It’s beginning to look like visits to a galaxy far, far away might become a little less frequent in the future, with Disney CEO Bob Iger talking about “some slowdown” in the frequency of upcoming Star Wars movies. But is that the right way to fix the perception of fading interest in the franchise?
Talking to The Hollywood Reporter for the annual THR 100 list, Iger addressed the notion that perhaps Disney should not keep releasing a Star Wars movie every year.
“I made the timing decision, and as I look back, I think the mistake that I made — I take the blame — was a little too much, too fast. You can expect some slowdown, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to make films,” he said, adding, “I think we’re going to be a little bit more careful about volume and timing.”
It’s undeniable that Solo: A Star Wars Story massively underperformed, fueling a narrative that Star Wars as a whole is in trouble as opposed to simply experiencing the inevitable first dud. According to that version of events, the franchise has been listing ever since 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which “only” made $620 million dollars in theaters domestically, easily becoming the top movie of the year. That, however, is far less than the $936 million of 2014’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and therefore a sign that The Last Jedi — and, goes the argument, Disney’s handling of Star Wars in general — is actually in trouble.
The fact that The Force Awakens was a much-hyped event that not only resurrected one of the most beloved movie franchises of all time, but also brought back the original cast to the franchise for the first time in 30 years — and, as a result, a trick that couldn’t really be repeated two years later — is dismissed in the “Star Wars is in trouble” telling.
Nonetheless, let’s go with the idea that Star Wars is in trouble, for the sake of argument. Are volume and timing really to blame?
Consider, as a counter-argument, Disney’s own Marvel Studios, which has impressively managed to up its release frequency to three movies a year seemingly without exhausting the audience. Why should Star Wars run aground with one movie a year, especially given that there are essentially no competing Space Opera movies, while Marvel’s output coexists (and thrives, and triumphs over, at least in terms of box office) the DC, Fox and any other superhero movies it shares a multiplex with? Is the appetite for Star Wars really so fragile that one helping a year is too much?
It’s possible, but there’s another answer that might be difficult for Disney to reckon with. Namely, that the audience doesn’t want these particular Star Wars movies every year.
Of the four Star Wars movies released since Disney resurrected the franchise, every single one has been motivated in some respect by nostalgia for the franchise as-was. The Force Awakens sought to honor the past, while The Last Jedi sought to question and, in a limited way, subvert it. Both Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Solo: A Star Wars Story tried, in different ways, to re-create it. Any innovation that has been found in these movies — increased diversity in the primary casts, for example — feels almost in spite of everything around it, as opposed to the result of an attempt to push the franchise in new directions.
In some respects, the frequency of release has contributed to the feeling that Star Wars is stuck, and unable (or unwilling) to evolve; every year brings a new white, brunette female lead to frown at the charismatic, slightly cocky and almost dangerous male lead, after all. Having the releases come around on schedule makes the series’ formula and assembly line all the more apparent. But does that mean that the problem is the release schedule, or sticking too closely to the formula?
It made sense on a number of levels that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was so conscious of the series’ past; it was the first movie back, and a lot was riding on it. But after the success of that movie, Disney and Lucasfilm had an opportunity to actually explore the galaxy in all its many forms and start thinking of Star Wars movies in different genres, in different scales, with different voices and different stories to tell … and that never happened. Instead, the audience was given slight variations on the same thing, four times in a row.
That Disney and Lucasfilm’s current Star Wars system is in need of an overhaul shouldn’t be a point of contention; simply consider that both Rogue One and Solo needed massive reworkings in the middle of production that involved bringing in different directors to complete the movie to the studio’s expectations. But that doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a problem with the volume or frequency of the movies.
The idea of “the holiday season means new Star Wars” is still a valid one — and, if done well, an exciting one for audiences and filmmakers alike. The real change that needs to be made is on behalf of executives, who need to reconsider what a Star Wars movie can be and what the expectations of the franchise are. There is literally a galaxy’s worth of stories to be told inside the franchise beyond retelling the same stories filmmakers grew up with over and over again. Once that starts happening, who knows how often Disney can return to that galaxy each year?
J.J. Abrams is currently in production on Star Wars: Episode IX for a December 2019 release, while Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are working on their own films, as is Last Jedi director Rian Johnson.