Up until 2015, that brand was very carefully rationed. George Lucas produced three movies between 1977 and 1983 before resting the franchise for sixteen years. Some other material – a couple of cartoon series, some books, a couple of TV specials about the Ewoks and a few video games – did creep out but Lucas devoted most of this time to other projects, such as fantasy movie Willow (directed by Ron Howard) and an Indiana Jones TV series. In 1991 Lucas okayed the creation of an “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars stories set after the original movies, citing his decision to produce three prequel movies but abandon the series at that point and move on to other things.
The Star Wars prequel trilogy, released between 1999 and 2005, was financially successful but was a critical disaster, coming in for a serious drubbing for poor dialogue and an overreliance on CGI. George Lucas felt hurt by the criticism, to the point where he first junked plans for a live-action TV series and then – in 2012, after toying with ideas for a sequel trilogy of his own – sold not just the franchise but his entire Lucasfilm operation to Disney for $4 billion.
Disney’s interest in Star Wars was understandable: the franchise and company were a good match, and Disney felt that they’d found a fantastic way of dealing with the problems related to Hollywood “sequelitis”. This was the idea that exploiting a movie franchise through an endless number of direct sequels with the same cast and crew was difficult because making a special effects and action-heavy movie was impossible in much less than three years: a year each for pre-production and post-production, and a year for shooting, edits and reshoots. Attempt to try to rush out sequels in shorter periods of time had either ended in horrible, low-budget and clearly exploitative sequels or in back-to-back production schedules that sometimes critically paid off (as with Lord of the Rings) but more often didn’t (as with the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels).
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which had debuted in 2008 with Iron Man – Disney had discovered a new paradigm instead. Rather than churning out direct sequels with the same cast, they had instead established a whole universe in which multiple movies featuring multiple characters could be written, shot and edited simultaneously by different teams. The individual movies would be stand-alone stories with familiar two-to-three year waits for direct sequels, but characters could recur in different films and, most impressively, a rousing big team-up movie with all the characters could be produced every three years or so. After a rough start, the first phase of the MCU had culminated in 2012 with The Avengers, which had become one of the three highest-grossing movies of all time.
Disney believed that they could apply the same plan to Star Wars and quickly announced a new Star Wars sequel trilogy featuring the cast of the original movies handing over the baton to a new generation. They also confirmed that stand-alone movies would fall between the trilogy movies, films that could be set in widely disparate parts of the Star Wars universe in both space and time.
Disney were going to “Marvelize” Star Wars, with the possible eventual objective of producing two or three Star Wars movies a year. Nicely spaced out with Disney’s Marvel movies, this would give Disney an apparently guaranteed major hit movie every two months, every year for the foreseeable future. To help shepherd in this era, Disney and Lucasfilm called in J.J. Abrams, the very definition of a safe pair of hands, to direct the first movie in the new era.
The early results were encouraging: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a massive hit upon its release in 2015, becoming only the third movie in history to gross $2 billion. It was also critically well-received, despite some concerns about how derivative it was of the original 1977 movie, with special praise reserved for the casting.
The second movie of the new era would be a prequel, Rogue One, about how the original Death Star plans were stolen. Lucasfilm were keen to emulate the Marvel model of bringing in hungry new, young directors to prove themselves with great material, so hired Gareth Edwards to direct. Edwards had helmed the cult indie hit Monsters and the bigger epic Godzilla, so seemed well-suited to handling the movie. However, late during shooting it became clear that Edwards’ vision of a darker and bleaker movie wasn’t quite in line with Disney’s, and also that the final battle had ended up too confusing. Tony Gilroy was drafted in to help with reshoots and in the editing bay and was widely credited (even by Edwards) with helping save the film. It went on to gross $1 billion at the box office, half of The Force Awakens’ take, but Disney had deliberately lowballed the marketing, apparently concerned about over-exposure of the franchise at this stage. Despite this, it was the highest-grossing movie of the year (in the USA) and its take was in line with expectations (and actually slightly higher).
