For the first time, the Star Wars franchise doesn’t feel invincible. Solo: A Star Wars Story had a dismal opening weekend over the Memorial Day holiday, grossing $83.3 million domestically over the three-day period, and just north of $100 million for the full four days. The film didn’t fare any better overseas, sputtering at $65 million total in every major market except Japan, where Solo won’t open until June 29.
It sounds weird to call a movie that makes over $100 million in its opening weekend a failure, but this is Star Wars we’re talking about: With the exception of 2002’s Attack of the Clones, every Star Wars movie has been the highest grossing movie of the year it was released. The expectations are arguably higher than any other franchise in the world, and Solo didn’t just fail to meet them, it failed to come close to breaking even. The film reportedly cost north of $250 million, and that might be a conservative estimate considering Ron Howard was brought in well into production to take over directing duties from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired by Lucasfilm over creative differences. There were extensive reshoots—perhaps as much as 85 percent of the film was reconfigured—as well as major changes taking place, such as Paul Bettany stepping in to play the villain role that had originally gone to Michael K. Williams, who had to leave the project because of a scheduling conflict.
The extent of Solo’s box-office failure remains to be seen—its stiffest competition before the release of the Jurassic World sequel on June 22 will be Ocean’s 8 (out on June 8) and Incredibles 2 (out on June 15)—but Lucasfilm already has a lot to consider. Mainly: Why did this happen, what are the consequences, and what can the studio do to avoid a failure like Solo moving forward?
What Went Wrong for Solo
The Shaky Production Period: The issues for Solo began once the production drama and the exit of Lord and Miller came to the fore. It was a shocking development, not only because of the mere fact Lucasfilm took such drastic action, but also that the action seemed to reveal a lack of a coherent strategy on the studio’s part. With films like The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, Lord and Miller had demonstrated an unmistakable, irreverent, improvisational, and slightly self-aware tone. Lucasfilm should have known that was what it was getting, but reports following the decision to replace Lord and Miller indicated that the studio fired the directors for being themselves—so why were they hired in the first place? (Even stranger, a report from Variety over the weekend revealed that Lord and Miller’s take on Solo featured a “gritty, grimy palette” that was too dark for the company’s taste. Now I really want to know what their film would’ve looked like.)
With concern mounting around Solo, and skepticism about Lucasfilm’s ability to universe-build creeping in for the first time, the studio then took the safest route possible by hiring Ron Howard as the movie’s replacement director. Howard is a capable veteran director, but picking him is a choice as inspired as vanilla ice cream—what Lucasfilm ended up doing was quelling production drama with an announcement that, at best, inspired a general shoulder shrug.
With Howard, mystery and intrigue, for better or worse, was eliminated—fans knew what they were going to get. And they did get it: Solo is an Extremely Ron Howard Movie, coherent and well-paced, but not particularly groundbreaking. As The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey pointed out, this helped make Solo an unfortunate Star Wars first: A movie that’s more than competent, but that hardly feels special in the same way previous installments—even the dreaded prequels—have. When Solo was released also majorly contributed to those feelings ...
The Glut of Star Wars: Solo arrived less than six months after The Last Jedi, the shortest window between Star Wars movies we’ve ever had. Seeing Solo stumble so shortly after The Last Jedi earned more than $1 billion at the box office highlights how important it is that Star Wars movies still feel like an event. Even when George Lucas’s lackluster prequels arrived, fans still came in droves because Star Wars movies were happening only once every three years. Rogue One also benefited from a relatively decent gap between releases, as it dropped a full year after The Force Awakens did. That allowed the movie to build off of the latter’s hype, while also ensuring that there was enough of a dead zone to make audiences yearn for more Star Wars.
Disney and Lucasfilm may have an MCU-level amount of output in mind when it comes to the Star Wars Universe, but if that’s the case, they should be aware that packing the calendar will have an unintended effect of lethargy.
The Lack of Stakes: Though Solo isn’t the first Star Wars movie to undergo extensive reshoots since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012—Rogue One had similar reshoots after the studio replaced Gareth Edwards with Tony Gilroy—it’s the first Star Wars movie that doesn’t have the built-in cosmic stakes that define the rest of the franchise. Whereas Rogue One dealt with crucial events preceding A New Hope and featured multiple run-ins with the Empire, the Death Star, and Darth friggin’ Vader, Solo is best described as a heist film. A few lines of dialogue toward the end of the film try to put more importance on what happens in Solo but, for better or worse, the movie is expressly low-scale.
