To paraphrase a famous singer: “Star Wars is over (if you want it).”
After several decades of theatrical disappointments, the Star Wars renaissance is finally upon us, but that comeback isn’t happening on the big screen. Since 2019, the best Star Wars has been on TV, or more accurately, streaming.
As fans eagerly await any word on a new Star Wars movie — from the delayed Rogue Squadron to rumors of an Old Republic movie — one can’t help but wonder if the era of great Star Wars films is long over. Continuing to hope for a new great Star Wars movie is pointless, and the cold truth is that universally satisfying Star Wars movies are extremely rare.
Here’s why Disney should never make a new Star Wars movie again, and how history proves the best outcome for the Force is to retreat from the cinema forever.
Star Wars movies: Doing the math
There are only two universally loved Star Wars films.
In the vastness of Star Wars fandom debates, the only constant is that everyone agrees that Star Wars (A New Hope) and The Empire Strikes Back are both great. Even Return of the Jedi — part of the hallowed “classic trilogy” — feels less sure of itself and complete than the previous two films. (As early as 1983, Star Wars was already recycling its tropes: more superweapons, hidden family connections, etc.)
Despite the fact that Rotten Tomatoes scores don’t really mean anything, the site does prove my point on Return of the Jedi. Let’s compare some quick scores:
- A New Hope: critics score, 92; audience score, 96
- Empire Strikes Back: critics score, 94; audience score, 97
- Return of the Jedi: critics score, 82; audience score, 94
This only gets worse when you look at the sequel trilogy:
(We could do the same thing for the prequels, but to be honest, the less said about those movies the better. Especially in this context.)
Regardless of which trilogy you grew up on, the evidence is clear: Any Star Wars movie that is not A New Hope and Empire has created problems in the fandom. Meaning, the one constant of Star Wars fandom is, well, it’s always in conflict. But why?
Star Wars and streaming
Imagine for a moment that Disney+ existed in 2018. Instead of landing with a thud in theaters that summer, Solo debuts as a five-part miniseries on the streaming platform. Suddenly, all the criticism of this movie dries up like water in the sands Tattoine.
The problem with Solo wasn’t that it was a bad Star Wars movie. The problem was that it was a Star Wars movie period. This isn’t to say that Solo would have been universally loved the way The Mandalorian was in 2019. But if Solo had been a TV show, the expectations would have been lowered.
This hypothetical works in reverse. Imagine The Mandalorian as a movie. You can instantly see why it might now work. Hiding Baby Yoda from the trailers wouldn’t get people to buy tickets. Worse, Grogu might have backfired like Jar Jar Binks or become unmemorable like the Porgs in Last Jedi.
Star Wars fans hardly ever talk about how great Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s freedom-fighting droid L3-37 was in Solo. But if you imagine Solo as a series, suddenly L3-37 flirting with Donald Glover’s Lando for several episodes becomes culturally exciting.
Why Star Wars works better on TV
The reason why The Mandalorian works and fans are hyped for Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka is the opposite reason why people get excited for Star Wars movies. The films need to be huge cultural events, which means doing everything each previous movie has done while also being its own thing. (Even the most unique Star Wars movie, Rogue One, got slapped with a reshoot that brought Darth Vader in to punch up its ending with lightsabers.)
This is why The Last Jedi isn’t as transgressive as it seems. It still rehashes all the major Star Wars tropes, even if Rian Johnson puts his own spin on a few of them. Again, imagine a big screen Mando in 2015. Now that would have felt transgressive! But it also might not have worked.
Star Wars works better on the small screen because the audience jettisons the baggage of expectations. You’re much more willing to accept the occasional narrative bump when you know next week’s episode can set the story back on course. Even big season finale moments like that Luke Skywalker cameo in The Mandalorian can be divisive without blowing up the entire franchise.
This isn’t exclusive to Star Wars. The very nature of cinema means audiences expect more bang for their buck, both because we’re paying for tickets and because the wait between installments is a lot longer.
This is why the films in the Skywalker saga are segmented into “Episodes.” Inspired by serialized storytelling like Flash Gordon, Lucas was attempting to take a serialized medium and turn that into films that could be viewed as standalones. His intent was to drop us into the middle of a series and see if it worked. And, for a short period, it did.
But the success of Star Wars ruined Lucas’ artistic experiment. Instead of everyone having fewer expectations for the goofy space opera, expectations only grew. The scarcity of Star Wars created an unfair need from the public for each movie to live up to impossible standards. Streaming and TV take the pressure off by allowing Lucasfilm to release a whole bunch of lower-stakes stories on a more regular cadence.
This isn’t a new idea. Animated star Wars shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels succeeded because the stakes were smaller — both for the plot and culturally. Each show could have its place in canon without having to be all Star Wars things at all times. But thanks to Disney+ and Baby Yoda, streaming is quickly supplanting movies as the center of the Star Wars galaxy.
After originally plotting Ewan McGregor’s return as a movie, Lucasfilm smartly pivoted Obi-Wan Kenobi to a Disney+ show where the stakes are much lower. Even with the two of the biggest stars in Star Wars history (McGregor and Hayden Christensen) coming back, there’s still way less pressure to deliver something earth-shattering. Why take a big risk with a movie when you can hedge your bets on the small screen instead?
Star Wars films are so shackled by nostalgia and unmeetable expectations that each new idea seems doomed to fail. Even the delay of Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron almost demands the obvious next question: why not make it a TV series?
Star Wars: Visions proved the ideas and characters of the Star Wars universe are diverse and interesting enough to sustain all sorts of different narratives. But it’s hard to imagine “The Ninth Jedi” or “The Twins” being turned into live-action feature films. And perhaps with good reason. Visions represents where Star Wars is going, not where it's been.
The dogma of Star Wars tells us the best versions of the saga existed in those perfect cinematic moments. But with The Book of Boba Fett, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan Kenobi on the way, perhaps it's time to embrace a larger view of the Force. The new hope for Star Wars isn’t in the cinema, and it’s possible that’s been true for a very, very long time.
The Book of Boba Fett hits Disney+ on December 29, 2021.