Solo and the Future of Star Wars (After the Campaign Review)

There’s been a wave recently of writers using the box-office results of Solo: A Star Wars Story as a kind of Rorschach Test for their own personal issues and beliefs regarding the potential future of the Star Wars series. Terms like “franchise fatigue” and “inessential” have been thrown around pretty freely. People have wondered whether opening to $103m domestically in its first weekend is a sign Disney needs to rethink its Star Wars strategy or if the franchise is about to falter. Poor reviews have lead people to speculate on what correct measures need to be taken by the studio to right the ship.

Solo, in case you need a refresher, tells the story of the younger days of the lovable smuggler and scoundrel. Played by Alden Ehrenreich, we start off with him as a hard-living thief on his home planet of Corellia, where he works for a local thug alongside others, including Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Over the course of the story he embraces his destiny as an outlaw, albeit one with a penchant for doing the right thing, even if it costs him in the short term. He meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Chewbacca along with others who will help shape him into the cocky, boastful pilot we meet in a Tatooine cantina.

Unlike many other recent large-scale movies, Solo delivers more or less exactly what the marketing campaign mounted by Disney/Lucasfilm promised. It’s fast-paced and funny, with a zip in its step that keeps the mood light even when dealing with some heavier topics. Glover steals most scenes he’s in but Ehrenreich really and truly delivers with his take on Han, never trying to do an impersonation of Harrison Ford, who made the character leap off the screen, but working to make him his own and succeeding in doing so.

While I respect and understand the viewpoints of those who didn’t care for the movie for one reason or another, there are some commonalities to the criticism that’s been shared by many people that I feel need to be addressed.

The Movie Feels Cobbled Together

You will never convince me that widely-reported production problems don’t wind up impacting eventual reviews. Critics can claim to be focusing on the finished product, but it would be impossible for them not to be considering the drama that went on behind the scenes. In this case, the replacement of original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller with Ron Howard created a lot of noise, poisoning the well of goodwill the movie would need to draw on. Suddenly it can’t help but be viewed through the lens of the “troubled production.” There is, in other words, a thumb on the critical scale.

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I don’t blame anyone for this point of view, especially since I have it myself. Honestly, though, it didn’t feel any more disjointed in assembly than any other major studio franchise release from the last 10 years. These movies almost always are made by committee, with various producers, editors and executives wanting to have their input counted in the final product. And it certainly is less so than last year’s Justice League, a monstrosity that had all vestiges of coherence stripped from it, though that’s a low bar to clear.

It’s An Inessential Story

OK, but what counts as an “essential” Star Wars story? Does it need to focus on Luke, Leia and Han in order to matter? Does it need to have galaxy-spanning implications? Would it have been better if there had been a giant space laser of some sort that needed to be shut down at all costs?

Much as I did after seeing some of the same issues raised in the wake of 2016’s Rogue One, I maintain that your comfort level with these “smaller” stories depends to some extent on whether or not you’ve dug into the Expanded Universe. Whether we’re talking about the new line of books and comics that have come out since Disney rebooted what is or isn’t canon or those prior to that turning point that are now branded “Legends” titles, those stories were often just like this, with lower stakes, a broad set of vaguely-defined supporting characters and so on.

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Many of these are great stories, but few could make the cut if we really wanted to take a strict approach toward what is or isn’t “essential.” That’s alright, though. We need throwaway stories every now and again, otherwise the stakes just keep getting bigger and bigger and more unrealistic.

Along these lines the question has been asked as to whether we really need Han’s backstory. Well…no. He was fine as a character just as we had him in the Original Trilogy, where we learned very little of his background and history. But since when has “need” been the standard determining which stories are or aren’t told? There’s nothing in Solo that takes away from the enjoyment of the character in the OT and as long as we clear that hurdle we’re fine.

It’s Too Full of Fan Service

This is perhaps my least favorite point of criticism against this or any other movie.

First of all, “fan service” is a terrible term, making it seem like the filmmakers are just throwing in some moment or detail to make some members of the audience turn to their partner and say “I get that reference” or something like that. I don’t believe that’s actually how things work, though “Hey, the fans will like this” is almost certainly a consideration. Also, you can’t spend three months dissecting all the easter eggs in every new trailer or TV spot and then act put out when the movie itself is full of such moments.

