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Nine New Hopes for the Future of ‘Star Wars’

With another blockbuster movie and a small-screen hit, the franchise is healthy. Yet there’s unrest in the fandom. How can Disney and Lucasfilm fix that?

Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration

By most measures, the Star Wars franchise is healthy. Even though China continues to sleep on the series, The Rise of Skywalker is less than $100 million away from another billion-dollar worldwide box office haul. The Mandalorian was seemingly a massive hit on Disney+, and the widely beloved Baby Yoda has been a balm for a fractured culture. Much more small-screen Star Wars action is coming to the streaming service sometime soon—including a seventh and final season of The Clone Wars and new series centered on Obi-Wan Kenobi and Cassian Andor—with additional ideas in development. Galaxy’s Edge integrated Star Wars into Disney’s theme park portfolio (albeit not without a post-launch letdown), and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which reasserted the primacy of the single-player experience in Star Wars video games, sold well and garnered generally approving reviews. Disney’s seven-year-old investment in Star Wars has already more than paid for itself, and the series is still capable of dominating the cultural discourse in the weeks surrounding a debut.

Yet if one were to write an opening crawl to sum up the state of Star Wars as the calendar turns to 2020, it would probably begin the way the prequel crawls do: with allusions to turmoil, unrest, and war. The Skywalker saga is over, leaving the film franchise at loose ends. Lucasfilm has reportedly scheduled a new film for December 2022, with an unannounced director attached, but Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy sounds undecided about the direction and format of the film franchise—and, perhaps, her own future at the company. The Rise of Skywalker opened and continues to track well below The Last Jedi’s global haul, let alone that of The Force Awakens, an indicator of reduced interest in what was intended to be the trilogy’s big finish. The Rise of Skywalker’s Rotten Tomatoes score ranks ahead of only The Phantom Menace in the annals of big-screen Star Wars—with only one percentage point elevating it above Jar-Jar—and its B+ CinemaScore from filmgoers is a new low for the franchise.

Granted, a B+ is a far cry from Cats (C+), and The Rise of Skywalker’s box office earnings will still make it one of the biggest blockbusters to premiere in 2019—a year in which Disney saw six of its previous films cross the billion-dollar mark. But although the results during the Disney Star Wars era have largely been lucrative and well-liked—I’ve held a high opinion of every post–George Lucas release except The Rise of Skywalker and Star Wars Resistance—the creative process has been bumpy and, at times, publicly embarrassing.

Three of the five films underwent a director change or late-stage reworking, Solo lost money, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pulled out of a planned post-Skywalker saga trilogy. The sequel trilogy’s directorial handoff from J.J. Abrams to Rian Johnson to Abrams again was poorly planned and coordinated in terms of both narrative cohesion and media messaging, and in late December, The Rise of Skywalker’s editor admitted that the film’s production was rushed and that the final cut was in flux right up to the premiere. The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker both seemed to spur wide divides between critical and popular perception, and they also caused great disturbances on social media. The middle movie elicited a sincere backlash to Johnson’s subversion of traditional Star Wars storytelling, as well as harassment by toxic trolls and suspected politically motivated review-bombing. In recent weeks, Twitter roiled anew as discontented fans reacted to an interview with The Rise of Skywalker’s cowriter Chris Terrio, costar John Boyega’s abuse of the cry-laugh emoji, and an unsubstantiated Reddit thread that laid the blame for the film’s failings on Disney and Lucasfilm and alleged the existence of an extended version of the movie that conveniently would have addressed many of the fans’ most common complaints, which spawned a hashtag campaign to release the purported Abrams cut.

Some Star Wars fans who are weary of the flame wars and the recycling of series tropes would be relieved if the film franchise ended with Rey gazing at Tatooine’s twin suns—although even that shot has been cited as evidence of The Rise of Skywalker’s slapdash production. But Star Wars won’t be going anywhere: The series remains a money-printer and will likely outlive us all. If Disney wants the franchise to flourish, however, it will have to steer clear of some of the Sarlacc pits it’s slipped into in the past several years. Below, I’ve listed nine new hopes that lay out how Disney can be a better steward for Star Wars as the series enters a pivotal time.

Take Some Time

In its rush to restore the Star Wars brand’s luster and capitalize on its primo IP, Disney scheduled the sequel trilogy to be released over a period of only four years, slashed from the six years apiece it took to produce the original and prequel trilogies. Disney also slotted Rogue One and Solo into the gaps between Skywalker saga installments, bringing the total to five films in four years. That aggressive timeline took its toll, not only by fostering a sense of Star Wars saturation that sapped some of the specialness from each premiere, but also by mandating accelerated launches that may have compromised the quality of at least some of the finished films. As Kennedy told Rolling Stone in November, “These are huge projects. So it’s very difficult unless there’s three or four years in between. It’s not really physically possible.”

