A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the release of a Star Wars film was a planet-shaking event.
The sheer magnitude of The Phantom Menace's release in 1999 can't be overstated. Despite their negative critical reception, the prequel movies were a cultural event. After all, this was a time before reboots and continuations plastered media. Fans had to wait three years between films in a cycle. And after Revenge of the Sith, we had no idea if there were going to be any more Star Wars movies.
After the prequel films, the franchise continued with the critically acclaimed Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show. But Star Wars really had its rebirth in 2015 with The Force Awakens. As was the case with Phantom Menace, the film's release was another seismic event, with endless amounts of discussion regarding both plot points and whether or not J.J. Abrams restored the goodwill that the prequel trilogy had jettisoned with some fans.
And then a funny thing happened: we got more Star Wars. In a way unlike the fanbase had ever experienced before. There was no more epic wait between movies; under the Disney umbrella, Star Wars films became an annual thing. Since The Force Awakens' release in 2015, Disney has also released the standalone Rogue One, the episodic The Last Jedi, and, most recently, Solo.
Even more Star Wars is on the horizon: In addition to Episode IX of the ongoing Skywalker episodic films, Disney recently announced two new trilogies, a standalone Boba Fett movie from Logan director James Mangold, a new animated series, and a live-action TV show. There have also been lots of hints about a possible standalone Obi-Wan Kenobi movie, and a possible Lando movie.
To go from three-year film cycles to this firehose of content is jarring. And it's taken a few years for it to sink in, but the truth of the matter is this: Star Wars may still be the biggest media franchise around, but it's no longer special. As the volume of Star Wars media has increased, culturally transcendent events have turned into mere fan events.
By becoming more commonplace, Star Wars has entered a phase where each new entry does not carry the weight of enormous expectations. Instead, with each successive annual release, there is a new normal established for the franchise, and this standard creates breathing room to experiment, push boundaries, and simply think differently about the galaxy far, far away.
Now, for every push outward into something new and different, there's an opportunity to release something straightforward that feels like a return to the series' roots. The plainest evidence of this lies in the recent release of Solo.
The Force Awakens was essentially the safest way to re-open the Star Wars universe. The plot lifted many of its beats from the initial film, involved the beloved original trilogy actors, and didn't introduce anything new or controversial. Rogue One, though, represented a major tonal shift for the franchise, grittier and tougher than ever before. The Last Jedi's boldness in both storytelling and presentation has been hotly debated, but everyone can agree that it was truly unique in the series canon.
And yet Solo comes into the market with a story that might be even tonally safer than The Force Awakens. It's a comic heist with thrilling action, bravado, and heart, told in a straightforward style without Rogue One’s sense of doom or The Last Jedi’s audience-challenging tactics.
With Solo, Disney has essentially completed a full cycle of tonal shifts, returning to the familiar ground of “fun space movie." Based on reports of tension between original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and Lucasfilm’s brass, this tonal reset was intentional all along, even before Ron Howard took over. By doing so, the company has established that a Star Wars film no longer needs to carry the expectations of every segment of the fan base. Instead, there will be enough material for fans to gravitate more towards one piece over another.
Will this work over the long term? Disney certainly has a template for success with the extremely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel films didn't originally come with the same crushing expectations of a Star Wars movie. When the first Iron Man and Thor films released, the discourse around them was a mere blip compared to the fervor surrounding The Phantom Menace or The Force Awakens. But as the MCU evolved, Disney has shown how to successfully build and maintain the fan base while mitigating potential oversaturation and burnout. They've managed to achieve this through a few different strategies.
Offering something for everyone: Every Marvel movie is financially successful, some more than others. But some will create a cultural impact (Black Panther) and some are just Saturday night entertainment (Ant-Man). Because MCU media has become so commonplace, with two to three new films a year in addition to the Netflix series, the collective footprint of the universe is greater than ever but the individual elements don't carry the same cultural weight. For the most part, every movie and series is allowed to be just a movie or series, rather than a generational event.
A willingness to experiment: In broad strokes, the Marvel films have some measure of consistency in tone and storytelling. Marvel's formula blends self-aware humor with character focus and epic action. However, the writers and directors have also been given leeway to shift the overall tone of films, meaning the same cinematic universe has movies that are thrillers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), in addition to delightfully surreal fantasies (Thor: Ragnarok). This diverse palette keeps the universe from getting stale and allows fans to enjoy different elements, in addition to different characters.
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Cultural events still matter: The MCU also has tentpole events, pieces that are significant to the overall canon—namely, the Avengers crossover films. It's still to be determined how Disney could adapt this aspect of the MCU strategy for the Star Wars universe. Perhaps true episodic films will serve the same purpose in Star Wars as the Avengers movies do to the MCU, offering consistency amidst other content that dips into various parts of the Star Wars mythos.
Perhaps Star Wars will evolve to have crossover movie events, with elements planted from standalone stories and the upcoming non-episodic trilogies coming together. Whatever form they appear in, the MCU's success shows these types of hypable events boost the entire franchise and can reinvigorate a fan base.
Quality: A quick look at the Rotten Tomatoes score for the MCU shows that there have been no flat-out duds when it comes to quality. Nothing derails franchise momentum faster than a dud of a film—see the disastrous DC cinematic universe and the failure of Justice League for the biggest example of this. By maintaining quality control, the franchise demonstrates longevity and sustainability.
Solo has underperformed at the box office, but it hardly qualifies as a dud. The movie had a number of things going against it: a long trail of bad buzz, a tight May schedule surrounded by superhero movies, and it was released a mere six months after The Last Jedi, instead of in Star Wars' typical December slot.
However, if Marvel has demonstrated anything, it's that a disappointing-but-viable box office is something that can be shaken off by maintaining the strategies above.
And for the section of fans that want Star Wars to feel tonally more like what is expected from the franchise, Solo may have longevity long beyond the opening box office. That is probably the biggest victory of Solo. After the experimental elements of Rogue One and The Last Jedi, a straightforward space western starring a scoundrel, his best buddy, and a walking carpet can still tells fans, as an elder Han Solo would say, “we’re home.”
Featured still from Solo: A Star Wars Story via Lucasfilm.