Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker closes the book on the Skywalker Saga, after over 40 years. It also marks 7 years under Disney, a period defined by big box-office successes, creative struggles, and a major role in shaping the company’s first streaming platform. (Lucas sold LucasFilm to Disney for over $4 billion dollars.) With one of Disney’s most valuable IPs coming to an ending point with The Rise of Skywalker, the next stages in the billion-dollar film franchise should be wide open, yet its future may lay elsewhere.
While TROS held the top spot in the box office during the busy Christmas period, last year’s Solo may have lost as much as $80 million. That’s got to be disconcerting for Disney, accustomed to making hundreds of millions on the latest Marvel movie. And the revolving door of Star Wars directors turns the vision for the franchise’s future into an open question.
Here’s one of the quandaries going forward: Lucasfilm executives say they’re moving away from trilogies — but that’s the only successful formula the franchise has ever known. The Marvel Cinematic Universe found its footing with a strategy that extends far beyond trilogies, with one-off superhero stories becoming an interconnected universe (that will include upcoming Disney+ shows). It disregarded the old expectations of what a franchise can do, and what it looks like. Can Star Wars do that, too?
Right now, it’s not clear what the generational space opera can do. J.J. Abrams’ second entry in the canon is a film that might be best remembered for its cultural divisiveness. While the box-office returns for TROS have been big, critics have never disliked Star Wars so much. Many slammed it as unimaginative and chock-full of fan service, although the fans are happy: While it has a 54 percent critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes a historic low (even lower than the much-maligned prequels), 86 percent percent of viewers gave it a favorable rating.
And yet the audience response couldn’t stave off some unsettling after-effects: Disney stock hit a three-day losing streak as those critical reviews trickled out. And while the film made $175.5 million in its three-day debut, $200 million was expected. Those first-weekend box office returns also placed it lower than its two predecessors, a shock considering that the film was designed to wrap up not only this latest trilogy, but also the nine-film franchise.
All of this was an about-face from The Last Jedi, which critics loved but made director Rian Johnson the most vilified person on twitter to diehards who complained at how he upended expectations created in the first Disney-era installment, the Abrams-directed The Force Awakens.
Throughout the Disney era of Star Wars, the one major constant has been Kathleen Kennedy, hand-chosen by Lucas to oversee Lucasfilm at the time of the $4 billion sale in 2012. “What we’ve been focused on these last five or six years is finishing that family saga around the Skywalkers,” Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. “Now is the time to start thinking about how to segue into something new and different.”
There have long been hints of what that “different” might be as Kennedy and company announced a slew of secretive new projects, but those have stalled out. Keeping filmmakers has been a newsworthy topic; Chris Lord and Phil Miller were fired from the standalone Solo (which sure seemed to be setting up sequels), while Gareth Edwards was replaced by Tony Gilroy on the one-off Rogue One. Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was initially set to direct The Rise of Skywalker, but Kennedy let him go in favor of returning Abrams to the fold. (To be fair Marvel has also has its share of director departures, including the recent Scott Derrickson from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness).
Earlier this year, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss dropped a planned Star Wars trilogy after signing a deal with Netflix. Kennedy, whose contract is up in 2021, later said that Lucasfilm would move away from trilogies in favor of movies shaped by stories, not structure — noting that while there is a rich Star Wars universe, there is no pre-determined material for future films. As of now, Lucasfilm doesn’t have another planned film release. There is a treasure trove of potential story in the extended universe, but so far Disney has allegedly stayed away from it. (Some characters and plot complications in the movies do echo some events in the novels, but they are still not considered canon.)
The perceived failure of Solo was blamed by Disney CEO Bob Iger on releasing too many movies too soon, but it also seemed to kill off hopes of reviving other beloved characters for their own features, including Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Boba Fett. Instead, those characters are rumored to be finding new life on the small screen.
Disney earned a major win this fall when it launched The Mandalorian on Disney+. The series please critics and fans alike, achieving the kind of cultural cache money can’t buy with the meme-ification of Baby Yoda. Helping make the launch of Disney+ a success, it cemented the service as the destination for all things Star Wars. Next up: prequel star Ewan McGregor returns for an Obi-Wan Kenobi series, and Diego Luna will resurrect his Rogue One character Cassian Andor for a prequel series.
And with that, it may be that Disney finds the answer to Star Wars’ future by looking within. The Mandalorian was created by Jon Favreau — who also guided Iron Man, The Jungle Book, and The Lion King to groundbreaking studio success. Favreau collaborated with Lucas’ own protégé Dave Filoni. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, who taught the world about stacking the calendar with superhero movies that connect as well as they stand on their own, is developing a new Star Wars film. With all that MCU energy, it’s possible Star Wars could find new success — or lose something in translation. But either way, it no longer has the luxury to figure this out on its own.