As a multitude of Star Wars characters have repeatedly stressed, patience is important. Star Wars survived droughts of 16 years between the original and prequel trilogies and a decade between the prequel and sequel trilogies, so a slight slowdown in the pace of production won’t drive fans away. The sequel trilogy likely created a new generation of Star Wars converts, just as the preceding trilogies did, and those devotees will keep coming back for as long as Disney supplies something worth watching, even if that means waiting an extra year or three before the follow-up to Episode IX. That’s particularly true in today’s streaming era, when Star Wars can stay active on the small screen during the gaps between big-screen debuts. Fortunately, Disney seems to have learned this lesson: CEO Bob Iger acknowledged in 2018 and reiterated in 2019 that Disney had made too many movies in too short a time frame and would be slowing the assembly line.

That said, the reported December 2022 target for the next movie still seems ambitious, considering its importance to the future of the franchise and the level of uncertainty that Kennedy has recently professed about the direction of the series. “We’re literally making this up from whole cloth and bringing in filmmakers to find what these stories might be,” Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times last month. “It can take a while before you find what direction you might want to go. We need the time to do that.” If the time it takes to do it well is longer than two years, so be it.

Have Something (Else) to Say

When Star Wars does return to the multiplex, it should do so not solely because there’s money to be made, but because it has something new to tell us. Kennedy seems to agree. “It was very important to George that these stories really meant something, that they have something to say, and that they have a real emotional core,” she told Rolling Stone. “So we spend a lot of time talking about that and trying to find the spine of a story that feels satisfying.”

Yet it’s difficult to discern what the sequel trilogy says that earlier Star Wars films hadn’t previously said. The three films force a new cast of characters retrace the steps of the original trilogy’s leads and relearn the same lessons: Light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, hope is stronger than despair, Jedi is stronger than Sith, Resistance is stronger than Empire. The Rise of Skywalker often makes its message eye-rollingly explicit: “We had each other,” Lando tells Poe. “That’s how we won.” Similar inspirational sentiments abound, including, “We’re not alone. Good people will fight if we lead them,” and, “We’ve got friends out there. They’ll come if they know there’s hope,” and, “There are more of us.”

I’m not suggesting that Star Wars shouldn’t be about intergalactic conflict and battles between good and evil; that’s always been its brand. And the sequel trilogy did make strides in giving a greater portion of the audience heroic representation on screen. (It’s significant that this time around, Rey was the one wielding the blue lightsaber.) But the reveals and temptations and takeaways have to be different for future installments to resonate with the same strength as the originals.

Embrace the Mandalorian Model

The Mandalorian may have the highest approval rating of any Star Wars story since the original trilogy, and in the wake of the divisive conclusion to the Skywalker saga, Disney would love to tap into the formula that made its streaming service’s flagship show both critically acclaimed and broadly popular. More Mandalorian is already on the way, with a second season due out in the fall, but Disney can apply some of the principles that made the series such a success to other Star Wars properties.

That doesn’t just mean making more babies (although I would watch a show about baby Kit Fisto). As I wrote in my recap of The Mandalorian’s first-season finale, compared to the trilogies, “Its stakes were smaller, its cast more contained, its backstory less sprawling.” None of that made The Mandalorian any less exciting or appealing. The series strayed from the franchise’s beaten path, putting a Star Wars spin on multiple genres, staying on the outskirts of the Empire-Resistance struggle, relying almost entirely on characters who hadn’t been seen before and, with one glaring exception, parceling out fan service in moderation instead of making it the centerpiece of the story. Leaving Luke, Leia, and Han behind should help, but another way to repeat that pattern would be to take another page out of the Mandalorian playbook and delegate directorial duties to a more diverse group: Every Star Wars film so far was directed by a white guy, but all but two of The Mandalorian’s first eight episodes were directed by women or people of color.

Diversify the Star Wars Portfolio

Through the streaming offerings and the anthology films, Star Wars has already branched out from its traditionally trilogy-reliant framework. But as Kennedy hinted to the L.A. Times, the franchise may be about to ditch trilogies entirely. “I think it gives us a more open-ended view of storytelling and doesn’t lock us into this three-act structure,” she said. “We’re not going to have some finite number and fit it into a box. We’re really going to let the story dictate that.”

