In the decades after 1977, popular culture was constantly searching for the next Star Wars. What could capture the public's collective imagination as completely as George Lucas' space Western about people and robots trying to defeat a Nazi-like empire?
It had characters, it had mythology, gadgets and deeper levels that devotees gleefully explored in the ensuing years.
During the past decade, pop culture found that next Star Wars in Harry Potter.
In fact, it found something better: As a film franchise, Harry Potter exceeds Star Wars.
From both a marketing and a cinematic technology standpoint, Star Wars set the table for Harry Potter to become the phenomenon that it is — and for many other franchises and attempted franchises. But as a series of movies, Harry Potter was much more coherent and consistent than Star Wars, and it deserves its place atop the heap of film franchises.
It pains me to say that because I was 10 in 1977, and I completely bought into the Star Wars hype — literally. I still have the action figures and other stuff to prove it. I credit the original movie with sparking my interest in film and subsequently many other aspects of art and culture that brought me to this job. When I am totally honest, I still have to say my favorite movie is the first one, Star Wars — OK, Episode IV: A New Hope, grrr.
In that last phrase lies the frustration with Star Wars. Lucas started off with two great movies in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Then he went about diluting the brand with flawed films, misbegotten characters and ideas, and story lines that screamed, "We're making this up as we go along!"
Now, I stand by a four-star review of 2005's Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, the final film (I hope) of the primary franchise — not counting The Clone Wars and other related material. Lucas got his mojo back just in time to give us a gripping lead-in to the original film. I also have never hated Return of the Jedi (1983) as much as many fanboys, although the Ewoks warned us of the misguided character Jar Jar Binks and other transparently desperate attempts to replicate successful non-human roles, notably R2D2 and Chewbacca. (I won't say Jar Jar ruined the first two prequel films. Poor writing and contrived story lines did that. But he didn't help.)
The Harry Potter films didn't have to endure any of that.
Critics of the series often write off Potter as kids' stuff. But this is a series that steadily matured with each of its eight movies.
The films had a lot going for them, including first-rate directors, budgets that allowed for state-of-the-art film technology, and an all-star team of British actors. But the series' biggest asset was the source material: J.K. Rowling's books and storytelling. (I'd emphasize storytelling there. Rowling never denied her characters maturity or teenage foibles as they grew.)
As the Harry Potter series came to a close last weekend with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, people have been fond of saying that we watched the main Potter actors — Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron — grow up in these films. But we also have watched this series grow up.
It started in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, directed by Chris Columbus, whose tone was perfect for the series' first two Disney-esque films.
Then the subject matter started to darken and get serious in The Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, with Alfonso Cuarón at the helm. The director was an eyebrow-raising choice because he came to the franchise from the very young, very sexual Y Tu Mamá También. He stayed for only one film, but he really helped the series turn a corner, telling us that this was not going to remain purely the realm of children.
That point was brought home in the next movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which had the series' most wrenching scene to that point, when Harry returned to Hogwarts with the body of Cedric Digory, who had been killed by evil Lord Voldemort. Innocence vanished in the wails of Cedric's grieving father and the shocked expressions of Hogwarts' students.
But at the core of all the films was friendship, especially the bond among Harry, Hermione and Ron that any child or adult would treasure. Who doesn't want friends so devoted that they would be by your side to battle evil itself?
In one of the final scenes of Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Dumbledore tells Harry he pities those who live without love. That put the Harry Potter series' entire theme and basis for conflict into one sentence.
I don't remember anything so concise and singularly moving in Star Wars.
That's not to say that Star Wars is bad, or that those of us who love it need to go sell our lightsabers and renounce the galaxy far, far away. That's also not to say that every Harry Potter movie was great.
But Star Wars got me started loving film, and I have to appreciate it when something exquisite like Harry Potter comes along.