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Commentary TV and Movies

Star Wars isn't built for a Marvel-style cinematic universe

Commentary: Solo: A Star Wars story had the most disappointing box office opening of any Star Wars movie yet. Is Star Wars really ready for the Marvel treatment?

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Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm

Solo: A Star Wars Story's box office numbers are in, and the overwhelming consensus seems to be… meh.

Not good, not terrible. Meh.

And unfortunately, "meh" doesn't quite cut it when you're working with a reported $300 million budget.

Industry experts expected Solo to rake in $84.7 million at the domestic box office over the three-day Memorial Day weekend, and it hit an estimated $103 million over four days. Not a disaster, but considering Disney's forecast of around $130 to $150 million, many are preemptively calling Solo a flop.

It's a little too early to call Solo a complete box office dud. It could recover. It's also difficult to speculate why Solo performed the way it did, but it's got me wondering if Star Wars is really built for a Marvel-style cinematic universe

Dramatically different

Marvel and Star Wars are dramatically different properties in just about every conceivable way.

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Marvel Studios

Star Wars was a movie, then it was a trilogy -- and a prequel trilogy. Then it was acquired by Disney and the floodgates opened.

Marvel is… where do I even start?

Marvel is Spider-Man. Marvel is Iron Man. Marvel is The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor. And those are just the ones your parents could pick out in a police lineup. We're not even getting started on Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and the rest of the hangers-on.

Most of these characters have been around since the '60s. Captain America's one of the few World War II superheroes who was actually around for World War II. He made his debut in 1941. Between them, Marvel superheroes have literally thousands of story arcs to draw on.

Simply put: Marvel has an incredibly rich history of memorable stories that Star Wars can't compete with. Not just as the Avengers, not just as a crossover property, but as individual characters. Each has their own mythology, their own unique history. That's a lot of "content".

Star Wars has some movies, I guess.

Correction: Star Wars has some movies, an animated show and an expanded universe that includes some great video games, some OK books, and some of the strangest shit ever created by human hands. An expanded universe that Disney (quite rightly) swept under the rug when it acquired Lucasfilm in 2012.

It's just incomparable. Star Wars has less to draw on. It is one property, but Marvel is legion. It has the history and legacy to bear multiple movies about multiple different characters.

Star Wars? I'm not so sure.

Going in reverse

It doesn't even necessarily matter if Star Wars spin-off movies are good.

Because they've been good. Rogue One is good. Solo is good. The real question: Is there an appetite for an endless stream of Star Wars movies like there seems to be for Marvel? I'd say kinda, but not to the same extent.

Superhero characters have their own unique fanbases, the end result of decades of comics, TV shows, cartoons, video games, etc. There are Spider-Man fans, Captain America fans, Iron Man fans.

The entire Star Wars universe comes from one single source. When you think about it, Star Wars is attempting to do what Marvel did in reverse.

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Disney

The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know began with Iron Man, a movie about one single Marvel character. Then there were five additional "individual" movies featuring major characters like Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America. Only then did the Avengers bring those disparate stories together for a "major" crossover movie. The Avengers was, to a certain extent, the Marvel version of A New Hope, and it was released after its audience had learned to treat movies about individual characters with the same respect.

Star Wars as a franchise never has that luxury. Star Wars is undergoing this process in reverse. Central Star Wars movies already exist and everything else has been released in its wake. The end result: spin-off movies feel like spin-off movies. They're not essential.

That doesn't mean that the Star Wars universe isn't capable of high-quality movies outside the main episode structure. It just means that, on its current trajectory, it's difficult to see any Star Wars spin-off movie feeling as important as, say, Black Panther or Captain America.

Disney has done a great job of weaving all these diverse stories into one cohesive universe where each movie feels essential, building toward something greater. It was able to do so because the MCU was essentially a blank slate. It was built from the ground up as a "cinematic universe".

Star Wars wasn't.

It's a small world after all

Perhaps the worst thing about the Star Wars prequels was how small they made the Star Wars universe seem. 

Chewbacca was best buds with Yoda. The clone army was built using the gene of Boba Fett's dad. Tying loose ends with familiar names gave us that short term nostalgia hit, but it shrank the universe and made it feel rigid when it should have been this growing, expanding thing.

In 2018 we're seeing that process play out in grander terms. Here's what Disney is currently planning for the Star Wars universe:

This is just what's currently been reported. Who know what else is planned?

How many of these movies will focus on plugging the gaps of an already saturated timeline? It's not ideal. The more you explain your fictional universe, the smaller it feels.

Han Solo's backstory was better left unexplained, and I sure as hell don't need a Boba Fett origin story. No one does. Boba Fett is a character that thrives on mystery.

I worry the current strategy will rip the mystery right out of the Star Wars universe.

But what option does Disney have? Growing the Star Wars universe is essential for Disney to maximise profits on a $4 billion investment, but with huge budgets at play that's high risk. Star Wars movies almost certainly require an association with existing characters or risk being ignored by fans. It's a tough nut to crack.

Maybe expectations just need to be recalibrated. Maybe the appeal of Star Wars in 2018 can't quite compare to Marvel and we shouldn't expect it to. Either way, the current path will most likely result in diminishing returns for the Star Wars series.

Maybe Star Wars just wasn't built for a Marvel-style universe.

First published May 28 at 8:32 p.m. PT. 
Update, May 29 at 8:52 a.m. PT: Clarifies the difference between three-day and four-day box office estimates. 

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