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Why ‘Solo’ Failed to Launch, and Future Prospects for a Galaxy Far, Far Away

So, Solo: A Star Wars Story pretty much crashed and burned in theaters.

Cue snarky pun headlines about having a bad feeling about this, about the movie flying “so low” at the box office, and about how the “Force” of the Star Wars brand may be weakening.

After that, take a gander at the digest of editorials rationalizing the movie’s relative failure to launch. I say “relative” because any movie that opens to $100 million in ticket sales can’t reasonably be considered a total “failure,” even if it’s for a movie that cost more than $250 million to produce. But we’re talking Star Wars here, and opening weekend numbers for Solo were projected to be nearly double the ultimate tally. After a month in theaters, Solo: A Star Wars Story has barely eked out $350M globally, the lowest-grossing entry of the franchise by a long shot (not counting the animated Clone Wars theatrical release).

By the end of its premiere weekend, even before the lackluster ticket sales were fully counted, the film had already been deemed a dud and the excuse mill began to rotate at full tilt. Solo was evidently done in by a combination of damaging reports of its tumultuous production, a weak marketing campaign, and lukewarm critical reviews. Or perhaps the film’s performance was hobbled by its decent but not spectacular word-of-mouth. Or possibly fans are simply getting impatient for LucasFilm to deliver on its “anthology” promise to stretch the boundaries of what—and who—a standalone movie can explore, and feel let down that Solo doesn’t broaden the Star Wars canvas nearly enough. All of this could also be an indication of a multi-pronged fan backlash—against the very notion of the role of Han Solo being recast by a different actor; against the veritable glut of Star Wars projects lately; and/or as payback by some uppity fans still sore over how much they hated The Last Jedi. Or, just maybe, core and casual fans deemed Solo: A Star Wars Story to be merely competent when we were all hoping for something transcendent.

It’s not the first time a Star Wars movie has divided fans and flummoxed critics—The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, anyone?

Also, it’s hardly like the advance buzz on Solo was ecstatic—early production grumblings focused on the leading man Alden Ehrenreich’s unproven acting chops (specifically, that he did not conjure the spirit of a young Harrison Ford), and the shocking tale of how the picture’s original co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired with only weeks of filming left to go has since become a new cautionary legend in the movie franchise industry. Hasty and extensive reshoots were undertaken by replacement director Ron Howard, and credit must be given to Howard and crew for evidently salvaged a sinking ship: after all the production hiccups, they’ve crafted a movie that at least delivers on its promise of intergalactic swashbuckling fun, and the picture shows fewer scars than other expensive films with similarly troubled production histories.

Despite some rough edges, Solo is a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon, and a far cry better than fans and critics are claiming…though some of the reasons offered by armchair analysts for the movie’s flaccid box office performance are uncomfortably valid.

It’s fair at this point to criticize LucasFilm for shaping the first two Star Wars Story “anthology” films into such similarly plotted heist pictures. If the tangential Star Wars stories are repeatedly going to be about assembling a team of rag-tags and scoundrels to steal a McGuffin, prospects for the expanded franchise will go South very quickly. There’s a vast treasure trove of literary and videogame material to mine for the extracurricular “anthology” films, and a greater creative freedom inherent in the opportunity to tell tales of varied tonality featuring new characters not tied to the core “saga” films.

To this end, it’s no wonder LucasFilm is reportedly shelving future Star Wars Story “anthology” films indefinitely while the they focus on Episode IX—this includes hitting the pause button on a rumored Obi-Wan Kenobi movie potentially starring Ewan McGregor, as well as once more halting development of the on-again-off-again Boba Fett movie with Logan’s James Mangold most recently rumored to direct (I suspect a story imperative for Boba Fett is to feature plenty of bounty hunting and thievery; if so, LucasFilm would be wise to downplay the heisting angle).

Many commentators speculate that Solo was doomed to stall because the film arrived on the heels of what everyone agrees was the most divisive Star Wars episode in the history of the franchise—The Last Jedi.

The mixed fan reaction to Episode VIII juxtaposed with the film’s gushing critical aggregate has fueled conspiracy theories that Disney pays off the press to be extra nice to its movies. With so much palpable ill-will toward The Last Jedi still lingering, it’s understandable that the lure of Solo was not as strong for smote die-hard fans—and even less so for average movie-goers. For this, a wreath of blame can also be laid upon the door of Disney’s marketeers, who produced a bland trailer that conspicuously undersold its leading man—further fueling fan sentiment that making a movie about Han Solo without using Harrison Ford was then, is now, and will forever be a bad idea.

