The Star Wars franchise keeps breaking its own canon – and here’s why. Sooner or later, every transmedia franchise must wrestle with the question of what is canon. Lucasfilm traditionally took what can be called a “tiered” approach to canon, with anything created by George Lucas himself in the top tier as absolute canon. The so-called “Expanded Universe” was considered canon right up to the moment any piece of content was contradicted by Lucas; that meant Lucas could take what he wanted, modify it as he saw fit, and contradict anything else without being constrained by other writers. Few of the EU’s creators minded because they were aware they were playing in somebody else’s sandbox, and he could trample over their castles at any moment
All this changed when Disney acquired Lucasfilm back in 2012. They erased the canon status of the Expanded Universe, branding it “Legends,” and from that point on they promised a new approach to canon. In the Disney era, everything would count equally, whether a story was told on the big screen or on the small, in a comic or in a novel. Continuity was overseen by the Lucasfilm Story Group and, at first, this seemed to be reaping dividends with some of the most impressive transmedia initiatives to date. The highlight was back in 2016 when the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was accompanied by an excellent range of tie-in novels and a superb novelization by Alexander Freed.
Fast-forward to 2021, though, and the promise of one canon appears to have been broken. Contradictions are beginning to build up between the various Star Wars media, sometimes dramatic ones, and it’s becoming clear Lucasfilm is a lot less invested in the canon and continuity than the fans themselves. What’s going on?
Star Wars Is Beginning To Contradict Itself
There were always going to be minor contradictions in continuity, simply because – as good as the Lucasfilm Story Group may be – they are only human. This is particularly the case where reference books are concerned, such as the popular Visual Dictionaries that accompany the release of every movie; as plans change, the details behind some of the things discussed in the Visual Dictionaries naturally change as well. These kinds of low-level contradictions are both expected and understandable, and nobody really considers it a problem if, say, a throwaway line in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary published back in 2015 is ignored in the latest movie. But, of late, we have begun to see contradictions on a far greater scale.
The first group of continuity problems really center upon Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which – while attempting to bring the sequel trilogy to a satisfying conclusion – also served to rewrite the history of the Sith. Disney has been trying to fix Rise of Skywalker‘s continuity through Star Wars comics with Greg Pak’s current Darth Vader run, with Pak telling a tale set shortly after The Empire Strikes Back in which Darth Vader discovers the existence of the Sith redoubt of Exegol. Unfortunately the very concept causes major problems, because if Darth Vader knew all about Exegol then Anakin Skywalker’s Force Ghost would surely have mentioned the Sith Eternal to his son Luke. Meanwhile, the finer details contradict tie-ins, novelizations, and fact-books – sometimes explicitly. The Sith cultists on Exegol have become more confusing than ever, because the novelization and the comics seem to interpret them in different ways.
The second constellation of continuity problems can be found in Lucasfilm’s popular TV shows, which draw upon ideas established in other mediums but then interpret them in a wildly different way. The Siege of Mandalore as described in E.K. Johnston’s novel Ahsoka is markedly different from that of Star Wars: The Clone Wars season 7, while the history of Cobb Vanth – the Tatooine Marshal who wore Mandalorian armor – changed between Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy and The Mandalorian season 2. Most recently, Star Wars: The Bad Batch included a powerful scene showing how Jedi Padawan Caleb Dume (who would go on to become the Jedi Kanan Jarrus) survived Order 66; although the broad picture similar to the account already shown in a comic book, the details were very different.
Why Is Star Wars Breaking Its Own Canon?
Lucasfilm’s “everything is canon” approach was an appealing one, and in truth was probably the only way to win over fans who were irritated at the old Expanded Universe being summarily dismissed: The studio was offering something new that seemed infinitely better. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that it was always going to be unsustainable in the long run. The idea that everything counts to the same extent works when you only have a handful of tie-ins to factor in, but years later we already have hundreds of books, comics, mobile games (some long-since discontinued), and more. It is already likely impossible for the Lucasfilm Story Group to navigate all this, and the problems will only build as the Star Wars franchise expands into the Unknown Regions and the High Republic Era, some 200 years before the events of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Meanwhile, creative ideas would increasingly become restricted, sometimes by minor details that nobody other than hardcore fans would even remember. An exhaustive canon would become a creative straitjacket.
These problems are coming to a head now for one simple reason: plans change. Lucasfilm course-corrected on the sequel trilogy innumerable times (often unwisely), causing inherent contradictions. These were exacerbated by The Rise of Skywalker, which included ancient Sith cultists, a resurrected Palpatine, a bevy of new Force ideas, and an entire fleet of superweapons, all of which needed to be woven into the lore. None of these ideas were particularly well-developed, meaning Lucasfilm has since been scrambling to weave them into the overarching narrative of the Star Wars saga. Meanwhile, Disney’s decision to sign off on Star Wars: The Clone Wars season 7 meant Lucasfilm Animation suddenly had an unexpected opportunity to tell stories they had believed they’d never get to tell in that medium, and in fact where they’d already tried to fill in the gaps with books and comics. Naturally, when Dave Filoni and his team returned to the Siege of Mandalore years later, they’d developed as storytellers and wanted to tell the best story they possibly could now, not the one they’d intended to and had E.K. Johnston reveal in the Ahsoka novel.
Furthermore, Star Wars has become one of the main draws on Disney+, and there are no less than 11 Star Wars TV shows set to release over the next few years. Given this rate of expansion, the creative straitjacket that canon can become would have been painfully restrictive. Lucasfilm’s primary concern at any given moment, quite rightly, is to tell the best story they can; if that means contradicting something in a less well-known medium, then so be it. Let’s face it, you never want your creators to feel they’re unable to tell what they believe to be an incredible story because of a throwaway comment in a mobile phone game that shut down years ago.
Is Lucasfilm’s New Approach Working?
From a creative point of view, then, Lucasfilm’s new – messier – approach to canon is entirely understandable. It will, however, be frustrating to the fanbase. There’s a reason fan communities are so invested in the idea of canon – they want to believe the story they’re currently enjoying actually matters. Star Wars fans in particular have suffered from this problem because the old tiered canon approach of the Expanded Universe meant anything could be hand-waved away at a moment’s notice. Karen Traviss’ take on the Mandalorians was incredibly popular, for example, but much of her work was erased when George Lucas decided to visit Mandalore in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This background frustration was worsened significantly when Lucasfilm decided to dismiss the entire EU, branding it “Legends” and therefore irrelevant to the ongoing story of the Star Wars galaxy. And now canon is in flux once again, meaning people are left wondering; what really matters?
On Twitter, members of the Lucasfilm Story Group have essentially fallen back on what can be called the Obi-Wan Kenobi approach to canon. “Luke,” Kenobi’s Force Ghost explained in Return of the Jedi, “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” The broad brush-strokes still match – Caleb Dume still went on the run from clone troopers on the planet Kaller, for example – but the details are contradictory, and the fans can pick and choose which version of the story they prefer for themselves. It’s not an entirely satisfactory argument, but it should suffice to hold things together so long as there aren’t too many blatant, irreconcilable contradictions in Star Wars lore.