The future of the Star Wars cinematic (telematic?) universe
The next couple of years for a Galaxy Far, Far Away
I’ve been writing a lot about Star Wars recently (apologies if that’s not your jam — there’s just been a lot about it lately), and while Transfer Orbit isn’t *just* about the franchise, I think it’s a good example of the entertainment world we’re in, especially when it comes to IP, continuity, writing, and so forth. I want to unpack some thoughts about Disney’s recent Investor’s Day, where they announced a shitload of new projects, and talk about The Mandalorian’s second season, especially how it left off.
Which is to say: if you haven’t seen it and care about not being spoiled, hold off on reading this until you’ve seen the finale.
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm back in 2012, CEO Bob Iger laid out an ambitious plan for the franchise: a new sequel trilogy, as well as a handful of standalone films and other projects. Disney didn’t buy Lucasfilm because they want to honor the legacy that is Star Wars: they bought it because it’s got a deep IP bench, with a lot of potential to print money for the immediate future.
The last five years has essentially been phase one: they did that fabled final trilogy (The Force Awakens — as I’m writing this, it’s the 5th anniversary — The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker), as well as the two standalone films, Rogue One and Solo. While we expected Disney to finish off the big, backbone storyline started with A New Hope, it showed its willingness with its two standalone films to experiment a bit, to see if it could take the property in different directions. Essentially, Disney wanted to see if a Star Wars film could be folks and situations away from that core story.
The history of the franchise says that it could: look at the longer Expanded Universe of comics, games, novels, and television shows. But that hadn’t really been the case for theatrical releases — the Clone Wars movie bombed hard, and the 3D re-release for The Phantom Menace really didn’t get the same traction as the Special Editions did in the 1990s.
Rogue One did pretty well, but Solo underwhelmed at the box office, which put the brakes on Disney’s plans for a much larger theatrical slate. They’d apparently been about to announce a Boba Fett film from James Mangold (Logan), had an Obi-Wan Kenobi film in the works, as well as a bunch of irons in the fire for other big trilogies from the likes of Rian Johnson. It looked like Star Wars would be on ice for a while while they regrouped.
The saving throw here was Disney’s move into streaming with Disney + and its lead series, The Mandalorian. We in the entertainment news industry have been seeing that Disney’s had big plans for the service: a huge slate of shows from Marvel, as well as some Star Wars projects about Cassian Andor and Obi-Wan Kenobi. We’ve also known their willingness to branch off of The Mandalorian given how successful it’s been.
The Investor’s Day shows how Lucasfilm is able to realize that. So much for people saying that Kathleen Kennedy was about to be shown the door. It’s clear that she’s orchestrating some big plans to keep the franchise going for the long haul, and its future isn’t in theaters, but in streaming. This new slate — let’s call it Star Wars “Phase 2” — is a really ambitious and overwhelming set of projects.
What those projects show is that Disney/Lucasfilm is looking at the Star Wars universe as a big canvas, and that with the next phase of projects, we’re going to get a lot of new ideas, from all over the Star Wars timeline. I’ve spoken before about how the franchise feels like a genre in and of itself, and judging from this list, we’ve got something for everyone.
Running down the list of new projects (we already knew about Andor and Obi-Wan, so we don’t need to get into those):
We’re not only getting more Mandalorian (more on this in a bit), but we’re getting a couple of companion shows that will interweave and connect with one another, The Book of Boba Fett, Rangers of the New Republic, and Ahsoka. This feels very much like we’re getting something like what Netflix did with its Marvel properties: tell a couple of separate stories, but keep them in the same immediate world, crossing them over when it makes sense. Given how The Mandalorian left off with this latest finale, it’ll be interesting to see how they interact with one another. This last season felt like a season of backdoor pilots — something I’m a little uneasy about — but it’s clear that we’ve got some interesting stories coming for Ahsoka Tano and (most likely) Cara Dune and friends that will keep their stories going.
