In October 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion dollars. It was a historic moment: Star Wars was coming back, and it was here to stay… or was it? Just six years later the franchise is in decline, with Solo not just under-performing, but bombing at the box office. Where did everything go wrong?
To understand the drop in popularity of Star Wars we first need to go back to the original trilogy. In 1977, audiences across the globe were treated to the first sci-fi blockbuster. With state of the art special effects, Star Wars delivered audiences an epic fantasy adventure set in space.
Star wars was an instant hit.
Surprisingly though, the two sequels received less than stellar reviews upon release. Both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi would however become beloved instalments in the years that followed. So this isn’t the first time that Star Wars as a franchise has divided audiences.
The follow up trilogy – whilst being largely unpopular nowadays – did incredibly well at the box office.
So with all this in mind, you would think that it would be near impossible for Disney to struggle with the Star Wars franchise. Yet after a few contentious decisions, the Star Wars universe has suddenly begun to implode.
So where did the Star Wars troubles begin?
Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars saw with it one of the earliest and perhaps most contentious decisions: The scrapping of the expanded universe.
For decades, Star Wars had continued in the form of novels and comic books.
The problem for Disney was simple: Expanded universe names like Mara Jade or Grand Admiral Thrawn were not household names unless you lived in a particularly geeky home.
The expanded universe also meant limitations as to what any new Star Wars films would have to adhere to.
It was therefore much more simple to scrap the expanded universe and reintegrate any elements they liked later on.
Testing the waters
In 2014, Disney delivers Guardians of the Galaxy. Obviously not a Star Wars film, but certainly a space adventure and potentially a good testing ground for whether or not modern audiences were ready to embrace films of this nature.
Sharing a lot of common DNA, Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit, earning mostly solid reviews from film critics. The path was clear for the return of Star Wars.
Enter The Force Awakens one year later, featuring a plot that was essentially a rehash of the original Star Wars. The argument goes that Disney needed a safe film to relaunch the brand. They needed to deliver a movie that was chicken soup for anyone with Star Wars nostalgia.
Why weren’t we getting a completely new story instead of a soft reboot?
The answer was simple. The prequels, like them or hate them, had tried to tell very different stories, and were for the most part either hated or, at the very least, viewed as inferior movies.
So Disney wanted audiences to see that they were bringing back the Star Wars that they loved and not some experimental new stuff. For most fans this was accepted and the film was a huge hit.
Rogue One, for the most part, also performed strongly. I personally see it as the weakest of the new films, but will happily admit that it found an audience and, in spite of production problems, ultimately was a success.
Oh, and that scene with Darth Vader slaughtering the rebels was epic.
Now here’s where things get messy.
With The Last Jedi, audiences were presented with what was to be the most divisive film in the history of Star Wars. Critically The Last Jedi currently sits at 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a pretty decent score. Sadly, the audience score is 46%.
I myself am not sure why the two scores are so radically different, but there are a number of fairly clear reasons why The Last Jedi is perhaps the most hated of Star Wars films.
The Last Jedi has a simple message. To quote Kylo Ren: “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
This is Rian Johnson’s rallying call. He is arguing that for Star Wars to move forward it needs fresh blood, fresh ideas and fresh stories. The Last Jedi strips away the legacy and tells audiences that the old Star Wars is getting phased out.
Here’s the problem. Modern audiences live off brand recognition and nostalgia. As much as I agree with Rian Johnson, I’m not convinced audiences want to give up the Star Wars they’ve cherished for four decades.
Unless modern audiences believe that the new Star Wars is better than the old, they wont want it to move on.
The other big difference with The Last Jedi is that it subverts expectations constantly. Every event goes in the opposite direction to what you would traditionally expect in a Star Wars film, and this includes the plot twists.
The one twist with Rey’s backstory that could surprise audiences is the one we got. She’s not a Kenobi, or a Skywalker, she’s just Rey, a poor girl who was abandoned by her parents who were nobodies. It wasn’t just a surprise – it adds depth to her character. This is the sort of back story typically reserved for a villain or, in a couple of rare cases, a dark hero like Batman.
For some, subverting expectations might be one of the film’s strengths (a possible explanation for the critical acclaim), but for many it rendered the film jarring and frustrating. If you go into a restaurant wanting pizza and get brought out a steak, you’ll be annoyed. It might be a great streak but you wanted pizza. That’s what you ordered. That’s what you expected.
The problem is clear. What has killed Star Wars is toxic nostalgia. This is a franchise that truly captured our imagination growing up.
When people see a Star Wars movie they want to recapture that magic. The problem is you can’t, and if you make a film that is too close to those original movies, then you might as well just watch one of those films instead. If you try and make something new, then you lose that sense of nostalgia.
In major markets like China, which do not share our nostalgia for Star Wars, the brand has struggled to gain a foothold. If the franchise doesn’t resonate with the audience, then people simply aren’t interested.
Disney has already made its money back on Star Wars. That said, I honestly don’t see any successful way forward. Given the abysmal ratings of Solo, I think it’s safe to say that audiences overall aren’t interested in the legacy films which take classic Star Wars characters and flesh out their backstories. Episode Nine will be a hard sell due to the response of The Last Jedi.
My advice? Make Episode Nine and then let the franchise rest for five years. Come back with a new saga, a new cast, set in a different time period. Start fresh.
For my thoughts on how Star Trek in comparison is fairing, be sure to check out this article.