Disney appears to want to transform the Star Wars universe into something more gritty and complex through its initial filmmaker choices, but then yanks them for safer ones and a retelling of the same old formula. Is Disney ruining Star Wars?
I know it sounds silly, but I think what Disney is doing is nefarious.
This week, I watched the final trailer for the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. I laid on the floor and watched all two and a half minutes, and when it ended I sat silent. I got up and turned around, my wife’s excitement brimming, and told her, “I don’t know. I think Disney is ruining this whole thing.” My anticipation wasn’t building like it was a few years ago when they first announced Rian Johnson, one of my favorite writer/directors, was going to be taking on the second entry in the new Star Wars trilogy. When the final trailer ended, I didn’t feel anything, which was strange considering cinema and movies have been so central to me for my entire life. So, I thought all night about why I suddenly didn’t care about the Star Wars movie.
Of course, The Last Jedi looks good. It’s probably going to be the best entry in the new trilogy. Rian Johnson works in the moralistic ambiguity that we’ve come to love (e.g., Breaking Bad, Looper, The Brothers Bloom) and I’m already expecting a downer of an ending—you know, like a major character getting his hand chopped off by his estranged father and another one being frozen in carbonite and delivered to a fat worm monster. I wrote another article about trilogies and the second entry allows itself to be the most daring in the story it tells because the third entry will wrap everything up. Yes, The Last Jedi is going to be everything we’ve come to expect from this new era of Star Wars, and that’s kind of the issue.
Am I the only one who thinks Disney is ruining Star Wars?
The Force Awakens has already been shown to be a rehash of A New Hope. I don’t want to go too far into it because it seems like two years ago there were articles popping up everywhere. Videos, too. The similarities are startling, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are already to a point where there isn’t much in the arena of originality and all we’re doing is watching, or reading, slight variations on stories that already exist, but the new Star Wars movies seem a little too on the nose. I mean, look at what we’ve seen of The Last Jedi already: a young prodigy flies to a remote planet to be trained by a master; a dark powerful overlord oversees countless minions and relies upon his most talented dark force warrior to do his most important bidding; and I will give my left nut if we don’t explicitly find out who Rey’s parents are (probably Obi-Wan Kenobi, because, you know, it again pushes the Kenobi/Skywalker rivalry). There is an obvious formula and that’s fine, but it seems like Disney is trying to hide what they’re doing. This, at its core, is what bothers me so much about this new set of Star Wars movies.
There is an obvious formula and that’s fine, but it seems like Disney is trying to hide what they’re doing. This, at its core, is what bothers me so much about this new set of Star Wars movies.
I understand the entertainment industry is a perfect meeting of the commodification of ideas. This is a business where the products are made with the expectation of making millions of dollars. There is a lot of skin in the game and when someone is dumping as much money into the Star Wars movies (around four billion just for the rights) I can understand why they’re cautious with what the final product is. Even with all that, we can see filmmakers fighting to make certain movies, and I think that’s what is getting to me about Disney and Star Wars. Whenever a filmmaker has tried to take creative liberties with the property, there is major pushback from Disney. Phil Lord and Chris Miller were the only reason I was excited to see the young Han Solo movie. They are the masterminds behind 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, and The Last Man on Earth. Their filmmaking style is relatively well-known and it’s through their improvisational methods they are able to get their desired effects. Why were they hired in the first place? These are the two guys who successfully pitched a 21 Jump Street/Men in Black crossover movie (unfortunately not so successful to have it actually made). Disney should have known exactly what they were getting into when they hired these two, but with three weeks to go in the shoot they decided to pull the plug on the duo. They hired Ron Howard to come finish the Han Solo movie. Disney has basically now given us a director that is too safe for what they claim to be doing with this franchise.
Disney also owns Marvel Studios. These are the movies that have unleashed the cinematic era of the shared universe. One thing that is clear when looking at all the Marvel Studio movies is they follow the same formula. Spider-Man: Homecoming didn’t hold any secrets or surprises because Disney and Marvel Studios have found something that works. Are these movies fun and enjoyable? Of course. I had a great time at Doctor Strange and have enjoyed all the Captain America movies, but now that they’re into the double digits it is a little grating to see the same basic movie again and again. If it wasn’t for James Gunn and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, I think I would have jumped ship on all the Marvel Studio properties. Gunn was able to inject some of his unique sensibilities into the franchise, but I think that was only because GOTG was second tier to the other heroes. Most people I talked to were more curious to see what the movie was, as opposed to seeing their favorite comic books come to life. Though, I have to imagine Gunn played by Disney’s rules. Not long after this release, Edgar Wright left the Ant-Man project due to creative differences. Again, Wright was the only reason I was excited for that movie, and in the end I thought the movie Peyton Reed delivered was more of the same and I was bored with it. Wright did not fit into the mold Marvel Studios (and Disney) wanted and so he was given the choice to either fall in line or leave. Unfortunately for me—and other cinephiles—he left.
