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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Star Wars Ain’t What It Used to Be

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

On this year’s May the Fourth, like clockwork, a new piece of Star Wars news dropped: a trailer for the forthcoming Disney+ show Obi-Wan Kenobi. Previous Star Wars Day announcements have included that Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi would be cowriting and helming a future Star Wars movie and that General Mills would be releasing a Baby Yoda cereal. It’s also a day for all kinds of fan actions, like making crafts, doing cosplay, and holding movie marathons. But over the years, the holiday has begun to feel more and more like a marketing stunt—a former grassroots fan holiday that’s been turned into a news peg for a trailer for a show people don’t seem too jazzed about.

Before we continue, a moment of clarity. Yes, WIRED participates in May the Fourth as much as any media organization and has for as far back as I can remember (in a galaxy far, far away … ). Also, there may be people out there who are much more excited about Obi-Wan than my feeds indicate. But my broader point is that, since The Mandalorian, maybe even since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the future of the franchise has felt like watching the Millennium Falcon go into hyperdrive: lots of bright lights and action, but hard to see where it’s going.

Part of this has to do with the fact that, frankly, Star Wars is in a bit of a lull. Following the breakout success of The Mandalorian, Lucasfilm has released scores of spin-off series, each receiving about the same level of enthusiasm. The Bad Batch was good, though it maybe lacked the crossover appeal of Mando because it’s an animated series. The Book of Boba Fett—essentially about one of the fandom’s most beloved characters—was fine. And now there’s Obi-Wan, which is once again resurrecting a beloved character, but resurrecting the version of him played by Ewan McGregor, from the less beloved prequel trilogy. It could truly go either way, even though this trailer does indicate more cinematic thrills (and Darth Vader moments) than previous series have had. The Rise of Skywalker came out nearly three years ago, and the next feature film—ostensibly director Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron—isn’t coming until December 2023, and even that date is a bit of a question mark. In the meantime, everything Star Wars just feels like it’s on auto-pilot.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that all of these sort of ho-hum releases have come during much different times than previous ones did. Rise of Skywalker ended up being kind of a whimper for the more recent trilogy of movies to end on, but it also happened in December 2019, just months before Covid-19 hit. In the intervening years, there’s been the 2020 US presidential election, Black Lives Matter protests, a war in Ukraine, and countless other massively impactful events. While the franchise may have served as a distraction at times, it also seemed far less attention-worthy than the chaos of the real world. During a week in which a leaked draft opinion suggests the US Supreme Court could vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, an Obi-Wan trailer doesn’t feel that impactful. Star Wars has persisted in all sorts of sociopolitical climates, but at a time when it seems like the franchise could, frankly, use a break, now might be the time to just let it coast.

The question is, will it come back? Disney has invested billions of dollars into Lucasfim with the expectation that it’ll be a content machine for years to come. To that end, there’s Andor, about Diego Luna’s Rogue One standout Cassian Andor, set to release later this year, along with a second season of Bad Batch. There’s also a Lando Calrissian show allegedly in the works, and more Mandalorian coming, as well as two spin-offs of that show, one featuring Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka Tano. But those projects are just spin-offs from already-existing stories in the Star Wars universe. They’re also part of the plan—former Disney CEO Bob Iger said not too long ago that the Star Wars films would go on hiatus while the studio focused on Disney+ shows.

The true test of Star Wars’ future will be in whether any post-Skywalker Saga stories can take off. Having Waititi helm one sounds promising, so does word that Sleight filmmaker J. D. Dillard will make a feature. Marvel honcho Kevin Feige is also maybe switching hats to helm a Star Wars movie. But then there’s Last Jedi director Rian Johnson’s trilogy, which was announced years ago but has been quiet in the months since. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were also slated to have their own trilogy but exited the project in 2019. So, what gives? Yes, Obi-Wan could be great, and Jenkins’ movie could be the start of a whole new Star Wars renaissance. Or they could all fail, leaving the franchise with only its past glories. But most likely, nothing spectacular—no genre-shifting epic, or epic flameout—will happen, and Star Wars will just keep puttering along, like a malfunctioning droid in the Tatooine desert. That may be the most disappointing ending of all.

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