Anghus Houvouras on Disney’s decimation of Star Wars…
After Solo’s lukewarm reception with the ticket-buying public and the lasting schism caused by Rian Johnson’s divisive The Last Jedi, it feels like the Star Wars franchise has taken a hit. What was once the most popular franchise in the world doesn’t even feel like the most popular franchise owned by Disney. With the likes of Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame being universally praised and making crazy bank, I think it feels pretty obvious that Star Wars is no longer the world’s most popular movie franchise.
Take a minute to think about that. For the first time in over 40 years, Star Wars isn’t the king of pop culture universe.
Since Disney took over the franchise, a galaxy far, far away has felt… different. Schizophrenic. Half-baked. Lacking a clear vision. It even extends beyond the movies themselves. This malaise touches every corner of the franchise.
1. The new movies are kind of a mess
I’m not going to try to debate the quality of the Disney Star Wars movies, because there are people out there who will spend a lot of time debating ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If you love or hate the Disney Star Wars movies, I’m not going to change your mind. But it would be difficult to argue that these movies have been messy. The Force Awakens was an inoffensive soft-reboot that felt more like fan-service than a film. Rogue One was an absolute mess behind the scenes, with Tony Gilroy being brought in to re-cut and re-work the elements the studio found lacking. The final product was a serviceable Star Wars story but not exactly a work of creative cohesion.
The Last Jedi is a different kind of mess. A polarizing film that broke the internet in half. Again, I don’t want to get into ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But it’s impossible to assess the current state of the Star Wars series without acknowledging that The Last Jedi has created something of a mess. You hear a lot of people talking about how Rian Johnson’s vision of Star Wars has soured a sizable portion of the fan base.
What you don’t hear is the feelings-free look at the box office which saw The Last Jedi make $750 million less than The Force Awakens. Whether or not you liked the movie, the fact that it made three-quarters of a billion dollars less than the previous installment is a sure sign of diminished expectations.
Solo is its own particular brand of messy. On-set conflicts. Changing the directors eight minutes before principal photography had been completed. Huge amounts of money being spent trying to right the starship. It’s too early to tell where Solo will end financially, but calling it a mess feels apt.
The first four Disney Star Wars movies have done little to inspire life-long fans with confidence in the direction of the franchise or the quality of the output.
2. Too much, too soon
Disney is attempting to replicate the success of the crown jewel of their franchise tiara, Marvel Studios. The announcement of a yearly Star Wars movie had fans excited, but the excitement has calmed significantly. Something that hasn’t yet happened with the Marvel movies which continue to make bank. There seems to be an endless supply of excitement for Marvel movies. Probably because the universe is so diverse and capable of supporting different characters and story types.
You could argue that The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and Rogue One were thematically similar; the resistance fighting the evil empire with the fate of the universe at stake. Solo feels like a much smaller, character based movie. The first of the four Disney Star Wars movies that feels much less epic and operatic.
Star Wars lived by a creative concept that ‘less is more’ for decades. Even George Lucas took a few years between each prequel so that fans could shake off their disappointment and build anticipation for the next installment. A Star Wars movie every year is diminishing the brand and killing anticipation for the franchise – although this is something that Disney has looked to address by shifting to a bi-annual release pattern from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker onwards.
3. Ignoring the Star Wars video games
I miss Star Wars video games. There was a period where Star Wars games were everywhere. Whether there was a movie coming out or not, you could usually find a Star Wars game to play. When the movies came out, there was a movie-based game released for you to play through the adventure yourself.
The early 2000’s saw a number of great Star Wars games; Knights of the Old Republic, Republic Commando, Battlefront, The Force Unleashed and Rogue Squadron just to name a few. But the games have become an extremely limited commodity unless you’re a fan of EA’s reworked Battlefront series or LEGO versions. At one point the franchise’s only real representation in the marketplace was the video games. Now Disney is churning out movie after movie with almost no new types of games coming.
And please, for the love of God, don’t bring up those terrible mobile games designed to loot box you into bankruptcy. Those aren’t games.
The Star Wars franchise needs a fresh crop of original and tie-in titles. After watching Solo I thought how much fun a Han Solo game would have been. Something along the lines of the classic N64 game Shadows of the Empire, with a healthy mix of adventure and space shooting action. Disney and EA has created this baffling video game vacuum with the Star Wars franchise, and it has helped diminish the brand.
4. Murdering the Expanded Universe
Much like Galactus, Disney stepped into a galaxy far, far away and played ‘Destroyer of Worlds’ by deciding that almost everything that happened before their acquisition was no longer part of their Star Wars universe. This fictional declaration seems kind of silly. In some ways, it made sense. The Expanded Universe had killed off some popular characters that they would want to use. However, the entire idea of declaring fictional stories inert is kind of ridiculous. Like when Michael Scott thought declaring bankruptcy meant yelling those words in front of witnesses. The concept of an ‘official canon’ is the kind of thing that makes mainstream fans snicker but drives hardcore fans nuts. Instead of just doing whatever they wanted with the characters they now owned, they had to say something to invalidate fans who had spent years reading these stories. It was an unintentional gaffe on the part of Disney but quickly set the tone for future decisions and alienated fans.
Is the Star Wars brand mortally wounded? No. There’s too much goodwill for the Star Wars Universe for Disney to completely destroy it. However, damage has been done. In the span of four years they managed to alienate lifelong fans with some choices while degrading the perception of the franchise with mainstream ticket buying audiences. I have no doubt that Star Wars is going to continue for a long time. However, the franchise feels more damaged than ever before and handled precipitously by Disney.
Perhaps this is just Disney and Lucasfilm stumbling out of the starting gate. Perhaps The Rise of Skywalker will win back fans who felt disenfranchised with The Last Jedi. Maybe Rian Johnson’s original trilogy will be better received by fans since he’s not playing with their favorite action figures, or the franchise will enjoy a new lease of life through the various Disney+ shows beginning with The Mandalorian… We’ll have to wait and see.
A version of this article was originally posted in May 2018.