I was 11 years old in 1997 when I discovered my love of Star Wars with the release of the Special Edition movies in theaters, and I promptly started reading books and obsessively watching movies.  Therefore, when Phantom Menace was being released, I was thrilled.  I couldn’t wait for it.  I was in eighth grade, an immature middle schooler with obsessive tendencies towards things that I loved.  For fear of ridicule, though, I had to hide my love.  I had to keep quiet about my excitement for the movie’s upcoming release.

                Now, 16 years later, we stand on the precipice of a new Star Wars era.  In less than a week, I will have already seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  This time, I am older (I just turned 30! Ack!).  I am more mature.  I have a job, a husband, a mortgage, and even life insurance. 

                But last week, I threw myself a Star Wars themed birthday party.  We served food with badly punned titles (like R2Potatoes and C3POnion Rings).  People came in costume wielding expensive FX lightsabers.  We bought a Happy Birthday! Banner featuring Star Wars characters at Walmart.  This could easily have been a party for someone turning 10 instead of 30. 

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                My excitement level for Episode I was high, but my excitement level for Episode VII is off the charts.  I have literally been jumping up and down at home and pacing my faculty room at work in anticipation.  I recently realized and then proclaimed on Facebook that our last weekend without The Force Awakens in our lives is now over.  I am giddy every time I think about the upcoming release.

                Why is it that now, as I am older, as I’ve been unfortunately burned by Star Wars in the past, I am so much more excited about this movie than I was about the first prequel in 1999?  I had every right to be more excited then, but I wasn’t.  So what’s changed?

                First of all, what’s changed is that the Star Wars community has unfortunately been let down by the last set of movies that was released.  (I recognize that not everyone hates the prequels, but I think everyone has to recognize that most fans do.  Sorry.)  While some fans who saw the original trilogy in its original release (which I was a little unborn for at the time) felt that the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi would never have been able to defeat the Galactic Empire, more fans were disenchanted with George Lucas’s prequel trilogy for a plethora of reasons.  (Boring plots, uninteresting characters, wooden actors, creepy and unbelievable love story, plot points that happened just because they had to, annoying side characters – the list goes on.)  Even worse than that was that many of us actually bought into the hype of the movies at first, and in our naiveté of both youth and thinking, “Wow! This is new Star Wars!” we actually pretended that we enjoyed these movies.  Personally, I know that I always had a knot of unease in my stomach about a lot of the prequel sequences, but I looked past all that the first time around. 

Then, when I revisited the prequels years later, I made the disheartening realization that they were devastatingly terrible.  I had stood up for them for years only to suddenly be slapped in the face with the truth, and it hurt.  A lot.  When I discovered that Episode II, which I had so thoroughly enjoyed the first three times I saw it in theaters and several times I watched it on DVD, was among the worst movies ever made, I was heartbroken.  Time away from these movies had refreshed my point of view.  How could George have so thoroughly fooled me?  How had I been tricked into thinking that pretty special effects and being part of a franchise equaled a great movie? 

                Regardless of how it happened, I was fooled.  These days, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality of the Star Wars prequels.  I’ve had to be able to admit that there are three movies with the words Star Wars in their title that are boring and at times painful to watch.  And knowing that this true awfulness exists is one of the reasons that I am so looking forward to The Force Awakens.  Am I scared that it will be terrible?  Only slightly.  Could anything really be worse than Anakin and Padme’s forced love story, even after he admits to her that he murdered women and children?  A lot of fans are scared of the fact that Disney purchased the franchise, and they’re afraid of it becoming “Disnified.” To refute these concerns, I point to most Marvel movies (I know Age of Ultron was a disappointment to some, but at least no one could accuse it of being an animated movie with songs).  Disney has not by any stretch ruined that franchise, so the worry of them doing the same for Star Wars seems unfounded.  In fact, I am excited at the prospect of the franchise being in new hands.  George Lucas proved with the prequels that his filmmaking had gotten lazy and the spark of passion that led him to create Star Wars had burned out.  Whatever your opinions about JJ Abrams may be, at least when he speaks about the series, he does so with the joy and excitement of almost a child, of someone who loves and cares so much about the saga.  I do not believe that he would strive to create something that felt like anything other than a Star Wars movie.  Besides, thanks to George’s previous movies, we really have nowhere to go but up.

