Why Star Wars Can Never Be the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Solo: A Star Wars Story was Lucasfilm's first real attempt to mimic the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The results are illuminating.

Only in hindsight does everything become clear. If that weren’t true, Obi-Wan Kenobi would never have put a lightsaber in Anakin Sykwalker’s hands. Thus it’s all too easy to now assume that Solo: A Star Wars Story’s sizable crash across the surface of the global box office was always a done deal. On Monday morning, everyone was unsurprised by the challenge of recasting Harrison Ford, but on the Thursday afternoon prior, the industry was salivating at the prospect of the film opening with at least $30 million more in its total.

Nevertheless, you can be as sure as Yoda’s Force ghost that Disney, Lucasfilm, and the entire fleet of Star Wars fandom will be taking stock in Solo’s financial failures while trying to figure out just what went wrong… and what lessons can be learned from the wreckage’s little black box. And we’re more than willing to take a crack at it too, because even though Solo is the second standalone “A Star Wars Story” to be produced by Lucasfilm in the post-George Lucas era, it in many ways was the first real gamble by Disney to expand the Star Wars universe into something less grandly cinematic and more financially lucrative and serialized—it was their first genuine attempt to copy the business strategy of Disney’s Marvel Studios.

Ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, the plan has always been to release Star Wars movies annually. In essence, they’d turn what has been a multi-generational touchstone of fantasy and imagination, the “Original Trilogy,” into a source for endless adventures, films, and merchandisable profits. This would be done by immediately continuing the original Star Wars saga—that had concluded more than 30 years earlier in Return of the Jedi (1983)—and to fill in gap years between new “episodes,” there’d be standalone one-offs.

In the aftermath of Solo’s disappointment, many have speculated that Star Wars should now exclusively be a December-slated franchise, as the previous three Disney-produced Star Wars movies all made at least $1.3 billion beginning with a holiday season kickoff. Ironically, this was never the original intention, though. Last year’s The Last Jedi was also meant to be a Memorial Day release until delays forced it to Christmas (as has already happened with 2019’s Episode IX too). Solo is simply the first to make good on a strategy intended for last year, which was to test out if there could be two Star Wars movies released in five months.

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More than just the season of Solo’s release, it is the strategy to test out having two Star Wars movies in relatively quick succession that did the harshest damage to Solo’s reception. Because more than phantom online threats to “boycott” Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, or even the resistance toward recasting one of Harrison Ford’s most beloved roles, it is the misconception that the Star Wars universe can mimic the Marvel Cinematic Universe that likely caused Solo to tumble. Try as you might, you cannot place a round, Star Wars peg into a square, Marvel-shaped hole.

Indeed, Solo is the first real step toward repeating the fairly brilliant commercial strategy of what Kevin Feige has built. While Rogue One was also a spinoff movie from the main Star Wars saga, it was actually what Lucasfilm suggested these “Star Wars Stories” would be: a standalone. Telling a story with a beginning, middle, and rollicking end, it was a true war film in which all the soldiers died giving their last full measure. Tony Gilroy, the filmmaker who apparently reworked much of the second half of the movie, even says he considers it more of a “Battle of Britain movie” than a Star Wars picture. The result though was an offshoot that was just marginally far enough away from the traditional Star Wars movies to be its own thing.

But in many ways, Solo is the true experiment for Lucasfilm to achieve a cinematic universe of its own, as varied and omnipresent in pop culture as Marvel Studios’ films have become after 10 years. Many, including now Lucasfilm, chase the house that Tony Stark built, but none have been able to catch it. With a bubbly and lightly self-deferential tone, Marvel is the envy of Hollywood, now ably releasing three movies a year in the same franchise (and with room to grow).

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is a pastiche of many franchises, technically speaking, but they all interconnect, have a similar sensibility from scripting to cinematography, and each serve as an advertisement for the next installment. Whereas Lucas was influenced by the serials of his youth, Marvel’s output is actually genuinely serialized, even if they don’t have “Episode” in the title. Each movie sets up the next, as if it were a preview for next week’s Saturday matinee.

