Ask someone from North America what the most loved media franchise is and they’ll probably answer Star Wars. Ask someone who the most popular character from Star Wars is and I’d bet Han Solo wins that race in some number of parsecs.
So how did a Star Wars film that was an origin story for Han Solo fail so badly compared to expectations?
Now the easiest answer would be because the film sucked – except it didn’t. Solo: A Star Wars Story wasn’t exactly great in my opinion but it was a decent action film. The reaction from those who saw it seemed to range from “best Disney Star Wars film!!!” to “it was just okay.” I’d say it was boring at times in the middle and probably should have replaced an action scene or two with a slow moment here or there, but for a film that you know doesn’t really count in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t bad. It could have used a better villain and perhaps a few less “we know you are going to die” characters, but I didn’t hate it. So if the film isn’t terrible enough to drive away people from a Star Wars movie…what did?
Well I see the trouble as five-fold: no one asked for or wanted this film, the film’s troubled production screwed it from the start, the really shitty marketing, following the divisive The Last Jedi only 5 months later, and that Star Wars as a brand’s popularity is grossly overestimated.
The Want And Need Of Things
To put it bluntly: almost never are prequels/origin stories in demand for beloved things. I get why movie studios like to make them because it’s a way to extend a media franchise that has already run its course that has a fanbase they think they can milk. It never seems to work well though, and usually all it does is reaffirm how the original films are better. In practice the best way to do it is the way The Hobbit, Fantastic Beasts, and oddly the Star Wars prequels did it – make the series star a new person or side character from the originals and fill in some back story that was alluded to before, not make up shit for the sake of making new films.
The problem here though is the audience for Solo already knew Han Solo for decades. We know all we needed to know about him. To us all that we needed to know was he was a smuggler who was on the run and took a job that ended up helping bring down the evil Empire. All Solo can do is try to fill in gaps that we never needed to see such as how Han met Lando and Chewie, but then fill the rest of the story with pointless stuff that means nothing to the numbered Star Wars films. Hey look at all these new characters that are either going to die in this film or any sequels because Han never mentioned them before.
Quite simply: seeing what Han Solo was up to a few years before A New Hope wasn’t that big a deal.
Here is where the obvious counterpoint comes in: Rogue One. Where Rogue One succeeded was in creating its premise around something that sounded cool from the start: see how the Rebellion stole the plans for the Death Star moments before A New Hope begins. We also knew that in some capacity Darth Vader would show up as a villain and he’s always awesome. Was this story necessary? No, but it at least filled in a hole that was left open from the very start of A New Hope with Leia fleeing Vader. It promised something definitive and delivered on it. Solo on the other hand was just Han Solo pulling a heist of seemingly no consequence other than money – hardly a comparison to Rogue One in my opinion.
Trouble A Long Time Ago, In A Movie Studio Far Far Away
Occasionally you hear things about films having production problems while being made, and Star Wars films are no exception. Most of the time it’s an actor getting injured (The Force Awakens and Ford), or script writers being replaced (Rogue One). A lot of films get extensive reshoots after initial screenings due to feedback, but that is usually just to do things like expand characters or fix stuff like the tone or ending. With Solo it seemed like the bad press during production would never stop.
Let’s see: the original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired during production as they were apparently directing it as an improv comedy film rather than an action film with comedic parts and then was later replaced by Ron Howard at a time when the filming was almost finished. I have no idea why Lord and Miller were hired in the first place but I guess Lucasfilm based it on finished products rather than their ability to work within a giant franchise. This caused (if I’m reading rumours right) somewhere between 70-80% of the film to be reshot, including changing the villain, at a massive cost.
Oh and then there were reports that Han Solo actor Alden Ehrenreich’s performance was so bad during filming that they had to bring in an acting coach to work with him for every scene. This taken in a vacuum isn’t bad, but when it’s the star of the film playing one of the most iconic roles in cinematic history it raises a billion red flags. The man already barely looks like Harrison Ford, but now hearing that he can’t act like him either didn’t give off a positive impression of the film. As it turns out he wasn’t terrible, but he’s still trying to do the impossible and take over a role for an actor who’s synonymous with the character he plays.
