This week The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Disney and Lucasfilm are zeroing in on Obi-Wan Kenobi as the subject for the next standalone Star Wars film. If the studio holds to the release pattern it’s established thus far, the film could come as soon as 2020, right after Colin Trevorrow’s Episode IX caps off the final film in the Skywalker saga.
With Disney CEO Bob Iger recently promising at least 15 years of Star Wars movies after that point, the future of the standalone films is in many ways the future of the franchise itself. Along with the Kenobi film, Lucasfilm is also reportedly developing standalone films based on Boba Fett and Yoda — a lineup that starts to sound more like a greatest hits mixtape rather than a living, breathing cinematic universe.
A few days after the Obi-Wan Kenobi news, The Verge’s Bryan Bishop and Andrew Liptak sat down to discuss their reactions, what kinds of stories a film like this could cover, and what it means about the strategic future of Star Wars.
Is this actually a good idea?
Andrew: I’m... actually okay with this, but that could just be because the rumor has been around for ages and I’m just used to the idea. I think he makes a considerable amount of sense for Lucasfilm to tackle Obi-Wan as a character, given that he plays a pretty pivotal position throughout the history of the franchise, and he’s been featured prominently in things like The Clone Wars and made cameo appearances in Star Wars Rebels.
That said, the standalone films thus far prequels, which have some inherent problems of their own, trying to balance telling their own story while setting up everything that came after. It’s not impossible, but it does throw some significant constraints on what they can actually do to a character. These aren’t insurmountable: I thought Rogue One did some neat things to set up A New Hope, while some of the novels, like Matthew Stover’s Clone Wars novel Shatterpoint did some really incredible things to play with the character of Mace Windu, for example. If the writers and directors of the film are given a good degree of latitude when it comes to playing with the character of Obi-Wan, I think they can do a solid film.
Bryan: I will admit, of all the different standalone movie ideas floated — and this includes what eventually became Rogue One — this is the concept that has had me the most interested. I personally never thought it was a brilliant idea to do a prequel about a character that everybody else knows and loves. No matter what Lord and Miller (and now Howard) end up with in the young Han Solo movie, it’s always going to be another actor pretending he’s young Harrison Ford. I know we’re in the age of expanded cinematic universes and everything, but I think the only way the standalone Star Wars movie concept works in the first place is if the films do not feel like cheap profiteering, and casting a younger Han Solo starts toeing the line.
Rogue One had the right idea, by tackling an unaddressed plot point that had been left hanging, though I ultimately found the final film problematic. A movie about post-Revenge of the Sith and pre-A New Hope Kenobi, however? That’s the sweet spot. It’s an era that hasn’t been explored at all in the films, has built-in stakes because we can see from the 1977 film that time wasn’t kind to Ben, and it actually has the potential to contribute meaningfully to the primary saga in a meaningful way. Yoda, or Boba Fett? I’m less convinced, but Obi-Wan Kenobi is as core to Star Wars as the Force and lightsabers.
20 years of questions
Andrew: While I like the idea of Obi-Wan Kenobi headlining a movie, I’m not entirely sure if there’s anything that would really surprise us. Obi-Wan has a pretty considerable history in the franchise, from an Apprentice to Qui-Gon Jinn, as a master to Anakin Skywalker, to the wizened hermit that we see in A New Hope. How do you introduce character growth and development in a character without recapping everything that he’s already experienced, while bringing him to an already established point in the classic era?
That said, I think that there’s potential with Obi-Wan: the main reason to do a story like this would be to get into his head and see how his experiences have changed him, rather than seeing him work from the sidelines as an accessory to Anakin Skywalker, and later, Luke Skywalker. My ideal Obi-Wan Kenobi story? A film split between his time on Tatooine and the Clone Wars, with the eye of showing off how that massive conflict affected him. You get the action and violence of warfare, which would allow Lucasfilm to tie in with The Clone Wars animated show, but also play with the time that he ends up in the deserts of Tatooine, looking over Luke as he grows up.