Now, let me ask if you can tell me who directed Spider-Man: Homecoming? Or Thor: The Dark World? Captain America: Civil War? Jon Watts directed the newest wall crawler movie. His previous movies include Cop Car (despite the terrible title, it was highly-praised coming out of Sundance and holds an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes) and Clown (a 48% on RT), along with episodes of The Onion News Network. The second Thor movie was taken on by Alan Taylor, primarily known for his work on the Game of Thrones series (and Terminator: Genisys, which came after and was mostly hated with a 26% on RT). The third Captain America movie was the Russo brothers, which prior to Captain America: The Winter Soldier were known for television—Community, Arrested Development, and Happy Endings to name a few. These directors have TV in common and that shows they are able to fall in line and do what a greater creative force asks of them. Perhaps this is why Disney made a misstep with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, considering they were the creators of The Last Man on Earth. Maybe Disney mixed up what it means to direct episodes in a series and actually creating one? I’m skeptical that this is the mistake they made, but it’s the only thing that really makes any sense to me. I don’t blame a studio for wanting these movies to follow a tried-and-true format because these aren’t meant to be pieces of art—they are meant to be entertainment, and the name of the game is money. Though, we are well aware of that when we walk into a Marvel Studios movie, and that is the key difference here.
With Star Wars they are picking directors who have proven themselves to be artists. When they originally announced the three directors for the core trilogy, it seemed to follow a pretty solid scheme. J.J. Abrams was the safe choice who knew how to make a popcorn movie. He was essentially the second coming of Spielberg, but not nearly as good. I loved Super 8 and enjoyed his Star Trek movies, but he was following in the footsteps of giants. This was exactly what Disney needed for the new era of Star Wars. Abrams was going to ease the audience into the second (or maybe third) coming of—as my friend Aaron calls it—Keeping Up with the Skywalkers. Rian Johnson was going to write and direct the second entry, the prime opportunity to deal with the dark sides of the characters. With movies like Brick and Looper, he has an existing cinephile following, thus leading fans to believe he was going to make an unconventional Star Wars movie. But don’t forget—Rian Johnson also directed episodes of Breaking Bad. He has proven himself to follow a larger creative force. Then there was Colin Trevorrow, the director of a charming indie, Safety Not Guaranteed, and the not-so-indie blockbuster Jurassic World. He had the indie cred, but could also handle himself around a large property, so he was a clear choice for the third Star Wars movie. None of that matters now though, because Trevorrow has left the project and Disney has hired J.J. Abrams back to round out the trilogy. Another safe choice.
It’s no wonder Disney is getting this much pushback, and yet they continue to move down this path: one that makes us think we’re going to be getting new and complex Star Wars movies.
Along with the core trilogy, they decided to make spin-off movies. We’ve seen one so far (Rogue One) and we’ve talked about the aforementioned Han Solo movie. There was a third movie scheduled with Josh Trank—director of Chronicle—but shortly before his failed Fantastic Four movie was released, he was let go from the Star Wars project due to creative differences. Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards, who was known for the micro-budget horror/drama Monsters, which earned him the job to make 2014’s Godzilla. A big complaint of the latter was it was too slow and didn’t have enough Godzilla in it. I was pleasantly surprised with the movie because it wasn’t what we were expecting. Edwards made the movie he wanted to and while it wasn’t what people necessarily wanted, at least it was something that was fully contained and didn’t have the fingerprints of the studio all over it. While he made Rogue One, there was studio intervention even to the point of bringing on Tony Gilroy—the writer behind the Bourne movies—to rewrite some scenes and clean up some directing. It was debatable whether Edwards was still in charge or not, but in the end his name is on it, even if it doesn’t really feel like his movie.
The whole thing seems overly calculated to manipulate what fans think they want. Star Wars bred a lot of cinephiles and as a way to keep these fans happy they’ve stocked the movies with auteurs and indie darlings. It’s no wonder Disney is getting this much pushback, and yet they continue to move down this path: one that makes us think we’re going to be getting new and complex Star Wars movies. But at this point we’re basically watching a rehash of the original trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels, but at least George Lucas (who I don’t even like very much) was trying something different and new with the franchise. He was treating those movies with more of an artistic bent than we’re seeing Disney do now. That’s a lot of the annoyance, too. Disney is hiring these directors to lead the audience to believe that they’re going to turn the movies on their heads and give us a fresh take, but in the end, they pull the plug at the moment of resistance.
The way Disney is going about this feels like they’re being purposefully deceitful to try and hide the fact that we’re buying into something we already have, and have had for the last thirty-plus years. There is still the nostalgia factor. These are still characters we care about and want to see how their lives turned out. People are going to flock to these movies regardless of the content, so why not give the reins over to a fan who got into filmmaking because of the original Star Wars movies? If they were up front and honest with the way they wanted these movies to unfold, I think it’d be easier to swallow, but it’s in that misleading nature that makes me distrust their motives. And now that I distrust their motives, I’ve stopped caring about the outcome of the movies.
So, that sucks.