To be honest, I usually groan at the announcement of spin-offs. Entertainment designed as a by-product is rarely as good as its originator, and with an industry obsessed with cinematic universes it can be very easy indeed to tune out of series with more than a few films. I’ve similarly groaned at the most recent additions to the Star Wars pantheon, whose efforts to introduce new entries machine-tooled for nostalgia have created waves of fan controversy. My already-mild interest in the franchise was decapitated by the sheer mess of its notorious sequel trilogy, especially the awful Rise of Skywalker. Disneyfication doesn’t help either: considering all subsidiaries, the company now owns nearly 40% of the entire US film industry. Knowing this, I can’t help but think cynically about the artistic (or rather financial) intent of Star Wars’ future. Its upcoming instalments are defined by a sharp left turn into television, almost all of which are spin-offs (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Andor, Ahsoka…) rather than new stories. How far is this in the best interest of the mythos, and to what extent does it push homogeneity over storytelling?
Star Wars isn’t a stranger to spin-off films. 2016’s Rogue One and 2018’s Solo, though released as interim diversions between the first two members of the sequel trilogy, were significant releases. Rogue One seems to have become a firm favourite, justifying its retcon setup with clean action and a Darth Vader scene that no doubt caused fans everywhere to have to change their underwear. Solo, on the other hand, is vastly less memorable. While Rogue One backtracked but ended up feeling fun and climactic, Han Solo’s origin story treatment is a clunky 135-minute exercise in superfluous storytelling. Having 70% of the thing reshot by Ron Howard surely didn’t help proceedings and I’m very happy to bet that what was originally envisioned is a much more interesting film than the one we eventually got. #ReleaseTheLordMillerCut?
Despite amassing over $1bn at the box office, Rogue One is arguably a trick that Disney could probably only land once though, at least in terms of a stylistically familiar, big-studio spin-off for the franchise that ended right where the 1977 original began. As more major cinematic extensions are added, the less consequential its main films (and therefore the series) becomes. Way back in 2015, I felt excited for The Force Awakens in the manner of a cultural event like the recent Avengers: Endgame; just the significance of its existence carried my ambivalence into enthusiasm. Sadly, I find it difficult to imagine that happening for Star Wars again. This is the fault of recent fan backlash too of course, but also Disney’s guns-blazing approach when commissioning new projects. Film-wise, there’s Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron, an untitled Taika Waititi film, a new trilogy from Rian Johnson starting as early as 2023, an animated feature for Disney+ titled A Droid Story (kill me), and even a film developed by Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige. This isn’t including the nine new seasons of various live-action and animated TV shows that are set to roll out over the next couple of years.
There’s so much on the slate that you could mistaken it for the MCU but the best evidence for more original stories are in the form of their recent TV hit, The Mandalorian. In its first season, the show walks a surprisingly deft line between doing something new and self-contained while relating itself comfortably to the broader timeline. The surprise in Disney pulling off such an enjoyable set of episodes without heavily relying on the franchise’s most famous iconography (somewhat excluding the internet-breaking Grogu) gave me hope for its future. Surely, this is the way forward despite film being subject to the series’ hallmarks since 1977. If Disney fail to develop new, interesting characters and push what we can expect from Star Wars, they shouldn’t be surprised when we stop turning up.
The entire Star Wars franchise, including its most recent show The Mandalorian, is available to watch on Disney+.