Born in 1977, the “Star Wars” series of live-action films — 11 of them to date — has long been enshrined in popular culture. Given their immense popularity, it’s hard to believe, as Ronald Brownstein wrote in his recent book, “Rock Me on the Water: 1974 – the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics,” that it took several years for George Lucas to pull together the funding and studio support for “a space epic inspired by the Saturday morning movie serials of his youth.”
The payoff was substantial, for within a few months of its arrival, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” was at the time the biggest-earning movie in history.
Ever the nostalgist, Lucas was unusual among the filmmakers of his generation for not caring much about what was going on around him: He celebrated carefree youth, as with the 1973 film “American Graffiti,” and the kind of sci-fi in which the good guys have plenty of tough scrapes but emerge victorious.
The challenges of the ongoing pandemic these days make a deep dive into the fantasy universe of “Star Wars” just right. And, thanks to the efforts of a devoted fan base and the movie machine behind the series alike, May 4 is just the day to do it.
The day was made for a punning slogan: “May the Fourth be with you.” The origins of what has become an annual holiday for true believers are a little murky.
A Danish newspaper hazards that it owes to a punning ad placed by the British Conservative Party on Margaret Thatcher’s ascendance to the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on May 4, 1979: “May the Fourth Be with You, Maggie. Congratulations.” Finding direct evidence requires a search as diligent as Darth Vader’s quest for the Rebel Alliance base, but whatever the case, the pun was out in the wings, just waiting to be put to use, however it got here.
And put to use it has been. A Toronto theater hosted a big-screen marathon of movies mixed up with costume competitions, trivia quizzes and parodies 10 years ago. Billed as “Star Wars Day,” the celebration spread throughout geekdom. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it appropriated the holiday, using it in 2020 to mark the finale of the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” on Disney+.
This year, the channel is debuting the series “Star Wars: The Bad Batch” on the holiday. Centered on a bunch of space warriors who make Delta Force look like Brownies, the series works its merry way toward a cliff-hanger. As the official Star Wars website puts it, “As the Republic transforms into the Galactic Empire, the Bad Batch must decide what their place will be in the new order. Will they join their brothers in the stormtrooper ranks? Or will they find their place in the galaxy somewhere out of the Empire’s reach?” Stay tuned, kids.
Get into the spirit with these activities
Meanwhile, there are good reasons to let the Force take you away this May the Fourth. For one thing, bingeing on a series of films in which good eventually triumphs makes for a welcome mental health break, an escape from the uncertainty and chaos of the world outside our doors. Just be sure to allow for breaks — get up and move around lest you become as inert as Han Solo frozen in carbonite.
In the company of vaccinated friends and family, you can cook up a few brainteasers and conversation starters of your own during those breaks.
One favorite Star Wars Day pastime is to hold forth on which film of the series and its spin-offs is the worst — and, it has to be admitted, there are a couple of stinkers. There are people out there whose hard hearts are not moved by the sight of Baby Yoda, those for whom Jar Jar Binks is the film equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. (For the youngsters in the audience, the sound hurts.)
I try to leave the room whenever the plangent Hayden Christensen, playing Anakin Skywalker, tremulously complains overmuch — which is often — to whomever will listen in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.”
To his credit, Christensen remarks in Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman’ forthcoming book “Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars,” “I more or less knew what the reaction to ‘Attack of the Clones’ was going to be when I first read the script, because Anakin was a petulant, sometimes whiny teenager. That’s how he was scripted, that’s how George wanted me to play him, and that’s how the character needed to be. So, I had no problem with it in that respect, but I knew that it was going to receive some criticism when it was released.” All is forgiven, then. And there is this: Cosplay, as Margaret Troup wrote in the Iowa State Daily, is a Covid-19-friendly pastime. Granted, costumed homages to favorite pop culture figures temporarily have been deprived of their normal venues in vast conventions such as Comic-Con International, which returns as an online event in July, with plans for a smaller in-person gathering in late November. Even so, Troup has suggested, some favorite cosplay characters come with a built-in safety factor, since “they already have face coverings.” There is not much hard science to back up the claim, but for the purposes of the holiday, let’s say it’s so.
The most famous covered-face figure in the “Star Wars” canon is, of course, Darth Vader, so you might expect to see plenty of dark lords abroad in the land Tuesday. (Another revelation from “Secrets of the Force”: George Lucas originally envisioned the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as Vader; when he rejected the role, Lucas offered him the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi instead, to no avail. In the original film, bodybuilder David Prowse eventually was cast as the iconic villain, voiced by James Earl Jones, and Sir Alec Guinness eventually settled into the role of Obi-Wan.
Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, asked Guinness why so distinguished an actor would take on the job, “and he said that he always imagined himself playing a wizard in a film for children.”
And in a world full of dark lords, we need all the Jedi knights we can get. Binge-watch, trivialize, argue (in a friendly way, of course) about best and worst moments; whatever you do, embrace and enjoy an impromptu holiday that’s meant for the inner kid in all of us. Just don’t spend it in a seedy cantina like the one in Episode IV — you never can tell what kind of trouble you’ll get into if you do. May the Fourth be with you!
Gregory McNamee writes about books, science, food, geography and many other topics from his home in Arizona.
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