- Disney didn't have a solid narrative plan in place when it started the most recent Star Wars trilogy.
- Each movie seems to be a total departure from the previous one.
- Going forward, there are a few key things Disney needs to bear in mind when creating the next trilogy.
** This post contains spoilers for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." **
If you haven't seen Disney's final installment in the Skywalker Saga, now would be a good time to stop reading.
However you felt after seeing "The Rise of Skywalker" — elated, disgruntled or somewhere in between — it was clear that when Disney set off to make a new trilogy of Star Wars movies, it didn't quite understand what it was getting into. The narrative thread that was supposed to link the trilogy together was improvised and resulted in three films that aren't cohesive and riddled with plot holes.
That doesn't mean they aren't enjoyable films, or even successful ones. "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi" together made over $3 billion at the global box office and "The Rise of Skywalker" is expected to add at least another $1 billion to that tally. However, Disney's strategy was deeply flawed.
As the company embarks on a new trilogy, the first film of which is set for release in 2022, there are four key things it needs to bear in mind.
Each movie seems to be a total departure from the previous one. If "The Force Awakens" was criticized for being too much of a mirror of the original trilogy, "The Last Jedi" was criticized for doing the exact opposite. And "The Rise of Skywalker" took a sharp 90 degree turn away from "The Last Jedi," undoing major story lines and sidelining major characters (Looking at you, Rose).
"The Force Awakens," written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, introduced audiences to a new generation of Star Wars characters, while weaving in beloved characters from the original trilogy. It set up several questions and was a solid foundation for the sequel trilogy.
The reins were then handed off to Rian Johnson. While it was reported that Abrams had penned draft scripts for the next two installments, Johnson was given the freedom to write his own script for his film, so, he did.
The result was "The Last Jedi." Johnson's tale did answer some of the questions that were proposed in "The Force Awakens," but also divided the fan base. Johnson's take on Luke Skywalker, now a hermit living alone on a hidden island, is reminiscent of Master Yoda's exile on Dagobah, but wasn't a universally loved arc for the hero of the original trilogy.
Rey, the scrappy Force-sensitive scavenger, wasn't a long-lost Skywalker, a Kenobi or a Solo. She was nobody. She wasn't connected to a dynasty character and that prospect was thrilling. Anyone could become a Jedi.
However, when Abrams returned to the project, bringing along writer Chris Terrio, all of that changed.
Less than an hour into "The Rise of Skywalker" it is revealed that Rey wasn't a nobody, she was the granddaughter of Palpatine. Wait, what?
Oh, and Snoke, the powerful dark-Force wielder that turned Ben Solo into Kylo Ren and lured him to the dark side, he was a puppet controlled by Emperor Palpatine, who is magically alive, this whole time.
It didn't feel like a shocking, yet satisfying twist. It just felt shocking. Had this really been the plan all along?
To be sure, the original Star Wars trilogy had some sloppy storytelling arcs, but that was because it was never guaranteed that any of them would get a sequel. "A New Hope's" success meant that "The Empire Strikes Back" could be made. And "Return of the Jedi" was only greenlit after "The Empire Strikes Back" had a solid run in theaters.
So, in "A New Hope" when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke that Darth Vader killed his father, that was the truth at the time the film was released. Darth Vader being Luke's father wasn't in the early drafts of George Lucas' scripts and neither was Luke and Leia being secret twins.
When Lucas set out to make the prequel trilogy it was clear that he had taken the time to sort out the narrative for all three films. Regardless of how you feel about the prequels, they follow a very linear and clean path from start to finish.
Going forward, Disney needs to outline out a three-act arc for its future trilogy. Even if it hires different directors for each film, it needs a showrunner.
Look at what Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") and Dave Filoni ("Clone Wars," "Rebels") have done with "The Mandalorian" on Disney+. While several directors, including Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi, have all taken turns directing episodes, the episodes were carefully crafted by Favreau and Filoni and snap together seamlessly.
