Why ‘Star Wars’ Still Needs Movies

Barbara Merkley

The Book of Boba Fett’s finale was only hours old on Wednesday when Disney announced that its next live-action Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, would be coming May 25. Obi-Wan will be followed later this year by the debut of Rogue One prequel series Andor, and The Mandalorian’s third season, which is in production now, will likely arrive in December. The Book of Boba Fett was itself announced in a stinger that followed The Mandalorian’s second-season finale, setting a promotional pattern: As soon as one Star Wars series ends, Disney begins building hype for another.

That represents a radical change for the franchise. Star Wars went 42 years without a live-action TV series before The Mandalorian debuted in November 2019, but four such series will likely air this year alone, with Ahsoka, The Acolyte, and Lando lined up after that. That’s not counting animated series such as The Bad Batch—the second season of which is also scheduled for this spring—and Visions. Lucasfilm is pumping out TV content at a pace that prevents the twin suns from ever setting on Disney’s Star Wars streaming empire for more than a few months.

Which makes it extra conspicuous that more than two years after the release of the most recent Star Wars film, we still don’t know what the next one will be or when we’ll see it. Patty Jenkins’s Rogue Squadron was supposed to enter production this year, but the project was delayed indefinitely late last year, jeopardizing its originally announced December 22, 2023, release date (and, perhaps, the timelines of the undisclosed films that were slated to follow in December 2025 and December 2027). Thanks to a multitude of factors—the disappointing public and critical responses to and (by Star Wars standards) box-office performances of the last two films in the franchise, Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Rise of Skywalker; Lucasfilm’s recent track record of parting ways with directors over creative differences; the burden of deciding how to follow the trilogy of trilogies that composed the Skywalker saga; Disney’s desire to drive subscriptions to its streaming service, Disney+; the spinoff-spawning success of The Mandalorian; and the movie backlog caused by COVID-19—the epicenter of the franchise has shifted rapidly and decisively from big screen to small, redefining how fans consume Star Wars.

It’s not as if Lucasfilm has sworn off films forever: In addition to Rogue One, Star Wars films from Taika Waititi, Kevin Feige, and J.D. Dillard are or were in development, though no details about their subjects or schedules have surfaced in the years since they were announced. An animated movie featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO, Star Wars: A Droid Story, will premiere at some point on Disney+. There’s also a potential trilogy in the pipeline from The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, which was first announced in 2017, but there’s been no update from Johnson (who has his hands full with a different trilogy) for a year, and a report late last year suggested that his Star Wars work has been shelved.

Because Disney still hasn’t divulged ETAs or synopses for any of its possible Skywalker saga successors, the future of Star Wars moviemaking, at least from a public perspective, remains as amorphous as it’s been since George Lucas sold the franchise almost a decade ago. It’s true that the ascendance of streaming has blurred the lines between TV and movies in terms of both form and function, which may make the distinction between Star Wars series and movies seem immaterial. It’s also true that compared to past dry spells, Star Wars fans have it pretty great right now, with or without movies. But The Book of Boba Fett helps illustrate the cost of investing in only one way of telling noninteractive Star Wars stories on screen. For the following five reasons, Star Wars would still be well-served by diversifying its on-screen portfolio and bringing back the balance between TV shows and films.

Some stories make more sense as movies

“We are not suited for this,” Boba Fett tells Fennec Shand in the finale of The Book of Boba Fett. He’s talking about being a publicly lauded leader, but he could have been referring to the fact that Fett—a character famous mainly for looking cool—always seemed a dubious choice to anchor a project that existed separate from The Mandalorian, a series inspired by Fett in the first place. As it turned out, Book of Boba wasn’t separate from the flagship show: The last three of its seven episodes prominently or exclusively featured The Mandalorian’s leading duo, Din Djarin and Grogu, and their extended screen time came at Fett’s expense. The Djarin (and jarring) midseason pivot produced the season’s best episodes—and, according to Parrot Analytics, a media-tracking company that measures audience demand, caused viewer interest to spike by 40 percent—but it also sabotaged the part of the series that was actually about Boba, producing a disjointed and ultimately unfulfilling hybrid. Disney’s mistake may have been making a spinoff series at all. It’s said that many time-consuming meetings “could have been an email.” I’d argue that The Book of Boba Fett could have—and possibly should have—been a movie.

