In 2015, the world held their breath as Star Wars: The Force Awakens rolled into cinemas, after over a decade without a feature release and the promise that the original cast would return to the roles that defined a genre. That movie went on to become the highest grossing film in the United States of all time earning $936,662,225 million (unadjusted for inflation), a record still yet to be broken. The stage was set for a new era of Star Wars domination. The fans were on side, and Disney were guiding the franchise away from the turbulent direction the prequels suggested and towards a future where critical and commercial success were all but guaranteed.
Flash forward to 2020 and The Rise of Skywalker will end its run just across Billion dollar mark worldwide (compared with the two billion for Episode XII), and will end up domestically just above 500 million. For any other blockbuster, this is a win. But this is Star Wars. This is the franchise where only five years ago, everyone and their mother was storming the cinemas to see the latest entry.
It’s clear that under the stewardship of Disney, the Star Wars brand has become a thing of confusion and chaos. This new trilogy, one which showed such promise, ended with a messy and seemingly improvised thud. Every week, news breaks from Lucasfilm that a new disaster has befallen the franchise (this week’s involved the strange indefinite postponement of the Obi Wan Kenobi Disney + series). Kathleen Kennedy’s camp is burning, and the brand is becoming more and more damaged the more they try and tame the fire.
So what happened? And will it be fixed? Is it even possible? Cracks began to form the moment that Luke Skywalker tossed the lightsaber into the ocean at the beginning of The Last Jedi. It was the moment that launched a wave of grief stricken fans to trash the film into oblivion. Everything that followed, from the bizarre Leia flying through space scene, to the inclusion of Rose Tico and Vice Admiral Holdo (all of which I happened to love), was just another nail in the coffin. To the diehard fans, Rian Johnson had KILLED Star Wars (shakes fist).
(Poor Laura Dern received an intense backlash for playing a female character who dared to tell a male one what to do)
All jokes aside, The Last Jedi was the turning point in the narrative. Fans were outraged at the idea that Luke was anything but a hero, and in fairness, plot twists such as (*SPOILERS*) Snoke’s death meant that plot points built up in The Force Awakens to last the whole trilogy were sidelined. Critics have celebrated Rian Johnson’s innovation and risk taking. Heck I think that The Last Jedi is the best entry in the new trilogy, however the problems with The Rise of Skywalker are in part due to the deviations that Johnson made, spinning the trajectory of Episode VII out of control.
Thus, in 2017, the fandom was officially divided, and the current state of regression that the franchise finds itself in today started to show its face. Enter Solo: A Star Wars Story, also known as, the first real Star Wars box office flop. Coming less than a year after The Last Jedi, the Han Solo spinoff was the perfect opportunity for spited fans to inflict their revenge, Sith style. Poor Solo didn’t stand a chance, and poor word of mouth, coupled with many “why do we need this?” comments meant that the film was subjected $393.2 million worldwide, the lowest of any entry. At this stage, Lucasfilm was in a state of damage control. Spinoffs were put on hold, JJ Abrams was brought on to direct Episode IX (in order to attempt to recapture the lightning on a bottle moment of The Force Awakens) and fans were distracted with flashy announcements of streaming shows on the horizon, including the newly released The Mandalorian.
(Alden Ehrenreich doing his best Harrison Ford impersonation)
But even with the success of that project (The Mandalorian has sparked numerous rave reviews on social media and a killer average score on IMDB), this wasn’t enough to make The Rise of Skywalker the event film it was destined to be. The brand is too deeply damaged. The critical reception didn’t help (a measly 52% on Rotten Tomatoes) but the divide between critics and audiences was so stark in The Last Jedi that I’m unsure of whether general audiences care what reviews have to say. The lack of success of this entry is surely down to the decline of the brand and anger over the direction over the story.
So what next for Star Wars? Is everything lost? I’m not so sure. There’s still an immense amount of love for the characters and The Mandalorian has shown that the fandom aren’t completely turned off from the world. Part of the success of the show isn’t simply its story but the creative team behind it. The reaction to Jon Favreau guiding the story has led to calls for him to take over from Kennedy and the work of breakout director Deborah Chow and Marvel favourite Taika Waititi has led to speculation over their directorial futures within the franchise.
The next decade will be the arbiter of Star Wars’ future. Only time will tell whether it can rebuilt its image and be the biggest franchise in the galaxy again.