It’s been two months since the release of Star Wars: Episode 8 – The Last Jedi, and Star Wars is in a predicament. Or it’s not. It could be doing just fine. More than any other franchise, it’s hard to tell where the hyperbolic angry bandwagon jumping ends and true feelings begin. Regardless, for better or worse, The Last Jedi became the most divisive movie since Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice … and the Internet battle continues to rage on. If only we can turn those hypercritical eyes towards the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story (or Ranger Solo, as it will be called in China, a country that hysterically keeps saying ‘no’ to the series).
Coming out this Memorial Day, the much maligned Solo did not release anything to the public until the Super Bowl on February 4. I’ve seen it argued that it was a smart move holding back the trailer until the last minute so that we’d be a fever pitch when it finally came out – but it really wasn’t some ingenious marketing ploy. Maybe it was simply due to having to refilm practically the entire movie and not having anything finished until recently. (Do we really need to explain the director fiasco again? My earlier article here.) From my admittedly biased gauge, the vibe surrounding Solo is still closer to a “let’s see how they made a mess of this” morbid curiosity than a slobbering desperation for footage because we’re so gosh darn excited to see the Millennium Falcon on the big screen again. Why, it’s only been two months since we last saw it in IMAX! How did we last this long?
The two brief teasers for Solo (#1 and #2) failed to make much of a positive impression. Or, if they did, it’s more out of wide-eyed optimism than anything we’ve actually gotten. To be sure, there is way too much money and talent thrown at Solo for it to appear incompetent – at least on the surface. The professionalism could all be a facade. After all, Rogue One looked professional. But remove the weak callbacks and Darth Vader swinging his lightsaber around at the end and re-consider the film based on story and characters – the things that actually matter in a movie.
Yet a nice sheen and Easter Eggs could easily become a recurring issue for Star Wars going forward. From the admittedly scanty material we have, Solo doesn’t feel all that different from Rogue One – and while it could be argued that it’s intentional because they’re set around the same “time,” a lack of aesthetic or tonal differentiation is certainly a problem when it comes to selling us on the Star Wars Story series. Nothing in the trailer shows any of the spark or creativity or humor that you’d expect in a Han Solo movie, or the color of vibrancy of the original series. Even our introduction to him is exactly the same as our introduction to Jyn Erso in Rogue One and Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Down on its luck, beaten protagonist talks to a recruitment officer about them being too rebellious for their own good – but do they want more out of life?
Original directors Phil Miller and Chris Lord might know how to play with this tired trope, but will Ron Howard and Lawrence Kasdan? Probably not. There are interesting, unexplored, elements from this era – what is life like on the planets with an Empire foothold – but instead the teasers (and, let’s face it, likely the film too) devolve into the same tired money shots. Star Destroyers! TIE Fighters! Millennium Falcon with a different front so that buying the new LEGO set makes total sense!
But maybe it does make total sense. Are “things we know” what the fandom wants? Or aren’t they? The Last Jedi showed that nobody knows what the fandom wants, not even the fandom. After two months and countless articles and videos and podcasts delving the latest installment of the franchise, it seems impossible to add anything new to the discussion and pointless to even try. However, it has been fascinating following the near instantaneous backlash and virulent online rivalry inspired by the latest “legacy” film in the franchise.
That film appears to be skewing significantly negative. It currently sits at a 48% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes (though admittedly, I have never voted on that site and I don’t know anyone who has, which presents its own metric issues). Disliking the movie is understandable – there is a lot to dislike. But there is also a lot to like… well, some things to like. But the melodramatic, over-the-top poor reaction to The Last Jedi is at best disingenuous. Sure, the movie was significantly flawed, but it ranks lower than far worse movies. For comparison, Justice League is at 77%. Even the megalomanical madness of Batman v. Superman is at 63%, 15 points higher than Last Jedi. And that had Martha!
Why the resounding negativity? The movie’s many problems certainly play into it, but not enough to warrant the intensity of the response. From what I’ve seen, there’s also hating Disney for being Disney, distrusting critic scores due to a belief in payoffs, siding with your franchise clan and skewing results in favor of your own party (most prevalent in DC v. Marvel), chalking bad decisions up to political correctness paranoia rather than bad decisions simply being bad decisions, being disappointed with Star Wars for failing to live up to your fan theories, and unfairly expecting each movie to deliver the same emotional oomph the earlier ones did when you were a child. (Spoiler: They never will. We’re jaded. It a cost of growing up. It’s remarkable that The Force Awakens was as good and as beloved as it actually was.) But most importantly the Internet has shown us how joyous it is to rile people up and “give into the dark side.” It’s fun to find things to nitpick and criticize. After all, the vast majority of online movie discussion is either that or slobbering fanboyism, and most of the time, the snark is way better.
Nevertheless, the resounding backlash over The Last Jedi clearly goes well beyond the movie standing by itself. We bestow upon Star Wars unrealistic expectations and gloat when it fails to achieve them. We want it to deliver things it cannot deliver, things that no movie can. And detrimentally, what people hated most about The Last Jedi was when it did the unexpected. Well, not satisfactorily or confidently answering any questions from The Force Awakens was cheap. And Canto Bright was the worst sequence since C3PO was caught in an assembly line. And they really should have progressed the story somewhat. But turning Luke into a bitter exile out of fear of a new Darth Vader actually makes a lot of sense. Both Obi-Wan and Yoda did the same thing after the rise of their Darth Vader – and they only showed up for the party after the final battle. Jedis are not beacons of positivity and light; most of the evidence we have is to the contrary.
The biggest problem might be that Star Wars fandom has become its own monster eating itself. If attempts like The Last Jedi are condemned for being too different and not satisfying our Star Wars needs, then shouldn’t Disney and LucasFilms take the path of least resistance? (No pun intended.) Rogue One is still at an 87% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Solo material is dependent on Empire and the Millennium Falcon. All rumored Star Wars Story films are still Original Trilogy adjacent. And if they continue the adventures of Rey, Poe, Finn, or (god help us) Rose it would be like the new series never ended.
Sure, the box office of The Last Jedi is good enough that one doubts they will completely change streams going forward for this series, but what about post-Episode 9? Last Jedi director Rian Johnson has a film series planned. The duo behind the Game of Thrones HBO series (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) also has a film series planned. There’s several TV series planned. We know nothing about what these will entail, but considering how the franchise hasn’t done much to expand its horizons outside of Empire vs. Rebels and Sith vs. Jedi, and it’s hard to see them escape Star Destroyers v. X-Wings. Or even wanting to.
LucasFilm’s dependence on the past (my earlier article here) and Disney’s crowd pleasing matrix can easily leave the franchise stuck where it is, or rather was. After all, maybe what people want (or what they think they want) is exactly what came before – namely a return to the Original Trilogy era. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It’s marketable. And it will grow stale quickly. George Lucas realized that. That’s why he rested Star Wars in 1983 for nearly 15 years and came back with something completely different – albeit worse. Much, much worse. But at least he realized that absence makes the heart grows fonder.
Disney can’t afford that break or to take time to re-evaluate what Star Wars can or should be; it needs constant properties to justify its purchase. It’s possible that the Disney deal has tainted the iconic, almost untouchable nature of Star Wars, but maybe bringing it down to the level of “just another megafranchise” will allow for more opportunities to experiment, at least somewhere down the line. Or we’ll just get more and more Death Stars.
It’ll just be more and more Death Stars.