You might think it’s overkill to be talking again about Star Wars and the box office, but for all the wrong reasons Solo‘s box office performance has been either the biggest or the second-biggest Hollywood story of the year (Black Panther‘s stunning 1.3 billion dollar success is the interesting other story). Simply put, there’s a lot of digesting, debating and hand-wringing happening in the Lucasfilm offices and, as a result, the fans are talking about it too.
There’s simply no good way to spin Solo‘s box office dud, but what about The Last Jedi?
The fans’ consensus on Solo is that it’s a solid Star Wars entry that released a few months too soon after the highly divisive Episode VIII. In fact, Solo is decidedly safe in terms of its story, where The Last Jedi seemed to revel in subverting expectations. The fans who balked at the direction the saga are probably going to view Solo as a comfortable, familiar old blanket they can curl up with, safe and snug.
You’ll not find me bashing The Last Jedi here. The movie is not perfect but I did appreciate what it was trying to do and it is well-made enough to offset some story-choices that I might not love (particularly Finn’s storyline). That being said, if you hated the movie and you hated the decisions, etc, that’s your opinion and you are welcome to have it.
But that doesn’t mean the movie was a failure.
Often, however, those who seek to tear down what they hate look for every source to bolster their arguments and reinforce their belief. As a result, fans revel in box office success and haters revel equally in box office failure. When you’re rooting against a movie (for various reasons) it can be almost fun to watch it bomb (eh hem) but sometimes we can get carried away and assume things that are simply not true just because we want them to be true.
No matter how much you may want it, The Last Jedi was not a box office disappointment.
It was the biggest movie of the year 2017, despite coming out in December. It’s true, however that it grossed less than The Force Awakens and only a little more than Rogue One. But the story in that case is not about the disappointment of The Last Jedi, it’s about the uniqueness of Star Wars in 2015 and 2016 and how the shine has now worn off. It wasn’t evident until Solo bombed but it’s clear now that Star Wars’ specialness as a movie franchise is not what it was back when it was “one movie every three years, three movies every twenty years.”
The Force Awakens was an event, the first of a new series, the return of the old cast, a new story instead of a prequel, a perfectly-formulated nostalgia machine, etc. There were a dozen little reasons why it was the record-breaking hit it was and most of those reasons were not replicable. At the same time, Rogue One had a lot working for it too: It was a return to the Original Trilogy, it was the first stand-alone Star Wars story, it was the first after The Force Awakens destroyed the box office.
What intangibles and immeasurables did The Last Jedi have going for it?
The Last Jedi was the third Star Wars movie in three years, an unprecedented turnaround for fans of the franchise. It was the middle act in a trilogy, which is historically the worst-performing box office earner in a trilogy (both previous Star Wars trilogies dipped in the middle movie, as did Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings). Casual fans tune in for the first movie and come back for the finale, but for some reason, a lot of people are okay waiting for home video to watch the middle movie.
That said, despite the fact that casual audience-goers seemed to really like the movie (not as much as The Force Awakens, which was more tailored to those audiences), hardcore fans are split, and that split did eat into the box office. Some fans who went to see The Force Awakens three or four times saw The Last Jedi only once. It’s a small percentage but a noticeable one. The intense hostility for it by half the fanbase was not there for The Force Awakens, which was mostly universally loved and only later came to be disliked by a segment of the fanbase. The instant vitriol against The Last Jedi likely played a part in keeping a lot of the second-weekend casual viewers away. Those people who would have sat out the first weekend to let the hype die down might have been told “don’t bother.” Again, it’s a small percentage but it adds up.
Does the movie deserve such vitriol?
Two years ago I wrote a defense of The Force Awakens against the quickly-emerging backlash against it.
So here’s my defense of The Last Jedi and of the direction of Star Wars in general…
First of all, much of the criticism is centered on the fact that there is no overall story guiding these three movies. And even though that’s also true of the original trilogy (Lucas did not have a three-movie outline, despite common misconception), the OT at least had Lucas’ singular voice guiding things. The sequel trilogy has no singular voice. It had JJ/Kasdan for the first movie, Rian Johnson for the second, and JJ again for the third. Rian did not work with JJ in any major way (he did tell JJ to send R2 to Ach-To and keep BB8 with the Resistance) and JJ did not work with Rian or use Rian’s notes on where he saw the story going as he drafted his Episode IX story.
Rian is heavily criticized for “just throwing out JJ’s story,” but that’s unfair: JJ didn’t have a full Episode VIII story because he was never hired to write one. He wrote a chapter one, dropped a lot of “mystery box” stuff for future guys to play with and then walked away.
Rian made a lot of controversial decisions but he was working from a desire to push the story forward and not retread the same territory (which is the primary criticism against The Force Awakens). In that respect, he took advantage of the fact that he had the middle story to play with, a story with no beginning and no ending.
Typically when you write a story, you naturally think about the ending and work backwards. You figure out where you want the characters to end up and then you work backwards to get them to a good starting point for that journey. JJ and Lawrence Kasdan wrote TFA but also laid out where they thought everything would end up and then worked backwards. Their ideas for Episodes VIII and IX likely totalled no more than a page or two of notes. The important thing is it was head-canon and not set in stone.
Rian came in with the freedom to change the future. He wrote TLJ and, like JJ did before him, thought to himself where his story might end in EPIX. In fact he went so far as to write a full treatment for Episode IX. Now that JJ has been roped back into doing Episode IX he gets to take what thoughts he initially had and combine with what he can from Rian’s ideas, plus whatever else he might think of to bring the trilogy to a thematic conclusion.
I think it’s wrong to say this trilogy is rudderless when we’re not done. Stories are almost never mapped out 100% ahead of time. Even the prequels, which had several big moments that were planned-out ahead of time, were still not fully mapped out until George Lucas sat down to write each one.
I think JJ coming back to work on Episode IX will give the trilogy a finish that ties it all together. I would have preferred Rian to finish it since he seemed to have put more work into thinking of the future than JJ did when writing TFA, but I’m sure he’ll take his and Rian’s ideas together and end it appropriately in a way that makes each part feel like they belong to a larger, connected whole.
IN CONCLUSION(!): Star Wars is not finished and neither is this trilogy. Let’s wait till Episode IX irises-out before we call this latest series of movies a failure or otherwise.
And if you’ve only seen The Last Jedi once, watch it again: You might be surprised how much more you like it the second-time around.