Compounding all of these bad omens was just after the release of The Last Jedi there were reports out that Disney itself was bracing for Solo to bomb. They had already seen another supposed blockbuster from a rival studio – Justice League – that had massive production troubles which included director changes (for different reasons) crash and burn. At this point the film’s budget increased to about 150% of what it was originally and Disney just seemed to want to get the film out without getting the budget to record levels when it was already now the most expensive Star Wars film ever. Imagine telling your diehard supporters that you yourself have little faith in the film you are releasing. It’s like a car manufacturer saying “yeah next year’s model isn’t that good to be honest” while still releasing it on schedule. It seems like whatever time would have been available to do traditional reshoots to fix the film was instead taken up by the reshoots to just finish the film, so we were stuck with a script that probably needed at least one more round though test screenings to sort out all the issues.
Throughout all of this was one constant: Solo was in the news for all the wrong reasons. For the other three Disney Star Wars films the press beforehand was mostly positive news about returning actors or characters. For Solo it was nothing but doom and gloom.
Selling The World A Shadow
For a moment, let’s talk about the marketing of major films in recent weeks. Here’s a list off the top of my head of the plot details I could get from the other big films around Solo.
Avengers: Infinity War – biggest bad guy ever is coming for a thing, Avengers need to save the universe
Deadpool 2 – dude from future is coming to kill a kid, Deadpool forms a team to stop him
Solo – Han Solo is young and is trying to steal something?
Ocean’s 8 – group of ladies plan to steal some stuff from Met Gala
Incredibles 2 – father tries to be single parent while mother is out crime fighting, supervillain arrives
Jurassic World 2 – save the dinosaurs from volcano, evil dude captures them
Notice the big difference here? The marketing for Solo barely gives us any plot details. We knew Woody Harrelson was putting together a crew for a job, didn’t know what that job was though. We saw Chewie and Lando for a bit. We also saw Han Solo himself, barely. For some reason the commercials kept trying to keep Solo himself out of the ads for his own film. Often times Solo was seen only from behind or in a quick cut giving a smirk. Rarely did he get any time speaking a line outside of that joke about how old Chewie was. It was like they were hiding their star. Heck did the marketing even show there was a villain?
Film marketing for blockbusters that want mass appeal seem to work best when they show you the broad strokes of a plot. They don’t need to give details, but at least give us the general outline of what happens in the film. This is a problem a lot of bad films seem to share when they are trying to hide their plot which might either turn people away or just not excite them enough to come. No offense but a space heist film that doesn’t involve the Empire or Rebellion in any way isn’t too much of a draw, but had it been shown more accurately in commercials it might have had a shot. The film wasn’t bad, but it came across like Disney was trying to hide something. This is the first Star Wars film that doesn’t have galactic stakes, and boy does it show.
I get the feeling that had the marketing been more direct in saying that Solo was a heist film and showed that it was about repaying a debt to the central villain it would have been far more successful. Like seeing Han Solo say “I screwed up, and I’m going to make it right the only way I know how” would have done far more on selling us a product rather than “oh look, young Lando playing cards.” As it stood the advertisements were marketing a film without a plot.
Solo seemed to rely on the fact that people wanted to see a young Han Solo and was banking on the Star Wars name being enough to draw people in. It clearly was not.
Far Too Soon To A Divisive Film
Over the last few years Star Wars has claimed supremacy over the month of December. Star Wars has claimed its territory as the biggest draw for December, and mostly with legs to reach all the way into January too. There are a few other loosely penciled in dates in the calendar like where Marvel films tend to go, but for the last few years Disney has been the sole “adult” franchise to rule December. The Force Awakens played it safe and met expectations, and Rogue One was an interesting and at times dark tale in the Star Wars universe that was either liked or loved but rarely hated outside the last 10 minutes.
