It seems that Disney and Lucasfilm really learned the wrong lessons from Solo: A Star Wars Story

In Anthony Breznican’s recent feature article on Star Wars and the future direction of the franchise (primarily looking at the coming shows on Disney+), there was a very interesting quote from Lucasfilm President Kathy Kennedy that caught the attention of many fans.

The quote is given context by Breznican, so I’ll quote his entire paragraph in full, with quotes from Kennedy:

The 2018 movie Solo explored Han Solo’s younger years, with Alden Ehrenreich taking on the role of the smuggler originated by Harrison Ford. The film has its admirers, but it made less at the box office than any other live-action Star Wars movie. Solo’s swagger may be too singular for another actor to replicate. “There should be moments along the way when you learn things,” says Kennedy. “Now it does seem so abundantly clear that we can’t do that.”

That’s framed as quite the indictment on Ehrenreich, and that’s the way it was initially taken, but I do think that the full answer from Kennedy – revealed in a separate transcript – provides a bit more complexity to the response. Here’s her answer, in full, when asked if they learned they can’t replace Luke Skywalker (see the approach in The Mandalorian) from what happened with Solo (so keep in mind that this question was leading toward this answer; it wasn’t brought up unprompted).

Maybe. As you say it, Anthony…maybe. I think back, and Solo was one of the first ideas that came up when the company was sold. One of the first people I went to was [screenwriter] Larry Kasdan. Larry and I have known each other forever. He was so excited to tell that story. We genuinely believed at the time it was a good idea. 

So yeah. There should be moments along the way when you learn things. That may have certainly been a learning moment. Some people have talked about how, well, maybe Solo should have been a TV show. But even doing Solo as a TV show without Harrison Ford as Han Solo…it’s the same thinking. Maybe I should have recognized this before. We would never make Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford. Having just finished the fifth movie, I can tell you, there wasn’t a day I wasn’t on set where I wasn’t like, Yes—this is Indiana Jones.

Maybe I’m closer to the DNA of Indy, and always have been, than I was when I came into Star Wars, because now it does seem so abundantly clear that we can’t do that. You get excited by these things, and you want to revisit things you want. You want to have that feeling again, and you’re trying to resurrect that. I think that’s what we do even with our new characters. With Star Wars, everybody talks about a “feeling” they have about Star Wars. That’s that intangible idea that you’re looking for.

Now I want to be clear that I think Kennedy is fantastic, has done a great job as Lucasfilm’s President, and is as respected as anyone in the industry. I hope she’s running the company for many years to come, and I say all of this because I don’t want to be labeled in with the group of internet trolls who jump at every chance to criticize her. No way. But that doesn’t mean she’s above criticism either, and I think that these comments are disappointing. And I think that we’re seeing that Disney and Lucasfilm learned the wrong lessons from Solo: A Star Wars Story.

They are right to want to learn from it. That’s a good and healthy impulse, and it’s all the more important after a movie that disappointed at the box office compared to expectations. But it sounds like what Kennedy took away, at least if this quote is framed correctly in context, is that it doesn’t work to re-cast some of the iconic characters. To quote Tarkin, that was “an awful risk” that Lucasfilm took, replacing Harrison Ford with Alden Ehrenreich and Billy Dee Williams with Donald Glover. It was one of the biggest questions many – including myself – had entering the film. But rather than seeing this movie as evidence that they shouldn’t do that anymore, I’d argue it’s actually the best evidence why they should. Simply put, Ehrenreich and Glover were fantastic, and their respective performances were two of the most frequently praised aspects of the whole movie.

That’s not to say that what they’ve been doing with Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett is bad; it’s worked really well, especially as they continue to develop the technology. It’s been really cool, and even better that Mark Hamill is able to stay more involved in the performance. I’m still a bit skeptical on how it would work if the character is used in a bigger role, including action and/or emotional moments, but for now it’s worked well. So it’s not like the approach Lucasfilm is taking now is bad; it’s not! It works! But it’s an overcorrection if they think that they shouldn’t re-cast either – especially if Solo is their basis for that. It’s completely unfair to Ehrenreich to suggest that.

(Of course, there is another option besides using CGI or re-casting, and it’s one that Lucasfilm doesn’t seem too interested in pursuing: animation. The Clone Wars did a fantastic job with iconic characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker without having to worry about re-casting them on the big screen, as changing the voice actors is different than changing the live action actors. I’m really hoping that, as we move forward into all of these new live-action shows, Lucasfilm doesn’t sideline animation more and more. It’s perfectly reasonable to tell stories about Luke and Han and Leia in that medium, and it would eliminate some of these other concerns. Just a thought.)

But returning back to the larger point, it’s not just Kennedy that seems to have learned the wrong lesson from Solo. Former Disney CEO Bob Iger, himself one of the most influential people not just in Hollywood but in business in general, said in 2018 that he took the blame for the box office disappointment, saying that they rushed the release date and that a “slowdown” of Star Wars films was coming. There’s an element in which he’s right: sticking with the May release date instead of the December release (which had quickly become a holiday staple for many fans), especially after the production issues, was incredibly dumb. That’s fair. But it seems that for Iger, the lesson was that they were trying to do too many Star Wars movies. So, instead, we’ll have had one film in four years since Solo’s release – with the next one currently slated for the end of 2023. It seems like a bit of an overreaction there, too.

There’s plenty to have learned from Solo, and Iger is right about the release date (lesson: keep Star Wars movies at Christmas as long as it’s working). Another lesson, and in my mind perhaps even the biggest one, is about marketing. I think that the film was marketed horribly; the actual movie and the promotion for the movie didn’t seem to match whatsoever. And I think that it taught an important lesson: while the die-hard fans will watch anything regardless, other Star Wars fans will need more information to go on when it’s not a saga film or something closely connected to it. I think the assumption was, strangely, that if they just slapped the “Star Wars” label on something and showed a bunch of unrelated shots that really gave no idea for the movie, fans would come. That might have worked for the episodic films, but maybe not these spinoffs. That’s an important lesson for moving forward into an era where the saga films aren’t going to be the theatrical pillars any longer.

But to conclude that it means they shouldn’t do as many movies and that they shouldn’t re-cast iconic roles? I think those are the wrong lessons learned, and it’s disappointing to see that it appears that’s what Disney and Lucasfilm took away from it.

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