Much more problematic was what happened next.
Rian Johnson, acclaimed for his indie movies Brick and Looper and his TV work on Breaking Bad, was called in to direct the sequel to The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi’s script was rapturously received at Lucasfilm, Johnson’s directorial style was praised by the actors (at least eventually, with a returning Mark Hamill having some issues with the initial direction his character Luke was going in) and the dailies were thoroughly enjoyed by Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm. Even before work on the film was completed, she had drafted Johnson to produce, write and possibly a direct no less than three further Star Wars films. It was an astonishing vote of confidence given his movie had not even been released. Early pre-release reviews were also rapturous to the point of glowing, with many declaring it the greatest Star Wars movie of them all.
Some fans disagreed.
The Last Jedi had a massively divisive reception, with some praising it for going in new directions and making unexpected story choices, but others criticising it for inconsistent characterisation, worldbuilding and story development with both the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. Further disagreement was voiced by a small but vocal subset of the audience who criticised both of the new movies for their female protagonists and a perceived focus on non-white characters. The disagreements between fans was harsh, even by the standards of the 2010s Internet, but word of mouth amongst more casual movie goers also proved mixed. Ultimately, The Last Jedi made $1.3 billion, a still highly impressive amount of money (and it was still the biggest movie of the year), but a significant shortfall on The Force Awakens. Although a drop from such a movie to its sequel is not unusual, the discrepancy seemed to alarm Disney: the drop from The Avengers to its also-critically-divisive sequel, Age of Ultron, was extremely modest in comparison (from $1.5 to $1.4 billion). Various business factors were offered to explain the discrepancy, including a muted interest in Star Wars in China, compared to their hunger for Marvel, but these seemed dubious.
Last week, Solo: A Star Wars Story was released. The movie has reviewed positively, after a difficult production process which saw directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller fired and replaced by Ron Howard almost two-thirds of the way through shooting, but the early box office was not great. The weekend opening came in a colossal $55 million below expectations. The movie is now expected to make significantly less than Rogue One and current tracking has the film on course to make around half of The Last Jedi’s take, still enough to make a profit but uncomfortably close to the break-even line.
The question that has to be asked is why Star Wars seems to have faltered at the box office? The franchise is as close to a guaranteed hit as you can imagine, with an enthusiastic and loyal fanbase with a proven forty-year track record of loyalty to the series. But the underperformance of the last two movies in the series (although no-one’s lost money on the franchise and Disney’s $4 billion investment has already been repaid with significant profits) is concerning and it’s worth asking why, and how it may resolved going forwards.
MUCH MORE AFTER THE JUMP
They’re Good, But Not Great
It’d be fair to say that all four of the new movies have been somewhat divisive amongst fans, although the general cinema-going public and critics have generally been much kinder to the films. With the exception of The Last Jedi, all of the new films have been generally well-received, with special praise reserved for the casting and sense of fun in The Force Awakens and Solo, and for the mature war story narrative in Rogue One.
However, none of the four new films has been an inarguable classic. The Star Wars franchise kicked off with two back-to-back, for-the-ages films (the original Star Wars aka A New Hope and then The Empire Strikes Back) and these two movies have pretty defined the entire saga and kept it going through a solid-but-flawed third movie (Return of the Jedi) and three underwhelming prequels. None of the other films have really lived up to them in quality and it might be that it’s not possible for them to do so, given the originals’ seismic impact on both cinema and science fiction. The new Star Wars movies are living in the very universe that Star Wars created and it’s clear that they’re not going to upend the apple cart and create the same kind of revolution in film-making, visual effects and storytelling. Hell, for all the justified criticism, even the prequel trilogy achieved new breakthroughs in CG technology and the integration of CG characters into live action (whilst Gollum gets all the love, people like to forget that Jar-Jar Binks paved the way for him).
