For a few moments, it feels as if the whole world is at Star Wars Celebration. As a crowd of 4,500 people, myself among them, spill out of the largest room of ExCeL London like meat out of a burrito, we collide with all the other Star Wars fans traveling around the vast building. It doesn’t feel vast now. There are so many people it’s impossible to move. Jedis jostle with stormtroopers, who bump into Boba Fetts. We are rubbing up against one another so closely we might start a fire — which, given the amount of painted fabric being worn, would cause a sudden and steep drop in the world’s population of Disney+ subscribers.
It is right then, squeezed like the Star Wars equivalent of a canned sardine, that I turn against Celebration, a four-day event held every couple of years to bring together the most hardcore members of the planet’s most hardcore fanbase. I’m just trying to get a burger. It’s 1 p.m. I’ve been up since 5 a.m. Having just sat through a panel in which various actors and directors described it as “a dream” to work on new Star Wars projects, I would happily describe this whole thing as “a nightmare.”
But, over the next three days, this most extraordinary fandom manages to win me over. It isn’t a religious conversion exactly, but I do feel more open to attending the services.
Here is the most important thing to understand about Star Wars fans: In a godless world, the franchise really does function as a faith. “Star Wars is our religion. It’s the only religion we need right now,” says George, who is attending Celebration with his friend Toby. Is their decision to queue for an hour to get a Ewan McGregor autograph for £260 all that different from the thousands who stand in St. Peter’s Square to get a glimpse of the pope’s head? Such is the intensity of this community. The stars of the franchise are idols, and when fans talk about the creator, George Lucas, they might as well be talking about God. It is he, after all, who authored their holiest of texts: Star Wars: A New Hope, now 46 years old.
Appropriately, the 2023 event takes place over Easter weekend, the period in the Christian calendar when Jesus is supposed to have died and risen from the grave. I speak to a total of 20 fans during my time at this Star Wars orgy, and only one of them has any traditional religious faith. To the rest of them (and even the one Christian), the idea of fandom as a surrogate religion makes a lot of sense.
Joanna, who traveled from Poland and spent £900 on a VIP pass, is dressed as the character Padmé Amidala (played by Natalie Portman) in the polarizing prequels trilogy. Like the majority of people in the building, Joanna was introduced to the franchise by her parents. “I kind of had no choice,” she says. “It is in that way like religion: You’re brought into it.”
The number of times I hear “Well, my father was a big Star Wars fan” over the course of the weekend must be in double digits. Like religion, you are much more likely to be a believer if your family was too. Gareth, who is dressed as a Jedi and holding a 2007 Master series lightsaber (which typically retails for $100 and up), will soon be the father in this scenario. His partner isn’t at Celebration because she is eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Gareth is excited to baptize his child in Lucas’ films but wants to do so “gently” for fear of turning them against the franchise. He plans to introduce the films in the order they were made, but his home will be so full of Star Wars memorabilia and merchandise that “it’ll be hard to avoid.”
“It’s our bible, and people interpret it in different ways,” says Lizzie, an Elizabethan costume designer dressed as R2-D2. Her husband, Alan, whom she met at a convention, is dressed in gold as “Sir 3PO,” an Elizabethan take on the droid. Alan says that his mum tried to raise him as religious, “but my main religion was, just be nice to people, like George Lucas said I should. Just take bits of the Jedi teachings. Walk along that path.”
Much as organized religion has had to adapt to a changing world, modernizing its edicts and allowing once-downtrodden groups like women to occupy positions of authority, so has Star Wars. “Fandom has for years been driven by women,” Joanna says. “Organization of conventions, organization of fanzines, fan fiction. However, onscreen we usually had men, and men behind cameras.” Though Princess Leia was always a badass, she was also undeniably defined by her looks more than her male counterparts Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the 21st century, thanks to characters like Ahsoka Tano in particular, this imbalance has now changed.
Now, women are directing and acting as leads in many of the new Star Wars ventures. A perfect example of this shift is the Disney+ series Ahsoka, whose trailer debuted on the first day of Celebration to a crowd that wouldn’t have been much more hysterical if a live rhino had run into the room. Though the series will be helmed by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni (the same duo behind The Mandalorian), its three lead characters are played by women: Rosario Dawson, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The Acolyte, a new series set to drop in 2024, will be directed by Leslye Headland and will have solid female representation on screen: Amandla Stenberg, Dafne Keen, Jodie Turner-Smith, Rebecca Henderson, and Carrie-Anne Moss.
