Star Wars is one of the biggest franchises of all time, if not the biggest. The release of every new film is a phenomenon, and for decades people have felt passionately about the universe George Lucas created forty years ago. People have cosplayed their favorite characters, bought billions and billions of dollars worth of merchandise, and have had endless debates about various points of minutiae. People care a lot about this world, and yet Disney’s plan for the series so far is to give people what’s already familiar rather than assuming that they’ll go for something new.
Yesterday, we learned that director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is developing an Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff at Lucasfilm. While there’s currently no script and no one has been cast, presumably the story would take place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope since we already saw young Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace and unless they want to follow around his ghost, there’s nothing much to do after A New Hope.
In theory, I don’t really have a problem with an Obi-Wan Kenobi movie starring Ewan McGregor. He did a good job with the character despite being in three lousy movies, and there could likely still be a story worth telling about his time on Tatooine. Germain Lussier over at io9 has written that the larger problem is that a better story has already been told through Clone Wars and Rebels with a confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. However, the movies will discard anything that gets in the way of the stories they want to tell. That movie may not be as good as what was on television, but most people won’t have seen those shows, so they’ll be none the wiser.
For me, the larger problem is that Disney seems bent on keeping Star Wars as small as possible, which is the same problem we ran into with the prequels. To be fair, Disney has been slightly more graceful than introducing the idea that Darth Vader was the original builder of C-3PO, but nevertheless, the Star Wars movies seem petrified of telling a story that’s disconnected to everything we’ve seen before. So with The Force Awakens, we’re introducing new characters (that people love!), but building their relationships to familiar characters like Luke, Leia, and Han. With Rogue One, we get a bunch of new characters, but it’s all based around the Death Star and we have to include Darth Vader, Leia, and the reanimated corpse of Gran Moff Tarkin. The Last Jedi will feature a storyline between Rey and Luke, and then we’ve got a movie about young Han Solo.
The thinking here seems to be that Star Wars is only as good as it characters, and that’s a defensible position. People love Luke, Leia, and Han, so why not give them more of those characters? If you show people a Star Wars movie without a character they already know, they may wonder why they’re supposed to care, and then they’ll tune out. If everything is character-based, then filmmakers are free to tell new stories because audiences will have a tether back to a familiar face.
The problem with this approach is that it treats the original trilogy like a security blanket, and fails to recognize that the most interesting character in the Star Wars universe is the Star Wars universe. It’s a rich, fascinating world filled with magic, old technology, warring factions, and countless species. And yet Disney doesn’t trust its audience enough to say, “Let’s explore this world with completely new characters and show that there are other stories unfolding.” Disney and the Kathleen Kennedy-led regime at Lucasfilm are operating under the assumption that what fans and non-fans are going for are the characters and situations they recognize, and that if you tell a story outside those boundaries, people will reject it.
There could also be the argument that right now, while the new movies are still fresh, you take a moderate approach and tell new stories with familiar characters, and then once you’ve exhausted your Obi-Wan movie, your Han Solo movie, your Yoda movie, your Boba Fett movie and so forth, then you tell new stories because audiences will already be on board. The problem with this argument is that it trains audiences to think that the Star Wars universe is only as big as what was established during the Original Trilogy. There’s no room for the Old Republic or to follow characters who have never met a Skywalker. What started out as a compromise has instead become a limitation.
I understand that Disney is a business, and that as a business, their job is to make the best bets possible so they can enrich their shareholders. Disney CEO Bob Iger isn’t out there to make challenging, original Star Wars movies; he’s out there to make movies that will make the most money, and the strategy he and Lucasfilm have settled on is to make movies featuring familiar characters. I can see the wisdom of that decision, but it feels like it’s a precarious choice in the long-term. If Star Wars is only about the adventures of 7 or 8 characters, it removes the epic scope from the property. Instead of expanding Star Wars and introducing new characters and stories, we’re still stuck with the familiar.