I noted a while back that I felt like there are a couple of parts to the Star Wars universe in those two standalone films: gritty spy/war drama (which we’re getting with Andor), and the criminal underworld, which we got with Solo and to some extent, The Clone Wars and Rebels. I’ve said before that I felt like Solo felt a bit like a glorified pilot episode for a sub-franchise, and it looks like that’s now going to be realized with another series: Lando. They haven’t been confirmed for this, but I can’t imagine that we won’t see Donald Glover and Alden Ehrenreich reprising their roles as Lando Calrissian and Han Solo for this. A friend of mine speculated that Glover at least is in talks and his deal hasn’t closed, which is probably why we didn’t hear him mentioned at the Investors Day. A limited series about Lando doing criminal stuff would be a great way to revisit that part of the world, and keep that storyline going (especially as Ehrenreich’s Han Solo was a little bit of a snooze?) We’ve certainly seen some underworld stuff with The Mandalorian, and it’s a place where Star Wars really excels, so it’ll be neat to see them continue with that.
Coming in with a completely new time period is Leslye Headland’s Acolyte, which will take place around the end of the High Republic era, a soon-to-kick-off crossover event that involves a bunch of books and comics. This was a bit of a surprise, and I’ll be interested in seeing how that fits in with that larger storyline. It’ll also be a good place for Lucasfilm to experiment with some other time frames outside of that century-or-so chunk of time that follows the Skywalker Saga.
There are some animated projects in the works as well: Visions, which is all standalone episodes from Japanese animators, and A Droid Story, an animated show about R2-D2 and C3PO, which looks like it’ll be aimed more towards kids.
Lucasfilm isn’t completely abandoning film — we’ve got Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron, which I’ve already squealed about and don’t need to go over again, except to say that I’m glad that they’re going back to the standalone film format (at least, that’s how it looks), because I think it’s a good format. Kennedy also hinted at Taika Waititi’s film project, which we didn’t get anything about other than a logo.
Then there’s the stuff that we didn’t hear anything about. Rian Johnson’s trilogy didn’t warrant a mention, nor the previously announced projects from Marvel’s Kevin Feige, J.D. Dillard. Film will most certainly be part of the franchise’s future, but it’s just not something that seems like it’s an immediate priority. That they weren’t discussed doesn’t surprise me too much — it seems likely that Disney doesn’t want to take the focus off of streaming and they just might not be in a place where they can say anything just yet. Hopefully, we’ll get to see them at some point.
With all that said, the wrap-up of The Mandalorian this last week was really interesting, and it shows off a bit about what to expect moving forward in the immediate future. (Again, spoilers.)
We saw Din Darin save Grogu from the hands of Moff Gideon — handed off to Luke Skywalker, no less! — and a tearful departure from all involved. Stay through the credits (Disney’s Marvel tactics are on full display here), and there’s a wonderful teaser for what to expect next: The Book of Boba Fett, in which we see Boba Fett return to Tatooine and take down the various denizens of Jabba’s Palace, before taking the throne for himself.
At the Investor’s Day, Kennedy said that the “next chapter” for The Mandalorian branch would kick off Christmas 2021, and it seems like that’s what we have to look forward to.
Earlier this fall, there were rumbles of a Boba Fett miniseries that was about to go into production imminently, and it looks like that’s what we’ll get in December 2021. According to Lucasfilm, it’ll be a standalone original series featuring Temuera Morrison and Ming-Na Wen. Jon Favreau also went and clarified that it would be a separate series to Good Morning America.
The real question is when The Mandalorian Season 3 will debut. There’s been some confusion here: Kennedy said that the next “chapter” will arrive Christmas 2021, which led a lot of people to assume that she meant the next season of The Mandalorian— including me. The Boba Fett series is now in production, after which Season 3 will begin. Presumably, this means that we’ll get Season 3 sometime in 2022 alongside Andor and maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Andor is also currently in production, and Obi-Wan will go into production in March.)