The result is a situation where, in less than two-and-a-half years, we’ve had four movies which have been broadly received as “good, but not great.” Given the exorbitant cost of going to the cinema these days, people now feel more comfortable skipping a Star Wars movie at the cinema and waiting for it to hit streaming services. The fate of The Last Jedi also shows that the general audience is much more dubious of the critical reception and more appreciative of word-of-mouth, with the mixed viewer reaction to the film convincing other people to stay at home despite the movie’s near-unanimous praise in the media. Some commentators dispute this, believing that The Last Jedi – and for that matter Rogue One – were by design more downbeat, less feel-good movies than The Force Awakens and this robbed both of the repeat viewing market, which is generally required to get a movie up into the $1.5-2 billion range. Many people saw The Force Awakens, a feel-good popcorn movie, multiple times, but less so the other films.
There is some evidence to back this up: The Empire Strikes Back also grossed noticeably less than the original Star Wars on release, despite being the superior movie (although it was more divisive at the time), and its more downbeat nature (to the extent of upsetting kids with the freezing of Han Solo and cutting off Luke’s hand) likely played a key role in its failure to sell repeat tickets.
Another counter-argument is made for the simultaneous success of the Marvel movies: the MCU has produced some very, very good films but again they have not produced (despite eighteen attempts) a single all-out, for-the-ages, indisputable classic. With a far more frequent production schedule, the argument that you can skip films and wait at home for the streaming or media release is even stronger, but, despite this, people continue to flock to see them.
Destroying the Expanded Universe
I have mixed feelings on what role this has played, but it’s certainly true that many long-term Star Wars fans were left fuming by the decision to eliminate the Expanded Universe. Starting around 1991, Lucasfilm decided to make everything published under the Star Wars banner – novels, video games, comics, etc – part of the canonical Star Wars universe. This was used heavily in the marketing of Timothy Zahn’s novel trilogy about Grand Admiral Thrawn which launched Bantam’s official line of novels, with interviews making it clear that George Lucas had decided not to pursue movie sequels to Return of the Jedi, so the authors could do what they liked (within clear guidelines, like not killing Luke or Han) and this would be the canonical continuation of the story.
That repeated claim – these stories will be canon, they mattered – convinced fans to queue up and buy the books and comics where otherwise they’d have ignored them as irrelevant side-merchandising, as with say the Star Trek novels and comics (which are, and always have been, explicitly non-canon). Although Lucasfilm did fiddle around with the definition of canon – later introducing the term “Expanded Universe” at George Lucas’s request and introducing a “levels of canon” system in the mid-2000s to deal with minor discrepancies between the EU and the prequel movie trilogy – there was no doubt that all the stories still “counted.” This decision was even initially supported by Disney: Expanded Universe material continued to be released for a full two years after Disney’s purchase, apparently confirming they would at least take it into account in the new films. After all, by 2012 the Expanded Universe had even grossed more money than the original films’ box office and had millions of fans.
That said, there was some acceptance that the Expanded Universe was large, dense and rather problematic in some of the things that were part of it (see: anything written by Kevin J. Anderson), and there seemed to be an agreement that probably everything after at least the Empire-New Republic peace treaty would have to be junked as even the fans and creatives behind the EU seemed divided on how to handle it: it was implausible that the Yuuzhan Vong War in the New Jedi Order novel series, which killed off characters like Chewbacca and Ackbar in a war bigger than the Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War combined, would remain in canon.
The decision to unilaterally junk the entire Expanded Universe in its totality was therefore unexpected, especially as the “New Canon” that Disney introduced seemed to almost immediately start replicating many of the story beats of the pre-New Jedi Order Expanded Universe anyway: an Empire-New Republic peace treaty, the formation of new, dangerous fiefdoms out of the former Empire and their hunger to find or build superweapons to bring down the Republic. When it was revealed that the new trilogy would focus on Han Solo and Princess Leia’s son who turned to the Dark Side of the Force, there was a great deal of annoyance because this story had already been told in the novels anyway (with Kylo Ren replacing Jacen Solo), although granted that Kylo Ren was a superior and more interesting character.
