Selling Out

May 17, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

I'll give George Lucas a pass on his massive merchandising - from action figures and trading cards to lightsaber replicas - and his reworking of the original films. I'll even accept the umpteen versions of the films that have come out on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD (I have purchased four different sets over the years, but I know people who have bought eight or nine). But I draw the line when I see Darth Vader hawking Burger King wares. Or Chewbacca stumping for Cingular. Or R2 and C3PO cavorting with the M&M spokescandy.

There's good business sense and then there's selling out. Somewhere, Lucas has crossed the line. Is it simple greed or is there something more at work? Maybe Lucas has enough money; maybe he's just trying to flood the market with as many of his icons as possible in the hope that they will get more bodies into theater seats. Perhaps he's afraid of failure. But does the end justify the means?

Whatever the reason, these things demean Star Wars and devalue the figures we once revered. Compared to this, the tweaking of the original trilogy that has offended so many die-hard fans is small time. How much more ludicrous is it to have Darth Vader claim to be the "uncle" of a contest winner than to have Greedo shoot first? Once you have turned Vader into a laughingstock, how does his appearance in Revenge of the Sith stand a chance of being both proud and bitter, awe-inspiring and sad?

Promotional cross-overs are nothing new in the film world, but the rape of Star Wars resulting from this latest flurry is unprecedented. Some would argue that, by virtue of adding Jar-Jar Binks to the saga, Lucas has already hopelessly devalued it. But compared to the horror of Chewbacca howling into a microphone to produce a ring tone, Jar-Jar is high art. However misguided, Jar-Jar was a sincere attempt by his creator to appeal to children. Putting beloved Star Wars characters alongside the M&Ms is buffoonery, plain and simple.

From the perspective of pure dollars and cents, it's a smart move. Lucas gets money from licensing the characters and the products sell more cereal or candy or whatever. But that's beside the point. Sellouts are common these days. They all make economic sense. But each time one happens, we become a little more cynical. Another chip of idealism melts like ice on a hot summer day. Star Wars has never been pure. The money-wagon has always galloped alongside the movies. But never has it sunk to these depths. How much, I wonder, to get Darth Vader to play Sith choking tricks at birthday parties? After all, now that he's a Burger King spokeman, how scary can he be? (Although the life-size "King" gives me the creeps.)