The audience also knows exactly how Han Solo’s story ends, which stunts their ability to invest in the events of Solo in any meaningful way. Aside from a shocking cameo, the biggest reveals in Solo are how the smuggler met Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian—hardly “stealing the Death Star plans” or “training under enigmatic Jedi Master Luke Skywalker” levels of importance in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars went small, and got smaller returns in the process.
The Consequences of Solo’s Failure
The Star Wars Universe’s Future Slate: The tepid reaction to Solo doesn’t necessarily indicate Star Wars fatigue. At least that’s what Lucasfilm will be hoping, as it’s already announced plans to extend the Star Wars universe to a level that could soon rival Marvel’s output. In the coming decade, we’re getting Episode IX, a Boba Fett spinoff, a (probable) Obi-Wan movie, a Rian Johnson–helmed trilogy, a different trilogy from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and a live-action series from Jon Favreau. Solo’s Alden Ehrenreich, meanwhile, has implied that he’s signed on for at least two more Star Wars movies, and Solo ends in such a way that the story could be continued. Solo’s weak box-office return won’t slow down the production machine; however, it may alter how the studios make these movies, and when they release them.
After dropping Solo a scant five months after The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm may conclude that it’s better off releasing only one Star Wars film a year. This would ensure that the product maintains its value as a precious commodity, therefore guaranteeing audience interest and general mass hype.
But, Lucasfilm may alternatively stay committed to its strategy of flooding the market. If that’s the case, it’ll have to find another way to make each release feel special. One way to shake things up is by continuing to build out a roster of new characters that the next generation of Star Wars fans can fall in love with. Han Solo is dead, Luke Skywalker is a Force Ghost, and with the death of Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia won’t reappear in Episode IX. Instead of mining the past for stories, as Lucasfilm did with Young Han Solo, the future of the franchise could be entrusted to Rey, Poe Dameron, and other characters yet to be introduced in future films.
A Change in Creative Strategy: Lord and Miller (as well as Rogue One’s Edwards) were relatively inexperienced directors who didn’t meet the studio’s initial expectations, and Lucasfilm has clearly already adjusted its strategy when it comes to hiring young directors. Case in point: Colin Trevorrow was slated to direct Episode IX, but after whatever happened with Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry, Lucasfilm opted to part ways with him and place the trilogy’s final installment in the surer hands of The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams.
The Trevorrow swap is the smart choice (seriously, try to watch The Book of Henry and get back to me), and it’s become obvious that some major studio experience is necessary to carry a Star Wars production. But the lack of excitement surrounding Solo suggests that Lucasfilm needs to find a middle ground here, one between the complete unknown and the completely boring. It needs to find more Rian Johnsons, who can inject the franchise with fresh perspectives, unapologetic storytelling, and unique aesthetic flare, but who can also successfully navigate the politics and expectations that come with making a Star Wars movie. To its credit, Lucasfilm might already be enacting this kind of strategy: Logan’s James Mangold has been tapped to write and direct the Boba Fett spinoff. It’s a step in the right direction, and hopes will be high that Mangold can inject the upcoming Star Wars story with emotion and profundity, as he did to the X-Men franchise with Logan.
There’s still a very tangible fear that Star Wars and all its impending projects could oversaturate the market. But Lucasfilm can take lessons on franchise-building from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has dominated the box office for the better part of a decade. Marvel can afford to release movies within months of each other because, after building a solid foundation (which Star Wars already has), it experiments with brand-new characters and different genres—a spy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is a far cry from intergalactic high jinks (Guardians of the Galaxy) or a Shakespearean, afrofuturist epic (Black Panther). Combining the auteurist vision of talented young directors with fresh, varied stories and just enough studio oversight could be the balance to the Force that Star Wars needs as it continues to expand.
With the right execution going forward, Solo could be a minor stumble toward larger franchise dominance for Disney-led Star Wars—as 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was for a still-young MCU. But Lucasfilm might want to take a few notes from Kylo Ren, and let the past die to ensure its future. Otherwise, Han Solo won’t be the only one who has a bad feeling in the Star Wars universe.