'Star Wars' and Disney's Search for a Direction

Walt Disney Studios
Marvel's Kevin Feige, who is poised to produce a film for Lucasfilm, may provide some sense of clarity for the franchise.

The news that Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige is developing a Star Wars project for Lucasfilm is at once surprising — isn’t he busy enough already? — and coldly logical, given the success that Feige has had with Marvel Studios. Nonetheless, the very fact that it’s happening underscores an uncomfortable fact about the current state of Star Wars as a franchise. Namely, Disney doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

Apart from the prospect that Disney might cede control over the franchise to the man who’s turned Marvel into one of the most valuable brands in the world, even if just for one feature (although, let’s be honest, there would almost certainly be more, should Feige’s project prove profitable), the studio's uncertainty about Star Wars' future was put into particularly sharp relief by CEO Bob Iger, who told The New York Times that Disney “put a little bit too much [Star Wars] in the marketplace too fast." It was a surprising comment given that Star Wars has been limited to one movie per year, as opposed to Marvel’s two or three.

So, what does Disney want Star Wars to be? It appeared to have something approaching an idea four years ago, when — again according to Iger — it ignored franchise creator George Lucas’ ideas for a new trilogy in favor of something that was purposefully an exercise in nostalgia. That’s not hyperbole; as Iger puts it in his new memoir, 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens “intentionally created a world that was visually and tonally connected to the earlier films, to not stray too far from what people loved and expected.”

That works for a movie reintroducing the franchise to audiences, but as subsequent Disney movies made clear, there wasn’t a lot of evolution from that model: Rogue One, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Solo all are rooted visually, tonally and, for that matter, textually in the original trilogy. This December’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker looks set to continue the trend, teasing the return of the ultimate antagonist from that earlier story arc. The same, it can be argued, is true of the ancillary Star Wars stories released during this time; TV shows, video games, comic books and novels have been reined in to focus predominantly on the era and characters surrounding the original trilogy with only a few exceptions, compared with the overly expansive, millennia-spanning merchandise and spinoffs that existed prior to the Disney purchase.)

For Star Wars to thrive, it needs to become additive and tell new stories, to explore the galaxy far, far away in more depth. But, to date, Disney has been notably — and curiously — unwilling to do that.

Disney's conservative approach to the franchise has manifested in other ways as well — think the substantial reshoots ordered for Rogue One, or the original Solo directors fired because they weren’t in step with the corporate vision and feel of the franchise. All this speaks to a lack of confidence in where the property was at that time, and is headed in the near future. That is a state of affairs that Disney and Lucasfilm need to reckon with.

And when I say “need,” I mean it literally; The Rise of Skywalker ends what has become known as the Skywalker Saga, and with it, the security of working inside the story that began with Star Wars four decades ago. Whatever comes next — and it’ll take two years to see what that is as the property transitions to focus on Disney+ shows, the gap looking like another sign of nerves and uncertainty — has to be something new if the property is to continue to move forward.

That there’s little indication, five years and four movies in to Disney’s ownership of the property, of what that "something new" might be just makes it all the more clear that Star Wars remains a property in flux for Disney, even now. Maybe Feige’s involvement could provide some sense of clarity. If he can make Spider-Man work on the big screen, after all, the sky — or should that be space? — might be the limit.