Last weekend, the unthinkable happened: a Star Wars movie underperformed at the box office. The subsequent postmortem of Solo has seen commentators and fans blame ‘franchise fatigue’ and reflect on the film’s troubled production history. Yet could the simple reason be that this particular Star Wars story asked questions no one wanted answers to?
Solo is a prequel that essentially hinges on how Han Solo become Han Solo, yet box office history suggests that the formative years of a famous character’s life is not always appealing to mainstream audiences. The question Disney should have asked was ‘does anyone actually care?’, and looking back at the franchise’s own history, the evidence seems to point towards ‘not really’.
Twenty years ago you’d have been hard pushed to find a film with more hype around it than Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. While there were mitigating factors such as casting and scripting, the first part of a trilogy that would eventually reveal the origins of Star Wars’ most iconic character, Darth Vader, quickly squandered that good will. In hindsight, did George Lucas really need to portray a backstory that had already been discussed in the original trilogy.
Thirteen years on from its conclusion in Episode III, the prequel trilogy hasn’t added much to the legacy of Star Wars – in fact, many would argue the films detracted from Lucas’ original saga. The new trilogy has thus far largely ignored those instalments, so no mention of Midi-chlorians, Gungans or pod racing. Darth Vader’s appearance in Rogue One required no prior knowledge of the earlier prequels, while by contrast another villainous cameo in Solo feels clumsily crowbarred in. Even though Lucasfilm didn’t market Solo as a ‘prequel’ outright, the extent to which the film adheres to that formula is surprising. Was anyone really desperate to know where the name ‘Solo’ came from, or how Han and Chewbacca met?
Although the prequel trend existed in Hollywood long before The Phantom Menace, the idea really took off sometime in the early 2000s, with franchise-hungry studios realising they could extent a series’ lifespan by looking backwards. Soon backstories were being fleshed out left, right and centre: we had Dumb and Dumberer, Exorcist: The Beginning, Hannibal Rising, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Oz the Great and Powerful, The Thing and Prometheus. All these films delved into some past aspect of a popular character or story and ultimately contributed very little to their development.
The thing prequels always seem to miss is that it’s not enough to simply re-enact fabled events. Audiences want to spend time with these characters, not have every detail about them shaded in. Finding out how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side is intriguing in principal, but finding him fully formed and causing destruction is much more fun – which is what a good blockbuster should be. It’s why Rogue One succeeded as a self-contained adventure with largely unknown characters. Setting a film in the past is no bar to success, but there should always be a story that feels fresh and keeps viewers guessing.
Despite the indifference to Solo, Star Wars won’t be turning its back on prequel stories anytime soon – and nor should it. The newly announced Boba Fett film and rumoured Obi-Wan spin-off have plenty of potential to be fun movies that add to the canon. However, these films must learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and realise that a familiar name isn’t enough if there isn’t anywhere interesting for them to go. After all, what use is a crowded movie universe that no one cares about?
Published 1 Jun 2018
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