National Post (Latest Edition)
Bust from the past
Star Wars must start looking to the future
Solo: A Star Wars Story bombed at the box office this past weekend. Despite OK reviews (70 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and an acceptable reception from audiences (A-minus Cinemascore rating), Solo grossed just less than $85 million domestically over its first three days (almost 10 per cent worse than the opening frame for mega-bomb Justice League) and around $173 million worldwide over its first four days.
This is very, very bad! The question, then, is why did audiences stay away? Is it because Solo starred a man? Or, gasp, a generic white man? I suppose that’s possible! Though Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War (the third- and second-highest-grossing films of the year domestically, respectively) suggest that’s probably not the case. Let’s wait and see how Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, starring Chris Pratt, does before we make that call.
Release date has to be partly to blame: Why Disney decided to release this six months after The Last Jedi, and move away from the onemovie-every-December strategy that has worked so well thus far is a mystery, given the much fiercer competition for May box-office dollars. But Marvel movies seem to be holding up fine despite there having been three offerings with the Marvel logo released between mid-February and mid-May: The three top the domestic box-office chart for this year. So it does not appear to be a saturation issue.
It seems to be more specifically a Star Wars problem. I don’t necessarily buy the idea that audiences stayed away because The Last Jedi “ruined” their beloved characters, though I think the high-handed dismissiveness toward the concerns of these fans was more likely a damper on the box office than the suggestion that the series has gotten too “social justicey.” This is the flip side of the “too many white dudes” theory, and both strike me as silly.
So what is the problem with Star Wars, then? Why did The Last Jedi fail to meet expectations? Why is Solo cratering so drastically? Why does the franchise appear to be on a downward slope even as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, another Disney project, continues to rack up massive figures?
Allow me to suggest that the Disney-backed Star Wars films are simply too backwards looking, too focused on the past, too wrapped up in their own sense of nostalgia to continue appealing to audiences. Thus far the films have: remixed Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope with fanfic flair in service of a soft reboot; told the story of the effort to get the Death Star’s plans, thus turning a line of dialogue in the original film into a full feature; spent The Last Jedi undoing everything from The Force Awakens while also reducing the Resistance to sub-Rebellion size in order to recreate the sense from Episode IV that our heroes are truly underdogs; and, finally, spent two hours educating us about how Han Solo met Lando Calrissian and won the Millennium Falcon.
Meanwhile, we’ve been promised a whole trilogy of Solo films, been fed hints that a Boba Fett movie is in the works, and are eagerly awaiting a series from Jon Favreau set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Oh, and then there are the constant rumours of an Obi-Wan Kenobi movie starring Ewan McGregor.
We are constantly looking backwards with these movies; Lawrence Kasdan said Solo received its green light after he explained the scene in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) came up with his last name. Who could possibly care about this? When Darth Maul (Ray Park) showed up near the end of Solo, I was confused as to why he was alive (given that he was literally cut in half in The Phantom Menace) which in turn led to confusion about when, exactly, Solo was set. It is sloppy nostalgia-based fan service such as these little snippets that is turning people off the series.
(This gets into a larger problem with the inclusion of Darth Maul: It means that audiences will have to know what’s happening in the books and the cartoons and everything else in order to keep track of what’s happening on the big screen. Marvel has, wisely, avoided falling into this trap so far: Nothing outside the films is necessary to understand what is happening within the films.)
Eventually someone will listen to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the sole voice of reason in this whole blasted galaxy: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” I have my issues with the Marvel movies, but the folks in charge over there have the right idea: Each movie progresses the overall story; each feature furthers the ball down field a bit. They spent 10 years building toward an epic crossover event, Infinity War, and it paid off handsomely.
With Star Wars, there’s no similar sense of momentum. We jerk back and forth in time, retreating to stories we already know the resolution of even as the trilogy nominally moving everything forward seem mired in the past. Nostalgia is a potent drug, as the $2-billion box-office haul for The Force Awakens demonstrated. But it’s also one to which you build up a tolerance rather quickly.