It’s smart for Lucasfilm to make the franchise’s form follow its function. If the best idea for a new Star Wars story would work best as one film or five films, then Disney shouldn’t discard or rework it just to conform to tradition. Then again, if a good idea for a trilogy does surface, Kennedy shouldn’t reject it just to let the past die. With the right material, three-act structures are satisfying, and there is some risk in separating Star Wars from the storytelling trellis that’s supported it for so long. In a word association exercise, “trilogy” might be the most common response to “Star Wars.” Take that away, and it might be more difficult to differentiate the franchise from, say, the MCU’s tapestry of crossover characters or the James Bond franchise’s endless sequence of mostly stand-alone adventures. As Lucasfilm leaves the Skywalker saga behind, Star Wars should stay open to the trilogy, but it shouldn’t be beholden to it.

Empower Individual Creators (Without Granting Unlimited Power), and Make Fans Follow, Not Lead

Disney still hasn’t solved the Lucas conundrum: Star Wars was at its best when it largely reflected the vision of a lone creator, but it was also at its worst when it largely reflected the vision of a lone creator. Clearly, Lucas was more effective when he collaborated with other directors and writers, as he did for most of the original trilogy, than he was when he worked with total creative control and a dearth of dissenting voices, as he did during the prequel period. But there’s still something to be said for entrusting an individual auteur to be the driving force behind a film or a trilogy, rather than crowdsourcing a story or massaging it into something that seems likely to be palatable to the broadest swath of fans.

Perhaps understandably, in light of the fortunes at stake, Kennedy has been quick to swoop in to replace directors whose productions were deemed to be running off the rails. It’s tough to predict how a first-time Star Wars director will handle the scale of a Star Wars production, and perhaps the turnover rate should be higher than it would be for a typical film. But Lucasfilm’s heavy hand might repel directors and writers with original Star Wars tales to tell, and the series would suffer from avoiding idiosyncratic creators in favor of “safe” ones without the same spark. Aiming for bland inoffensiveness may incite less vehement opposition from fans who want to see the same sort of stories over and over, but Star Wars became iconic by being bold.

In another sense, though, Lucasfilm was surprisingly lax about dictating the course of the sequel films. Although the movies were conceived as a rapidly produced trilogy, Kennedy and Co. didn’t design an overarching narrative that could keep the story on track despite directorial reshuffling. As a result, the story seemed to swing with the whims of Abrams, Johnson, and (temporarily) Colin Trevorrow, which made the end product seem somewhat disjointed. If one creator isn’t going to see a series through—as Jon Favreau has with The Mandalorian, with assistance from Dave Filoni—there has to be another steadying hand at the tiller, lest the narrative turn into a game of exquisite corpse. This is an area where Lucasfilm could learn from MCU architect Kevin Feige, who’s slated to try his hand at Star Wars sometime soon. Lucasfilm must learn control, but it has to be the right kind of control.

One reason the sequel trilogy took such a sharp turn between the second and third films may be Lucasfilm’s fear of fan objections. In her Rolling Stone interview, Kennedy made it clear that Lucasfilm listened closely to fan feedback, saying, “We really look at them as the custodians of this story as much as [we are]. We look at it as kind of a partnership.” It’s only logical that Disney would want to make movies that its audience likes, and there’s no point in inflaming the fans further by discounting their role in the series’ success. But it’s almost impossible to surprise and challenge viewers by giving them exactly what they think they want, and it’s dangerous to treat the loudest online rabble rousers as a valued fan focus group. Johnson is strongly opposed to pandering to fans, so if Disney does follow through on its reported plan to let him carry the franchise forward (which seems to be up in the air, especially now that Knives Out is receiving a sequel of its own), the studio will have to accept that not everyone will approve of every aspect of the product.

Break Out of the Between-Trilogies Periods

“What we’ve been focused on these last five or six years is finishing that family saga around the Skywalkers,” Kennedy told the L.A. Times. “Now is the time to start thinking about how to segue into something new and different.” In Rolling Stone, she kept her options open, asking, “Do you go back? Do you go forward? All those questions are being asked. Do we stay in this galaxy? Do we go to another? The universe is never-ending.”

