As has become increasingly obvious over the last few weeks, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has touched a nerve in the audience.
Not only is the movie proving to be exactly the box-office juggernaut that Disney executives undoubtedly hoped for, but fandom has quickly taken the new cast to heart, as the amount of art and ‘shipping between Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) demonstrates.
The torch — the lightsaber, let’s be honest — has been successfully passed … which might end up being an issue for the future of the franchise, thanks to this December’s Star Wars: Rogue One.
After all, Rogue One is literally a step back in Star Wars mythology. Immediately after The Force Awakens has fired up audiences about what happens next in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, Rogue One will take them back to a time before the original 1977 movie, for a mission that fans already know the outcome of; the plot revolves around the stealing of the plans for the original Death Star that the Rebels have in the first movie.
It would make more sense on a number of levels to create something that is, if not a direct sequel to The Force Awakens — that is unlikely in the year gap between scheduled releases — then at least in some way connected to the new mythology debuted therein. Maybe something filling in the gaps between Return of the Jedi and where things pick up in the new movie, and dealing with many of the unanswered questions in fans’ minds, for example.
Instead, Rogue One ignores the new status quo and takes the franchise back three decades. Just when J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have successfully managed to add to move the Star Wars saga forward — arguably for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi — why immediately take another trip back in time?
It’s a question that has multiple facets. Beyond the storytelling problems of how to make a story with a known outcome suspenseful — or, for that matter, how to create something that exists in roughly the same timeframe as the current Star Wars: Rebels animated series without stepping on its toes — there’s the very basic issue of dealing with the confusion of an audience who’ll want to know why the next Star Wars film after The Force Awakens not only doesn’t follow up on that movie’s cliffhanger ending, but doesn’t even feature any of the same characters or even the same political factions, to the best of our knowledge. Of course, Star Wars is a series that likes its surprise reveals when least expected.
While Rogue One works on the same logic as Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, in that multiple movies can be released within the same franchise without being direct sequels to one another, Star Wars isn’t exactly the same beast. For one thing, it has historically been a franchise in which all the cinematic releases (with the exception of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated feature) were intended to be part of one continual narrative, albeit released out of order.
And, more importantly for marketing purposes, it’s easier for audiences to tell Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange and Captain America movies apart because they have different titles; they’re not called Avengers: [Additional Subtitle Here].
(Additionally, Captain America: The First Avenger aside, the Marvel movies all take place roughly along a forward-moving timeline, sidestepping the “this happens 30 years before the last one you saw” framing problem of Rogue One.)
Beyond that, however, there’s the question of whether Rogue One could dampen the momentum that The Force Awakens has, well, awoken. Introducing a second all-new cast of characters in the space of a year risks undercutting the importance of (and affection for) Finn and Rey, especially, as the more diverse face of Star Wars in the current age.
Although the cast of Rogue One is far from the white wash of Star Wars of old, it’s also less diverse than The Force Awakens, a shift that might upset new fans of the franchise drawn in by the inclusiveness of that movie.
On their own, none of these issues — the time-shift, the new cast, even the seeming pivot towards nostalgia — would be as much of a problem if Rogue One didn’t immediately follow The Force Awakens.
If “the new guard” of the franchise had been given more than one movie to establish itself, then Rogue One might be better appreciated as the break from the norm it’s intended to be. But with only one installment of the new order released, there’s no “norm” established just yet.