As for the summertime release of Solo, it follows the pattern of the original six Star Wars movies which were all likewise timed to debut on Memorial Day weekend, but the stupendously successful Christmastime release platform for the three most recent Star Wars movies before Solo has apparently become the new norm.

Some analysts further reason that Disney/LucasFilm’s planned pipeline of a Star Wars movie every year is starting to feel like too much Star Wars—and way too soon, to boot.

As a lifelong movie geek with Star Wars in my blood, I don’t mind the crowded release schedule so long as the individual films remain engaging and inventive, but I confess the new pictures have lost a certain “event movie” luster that can only be accrued during a longer waiting period between films. The first two trilogies, I need hardly remind any loyal fan, were issued at three-year intervals—a lot of time for one film to seep into the public consciousness while anticipation for the next film intensifies to a fever pitch.

You may agree there’s simply too much Star Wars nowadays, but LucasFilm shows no signs of slowing down production anytime soon. Even with the recent rumors that the “anthology” films will be put on hold for a while, there’s plenty of Star Wars on the horizon.

Up next, of course, is the third chapter of the new “trilogy,” Episode IX. I use the word “trilogy” lightly here because Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII does not feel like a traditional “middle act” of a three-act plot arc for Rey, Kylo, Finn, and Poe. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back—and, yes, even at the end of the justifiably derided Attack of the Clones—there is a burning sense of urgency to resolve some major dangling plot threads, a momentum that thrusts us into Act III with giddy anticipation.

Is Darth Vader truly Luke’s father or is he merely playing a Jedi mind trick on him? Will Anakin and Padme’s forbidden marriage upset the balance of the Force, and will little orphan Ani ever stop whining? The Last Jedi offers no such mighty cliffhangers, only the beats of an ongoing saga that seems content to constantly kill off beloved characters while introducing new players to pick up the mantle.

On the upside, Episode IX will be directed by J.J. Abrams, who did a bang-up job reviving the series with The Force Awakens, even if the screenplay for Episode VII borrows too frequently from the original Star Wars movie A New Hope. The still-untitled Episode IX is currently in production, scheduled for release in time for Christmas, 2019.

Haters of The Last Jedi beware: writer/director Rian Johnson is working on a new movie trilogy, and it is reportedly not Episodes X, XI, and XII. No time frames have been announced for filming or release, and no story or character details have been leaked, but word is Johnson and crew are well into pre-production.

The showrunners of HBO’s medieval epic Game of Thrones David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are working on their own unspecified series of Star Wars theatrical features. The strong crossover of fandom between Star Wars and GOT is doubtlessly agog at the prospect of these guys trading in dragons and swords for Rancors and lightsabers. Little is known about the time frame, the story, or its players, but given certain similarities in source material, fans are no doubt hoping this mysterious new spin-off series will be an adaptation of the Knights of the Old Republic videogames, set four millenniums before the rise of the Galactic Empire.

Iron Man and Jungle Book director Jon Favreau will serve as executive producer for a new still-untitled live-action Star Wars television endeavor. Little is known about it beyond the time frame—the show will take place seven years after the events of Return of the Jedi. This upcoming show is in addition to the imminent animated television series Star Wars Resistance, which is the follow-up to Star Wars Rebels and is set to premiere later this year.

Absolutely there will eventually be more Star Wars Story “anthology” films, and we’ll likely hear news of their revival after LucasFilm finishes Episode IX and takes some time to rethink their strategy. In addition to what we assume will be called Boba Fett: A Star Wars Story, and along with a possible Obi Wan: A Star Wars Story, strong fan and critical love shown towards Donald Glover as a young Lando Calrissian in Solo has given LucasFilm faith in the idea of a stand-alone Lando movie. Glover is reportedly signed to a three-picture deal, and since his playful performance was one of the brighter spots in Solo—and since a little film from earlier this year called Black Panther proved there is an audience for adventure movies featuring a leading hero with dark skin—the sooner LucasFilm strikes this particular hot iron, the better.

Finally, while the tale of the Skywalker family doesn’t necessarily have to be the focus of the episodic “saga” films beyond Episode IX, you can bet your blasters that there will certainly be more core episode movies, so count on the announcement of yet another new trilogy comprised of Episodes X, XI, and XII in the not-too-faraway future.

Until then, may the Force be with us.

 

 

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