Bryan: I come at this from a slightly different angle, as I think there’s an incredible amount of runway to work with. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the film being discussed covers the ground in between the prequels and the original films. The fact that Stephen Daldry is reportedly in conversations to direct tells me they’re going for a mature, more dramatic film in tone, which seems to rule out anything extremely action-heavy like a story during The Clone Wars, or a film about a younger, rapscallion Kenobi. (I suppose it could also be a movie about dead, one-with-the-Force Kenobi, but that would probably be boring and who wants to watch blue ghosts for two hours?)
So if that proves to be the case, we’ve got a beginning point: Obi-Wan Kenobi is going into hiding on Tatooine. The entire Jedi order is destroyed, the Emperor is triumphant, and Ben just had to practically kill his best friend, Anakin. He’s alone, he’s isolated, and his only mission for the next 20 years will be to watch this baby boy grow up and keep him safe. A baby that will remind him of Anakin every single day.
That’s heady stuff, and actually far more dramatic than anything Star Wars has really dealt with in a straightforward way on-screen. Then we have the endpoint: Obi-Wan’s become this crazy hermit that hangs out in the Dune Sea. The locals just call him Old Ben. And over those 20 years, he’s developed all these strange justifications for why people did what they did. He’s begun to mythologize Vader as a separate entity in his own mind, to the point where Ben later tells Luke that Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin with a straight face.
Now, that discrepancy really exists because stories evolve as they’re told. But viewed within the universe itself, the shift points to Ben really struggling with what happened to Anakin. That’s an opportunity. Add the built-in stakes of having to save the kid the audience knows will grow up to blow up the Death Star, and there’s some fertile territory for some thoughtful storytelling and character work.
This isn’t the actor you’re looking for
Andrew: If Lucasfilm is doing this to bank on a recognizable character, I can’t fathom that Ewan McGregor wouldn’t be asked back. He did a fantastic job in the prequel trilogy, and he’s as iconic in the role as Alec Guinness was.
Bryan: Yeah, this should be a complete no-brainer. If they do plan on telling a story that would serve as a follow-up to Revenge of the Sith, there’s simply no point in doing it without McGregor. I’d argue that Sir Alec Guinness is a more iconic version of the character simply because A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are far more iconic than any of the prequels, but just in terms of sheer screen time McGregor wins, and it’s not even close. Additionally, any standalone story would almost by necessity have to be about the continued evolution of the character. In that sense, casting anyone else would actively harm the film.
The flipside to that argument, however, is what happens if they are thinking about tackling a different era. In that case, I’d say all bets are off — as they should be. Ewan McGregor will be 47 next year, and he probably wouldn’t be served playing a teenaged Obi-Wan any more than Harrison Ford would be served playing young Han Solo. I’d like to think we already have the ultimate tell, though: the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi speaks to Rey in The Force Awakens. Part of it was an edited recording of Alec Guinness. The other part was fresh dialogue recorded by Ewan McGregor.
The standalone strategy
Andrew: I think what this means is that Lucasfilm is banking on recognizable characters, as opposed to wholly new faces for their standalone films. We don’t know definitively until we can compare the box office returns from Rogue One and the untitled Han Solo film to see if there’s a recognition thing going on, but bringing back familiar characters would be the safer bet for Disney.
The best model that I can think of here is that we’ll see something like the Star Wars Expanded Universe play out, where most of the tie-in films follow the most familiar characters, and introduce new characters along the way. The SWEU did introduce totally new people alongside those familiar characters: Corran Horn, Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Jacen and Jaina Solo, who ended up owning their own adventures in their own right. Hopefully, Lucasfilm will look at what characters pop up in the saga films that might deserve their own film treatment.
I think that focusing only on known characters — using the vast world of the franchise to only look back at what’s been done before — would be a bit of a missed opportunity, however. I really enjoyed what Rogue One brought to the table, even if the execution wasn’t perfect, and I really appreciated Jyn Erso and her companions, even if we’re not likely to see them again.
It’s also not just about bringing new characters and stories to the table: it’s about experimenting and maintaining a creative process: new creations lead to other new creations and ideas that build upon one another, which ultimately leads to a richer world to play in. This was one of the biggest advantages of the Expanded Universe: it got to really develop and play with a ton of ideas. Not all of them worked out well, but the attempts often led to new and interesting places. Star Wars shouldn’t be static.
