Titles are incredibly important to Star Wars. Just look at excitement around the reveal that the massively-anticipated Episode VIII is going to be called The Last Jedi. It’s just three simple words, but they speak volumes. But, beyond being all you’re going to hear for the months surrounding its December release and giving a taste of what the focus of Rian Johnson’s film is, it more subtly tells you how the Star Wars saga is currently evolving. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the latest in an ongoing story of changing titles in the franchise, and one that’s almost as complicated as Palpatine’s plot to seize power of the Republic.
For a long time, Star Wars wasn’t even called Star Wars. While writing the screenplay for what became everyone’s favorite space fantasy, George Lucas’ epic was operating under a very different name; his title for the fourth draft was the rather wordy Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars, and other early titles were mostly variations of that. His idea at the time was that everything on screen was part of a mythic story told by an ancient species, the Whills; once that ceased to be remotely relevant to the core story, title elements were dropped and we were left with a simpler name that was more evocative of the Flash Gordon serials that had inspired the project.
When Lucas realized that the planned title was simply too cumbersome (it wouldn’t fit on a marquee, for one) the film still had an extra definite article, with early promotional art calling it The Star Wars. That “The” was eventually dropped, giving us the film and series name we all know today.
When it came to the sequel, Lucas simply picked a new name. What could have been Star Wars 2 was called The Empire Strikes Back, with no franchise clarification. That said, it did still have the Star Wars title in its opening crawl, which, crucially, also introduced the idea of numbered episodes. Lucas had wanted to have the original movie masquerade as the middle part of a series – depending on which interview you read, either Episode 4 of 9 or 6 of 12 – but Fox refused to distribute a film that pretended there were previous entries audiences missed. After its success they were less picky, approving an out-of-sync episode numbering for Empire and a year later rereleasing Star Wars with “Episode IV: A New Hope” added to the crawl. Return of the Jedi slotted into this model, albeit with one major hurdle along the way; much of the marketing called the film Revenge of the Jedi, only changing when Lucas decided Jedi shouldn’t take revenge.
Up to this point, the only movie with Star Wars actually in the name was the 1977 original – each film was officially known by their single title (it was a time when franchise branding wasn’t the necessity it is today). It was only with rereleases – starting with the Special Editions in 1997 for the 20th Anniversary, but finalized with the 2004 DVDs – that Lucas made a standardized titling structure, renaming each movie in the format of Star Wars Episode X: Subtitle. It was in many ways a formality – everybody knew which movie applied to which number – but it did help highlight the original trilogy as the second part of a bigger story and bring them closer in style (title-wise at least) to the prequels.
The second trilogy followed that redone naming convention, with extra focus on the episode numbers in the marketing to hammer home the prequels being a hitherto untold backstory. The subtitles themselves were very much in the vein of the pulpy serials that had inspired the original trilogy, which has caused derision from fans disappointed by the films even though it’s hard to say they don’t fit the brand (Episode III even took its name from the original title for Jedi). What’s most striking about these names is how spoiler-heavy they are – Clones and Sith both point towards plot elements from later on in the film, representative of how much assumed knowledge was taken with Anakin’s fall.
As the prequels ended, the synergy in the Star Wars brand was seemingly at its epoch. It was a series of six films, each with a standard title style, while all expanded universe material (including the theatrical The Clone Wars movie) was marketed as Star Wars: Subtitle. This all worked neatly until Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012.
When it came to finally naming the much-hyped Star Wars 7, Disney took a radical step and removed the numbering from the title altogether: it was just Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This seemed counterintuitive at first – surely the notion of being Episode VII is the film’s biggest selling point – but as time’s gone by the genius of the simplification has become clear. Episode VII is alluring to the Star Wars faithful, but doesn’t have the same impact on newcomers – a group Disney needed to court if their new Star Wars was going to be the cinematic behemoth they envisioned. For non-obsessive fans, a lack of numbering makes new movies more accessible. The Force Awakens essentially homogenized Star Wars, making it old and new at the same time.
Beyond that, it allows the other movies to feel like more of an event. Spinoff films were on the cards from the moment Disney purchased Lucasfilm, but because of the series’ history any non-episode films risked looking like filler just by the name alone. Getting rid of the episode titles cleared this up almost immediately; while what the standalone films would be called was for a long time unclear – Lucasfilm fluctuated between Star Wars Anthology: Title and Title: A Star Wars Story, before settling on the latter. Calling Episode VII “The Force Awakens” meant there was less of a distinction between the types of movie, and greater focus on the Star Wars brand in general. The tie-in merchandise for Rogue One even sold it as Star Wars: Rogue One, the same title structure as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, further making the prequel feel like a bona fide essential installment.
Episode VIII becoming The Last Jedi continues this trend, putting the subtitle ahead of the number, and also highlights another element of Disney’s naming technique: the announcement calls it “the next chapter in the Skywalker saga,” solidifying “Skywalker Saga” as the official banner for the numbered episodes. It also has a Star Wars trademark built right into it, meaning that even when just the movie’s name is quoted, there’s no ambiguity about what’s been discussed.
The whole of Disney’s Star Wars branding has been about synergy on a level unimaginable in the prequel era; to make everything works as cogs inside a bigger machine. It’s similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the narrative approach is different, but the idea of sub-franchises all moving alongside each other is there – and is reflected directly in the partisan naming. It’s a lot simpler than Lucas’ original Journal of the Whills idea, but is in many ways is totally in keeping with the idea of a story told in multiple parts from one huge source.