JJ Abrams’ conclusion to the so-called Skywalker Saga is right around the corner (The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters on December 20th) and looking back on the Disney era of Star Wars so far, I can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out if Lucasfilm had approached continuing George Lucas’s space fantasy franchise a bit differently.
I haven’t loved any of the films that have been released since Lucas sold the company to Disney in 2012, but I have tried to resist declaring the trilogy a failure until I’ve seen Episode IX and can weigh the three films as a whole instead of the seemingly flawed first two acts on their own. I’m not optimistic, though, and everything I’ve read and heard about potential leaks combined with the seemingly half-assed marketing campaign, the return of Palpatine, and the ongoing behind the scenes corporate politicking only reaffirms my pessimism. As bizarre as it sounds for a franchise that cost Disney over 4 billion dollars, Lucasfilm’s efforts so far have been less like those of its corporate cousin, Marvel Studios, and more like the scattershot attempts of DC Films.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for Star Wars. The Mandalorian launched with Disney+ a few weeks back and so far the fan reaction has been pretty positive across the board. There seems to be agreement that the show captures the Star Wars feel while making an effort to be something that stands apart from the simple good/evil conflicts that the popular films revolve around. The Mandalorian is taking us down the back allies of the Star Wars universe and letting us peer behind the curtain at the seedy underbelly that is only hinted at in the original and prequel films. The casting is solid, the set design is spot on (and maybe a little too faithful to the original films), and the acting is (mostly) pretty good. Tone, direction, cinematography, and action are all also in the plus column for the show.
Of course, there have been criticisms.
The episodes are much shorter than most people seemed to have expected. It’s not quite as gritty as some fans were hoping for. It’s a bit thin on plot. And for a show that’s already more than halfway through its initial 8 episode first season it’s taking its sweet time developing its characters. And the music. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the music.
But for a fandom that is notoriously difficult to please, The Mandalorian seems to have done just that. Granted, the peace Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, and company have created is fragile and it could all still come down like a house of cards, but the show’s success so far at least indicates fans still want to be fans and that many of those who have felt alienated by Disney Star Wars so far are willing to let go of the grudge and give the former king of all franchises one more chance at telling stories they want to see. It also suggests that there’s always been a way to make Star Wars that all fans can enjoy (which suggests conventional wisdom about why there’s currently a divide within the fandom is bunk).
I like The Mandalorian. I agree with most of the praise and a few of the criticisms, but, overall, I think it’s a solid attempt (so far) on the part of the creative team behind it to produce a Star Wars show that is not only consistent with what most people love about the franchise but that isn’t a simple rehash of what’s come before (although I do think aspects of it [set design] are a bit too slavish to the original films). That said, the show’s success kind of pisses me off, and, listening to commentary and reviews on YouTube, I find that I’m not alone in lamenting what could have been.
JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Bob Iger have all explained that the The Force Awakens was designed to refamiliarize audiences with Star Wars. That’s why the plot of Episode VII is so similar to that of Star Wars. It’s why the First Order is basically the Empire Redux, it’s why Kylo Ren is a Darth Vader wannabe, and it’s why Rey’s story starts out on a desert planet that might as well be Tatooine. I’m not sure I accept Abrams, Kennedy, and Igers’ premise, but let’s just go with it. Let’s say audiences needed a primer, a refresher, to get them back into the Star Wars groove. To remind them who and what Star Wars is about. Fine. Even if I disagree with the reasoning, I actually think it could have led to something pretty fun and interesting. Here’s my take on what Disney/LFL should have done instead of the sequel trilogy and the two standalone films, Rogue One and Solo.
What Should Have Happened
First things first: Re-release the original films to theaters. And, yes, the prequels, too. And since this is a coulda/woulda wish that can never happen, I would have loved to have seen them release a cleaned up, color-corrected version of the theatrical releases of the original trilogy (basically the Despecialized Editions) and maybe a re-edited version of the prequels with some retouches to lighting and effects shots to make them look less like they were shot on a soundstage against a green screen. That’s pie in the sky, and it would never happen, but it’s a gimmick that I think would have put butts in the seats.
