Admittedly it may be somewhat disingenuous to say that Star Wars isn’t already “great.” After all, with five movies released since 2015 and an average box office total of just over $1 billion; surely that’s the kind of situation that most movie studios would kill for?
And yet, while the Star Wars series as a whole is in a financially solvent situation, the same can’t be said for its big screen creative endeavours. Those same five movies seem to have left a Darth Vader-level of broken dreams in their wake. With four fired directors (five if you include the sidelining of Garath Edwards for Rogue One’s reshoots); the high profile departure of Game of Thrones creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss; Solo becoming the first Star Wars film ever to lose money; and the creative disaster that was Rise of Skywalker, it feels that the Star Wars movie franchise is at a bit of a crossroads.
If you were to peruse the worlds of social media, you would most likely get the impression that the creative failures of the recent Star Wars movies are either down to individual instalments (the backlash to Luke Skywalker’s story arc in The Last Jedi, for example), individual people (R.I.P Rian Johnson’s Twitter mentions), or the Disney company as a whole.
While there have undoubtedly been creative missteps, I believe that the challenges the Star Wars movie franchise face are more significant. Problems that should be considered as more ingrained, as well as some long term issues that are natural to any franchise that has lasted nearly fifty years.
The release of the original Star Wars in 1977 was obviously a bombshell upon the sci-fi cinematic landscape. Prior to this, science-fiction tended to be more cerebral in nature (2001: A Space Odyssey) or were more earthbound stories (Westworld). But Star Wars took the approach of infusing a sense of fantasy into its sci-fi, thus resulting in one of the most original films ever made.
But that was 43 years ago. Star Wars is no longer the pinnacle of science-fiction. Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic Park, Transformers, X-Men, Star Trek and many, many others have legions of fans that couldn’t give a toss about Star Wars. And that’s just the movie franchises. Halo, Mass Effect, Stargate, The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica are all engaging and well-written franchises that rival some of the best of Star Wars.
Essentially, Star Wars movies are now a very small drop in a very large sci-fi pond.
2) The “John Carter” problem
For those of you that only remember 2012 as the year of The Avengers, Disney also released another big-budget action movie called John Carter. However, unlike its superhero brethren, John Carter ended up being a massive box office bomb.
Adapted from a series of early 20th century books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan fame), John Carter had a multitude of behind-the-scenes problems (which you can read about in the excellent John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood). However, the problem I’d like to focus on is that much of what made the original series of books famous had already been adapted in other media.
Several filmmakers have spoken about how they’ve been influenced by the John Carter books; including George Lucas himself. In a 1977 interview available in Science Fiction Review: Issue 24 he said:
“So I began researching and found where Alex Raymond (creator of the FLASH GORDON comic strip) got his idea: The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of TARZAN), especially his “John Carter on Mars” series of books.”
Lucas isn’t the only creator to have spoken about how his work was influenced by the John Carter books. Other creators, such as James Cameron regarding Avatar and Jerry Siegel speaking about his creation of Superman have all touched upon how their work have been influenced by John Carter.
Star Wars now finds itself in the exact same position. It is a creation that has been copied by many and influenced a variety of other media. For example, James Gunn speaking about his 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy called it “my version of Star Wars.”
So now, nearly 45 years after its original release, everything that Star Wars is famous for has been done in other movies AND been done better.
3) Obsession with Nostalgia
The large majority of big-budget blockbuster franchises tend to do very well at the Chinese box office. Marvel movies, Fast and the Furious and Jurassic Park all earn hundreds of millions of dollars in the Middle Kingdom. With one exception: Star Wars.
Bear in mind, the original Star Wars trilogy wasn’t even released in China until 2015. So though The Force Awakens’ Chinese box office was already below expectations with $124 million, things only got worse with each progressive movie. The franchise more or less hit rock-bottom when Solo: A Star Wars Story actually dropped the Star Wars label and was simply released as “Ranger Solo.” It still only earned around $16 million. (For context, Venom was released in the same year and earned $270 million.)
So why has Star Wars failed in China? Simple. An over-reliance on nostalgia.
Let’s be honest, the recent Star Wars movies have relied heavily on our knowledge and experiences of previous instalments. Rogue One arguably only exists to explain away why the first Death Star has such a blatant and obvious weakness. And Solo spends two hours seemingly over-explaining every single aspect of Han Solo from the original trilogy.
It’s not just story though, but also general design. Remember the prequel trilogy? We never once see an X-wing or a Tie Fighter. There was a purposeful attempt to move away from what we had seen in the original trilogy. To introduce new ideas and new images. But the recent Lucasfilm/Disney films are filled with vehicles and locations that are mostly lifted wholesale from the first two trilogies.