In fact, it (or something like it) almost was one. When Disney announced plans nine years ago to make a number of Star Wars spinoff films, one of the first two reported was a movie about Boba Fett. Josh Trank was attached to direct, but the troubled production of his Fantastic Four flop ended that idea. As late as May 2018—the month Solo came out—a Boba Fett film was reportedly en route from Logan’s James Mangold and former Trank collaborator (and X-Men writer-producer) Simon Kinberg, but the reception to Solo seemingly changed that.

Whether because the movie came out only six months after the divisive The Last Jedi, or because original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired and replaced by Ron Howard, or because audiences didn’t accept Alden Ehrenreich as young Han Solo, or because “Han Solo’s origin story” wasn’t that compelling a pitch in the first place, Solo’s hyperdrive didn’t engage. Although inaugural spinoff film Rogue One had been a box-office hit and turned a tidy profit in 2016, Solo grossed a little more than $200 million domestically and less than $400 million worldwide in 2018, and it reportedly posted a substantial loss. In June 2018, Collider reported that all spinoff films had been put on hold, and although Lucasfilm initially characterized the report as inaccurate, then-Disney CEO Bob Iger soon admitted to a “slowdown” in the pace of Star Wars films. The planned Boba Fett and Obi-Wan movies would morph into streaming series instead (after significant delays and rewrites, in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s case).

It’s unfortunate that Solo seemingly nixed the concept of Star Wars anthology films, for two reasons. For one thing, Rogue One was great—if not exactly a stand-alone story—and Solo was fun for what it was: a low-stakes, semi-stand-alone, and endearingly quirky origin story that didn’t aspire to be more than a popcorn-munching movie. I’d happily watch more movies like those. What’s more, it can’t be the case that every Star Wars story worth telling is best suited to an episodic series; only Sith deal in absolutes. It’s possible that some worthy tales aren’t getting told because they don’t lend themselves to six-to-eight-episode seasons. It’s also possible that some Star Wars stories are being stretched to fit the TV format and suffering for it—a common complaint about Peak TV—rather than assuming a more natural shape as one-time, two-hour events.

Making The Book of Boba Fett a movie wouldn’t have fixed all its flaws. Some aspects of Fett’s story were actually underserved, and Boba’s muddled motivations wouldn’t have held water at any length without reworking. But it’s possible that the post-sarlacc life of a character who had four lines in the original trilogy simply lacked the substance for the five episodes that featured Fett, let alone the seven in the season. It’s easy to envision a tighter, two-ish-hour version of Fett’s story that springs him from the sarlacc pit, has him commune with the Tuskens, gives him goals that are easily explicable, and lets him complete a coherent character arc while trimming the loose ends, red herrings, and interminable Tatooine walking/biking tours that slowed the spinoff’s pace. Grogu and Din could have gotten back together in the third season of The Mandalorian rather than having their reunion shoehorned into a battle that barely concerned them, and Boba still would’ve been available to come off the bench for future adventures.

It doesn’t seem sensible for Star Wars to shunt every project to TV while corporate cousin Marvel churns out TV series and blockbuster films, assigning stories to one lane or the other depending on fan interest, story requirements, and openings on the MCU’s content conveyor belt. Star Wars should be doing the same—not just because that approach is working well for Marvel, but because it makes the most sense for the franchise’s shared universe.

Star Wars is synonymous with movies (and trilogies)

Let’s play a little word association: If I say “Star Wars,” how far from the tip of your tongue is the word “trilogy”? Not too far, right? For decades, Star Wars was most prominently a tale told in trilogies: original, prequel, and sequel. Even the books that helped kickstart the Star Wars Expanded Universe took trilogy form, because that’s what Star Wars was.

The franchise’s longtime devotion to trilogies had its drawbacks. Just as not every story is suited to episodic TV, not every story is suited to a three-part, six-hour trilogy (let alone a nonology). That’s why the one-off films felt freeing while they lasted: In theory, big-screen Star Wars stories no longer had to be about the Skywalkers, the Jedi, or the fate of the galaxy (though both Rogue One and Solo slipped in a Sith Lord at the end). The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett have gone back to the Skywalker well for an episode apiece, but they and other upcoming projects offer potential platforms for stories that exist inside the Star Wars universe without necessarily altering its trajectory the way a trilogy would.

