Rogue One will not be the first Star Wars spinoff movie released in theaters. That honor sort of belongs to The Clone Wars, a cheapo 3D-animated horror released to general disregard in 2008. I say “sort of” because Caravan of Courage was also released theatrically in some countries. Caravan of Courage is basically Quest for Fire with Ewoks; it’s unwatchable unless you’re four years old and it’s the middle-late ’80s and your VHS still has the commercials from when your parents taped it before you were born.
What I’m saying is that Rogue One is probably already the best Star Wars spinoff movie ever made.
Disney didn’t reveal anything about the movie’s plot today, but the name speaks volumes. “Rogue One” is the callsign of the leader of Rogue Squadron. If you’re someone who’s only experienced Star Wars via the movies, you may only vaguely know what Rogue Squadron is. If you’re any kind of Star Wars fan, then you know Rogue Squadron is the team of fighter pilots who fly Snowspeeders and X-Wings and basically anything with an engine. If you happened to reach your peak Star Wars fandom in the mid-’90s—the period when there were no Star Wars movies but a seemingly infinite array of Star Wars tie-in books, comics, and videogames—then it’s possible that you think Rogue Squadron is the very best of Star Wars. It’s all the excitement with none of the self-importance; all the thrilling battles, none of the Skywalker-bloodline spiritualist philosophy.
The mascot for Rogue Squadron is Wedge Antilles, played onscreen in the orginal trilogy by Denis Lawson. But when Wedge first appears in Star Wars, he’s played by actor Colin Higgins and voiced by David Ankrum; Lawson plays the character once he’s in the X-wing cockpit. If that makes no sense to you, it’s important to remember that the Star Wars mythology was built partly/mostly/maybe entirely by accident. (George Lucas still calls lightsabers “laser swords.”)
In Star Wars, Wedge backs up Luke Skywalker in the X-Wing crew called Red Squadron. The main interesting thing about Wedge is that he doesn’t die, unlike every other non-Skywalker X-Wing fighter. With an impressive eye to continuity, they brought back the character in Empire Strikes Back. A few years have passed, and you get the idea that Wedge and Luke are pals: Together, they’ve created Rogue Squadron, some kind of badass pilot gang. Empire introduced another Rogue, Derek “Hobbie” Klivian, played by Richard Oldfield, who gets the immortal line: “Two fighters against a Star Destroyer?” Arguably more notable was Wes Janson, rear gunner for Wedge Antilles. It’s to him that Wedge yells maybe his most iconic line: “Good shot, Janson!”
Janson was played by Ian Liston; in the same scene, Liston played an Imperial gunner inside an AT-AT, trying to shoot himself down. This is almost as weird as the multiple Wedges in Star Wars, but there’s an accidental poignance, too. Nobody in Rogue Squadron is an epic hero. It’s a squadron of great pilots, but they’re all ultimately grunts, disposable everyday soldiers fighting other disposable soldiers while Princesses and Emperors decide the fate of the universe.
The Battle of Hoth looms large in Rogue legend. The unjustly forgotten 1996 videogame Shadows of the Empire is, for the most part, a pretty-good third-person shooter set in a Star Wars universe built out of N64 graphics that look endearingly Minecraft-y in hindsight. But the game starts with one of the best first levels of any videogame: You’re flying an airspeeder with Rogue Squadron, taking down Imperial walkers and probe droids. (Earn the challenge point! Fire that tow cable!)
That level inspired 1998’s pretty-good Rogue Squadron, also for the N64, which mainly covered story territory pre-Empire. Rogue Squadron in turn led to Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader (a title which used to look endearingly nerdy before they started making movies like Avengers 3: The Infinity War—Part I), which covers the narrative of all three original films, including a reprise of the Battle of Hoth and the attack on the second Death Star in the Battle of Endor, originally portrayed in Return of the Jedi.
Jedi makes the in-hindsight-strange decision to feature an epic space battle sequence featuring none of the original Star Wars cast. Instead, the Rebel attack is led by Lando Calrissian and Wedge Antilles, now firmly established as the go-to face inside of an X-Wing. Wedge survives the battle. He’s down in Endor at the Ewok dance party; he gives Luke a hug. I might be wrong, but this hug could be the first time Mark Hamill and Denis Lawson are actually onscreen together.
But the real die-hard Rogue Squadron saga began in 1995, when Michael A. Stackpole wrote the first issue of a comic book whose complete title, I swear to god, was Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron: The Rebel Opposition. Set immediately after Return of the Jedi, SW: X-W:RS:TRO picked up with Wedge, Hobbie, Wes, and a few other pilots as they kept fighting against the Empire. Dark Horse comics thought it would be a miniseries, but its popularity led to three years of Rogue Squadron arcs.
Around the same time, Stackpole started publishing a series of Rogue Squadron novels. Set a few years after the continuity of the comic books, the Rogue Squadron books introduced the character Corran Horn, who’s kind of a mash-up of Luke Skywalker (force powers, mysterious daddy issues) and Han Solo (dashing pilot, born on Corellia). He’s also, undeniably, one of the more interesting original-to-book characters in the Star Wars lineage.
In comic and novel form, Rogue Squadron had some key tenets. There was always a big cast of pilots, and anyone who hadn’t appeared in the movies was very expendable. And whereas the Star Wars movies have always trended towards white dudes in the main cast, Rogue Squadron put a bit more emphasis on aliens and female pilots. But Stackpole’s main contribution, I think, was to portray Rogue Squadron as the everymen-and-women of the Star Wars galaxy. They didn’t fight zero-sum battles against Death Stars; they fought renegade Imperials and war lords, they fought on land and over sea, in space and beyond.
It makes sense, then, that Rogue Squadron provides the inspiration for the first major spinoff of the new Star Wars era—and it’s cool that, as of now, the star of the movie appears to be a woman. It’s unclear right now if Rogue One will take place in the sequel-trilogy period, or if it will focus in on the Rogues’ adventures during the original trilogy. My own bet is that Rogue One will take place somewhere in between—that Disney will use the Rogues as a way to create their own cinematic history post-Return of the Jedi. As long as it occasionally involves snowspeeders, I’m there.