How Disney and Lucasfilm Are Remaking Star Wars in the Image of Marvel Studios

Adam B. Vary
·7-min read

The day Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, the company wasted no time making clear what it was buying for $4.05 billion, announcing three new Star Wars movies were already in the works. In a shareholder call the day the deal was announced, then-CEO Robert Iger laid out the company’s ambitions: “Our long-term plan is to release a new Star Wars feature film every two to three years.”

Eight years later, it’s fair to say that Disney’s ambitions for the Star Wars franchise are a fair shade greater, with at least 10 different series in the works for Disney Plus. Most were announced last week during the company’s epic investors day presentation; the latest, about fan favorite character Boba Fett, was announced at the end of the post-credits teaser for the Season 2 finale of the first live action Star Wars TV series, “The Mandalorian.”

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If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a franchise-building tactic that’s been used for over a decade to astronomically lucrative effect by Lucasfilm’s corporate sibling, Marvel Studios.

It’s also Lucasfilm’s second attempt to copy it.

At the time Disney bought Lucasfilm, the company was feeling flusher than it had in years thanks to Marvel Studios, the iconic pop-culture brand Disney acquired in 2009. In May 2012, “The Avengers” debuted to record-shattering success, and in doing so redefined franchise filmmaking into a series of creatively interwoven movies unspooled at what became an unprecedented pace, with two or three Marvel Studios projects opening each year. By comparison, Iger’s initial forecast of a new Star Wars feature every “two or three years” was as slow as a dewback lumbering across the sands of Tatooine.

So the company quickly pivoted, pushing Lucasfilm to release a new Star Wars movie every year with a series of one-off features set in the larger Star Wars world in between the ongoing Skywalker Saga films. Once that final trilogy had concluded, these annual one-offs could spawn their own sequels, propagating Star Wars far beyond anything attempted before with the franchise. George Lucas made three Star Wars films from 1977 to 1983, then three prequel films 16 years later from 1999 to 2005. Suddenly, Disney was going to double the number of live-action Star Wars movies in just six years. With an ancillary universe developed over decades in books, animated TV series, and comics — just as vast as Marvel Entertainment’s core canon — the company was banking that the Star Wars franchise was capable of sustaining such a rapid expansion of its cinematic footprint.

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At first, the plan seemed to work: 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” — about the doomed effort to secure the plans for the Death Star — was an unqualified blockbuster, earning $1.06 billion worldwide. But the next one-off film, 2018’s “Solo” — the origin story of the young Han Solo, as played by relative unknown Alden Ehrenriech — opened just five months after “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and bombed with $393 million globally.

Granted, “Solo” was bedeviled by bad press after Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy fired directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller during production; reshoots by their replacement, Ron Howard, ballooned the budget to $250 million. “Solo” became the first Star Wars movie to lose money.

But even if “Solo” had enjoyed a smooth shoot with a more reasonable budget, the underlying problems were, in hindsight, manifest from the start. Unlike the Marvel Studios movies, “Solo” didn’t really add to an ongoing larger story or illuminate a heretofore unknown quadrant of the Star Wars creative galaxy. It answered questions — from how Han Solo met Chewbacca to how he got his last name — that audiences weren’t exactly clamoring to know in the first place. And most critically, it was banking on nostalgia for a character synonymous with the actor who played him; as charming as Ehrenreich could be in the role, without Harrison Ford, “Solo” was missing its core appeal.

Rather than treat “Solo” as an object lesson for future movies, however, Disney fully retrenched, canceling the entire “Star Wars Story” endeavor — including movies about Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi — before it had really even taken off. The studio placed a three-year moratorium on Star Wars movies following 2019’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” In an April 2019 interview with Bloomberg TV, Iger, with characteristic discretion, called it “a pause” and “a bit of a hiatus” — a rare (if judiciously worded) glimpse inside Disney’s strategic thinking outside of the company’s quarterly investor reports.

The underlying message, however, felt clear: Disney and Lucasfilm had gone too far, too fast. The effort to Marvel-ize Star Wars was frozen in carbonite, its future uncertain.

It turns out, Disney just needed a taciturn warrior and his inexpressibly cute baby companion. Though impossible to quantify, given Disney Plus’s refusal to make audience numbers public, the wild success of “The Mandalorian” proved that the Star Wars franchise could thrive outside the confines of the Skywalker Saga. It was the spark Lucasfilm needed to launch the Star Wars franchise into hyperdrive.

Many of the new Star Wars series for Disney Plus announced over the past week center around familiar characters: The Boba Fett and Obi-Wan spin-off movies have been reborn as streaming series; Diego Luna is headlining a “Rogue One” prequel series called “Andor”; Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) is developing a Lando Calrissian series; and Lucasfilm Animation and Industrial Light and Magic are making an animated series about R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Crucially, Lucasfilm is also adopting the full Marvel format by interlocking “The Book of Boba Fett,” “Ahsoka” and “Rangers of the New Republic” within the timeline established by “The Mandalorian.” All these series will be executive produced by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, the two figures at Lucasfilm who, even more than Kennedy, now come closest to holding the kind of overarching vision so famously employed by Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige. And they all will, in the stodgy language of Disney’s investors day announcement, “culminate in a climactic story event.” In other words, Lucasfilm is aiming for its own “Avengers.”

The big question now is whether this will all work. In the wake of “Solo’s” box office bellyflop, many observers wondered if Star Wars just wasn’t as creatively elastic as the Marvel Studios films, which vary widely in tone and approach — from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” or “Thor” to “Thor: Ragnarok” — yet somehow share the same core sensibility. To date, every Star Wars project, whether for film or TV, has felt more-or-less like Star Wars, and there’s not much so far that suggests the new shows will stray any further. It’s hard to imagine Lucasfilm making a Star Wars show anywhere near as formally inventive as Marvel’s first Disney Plus show, “WandaVision.” Meanwhile, Feige is currently developing his own Star Wars movie.

In an interview with Variety in October about “The Mandalorian” star Pedro Pascal, Favreau — who directed the first two “Iron Man” movies — made clear he understands the challenges innate in trying to broaden the scope of Star Wars.

“I learned a lot from my experience over at Marvel, where it was very organic, how it would evolve,” Favreau said. “You’re paying attention to a larger story arcs and characters that could come together, but also smaller stories of individual characters that could go off [on their own thing]. The key here is keep maintaining the quality and never scaling to the point that we’re losing sight of what’s important to us and what people like about the show.”

Lucas has made no secret of his deeply ambivalent feelings about what has become of his brainchild. But if Disney can make its expansion of Star Wars work — and if Marvel Studios has proven anything, it’s that it is possible to do — the studio would not only put Star Wars on equal financial footing with its Marvel counterparts, it would also live up to the prophecy offered by Lucas on the day Disney bought his company: “We could go on making ‘Star Wars’ for the next 100 years.”

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