Disney boss Robert Iger's announcement last week that the next "Star Wars" movie will start shooting in May predictably set the Internet humming like a million lightsabers.
He revealed the new adventure in the universe that George Lucas created, and Disney bought in 2012, will take place 30 years after "Return of the Jedi," will feature three new leads and "some very familiar faces," and little else.
So, naturally, folks are wondering about casting ("Girls'" Adam Driver and "12 Years a Slave's" Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong'o are most buzzed about). Sites are breathlessly "reporting" a possible return to the ice planet Hoth or suggesting something called the Yuuzhan Vong ought to pop up.
I don't care about any of that stuff. But like everybody else, I do have two cents to add.
If "Episode 7's" director J.J. Abrams and the writers he used were smart, they took a few pointers from their Disney-owned cousins over at Marvel Studios.
Since "X-Men" hit in 2000 - a year after Lucas disappointed just about everybody with his first childish, tone-deaf prequel "The Phantom Menace" - films derived from the Marvel comic books that Stan Lee and others created in the 1960s have more often than not set a new standard for multi-character fantasy event movies. Their protagonists have richer, more adult personalities and relatable problems, the stories reference current events and their plots - especially in Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe series - are, well, marvels of intricate construction.
Star Wars has always had a zillion different worlds and creatures, the Anakin/Darth Vader/Dark Side of the Force business and "Luke, I am your father." But it's mainly just been about good guys versus the bad Empire. Beholden to the Joseph Campbell hero's journey archetypes beloved by Lucas, that far, far away galaxy doesn't operate with the kind of complex psychology and fraught relationships the Marvel Universe does.
That was undoubtedly part of what made Star Wars so popular in the late 1970s and early '80s. It was as easy for children to follow as it was for adults who didn't want to expend too much brainpower on their sci-fi entertainment.
Since then, however, big-screen fantasies have gradually grown more baroque and, in the cases of most Marvels and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Batman series, more adult. Audiences are conditioned now to expect better-written adventures, not just one cool-looking image after another that lend themselves to marketing toys (though Marvel's been no slouch at that, either).
Which may be something of a dilemma for the new Star Wars creative crew.
"They obviously have to try to recapture the feeling of the first two films that everybody loved," James Van Hise, a writer and publisher of pop culture coverage since the 1970s, said. "But they are going to have to look at what their competition is and say, well, if every time one of these movies comes out it kind of sets the bar higher, we have to understand what the audience expectation is there."
The soon-to-be-released "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a shining example of a Marvel movie that fires on all cylinders. The breathless plot constantly brings up questions of trust and places conflicting world views against a scenario of government intrusion, paranoia and overreaction. It's totally informed by up-to-the-minute Digital Age privacy concerns and even includes the hilarious (in context) line, "And it's trending!"
Plus, "Winter Soldier" smartly references comics lore and previous and future Marvel Universe movies without resorting to the kind of exposition that made the Star Wars prequel trilogy a slog. The Marvel filmmakers trust that their fans have been engaged enough to get what they're talking about.
"Marvel has done a good job of connecting all the storylines," observed Jordan Poblete, owner and editor-in-chief of disneyexaminer.com, an independent news site that covers all divisions of the Walt Disney Company. "The screenwriters must be geniuses to be able to, over the course of six years now, put together all of these comic book characters and not only have good stories that appeal to all audiences, but also to people who have a history with the Marvel brand."
Poblete suggested that the Lucasfilm division also might take a cue from another Disney operation. He noted that Jennifer Lee, the co-director of the company's biggest animated blockbuster "Frozen," insisted on emphasizing its characters' most relatable personal issues and conflicts as much as the film's striking visuals.
There are reasons to believe that future Star Wars movies will get with the program. The head of Disney's Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, was long a producer for Steven Spielberg, who tended to emphasize good writing more than his pal George did. Abrams has produced a raft of TV fantasy series ("Lost," "Fringe," "Revolution") that at least tried to operate on character-driven mega-plotting, and he certainly balanced multiple personalities, spectacle and fan-servicing well in the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot he directed (if not its sequel). And at least one writer associated with a well-regarded, Marvel-derived movie franchise is reportedly working on the new Star Wars films.
But as much as the new films have to live up to Marvel's new standards, no less an authority than the head of Marvel Studios said he is optimistic about their success and has long been a fan of the Star Wars series.
"I think they're in very good hands between Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams," said Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios' president of production. "They have their own team there that's going to do a great job. And frankly, half of what I spend my day doing is talking about the original Star Wars trilogy and how that inspired me and impacts and affects all of our movies. So it's all give and take as the inspiration is passed around, and I have no doubt that they're tapping into all sorts of things, but probably most directly that original trilogy for most of their inspiration."
So, there's a chance I may like "Episode VII" more than I have any other Star Wars film (if you haven't figured it out yet, I've been a Marvel guy since the fourth issue of Fantastic Four came out). The trick will be satisfying everybody with an interest in seeing them.
"I'm sure that there's a million opinions about it online," Van Hise said. "Everybody has their own idea of what it should be, and it basically comes down to 'It's got to be really good and it's got to be better than those three prequels' ."