As with organized religion, this transition to greater inclusivity has been a bumpy ride. There are schisms within the Star Wars community, as there are with all faiths. At the turn of the century, this rift was over the prequels, which arrived in 1999 after an almost 16-year hiatus. Some fans loathe the prequels. For others, they have become better with age. “Hayden Christensen’s going to be on stage today,” says Lizzie of the actor cast as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. “There are thousands of people that are going to be so excited about that, and he’s going to get a really good reception. But 10, 15 years ago, he was getting death threats.” When Christensen appears, he is moved to tears by the warmth of the fans. The fandom is a dangerous force: Onstage, Rosario Dawson, who plays Ahsoka Tano, is being more honest than she realizes when she says, “The fans will kill me if I don’t do every little thing.”
In recent years, the divisions have shifted to Disney’s handling of the sequel trilogy: The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker. Particular vitriol was directed at Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, which made the announcement that she will be the lead in a new Star Wars film particularly awkward. Criticism of Rey was always inseparable from misogyny. “I’m not overly keen on the character,” says Matt, who is dressed as Anakin Skywalker. “I like Daisy Ridley, I really do, I think she’s a good actress. I just don’t like how they made the character too overpowered.” Jennifer, who is dressed as Rey, cried with joy when Ridley walked onto the stage. She is satisfied by the explanation that Rey’s power was due to her familial connections to Emperor Palpatine. (“Darkness rises and light to meet it,” as the villainous Snoke says in The Last Jedi.) “I love Rey,” says Jennifer. “She’s alone, but she still has hope and she keeps pursuing.”
The only religious fan I meet at Star Wars Celebration is Stuart, who is dressed as The Mandalorian. He is a Christian and draws two parallels between the franchise and his faith. One is that, just as “you can go anywhere in the world and you can go to a church and you know you’ll be welcomed,” you can be sure of a warm response if you meet a fellow Star Wars fan anywhere on the planet. The second is that in both worlds, good triumphs over evil. Just as the devil is a fallen angel, Darth Vader — whom Stuart dressed as on the first day of the convention — was once a man of virtue. “I’ve always believed that within Darth Vader there was good,” says Stuart. “Obviously, the stories bore that out in the end. And I always believed that good will overcome the evil. It’s a good teaching that if you go to that [dark] side, it is more destructive and does more harm to not only yourself but to other people.”
Just as it is difficult to imagine a world in which religion plays no role, it is hard to picture one in which no new Star Wars films are made. But is this a good thing for the franchise? Even God, after all, didn’t carry on writing scripture forever. Should Lucasfilm quit while it’s ahead? “Nah” is the fairly resounding answer from most fans. The majority think that, so long as it’s done well, there is no reason Star Wars storytelling should ever end.
“Star Wars is infinite,” says Matt. “You could honestly go down any route. You could do a series about a rogue Jawa. You get someone like Jon Favreau directing it; it’s going to be brilliant.” Disney+ shows like Andor, Ahsoka, and The Book of Boba Fett prove the lives of seemingly minor characters can and will be exhaustively mined for entertainment. And while most fans agree there is a danger of oversaturation, they tend to think Star Wars is in a good position at the moment. Laura, who traveled to Celebration from Germany and is dressed as Ahsoka, says that a world without new Star Wars content is “unthinkable.”
“I can’t imagine what it was like in the early ’90s or late ’80s when there was nothing,” she says. “It was a dark time.”
The only fan who demurs is Jamie, who at 19 is the youngest person I speak to. “I remember as a kid, I used to get excited when I saw a new trailer,” he says, dressed as Boba Fett, “but there were a couple of trailers that dropped yesterday, and I was just sitting there with a blank face because it happens all the time now.”
Repeated attempts to recapture the thrill of seeing the original Star Wars in 1977 are surely doomed. Whether this makes the franchise essentially a commercial enterprise is open to debate. Declan, who is dressed as Darth Maul, remembers that the original trilogy “set our school alight.” When he discusses their impact he sounds like someone describing the work of Jesus Christ: The films “changed everything,” he says, adding that they were a kind of “blinding light of seeing something so new it was hard to comprehend.” Now, he says, there is so much content that “separating the wheat from the chaff is quite difficult.” There is a feeling, difficult to ignore whenever an announcement is met with standing ovations, that the gluttony of the fans may be the franchise’s downfall.
As the four-day extravaganza winds down, lit lightsabers held aloft in the enormous main room, Celebration gets a rousing send-off. There is something of the megachurch about the sensation of 4,500 like-minded people uniting around a single vision. One of the presenters, perhaps going a little over the top, declares: “There is joy in this world. There is love in this world. There is hope in this world. And it’s at Star Wars Celebration.” With the fumes of nostalgia and optimism making everyone giddy, it is easy to believe them. For a few days, in a world where so much else is going wrong, only Star Wars matters.
As one fan says: “I lost my voice, I lost my mind, but I found my people.”