That’s fine, because this season of The Mandalorian left off on a good stopping point: Grogu was delivered to safe hands, and Mando’s job getting him to safety is done. Time for a vacation for him. We certainly haven’t seen the last of him: there’s still the Darksaber problem between him and Bo-Katan to deal with, and a lot of baggage between his view of what Mandalore culture is and how others perceive it. And we’ve got whatever’ll happen with Moff Gideon. Hopefully, we’ll see them move forward without every other episode feeling like it’s a backdoor pilot.
Fatigue. After writing all that, I’m tired of writing the words “Star Wars,” and the next couple of years are going to have a pretty high tempo of releases. I think Disney can get away with that because TV breaks the story into smaller chunks over a long period of time, but man, there’s a lot there (and that’s before you figure in the four or so books a year!). And then there’s the flood of Marvel stuff, on top of the other shows that I’ve failed to watch so far (Westworld season 3, The Witcher, Star Trek: Discovery, Lovecraft Country, etc.) It’s a good problem to have, but it’s legitimately hard to keep up if you’re trying to stay abreast of what’s going on in the genre world.
Disney’s film franchise came at both a really good moment and a really bad one: it’s coming as audience tastes are beginning to change, and as streaming is beginning to really come into its own. The rapid tempo of Star Wars films — one a year — was already a lot, and I think there was a general sense of “are they just putting out movies to put out movies?” out there. I don’t think that they’ll quite run into that problem with television.
TV — if done right — can bring out a more nuanced story, and structure (eight distinct beats) that wouldn’t ordinarily work as a film. The Mandalorian has really fleshed out the existing world of Star Wars in ways that the films haven’t been able to really tackle. I think that’s a dominant reason why we’ve seen a lot of genre adaptations leading the way with streaming services — shows like The Expanse and Game of Thrones, which really wouldn’t have worked if you tried to condense them down into a 2-hour film. I don’t think that that means that you can no longer do a good Star Wars film, but I think Lucasfilm will really need to look at what stories they want to tell and figure out which ones will make sense as a bigger event (like Rogue One) or if it might be better as a series (like Solo should have been.)
It’ll take a while for this to bear out, but I’m enjoying what I’ve seen thus far. I have my quibbles with The Mandalorian, but it’s a fun hour of television and it’s doing some things with the Star Wars franchise that I think works really well. There are certainly smarter and more compelling shows out there now, like Watchmen or The Expanse, but not everything needs to be cutting-edge. Sometimes, you just want some well-prepared comfort food. Hopefully, now that Lucasfilm realizes that they don’t need to stick just with familiar fan service, they can branch out to some more experimental stuff and push the boundaries a bit more.
Any way you cut it, Star Wars is going to be with us for a long time. But it has been already: George Lucas steadily built out the franchise since the beginning, first with the original three films, then the special editions, the Expanded Universe, prequel films, the first Clone Wars animated series, then the second. Then Rebels, the sequel trilogy, Resistance, and more. And while for most of Star Wars’ history, most fans had a common ground — the OT — we’ve steadily gotten to the point where you don’t need to have watched every single installment to be a fan.
I’ve watched 99% of The Clone Wars, but was fine skipping episodes that I wasn’t really into. I still haven’t watched all of Rebels, or Resistance. Games? I haven’t finished Battlefront 2, Fallen Order, or Squadrons. I’m behind on the books. I expect that the same will hold true with the future flood of projects that we’ll be getting: I probably won’t be as compelled to watch Visions or A Droid Story. The same goes for the MCU. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen Thor: The Dark World, I didn’t bother to see Doctor Strange, Captain America, or Ant-Man and the Wasp in theaters, and I’m not really compelled to go back and watch more than half of the franchise again.
So, I’m not entirely worried or bothered by the franchise fatigue argument. Folks will see what they want to see, and will catch up when they want to.
That’s all for now. Thanks as always for reading. I’d love to hear what you think, and given the flood of shows, let me know what you’re most excited to that’s coming up.
(Oh! A couple of weeks ago, I asked folks what their favorite books of the year was. I haven’t heard from a ton of people, but if you have a favorite that you’d like to share, let me know!)