For nearly a century now, Disney has operated as America’s premier myth factory. In the 20th century, the studio cultivated its reputation through its signature cartoons, stories that riffed on fables and historical tales but became something altogether Disney. In the 21st century, the corporation sustains its reputation through its subsidiaries, acquired through multibillion-dollar transactions. Pixar was just the beginning. Through Lucasfilm, Disney produces the Star Wars movies, which now depict a new generation of righteous rebels and dreary, black-clad tyrants. Through Marvel Studios, Disney also produces the Marvel movies, which cram a couple of dozen, concurrent superhero mythologies into a trillion-dollar grand narrative starring every popular Hollywood actor. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the younger franchise by 31 years, and yet it’s already produced twice as many movies, not to mention its 11 different TV series airing on Netflix, Fox, ABC, and FX. The MCU is a multimedia hydra, the sheer tonnage of Marvel-branded film and TV content in the world now outweighing the Star Wars canon. Each year, the MCU expands at an unprecedented rate of production. There’s a reason critics have coined a worrisome diagnosis—“Marvel fatigue,” “superhero fatigue”—even as these movies keep breaking their own box office records. Compared to Star Wars, the MCU is doing too much, too fast, and at unprecedented scale. It’s exhausting.
There are fundamental differences between the Star Wars franchise and the MCU, and those differences largely explain why the two franchises—despite Disney’s management in common—unfold so differently. Star Wars has always been a film franchise, first and foremost, whereas the Marvel comics that inspire the MCU predate Marvel Studios movies by decades. So, too, do more than a dozen, pre-MCU film adaptations of Marvel superheroes, such as the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil, and Blade. It’s a chaotic universe. Marvel Studios has built some rough semblance of order by billing its releases as a series of cinematic “phases”—the earliest phase beginning with the 2008 release of Iron Man. The latest Avengers movie, Infinity War, and its imminent sequel mark the end of Phase 3. Still, the phases don’t fully account for Marvel’s film and TV share—even in just this century. In my mind, there are two Daredevils, two Hulks, three different Spider-Men. Well, you might think to yourself, there’s only one Iron Man. Alas.
At only 10 years old, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a heavy mess of tangled plotlines. In contrast, Star Wars—a 41-year-old film franchise—is pretty straightforward. There’s a numbered, episodic structure, with just a couple of narrative detours. And yet, Star Wars has proved far more ambitious in developing new characters, establishing new settings, and managing a long chronology, cultivated across three generations of fandom. Star Wars is an inclusive mythology, and all Star Wars characters serve that grand narrative above all; Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Kylo Ren don’t each get three solo features dedicated to their individual character development between the main movies. The massive Star Wars fandom produces its own, obsessive character sketches, but the movies themselves favor ensemble drama. Officially, modern Star Wars runs along two tracks, one major, one minor. There’s the mainline Star Wars movies, where each generation’s lead characters wrestle over politics, faith, and romance in the central narrative arena. And then there’s the “Star Wars stories,” Rogue One and, now, Solo, which isolate some subset of characters and build a minor, interstitial saga around them.
The Star Wars movies haven’t always worked this way. George Lucas dedicated three mainline Star Wars movies, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, to overanalyzing its signature antagonist, Anakin Skywalker, who would become the Darth Vader of the original trilogy. In this sense, the prequels—which are widely regarded as an expensive, protracted disaster—are the closest the Star Wars franchise has come to operating according to Marvel’s egocentric character principles: the prequels were still broad political dramas, but they bent themselves rather uncomfortably to the will and destiny of a single, popular, overdetermined hero at the expense of bigger, broader developments in the Star Wars mythology, such as the Clone Wars, which the prequels largely skip. Since Disney bought Star Wars from George Lucas in 2012, the new movies—The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi—have embraced the inclusive, expansive wartime clamor that first defined Return of the Jedi. Under Disney’s administration of Lucasfilm, a character-backstory feature would most likely be confined to one, offshoot film—as with Solo.
In Star Wars, characters are largely defined by their relationship to the Force, a discerning power, but a ubiquitous phenomenon that converts each character’s inadequacies and shortcomings to a common currency. The Force brings events and characters into singular focus, and also creates stakes for Kylo Ren, whose profound mastery corrupts his judgment. But it also provides stakes for Finn, whose inability to use the Force creates a physical disadvantage in combat for him to overcome. Rarely do Star Wars movies culminate with one hero achieving a singular, climactic feat. Since Return of the Jedi, the movies have tended to present themselves as ensemble dramas about the intergalactic infrastructure of politics, religion, and war. The most recent Star Wars movies are both patriotic wartime thrillers. Essentially, the modern Star Wars movies are what would happen if Marvel Studios limited itself to full-on Avengers movies, exclusively.
Marvel’s Phase 4 is fast approaching, and the franchise’s expected turnover among its top acting talent stokes certain concerns about longevity. Commercially, these movies seem unstoppable—it’s astounding to think that a movie studio would eagerly release Black Panther, Infinity War, and Deadpool 2 within three months of each other, and that these movies would dominate the box office in unrelenting succession. As storytelling, however, the MCU has grown unwieldy and inefficient—if not, dare I say, unsustainable. It is tempting to dismiss “superhero fatigue” as concern-trolling, or else wishful thinking, but remember: the MCU is only 10 years deep. It’s younger than the Fast & Furious franchise. It’s a baby compared to Star Wars, the first blockbuster extended universe of its kind. Star Wars survived years-long hiatuses and critical failure on the strength of its core story—a timeless conflict in which no one character eclipses, not even Han Solo with his flashy, all-caps title card.