Every time a new Star Wars project is released, it’s not long before a discussion begins to crop up around the topic of cameos, references, and connections to other Star Wars stories. A firmly held belief among some sections of the Star Wars fandom is that the prevalence of Skywalkers, Jedi, and their ilk are emblematic of the problem with modern Star Wars. From this perspective, each fresh appearance of Luke Skywalker, Ahsoka Tano, or Darth Maul is representative of creative stagnation, and the reason that a show like Andor is so successful is that it is several steps removed from the world of the Jedi and heroes of the Original Trilogy.
To be fair to this point of view, overreliance on established characters can be an indicator of weak storytelling. The Book of Boba Fett, among its many other issues, struggled to do anything interesting with its main characters because their stories kept being encroached upon by characters like Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) or Cad Bane (voiced by Corey Burton and physically portrayed by Dorian Kingi) who were only there for an episode or two. But it’s not the root cause of the problem, just a symptom of a deeper issue with the writing itself. One of Star Wars’ greatest strengths has always been its characters. From Darth Vader to Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars characters have always resonated with audiences. Writing a story featuring a new mix of these existing characters that the audience already knows and likes should be a slam dunk, right? So where is Star Wars going wrong?
The Key Is the Writing
You don’t need to look far to find a bad example of a cameo appearance. The Sequel Trilogy is filled with questionable callbacks and appearances by characters from the Original Trilogy that actively detract from the story being told. Take Lando (Billy Dee Williams) in The Rise of Skywalker as an example. He first appears when the main cast arrives on Pasaana to point them in the direction of the dagger they’re looking for. He then disappears for most of the rest of the movie, appearing later to give Poe (Oscar Isaac) an inspiring speech and participate in the final battle.
This happens even though in his earlier appearance in the film he said he didn’t fly anymore when Poe asked him to join the Resistance. That could’ve been the basis of a simple but effective character arc, where he gets brought back around to helping the Resistance by the rest of the events in the film. But there’s nothing of substance to his appearance — he’s a stepping stone on the way to the next plot point, and an Original Trilogy character to mourn Leia (Carrie Fisher) since they’d already killed the other two. He exists solely to be recognized as Lando Calrissian, and that’s a weak reason to have a character in a story.
There Are Plenty of Good Star Wars Cameos
But that’s not to say these sorts of appearances can’t and haven’t been handled effectively. Star Wars: The Clone Wars was an anthology show built around these sorts of appearances. Most of the regular cast were the primary protagonists of the Prequel Trilogy or new original characters, but over the course of the show’s run, more characters began to appear from across the Star Wars universe. As early as the first season, entire episodes were spent developing the various named Jedi who appeared in the Prequels but weren’t given much to do. One such episode was Season 1’s “Lair of Grievous,” which put the focus on Jedi Master Kit Fisto (Phil LaMarr) to tell an engaging and tension-filled story about teachers and their sometimes strange relationships with their former pupils. In later seasons, characters from beyond the Prequels, such as younger versions of Wilhuff Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) and Boba Fett (Daniel Logan), became more prominent as the events of Revenge of the Sith grew closer. The most impactful character to be brought back, however, could’ve easily fallen victim to the same issues as Lando and The Book of Boba Fett, but thankfully didn’t and made the show better because of it. Let’s talk about Darth Maul.
Maul (Sam Witwer) returned at the end of Season 4 with his legs replaced by a spider-like mechanical apparatus on the trash-covered planet of Lotho Minor. After being rescued by his secret brother, Savage Oppress (Clancy Brown), Maul quickly became a major player in the final three seasons of the show. While this sounds like something out of fanfiction, it turned out to be an excellent choice that led to some of the best episodes of Star Wars television ever released. It gave the show a villain it had the freedom to use however it needed to, without bending over backwards to keep him alive for Revenge of the Sith. Maul has his own compelling arc, being aware of some of Darth Sidious’ (Ian Abercrombie, and later Tim Curry and Ian McDiarmid) master plan but not knowing enough to be able to foil it. This framing of the character transforms him into a compellingly tragic figure, instead of the one-note villain from The Phantom Menace. The ultimate payoff for Maul’s story came when the show returned in 2020 for its seventh and final season, where Maul served as the primary antagonist of the show’s final four episodes. The decision to pit him against Anakin’s exiled former apprentice Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) both explained where Ahsoka was during the events of Revenge of the Sith and allowed the show to use him as a fascinating character foil for her. The result was some of the best Star Wars in recent memory.
Maul’s not the only fan-favorite character whose appearance has been used to great effect. The Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian made tasteful use of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to conclude the season’s central arc. The entire season up to that point revolved around Din Djarin looking for a Jedi to train his foundling, Grogu. That plot made sense for the show, but it did place its story on a seemingly inevitable collision course with Luke Skywalker, as he was one of the few living Jedi at that point in the timeline. But The Mandalorian doesn’t overuse Luke–he gets his cool moment of heroism when he saves the protagonists from the Dark Troopers, but his presence doesn’t detract from the emotional climax of Din and Grogu’s story. As he leaves the rest of the cast onboard the bridge of Moff Gideon’s (Giancarlo Esposito) light cruiser, the camera doesn’t linger on Luke, it focuses on Grogu in his arms looking back at Din as he leaves.
How to Do Cameos the Right Way
Based on these examples, there seem to be three major factors that go into whether a cameo works in Star Wars. One, the cameo makes logical sense — when the character appears, the audience goes, “yeah, of course, they would be here.” Two, the character has their own story and arc that makes them compelling beyond whatever attachment the audience already has to them. Three, the character directly contributes to the story that’s being told in the project they’re appearing in. It’s not necessary that a cameo meet all three of these criteria, but it needs to at least meet two. Maul’s reappearance strain suspension of disbelief, but his own arc and the effect on the story more than make up for it. Luke has no arc to speak of, but his appearance makes logical sense within the world and serves the story of the show’s main characters. Both are successful, unlike Lando in The Rise of Skywalker, which maybe meets the first condition if you squint at it but definitely doesn’t meet either of the others.
Star Wars characters have been one of the franchise’s main selling points since Darth Vader marched onto the Tantive IV in 1977. Ask any collection of Star Wars fans who their favorite character is, and you’ll probably get dozens of different answers from across the movies, shows, games, and books that make up the franchise. It makes perfect sense for creatives to want to tap into that well as much as they can, and there’s an undeniable thrill at seeing characters that you’d never thought you’d see together sharing the screen. There’s nothing wrong with branching out and telling news stories in the Star Wars universe, but there’s also nothing wrong with revisiting old friends — provided, of course, there’s a good reason for them to be there.