It would appear that much ado is being made, and tea leaves getting read, about Solo: A Star Wars Story’s apparently middling movie theater performance so far. With all this going on, I think there is one potentially crucial factor to this enterprise that bears bringing to the forefront.
I’ll be upfront; I have not seen Solo yet, I am in no rush to, and same as I did for Rogue One, I’ll most likely end up finally seeing well after it has left theaters. Thus, I’ve got no opinion about how it is—besides, the overall feel I’ve gotten from the people I read, watch, or otherwise listen to is that it’s solid—so “Is it because it’s bad?” isn’t a factor I’m aiming to consider.
My thinking has to do with a different angle mostly independent of quality. Namely, that Star Wars exists today in a vastly different environment than it did just a short while ago.
Consider the following: Solo is the fourth Star Wars movie released in the last three and a half years. It is also, by the way, the second Star Wars Story spinoff movie released in the last one and a half years.
That is a lot of cinematic Star Wars in a short amount of time. More than one per year on average! Granted, in a Marvel Cinematic Universe-dominated era, maybe that does not sound so extreme. However, the Star Wars movie enterprise is also vastly different from the MCU, and I think part of it includes the possibility that maybe it isn’t (yet, at least) built to play by the MCU’s rulebook.
The most crucial thing that I want to focus on, however, is that the conditions surrounding first film of New Star Wars as compared to the most recent one—The Force Awakens versus Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2015 versus 2018—are like night and day. TFA had the benefit of audience anticipation decades in the making. Solo does not.
When The Force Awakens was set to come out, the mainstream had all not gotten a Star Wars movie in a decade, when Revenge of the Sith premiered in 2005. Hell, depending on who you ask, it had been even longer since we had gotten a good Star Wars movie; personally speaking, for example, my dad straight-up ignores the prequel triology when he ranks the films, as if to (half...quarter...not at all??) jokingly insist that they don’t exist as far as he’s concerned. We were not in an Era of Star Wars going back to just 2015.
Just as significantly, The Force Awakens was the start of a sequel trilogy to the original as opposed to the prequel. Return of the Jedi first came out all the way back in 1983, so where the mainstream was concerned, they were set to watch the official continuation of a story and set of characters that had been last left off thirty-two years ago.
The Force Awakens, in other words, had the benefit of audience anticipation literally decades in the making. My awareness of Star Wars only started as a kid with VHS tapes of the Special Edition re-releases, and even then, when I sat in the theater seeing it for the first time, I literally got immediately emotional just from seeing the “A long, long time ago” text and then hearing the fanfare from the Star Wars theme as the opening crawl for Episode VII ran up the screen.
“Star Wars is BACK!!!” it all seemed to say. And J.J. Abrams’ work on the movie leaned hard into that sentiment. I’m pretty sure a big part of its massive success came down to this.
I think that Rogue One even got to tap into a somewhat similar vein of novelty. It was the first spin-off movie, it was the first movie in thirty-three years—from 1983 to 2016—that revisited the most-known and most-loved Rebel Alliance versus Empire setting, and it was tackling that setting from a far different vantage point than everyone was used to.
Solo, on the other hand? As the fourth New Star Wars film, and the second spin-off? It has none of that novelty going for it. Star Wars is no longer coming back; it is already back and here to stay. It’s also not even the first visit we’ve had in a long time to the good ol’ Rebel Alliance-and-Empire times, because Rogue One already took that shine, too! We are well-entrenched into an Era of Star Wars, to sum it up, and I think it’s highly possible that its box office returns so far reflect that reality.
It’s not even alone in that regard either. The Last Jedi—the third New Star Wars film, the second one after The Force Awakens, and released just under six months before Solo—similarly came out at a time where Star Wars was Officially Back, and when comparing domestic gross box office returns, notice how it significantly pales in comparison to TFA. The biggest shock to me, actually, is that the main-series film TLJ only did marginally better than the spinoff film Rogue One.
I think these results point to the possibility that Disney’s opportunity to bank on everyone’s longtime nostalgia is just about up. That is the paradigm in which Star Wars’ stewards need to contend with from this point forward: From here on out, they may very well need a different path forward if they want to continue their annual movie release plan in the long term.