Why Do We Care So Much About ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Breaking Box Office Records?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Just Broke ANOTHER Huge Box Office Record,” screams the headline at Moviepilot, the latest update on the Star Wars sequel’s continued dominance of box offices here and around the world. The Huge Box Office Record in question this time is $800 million domestic, a previously untouched marker; a few days earlier, it passed Avatar to become the all-time domestic champ, and now box-office prognosticators are trying to determine if it can pass that film’s world box office record, particularly after “stumbling in China” with a mere $52.6 million (only when expectations are this high can a record two-day total be perceived as a “stumble”). So, in summary, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, predictably, making an ungodly amount of money; the question is only how much more it will make. But here’s a better question: why do we care so much?

It’s not as though these numbers hold up to any actual scrutiny. Most immediately, there is the question of inflation adjustment; Star Wars: The Force Awakens may’ve made more money than any previous domestic release, but it hasn’t sold anything resembling the highest number of tickets. Adjusted for inflation – and seriously, this is pretty much the only chart that matters at all – The Force Awakens isn’t even the highest-grossing movie in that series. It just passed Return of the Jedi, is still shy of Empire, and has barely hit half the gross of the 1977 original. Adjusted for inflation, SW:TFA is #15 (though rising); Gone with the Wind’s $198 million gross equals $1.7 billion in 2016 dollars, and no contemporary movie is going to top that domestically. No one’s even going to come close.

Still from "Avatar"

Of course, that’s presuming you even want to get into the importance of sales and revenue and their tenuous relationship to the actual merits of a work of art; for God’s sake, before TFA, the highest-grossing movie of 2015 was goddamn Jurassic World. And the movie we’re talking about it toppling is Avatar, and while this isn’t going to be another one of those “nobody likes Avatar” articles (though, for the record, it’s a dopey, uninspired movie that I couldn’t recall a significant detail of with a gun to my head), there’s no denying that it’s a divisive title that’s left no cultural footprint whatsoever.

Yet wherever you stand on that film, the divergence in feelings about it, from pointed defense to outright dislike to shrugging indifference, goes a long way towards explaining why The Force Awakens’ advocates are so interested in its financial success – a windfall that holds no benefit to them financially (though it certainly ensures that they’ll get plenty more Star Wars movies). Watching the breathless reportage of the records TFA’s breaking can be infuriating if you’re aware of the insignificance of those numbers; the New York Times’ Binyamin Applebaum fumes, “When I tweeted about the real rankings earlier this week, several people responded that I was a party-pooping pedant. Disney, which released the movie, is celebrating; the media is trumpeting the news; and the hullabaloo is likely to draw even more people to see ‘Star Wars’ because, after all, everyone loves a winner.”

You can see it like that, if you want. (You can also guess that at least some movie fans and pundits are legitimately thrilled about a box-office champ whose primary protagonists are a young woman and a person of color.) But I keep thinking about what Lester Bangs famously wrote after Elvis Presley died: “I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” There are times when it feels like Bangs is right – that there are now so many avenues for popular culture that the “popular” half of the term has become almost irrelevant. When there were only three commercial television networks and a handful of radio stations and movie theaters, everyone was pretty much watching and listening to the same things; now, thanks to the proliferation of outlets for artistic expression, everything has become geared towards hyper-specific niches (which is, in many ways, a good thing), and even the most broadly targeted entertainment only gets a fraction of the audience it once did.

Crowds gather in 1977 to see "Star Wars"

But Bangs wrote those words in August of 1977, while people were still lining up around the block for the first Star Wars, and as I skimmed my Facebook feed over the Christmas holidays, I wondered if he was wrong; it seemed like everyone I knew (a slightly less than scientific sampling of the American populace, TO BE SURE) was posting a picture of the family outing to the multiplex to see the new Star Wars movie. (Many were big-city kids home for the holidays; the fact that this was clearly such a popular activity in that period makes me wonder if Disney’s rethinking the summer release dates of episodes VII and VIII.)

You can look at this as an opportunity to rail against corporate-run cultural homogeny, and look, I’ll usually rail right along with you. The ratio of conversation about the sales of Adele’s latest vs. any of the music on Adele’s latest was roughly 10:1; the notion that we should all go out and make Bowie’s last album his first Billboard #1, as though that’s the extra step necessary to insure his legacy, is comically stupid. But there’s also something to be said for the idea that, occasionally, it’s nice to have a giant cultural thing that we can all rally around, to serve the same function on a worldwide scale as it does within the four walls of that theatre: as an experience a group of otherwise disconnected strangers gather to enjoy together.

It’s the same reason that so much of the initial and ongoing response to criticism of The Force Awakens wasn’t just rabid fans rejecting anything other than outright praise, or their “sense of insecurity and doubt” in the face of a staggering intellectual giant like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir. (Seriously, if I have to read any more of this guy waxing rhapsodic for the salad days of Sontagian cultural criticism, I’m gonna throw up.) Maybe it’s something more agreeable and innocent; maybe it’s just a pleasure to occasionally enjoy a bit of common currency, in a culture where such a notion is borderline extinct.