Like all good stories, this one begins with a billion-dollar acquisition.
In 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion. With that, not only could Lucasfilm’s founder George Lucas retire many lifetimes over, but the Mouse House came in possession of two MASSIVE pieces of intellectual property: Indiana Jones and Star Wars.
Queue the music!
For the movie-going public, this acquisition meant one thing. More Star Wars. Back in 2012 when we were wide-eyed and bushy-tailed optimists, having more Star Wars was like having more pie. Too much wasn’t enough.
For Disney, the calculus was clear. Through Marvel Studios, Disney has pushed out two or three new films each year since 2011 — and each one a financial success. Every film in this series serves an overarching A-story — the Infinity War — while also operating as a self-contained entity. This is how a massively successful universe was born. Star Wars, arguably America’s greatest pop culture export, could birth its own universe, right?
Compared to Marvel, Disney’s Star Wars universe would be different. There would be a new trilogy to end (?) the Skywalker Saga at the rate of one new film every other year, with smaller, ancillary films produced to run in the off years. Each year since 2015 we’ve been greeted with a new Star Wars story: Episodes VII and VIII, Rogue One, and Solo.
I’m not a Star Wars super-fan though I have seen all the films. This detachment actually provides me a nice vantage point from which to view the craziness that has met each successive film: far, far away …
My takes aren’t scorching hot. Maybe that’s boring, but I don’t need my Star Wars viewership to exist on emotional extremes. I liked Episode VII enough. I fell asleep when I first watched Rogue One in theaters. Episode VIII felt messily disconnected from the narrative’s first seven installments in an exciting way (while also frustratingly playing with the rules of, say, gravity). Solo … well, I really liked it.
For the past year, I’ve been trying to re-wire my Rotten Tomatoes-addled brain. RT is still one of the most visited sites on my Chrome, don’t get me wrong, but the rational side of my brain hates it. I do think it’s ruined movie-going somewhat by making people lazy. We boil artistic quality (a term I’ll use loosely) into a percentage that determines whether a film is worthwhile enough to watch. Don’t read the reviews, RT tells us, we’ll stick them all in a food processor and force feed you the resulting critical glop.
It’s a service people clearly want, that much I understand. I just think it does them a disservice. We’ve become a culture of douche bag guys in Boston bars spouting RT scores to justify our meaningless takes. It’s like that scene in Good Will Hunting except instead of regurgitating the economic forces present on the southern colonies, I’m deriding Solo because it’s not Certified Fresh.
“Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter?”
Solo’s Rotten Tomatoes score was the main reason I skipped it back when it came out, though I know better. Or at least I want to. Rotten Tomatoes is groupthink, and a flawed groupthink at that. Everyone reacts to a film differently — we know this — and no percentage of HIGH AND MIGHTY FILM CRITICS (HAMFC) can adequately give you the answer to the question you are ultimately asking: Should I see this?
For me and Solo, the answer to that was yes. I watched it a few days ago on a long plane ride home. Because any Star Wars content is analyzed to death, I knew the Internet’s takes going in. For me, I thought most of the criticisms I’ve seen lobbed its way these past few months overstated at worst and entirely misleading at best. I expected trash. It’s not trash.
It’s fun. It’s entertaining. The twists, such as they are, work. I like Alden Ehrenreich in this role even if he doesn’t quite possess the scruffy-looking gruffness of Harrison Ford. Over and over in Solo Han says he’s a bad guy. Ehrenreich is entirely too likable for that to be true.
I’m not a film critic so I’ll spare any thoughts on craft or acting for those more qualified (There were some cool sequences and shots!). What interests me more about Solo, and the larger Star Wars universe in general, is the way it’s critical and fan reception differ drastically from other pieces of pop culture.
Consider the MCU. Over the past 10 years Marvel has produced films of varying quality. That’s a statement to which I think most people would agree. Is Solo really worse than Thor 2? If we’re talking bigger releases, Avengers 2 isn’t exactly the most beloved film within the MCU cannon. Does the vitriol surrounding either of those releases hold a candle to Solo? Or the #NotMySkywalker-ness of 2017’s Episode VIII? No way.
