As Todd VanDerWerff writes, "By far the most consistent criticism of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been that it's a baldfaced rip-off of the original Star Wars."
He's right. This is definitely the most consistent criticism of the movie. But it's completely backward. J.J. Abrams's baldfaced rip-off of the original Star Wars is, by far, the most innovative thing about The Force Awakens. What he's done is found a way to take the most important innovation of comic books — the one that has led to their total dominance of contemporary cinema — and apply it to the Star Wars franchise.
Let me explain.
If, next week, someone wrote a new Lord of the Rings book that tried to retell the original story in a more modern way, it would be treated as an act of sacrilege. Tolkien's word is law. Obsessives can write their Lord of the Rings fanfic, and soulless corporations might license the brand to power new books and cartoons and even films, but the initial story is sacrosanct.
That isn't how comics work. In the Marvel and DC universes, the franchises are rebooted again and again, with the origin story changing a bit in each run. Peter Parker has been bitten by that radioactive spider dozens of times by now.
In Amazing Spider-Man No. 15, Parker is randomly bitten by a radioactive spider and then discovers his powers when he's nearly hit by a car. In the 1996 retelling, the spider bite is the result of the experiment that also creates Doctor Octopus, thus leading to Spider-Man's greatest rivalry. In Ultimate Spider-Man, the radioactive spider is part of Norman Osborn's efforts to create a super solider, and leads to Osborn trying to assassinate Parker. Later on in Ultimate Spider-Man, Parker dies, and Miles Morales is bitten by the spider and gets radioactive powers. The list goes on.
Sometimes these origin stories exist parallel to, but separate from, the original story (the Ultimate comics, for instance, began in a different universe from the main arcs). Sometimes they write over the original story, a process known as "retconning." Sometimes the relationship is never explained at all. It's all a bit weird. But no one really cared how weird comics were, because the broader culture didn't really care about comics.
But it turned out that this strange rulebook was a huge advantage when comics came to cinema. Batman has been launched and relaunched on the silver screen, with his origin stories setting up different tales with different moods fit for different audiences. The only reason Batman Begins could exist was that it was permitted, under the weird rules of comic books, for Christopher Nolan to simply overwrite Tim Burton's work.
You can overuse this trick, of course, as the Spider-Man series did when it relaunched its film franchise twice within a single decade. But the bigger problem is when you can't use the trick at all, and you're stuck either retelling the exact same story over and over again or creating sequels for new generations that don't know the original tale that well and that can't possibly live up to the power of the original story (see Star Wars Episodes I–III).
But The Force Awakens found a way out.
Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm, the company that makes Star Wars films. Disney has watched as the Marvel universe has become the dominant force in contemporary film. And now it's bringing those lessons to Star Wars.
Though there are Star Wars comics — released through Marvel, no less — Star Wars isn't a comic book, and it doesn't exist by the weird rules of comic books. If J.J. Abrams had simply remade A New Hope with new actors, the outcry would've been overwhelming. So he did something brilliant: He simply mostly remade A New Hope with mostly new actors.
As VanDerWerff writes, The Force Awakens is almost a shot-for-shot remake of A New Hope. It begins with a guy who looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi on a planet that looks like Tatooine who is harboring a droid that looks (kinda) like R2D2. The series centers on a desert-world urchin whose family is gone but who proves a natural pilot with a powerful connection to the Force. The aforementioned desert urchin finds the droid and takes it into space on, you guessed it, the Millennium Falcon. There's a climactic lightsaber fight between someone who dresses and talks like Darth Vader and someone who is basically Luke Skywalker. There is a Death Star–like weapon, and it is destroyed through a bombing run against what is basically a thermal exhaust port. Han Solo is there, and so is Leia.
This goes too far to be a mere rip-off. It's a new kind of retcon. Abrams is doing something that you could previously only do in comics — clearly retell the origin story, but change crucial facts and faces so the series can go in a new direction. His innovation is to tell what is putatively a new story but make it so clearly the old story that no one misses the point, and to bring in the old characters so the film feels like it's honoring, rather than betraying, its past.
Disney's plans for Star Wars go way beyond the new series. It wants to make a universe, much like Marvel has. There will be a standalone Boba Fett movie and a young Han Solo vehicle. Disney is trying to create something that can live and breathe and change and grow and release a new movie every year until the heat death of the universe.
For that to work, it needs to be able to do what comics do — keep updating the core story and core characters so it can retell the fundamental myth in ways that work for new audiences. And Disney has figured out a way to do it. The story of The Force Awakens might be derivative, but the innovation behind it is profound, and it's going to be the way beloved franchises become continuous universes from here on out.