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Question Club: Where should Star Wars go after Solo’s box office disappointment?

Question Club: Where should Star Wars go after Solo’s box office disappointment?


Expectations, storytelling strategy, and the growing pains of a cinematic universe

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Photo by Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm Ltd.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Lucasfilm’s latest feature, Solo: A Star Wars Story, debuted to disappointing box office returns. It was the weekend’s top-grossing movie, but the $103 million domestic take was well below Disney’s expectations, set by the openings for recent series installments Rogue One ($155 million) and The Last Jedi ($220 million). 

The armchair-quarterbacking started immediately, with trade publications musing over whether Disney overpacked the film-release calendar by piling Star Wars movies atop Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and whether turning Star Wars into a twice-yearly cinematic outing meant the series was no longer appointment viewing. Above all, pundits are wondering whether Disney and Lucasfilm will pull back on their plan to make more Star Wars “anthology” films, a series of standalones outside the direct continuity that George Lucas originally laid out when he revealed that 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope was intended as the fourth chapter in a nine-film story. So far, those anthology films consist of Rogue One and Solo, with films centered around Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi both in development. While Solo unquestionably leaves room for sequels, the film’s box office take suggests the market for them could be shaky.

Either way, there are a lot more Star Wars projects in the works, including a trilogy of films by Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson, a new live-action show set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, and a new animated show set just before The Force Awakens. It’d be surprising if Solo’s performance changed any of those plans — it’s one film in a long run of box office successes, and it didn’t brutally tank so much as it just didn’t live up to expectations. The question is what Lucasfilm’s takeaway from the film will be — and what we want it to be. The fan response to every new installment is a chance to shape Star Wars’ future. So we decided to chat about what we learned from Solo, and what we personally want that future to look like.

Why do you think people are avoiding Solo?

Tasha: The general apathy surrounding Solo was a bit surprising for me. The film’s contentious history, with Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street masterminds Phil Lord and Chris Miller being pushed off the film, and Ron Howard taking over, was certainly off-putting to a lot of people who’ve followed their respective careers, and it speaks poorly to Disney’s habit of hiring then firing directors with strong, idiosyncratic voices. I still didn’t think it’d keep people away from Solo to this degree.

So I asked Film Twitter why they were so uninterested in the film. The responses have been enlightening. A small sampling of the responses:

• Seeing Han Solo’s youth would be too depressing after seeing him die in a previous film

• Harrison Ford is too distinctive in the role to let someone else take over

• Han Solo doesn’t need a backstory

• People gave up after hating Rogue One or hating Last Jedi

• The trailer was boring

Ron Howard is boring

• Star Alden Ehrenreich is boring

• Endlessly cranked-out prequels are boring

• The film is about explaining things no one needed explained about Han

All of the above

What struck me most was just how diverse the responses were. This wasn’t a simple case of prequel fatigue — people had a wide variety of reasons to be disengaged, many of them very personal. Do you see any obvious reasons that aren’t on this list? Did you feel any of these reasons yourself?

Bryan: I see every new Star Wars movie in the theater on opening weekend, and when I saw Solo with friends on the 25th, I was shocked that the theater was only 30 percent full, at best. I asked friends and family members why they’d stayed away, and their responses echoed what you saw on Twitter. I wouldn’t call it Star Wars fatigue so much as Star Wars malaise. It wasn’t that people seemed tired of the franchise — they just didn’t care what the franchise was doing. And that includes friends with younger kids who were all-in on The Force Awakens just a few years ago.

Going into the film for the first time at a press screening, I did feel that same malaise. I had been excited about what Lord and Miller might do and was less interested after they were fired. I assumed Disney would turn Han Solo into a shiny, family-friendly version of himself, which didn’t interest me. And I was also feeling the drag of what still seems like a scattershot creative strategy. Lucasfilm’s combination of “episode” movies and random standalones seems pretty clearly dictated by corporate goals rather than storytelling strategy, and I do think it’s cheapened the whole endeavor. The irony here, of course, is I ended up really liking the film itself, and the story that Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan decided to tell.

I also heard people citing the so-so reviews, which really stood out to me. Certain franchises are critic-proof. There’s a section of the Marvel fan base that will see every movie the studio puts out, no matter what critics say. The same thing has historically been true for Star Wars — but that appears to have changed.

Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Tasha: I assume that just means people are looking for more guidance about where to spend their money than they usually do because they don’t have the usual drive to see the film no matter what. I’m all for more power and influence and riches and whatnot, so I approve of this trend, but it speaks to a situation where the movie landscape really is overcrowded with enough films appealing to roughly the same demographic that people are having a hard time telling the difference between them, or choosing whether to see them.

Bryan: Even that speaks to the larger point of differentiation, though. There was a time where this franchise was a go-to that could withstand competition and crowded marketplaces. Now? Apparently, not as much. Still, we shouldn’t forget that this movie made a ton of money. If it was any franchise other than Star Wars, this kind of opening would probably be celebrated — but because it failed to meet Star Wars-sized expectations, it’s being viewed as a failure. But are those expectations fair? Is it realistic to expect annual (or biannual) Star Wars movies to perform the same way that The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi did?

Tasha: No, not really, and that speaks to my biggest problem with the reaction to Solo’s smaller box office take. Like every studio that wants money to start pouring down on it in vast, surfable waves, Lucasfilm seems to be trying to model the Star Wars franchise on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complete with side stories, a central story, a vast and ever-expanding crossover cast, and two to three blockbusters a year. The assumption is that the demographic for Star Wars movies, like the demo for MCU movies, is absolutely everybody, from the youngest kids to much older viewers who grew up with the movies in the 1970s. And the first sign that maybe they made a movie for a more specific, narrower audience seems to have induced some panic. I was actually hoping the anthology films would move us away from that line of thinking entirely. In retrospect, that was naive. But it leads nicely to our next question.

Photo by Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm Ltd.

What do you want Lucasfilm and Disney to learn from how Solo was received?

Bryan: There are two big lessons I hope they learn, and they both come down to creative strategy. The first is that — at least at this point in time — these movies need time to breathe. Solo hit theaters barely five months after The Last Jedi premiered. Even in a perfect environment, with no behind-the-scenes drama or competition from summer superhero movies, that was going to be a tough sell.

The more important lesson in my mind, however, is that studios can’t simply rely on the allure of an intellectual property alone to bring in audiences year after year. Marvel isn’t Marvel simply because they made a bunch of movies in the same universe. The MCU is one gigantic serialized narrative, with different characters and even genres serving as unique on-ramps for different potential audiences. Every single movie strategically sets up the next movie, even if it’s just a post-credits scene, with all story threads colliding in the big team-up films. That narrative infrastructure is part of what’s allowed the studio to remain so successful over the course of so many films. In contrast, Star Wars is trying to ramp up to the same kind of output, but without the strategy. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are serialized episodes, yes, but both Rogue One and Solo are backstory movies. They don’t leave the audience wondering what’s going to happen next; they leave the audience with the sense that they already know.

It all strikes me as a really quick way to dilute the brand, adjusted expectations or not. What do you hope they’re thinking over at the moment?

Tasha: Above all else, I’d like to see them veer away from the prequel plans. The MCU has so much momentum because it’s always moving forward. We’re never leaping back in time to fill in the blanks on how stories began after we’ve learned how they end. (The upcoming Captain Marvel will be a bit of an exception to that rule, but it’ll also introduce important new characters to the continuity. We’ll see whether fans take that bait.) The gripe I’ve heard over and over about Solo, in various ways, is that we know how Han Solo’s story ends — we don’t necessarily need every significant moment of his life filled in like a checklist. I don’t entirely ascribe to that philosophy myself — I mostly enjoyed Solo, and especially his first meeting with Chewbacca, and the process of that relationship building. But so often, these prequels are about laboriously explaining things the fans filled in for themselves decades ago, and the official story often isn’t as interesting or creative as the fan theories. As one Twitter user put it, the endless prequels “foreclose the viewer’s own imagination.”

So I’d be more than fine with Lucasfilm deciding that we don’t need to go back even further to see how Han was orphaned, or how Chewie got into that mud pit, or what Yoda’s childhood was like, or any other detail that seems extraneous to the stories we’ve come to think of as core and canon. What I’m wondering is what Lando Calrissian is up to now. I’m always curious about the future of a story, not about poking into every detail of its past. As we noted here about Star Trek, science fiction franchise writers are weirdly afraid of the future. I want them to get over that, and tell stories in an order that lets them feel like the characters still have potential, not like we’re laboriously coloring within previously drawn lines.

