It’s one of the biggest ironies in entertainment: Disney, the home of Marvel, Pixar, and a football team’s worth of all-star Princesses, cannot seem to get a Star Wars movie off the ground right now. Ever since The Rise of Skywalker concluded the sequel trilogy in 2019, the company has been loath to commit to a new film, saying in February 2020 that Star Wars movies are on hiatus, and that the future of the franchise is in television.
The pivot seems to be complete: In early November, Disney removed the previously announced Rogue Squadron film from the company’s release schedule due to scheduling conflicts from director Patty Jenkins, who has two unrelated films set to begin production soon. Other film projects that are theoretically still on the table seem to have evaporated: a movie from Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, a trilogy from The Last Jedi’s Rian Johnson, as well as a film from Thor: Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi. Like Jenkins, these are all very busy filmmakers with lots of other projects confirmed. Without any evidence that these Star Wars projects are progressing, it’s hard to believe any of them will actually land on release schedules anytime soon. Good, I say. Star Wars is at its best when the franchise isn’t producing new movies.
When it comes to the Star Wars franchise, the movies are considered the sacred texts. Even though Star Wars sprawls into every medium, there’s a level of scriptural reverence for the film trilogies that extends to how they’re marketed. A Star Wars “Episode” isn’t just a movie; it’s an event, in a way virtually nothing else is these days. Being a Star Wars fan is far and away the most mainstream kind of genre fan you can be, and the movies — at least, the movies as they exist now — are meant to cater to each and every one of those fans.
That’s an absurd expectation, but such is the current state of Star Wars, and Lucasfilm and Disney mostly pull off the illusion of selling a dream to every type of filmgoer. Star Wars is a tremendously valuable arm for an extraordinarily profitable company, and any movie in the series that does less than monster returns can be considered a failure, both by Disney’s standards, and given Star Wars’ historical track record of producing box-office and cultural smashes, no matter how critics or loud fans respond to a given film. It’s not insignificant that 2018’s Solo was the first Star Wars film to flop, and that it quickly marked the end of the “Star Wars Story” anthology film project that began with 2016’s Rogue One. There were plans for more, but the feeling that these two films tarnished Star Wars’ record of worldwide hits was enough to make Disney reverse course on its ambitious scheme to launch “a new Star Wars movie every year.”
From a certain point of view, it’s obvious that Star Wars is better in its vast and expansive spinoff canon than in the movies. Big, broad cinematic stories are good for getting people in the door, and specific stories elaborating on the worlds and ideas beyond the movies can keep them there. A fan could love The Force Awakens plenty, but it’s also possible that the adventures of the queer rogue archaeologist star of the Doctor Aphra comics might speak to that same fan more. There is power in specificity. There’s also the math of it all: A Star Wars book that people don’t like will not feel like a failure just because it didn’t earn literally a billion dollars.
But when it comes to that expanded universe, Star Wars films aren’t just beholden to expectation — they’re also small singularities, taking up all the oxygen in the constellation of Star Wars releases and making sure that a vast majority of the multimedia entries exist primarily to support the latest blockbuster. Comics like The Rise of Kylo Ren by Charles Soule and Will Sliney spin out of The Rise of Skywalker; books like Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson lead into The Last Jedi; Rogue One got a tie-in novel called Catalyst by James Luceno. The need to only produce tie-in projects can obscure creators’ work, and warp their goals: When every book is promoting a movie, it’s hard not to see them as promotional material first, and individual stories second.
Many of these books are beloved, and tie-ins are normal for a multimedia property this big. The pattern predates Disney’s Star Wars stewardship — George Lucas’ media empire often took the same approach. And even in movie-release years, not everything is a tie in. There’s Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn revival, Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron series, and the prequel-era novel Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray, all published when the hype for the final trilogy of the initial Star Wars series was at its peak.
Yet consider what’s happening now. In the absence of a film to drive a publishing initiative, Lucasfilm Books has kicked off the High Republic line of books and comics for fans of Jedi and their shenanigans. Those stories endeavor to reach beyond the shopworn Sith antagonists and establish a different kind of threat, the burgeoning pirate cult known as the Nihil. In comics, perhaps spurred by the popularity of The Mandalorian, a War of the Bounty Hunters miniseries and crossover has kicked off, leaning into the seedier side of scum and villainy that has been a vital part of Star Wars since Mos Eisley. And Star Wars video games finally have a sense of direction again, thanks to the success of Jedi: Fallen Order.
That’s just a small smattering of what’s going on now. What’s important isn’t that there’s so much Star Wars material at the moment — it’s the variety of the new additions to the franchise. Putting aside the truth that the entirety of modern Star Wars is dictated by corporate committee, the material outside the movie tie-ins feels loose, exciting, and a little less like brand exercises that fans have to sift through in search of quality stories.
With no movie to point to, something like the animated short film anthology Star Wars: Visions can steal the show and light up fans’ imaginations. Visions can then spiral outward into novels like Star Wars Visions: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon, which expands on the Visions short “The Duel” — a mostly monochrome homage to samurai cinema — into a Star Wars novel quite unlike any we’ve gotten before. Hopefully, the same can be true of the many Star Wars television series in development — all of which can be avenues for viewers to find a version of Star Wars that surprises them, and takes them somewhere they didn’t expect to go.
Like with most things, this has happened before. After the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars slowly drifted into dormancy until the 1991 publication of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, which famously gave birth to the Star Wars Expanded Universe of novels and comics. For eight years, the EU effectively was Star Wars, a varied, delightful, and infuriating expanse of stories that let the movie characters have kids, explored every side character, and imagined a bonkers future for a galaxy far, far away.
Circumstances are different now — franchises are too valued, and Star Wars is too profitable to go away like it did in the ’80s. But failure can breed innovation at any scale. It won’t last forever, but right now, Star Wars is in a rare space, one that could vanish at any moment, where no one seems to know where it’s going and no one in charge who might know cares to say. Creators are trying things in spaces built for experimentation, and new characters are cropping up at a dizzying pace. Star Wars is as open as it may ever be, with a large body of work both canon and not for anyone to strap in and punch it, blasting off toward war or romance, crime and knavery, or deep secrets of the Force. When no one really knows where Star Wars is going next, that just means you’re free to wander without supervision, just another scruffy little nerf herder out of many, sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.