An 8-year-old boy has heroes. I happened to be 8 years old in 1977 when Star Wars entered our galaxy and changed pop culture in ways no one unfamiliar with a Wookiee could have previously imagined. My heroes in 1977 were not atypical for the times: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons. Spider-Man. Paul Stanley of KISS. (The Starchild offered everything the Bee Gees did not. I signed up for the KISS Army long before my parents would have authorized.)
I’d like to think I was no more or less impressionable than my third-grade classmates that year in Knoxville, Tennessee. But I knew a hero when I first met Han Solo. And Luke Skywalker. And Princess Leia. And yes, R2-D2.
Fast forward (many years, but in a galaxy nearby) to this Friday when The Force Awakens hits local screens and the seventh chapter of the Star Wars saga becomes the most talked-about movie event of the year (decade?). I’ll be able to take my own daughters (ages 13 and 16) to see Han and Chewie on the big screen, their views of heroes shaped quite differently from the way I shaped mine 38 years ago. (Can Leia or Rey compete with Katniss Everdeen?) It will make for a cross-generational experience unlike many films can provide a person of my generation.
By the time The Empire Strikes Back was released (in 1980), my family had moved from Knoxville to Southern California. We lived in Vermont when the world was introduced to Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983). Staubach had long retired by the completion of this initial trilogy, Simmons was a Milwaukee Brewer, and KISS had removed their makeup. I entered high school with my Star Wars action figures confined to a drawer in the back of a closet. There were times it seemed a monthly Spidey comic was my only escape worthy of hero status.
But Star Wars never left, we know. Thirteen days after my first daughter was born in 1999, The Phantom Menace hit screens and viewers of my generation had to connect the dots between a mop-topped, pod-racing child ... and the Darth Vader he was destined to become. Attack of the Clones followed in 2002, as did my second daughter (four months later). KISS was back in makeup, Spider-Man reached the big screen (also in 2002), and Albert Pujols did things for the Cardinals unseen since the days of Stan Musial. Heroes were alive and well.
In 2005, the final prequel was released (mercifully, say many in hindsight). In Revenge of the Sith, we saw the final descent (not quite death) of Luke Skywalker’s father, his black mask as familiar a symbol of evil as any Hollywood image before or since. That same year, my own father died. If there’s a life event that kills heroes in the heart of a man, it’s his father’s death, the most intimate collision with mortality a human being will experience. I’ve been reluctant to identify anyone — real or fantasy — as my “hero” since my dad’s passing.
But I’ll be in line this weekend. And like everyone else my age (and millions younger), I’ll anticipate the first appearance (the return!) of Luke and Leia. I’ll relish the comedic (and loving) interplay between Solo and Chewbacca, the best Hollywood tandem since Butch and Sundance. And I’m looking forward to meeting the new soldiers: Finn, Rey, Poe, Kylo Ren. (And yes, BB-8 is adorable.) The world is so much scarier today (at least for me) than it was in 1977. I’m grateful there’s still room for Star Wars. And still room for heroes.