It shouldn't need to be said, but here it is: you shouldn't need to buy a book or play a video game to understand what happened in a Star Wars movie.
As frustrating as some of the plot holes in "The Rise of Skywalker" were for fans, what is more frustrating is that many of the questions left unanswered in the film are answered in supplemental, purchasable materials.
Want to understand more about the Knights of Ren? Read the visual dictionary for "The Rise of Skywalker." Want to know how Rey fixed Luke's broke lightsaber? Also in the visual dictionary. Why is Lando so interested in former First Order stormtrooper Jannah? Check the visual dictionary!
And if you wanted to hear Emperor Palpatine's full ominous message that was sent out into the galaxy during "The Rise of Skywalker" all you need to do is play Fortnite.
"Since when do blockbusters come with a syllabus of required reading?" Matt Singer, from Screen Crush, wrote Monday in piece about the number of ancillary materials required to understand the latest Star Wars film. "If you need a book to make sense of Star Wars — a franchise now in its fifth decade, enjoyed by generations of children — something has gone very wrong somewhere along the way."
Perhaps, it was just a matter of trying to fit too much plot, and too many new characters, into one film that resulted in so many post-credit questions. But future films should be wary of repeating this.
Visual dictionaries are a beloved part of the Star Wars franchise. Fans love learning minute details about characters, clothing and the planets visited in the movies. But, they don't want to have to buy books in order to understand what happened on the big screen.
Keep it simple. Star Wars movies, as Lucas has said repeatedly, are meant to be for kids. Star Wars can have nuance, but it shouldn't require homework to be enjoyed.
When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 the company decided it wanted more creative control over the future of the franchise. It announced that the only canon elements to Star Wars were the six feature films and the animated series "Clone Wars." All other books, TV shows or comics were no longer the true continuation of the story.
To say the amount of content in the extended Star Wars universe was vast, would be an understatement. It's no surprise that Disney decided to part ways with much of the material. Still, the company shouldn't shy away from some of this now non-canonical material or from newly created canon-approved series when producing new movies.
Many fans have clamored for a movie, or set of movies, based on the popular 2003 video game "Knights of the Old Republic," which explores the Star Wars' universe more than 3,000 years before the events of the films.
There are also a number of new books that explore secondary and tertiary characters, including Captain Phasma and Grand Admiral Thrawn. There is even a novel about "Alphabet Squadron," a group of rebel pilots tasked with tracking down a deadly group of TIE fighters during the Galactic Civil War. These novels, which were published after Disney acquired Lucasfilm, are considered canon and could be used in future films or television series.
Alternatively, the trilogies could be forward-looking. What comes next?
Star Wars fans have always had divisive opinions about their beloved franchise. New movies have been both too tied to past ones and strayed too far and new characters are seemingly adored and loathed equally by a fractured fandom.
There's a fine line between fan service, adding nostalgic moments or teases to please audiences, and making narrative choices solely with the goal of appeasing all fans.
"The Rise of Skywalker," at times, felt like it leaned almost too far toward trying to make fans happy instead of just telling a solid story.
Not a fan of Rose? That's okay, she's just in the background. Rey should be related to a canon character? She's a Palpatine now. The main trio spent too much time apart? They will be in every scene together.
Then there are the moments like the brief shot of Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson) piloting one of the Resistance ships, seeing Lando pilot the Millennium Falcon, or having Poe Dameron refer to a Mon Calamari Resistance fighter as "Junior," suggesting he is Admiral Ackbar's son, that hit the right chord of nostalgia without feeling like they are pandering.
Future Star Wars films have to strike that balance.
Once again, look at "The Mandalorian." The show is based in the Star Wars universe, set in the years after "Return of the Jedi" and has elements of a traditional Star Wars tale, but it's also innovative and fresh.
Disclosure: Comcast, the parent company of CNBC, owns Rotten Tomatoes.