Bryan: I definitely appreciate that argument. My instinct, however, is that we are still very early on in the evolution of the standalone movie concept, and it isn’t really proven yet whether Star Wars can sustain this kind of pace as an expanded universe. There is tremendous opportunity to explore this rich galaxy, without question. But Star Wars was never successful just because the worlds are amazing. It’s ultimately been the Skywalker storyline that’s driven everything — and the worlds, aliens, and vehicles just buttressed and enriched that storyline.
By the time Episode IX rolls around, we’ll have had five consecutive years of annual Star Wars movies. For a franchise that used to only release one movie every three years, that’s a lot, and I can see burnout on the horizon. (I’ve felt twinges myself, and we haven’t even seen The Last Jedi yet.) We assume a Marvel-style pace will work here, but there’s a very good chance that won’t be the case at all.
Given the scale of success Disney aims for with these films, I would not be surprised in the slightest if they continue to focus only on well-known characters for the time being. But I think there’s also one other very likely scenario: these standalone films are placeholders, a stop-gap strategy for Disney and Lucasfilm to monetize the franchise as much as possible until Episode IX wraps the Skywalker storyline up. At that point, I think we’ll see a new serialized on-screen saga begin. Perhaps it will be about Rey, Finn, and Poe; perhaps it will be about something else entirely. But a new overarching story, one that can use new standalone films to build its galaxy of characters and locations film by film, makes a lot more strategic sense than riffing on the original trilogy for the next 15 years.
Andrew: That makes a lot of sense to me, but I do see a place for these standalones moving forward. Kathleen Kennedy has said that if the saga films are put on hold, the standalone films will continue, and my sense is that they’ll move them forward as they come up with solid ideas. Rogue One, after all, was the brainchild of John Knoll, the visual effects designer for Industrial Light & Magic, who randomly pitched it a decade ago. Hopefully, they’ll keep with that mindset, finding a promising story, rather than just filling in gaps in a theatrical release schedule.
Let me paint you a picture
Andrew: Whatever the strategy turns out to be, the standalone films could go in a lot of different directions. Personally, I’d really like to see more films in the vein of Rogue One, that tie into the saga films but from perspectives that we haven’t necessarily seen. A great example comes from the SWEU: the X-Wing series. The novels pulled a popular concept from the franchise, but injected a whole bunch of new characters into it. A couple of the well-known names, like Luke, Han, and Leia made brief appearances, but these stories were left to do their own thing, and I think that they’re books that endure because of it. The same concept can certainly be put to use in whatever is to come.
This Obi-Wan film could potentially do that (hell, he has his own, noncanonical novel set during the prior of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope), and while he’s not a lesser-known character, his role thus far has been to support the main Skywalker saga. If it happens, I’d love to see just what impact that has on him, but in a way that does more than just recap his history. I want it to help build and inform the Obi-Wan that we see in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
Bryan: I don’t have nearly the Expanded Universe knowledge that you do, so I don’t have any specific asks in that regard. And I’m torn: I loved The Force Awakens precisely because it evoked the original films so well, but obviously any healthy piece of storytelling needs to change and evolve to maintain any kind of relevance. So there’s the tension between wanting the familiar, and knowing that the familiar, taken too far, can be a form of creative death.
Generally speaking, I’m most interested in seeing this franchise become a playground for filmmakers of different interests, styles, tastes, and genres. And let’s not just limit that to filmmakers either: the best way for this massive galaxy of books, novels, films, tv shows, games, and theme parks to work is if it is full of many different kinds of stories, with different tones and genres tackled underneath the broader umbrella of Star Wars.
But for an Obi-Wan Kenobi film, my wants are rather simple. I would like to see something I haven’t seen or read before in this universe. I want to be surprised. Daldry being in contention already has me intrigued in that sense, because he doesn’t seem to fit any template that’s come before. If Luke is the heart of the Star Wars franchise, Han Solo the guts, and Leia the brain, then Obi-Wan Kenobi has always been its soul. Even more than Luke, he’s the wounded man that tried to do what he thought was best, only to see the entire galaxy burn down around him. I want an internal, existential Obi-Wan Kenobi movie. I realize that will likely never happen — but wouldn’t it be glorious if it did?