Disney Star Wars, Disney and myth-making
How one company came to master the business of storytelling
FROM a galaxy far, far away to a cinema just down the road:
“The Force Awakens”, the newest instalment of the Star Wars saga, is inescapable this Christmas.
The first Star Wars title since Lucasfilm, the owner of the franchise, was acquired by Disney in 2012 for $4.1 billion,
it represents more than just the revival of a beloved science-fiction series.
It is the latest example of the way Disney has prospered over the past decade from a series of shrewd acquisitions (see article).
Having bought Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, Disney has skilfully capitalised on their intellectual property—and in so doing,
cemented its position as the market leader in the industrialisation of mythology.
Its success rests on its mastery of the three elements of modern myth-making: tropes, technology and toys.
Start with the tropes. Disney properties, which include everything from “Thor” to “Toy Story”,
draw on well-worn devices of mythic structure to give their stories cultural resonance.
Walt Disney himself had an intuitive grasp of the power of fables.
George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, is an avid student of the work of Joseph Campbell,
an American comparative mythologist who outlined the “monomyth” structure in which a hero answers a call,
is assisted by a mentor figure, voyages to another world, survives various trials and emerges triumphant.
Both film-makers merrily plundered ancient mythology and folklore.
The Marvel universe goes even further, directly appropriating chunks of Greco-Roman and Norse mythology.
(This makes Disney's enthusiasm for fierce enforcement of intellectual-property laws,
and the seemingly perpetual extension of copyright, somewhat ironic.)
The internal mechanics of myths may not have changed much over the ages, but the technology used to impart them certainly has.
That highlights Disney's second area of expertise. In Homer's day, legends were passed on in the form of dactylic hexameters;
modern myth-makers prefer computer graphics, special effects, 3D projection, surround sound and internet video distribution,
among other things. When Disney bought Lucasfilm it did not just acquire the Star Wars franchise;
it also gained Industrial Light & Magic, one of the best special-effects houses in the business,
whose high-tech wizardry is as vital to Marvel's Avengers films as it is to the Star Wars epics.
And when Disney was left behind by the shift to digital animation, it cannily revitalised its own film-making brand by buying Pixar,
a firm as pioneering in its field as Walt Disney had been in hand-drawn animation. Moreover, modern myths come in multiple media formats.
The Marvel and Star Wars fantasy universes are chronicled in interlocking films, television series, books, graphic novels and video games.
Marvel's plans are mapped out until the mid-2020s.
But these days myths are also expected to take physical form as toys, merchandise and theme-park rides.
This is the third myth-making ingredient. Again, Walt Disney led the way, licensing Mickey Mouse and other characters starting in the 1930s,
and opening the original Disneyland park in 1955.
Mr Lucas took cinema-related merchandise into a new dimension, accepting a pay cut as director in return for all the merchandising rights to Star Wars—a deal that was to earn him billions.
Those rights now belong to Disney, and it is making the most of them: sales of “The Force Awakens” merchandise,
from toys to clothing, are expected to be worth up to $5 billion alone in the coming year.
In all, more than $32 billion-worth of Star Wars merchandise has been sold since 1977, according to NPD Group, a market-research firm.
Even Harry Potter and James Bond are scruffy-looking nerf-herders by comparison.
Those other franchises are reminders that Disney's approach is not unique. Other studios are doing their best to imitate its approach.
But Disney has some of the most valuable properties and exploits them to their fullest potential.
It is particularly good at refreshing and repackaging its franchises to encourage adults to revisit their childhood favourites and,
in the process, to introduce them to their own children.
This was one reason why Pixar, whose films are known for their cross-generational appeal, was such a natural fit.
Now the next generation is being introduced to Star Wars by their nostalgic parents.
At the same time, Disney has extended its franchises by adding sub-brands that appeal to particular age groups:
children's television series spun off from Star Wars, for example, or darker, more adult tales from the Marvel universe,
such as the “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” series on.
What explains the power of all this modern-day mythology? There is more to it than archetypal storytelling,
clever technology and powerful marketing. In part, it may fill a void left by the decline of religion in a more secular world.
But it also provides an expression for today's fears. The original “Star Wars” film,
in which a band of plucky rebels defeat a technological superpower, was a none-too-subtle inversion of the Vietnam war.
The Marvel universe, originally a product of the cold-war era,
has adapted well on screen to a post-9/11 world of surveillance and the conspiratorial mistrust of governments,
large corporations and the power of technology. In uncertain times, when governments and military might seem unable to keep people safe or stay honest,
audiences take comfort in the idea of superheroes who ride to the rescue.
Modern myths also have the power to unify people across generations, social groups and cultures,
creating frameworks of shared references even as other forms of media consumption become ever more fragmented.
Ultimately, however, these modern myths are so compelling because they tap primordial human urges—for refuge, redemption and harmony.
In this respect they are like social-media platforms, which use technology to industrialise social interaction.
Similarly, modern myth-making, reliant though it is on new tools and techniques,
is really just pushing the same old buttons in stone-age brains.
That is something that Walt Disney understood instinctively—and that the company he founded is now exploiting so proficiently.