Are you ready for the new “Star Wars” movie? It’s called “Episode XXVII: Beating a Dead Ewok.”
So, OK, we recently got a new movie in the official canon that started way back in 1977 with “Star Wars: A New Hope.” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was loved by some (including me), loathed by others (including a cadre of online angry boys), with the majority splitting the difference between yay and meh. And there you would think the matter would lie for a couple of years, the way they used to do with sequels.
Not anymore. Now it’s “Attack of the Clones.” To wit: A stand-alone movie about the life of young Han Solo, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” is in post-production with a release date of Memorial Day weekend. Alden Ehrenreich (“Hail, Caesar!”) stars, pop-culture jack-of-all trades Donald Glover is playing Lando Calrissian; the director is Ron Howard.
Isn’t that enough? Would that it t’were so simple. The upcoming, as-yet-untitled “Episode IX” will cap the current official trilogy in 2019, directed by J.J. Abrams and bringing George Lucas’s original dream of a “Star Wars” nonet of films to fruition. Rian Johnson, director of “The Last Jedi” — and the man credited with refreshing much of the energy of this pop culture warhorse — has been handed the reins of his own standalone “Star Wars” trilogy, due sometime after 2020.
And on Tuesday, Disney and Lucasfilm announced that “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will direct an entirely different series of “Star Wars” movies, presumably heavy on breasts, decapitations, and three-eyed ravens. I’m kidding (I think), but it’s quite possible that Benioff and Weiss have been tapped to bring some demographically-expanding darkness to a franchise that has always deemed it crucial to play to the kids.
But wait — there’s more! Last August, The Hollywood Reporter reported that a stand-alone Obi-Wan Kenobi film was in development, with director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) attached and Ewan McGregor expressing interest in reprising the role. Rumors continue that a Boba Fett project is brewing in some deep sub-basement at Skywalker Ranch. All that’s missing is “Yoda: The Retirement Years” or an intersteller heist caper called “The Binks Job.”
Why the rush of projects? Surely value lies in scarcity? True, but greater profits may lie in flooding the marketplace, tarnishing the brand but broadening the money pool while maintaining tight control over the flow of content. And, honestly, this is what Disney excels at: Buying up intellectual properties and replicating them on a factory model. That’s why we’re getting Pixar sequels like “Incredibles 2” this year and “Toy Story 4” in 2019.
The company is also in talks to acquire most of 20th Century Fox’s divisions, including the film studio, cable channels, and franchises like the “X-Men” and “Avatar” series; if the merger goes through, Disney — the most secretive and control-conscious of the major studios — will become more than ever the entertainment industry’s dominant player.
So what’s the game plan behind the multiplicity of “Star Wars” projects? “The Last Jedi” struggled to connect with the crucial China market; is Disney hoping to squeeze the maximum amount of gold out of this property before it ages out entirely? Is the company intent on feeding a constant river of branded content to the streaming market? Are they following the Marvel superhero approach: Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks?
It might feel better if there were a sense of genuine creative risk in the works. Aside from the Rian Johnson films, though — and speaking as a critic and a fan, I’ll follow this talented filmmaker anywhere — the announced “Star Wars” have been handed to safe bets. In some cases, the movies were initially given to young mavericks and then re-given to directors less likely to cause trouble with fresh ideas. Tony Gilroy reportedly took over behind the scenes from Gareth Edwards on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016), Colin Trevorrow was edged out by Abrams on “Episode IX,” and Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie”) were bounced from the “Solo” solo for the reliable Howard.
Where Marvel and DC are starting to broaden their palette of who gets to make big-budget sci-fi/fantasy projects — Patty Jenkins helmed last year’s “Wonder Woman,” and if early screening reports are correct, African-American director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) has turned the upcoming “Black Panther” into the year’s first must-see spectacle — “Star Wars” producer Kathleen Kennedy is apparently taking no chances.
Ironically, while Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” had a story line driven by female characters as no other “Star Wars” movie has had, the franchise has been squarely old-school-guy behind the scenes. According to a recent Variety article, the number of women in key creative positions on any “Star Wars” movie (aside from Kennedy) is one: Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote the screenplay for 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.” The number of people of color is zero.
Remember what it felt like when you saw “Star Wars” in 1977? Despite being made up of story lines, legends, and plot conventions that date from the dawn of narrative, it felt like nothing you’d ever quite seen. Those days are over. I think the Empire is striking back.
Podcast of the Week: There aren’t enough hours in the day to follow all the smart, provocative podcasts out there, but “Releasing the Meme,” the latest episode of Slate’s invaluable Trumpcast, is a must-listen for any concerned citizen. Political reporter/cultural critic Virginia Heffernan interviews Molly McKew, an expert in information warfare, on the nuts and bolts of how the #ReleaseTheMemo meme went from one Twitter account to a media obsession/distraction with the aid of an army of Russian info-bots. You’ll learn about “computational propaganda,” the 90-10 rule, volunteer slave-bots, and more in a half-hour that makes it quite clear we’re engaged in a proxy war with Russia, abetted by Stateside collaborators who style themselves as patriots and mainstream news outlets that all-too-willingly snap up the bait. Also: We’re losing.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.