By contrast, Star Wars is rooted in a cinematic vernacular, not least of all because Lucas’ Star Wars created the vocabulary for big blockbusters 40 years onward. Consider that The Empire Strikes Back is generally the yardstick by which all other blockbuster sequels are measured. It established that the best sequels are starkly different movies with unique aesthetics and tonal conceits; they are their own individual stories as much as part of a greater whole. In fact, our entire modern understanding of a “franchise” is derived from Star Wars, right down to it ending its story in a third chapter via Return of the Jedi. From that point on and until the success of the MCU, many franchises, including in superhero cinema, followed the three-film rule.

Marvel Studios changed that playbook, and for Lucasfilm to fulfill the financial expectations of Disney, it is forced to attempt to replicate that success, even while leaning into something that benefits and hinders Star Wars by comparison: cinematic heritage.

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Until Solo, every other Star Wars movie, even the now largely loathed prequels directed by Lucas in the 2000s, were “events.” They were part of the defining pop culture of their day, with each installment meant to be its own massive tome added to the canon. While Star Wars prospered for the most hardcore fans in serialized content like comic books and cartoon shows, by and large, audiences expected each Star Wars movie to be an experience unto itself, even if was technically the next “Episode.”

In comparison Marvel Studios has created a modern system that needn’t worry about trilogies or decades of expectations about what a Marvel film is. These movies generally have a house style audiences come to rely on as readily as the approach of a popular television show, and they don’t need to be marketed as the moviegoing event of the year. They can have those grander, season finale-esque moments like Avengers: Infinity War, but they can be followed up only a few months later with a more comical and breezy family friendly adventure, as with Ant-Man and the Wasp. Audiences aren’t trained to expect a film worth talking about for years to come; they just want to enjoy the latest episode—each with enough self-effacement to beg audiences not to invest in its “saga” too deeply—and then dispose of it with their popcorn while heading toward the parking lot.

Solo is an attempt to replicate that in the Star Wars universe. It is also a highly entertaining movie with a devil may care attitude that isn’t concerned at all with the operatics in its space opera. In fact, I personally rather enjoyed how old-fashioned and no frills Ron Howard’s approach to Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan’s pretty amusing screenplay is. Like the original Star Wars films, it mixes old tropes, albeit more from a Western and film noir playbook than Buck Rogers and Tolkien. And it does so while setting up its own little pocket universe of narratives that can tie into the larger Star Wars films, complete with its own big bad gangster who can recur in sequels.

And therein lies the rub: Solo is intended to have sequels. Despite what Lucasfilm says, the movie ends on a dangling thread involving a new villain, as well as a mystery as to what becomes of one of its most important characters, Qi’ra. It is begging for more films that, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is its own franchise within the larger Star Wars saga, and one that can presumably crossover with future spinoff franchises down the line. After all, Han Solo has plenty of history with Boba Fett, who also has his own film in development, and the new secret villain of Solo also has a history with Obi-Wan Kenobi, a character also on the slate for a spinoff.

The real trick of setting Solo on Memorial Day wasn’t that it is meant to reclaim May as a month for Star Wars blockbusters, but that it could follow up The Last Jedi merely five months later and start its own sub-franchise franchise. Ultimately, the goal might appear to test the audience’s appetite for more than one Star Wars movie a year. If Solo had landed, why not two Star Wars movies in a calendar year? Marvel Studios took those baby steps too until we’re at three in 2018, with the prospect of the mega-franchise becoming a quarterly affair in the future.

And yet… Solo did not land. In fact, it crashed harder than anyone expected. There is a variety of reasons, but perhaps the biggest problem is that Star Wars is fundamentally different from Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm seems unlikely to train audiences to believe otherwise after 40 years of motion picture history. Star Wars is more than just cinematic; it defines modern American cinema. Audiences have expectations within that. Rogue One did not step on those toes, but Solo did.

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Rogue One took more chances than most franchise films do, but it also didn’t attempt to change the definition of the Star Wars series. Solo is a test-run to turn that saga into something a little smaller, a little more commonplace, and a lot less eventful. Given the opening weekend, I’d say they hit an imposing wall.