Personally, I’m doubtful this had a major impact to the tune of costing the new movies hundreds of millions of dollars, but it certainly alienated a key number of hardcore Star Wars fans who’d kept the franchise alive and healthy for years between movies and passed the torch onto their children and so on. However, this would have had more of an impact on the box office for The Force Awakens and Rogue One if it had been indeed a major factor.
The Kids Don’t Care
A much more likely explanation for the repeated box office disappointment is simpler (if more generalised): the kids don’t really care. The Star Wars franchise is forty-one years old. Even the prequel trilogy is now nearly twenty years old. Children being brought up today are looking for their own stories, series and franchises to get excited over, and have found it in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and of course Marvel and its characters are older than Star Wars, but the cinematic iteration is much more current). Of course, some kids now have gotten into Star Wars and enjoy it, but for others Star Wars is their parents’ (or even grandparents’) thing and is rather desperately uncool. Getting excited about it would be like a young kid in the 1980s hooked on Star Wars enjoying old Dan Dare or Flash Gordon comics: sure, it happened, but not a lot.
For younger people, Star Wars is just one of a whole ton of franchises and forms of entertainment around, which wasn’t the case in 1977, and it has to step up and deliver quality, classic stories to keep them interested and which make the franchise more relevant to them. So far, it hasn't delivered consistently.
Saturating the Market
Between 1977 and 1999 – twenty-two years – Star Wars dominated the American cultural conversation with just three movies and a bunch of merchandising. Even by 2015, almost forty years into its lifespan, Star Wars consisted of just six movies, a couple of animated series and yet more merchandising.
The addition of another four movies means that the number of Star Wars films have nearly doubled in just two-and-a-half years. The new canon will have delivered six films by the end of 2020, with at least seven more movies planned beyond that, some of them prequels.
A lot of people, including people for whom the terms “too much Star Wars” may have been considered meaningless not that long ago, regard this release schedule with horror. They see (however ridiculously) Star Wars as being something that is not to be exploited on an annual basis but something to be treated with a bit more respect. Even cinemas seem to agree: more than one cinema network suggested to Disney that they hold Solo back until December, saying the market couldn’t handle another Star Wars movie just six months after The Last Jedi, but Disney disagreed. Indeed, it may be that Disney insisting on Solo releasing when it did may have been to test the waters to see what they could do with the franchise. Solo’s poor performance may be the evidence that the appetite and hunger for Star Wars just isn’t there in the same way it is for Marvel.
Prequels are Pointless
Another issue is that that new Star Wars movies seem reluctant to break new ground, especially the non-saga films. Both Rogue One and Solo are prequels. They’re interesting prequels which find some interesting ways of telling new stories in the format, but they’re not telling us anything we don’t already know and the dramatic tension can’t be very high when we know that certain characters have to survive, although Rogue One at least had the advantage of going under the radar with all-new characters, so there was a bit more dramatic tension. The repeated mantra regarding Solo is that “this movie is not necessary,” and therefore can be considered disposable. This is going to be even more the case for the planned Boba Fett movie (which I suspect will finally confirm to Lucasfilm that there really isn’t that much interest in minor side-characters from forty-year-old movies).
Lucasfilm at least seem to have realised this, with both Episode IX and the forthcoming movies by Rian Johnson and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss being set in new settings and possible time periods with all-new casts and no baggage to directly tie in with the existing films.
Star Wars Ain’t Marvel
Throughout all of this there has been an elephant in the room, namely the enormous success that Lucasfilm’s sister studio Marvel is having with their movies. From humble beginnings, the 2008 flick Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has exploded into an all-encompassing behemoth, a machine churning out surprisingly good movies three times a year like clockwork. Since the start of 2017 alone, the Marvel machine has produced Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and The Avengers: Infinity War, all quality, entertaining popcorn movies which appeal to adults and kids alike. There is a hunger and appetite for the next few Marvel films – especially Captain Marvel and Infinity War II but even Ant-Man and the Wasp, a sequel to arguably the franchise’s lowest-key movie – that absolutely shades the more moderate expectations for Star Wars: Episode IX.