Last year however Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out and its wake is still being felt. The film was highly controversial with some people lauding it as a masterpiece and others calling it the worst Star Wars film ever. I viewed it as an extremely flawed film that was way too long but had good parts to it. I can see however why some diehard Star Wars fans would take up their crystal powered laser swords at the film for some of the stuff in it. This cataclysm in the fandom clearly hurt it as it didn’t have anywhere near the staying power as The Force Awakens, and allowed Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle to shock the world and gross over $400 million in North America and coming close to $1 billion worldwide, a large percentage I’d guess as families skipping repeat viewings of The Last Jedi and opting for the safer film.
Solo came out while The Last Jedi was still fresh in the mind of the mind of the audience it was trying to capture, and so quick that Disney for some reason didn’t want to overlap the marketing of the two films. The Star Wars films seemed to get a teaser trailer at least half a year before the film was to be released, but Solo‘s first glimpse was less than four months before the film, and that was a brief Superbowl ad. There was no awe inspiring wonder, only “hey, here’s Solo.”
Not helping things were news stories about the relative “failure” of The Last Jedi to match The Force Awakens and other negative press surrounding it. We got everything from fans rightful complaints such as Captain Phasma being just there to sell toys (again, though even more blatant this time), issues with the way some characters were handled, and such, all the way to articles being written about how some of the Star Wars fandom were harassing people on twitter because of course that happened. So the months of leadup to Solo were not kind to Star Wars as a whole for a lot of reasons.
Star Wars was always seen as some sort of sacred franchise that should be revered, and now it looks even more like it’s coming off a conveyor belt. For some reason the movie audience will accept multiple superhero movies per year from the same studio, but that might be a tad too much for Star Wars right now, especially considering how the advertising push for The Last Jedi lasted months before and after release which left no room to breath for Solo.
Star Wars Isn’t The Biggest Thing Ever Anymore
Oh how a few years can change things.
In 2015 Star Wars‘ return was the biggest thing ever. In 2018 it’s already become a victim of “oh, there’s another one out?”
For a moment I ask you to go look at every single Star Wars film’s domestic vs international performance. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Notice a trend? Yeah, they do roughly equal North America vs International numbers. That is completely counter to the trend for most big films to be about a 1:2 ratio for Domestic:International outside of a few notable exceptions such as Fast & Furious (1:4 or so recently) or very American themed films (comedies/African American films tend to be like 5:1, Black Panther the notable exception at a 1:1 which is way off MCU norms). For some reason that I can’t quite understand Star Wars has not caught on as much outside of North America as it has in its native land.
Outside a few cultural beliefs such as a culture’s aversion to witchcraft which the Force could easily be mistaken for, it seems that Star Wars is very much a North American thing. I can only guess it just didn’t catch on elsewhere as much as North America and thus the nostalgia wasn’t as powerful. I’ll partially blame TV reruns for this, as I know where I am the original trilogy could often be seen on TV during the weekend but I’ll assume this was not the case in places such as China. A note I will never not cease to be amazed at was that The Force Awakens actually made less money outside North American than Furious 7 did. Hell The Last Jedi made less internationally than The Fate Of The Furious by almost $300 million! When it comes to the international box office a film series often derided as “insulting towards the intelligence of the viewing audience” about people with fast cars is bigger than Star Wars!
Another thing I must say is that it appears the Star Wars nostalgia phase has ended. The Force Awakens made a record opening at the time largely because of the time the franchise was dormant, not by quality. People were dying to see their beloved Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker back on the big screen for the first time in decades. Hell they played with this by putting Mark Hamill’s credit second on the poster even though he is only in the last few seconds of the film, and Carrie Fisher is credited third even though she’s only there for an extended cameo. Is Star Wars big? Sure. Is Star Wars bigger than, say, Marvel? At this point it seems open to debate. Rogue One had the return of Darth Vader being a badass and you knew that fans would love to see that. What did Solo promise us? Young versions of characters we already know.
