The Star Wars franchise could learn a major lesson from Mobile Suit Gundam


The Star Wars franchise is constantly producing a stream of profitable new merchandising and material, including video games, novels, comics, and animated shows. But the film and TV side of Star Wars feels like it’s struggling. Over the past five years, Disney has repeatedly announced plans for new movies, then unceremoniously canceled them, or just kept them silently back-burnered. Disney Plus’ recent Star Wars live-action shows keep promising new directions for the franchise, then pulling back and mixing messages. There’s no clear vision or coherent narrative direction for the screen versions of the franchise, even though they’re the most visible and mainstream part of Star Wars. Everybody seems to want something different out of this grand, sprawling story.

So Polygon is gathering some thoughts about the franchise’s future under the loose banner of What We Want From Star Wars. These opinion essays lay out what we love about the Star Wars universe, and where we hope it’ll go in the future … or a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.


The current, odd, stagnant-yet-successful state of Star Wars seems like a needle that’s been threaded by another huge science-fiction franchise nearly as old. Not to imply that the neat solution to a thorny mega-franchise problem is simply “anime,” but Star Wars could learn from how Gundam has navigated the same growing pains. The giant-robot empire spawned by Yoshiyuki Tomino’s landmark 1979 anime Mobile Suit Gundam similarly started small, entered periods of dormancy, and has grown to become a massive, complicated cultural force. So what could Star Wars take from Gundam? Here’s a hint: a lot more than just giant robots.

A Gundam holding a gun, damn!

Image: Sunrise Inc.

One of the quirks of the Gundam franchise is that its “core” timeline, dubbed the Universal Century, is largely centered around a yearlong war. This One Year War, viewers are repeatedly told, is the worst mankind has ever waged, with incalculable lives lost just as a new arms race reaches its apex. Waged across Earth and various colonies in giant space stations, it’s a war so bad that war itself changes, as the mobile suit — massive humanoid machines operated by pilots, some of them shockingly young — becomes the signature weapon of the conflict. Mobile suits in this franchise are terrifying, but they’re also iconic, like X-Wings or TIE Fighters.

Most Gundam anime, movies, and manga are defined in relation to this war. Mobile Suit Gundam, the original series, takes place in the final months of the war, chronicling how the boy Amuro Ray stumbles into the cockpit of an experimental new mobile suit and helps the Earth Federation turn the tide of their war against their aggressors, the separatist and fascist-leaning Principality of Zeon. Subsequent series, like Zeta Gundam, take place after this conflict, and depict its continued fallout. Others, like Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team, or Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, tell parallel stories set during this One Year War, taking advantage of the original series’ established sprawling scope and scale to tell all manner of stories. The closest Star Wars analogue to this is The Clone Wars, which told all kinds of stories spanning that titular conflict, all while rehabilitating the oft-maligned Star Wars prequel trilogy.

But things could get wilder. A big chunk of Gundam stories don’t even bother with the Universal Century and its central war at all. Some spin out other universes to suit different flavors of Gundam stories. There’s the soapier boy-band spin of Gundam Wing, the grim resistance fable of Iron-Blooded Orphans, or the silly robot fighting tournament at the heart of Mobile Fighter G Gundam. The common thread is almost all iconography: giant robots, the young people who pilot them, and the fans who thrill to see them.

the mandalorian and the child

Image: Disney

Meanwhile, Star Wars has struggled to offer much of a clear view of that galaxy far, far away beyond the original film trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker seemingly closed the book on the future of the Star Wars universe, and all current and upcoming stories take place before Tatooine’s twin suns set on that film one last time. The current era of Star Wars is primarily fueled by trepidation. The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, The Bad Batch, and Obi-Wan largely take place in the margins of stories we’ve seen before, never straying so far from the orbit of Luke Skywalker that he couldn’t appear in some form, whether as a child or as a Jedi Knight.

So if the stewards of Star Wars can’t find it within themselves to stretch further than what we’ve seen before, why not lean into the dedication to midquels and go deeper than they have before? The war in Star Wars’ original trilogy — what the current canon dubs “The Age of Rebellion” — could be Star Wars’ One Year War, a conflict that defines or lurks in the background of every story. The zealous adherence to the one era of Star Wars that is widely considered the best could give creators the leeway to be a little bolder in other eras of its story, giving us a variety we will desperately need if Disney feels a need to keep its current pace with Star Wars media.

Embracing variety and telling very specific micro stories would give Star Wars more room to veer away from its predictable, repetitive tone. Instead of yet another grim crime drama set on Tatooine, it’d be much more fun to look forward to, say, an original-trilogy-era sitcom about a shop that fixes defective droids, or a medical drama where a hospital staffed by Rebel sympathizers routinely has to perform first aid for Stormtroopers.

Ronin from Star Wars: Visions

Image: Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney Plus

But future Star Wars doesn’t have to be that zealous in its adherence to the original trilogy, or even to established canon. Like Gundam, Star Wars can still play things fast and loose. The anime shorts of Star Wars: Visions are a good start — they aren’t canon, and fans have done a perfectly good job of parsing the difference between the new media canon and the “Legends” of the old Expanded Universe. So why not add to the Legends?

Ultimately, the goal is to find different flavors of Star Wars that resonate specifically to today, and not to the feelings a bunch of people had when they first watched a movie in 1977. That attempt to prioritize nostalgia, re-creating the past rather than telling a new story, is already a goal one degree removed from what all art — even art this openly commercial — strives to accomplish.

The Gundam miniseries War in the Pocket is a particularly solid illustration of what Star Wars could gain by branching out. War in the Pocket is a story about a boy who watches footage of the war on television and thrills to the imagery of giant robots fighting amid skyscrapers and leveling cities. He even has toy mobile suits to play with, which feels strange until you remember that in America, we’ve made toy soldiers for boys almost as long as we’ve been fighting wars. Dazzled by the stylish weapons of mass destruction, War in the Pocket’s protagonist has grown up without any perspective on the war he thrills to — Gundam models are just cool toys to him. Even the toys of the bad guys.

War in the Pocket accomplishes a lot of wrenching things across its brief run, but most memorably, it’s a story that re-asserts perspective, much like a popular Gundam meme. Power is both seductive to those who wield it and to those who watch it being wielded. When we say that someone who just tunes into these franchises to see cool robots or lightsabers “missed the point” of those iconic weapons, it’s because we fail — or refuse — to bring an empathetic, humane perspective to them, as War in the Pocket does. It’s impossible to create art that no one will take in bad faith or misinterpret, but the argument for telling stories in a long-running franchise is that it allows a conversation to take place across generations and audiences, for the fans to take ownership and for the art to push back, as different creators take the reins and yield them to others.

While there’s no compelling reason for Star Wars to survive any longer than it has — the Walt Disney Company has enough vectors for its fandom as it is — it remains a pop-cultural lingua franca, one of the few remaining touchstones that crosses generations and demographics. Because of this, it’s worth imagining the ways it could foster better, more well-rounded conversations, more ideas to discuss, ways to wrap the metaphor around our lives as they are lived. Right now, the lack of specificity is suffocating. It’s just a vector for getting us to pick up toys and stream shows. But there’s plenty of space for it to tell meaningful stories that don’t scratch the main narrative — and plenty of reasons to try.

Previously:

Star Wars is better with no new movies coming out
Star Wars needs more alien heroes
Please, Star Wars, forget about Tatooine
Star Wars needs its new characters so much more than its endlessly recycled ones



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