This seems bizarre, and if you said this would be the case even five or six years ago people would have laughed at you. But there are clear reasons why Marvel are killing it and Star Wars seems to be stalling.
The first is the presence of a masterplan. Ever since the first Infinity Stone appeared in 2011’s Thor, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building to the events of Infinity War and Infinity War II. Sometimes the films don’t have any direct tie in, others have quite notable tie ins, but they’ve all had a thread through them which has genuinely hooked audiences in. This has been helped by both the build-up (especially The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, the three direct set-up films for Infinity War) and the execution being well-handled. Star Wars, on the other hand, has no masterplan. J.J. Abrams set up a lot of guns in The Force Awakens but had nothing beyond vague notions on what to do with them. When it was revealed the Rian Johnson had no guidance from either Kennedy or Abrams in what to do with those story elements and to make his own choices, fans were shocked. The MCU has massively benefited from foreshadowing and following this story thread across multiple movies. Even in just the two saga films, Star Wars has felt haphazard and illogical in comparison. For Episode IX, Abrams will either revert to his original ideas (making The Last Jedi feel even more out-of-place) or have to junk his plans and come up with yet another new tangent to take the story on.
The second is the presence of source material. Since its founding 1939 as Timely Productions, Marvel has produced well over 32,000 discrete comic issues in some 500 different titles and series, encompassing some 756 heroes and 1,022 villains. The MCU has the freedom to cherry-pick this immense amount of source material for stories and inspiration, mixing and matching ideas that work (and ignoring the stuff that doesn’t). The freedom and confidence they have, for example, allows them to adapt the Civil War storyline which spanned dozens of comics in two major events and encompassed hundreds of characters into just a single, laser-focused film (albeit with ramifications into the following movies). The MCU have enough good comics material to draw on and sustain them for at least 20 years to come. Star Wars simply doesn’t have that. Even if they were more willing to adapt the Expanded Universe material into the new canon, as the TV show Rebels did by bringing in Grand Admiral Thrawn, the amount of source material is far smaller: roughly 320 novels and maybe 400 comics, plus a couple of dozen video games with a strong narrative. You could still make a few good films from that, but so far Lucasfilm is preferring to create all-original stories.
The third is the willingness of Marvel to bring in new, fresh talent and give them the freedom to do what they want. They initially were reluctant to do this, removing Edgar Wright from Ant-Man when they decided his distinct visual style would distract from the “house Marvel style”, but have since proven far more willing to experiment. Anthony and Joseph Russo were allowed to make a 1970s spy thriller with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and then a war story mixed with a space opera in Infinity War. James Gunn was allowed to create a technicolour space opera kaleidoscope with the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and Taika Waititi was allowed to indulge all of his comedic and colourful instincts with Thor: Ragnarok. Most famously, Ryan Coogler was allowed to make the kind of film he wanted with Black Panther, resulting in one of the most popular and successful Marvel movies of them all.
In contrast, Gareth Edwards was pulled from the reshoots for Rogue One and replaced with Tony Gilroy, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller were pulled from the main shoot for Solo and replaced by Ron Howard. The former case was apparently technical (partially the result of Disney themselves apparently not being sure of how much of a downer ending they wanted) but the latter was more philosophical, with Miller and Lord’s loose, improvisational style not meshing with Lucasfilm’s directive to shoot the script exactly as written. This begs the question of why they hired directors known for a loose, improvisational style to achieve the results if they didn't want the same results in their film.
The apparent preference by Lucasfilm to retreat to safe pairs of hands (Lawrence Kasdan as writer, directors like Abrams and Howard, writer-directors like Gilroy) whenever their gamble on fresh talent looked a bit iffy is in contrast to Marvel’s willingness to experiment and confidence in their choices. The question of Lucasfilm’s judgement is reinforced by their support for Johnson, despite the mixed reception to The Last Jedi, and their questionable decision to bring in Dan Weiss and David Benioff straight from Game of Thrones to make three new Star Wars movies: although extremely capable and impressive producers and adaptors of existing material (both writers cut their team in adapting material such as the Trojan War, Wolverine comics and the Halo video games), their reputation with original material is much more patchy.
