It’s actually kind of impressive how myopic most all of the commentary around the box-office underperformance of Solo: A Star Wars Story has been. It’s undeniable that the movie has failed to live up to the impressive standard set by the earlier movies, particular with it dropping by 65% in its second weekend.
Still, I find much of the finger-wagging and predictions of doom for the Star Wars franchise to be incredibly ignorant of anything approaching the bigger picture. Commentary seems, after over a week of hot takes, to be running along one or both of two lines:
- Disney doesn’t have a plan for Star Wars. This remarkably wrong-headed Phil Owen piece at The Wrap is a good example of that ridiculousness.
- Disney’s plan for Star Wars is wrong. There are too many instances of this to count, but most tend to lay the blame for Solo’s box-office at the feet of Rey, Jinn and other female characters introduced since 2015.
Let’s dismiss the second one out of hand, shall we? The first three Star Wars movies released by Disney, all of which featured female heroes much more prominently than those in the past, are among the most financially successful films of all time, not to mention within the Star Wars franchise itself. This is mostly promulgated by overgrown children who are mad the girls have come in and are trying to touch their action figures, not realizing that sexism isn’t cool anymore. Get over it, guys, because if you refuse to accept any growth in the audience you’re going to wind up with a dead franchise. A stronger case could be made the Solo is tanking because it’s swimming against the tide by trying to sell a male anti-hero in an age where people want a full movie about what Qi’ra was up to for those three years between when Han left her and then came back.
As to the first, this is where people show off just how little they’re thinking about the whole playing field, particularly in terms of the modern media world.
Keith Phipps at The Ringer asks why others, including Disney itself, are having such issues recreating the Marvel Cinematic Universe model. It’s a fair question, but only if you are looking solely at the idea of the current definition of “cinematic universe.”
Believe it or not, the concept of shared fictional universes did not leap forth into the world for the first time when Nick Fury offered to tell Tony Stark about The Avengers Initiative 10 years ago. Sequels, spinoffs and similar extensions have been around forever across all media. “Happy Days” was the starting point for an endless number of TV shows, as was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” There are any number of examples.
Star Wars has been at the forefront of that idea for 40+ years now. From the moment Splinter of the Minds Eye was published and the idea that those characters only existed in the stories told on film was punctured the Star Wars universe has done little but expand. There are countless books, audio originals and TV shows that have offered new stories, some of which follow the same core group we see in the films and some that take us down side roads to meet new characters.
The Expanded Universe, as it came to be known, really hit a stride with the 1991 publication of Heir to the Empire, the first novel from author Timothy Zahn in the “Thrawn Trilogy” that picked up years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The books and comics published between then and 2015 have been removed from canon and labeled “Legends” as Disney created a fresh continuity to go with the new films it produced. Characters have reappeared and some events made official, but anything carried over now needed to match with the new official record.
One of the criticisms leveled at Solo is that it makes the Star Wars Universe “feel small” by following characters we already know and trying too hard to segue into other movies. Both Solo and Rogue One basically act as lead-ins to A New Hope to varying degrees.
That might be true, but it’s also true that the overwhelming majority of the original Expanded Universe books and other stories feature additional stories featuring the same couple dozen characters we see featured in the original six movies. Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, Darth Vader, Yoda…they’re all over those novels and other media. Even the new canonical stories tend to stick with the familiar, occasionally branching out into side characters like Ahoska, Thrawn and others but still only rarely giving us something wholly new.
While the lens of the storyteller never moves far off the same heroes and villains seen in the movies, it certainly can’t be said that there aren’t plenty of stories to choose from.
And that’s where the position that Disney is going to kill the Star Wars franchise doesn’t have a plan falls apart when you don’t step back several dozen paces to consider that the movies, while certainly big (and expensive) content beats, are just one part of the Star Wars media plan.
Consider that Solo-related content is available now or coming soon to a number of Star Wars video games. Or that Qi’ra will be getting additional stories in the “Forces of Destiny” series of animated shorts. Or that there are more Han/Chewbacca/Lando stories in the Last Shot novel. Or that Beckett is getting his own one-shot comic.
Think about how the Catalyst story gave us more of Jinn Erso’s story. Or that Ahsoka provided the connective material between two cartoon series. Or that Poe Dameron has starred in his own comic for a while now.
Consider how many stories that might be to tell about L3 or Dreydon Voss. Or how there’s likely a lot to explore in Lando’s casual aside that Beckett is the one that killed Aurra Sing.
The possibilities here are endless. And the all start with the movies, taking characters introduced there in new directions and offering either further adventures that happen after the credits have rolled or jump backward to tell earlier stories.
In other words, if you’re thinking only of how the movies impact the movies, you’re missing out on the multimedia potential of the characters and situations featured there.
A while ago I wondered why so few franchises were embracing multimedia storytelling in an age when more and more people are bouncing between YouTube videos and podcasts and other media types. Even Marvel, held up as the gold standard when it comes to building a shared cinematic universe, hasn’t offered that many extensions of the characters and situations seen on film. There are prequel comics here and there that specifically take place in that universe, but nothing ongoing. Even the various Avengers cartoons don’t extend what happens in the movies, though they feature largely the same characters.
Star Wars – both before and after the Disney era – has done multimedia storytelling from the get-go. Sure, some stories aren’t great and some don’t *really* fit together, but that’s alright. Even lesser stories like The Courtship of Princess Leia and Masters of Teras Kasi have wound up at least being referenced later, adding new importance to what were originally seen as largely inessential entries. And let’s not forget that the events of the Prequels in many ways invalidate elements of the Original Trilogy.
The brand and character managers at Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries have always known how to take what’s introduced and offered in the movies and spin those characters and ideas off in different, variably engaging ways. So if you view the success of Solo exclusively from a financial perspective or feel it’s failed in some ways to broaden the universe you’re overlooking how it’s already outgrown the confines of the big screen and will likely continue to do so.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.