It’s nice to have the space to tell smaller-scale stories than the trilogies allowed. But as the meme says, why don’t we have both? In an incredibly cluttered cultural landscape, there’s something to be said for brand awareness and repeating trademark moves. It’s easier for Star Wars to cut through the static of Peak TV and exponential franchise expansion than it is for any piece of original IP, but it’s still handy for a franchise to have a signature style that stands out from the pack. DC and Marvel don’t do trilogies. Neither do Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and James Bond. Star Wars carved out a corner on a crowded street, and it doesn’t have to surrender that recognizable, lucrative territory to try new things.

In some respects, Star Trek may be the mirror-universe version of its younger and more bombastic rival, but the two titans of sci-fi are plotting similar streaming courses. The Star Trek film franchise has been on hold since the Solo-esque release of 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, though a new installment is scheduled for December 2023. But Star Trek was a TV franchise long before its first film. It’s only logical for Trek to keep expanding on the small screen. (And man, is it ever expanding: There are about to be as many Star Trek TV series running simultaneously as there were in the whole history of the franchise prior to 2017.) Star Trek is leaning into its sweet spot, while also exploring other options. Star Wars should too. But that would take a different form for a franchise that made its name via movies than one that got big in broadcast syndication.

Episodic series may be in the best interests of Disney, whose streaming service keeps surging even as other streamers stall. But big movies that debut on streaming services can bolster subscriber counts too, at least temporarily. And even the TV incarnations of Star Wars are inextricably tied to the movies in the IP’s past. A lot of the leads of the live-action shows—Boba, Obi-Wan, Cassian Andor, Lando—are characters from the movies, in most or all cases played by actors who first entered the Star Wars orbit through the movies. Even Mando and Grogu were designed to look like and remind fans of movie characters. Star Wars would be nothing without the movies that launched it, and Lucasfilm—it’s right there in the name!—will never leave that legacy behind. Nor should it want to: The studio should still be in the business of making Lucas-inspired films—not exclusively, but in tandem with TV. Midnight streaming can’t compete with midnight screenings, complete with costumes and lines around the block.

New movies would help heal old wounds

Speaking of leaving legacies behind: It’s OK to kill the past in some cases, or at least to try. From my point of view, The Rise of Skywalker disappointed in part because it couldn’t let go of the old days. Rehashing A New Hope in The Force Awakens as a way of reestablishing Star Wars in theaters was one thing; doubling down on derivation in the climactic movie was another. Your mileage may have varied. If you’re about to close this tab or tweet at me because you think The Last Jedi was the weakest link of the sequel trilogy, let’s stop the cycle now and deactivate our sabers instead of trying to strike each other down. When it comes to the Star Wars sequel trilogy, partisan sorting has run its course.

And that’s the point. Whether you’re aligned with the Little-Endians or Big-Endians in this still-raging debate, neither side will gain the high ground by exhuming old arguments. Whichever one you prefer—assuming you don’t dislike both of them—The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker are still trending topics too often, even years after the worst of the what-ifs, toxic and tiresome flame wars, and saturation review-bombing. Even the greatness of Grogu hasn’t silenced the spats over movies that are living rent-free in fans’ minds. Even if you think The Rise of Skywalker was unfairly maligned, it’s inarguable that in some respects, the sequel trilogy ended on a down note, with the lowest box-office take of the trilogy and the lowest CinemaScore and Rotten Tomatoes critic score of any live-action Star Wars film. (OK, technically the latter is now tied for the lowest, neck and neck with The Phantom Menace.) The only way to clear our minds of this morass and stop talking about the trilogy until enough time has gone by for passions to die down and critical reevaluations to occur is to replace those movies with more recent ones. At the very least, Lucasfilm, give us something else to be angry about.

Prequels can be confining

One reason the last leg of the Skywalker saga keeps coming up is that The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and even The Bad Batch have dredged up divisive subjects by alluding to Luke’s Jedi academy, Palpatine’s cloning program, and the First Order’s origins. Maybe that’s because Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are trying to retroactively make the last trilogy more palatable by laying the groundwork for plot points that weren’t explained to everyone’s (or anyone’s) satisfaction in the sequels, such as how Luke grew disillusioned with the Jedi, how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire, and how somehow, Palpatine returned.