But, basically, you start by re-releasing the films (1-6 in sequence) to theaters. That’s your first, most obvious step in re-familiarizing your audience with Star Wars. You follow that up with yet another release of the films on BluRay and a special merchandising campaign with toys, apparel … you know the drill.
This serves a few purposes: Again, it solves the problem of re-familiarizing audiences with the franchise, it provides an influx of cash at a pretty low cost, and it buys Lucasfilm some time to produce new content.
If Lucasfilm’s attempts to produce new stuff after the sale to Disney seem rushed and scattershot, it’s probably because Disney had just shelled out 4 billion and the pressure was on executives and creatives to provide a return on Disney’s investment. The Force Awakens was conceived from scratch and began production less than two years after the sale to Disney. That’s a pretty fast turnaround for such a huge, important film. Lucasfilm could have re-released two of the original six films each year, one in late Spring and another in the Winter, and that would have bought them at least three years to work on new stuff.
What that new content should have been is the part that really interests me, and it’s where I think Lucasfilm really tripped over its lightsaber.
The Adventures of Luke Skywalker
The original title for Alan Dean Foster’s 1977 novelization of Star Wars was Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. If you can’t already tell where I’m going with this, here it is:
The Adventures of Luke Skywalker is the perfect title for a Star Wars television show. It would work as an animated series, but to hit a broader audience, I think you recast the roles with young unknowns and make it live action. You cast for chemistry and acting abilities instead of trying to find look-alikes, and you follow the formula set out by other sci-fi TV shows like Firefly and Star Trek (among others) by keeping the focus on the serialized adventures of the characters. You put your money into set design and practical effects, keep the CGI space scenes as minimal as possible (essentially do what Lucasfilm has done with The Mandalorian), and you work out a distribution deal with Netflix to reach the broadest audience possible.
With one TV show, Lucasfilm could have re-introduced audiences to the original trilogy characters (arguably, the franchise’s most famous characters), added to the mythology of George Lucas’s fictional galaxy by fleshing out the original characters, layering in new characters and their stories, and further blending the original trilogy era with the prequel trilogy era (which is something Dave Filoni has done so well with The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series). This would have given old school fans more of that OT era they’re so nostalgic for and laid the groundwork for the next trilogy of films that would then anchor an entirely new generation of audiences to the franchise (which seemed to be the plan for the sequel trilogy in the first place). And it would present endless licensing opportunities for toys, apparel … again, you know the drill.
From there, the possibilities are endless. You can do the character-focused standalone films everyone (not me) seems to want. Obi-Wan, Boba Fett, Vader. Hell, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Qui-Gon film. And this will probably sound like heresy coming from an old school Star Wars fan, but since it’s Disney, I see it as inevitable: Recasting the original actors for a TV show allows you to expand that to films later on down the line if there’s demand for it. It also allows you to spin other TV shows off of it.
And this is where I think Lucasfilm and Disney’s desire to showcase female characters would have dovetailed naturally with the demands of the storytelling, and I think it would correct something that the sequel trilogy got very wrong.
Leia should have been a Jedi.
There’s absolutely no reason to think Luke wouldn’t have trained her, and this could have been explored in film or a TV series. Again, with new actors, and, I think Luke’s success or lack of success at teaching people a discipline he barely understands himself would have provided the perfect set up for future conflicts, which could have been explored in a set of new trilogy films. And this is where you bring Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Billy Dee Williams, etc in to hand off to the next generation of Star Wars actors.
Disney buying Lucasfilm should have been a license to print money. And while I am willing to give those involved some grace for the amount of pressure they must have been under given the circumstances, I also know executives in charge at such a high level are compensated for the huge amount of responsibility they must shoulder. If the powers that be weren’t up to the task of hitting the softball that is Star Wars out of the park, someone over at Disney should have had the good sense to step in and put the right people in the right places early on. Sadly, none of that happened, and it makes me legitimately sad to think what could have been.
Anyway, what’s your take? Are you happy with how things have gone with Star Wars since Disney bought Lucasfilm, or do you think things could have been better? Put your producer hat on and tell us how you would have done things if you had been in charge
I look forward to arguing with you in the comments below.