It was only three years ago that The Force Awakens signalled the Star Wars’ return to the silver screen, but the franchise has already packed in a decade’s worth of behind-the-scenes drama.
Even leaving aside the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher, which makes Leia’s on-screen future unclear, we’ve had Harrison Ford injuring his ankle and performing an emergency plane landing on a golf course. We’ve seen late, extensive reshoots on Rogue One. Director Colin Trevorrow departing Episode IX. Veteran filmmaker Ron Howard replacing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller – and reportedly reshooting a fair chunk of the movie – late in the production of Solo.
You could argue that all this is par for the course in the modern Hollywood way of doing things. In a climate where everyone’s competing with the gravity-defying success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve been subjected to weird phenomena like Henry Cavill’s top lip from the uncanny valley, a heavily recut Suicide Squad, and lop-sided horror action hybrids like The Mummy.
Besides, the success of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Rogue One mean that, even with all those headline-making challenges, Disney probably isn’t too worried. The Mouse House acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, and so far, it’s looking like money well spent; The Force Awakens alone made around $2 billion, while The Last Jedi was a critical darling, scoring 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
At the same time, however, there are already faint signs of wear and tear showing on the rebooted Star Wars franchise. The Last Jedi, despite its $1.3 billion success, didn’t hit the estimates made by some financial analysts. According to an oft-shared report published by The Wall Street Journal, it fell short by approximately $200 million. Then there’s the news that Star Wars toy sales have fallen sharply since the time of The Force Awakens – one data company has suggested that the drop in sales may have been as much as 56 percent.
These falling numbers can be put down in part to an inevitable decrease in the hype levels surrounding the Star Wars franchise after its 2015 return. When The Force Awakens made its debut, it marked the first live-action, big-screen appearance from the series for over a decade, so it’s little surprise that fans would queue up to watch the movie and purchase some of the toys – particularly when word got around that, actually, director J.J. Abrams had done a pretty good job of it all.
What will surely be more worrying for Disney, though, is that The Last Jedi failed to find an audience in China. Despite the studio’s efforts to better market the sequel to Chinese cinema-goers, its numbers were significantly down on The Force Awakens. With a drop of 92 percent between its first and second weekends, The Last Jedi actually fared worse than films like Geostorm and Valerian – genre films widely regarded as flops in the west.
Star Wars isn’t a cultural phenomenon in China like it is in, say, America or Europe, but Disney may be wondering by now why it’s failing to catch fire. To put things into perspective, consider Pacific Rim Uprising: a sci-fi sequel that’s generally thought of as small beer compared to Star Wars. In China, that movie debuted at number one, and made more than $120m on its first weekend – The Last Jedi, by contrast, had made less than $50 million when it was abruptly pulled from Chinese cinemas.
There were hints in The Last Jedi that Disney dearly wanted to grow its audience beyond Star Wars’ army of existing fans. Sure, Luke, Leia, and Chewie were all in there, but writer-director Rian Johnson also made a point of shattering old icons of Star Wars lore, as well as introducing a new generation of characters, from fluffy porgs to Rose Tico to those little kids who sit around playing with improvised action figures. Even accepting that $1.3 billion is an awful lot of money, it’s a wonder whether The Last Jedi really succeeded in broadening its appeal. With China being the world’s second largest market for American movies, the results certainly seem mixed.
All of this leads us to Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest of Disney’s spin-offs after Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One. Beside production drama and reshoots, it’ll provide something of a case study for its studio. Do fans – not to mention general audiences – want more of the “new direction” stuff introduced by The Last Jedi, or will they vote with their feet and head to a more “traditional” Star Wars movie like Solo, and make it a much greater financial success? Or, conversely, will it look a little too quaint and retro when compared to the likes of Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, out just a few weeks before it?
That Solo is even in such a position is partly down to the model Disney-Lucasfilm has chosen for the franchise. Alternating numbered sequels with standalone spin-offs sounds like a good idea in theory because it apes a similarly dense approach patented by Marvel Studios. It means fans are never more than a year away from something new and exciting. In the case of Solo, out in May, there’s little more than six months’ distance between it and The Last Jedi.