Bryan: That’s an excellent point. And we’d probably be remiss without acknowledging that among all the major film franchises out there, only one has had a prequel trilogy that nearly derailed the whole thing — and that was Star Wars. Many fans are suspicious for a reason.

Looking at the new projects that have been announced, though, I do suspect that the emphasis moving forward is going to be on new characters and new stories. After J.J. Abrams wraps up the Skywalker saga with Episode IX, Lucasfilm is moving to a new trilogy courtesy of Rian Johnson, and a whole series from Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. That would certainly seem to indicate that Lucasfilm, and Disney, recognize that serialized storylines are what make this universe work. And the approach could offer the best of both worlds: Star Wars can take advantage of the serialized approach that has served it so well, but with radically different filmmakers in charge of each series, they could each become “mini-sagas” in their own right. And if Lucasfilm needs some product for the pipeline in the meantime… well, that’s when those Boba Fett and Obi-Wan movies come in handy.

But burnout could still be a real issue. It’s not just a lot of Star Wars movies, now — it’s going to be TV shows, and massive theme parks. Which begs our next question...

Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Can Star Wars support this increased output in the first place?

Tasha: I think Star Wars takes place in a huge, complicated galaxy that could sustain endless stories, if Lucasfilm was just willing to broaden the definition of what a Star Wars movie is. I thought we were moving in that direction with Rogue One, which was echoing the war films of the 1940s and 1950s, and with Solo, which was supposedly going to be a heist movie. But the more the series stretches out, the more it seems like tiny new variations on the same old thing. It bothers me that the Resistance fighting the First Order is just a reskinned version of the Rebels fighting the Empire. It bothers me that we can’t seem to leave behind the Death Stars concept. The Last Jedi seemed like a step in the right direction with its “kill yr idols and move on” philosophy, but I don’t necessarily see J.J. Abrams embracing that when he picks up the central plotline with Episode IX in 2019. I get the sense that the creative owners at Lucasfilm are afraid to explore the cinematic universe they’ve built because it means departing a bit from the safety of simple, eternal repetition — but even the MCU can’t ride forever on that.

Solo actually seems like a minor step in the right direction for me. It’s not concerned with Empires and rebellion. It explores some dirty little corners of the galaxy, and focuses on some strange and interesting inhabitants that don’t look like re-skins of characters we’ve seen before. Bring on more characters like Rogue One’s K-2SO and Solo’s L3-37, who aren’t just comedy-relief droids, but non-human characters with non-human agendas. Bring on aliens like Chewbacca and Rio, who have personalities and agendas that aren’t just as sidekicks to generic heroes. Bring on that Lando movie, and give me a Star Wars story where I don’t already know the ending, either because it’s already happened, or because it’s utterly predictable. Keep me guessing, and I’ll keep on coming back. What about you?

Bryan: In my mind, it all goes back to that idea of expectations. Will Star Wars continue to be the monolithic, culture-defining hit machine it’s historically been known as? Probably not. With so many movies based on the franchise being produced, there’s just not enough oxygen to build up to that idea that every movie is some massive cultural event. Everyone, including fans, needs to let that idea go.

There can be movies that open huge, like Force Awakens and Last Jedi, and there can be movies that open smaller, like Solo. Marvel has actually done quite a good job of displaying the kind of confidence needed to pull this off. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opening to less than $100 million wasn’t the death knell of the MCU; it was just a really good movie that didn’t do the same kind of insane opening business that a Black Panther or Avengers film did, for any number of reasons. There needs to be room for that kind of variance — and with it, one hopes, will come the kind of narrative risk-taking that you’re talking about.

I personally walked out of Solo more invigorated about the future of the franchise than I did walking in. It’s almost a proof-of-concept piece, demonstrating that this world can support smaller, more character-driven stories, while still holding on to its core tone and feel. That sense of change is something I welcome, though after the past six months, I don’t know that the fan base at large is necessarily ready for it… yet.

Many Star Wars fans are used to the franchise being one very specific thing, and they make plenty of noise when it veers away from that. There is no denying that this new era is different. But that can be exciting rather than disappointing, and I hope that in 10 years we look back at this time in Star Wars not as one of difficulty, but of welcome transition.