                But, if we’re being really honest, I truly believe that the reason for the massive amounts of extra excitement that I, and hopefully others, am feeling is the explosion of fandoms.  While fandoms have technically been around for about a hundred and twenty five years (if you consider Sherlock Holmes to have inspired the first group of diehard fans), they have grown almost immeasurably with the growth of the internet.  Now fans can meet, talk, share ideas, discuss their interests, etc easily and with people from all over the world.  Conventions have also sprung up, and the amount of people going to them has increased tremendously.  Though the first official San Diego ComicCon was held in 1970, the convention did not begin to sell out until 2010, and the convention did not spread to New York until 2006.  In 2011, New York’s convention matched the attendance of San Diego’s, and in 2014, the amount of people in New York even surpassed the amount in California.  These numbers illustrate the degree to which fandoms in all have wheedled their way into pop culture.

                Was there the internet in 1999 when The Phantom Menace was released?  Of course, though it was much less accessible to people than it is today now that everyone has a smartphone.  There were less fan sites and less access to even official information about topics around which fandoms exist.  Sure, there were sci-fi conventions, but nothing near the degree that conventions reach these days.  In middle school, when my love for Star Wars was born, I was embarrassed by it and had to hide it from anyone besides my closest friends.  These days, as a middle school teacher, my heart is warmed by the comfort level of the students I teach and their loves of all things nerdy.  No one is really embarrassed anymore if they love Harry Potter or Star Wars or Dr. Who.  They wear it on shirts, they sing theme songs down the hallways, and they talk about their loves with me, one of their teachers, as well as with their friends.  These fandom lovers aren’t ostracized, either.  They are present in members of every clique.  I often think about how this would have been a much easier time for me to be a middle school student than when I was in middle school, hiding the Timothy Zahn trilogy books in my locker to avoid ridicule from classmates.     

                In other words, there are so many more outlets for fandom love today than there were in 1999, or even in 2005 when Revenge of the Sith was released.  These outlets allow fans to express their love for their fandom to the fullest and even allow it to nurture and grow because of all of these outlets.  Fans of all ages can be proud of their passion and wear that love on their sleeves – literally.  (Have we all seen the wonderful lines of Star Wars clothing, particularly for women, which are now available?  My favorites are Ashley Eckstein’s Her Universe and the Rockin’ Rebel line that Kohl’s released.)  Excitement can be discussed openly with old friends and new at conventions of thousands.  Podcasts can be heard, spoilers can be searched out, fanfiction can be read and written, groups can convene in person or online.  The internet has made the word of fandom a smaller, and, at the same time, much larger place. 

                It is this growth of fandom that has kindled the flame of my Episode VII excitement.  It is being part of a larger world in which loving a story with so much of your being is acceptable and encouraged.  Sadly, this is most likely the last time that a Star Wars movie will have this amount of excitement around it.  This movie is one that fans did not see coming when Revenge of the Sith was released.  We thought the movie universe was a closed one, and this amazing treat, when it was announced three years ago, brought to life something that so many of us thought was dead.  From now on, though, thanks to films that will be taking place outside of the main saga, we will have a new Star Wars movie about once a year.  At some point, the excitement will ween a bit.  We won’t have to wait years upon years for a new story anymore.  So this is it.  This is our last chance to feel this intense level of excitement in the Star Wars fandom possibly forever.

May the force be with all of the Star Wars fans as we, this week, pass through the last several days that we will have to live without Episode VII in our lives and as we all enter the theaters to see the movie that has everything to prove and nothing to lose this weekend.