A Tale of Two Prequels: A Look at Rogue One Versus Solo, the Star Wars Stories
In 2005, the Star Wars franchise seemingly concluded, as the last (and best) of the Prequels hit the theaters. After decades, we finally had received new Star Wars, and what we received in the prequels was definitely not what many expected out of new Star Wars films. And after that movie, I think every Star Wars fan (at least the ones I knew) came to the same conclusion: prequels suck.
And prequels, generally, do suck. Firstly, there’s no real stakes, as we already know what comes next. When Obi-Wan and Anakin have their massive lightsaber battle, you know that both men will survive- in some capacity- to face each other another day.
And beyond us knowing the next chapter, frankly not everyone needs an origin story. I mean, Darth Vader is freaking badass. I didn’t necessarily need to see him podracing as a ten-year-old.
This rule doesn’t just apply to Star Wars, either. For example, The Hobbit trilogy was nowhere near as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I’m not saying the prequels in either franchise were bad; even a bad Star Wars film is a Star Wars film, and these movies had many great moments, but they were clearly a far cry from the originals.
And after 2005, we were left with a decent trilogy that built upon the originals (whether we liked it or not) and the vague understanding that making more of a good thing decades later just doesn’t seem to work (a lesson that Hollywood still hasn’t learned, btw- see recent sequels/prequels to Die Hard, Alien, and Independence Day).
With Disney’s aquisition of the Star Wars franchise, however, and the super success of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi (it’s a great film, fight me), the Star Wars franchise has finally returned, and returned to form, producing new movies that are worthy of following the original trilogy. In 2018, with this summer’s release of Solo: A Solo Han Solo Solo Story, we have now officially been given more Star Wars in a four-year span than we have ever received in that time frame previously. And with the Star Wars franchise back in full force (if you’ll pardon the pun), and Disney’s desire to saturate the market with a Star Wars film ever year, prequels came in along with the sequels. After all, the galaxy far, far away has a lot of stories that happened a long time ago, a lot of potential that has yet to be explored on screen.
With the release of the first two Disney-era prequels, clearly, not all prequels are made equal. Rogue One, for example, showed exactly how to make a pre-A New Hope story without the need of Jar Jar Binks or kid versions of badass characters, and it even managed to find stakes in a story for which we already had a pretty clear idea how it would end. Solo, well, we’ll get to that in a bit.
Of course, those Star Wars films, as of late, have been getting some pretty intense reactions. The Last Jedi, the most recent “Episode” film (and personally one of my favorite movies in the franchise), has caused such a divide between fans that some feel it ruined the series (it didn’t, btw). And Solo, while generally being regarded as a good movie, is plummeting in the box office in a way hitherto undreampt of (“Did you seriously say ‘hitherto undreampt of’?”) by Lucasfilm.
But I’m not here to talk about why I think The Last Jedi is an exceptional film (head over to my full review of the movie to see my thoughts on it). I’m not here to talk about the “Episodes” at all. I want to talk about the in-betweeners, and why one worked so well (and did so well in the numbers) while the other didn’t.
I want to talk about the prequels, and not those prequels; Rogue One and Solo are a new breed of “prequel” in the Star Wars empire (again, with the puns), and in many ways each shows how to properly tell a story that takes place slightly longer ago, in a galaxy far, far away. They’ve both managed to skirt- in their own way- the prequel problems that befell Episodes I, II, and III, and yet they’ve both had very different results in the box office. One was a resounding success, and the other an unabashed failure.
But why is that? Personally, I think they are both great films, nearly equal to one another, and yet the box office says otherwise. But despite my love for both films, there’s a clear difference between them, and that difference is what is barring Solo from seeing similar results to its predecessor.
A Story Vs. A Character
Really, the biggest difference that sets Rogue One and Solo apart is the premise. And not so much the premise (I mean, clearly, they are two totally separate stories), but how the premises of each were set up.
Watching Rogue One, you get the sense that this was a very specific story in Star Wars history that Lucasfilm wanted to tell. And from that story was born the necessary characters, the people required to make it happen. And after the pieces were set, they figured out which familiar faces (faces like Bail Organa or that Vader guy) could intersect with this story. Now, maybe that’s not how it went down in the writing room- for all I know Kathleen Kennedy came in the office one morning and said, “I want a movie featuring Mon Mothma as the head of the Rebellion and she sends people off to die trying to steal something, get to it,” and it went from there. But with the film, it feels like the story is the main objective, and the characters, the cameos, the references, all fell into place to service that story.