Maybe, though, Favreau and Filoni don’t have an agenda. Maybe they’re simply playing the cards they were dealt. The Mandalorian and its small-screen satellites all take place between trilogies: We know what came before them, and we know what happens after them. To some extent, then, they’re hemmed in, unable to avoid bumping up against one era or another. As Favreau said last year, “The Mandalorian inherits a great deal from existing Star Wars stories, and when I write, that context is always a consideration. It became clear that, within the established continuity, certain things were likely to transpire. … Dave Filoni and I are in constant discussion regarding how each story choice is impacted by, and would impact, existing Star Wars material.”

If you think about it, it’s absolutely baffling that every active Star Wars story is a different flavor of prequel. Most superhero stories take place in a perpetual present, employing a sliding timescale that’s partly pegged to our present. Events in Marvel’s Modern Age don’t advance quite as quickly as they do on Earth-1218, but almost everything that happens in a Marvel comic or movie is the last word in world-building. Yet every current canonical book, comic, video game, and TV series in Star Wars is a prelude to the sequel trilogy, whether it takes place during one of the earlier trilogies or in the gaps between.

In some respects, prequels are inherently limiting. It’s not that clever creators can’t tell inventive, engaging stories within those constraints. But why impose such constraints at all? Star Wars isn’t Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, whose adapters tend to go back in time because that’s where the choicest source material lies. Star Wars makes up its story as it goes along. Except that it isn’t going along. It’s lingering within a few well-worn grooves in the timeline, or even rewinding hundreds of years to a time even longer, longer ago. Again, just as there’s room within Star Wars for TV series and films, for anthologies and trilogies, for minor movies and epics, there’s room for more stories set in the distant and recent past. But why wall off the future?

It’s time for the franchise to move forward

That brings us to the last reason why Star Wars still needs movies: It’s time to stake out a new swath of the timeline, one that picks up where (or well after) the sequel trilogy left off. Historically, the Star Wars trilogies have broken new narrative ground and defined distinct eras that a host of ancillary stories have further explored. An ambitious blockbuster—or series of blockbusters—might be just what Star Wars needs to turn the page. Yet the only indication thus far that Lucasfilm has concrete plans to push forward from The Rise of Skywalker is the December 2020 announcement of Rogue Squadron, which teased “a new generation of starfighter pilots” who would “move the saga into the future era of the galaxy.” And even that might have referred to the “future” relative to the original trilogy’s Rogue Squadron, which would still be in the past compared to the sequel trilogy.

The most optimistic interpretation of the lengthy lull in movie news since the sequel trilogy is that Lucasfilm learned its lesson from those rushed and rudderless—or maybe too rudder-full?—films, which suffered from a lack of planning and coordination between creators whose visions for the story didn’t always mesh well with each other. In the wake of The Rise of Skywalker, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy spoke repeatedly about taking time to pave a path forward that wouldn’t be beholden to the Skywalker saga. In planning its future, perhaps the company could take a page from its past and emulate the New Jedi Order, a since-decanonized sequence of 19 bestselling novels and several supplementary stories published by Del Rey between 1999 and 2003.

The sweeping series, which was set 21 years after Return of the Jedi and chronicled the invasion of the Star Wars galaxy by a race of religious zealots called the Yuuzhan Vong, was conceived by members of Del Rey, Lucasfilm, and Dark Horse Comics, who helped plan and organize the work of 12 authors. Lucas laid down some ground rules—they couldn’t kill Luke, though they could kill Chewbacca—but the writers had a lot of latitude to push Star Wars forward both in time and in tone. “The group decided that the NJO stories should be more original,” says former Del Rey Editor at Large Shelly Shapiro, one of the NJO’s architects. “We all agreed that we wanted to avoid what we saw had become two overdone tropes in the Star Wars publishing universe: The ‘Solo kids get in trouble then save the day’ story line, and the ‘superweapon of the month’ story line.”

The NJO series, which set a precedent for future multiauthor efforts and timeline fast-forwards, was in some respects a bizarro sequel trilogy: laid out in advance, carefully coordinated, and purposely boundary breaking. “Because my department back then was small and we had creative control over all the books and comics (subject to big-picture questions George Lucas would review), and because we had excellent editors to work with at both Ballantine and Dark Horse, it was a lot of fun and relatively easy to turn the idea into reality and to coordinate all the pieces,” says another NJO engineer, former Lucasfilm Director of Publishing Lucy Autrey Wilson. “My guess is there are more people involved in creative decision-making at Lucasfilm now, which might make it a lot harder to pull off something like what we did back then with a smaller team.”

Harder, maybe, but not impossible. Before the next Star Wars movies can walk, they just have to opening crawl.

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