’m at least patient enough to wait for that. But I did go to one panel on Saturday and it was all about Palitoy, which is the British toy company who had the Star Wars license back in the ’70s and 80s. I didn’t have to wait in any lines, so that was nice. Not as nice as spending the day with my wife though. Sorry, Star Wars.
And that’s the story of Star Wars Celebration 2019 in a nutshell. I didn’t go to a lot of panels and I’m not really into collectables and stuff, but like I said, one of my big takeaways was that it was just a really nice time at a really nice place with a lot of really nice people. A family of fans communing and celebrating their passion. But at the same time, even with the sweet prop displays and original artwork, there’s only so much Star Wars stuff out there and chances are you’ve already seen it, which is also why I didn’t go back Sunday and Monday because a) I had to work Monday and b) even I, a man who will literally watch whatever Star Wars movie happens to be on television at any given time, every single time (ask my wife), have my limits.
And my other big takeaway can be boiled down to one simple, albeit cliché, phrase: It’s the end of Star Wars as we know it, and I feel fine.
Now, before you read something negative into that, let me give you a little more background, because this piece has clearly just become about me instead of Star Wars Celebration. I’m 42, so while I wasn’t there at the very, very beginning, I can remember when A New Hope was just called Star Wars. One of my earliest memories is seeing Empire Strikes Back at a drive-in and I distinctly recall sitting on my sister’s lap so I could read the subtitles when Jabba and Luke were having a verbal joust in Return of the Jedi. I remember a time when Star Wars wasn’t as plentiful as it is now and I can recall with vivid clarity the emotions I felt as my jaw hit the floor upon seeing Darth Maul for the first time. I was so excited for, disappointed by, and eventually made peace with the Prequel trilogy (and have even grown to love them, as weird and clunky as they may be) and I fell in love with Star Wars all over again when I finally got around to watching The Clone Wars on Netflix. I whispered the opening crawl of The Force Awakens to my son in the theater, because he was too young to read at the time and I totally lost my shit when I got to the part that says “Luke Skywalker has vanished”, which is actually the very first line, and then proceeded to cry for pretty much the next two and a half hours – and like, not gentle, beautiful weeping, but full on snotty nose, ugly-ass bawling, because that’s what Star Wars means to me and I get super emotional about that stuff. I’m not saying this stuff to act like I’m a bigger or better fan that you; it’s a foundation for what I’m about to tell you in the next paragraph.
Through all of that, I’ve learned something very important: while Star Wars is something I’m very passionate about, perhaps to the point of obsession, I can take the good with the bad and I don’t have to love every single little bit of it, but that does not, can not, and will never stop me from adoring Star Wars as a whole.
However, there’s something different in the air these days and though we all knew it was coming, it became a solid, tangible thing for me while attending Celebration this year. Star Wars has always been a multibillion-dollar merchandise machine, but the tone is rapidly shifting: we’re seeing movies that barely feature Force users and if the folks currently helming the ship are to be believed, we’re going to see the end of the Skywalker saga. Even if that’s not 100% true, we’re definitely starting to see a real shift in focus and presentation, and an overall expansion that will likely take the franchise beyond it’s Flash Gordon-inspired space opera roots into new realms of storytelling.
A good friend of mine told me that he both loved and lamented The Clone Wars series because in his childhood, he imagined each alien to be the only one of its kind. As he grew older, he came to understand that each was just a representative of its species, but Clone Wars was the final nail in the coffin of his childhood because in its expansion of the story, took away the fantasy and replaced it with science fiction. Not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but simply the evolution of the franchise. And as the Star Wars empire (no pun intended) moves forward, it will have to continue to grow and evolve in order to survive. We’re going to have more Star Wars than ever, in the form of television shows, animated series, and comics, and we’re not going to have to wait 15-20 years between trilogies anymore, but it’s not going to be the same Star Wars we grew up with or the same one succeeding generations have grown up with. For better or worse, Star Wars is just a different animal now.
You know what? That’s fine. It’s not a complaint, but rather an admission of fact. I like to think that fans my age, who got to enjoy Star Wars the first time around, got it when it was pure, when it was “real”. But there are kids (adults now) who grew up with the prequels and that’s the real Star Wars to them, and it’s no less pure. My own children prefer the new films, but while my daughter likes the movies, my son values the newest animated series, Resistance, above all else. That’s the real Star Wars to them. And all of that is fine – like life, Star Wars is an ever-evolving franchise and while there’s bound to be some stuff you don’t dig, but you can still dig the overall concepts and in that galaxy far, far away. Like life, there’s a lot of little things that stand in your way, but whether it’s Midichlorians or mortgages, when you step back to take a look at the big picture, the whole thing is pretty damn awesome.
I don’t go in for collectables, I’m too lazy to wait in line for panels, and I don’t really care anymore whether or not Han shot first (though I’ll always complain about that fuzzy Joe Cocker impersonator George added to Return of the Jedi). But it’s all Star Wars and however you interpret it or however you love it is the right way, whether you fell in love with it in 1977 or last week. And therein lies the beauty of Star Wars Celebration 2019 – no matter where you came from or how you celebrated, everyone was there for one reason. From around the world, people of all shapes, sizes, and colors gathered to celebrate the love.