Rise of Skywalker is the last chance to revive Disney's Star Wars, but do fans still care enough? Does anyone?
If you have lived in the media bubble for the past three years, you may believe the only objection to the franchise's direction comes from a shady group of politically motivated nerds. If you are outside of the bubble, you are well aware that Disney's post-George Lucas universe has struggled to connect with its audience, to say the least. Or – worse than that for Disney – you've simply stopped going to the films, buying the toys, and riding the themed attractions.
Not just 'The Last Jedi'
By now, we all know the backlash surrounding 'The Last Jedi,' the second part of the new trilogy, but the problem goes deeper than one divisive film. Sure, 'The Last Jedi' made $700 million less than its predecessor 'The Force Awakens' did in 2015, but that won't tell you the story.
Turmoil has been the mainstay of Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy's era at the helm of the iconic series. Virtually every project she has worked on has led to behind-the-scenes drama. 2016’s 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' saw nearly the entire film rewritten and millions were spent on reshoots before the final product was released to a lukewarm response from audiences.
Shortly after this, another 'Star Wars' film was met with behind-the-scenes drama as Phil Miller and Chris Lord were fired as the directors of 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' due to creative clashes with Kathleen Kennedy. This led to another round of ground-up reshoots, as well as talk that Alden Ehrenreich was so miscast as Han Solo, they needed to hire an acting coach during filming for the movie. Ouch.
Then Rian Johnson penned and directed 'The Last Jedi,' a film that split the fan base, perhaps irrevocably. As the fallout merged with the dysfunction of the Han Solo movie, fans did not want to see another 'Star Wars' movie going forward, leading to 'Solo' bombing at the box office just six months later. As Disney lost the narrative of their billion-dollar franchise, the tabloid drama began to take the air out of any breathless release from the studio.
It's your own fault you don't like our films
Taking its cue from another esteemed US establishment, Disney decided to divert the blame – with its most loyal customers chosen as the patsy.
The compliant establishment media began to point the finger at what they described as "Star Wars' toxic fanbase." Fans were shamed as actress Kelly Marie Tran deleted her Instagram account due to harassment, despite the fact that Tran herself never stated that as a reason. The narrative was repeated beat-for-beat with lead actress Daisy Ridley, though she never confirmed it either.
A bad feeling about this…
As the media focused its Death Star ray on the fans, the 'Star Wars' slate, planned for a more than a decade ahead, began to collapse in on itself.
'Star Wars' spinoff movies such as 'Boba Fett' and 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' were scrapped or restructured as Disney Plus content.
Rian Johnson, who was scheduled to have his own 'Star Wars' trilogy, had his plans shelved indefinitely. 'Game of Thrones' creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss walked away from plans to create their own trilogy of 'Star Wars' movies.
Just as the hope of the Resistance rests on a few scattered survivors, Disney's near-term 'Star Wars' future can only be saved by 'The Rise of Skywalker.'
Yet, the last chapter of the Disney era trilogy has been beset by the same behind-the-scenes turmoil as the others. From stories of the film's poor test screenings to director J.J. Abrams' struggle to creatively right the ship away from his predecessor Rian Johnson. A struggle so bad that there are rumors the film still isn't finished, weeks before its release.
Pre-order sales are disappointing and early projections have placed expected gross between 'Solo' and 'Rogue One,' once considered the humble sideshows.
Is 'Star Wars' OK?
It is hard to imagine a world where we may never get another major 'Star Wars' film in theaters again, but after continued box office disappointments, Disney may look into leaving the big screen altogether.
There are no plans for 'Star Wars' films after 2019, as Bob Iger has confirmed. Disney is on a push to reach 60 million subscribers to Disney Plus, meaning that everything that was planned for the big screen has now shifted to their streaming service, as seen with 'The Mandalorian,' its better-received spinoff series set decades before the current trilogy.
Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy is signed to stay until 2021. However, after many projects having fallen apart, it would be difficult to see her remaining following an underwhelming Episode 9 performance. If failure is an option, that means Disney will be forced back to square one after burning out the goodwill of a property in just four angry years.
The outlook is not strong for the company, but what about the fans? The cultural relevance of 'Star Wars' is too big to ever truly die but it is mortally wounded. Ticket sales are down, merchandise sales are down, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge theme park was a deserted bore when it opened earlier this year.
Disney's purportedly failsafe plan was to hook a new generation of fans for the next 40 years just like George Lucas did in the 1970s, but that is not happening.
The studio can create the largest superhero soap opera the world has ever seen, the happiest place on Earth, or one of three separate online streaming services, but the one miracle they can't conjure is audience love for future 'Star Wars' films. That magical feeling that the films once evoked with two notes of the opening theme.
Diehard fans will return – out of obligation, forlorn hope, or gleeful hate – to see how the story of Rey and Kylo comes to end, but they may view this final film as their curtain call to a once vibrant fandom.
By the time a new, good 'Star Wars' film comes out years from now, the last good one might have been from half a century earlier. And once the Force is gone, who knows if Disney – or anyone else – can ever get it back?
By Jacob Smith, editor of the libertarian entertainment site Society Reviews.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.