What I’m trying to say is, nothing felt forced (sorry…). One of my biggest problems with the Prequel Trilogy (besides the overuse of green screen and the under-use of talented acting) was that, at times, things felt pushed into certain directions because they needed to fit properly into the narrative of the original films. With Rogue One, it felt like a natural part of the established story, like a moment in Star Wars lore that was always there, but we hadn’t previously seen.
Solo, on the other hand, is the opposite. It is a story built around the character. Lucasfilm said they wanted to make a Han Solo origin story, and then had to figure out what, exactly, that origin was.
And while I loved both films, I think it is clear that the story of Rogue One was one that people were generally more interested in seeing. Like I said, it was a part of the lore that we always knew happened (see: A New Hope’s opening crawl), but didn’t know how it happened. Solo’s story, by comparison, isn’t one that we’ve ever asked to see. Ok, sure, maybe we were all curious about the Kessel Run, but it wasn’t something we were all clamoring to see. The movie was entirely enjoyable, but Han was a character that we knew well, and knew well enough that we didn’t feel like we needed the earlier adventures of the scoundrel. The Rebellion, on the other hand, is something I think we could watch ten movies about (and at least one animated TV series).
Frankly, while Solo was a very exciting film, Han as a character is almost better served as a mystery when Luke meets him, and serves the first-time viewer better too if they don’t have any idea what he will do next; Solo informs us of Han’s character in a way that, when we find him in A New Hope, he is now more predictable. It’s not showing us Vader as a kid, but it’s a part of Han’s story that we didn’t need. And that translated into people opting to skip the trip to the theater for this one.
Rogue One had several advantages over Solo, a clear advantage over any “A Star Wars Story” films that came after it: it was the first one. It was the first glimpse of what a Star Wars film could be without the Skywalker clan in the forefront or the word “Episode” in the title. It had a newness to it, it had risk. And Solo didn’t have that risk.
If anything, Solo played it safe; it kept the story small enough that if you never, ever see it, it won’t have any impact on the movies you do watch in the franchise (with the possible exception of Darth Maul’s cameo, but even that was brief enough that any future movie he appears in will likely explain his presence enough that you won’t need to have seen Solo).
There was a lot riding on Rogue One; the fate of a franchise, if you will. Not that the “Episodes” would have been in any danger had it failed, but there would probably not have been any more “A Star Wars Story” films if Rogue One crashed and burned.
And within the story, Rogue One pushed boundaries where Solo didn’t. Both films played at fixing discrepancies in the franchise proper, but while Rogue One tackled the big question of why the Death Star was built with a glaring flaw (and in a way that changed a lot of how we looked at the Rebellion and the Empire in A New Hope), Solo focused on small details, like why Lando can’t pronounce Han’s name correctly.
And while the risks paid off with Rogue One and enriched the original trilogy with the added story elements, some of Solo’s course corrections fell flat- like Han getting the “Solo” surname from a random Imperial Officer- or even undermined the character in the original films (as Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin discussed in their lengthy “Fatman on Batman” video); showing that Han wasn’t actually a careless rogue before meeting Luke and Leia took away from the character development Han has in the original trilogy, development that brought Han from the careless rogue to the Rebellion leader he became.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that there’s “Star Wars fatigue.” As long as Jar Jar Binks doesn’t show up, I don’t think we’ll ever, really, be tired of the galaxy far, far away. Like Star Trek, there’s always another story to tell, somewhere.
But timing definitely had an impact on Solo in a way it didn’t with Rogue One. When Rogue One came out, it was exactly one year after Star Wars returned to the big screen with The Force Awakens. It was after the first of two years we would be waiting for the follow up “Episode”; right in the middle of that excruciating wait, and it came in like a drop of water in a drought. Rogue One had perfect timing.
Solo did not. Coming out only five months after The Last Jedi, and only a few weeks since Last Jedi hit bluray, there was no time to really miss Star Wars before the next movie. And, sure, Marvel can get away with three films a year. But Star Wars, whether it is an “Episode” or a “Story,” is still a Star Wars film. There’s not enough variety (not like the difference between Civil War and Guardians of the Galaxy) to demand multiple films a year. Each movie, no matter what the story is, is a sci-fi flick.
Surely, I think if Solo had waited a year after The Last Jedi as Rogue One did with Force Awakens, coming out near Christmas rather than in May (And on Memorial Day weekend of all weekends, one which traditionally has lower box office results), the box office results would have been much different. If we had waited a year, and were waiting another year for the next “Episode,” people would have streamed to Solo, it being the only Star Wars movie around for miles.
