Even though Star Wars has become one of the world’s biggest franchises since its 1977 debut, it is safe to say that the universe has experienced troubled times over the last twenty years. The runaway hit space opera, created by George Lucas, brought the galaxy far, far away to our screens and gave us iconic characters such as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and fan-favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett.
The famous first film went on to spawn two highly successful sequels – Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VII – Return of the Jedi (1983) – which now make up what is colloquially known as the “original trilogy”.
George Lucas then went on to write and direct the prequel trilogy, starting with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) and leading to the subsequent films Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).
It’s clear that these films didn’t satiate all of the fandom’s expectations for the highly anticipated return to the Star Wars saga, but they have become more palatable with age and many are looking forward to Hayden Christensen’s return as Darth Vader in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+.
When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, fans weren’t sure what to expect moving forward. However, Star Wars has seen commercial success since its Disney takeover, with standalone movies like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), which saw Felicity Jones take on the female lead Jyn Erso in her attempt to hinder the Empire’s plans for galactic domination.
The film – which exists in the timeline right before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope – saw the highly secretive, now revolutionary, return of a young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia via CGI de-aging technology. And, then in 2018, we saw the release of Han Solo origin story, Solo: A Star Wars Story, which detailed the early life of the space smuggler and brought Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian into the mix alongside his droid partner L3-37, played by the acerbic Pheobe Waller-Bridge. Although Solo did not have box office success, director Ron Howard has spoken about the passionate fan base that developed after the film’s release.
Before these films became part of the existing Star Wars canon, Lucasfilm had already put out the first entry of the sequel trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), which spawned new heroes when it introduced Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). It also introduced the newest dark villain, Knights of Ren leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Gwendoline Christie’s stormtrooper commander, Captain Phasma. The Force Awakens – which was The Walt Disney Company’s first Star Wars outing – became a commercial and critical success, grossing over $2 billion at the worldwide box office and setting high hopes for the sequel.
Disney and Lucasfilm’s partnership should have been a match made in heaven. When Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy took the reins of the Lucas helmed movie studio and combined it with Disney’s power, the sequel trilogy could have gone on to do what the prequel trilogy failed to do (but, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s The Mandalorian has amazingly done) — uniting the almost four-decade old Star Wars fandom.
Things looked bright after The Force Awakens release, but then the sequel, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) released and tore the universe apart. To this day, The Last Jedi is often the most talked about entry in the Skywalker Saga’s sequel trilogy. Some love its deviation from the traditional Star Wars formula, while some despised everything about it. Most lay the blame at director Rian Johnson’s feet. But, a director only has so much power. The blame should lay with Disney.
The quick transition of power from George Lucas to Disney in the $4 billion Lucasfilm buyout in 2012 could have been the trigger for the sequel trilogies lackluster success. Lucas made it clear that he had plans for a sequel trilogy and wished for original stars, Hamill, Ford and Fisher, to return as their Star Wars counterparts.
The muddled start of the trilogy began with the hiring of J. J. Abrams as director, who wasn’t approached to direct the sequels until after production began on The Force Awakens, leading him to turn the position down. The leadership of the sequel would be Rian Johnson’s problem, now.
Star Wars has a history of not being fully fleshed out before production begins. George Lucas had no idea his Western-style space movie would become a global hit, leading him to seek refuge in Hawaii and ultimately going on to create the Indiana Jones franchise with Steven Spielberg. Although The Force Awakens was a commercial success, it would be lazy not to recognize its familiarity with A New Hope — a desert planet, an unknown hero in the making, a black-armor clad villain.
Johnson played with fan expectations in a way that many fans reacted in shock and horror. His killing of Supreme Leader Snoke and Hamill’s snarky Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, gave the series a much-needed jolt, and his reveal of Rey’s uninteresting parentage shattered a Luke Skywalker father-daughter theory. JJ Abrams — who came back for the conclusion, The Rise of Skywalker, after Jurassic World’s director, Colin Trevorrow was fired — destroyed Johnson’s setup for a true unlikely hero arc, by relating Rey to the Saga’s ultimate villain, Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid). It was this film that would go onto being widely panned and accused of negating Johnson’s The Last Jedi, and in the wake of the sequel trilogy’s conclusion, fans sought for an immediate resignation from President Kathleen Kennedy, who, in the end, was kept on as the Lucasfilm leader.
So, Rian Johnson aimed to not only build on the excitement established by Abrams’s sequel launch, but to inject a sense of new into the Star Wars franchise, and brought characters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) into the universe. Yes, it did partly backfire, causing immense rifts in the fandom, but his creativity shouldn’t be at fault. When boiled down, the main issues lie with the back-and-forth irregular plotting. If The Walt Disney Company and Lucasfilm’s powerhouse teamwork had established the movies as a cohesive and original, yet fan-satisfying, trilogy from the outset, it wouldn’t matter how the directors adapt the material, there would still be a level of consistency throughout for the audience to cling to.
It’s not over for Star Wars, and probably never will be. Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm saw huge critical and commercial success — albeit slightly controversial thanks to Gina Carano — with its launch of Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian on Disney+, which has gone onto spawn multiple television event-series for the franchise, such as The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The latter, of course, will bring back Ewan McGregor in the title role and Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, as we previously noted.
And, in a way, that seems like Lucasfilm wants to heal the fan fissure, there is a rumored Rian Johnson directed Star Wars trilogy still in the works. Maybe his unconventional storytelling will see fans universally hail him, or maybe it will stick a spade in the hole and make it even bigger.
What did you think of The Last Jedi?