This steady flow of Star Wars action might sound like good news to Disney-Lucasfilm’s investors, but it’s questionable whether it’s really right for the franchise itself – one dreamed up long before the Cinematic Universe paradigm even existed. With Marvel’s movies, each stand-alone adventure builds anticipation for the main event. In the days of the original Iron Man and Thor, it was for The Avengers. Today, the excitement’s building up for Infinity War. And while Marvel films may all be notionally superhero movies, each character brings enough differences in tone, personality, and style to differentiate them, making it possible for the studio to turn out one or even two of these movies a year without exhausting their audience too much.
Disney-Lucasfilm’s plan with the Star Wars franchise isn’t quite the same, even if it sounds like it is at first. For one thing, its planned string of movies isn’t built up in phases like Marvel’s: if we wanted to be cynical about it, we could describe it as an old-fashioned trilogy, released bi-annually, interspersed with unrelated stories to fill in the gaps. The numbered Star Wars films have a story arc, of course – Rey’s ascent from abandoned nobody to Jedi, Kylo Ren’s more ambiguous churn between dark, light, and back again – but there isn’t an overall gameplan that connects the main episodes, Rogue One, and Solo like Marvel’s Avengers.
Instead, what we have are a series of films connected by a familiar sci-fi fantasy universe, and where the proximity of each entry practically begs us to compare one with the next. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were tonally very different, but it was interesting to note that they both involved gigantic super-weapons and climaxed with lots of X-wings whizzing around, shooting things. This isn’t to say that either film was bad – far from it – but it’s arguable that annual Star Wars releases have a tendency to make its universe feel smaller rather than larger. Viewed in relatively quick succession, it becomes easier to see the same themes repeat themselves: the father issues, the redemptions, the doomed mentors.
Of course, everything could change right away with this spring’s Solo. On the surface, the movie looks like a known quantity, being little more than a guided tour of Han Solo’s early adventures with Chewbacca, Lando, and the Millennium Falcon. But it’s possible that, director troubles aside, Lucasfilm has something unexpected hidden up its sleeve here: revelations that change our perceptions of the Star Wars universe and make it feel new and unexpected again.
As much as we’ve enjoyed the Star Wars movies we’ve seen since 2015, the franchise is no longer in the same unique position it was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. When The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi came out, their visual effects and sense of scale were unparalleled. In 2018, we can barely go a month without a movie assuming event status, whether it’s a Marvel or DC-related offering or a slightly lower-ranking film with lots of dazzling CGI.
What Star Wars still has going for it, though, is the detail of its universe and the lasting affection of its fans. The response to The Last Jedi, and the reception to Solo in May, could, therefore, prove decisive in Disney’s plans for the series’ future. Star Wars surely needs to look forward as well as backward, as it’s already doing, but is there really an appetite for annual sequels, or would it be better to let the franchise breathe, and space the movies further out? Marvel’s clearly stumbled on a formula that works, but Star Wars isn’t Marvel. Maybe, rather than an annual stream of movies, what we really need is a sense of mystery and anticipation again. The three-year gaps between sequels felt infinitely long back in the days of the Original Trilogy, but they had a positive effect of allowing a sense of occasion to build around each release.
The behind-the-scenes dramas suggests that, for Disney-Lucasfilm, it’s tough to coordinate all these Star Wars movies and get them ready for their predefined release dates. The departure of filmmakers like Trevorrow, Lord, and Miller is a sign of how difficult it is to remain on the same page about the stories that everybody wants to tell.
It’s possible, then, that it would be easier on everyone if the pace of production was relaxed a little. Interestingly, the producers behind the franchise might be thinking the same thing. Beyond Episode IX, scheduled for December 2019, Disney-Lucasfilm appears to be keeping its options open. We don’t yet have confirmation of the rumored Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi spin-offs, and we’ll have to wait and see whether Johnson will still get the free-reign to make an entire new trilogy of his own from 2020 onwards. The reaction to Solo could prove to be the deciding factor in what the studio does next.
As a brand, Star Wars will surely be around for decades more. But as a popular saga, Star Wars relies heavily on its event status: the same pomp and ceremony that we associate with John Williams’ triumphant, iconic score.
Bring back the sense of occasion, and Star Wars would, we’d argue, reclaim its magical spark.