Disney & Star Wars: A Success?

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Arguably the biggest story of the decade, Disney’s $4bn acquisition of Lucasfilm brought the galaxy far, far away roaring back onto the big screen for the first time in 10 years. But, now at the end of its sequel saga, can we really consider Disney’s Star Wars a success? Or has it lost its way, and is it now beyond repair?


The Numbers

There are a thousand ways to measure success, but the brutal reality of things is that Disney will be looking at the box office numbers to see how much of their $4bn they’ve got back since buying Lucasfilm.

From that standpoint, Disney’s Star Wars hasn’t just been a good business move, but a monumental success. With box office receipts touching $5bn from just four big screen releases, the numbers speak for themselves, and with The Force Awakens‘ record-breaking box office run placing it in 4th place in the list of all-time highest-grossing films, it’s difficult to say Disney’s Star Wars hasn’t been a triumph.

Looking a little deeper, though, and we discover that things might not be quite as rosy for the studio as it may seem on the surface. Yes, $5bn at the box office is no small change, and with merchandise, Disney+ subscriptions and everything in between adding a hefty sum on top of that, Disney aren’t seeing themselves in the red on Star Wars’ account.

But compared with recent box office trends for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – also owned by Disney – the average return per film has hit $1.2bn since December 2015, with that figure only continuing to rise.

Star Wars’ average also stands at $1.2bn per film, but with a massive drop in ticket receipts between the release of The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017) from $2bn to $1.3bn, and subsequently the disastrous performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story that failed to recoup its own budget, it seems box office numbers are heading in a downward trend for the sci-fi saga.

Of course, in its first five years, Disney’s Star Wars has absolutely been a big success at the box office, but when compared with its biggest blockbuster competitors, those strong figures don’t look all too sustainable in the long term.


Cultural Impact

When The Force Awakens opened in 2015, Disney and director J.J. Abrams had the intention of not just reinvigorating the franchise after the much-maligned prequels, but also introducing it to a new generation of fans, so that its legacy could remain strong long into the future.

The box office numbers would suggest that Star Wars has made a lot of new fans over the last five years, and with the success of its merchandise, the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, it’s clear that the franchise is far from dying on its feet.

Couple that with a strong critical response for all four of its big screen releases, and the continued popularity of a number of new additions to the saga – including Rey, Kylo Ren and BB-8 – and you can see Disney’s success in leaving a major impact on society, and keeping Star Wars in the cultural zeitgeist in a way it wouldn’t if we were still just left with the prequels.

But again, there’s a real sense of Star Wars fatigue in the air as we head towards the release of The Rise Of Skywalker. Warnings were made before the sequel saga got going four years ago that a new Star Wars movie every year would lead to fatigue, and that’s proved exactly the case.

The build-up to The Rise Of Skywalker is light years away from the feverish excitement that met the release of The Force Awakens, box office returns are gradually dwindling, and even Disney has taken a step back to ‘reassess’ its Star Wars strategy, deciding to hold off a new release until at least 2022.

Now, there’s no chance that means we’ll never have a new Star Wars movie, but it’s clear that the franchise hasn’t been the endless money pot that the studio hoped at the beginning, now being forced to backtrack from its Marvel-style strategy of an interconnected universe with multiple yearly releases.

In short, Disney’s Star Wars has indeed made a big cultural impact, but again, it hasn’t ended the decade with the strength and excitement surrounding its comic book competitors, and while Marvel, DC and more look set to continue strong into the 2020s, Star Wars will start the new decade a little bashed and bruised.


The Franchise

When looking at cold, hard box office figures and critical reception, it’s easy to forget that what all of us really want from Disney’s Star Wars is exciting storytelling that continues one of cinema’s greatest franchises in spectacular fashion.

The Force Awakens certainly got off to a strong start, and despite criticisms of it being derivative of A New Hope, it fed into an exciting build-up to its own sequel, with J.J. Abrams planting a number of characteristically ambiguous seeds of mystery and speculation into the mix that should have lasted right up to the final film.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, seems to have stopped the franchise in its tracks, and despite huge critical acclaim (from myself included), Rian Johnson took the story in a totally different direction with his film, leaving the franchise feeling muddled and disjointed. The film is a spectacular watch and features bold, innovative filmmaking (the likes of which we haven’t seen from Marvel), but it has left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

So, despite two strong outings, it’s fair to say that Disney’s Star Wars hasn’t brought the spectacular, enthralling storytelling it seemed to promise at the outset, and we can only hope The Rise Of Skywalker does enough to wrestle things back under control – although you can sense that expectations are low.

The main Skywalker saga hasn’t quite been the legendary success we all hoped at the beginning, but when it comes to developing the nature of the Star Wars saga, Disney has still done a great job.

Its commitment to expanding the franchise is hugely commendable, and with its view to more ‘anthology’ stories in the future that will deepen our understanding and knowledge of the galaxy far, far away, it’s fair to say that some of Disney’s most innovative ideas have been reserved for Star Wars.

While its anthology movies haven’t quite panned out in the same way as the shared universe concept popularised by Marvel, the surprise success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as well as the popularity of the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, have shown that there’s still a lot of love out there for Star Wars.

The blip in that mix is Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film that was rather ill-fated from its inception. However, what Solo’s failure and Rogue One and The Mandalorian’s success proves is that fans want something new from Disney and Star Wars.

It’s all very well trying to recapture the spectacle of the original Skywalker saga, and although Disney haven’t quite managed that, there’s a world of opportunity in its anthology strategy. It shouldn’t rehash the stories of characters we already know, but instead open up new parts of the worlds we knows, thereby ensuring that the franchise will always have the potential for refreshing and exciting sci-fi for years to come.


A Success?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Looking at the box office numbers, it’s pretty much impossible to say that Disney’s Star Wars has been a total failure, but then again, it’s not the roaring triumph that everybody was expecting when the studio shelled out so much money for Lucasfilm all those years ago.

From a superficial standpoint, Disney’s Star Wars has been a big success. It’s still a box office juggernaut, it continues to bring in new, young fans, and it promises greater diversification and innovation over the coming years. All of its movies have been good – some spectacular – and despite division and controversy surrounding some, audience and critical reception has been generally positive.

Looking deeper, though, and there’s so much that seems to have gone wrong. Those big box office numbers are on a downward trajectory, even in a time when ticket receipts are going up. Couple that with three years away from another big screen outing for the franchise, and it’s possible that the feverish momentum that greeted it back in 2015 is entirely gone.

The sequel saga has been strong, but far from the coherent, spectacular trilogy so many wanted, and now very much plays second fiddle in Disney’s priorities to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its anthology movies are the bright spark, and despite a hiccup with Solo in 2018, the success of its newer, different stories look set to give it a sustainable strategy to last long into the future.

Has Disney’s Star Wars been a success? From the lofty expectations set at the beginning of the decade, perhaps not. But being realistic, Star Wars is still a big player in the blockbuster game, and won’t be going anywhere for a long time.

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About Author

The Mad Movie Man, AKA Anthony Cullen, writes articles and reviews about movies and the world of cinema. Since January 1st, 2013, he has watched and reviewed a movie every day. This is the blog dedicated to the project: www.madmovieman.com