The hype for Solo: A Star Wars Story is building and it’s hard to not want to get on board – the OT setting, Oscar-winning director and the fact that it’s yet another Star Wars movie for our eyes and brains to appreciate are all compelling reasons to book tickets for the day of release (May 25th, AKA the real Star Wars day).
But with Solo coming out so soon after The Last Jedi, the spin-off finds itself in a precarious position. Despite the production dramas and the fact that most observers have seen Ron Howard’s prequel as somewhat of a pointless project, this is fast becoming the story that will define the short to medium term future of Disney’s Star Wars.
Leaving aside subjective reactions to The Last Jedi’s depiction of Luke Skywalker, and more objectively, its hole-ridden plot, poor pacing and questionable position as a sequel, the fan reaction to Rian Johnson’s film will have set alarm bells ringing for Disney for one reason and one reason alone – money.
Despite a stellar opening at the box office, The Last Jedi proved to have less legs than Darth Vader. It never recovered from a 67% drop after the first week of release (by comparison The Force Awakens dropped just 39% in its first seven days) and sank without trace in China. In total in made $700 million less than The Force Awakens, with some estimates putting that at 46% less profit for Disney than its predecessor.
While fans of The Last Jedi will point out that the film was still a huge financial success (and it unquestionably was), the hype and momentum that the Star Wars brand carried at the point of the film’s release are a large part of the reason why. The Force Awakens was huge at the box office (further proving that the art of storytelling is redundant to commercial success), while the quality of Rogue One did enough to persuade dissenters to give Lucasfilm the benefit of the doubt for Episode VIII. The total figure earned is one thing, but the powers that be at Disney will be all too aware of the importance of how that figure was earned – the film’s actual performance over time and the reaction of the fan base becoming significant factors. When the merchandise sales are factored in (possibly demonstrating how poorly the film fared with kids and collectors, the truly hardcore Star Wars fans), there will undoubtedly be some concerns about the future of Disney’s $4 billion investment.
Given the front-loaded success of The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story is the fandom’s first opportunity to show Lucasfilm how they feel about the series right now – and that may not be positive.
The much-publicised production troubles have already lowered expectations, while the snippets we’ve seen of Alden Ehrenreich’s performance suggest he will struggle to match the high heights of Harrison Ford’s charisma. With the small lead in time from The Last Jedi to launch the marketing campaign it’s a film that casual moviegoers are not primed for; or at least that’s my subjective understanding from the non-Star Wars fan cinephiles I’ve spoken to.
Furthermore, as a fan occupying the all-important ‘Star Wars as storytelling’ point of view (at least it’s important to me, even if the box office suggests I’m in the minority), Solo is a tough sell. The Force Awakens suggested that scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s best days are behind him, in no small part due to the disposal of Han Solo’s arc in a way that utterly belittled the character. Combining the writer and character once more on a prequel project that few can see the point to is hardly a mouth-watering proposal, even without the context of The Last Jedi.
Yet similar concerns to all of the above could be dropped against Rogue One, the first Star Wars spin-off – and look at how that turned out.
I’ve waxed on about why I rate Gareth Johnson’s film so highly and it’s an opinion shared by many fans, both casual and committed – it’s a solid, emotional journey that delivers the best kind of Star Wars. Solo has every chance of doing this again, albeit with a few more expectations to meet given the characters involved (it’s worth noting that by ‘expectations’ I don’t mean anticipated plot points, I mean a set of expected behaviours from established characters and lore – in discussions about the ST these two distinct measurements are often conflated).
There are almost as many reasons to be positive for Solo as there are for trepidation, and honestly it’s a really tough situation to call. Disney will know that a financial drop for Solo will have as much to do with The Last Jedi, the film’s status as a spin-off and its limited marketing as much as it does its own merits, regardless of how commentators may spin it. But if the film is a hit with the fandom, especially if it’s as successful a Star Wars film as Rogue One, then it may just point the direction for the immediate future of the franchise.
This doesn’t necessarily mean more OT, Darth Vader cameos and new kinds of Stormtrooper (although all of these are good). But a break from saga stories and the unfocused ST could be legitimate conclusions.
Honestly, I’m a Star Wars fan. I want the films to be good almost as much as I want them to keep adhering to and building on the world that George Lucas created, because those are why we’re fans in the first place. If Solo succeeds then we’re in the unprecedented position where the spin-offs provide a better Star Wars experience than the main story – but at least that means we’ll still have recognisable Star Wars to enjoy. However, if Solo doesn’t fly with the fans then Lucasfilm is going to be in some real trouble.
Far from being a pointless side quest, Solo: A Star Wars Story may end up being the most important Star Wars film that Disney has made.