Shadows of the Empire is one of the most beloved stories in the Star Wars Expanded Universe – but was still excluded from canon in the post-Disney universe. In 1996, Lucasfilm released one of the most important stories in the old Expanded Universe. Shadows of the Empire was a multimedia initiative that feels like a spiritual ancestor of the upcoming High Republic project.
The main narrative was told in the form of a novel, a comic book series, a even a video game, and even had its own popular soundtrack; literally the only Star Wars medium it lacked at the time was a movie. Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, this told the story of how Luke Skywalker constructed his own lightsaber and became a true Jedi, even as Leia scoured the galaxy for her beloved Han Solo. Leia’s quest brought her to Black Sun, a criminal empire that rivaled the Hutts, and whose leader Prince Xizor competed with Darth Vader for the Emperor’s favor. The story is fondly remembered for introduced a popular character named Dash Rendar, essentially a Han Solo surrogate given Han was frozen in carbonite during this time period.
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Shadows of the Empire was easily Lucasfilm’s biggest multimedia initiative, and could have easily fit in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, yet it has been consigned to Legends status, along with the rest of the old Expanded Universe. Why is that the case?
Shadows of the Empire is One of the Most Popular EU Stories
Shadows of the Empire was one of Lucasfilm’s most ambitious projects, and it is fondly remembered for its boldness. The Expanded Universe was in its infancy, with Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy breathing new life into the franchise, and Lucasfilm sought to capitalize upon this by releasing a single story that transcended all the different mediums they were operating in. Shadows of the Empire was the result, a story dreamed up by talented author Steve Perry, and it was a tremendous success. The game alone was a hit, a popular third-person 3D action game that helped launch the N64, and that provided players with an opportunity to revisit classic moments in the Star Wars saga from a new perspective. Although the cinematics and gameplay are now dated, they were state-of-the-art for the time.
Perry’s story embraced the zeitgeist of the ’90s, capturing the grim and gritty realism that was in vogue at the time. The setting was ideal for such a time, because the tale was set in a period where the Rebellion was on the back foot, and the flickering candle of hope had almost died. Perry’s love for Star Wars shone through, as he wove in classic moments alluded to by George Lucas but not shown in his movies. Readers got to enjoy the moment Luke Skywalker constructed his lightsaber, and learned of the sacrifices made by Bothan spies who had learned of the Second Death Star. The story remains popular to this day – but it is not without its problems.
Shadows of the Empire Creates Some Canon Problems
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm back in 2012, they faced a difficult decision as regards the old Expanded Universe. There was a sense in which the Expanded Universe had become a victim of its own success, because it had expanded too far, and it was now impossible for new fans to easily navigate it. Making matters worse, the Expanded Universe had explored the entire timeline of the galaxy, from before the founding of the Republic to 100 years after Return of the Jedi. Lucasfilm execs swiftly realized they could not craft new, accessible stories without contradicting the EU. They decided to jettison it from continuity, to discount it as “Legends.” Over the years, they would draw upon the best elements of it, with the most notable example being Grand Admiral Thrawn; but they have carefully avoided drawing entire stories back into canon.
The core problem is that no one part of the Expanded Universe really stands in isolation. Every tale exists in its context, and you cannot incorporate it back into the canon without unwittingly restoring elements you would rather leave alone. That’s even the case with Shadows of the Empire, with Steve Perry ensuring there is clear continuity between his story and the tales told in other EU novels. Frankly, it is far easier for Lucasfilm to simply draw a line under the EU, making a clean break in order to tell brand new stories. Indeed, right now Marvel’s current Star Wars and Darth Vader runs are set after the events of The Empire Strikes Back, filling the narrative gap occupied by Shadows of the Empire in the EU.
Shadows of the Empire is Polarizing
It doesn’t help that Shadows of the Empire is quite dated. It successfully captured the artistic spirit of ’90s comics and science-fiction, most notably with Dash Rendar, who is basically what Han Solo would look like if he’d been created by Rob Liefeld – complete with massive shoulder pads.
Even the basic concept, exploring the Empire’s corruption and its alliance with crime lords, feels like the kind of approach popularized in the ’90s. The simple truth is that nostalgia is all Shadows of the Empire has to offer now, reminding some fans of their childhood and teenage years, but dismissed by newer parts of the fanbase. In order for Star Wars to flourish, it must forget about the past and dare to do something new.
Shadows of the Empire’s Leia Plot is Problematic
And then there is the single most controversial element of Shadows of the Empire; its treatment of Princess Leia. The dynamic between Leia and Xizor was never supposed to be an innocent one, with the Falleen prince using his pheromones to arouse Leia so she can only be compared to an animal on heat. But society has progressed since the ’90s, and now this twisted relationship feels disturbingly familiar, akin to the powerful men who have been exposed by the #MeToo movement. Xizor is essentially a sexual predator whose power strips women of their ability to consent, and consequently, his conquests are little more than the twisted actions of a rapist.
This is even more disturbing given Leia is the target of his affections, the one who is stripped of her confidence and strength of will by Xizor’s pheromones. Leia is a feminist icon, a woman strong enough to resist Imperial torture and confident enough to take charge of her own rescue attempt. While it is true even George Lucas had Leia don a slave bikini in Return of the Jedi, it’s important to remember even this was turned upside-down, with Leia choking Jabba with the chains he had used to bind her. Unfortunately there is no such strength in Shadows of the Empire, because Xizor’s pheromones literally wipe it away. Leia deserves better than this.
Shadows of the Empire may be popular, but the simple truth is that it will never be considered part of the Disney canon. That does not mean it should be forgotten, though; Lucasfilm’s upcoming High Republic transmedia initiative builds on the foundation laid by Shadows of the Empire, albeit taking the idea of a shared narrative that crosses between different mediums to the next level. Meanwhile, Black Sun is still part of the canon, Dash Rendar has been subtly referenced, and even Xizor has gotten some vague allusions, but it’s very doubtful they’ll all come together for a similar story in modern Star Wars canon.
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