It didn’t help either that it came out a few weeks after the behemoth that is Avengers: Infinity War and only one week after the extremely anticipated Deadpool 2. It didn’t help that the first footage of the movie was released a mere three months before the movie itself (most summer blockbusters get at least six months of promotion time, if not more). And it really didn’t help that it received a lot of bad press prior to it’s release.
Something that the two “Story” films do have in common is trouble behind the scenes. And, remarkably, neither film shows any indication that this was the case; both delivered exceptional films that, had we been none the wiser, we would have assumed were assembled without a hitch (unlike Warner Bros.’ mangled Justice League).
But with Solo, the trouble definitely seemed much more public. Even after reading many articles on the subject, I still don’t know the full extent of the issues on the set of Rogue One. But with Solo, the firing of the directors was the headlines of many movie websites, as was the innumerable reshoots incoming director Ron Howard was undertaking. It was in many ways the first major publicity that the movie received, before any trailer was released, before even many photos had been released, and undoubtedly it tainted any good press that came before it. Even reviews of the film- mine included- bring up the behind-the-scenes drama. Despite being a great film, the most well-known thing about it is the trouble it had getting to the big screen.
And while the as yet untitled “Episode IX” has had a similar experience, that movie is still far enough away- and hadn’t yet entered production or required any reshoots of footage already shot- that Colin Treverrow’s firing and replacement by J.J. Abrams will probably have little effect on it (and, truthfully, it may actually improve its performance, as those fans who hated The Last Jedi are bound to be satiated by the return of the director of Force Awakens).
Other troubles that were widely discussed was the casting of Alden Ehrenreich, who reportedly required an acting coach. That placed a lot of doubt on the lead portraying the iconic character; it would have been difficult even without the bad press for any actor stepping into Harrison Ford’s shadow, and many fans were instantly turned off simply by the idea of someone else playing Han Solo. These were ultimately unwarranted concerns; Alden turned in an excellent performance, making the character his own, much like Chris Pine did with Kirk (another Star Trek reference! Blasphemy!).
As I’ve said, I’m not writing this to knock Solo; on the contrary, Solo is definitely gonna be one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. But it isn’t important to the franchise. Not like Rogue One. It’s a fun story that, ultimately, we wouldn’t be any better or worse if we didn’t have it. There’s a marketable difference between the films, and that’s clear from, well, the market.
The fact that Solo is underperforming so drastically isn’t because of “franchise fatigue” or the lack of quality in the story; there’s a definite difference in how the two new prequels approached their stories, and a different level of risk and reward for each. But for Solo, it comes down to timing, to the marketing (or lack thereof), to the drama behind the scenes, and the overall necessity of this story to the overall franchise.
Star Wars is not dead, and nowhere near it. And while I loved Solo, Disney needs to more carefully consider the movies it is producing under the franchise banner. There’s a rumored list of other origin stories- Boba Fett, Yoda, Obi-Wan- and frankly, I’m not too excited for most of these (I’ll be in for an Obi-Wan movie if we can get Ewan McGregor back for the role…). While I’ll watch them all, I’d rather see more movies like Rogue One, movies which flesh out a plot point that we are aware of but not entirely familiar with. Movies that enrich the franchise, filling in the gaps for us and showcasing different sides of the galaxy far, far away. I don’t want origin stories for each interesting character who’s been on screen (didn’t we already get a Boba Fett origin story… in Attack of the Clones?). To me, that would be a bit of lazy filmmaking, and no one on the Star Wars team, no one at Lucasfilm or Disney, strikes me as lazy.
And they need to consider when they are putting them out as well as what they are putting out. No matter how good the movies are, if Disney keeps dropping them on us every five months, we are going to get tired of them. And we don’t want to grow tired of Star Wars. We’ve waited far too long for good sequels (and prequels).
Hopefully, the performance of Solo is a fluke. I think it is; I can’t stress enough, despite what I’ve said about it in this article, how good the movie actually is. It is worthy of the title “A Star Wars Story.” And I trust Disney not to pull a “Warner Bros.” and ruin the next three movies trying to course correct after some bad press. Disney’s not immune to box office bombs; in fact, outside of Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar, they’ve had quite a few under-performing flicks lately. But Disney can take it, and while Solo isn’t doing so great, don’t take it as a sign that the franchise is in any trouble.
The Force is still strong with this one.