I appreciate this may be slightly ironic to say, but what Star Wars needs is its own Guardians of the Galaxy. In other words, a movie that stands entirely on its own and is only tangentially connected to other instalments.
4) The Lack of “Forward Momentum”
Let’s imagine for a second that Thor 4 was about to be released. You, however, have never seen a Thor movie. So you decide to sign up to Disney+ or break out some DVDs and settle down to watch the first three Thor instalments.
You then mosey down to the cinema, bucket of popcorn in hand, ready to enjoy the delights of the God of Thunder… When you suddenly realise that this Thor movie seems to be set several decades before any of the other Thor movies. Not only that, but it has NONE of the characters that you fell in love with over the preceding three movies.
Wouldn’t the above-mentioned viewer be a little confused? Or maybe even annoyed?
That’s exactly the situation the Star Wars films currently find themselves in. There is no ongoing story or forward momentum. Instead, the new Star Wars movies constantly jump around in the timeline. Imagine going to see a new Star Wars in 2016 (Rogue One); assuming it was a follow up to that great Star Wars movie you saw in 2015 (Force Awakens); and then you find out its actually set around 35 years earlier with characters you’ve never seen before.
This is why Star Wars fails where Iron-Man, Thor and the other Marvel franchises succeed. All Marvel’s movies push the story forward. Even fare like Captain America: The First Avenger or Captain Marvel (which are set in the past) still push the story forward within their respective franchises.
As such, if Lucasfilm/Disney want to build a “Star Wars Cinematic Universe” they need to mark a line in the sand. Say “this is our starting point” and have every future story build on that starting point.
5) Ending the Expanded Universe = Lack of Consensus
(For those of you that are unfamiliar, the “Expanded Universe” was a phrase used to describe all the Star Wars stories that were told in mediums outside of the movies between 1977-2015, e.g. comics, videogames, books, TV, etc.)
Say, for example, you get five people in a room and ask them all to design a Spider-Man costume. You would probably get five different looking costumes. BUT, there would also be a lot of similarities. The suits would undoubtedly feature the colours red, black and blue. There would also be some kind of spider motif, most likely on the chest area. And the suit would most likely cover part of or all of the face. So while everyone would have different ideas of the design, there could at least be some basic agreement on what a Spider-Man suit should look like.
That “consensus” would come about purely because of the long history of Spider-Man in the comics. That same basic consensus is what Lucasfilm/Disney lost when they decided to get rid of the Expanded Universe.
To be clear, Lucasfilm/Disney made the right decision in not continuing the Expanded Universe on the big screen. Their mistake, however, was not taking those stories and adapting them. Some of these stories have been popular for over 40 years. Why? Because they are magnificently written tales that have entertained multiple generations. By getting rid of an established consensus, and instead allowing only a few people to decide the story direction of beloved characters that have been revered for decades; you end up in a situation where no one is happy.
This is also, in part, why Marvel movies have reached a much greater level of success. Almost none of their films are original stories. They are all simply adaptations of great stories already told over the past 60 years.
6) Branding / Lack of Individual Franchises
Would it surprise you to hear that the average person has never decided to see a Marvel movie?
I know. Right now you’re calling me an idiot. What I mean by the above statement is that the average person actually chooses to see an Iron Man movie, or a Thor movie, or a Captain America movie. In other words, the ordinary citizen is attracted by characters when choosing to invest their time in the Marvel universe. The Marvel brand itself is almost irrelevant.
Star Wars, however, is not perceived in the same way by the general public. For nearly 40 years, if you were to say the phrase “Star Wars”; that meant you were talking about a singular line of movies. Unlike the word “Marvel”, Star Wars is not considered an umbrella term by the average person. Below I’ve put a rough idea of what I’m trying to explain.
Do you see what I mean? Star Wars is one singular franchise. Thus the failure of one movie means the entire house of cards collapses. But with Marvel, if a Thor movie was to underperform, then it would have almost zero impact on the surrounding franchises.
I honestly think of all the problems that Star Wars faces, this is the most difficult. To change 40 years of public perception is a tall order. But it’s not impossible. Lucasfilm/Disney need to start pushing towards character driven franchises on the big screen. Solo and even Disney+’s The Mandalorian are a decent start. But more needs to be done. Perhaps in 10 years, people will no longer say “I’m going to see the new Star Wars”. Instead they might say “I’m going to see the new Mara Jade movie” or “the new Princess Leia movie is out soon!”
If Lucasfilm/Disney manage to pull that off, then I think they’ll be well on the way to making big-screen Star Wars great again.