Everyone loves Star Wars, but maybe you don’t ... yet. Maybe you’re afraid to watch it for the first time with a bunch of overexcited friends who will shout out the serial number of the Death Star trash compactor at the same time that Luke Skywalker says it (I do this). Maybe you don’t know the order to watch the movies in, or where to begin with the overwhelming amount of Star Wars books, video games, comics, and other media to choose from. I get it!
But getting into Star Wars is worth it, because Star Wars is fun. It’s a great story with characters and a message you can root for. It explores serious themes like political resistance, spirituality, and redemption, but also features sillier stuff like swords made out of lasers. (Yes, I know that lightsabers actually have plasma blades. Please do not email me about this.)
Star Wars started as a great blockbuster, and that’s still how it feels to me: smart but accessible and filled with reckless joy.
This article is intended as a safe space for newbie fans; everyone who's somehow managed to get through life so far without having seen Star Wars, but wants to be able to participate in the ongoing cultural obsession with the franchise.
As this guide will prove, getting into Star Wars is easy. You’ll start by just watching a few movies, and then you’ll wake up one day and realize that you fell asleep while trying to read each chapter of Shadows of the Empire before playing the corresponding level of the video game version in an all-night marathon session, and you’ll thank me for changing your life.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: the history of Star Wars
Our Star Wars journey begins in 1977, when Star Wars is released to an unsuspecting public and CHANGES MOVIES FOREVER™. It’s a surprise hit, and pretty soon we have two sequels: 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Confusingly, these three films are episodes IV, V, and VI of a larger series, although I, II, and III don’t exist yet. But licensed toys and comics do, and so does a new breed of geek: the Star Wars fan.
In 1991, the saga gets its first real continuation in the form of a book trilogy. Acclaimed sci-fi writer Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy picks up where the first three movies left off. Movie versions of these stories are never made, but at the time, they’re understood to be “canon”—fan speak for anything that “actually” happened in the fictional universe.
Meanwhile, George Lucas—Star Wars’ creator and sometime tormenter–is busy tweaking his creations. He renames the first movie Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope and constantly tinkers with the special effects. He releases three new “Special Editions” of the movies in theaters in the 1990s. We also get a ton of new spin-off books, including series for younger readers.
Next up: a new multimedia project called Shadows of the Empire, created in 1996. Set between the second and third movies (episodes V and VI), Shadows isn’t a movie—but it is a comic book, a novel, and a video game. It’s a sort of dry run for the massive promotional effort that will come next: the prequels. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002), and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) are the first truly new Star Wars movies to come out since 1983, and they are a big deal. They are also—and I’m not going to sugarcoat this—pretty bad. The Star Wars experience hasn’t been all roses, folks. Bear with me.
In 2012, something huge happens: Disney buys out George Lucas’ Lucasfilm, making Disney the new owners of the Star Wars franchise. This has a major effect on the "canon" because Disney promptly de-canonizes the Thrawn books and a bunch of others in Star Wars’ so-called “Extended Universe,” clearing the way for them to make their own sequels to the original trilogy.
The first of those sequels is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is Episode VII of the series. It won’t be the last: Disney is planning on an Episode VIII, Episode IX, and a bunch of standalone "Star Wars Anthology" movies like the new Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
So, where do you start? Easy: You watch some Star Wars movies.
Aggressive purists like me will suggest you watch the Despecialized Editions, which attempt to restore the feel of the original theatrical releases (pre-Lucas meddling). Other purists will insist that you watch the movies in some bizarre order. Do not be intimidated by purists! Just watch Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope in all its three-layers-of-titles glory, and then follow it up with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. By the end of this process, you will find yourself a Star Wars fan, because these movies are good.
And since you’re now a Star Wars fan, it’s time to pay your dues. Watch Episodes I, II, and III. You can make it. We all did it. Some people like them!
Finally, finish with the latest Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then move on to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The latter is set before A New Hope, but watching the movies in release order still makes sense.
The bad news is that, as of this writing, there aren't any Star Wars movies on Netflix. You’ll have to buy them on DVD or as digital copies on Amazon.
Anyway, that’s it. You are now a Star Wars fan. But check yourself, Padawan: You’re not yet a Star Wars master. LET’S GO DEEPER.
More to learn, there is.
Star Wars is a film franchise, sure, but it’s so much more than that. There are Star Wars books and video games and comics, oh my!
Here’s your essential advanced study course: Read Shadows of the Empire in either comic book or novel form (or both!). It’s still canon, and it’s great. Then read the Thrawn trilogy: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, all by Timothy Zahn. These aren’t canon anymore, but they remain the best Star Wars books, so they’re going on my syllabus.
Next, indulge in a spin-off. Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an animated series, but it will hold your interest as an adult. It’s set in the prequel era, and you can check it out on Netflix.
Expand your universe.
One of the beautiful things about Star Wars fandom is that while the franchise is vast, not that much is mandatory. You need to see the movies, but now that the once-essential “Expanded Universe” (post-trilogy fiction) is all de-canonized, that’s about it. There’s no “logical” place to go next–it’s entirely up to you.
Maybe you’ll get into the comics. Marvel’s early ones are an interesting piece of history, but it’s Dark Horse (who snagged the rights in the 1990s) that put out the most fan favorites: Dark Empire, Shadows of the Empire, and Darth Vader, among others.
Want to know the gritty details and trivia facts? Look for Essential Guide series, which includes primers on vehicles and vessels, weapons, and more. Spend a lot of time on Wookiepedia and start being obnoxious to your friends about what is or is not canon. Fun!
Gamers, you’ll want to look a Star Wars: Battlefront, plus retro games like TIE Fighter, Shadows of the Empire, and Rogue Squadron. There are also board games like Imperial Assault and Armada. Maybe you’ll collect action figures, Lego, trading cards, or memorabilia, in which case my official recommendation is that you have a lot of money.
Maybe you’ll be aggressively retro about your fandom, like certain people who get paid to write articles about Star Wars (thank you, Portalist!). If that’s you, check out the Despecialized Editions and read old Extended Universe novels.
The vastness of the Star Wars universe is the whole fun of it: Think of this as choose-your-own-adventure fandom. Whatever you like most about Star Wars, embrace it! If you’ve gotten this far, it’s beyond the power of any obnoxious super-fan to make you feel inferior. You are a true Star Wars fan, and you get to decide what that means to you.