But why is that?
Marvel and Star Wars both count many, many passionate fans. But on a movie-by-movie basis there’s less at stake for Marvel than Star Wars — for two main reasons, I think. One, superhero movies have legitimized superhero comics. No longer are comic book fans geeky outsiders. Their interests are now mainstream, and any amount of attention that’s paid to the MCU films is just gravy. For another, the history of superhero comics is littered with reboots and crossover events and different people assuming the mantle of well-known characters. It’s no longer polarizing. It’s self-sustaining. How many people have worn Spiderman’s mask in the comics? How many have done it in the movies?
In Star Wars, Carrie Fisher passed away mid-way through filming Episode VIII and not only was she in that entire movie, she’s reportedly going to appear in Episode IX.
To my mind, the closest comparison to Star Wars is probably Harry Potter. In addition to J.K. Rowling’s seven cannon novels, there are eight films, a play, whatever lives on Pottermore and, oh yeah, another film series: Fantastic Beasts.
I didn’t much care for Fantastic Beasts 1 at first view. I didn’t find Newt Scamander as compelling a guide into this entirely foreign world as Harry Potter was, and the reveal at the end was — from a storytelling perspective — totally unearned. I haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts 2, yet, but I’m well aware that people are losing their minds at a rate of Twitter posts unseen since Rey found out her parentage in Episode VIII.
On one hand, I’m a Harry Potter fan and thus sympathetic with those who squirm at FB2’s (seeming) rewrite of established cannon. On the other, I subscribe to a fandom that is passive. I don’t control Harry Potter or Fantastic Beasts or Star Wars. I consume it. The problem, as I see it, is that these universes have become so bloated that professional and fan criticism doesn’t attack the product. It attacks the viewer’s perceived understanding of the product’s place within its own universe. I’ve read more hot takes about Professor McGonagall’s appearance in the film than anything else. They’re pissed. That anger doesn’t even hold a candle to how people feel about FB2‘s reveal. People! It’s the second movie in a 5-part series. Stories arcs ebb, questions are raised, information is withheld. It can be challenging to a reader or viewer! Give the creator some credit, please, and judge work while acknowledging it’s incomplete.
Being a “Star Wars Story” does Solo little favor. In most of the negative (or middling) reviews I read for Solo a similar pattern emerges: Donald Glover is good. Alden Ehrenreich isn’t Harrison Ford. The story is unimaginative because we know how Han Solo’s story ends. It’s not as satisfying as other entries in the series therefore it fails.
To me, the last two points are lazy takes. I don’t agree with them and I don’t understand them. Solo is cleverly framed around the Kessel Run — a great idea for a Han Solo film! — and it’s actually a criticism that reveals some greater truth about what people want from a Star Wars film.
People took up arms against Episode VIII because it pushed against the idea that to be special you must come from special stock. It pushed against a lot of things, truthfully. It wildly re-imagined what a Star Wars movie is (and how the laws of gravity work, but I digress). Fans didn’t much care for it.
Maybe there’s middle ground to draw upon where people who don’t like imaginative stories (Episode VIII haters) and people who crave imaginative stories (Solo haters) can get together and think about things before they say them. Maybe they can understand that expectations are not grounds for criticism. You can like Solo less than you like Empire without the former being a total failure — just as you can like galas less than granny smiths without the former being a total failure of an apple. No, you can’t please everyone all of the time, and that’s especially true when Star Wars or Harry Potter fans aren’t even looking for the good.
The response to Solo does make me curious to see how Disney’s Star Wars universe will evolve in the coming years — we’re slated for two new original trilogies and other ancillary stories, for now. What has Disney learned? How will that affect storytelling?
I believe we can have Star Wars without a Skywalker or a Solo surname. Though they may be unfamiliar now, there are many more worlds to explore in this galaxy far, far away, and more stories to tell. And when we do, I hope fans will judge it for what it is. Not for what it isn’t.