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It’s true that Solo hits a lot of “Oh, that’s why he later…” beats. That’s called “establishing the character,” though, and is in the DNA of any flashback or prequel story. But so does the first 10 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and I defy you to find anyone who doesn’t feel that’s one of the greatest sequences in that series. If that came out now it’s easy to imagine it would be pilloried for making cheap plays on the audience’s emotions as we see Indy get the hat, whip and other accessories he’ll use for decades to come on his adventures.

People Are Tired of Star Wars

Disney *is* taking an awful risk by releasing Solo within six months of The Last Jedi, though there are a number of reasons for that decision. And this *is* the fourth Star Wars movie it’s released inside of three years.

On the other hand, Disney has put out three Marvel Cinematic Universe entries within the last six months and has two more slated for this year, making a total of five in a 12-month window. And you don’t see the same kind of hand-wringing with that franchise that has been a common media narrative around Star Wars since before Rogue One hit theaters.

Looking at numbers, Solo’s $103m opening weekend places it in line with 2014’s Thor: The Dark World ($108m) and higher than Ant-Man ($83m), Thor ($85m) and Captain America: The First Avenger ($92m). Somehow the MCU powered bravely through those setbacks and kept the franchise going, not concerned whether malaise was setting in among the members of the audience but continuing with their plans. That’s worked out pretty well and each one of those movies has had or will have a sequel released.

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Basically the “franchise fatigue” idea seems to be a narrative that’s uniquely applied to Star Wars. It’s tainted a lot of coverage since commentators and critics seem to just be waiting for the first signs of labored breathing in the patient, like an ungrateful child looking for any excuse to send dad to the assisted living facility and get him out of the basement. I don’t mean to imply ill-will, just that there’s a very different conventional wisdom being applied to coverage.

Disney’s Future Plans Are In Doubt

It’s true that Disney’s stock took a bit of a hit in the wake of Solo’s lower-than-projected opening weekend. That’s to be expected when shareholders are disappointed the made-up numbers the studio shares impact the made-up money those shareholders deal in. I think, though, that the company will be fine and certainly, given its history in managing the MCU films through ups and downs, knows how to take the long view of franchise management.

One specific subset of this argument I’ve seen is that specifically it calls into question plans the company has to use Star Wars as a foundation for its upcoming streaming service. The idea, this line of thinking adheres to, is that if a movie like Solo is going to bomb theatrically (which it did not do) then you can’t expect Star Wars content to anchor this service.

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This is an argument I don’t buy at all, though there are some caveats.

The kind of mid-tier space western that is Solo would actually be *perfect* as a streaming original, but the budget would need to be cut at least in half. The $250-300m Solo cost wouldn’t work, but a $125m feature would likely work just fine. This is just the kind of “good enough” movie material that is exactly what Netflix in particular has been aiming to produce and acquire. I’m not saying they could make even that more than once every couple years, but in concept, Solo represents just the kind of add-on stories that you’ll watch because it’s there and it’s entertaining and you can pause it to go get a beer.

So Here’s What I Think Actually Happened

There are elements of truth in all the above points. I’m not dismissing any of them completely. It’s true that:

  • The movie lacks a clear and consistent vision, something both The Last Jedi and Black Panther had in spades. I’d say that’s less a symptom of directorial shuffling than that Ron Howard, for all his many qualities, is not a strong action director. The guy does drama with the best of them, but action isn’t his forte.
  • It is an additional story that’s easily skipped if you only want to devote your time to those stories that bring something new and significant to the universe. The same can be said of many MCU movies, though, especially something like Ant-Man or even Guardians.
  • There is a case to be made that it’s too full of moments specifically designed to create the character as we see him in A New Hope. Again, though, you could make the same case about the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II, this isn’t unique to Solo.

The main issue, though, is simply timing. While there were certainly good reasons for Disney to maintain this release date, it also meant it was competing against itself, with Avengers still eating up a lot of box-office oxygen. Combine that with Deadpool 2 and you have a lot of people who have already used up their moviegoing allowance for the month. Finally the (similarly understandable) tight marketing window means it just didn’t have the kind of time to truly and deeply penetrate the public’s conscious.

Solo is a fun, highly enjoyable movie. Not everyone feels that way and that’s fine. It worked for me, it didn’t for others. That’s how most movies are. When it came down to it, though, the biggest obstacle it faced was just not having the time it needed to make a compelling case to the audience.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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