At the moment I’m writing this there are vague announcements about there being a Boba Fett movie in the works, a long talked about Obi-Wan Kenobi film taking place between Eps 3 and 4, and some rumblings about a new trilogy of films that have nothing to do with the Skywalker story. Of these three projects the safest one is Obi-Wan because we know the character the most already and he was easily the best part of the prequel trilogy so it would be a welcome return for (hopefully) Ewan McGregor filling in a gap that there is at least a small amount of interest in. The new trilogy would be second safest because it’s a fresh start and will depend solely on execution. The Boba Fett one on the other hand is risky as hell because while the hardcore fandom loves Fett the casual viewer remembers him as the dude who got killed by a blind guy making him fall into a hole. There are so many ways to screw up Fett that I personally don’t think it’s worth the risk as a film but would make an awesome animated series. To be fair given the way Disney has handled announcing Star Wars films by making vague “sure we might do that” announcements they could already have been working on films based on Jabba, Lando, Mace Windu, Maz Kanata, Qui-Gon Jin, Holdo, Yoda, Maul, Mon Mothma, Dooku, the Jawas, and probably that dude who got his hand cut off in the Cantina who was wanted in twelve systems.
Solo has proved one thing very loudly: just having the Star Wars name is not enough. Star Wars is popular as hell, but not popular enough to solely convince someone to go see a film. In the future Disney needs to learn from the success of Rogue One and the failure of Solo and decide where it wants to take Star Wars before it becomes just another film franchise rather than the cultural icon it is.
In The End…
I do think that Disney screwed up with Solo in a lot of ways that they didn’t with Rogue One or even the new numbered films. First off we don’t have an iconic villain in this film. Secondly we don’t have a more “international appeal” cast like the other recent Star Wars films did. Thirdly they just completely misjudged the market for this film.
I agree with an assessment made by insiders around the time of “Disney is expecting a bomb” news broke that the script for Solo was unworkable. While the film had good parts in it the story was a mess that no amount of reshoots could fix. It’s a film that lacks identity or memorable moments that all the prior Star Wars films had. How the film ever got off the ground as it was is a mystery that I’m sure some Lucasfilm executive will be demoted over.
The main fix to Solo would have been a simple one, but also one that limits the potential for long term financial gains but that’s not a problem I foresee as any sequel to Solo as a Solo-only film is dead. The way to have done Solo was to make it, well, solo. Don’t try to start a trilogy of films based on young Han – make it a single film. You could have had most of the plot points such as meeting Chewie or getting the Falcon, but you also wouldn’t need to overstuff the film with talk of rival crime syndicates. You make the film about how Han got into the employ of Jabba The Hutt, and even have fricken Boba Fett in there if you wanted to. There, you now have a far better villain and far broader appeal. You could even leave the door a tad open for sequels if you wished in a subtle way, but right now Solo so blatantly sequel baits that all I can say is I’m sorry to Emilia Clarke for being in yet another failed trilogy starter. Speaking of Emilia Clarke, who is relatively good here, you should also have not made her Han’s love interest because absolutely no one wants to see Han with anyone other than Leia…it’s like a rule or something. Solo could have worked as a film, but sadly Disney was too fixated on trying to make a trilogy rather than make a film that could stand by itself like Rogue One did.
After all of this the question remains: do people really want Star Wars to expand beyond the numbered series? Rogue One says yes, Solo says no. The only thing to really glisten from all of this is that while there is clearly a sort of market for expanded Star Wars universe films it might not be as powerful as one might have assumed. Disney needs to be careful with what they make and who they choose to make it, as well as market it in a way to convince the non-hardcore fan that they need to see it. Slapping the Star Wars name on a product isn’t enough to sell it to the broader audience, though it does guarantee probably at least a $50million opening weekend or more when Bossk: A Star Wars Story comes out.
Solo: A Star Wars Story will perhaps end up being the most talked about movie of the year for the wrong reasons. It’s fascinating to dissect what went wrong when it could have all gone so right. Had this project not been cursed from the start it could easily have been another near billion dollar film, but as it stands it’s going to struggle to not lose tens of millions of dollars.
Every year we get a few films that just seemed to be doomed from the start. 2017 had several large disappoints in a row that failed to get to expectations. In 2018 most of the films that have missed the mark have been smaller, but at this very moment Solo: A Star Wars Story will be the years biggest blunder.