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Why Solo was destined to be the worst-performing live-action Star Wars film

Prequels can be death for franchise films

han and chewbacca in solo: a star wars story Walt Disney Pictures/Lucasfilm

Solo: A Star Wars Story is having a hard time at the box office — at least in its all-important opening weekend — and you’re going to read many theories about why the film is under-performing. Is it franchise fatigue? Did Star Wars: The Last Jedi sour a large group of angry men online against the entire series? Was the movie itself just not very good?

Those issues, taken together, probably didn’t help Solo’s chances of success, but I have a much simpler explanation for why audiences didn’t warm up to the latest Star Wars movie: Disney was trying to sell us a ticket to see a story we already knew that has an ending we’ve already seen that ties into a large universe in a manner we’re all very acquainted with.

[Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story]

Solo does everything it sets out to do very well, but that doesn’t change the fact that the movie has no mystery, and no reason to exist outside of a cash grab.

Why people see franchise movies

Marvel Studios — which is also owned by Disney, of course — pumps out an endless stream of superhero movies that all do solid numbers at the box office. Fans know what to expect, up to a point, but we keep showing up because we honestly don’t know where each story is going to take each character, nor do we know how all of this is going to fit into the whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Think of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which opened up Marvel’s universe to include space travel and new planets. We didn’t know where that story was going, and it was fun to try and guess how it would all connect to the greater threat we knew was growing on the horizon. We bought a ticket for that sense of mystery, at least partly.

The status quo of the Marvel universe is often shaken up in the smaller films, which makes it feel important that fans see each one. The smaller journey of each movie slots neatly into the bigger world of the MCU, and each Marvel movie can be enjoyed on both levels as we watch them. But there has to be stakes that feel real and some sense of mystery to draw the audience in.

Solo should be able to provide the same things without breaking much of a sweat, especially since it focuses on one of the most popular film franchises’ best-loved characters. So where did it go wrong?

We knew the answers to all the questions Solo asked

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a prequel, and it focuses on things we already knew. Han Solo grew up on Corellia, but became a smuggler and a scoundrel. He met Chewbacca when Chewbacca was a slave. He won the Millennium Falcon in a card game. He’s kinda sorta friends with Lando Calrissian. He did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, which shouldn’t be possible. He likes money, ships and himself, but he’ll sometimes do the right thing when it’s important.

The movie spends two hours going over all of this, without doing much of anything to change how we think of or view the character. We know who he is at the beginning of the movie, and we know who he is at the end of it. He learns the lessons we expect him to learn to become the person we’ve already met in other movies. We’re not really scared that Chewbacca might die during the train heist, because Chewbacca is in a lot of movies that take place after this one.

A new character that isn’t in any of the future movies? We know you’re going to die

We learn some details about how all of this happened, but we already knew the broad strokes. Han Solo acts in a very Han Solo way, doing things we knew he did. And based on context, we know intuitively that characters introduced in this movie that haven’t shown up in other movies are bound to die.

There’s no mystery about how these events tie into the great story of Star Wars because we knew that before the movie was even announced: Obi-Wan Kenobi hires Han Solo to be a pilot in Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. It turns out people just aren’t that interested in movies that ask questions we already know the answers to.

But what about ...

The one interesting plot point introduced by Solo is that Darth Maul is alive, and is in control of a massive crime syndicate. Qi’ra makes contact with the Sith Lord after killing her boss and taking over control of his luxury yacht; her use of the martial art Teräs Käsi is one of the few other callbacks in the movie that feels fun and unforced.

The credits roll without giving us any idea of where that story is going, and it’s one of the most buzzed about parts of the movie. It’s also unlikely to do anything to help the box office receipts, since even talking about it would be considered a spoiler. Solo hid the genesis of Darth Maul in a manner that makes it rude to discuss outside of the movie. That’s not the best marketing strategy.

Solo is likely to serve as a warning to future Star Wars films: Tell us something we don’t know, or at least preserve some kind of mystery that’s fun to think about before we see the movie, not after. Solo isn’t a bad movie — I found it to be much better than I was expecting — but I understand why audiences are staying away. Fans walk out knowing exactly as much about Han Solo as they knew walking in.