It’s fine for Disney to continue to explore the interims between trilogies: Those eras of Star Wars are still rich texts with ample unexplored territory. But Solo, Rogue One, Rebels, Resistance, The Clone Wars, Fallen Order, The Mandalorian, and the two other confirmed small-screen series are set either alongside the Skywalker saga’s events or in the decades between trilogies, so it may be time to try something new. The events of the trilogies necessarily limit the scope of the events that transpire between them, so if Disney wants to make its next stories seem as consequential as the Skywalker saga, it will have to venture into time periods that significantly predate Emperor Palpatine’s rise or play out long after his (second) demise.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe that Disney de-canonized in 2014 told stories that ranged from many thousands of years before the events of the prequels to more than 130 years after Return of the Jedi. Kennedy may choose to give us longer looks at sequel trilogy characters such as Finn, Poe, and Jannah—although a movie about the continuing adventures of Rey would dispel the idea that The Rise of Skywalker was the end of anything—but Lucasfilm should also feel free to explore the studio space and rewind or fast-forward by centuries or millennia. Switching up time periods would help defuse the pressure to incorporate familiar faces and places, and it would also open up the possibility of salvaging some of the best stories from the old EU. The nod to Darth Revan in The Rise of Skywalker: The Visual Dictionary may presage a return to the ancient Old Republic era, which we’ve never seen outside of books, comics, and video games.

Sure enough, recent rumors have suggested that the next series of interrelated (but non-trilogy) films will be set during the High Republic era, approximately 400 years before the Skywalker saga, and could feature the Jedi, the Sith, and expeditions to the unknown regions. That would represent a big break from the Star Wars status quo.

Be Better at World-building

One way the sequel trilogy fell flat is by failing to establish the state of the galaxy in a way that was intelligible to viewers who weren’t steeped in Star Wars lore. How did the First Order arise, and how (if at all) was it different from the Empire? Why was the Resistance separate from the Republic? What impact did the destruction of Hosnian Prime—a system we saw for a few seconds, with no clear connection to the lead characters—have on the galaxy? Why wasn’t Coruscant the capital? Not only did the three new films rehash the original trilogy’s Empire vs. Rebellion conflict, right down to the Stormtrooper, the Tantive IV, and the X-wings assaulting superweapons, but they were very vague about how the galaxy got from the destruction of the second Death Star to the construction of Starkiller Base. If the new movies move the timeline forward or backward by any great amount of time, they’ll need to do a better job of explaining the basic situation and stakes.

Make the Expanded Universe a Supplement, Not the Sole Source of Vital Pieces of Plot

One way the sequel trilogy compensated for its lack of on-screen exposition was by burying answers in the Expanded Universe. How did the Resistance arise? Who are the Knights of Ren? On which planet is Kylo searching for the Sith wayfinder at the start of The Rise of Skywalker? Why wasn’t Palpatine dead? The movies drop hints about some of these things, but the mechanics or significance of some important events depend on Wookieepedia deep dives that most moviegoers won’t do.

That’s not to say that every little detail should be explained on screen. Star Wars films have always provoked more questions than they had time to answer, and the sense that further knowledge was lurking off screen was essential to making the galaxy far, far away look like a living, breathing place. Background characters inserted to sell toys don’t all require on-screen origin stories, and we don’t necessarily need to know how Rey built her yellow lightsaber or how Maz found Luke’s blue blade any more than we needed to know how Luke built his green one (which Return of the Jedi didn’t disclose). But casual Star Wars watchers shouldn’t have to read the Visual Dictionary or seek out online explainers to process what they saw.

Don’t Shy Away From Twisting the Knife

The most emotionally affecting moments of the sequel trilogy stemmed from real-life events: Leia’s death was dictated by Carrie Fisher’s passing, and Han’s death granted a longstanding request from Harrison Ford. Beyond that, the trilogy is light on consequences: Rey is resurrected, Zorii and Babu Frik survive the destruction of Kijimi, C-3PO’s memory is restored, Chewie’s apparent death turns out to be a manipulative (and, frankly, kind of cowardly) misdirection, every dead Jedi becomes one with the Force (in contrast to some prequel-era Jedi whose bodies didn’t disappear), Force ghosts can call down lightning strikes and catch lightsabers, which seems to remove much of the downside of being dead, and Palpatine is somehow still alive, which both undermines Anakin Skywalker’s sacrifice and makes it unclear why we should believe Sheev’s latest defeat is final.

Yes, Ben does die (after surviving a TIE fighter fireball, a seemingly mortal lightsaber wound, and a supposed-to-be fatal fall down a deep pit), but on the whole, The Rise of Skywalker pulls some punches that would have produced a deeper catharsis had they landed. This is Star Wars, not Saw, so no one wants a bloodbath; these heroes have always beaten bad odds. But don’t toy with us: If you’re going to blow up a planet or kill off a beloved character, make it count.