As one commentator put it, “Trust the talent.”
We Might Be Bein’ Premature
Of course, this all presupposes that Star Wars is really in trouble, rather than going through unavoidable growing pains of building a shared universe franchise. We’ve seen Warner Brothers struggling with DC Comics because they tried to rush straight into a shared universe without sufficient build-up of the individual characters beforehand. Star Wars hasn’t really done that yet, it’s put together two movies in a row, the sequel of which was a bit iffy, and two movies that are pretty decent but not outstanding.
On that basis, Disney are batting much better than Marvel were at the same juncture. By May 2011 Marvel had released exactly four movies: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor (2011). Iron Man and Thor were pretty solid movies, Hulk was kinda okay (if largely ignored later on) and Iron Man 2 was ropey, saved only by Robert Downey Jr. doing his Robert Downey Jr. thing. As Lucasfilm put the pieces together of their cinematic universe, they’ve actually been more successful, both financially and critically, than the MCU in the same timeframe.
Obviously, the comparison falters as Star Wars has a much bigger pre-existing framework to build on (although you could argue that the MCU couldn’t have happened if Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and Bryan Singer’s X-Men series and even the Blade movies hadn’t already laid the groundwork) and thus much greater audience awareness which should have allowed the new Star Wars movies to be more successful from the off, and there is some truth to that. But, in their haste to create a new shared universe and a new canon and try to catch up with the MCU when it took them a decade and eighteen movies, it does feel like Lucasfilm are making some of the same mistakes as Warners and DC, although fortunately nowhere near as disastrously.
Where to Go From Here
Going forwards, Lucasfilm are currently shooting Episode IX with J.J. Abrams, which will wrap up the Rey/Finn/Poe/Kylo Ren trilogy and the current iteration of “Saga” films (more are on the drawing board, along with possible spin-offs from the current trilogy focusing more on characters like Poe Dameron, but there are no firm plans yet). They haven’t formally commissioned any movies beyond that, but they have given Rian Johnson and the team of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss the green light to each develop plans for multi-film stories. They’ve also discussed shooting an Obi-Wan movie with Stephen Daldry and a Boba Fett movie with James Mangold, with the Fett movie already having a script (by Simon Kinberg) attached.
That’s a total of nine movies in varying stages of development, two of which are prequels. I think that’s potentially okay, although the Boba Fett well feels like it’s been drained pretty thoroughly by the prequel trilogy and interminable spin-off novels which long ago exhausted the character’s mystique. Certainly an Obi-Wan movie starring Ewan McGregor which is competently written and directed would be nice, and both movies could be interesting if they leaned more in the direction of Logan than the other shoot ‘em up movies.
Episode IX could go in either direction: J.J. Abrams is a safe pair of hands, but he’s also directed some real stinkers (none, er, stinkier than Star Trek Into Darkness) and he has an apparent aversion to endings which pay off the set-up (Alias, at least some elements of Lost). I suspect that fans and viewers will also be much warier of this movie than otherwise because of the mixed reception to The Last Jedi. But significant goodwill remains for the cast and I suspect it will be okay.
As for the other trilogies, they seem premature. Sure, get the creators to develop an idea and a script and if that works, go with it. But I can’t help but wonder if the Star Wars franchise would benefit from the MCU approach of more interesting, left-field director choices and also the development of a “master plan”, a feeling that you can develop stand-alone fun movies with a bigger picture in the background.
But that also presupposes that the MCU is the only model for such a franchise to follow. It’d be interesting to see if Star Wars can map out a path more uniquely its own and do so in a successful manner. Or maybe the franchise and the premise simply doesn’t have the legs to support such a massive programme of movies as Disney wants, and they’d be better off abandoning the whole idea and fall back on a good movie every few years. Difficult to see, is the future.