In our current cinematic landscape where franchise after franchise after franchise fail (even Transformers), there was at least one surefire series that all others could look up to as the gold standard: Star Wars. However, that beloved galaxy far far away now seems to be falling closer in spirit to the constantly plagued DC Extended Universe, rather than the clocklike precision of Marvel Cinematic Universe. From re-editing Rogue One to the point of incoherence to Rian Johnson cutting ties with Episode 9 (despite his “claims” he has complete creative control over Episode 8) to Carrie Fisher’s death dying, some tarnish is starting to show. Last week, it was announced that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have “left” The Han Solo Solo Movie: A Star Wars Story (here on out “Solo“) months into filming (the first cast photo was released on Feb. 21), leaving the Academy Award-winning Ron Howard to pick up the slack as director.
For starters, it should be noted that Solo was never a movie anyone really wanted. Sure, there will always be die-hards who will mindlessly applaud at the Millennium Falcon. And there will always be not entirely inaccurate executives who see these movies more as a way to sell limited-edition Millennium Falcon artisanal environmental recreations and officially-licensed Funko statuettes than as stand-alone films. Thankfully, for the most part, people seemed to see Solo for what it was – a cash-grab that, like most every other prequel before it, will capitalize solely on nostalgia by awkwardly answering questions no one was asking in the most convoluted ways possible. (Remember, Easter Eggs are always a substitute for originality.)
Nevertheless, we were willing to give Solo the benefit of the doubt; we had no choice. The cast seemed solid enough – Alden Ehrenreich was a scene stealer in Hail, Caesar! and if anyone is going to be doing a bad impression of Harrison Ford, it might as well be him; Donald Glover is a fine choice for Lando. More important were the directors: Lord and Miller. Against all expectations, they successfully turned 21 Jump Street into a well-received comedy franchise, and with The LEGO Movie, they turned what was essentially a toy commercial into one of the best family movies of the past decade. If anyone could give this film a jolt of energy and rise above its ‘brand awareness first’ origins, it would be them, two of the best lampshade hangers in the business.
So what went wrong? Well without any insider information and basing this solely on fifth hand reports from unsubstantiated sources that make up 95% of everything you read online – Lord and Miller tried to go off script and put their own spin on the lore and tone, which put them at constant odds with Kathleen Kennedy, the President of LucasFilms, to the point where she forced them out. It’s understandable; she has a brand to protect and a billion dollar investment to justify. However, the trend between this and Rogue One seems to indicate that LucasFilms is preventing younger filmmakers from putting their own spin on the material that probably inspired their lifelong love of film in the first place. By keeping Star Wars in a very small, carefully delineated box, the entire franchise is in danger of stagnating.
This is even apparent with the replacement director: Ron Howard. He’s a fine filmmaker, but he probably doesn’t have the iconoclastic spirit needed to elevate Solo. Considering his age and experience (his first directorial effort, Grand Theft Auto, was released in 1977), he can’t have the emotional “playing with toys in the basement” connection that this new crop of Star Wars filmmakers need to have. My honest belief is that he was brought in because he will efficiently and professionally shoot Solo as the script dictates while giving Solo the ability to include the words “Academy Award-Winning Director” to its promotional material. This isn’t saying that Howard will botch the job or even do a bad job of directing, but he is a safe choice who will likely give LucasFilms exactly what it wants.
Yet if there’s a major reason behind “franchise fatigue,” it’s safe choices. Look at The Mummy (2017) or Ghostbusters (2016) or The Amazing Spider-Man films (2014/2012) or … and they all suffer from the same problems. The studios/filmmakers treat these franchise as a birthright, as though the brand alone is enough to sucker us into mediocre-at-best films while the clumsy sequel set up will reel us in two or three years later for more mediocre-at-best films. Characters are bland, set pieces are obvious, extensive CGI is unimpressive, even the music sounds the same. These films play it safe by including the elements they know work (in the most superficial ways possible) but shying away from any newer bits that might stick with you (because that’s a variable that can’t be market tested). Jason Momoa’s Conan the Barbarian didn’t randomly punch a camel like Arnie’s did; the Colin Farrell-starring Total Recall remake might have referenced the classic “Two Weeks” scene from the original, but where was its own fresh moment? (And I’m sure there are examples from movies not starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
If the past two years have taught us anything, people are missing those unexpected moments. The first Star Wars movie was a historic gamble, but we can remember almost every line of the original trilogy. While no revisionist history can ever make any of the Prequels good, at least they came from some mad spark of creativity, misguided as it was. For the new Star Wars films (particularly the Story sub-franchise), there is a growing – and understandable – concern that they will be like everything else, dependent on call-backs and too afraid to take chances. The Force Awakens was an extremely well-done retread of A New Hope, and while it might have had several memorable moments, now that the thrill has worn off, the lack of novelty remains at the forefront of our minds. Rogue One devolved into Death Star, AT-ATs, and Darth Vader at his most pathetically fan service-y. (Or was there not a tonal inconsistency going straight from mourning the death of Rebel spies to cheering the death of Rebel red shirts?) As for Solo. Well, I hope you’re wondering where he got that vest.