The Star Wars franchise has had a rough go on the big screen lately, with Solo: A Star Wars Story severely under-performing at the box office and The Rise of Skywalker falling short of its predecessors both critically and commercially. But even as the movies have struggled, Star Wars has found new life on the small screen, The Mandalorian has been very well-received on Disney+, while fans are eagerly awaiting the February 21 debut of The Clone Wars: Season 7.
Once, the idea of a Star Wars TV series of any sort seemed like a mere pipe dream (the closest we got were rumors of an elaborate drama named Star Wars: Underworld, which just had test footage leaked online). Now, it seems as though TV has become the perfect home for this iconic franchise. Read on to see why we think Lucasfilm should make television its top priority (despite the apparent difficulties surrounding the Obi-Wan Kenobi series.)
Star Wars Animation: A Proven Track Record
Star Wars fans love to rank the various movies, and it seems like no two fans rank them in the same order. That’s probably because, for all the enduring love we have for the series, it’s not exactly consistent in terms of quality. Every trilogy has its weak link movie. As a whole, the prequels were a major step down from the originals. Even within individual movies, you have films like Return of the Jedi and Rogue One where the incredible final act makes up for a relatively weaker opening.
The movies seem to have hit an especially rough patch of late. Solo: A Star Wars Story is generally regarded as the first real misfire of the Disney era, experiencing plenty of behind-the-scenes turmoil, opening to middling reviews, and becoming one of the lowest-grossing movies in the series even before inflation. The Rise of Skywalker is, at best, a very polarizing movie that’s also on track to gross less than its two sequel trilogy predecessors. Disney’s decision to put any new Star Wars movies on hiatus until 2022 may well be the best move right now.
Compare that uneven track record to that of the various Star Wars animated series. Prequel haters and lovers may not agree on much, but both can attest The Clone Wars is one of the best things to come out of that era of the Star Wars timeline. The Clone Wars greatly fleshes out one of the most pivotal conflicts in the series and the various new and familiar characters who played a part. It’s even managed to spin gold out of seemingly ludicrous plot twists like Anakin having a Padawan who never appears in the movies and Darth Maul surviving the events of The Phantom Menace.
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Similarly, Star Wars Rebels has struck a real chord with fans. It tells a much more intimate story than The Clone Wars, exploring the struggles of one small band of Rebel freedom fighters in a time before Luke, Han and Leia have rallied the galaxy’s heroes. To many, characters like Kanan Jarrus, Hera Syndulla, and Sabine Wren have become every bit as beloved as the movie icons. Rebels has also added rich new material to the saga, introducing elements like the Sith Inquisitorius and even bringing Grand Admiral Thrawn into the official canon.
Star Wars: Resistance hasn’t necessarily been as well-received as its predecessors, but that’s more a case of the series veering in a very different direction. Resistance is more directly aimed at younger audiences, leaving Rebels fans still hungering for a true successor.
Star Wars Live-Action TV: This Is the Way
For a long time, the idea of a live-action Star Wars series seemed wholly impractical. Even George Lucas himself toyed with the idea. Prior to the Disney purchase, Lucas was developing a spinoff series for ABC called Star Wars: Underworld, which was set in between Episodes III and IV and would have explored Coruscant’s criminal underworld in the era of the Empire. Lucas reportedly commissioned 50 scripts – including some from Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore – before ultimately shelving the project. At the time, a live-action Star Wars series (especially one set on one of the most populous and technologically advanced worlds in the galaxy) was considered too expensive to be feasible.
But that’s not really the case anymore. The Mandalorian proves that it’s now possible to craft a live-action series that looks and feels like the movies that inspired it. CGI technology has progressed to the point where showrunner Jon Favreau and his team can conjure entire worlds out of nothing and create a convincing portrait of a galaxy caught between the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic.
The Mandalorian is still an expensive series to produce. And it’s safe to say no live-action series will be able to match the movies when it comes to sheer spectacle and epic space battles. But at this point, money is no longer a huge obstacle in bringing Star Wars to the small screen. Clearly not, as Disney has already greenlit The Mandalorian: Season 2 and is developing other live-action shows featuring Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Lucasfilm’s TV Talent
Eight years and five movies after Disney’s acquisition, Lucasfilm has become sadly synonymous with creative conflicts. Numerous Star Wars directors have been fired and replaced, including the recent departure of Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and DB Weiss. The Last Jedi was the only one of these movies so far not to be plagued with director change-ups, writer switches, or extensive reshoots. And though Lucasfilm has tapped The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson to spearhead a brand new trilogy, there’s no guarantee that project will ever actually see the light of day.
Disney has been facing the same struggle so many big studios are right now. There’s a fine line to walk when it comes to selecting directors who have a unique vision but are also willing and able to work under the constraints of a major blockbuster project and a protective studio. That requires a certain temperament and experience not all directors possess. As we’ve seen over the years, a great many of Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy’s director picks haven’t panned out as hoped. Marvel Studios has mostly figured out how to find that balance, but it remains a major hurdle for the Star Wars franchise.
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Lucasfilm’s TV projects haven’t been entirely immune to these problems. Recently, Kenobi was reportedly being put on indefinite hold due to script concerns, though McGregor assured us production is still set to begin in early 2021. In general, though, we haven’t seen the sort of major creative shakeups and course-corrections that have plagued the movie side. The animated shows have been steered by Dave Filoni, a storyteller with a clear love for and understanding of Star Wars and a very close relationship with George Lucas himself. Meanwhile, The Mandalorian is overseen by Jon Favreau, a man with plenty of experience working inside a shared cinematic universe.
The Mandalorian also benefits from a talented lineup of directors with franchise experience, including Thor: Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi, Mr. Robot’s Deborah Chow, and Filoni himself. These are all storytellers with a distinct vision who work well inside the studio system. Is it any wonder Lucasfilm has reportedly approached Waititi to direct a Star Wars movie, or that Chow is set to direct the Obi-Wan Kenobi series?
Star Wars Movies vs. TV Shows: The Storytelling Potential
By now we’ve established Star Wars has had a much more consistent track record on television than it has on the big screen over the past couple of decades. But that’s not the only reason Lucasfilm would be wise to pivot to TV. Small screen projects like The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian open up new storytelling possibilities and avenues that aren’t really possible on the big screen.
Star Wars movies tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. That’s both a blessing and a curse. The movies deal in mythological archetypes and chronicle the hero’s journey of aspiring Jedi Knights like Luke and Rey. The movies “rhyme” with each other as new plot points echo older movies and the whole Skywalker Saga forms a giant, interconnected tapestry. At the same time, that rhyming can also devolve into needless repetition, with both The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker taking flak for their similarities to the original trilogy movies. How many planet-destroying super-weapons does one franchise need?
There’s also the fact that the movies can only cover so much ground. Each of the Star Wars sequels unfolds over the course of a day or two, meaning we only see a handful of battles in the much longer war between the Resistance and First Order. More than 30 years of history in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens has been left largely unexplored. Or look at Solo, which exhausts itself in the effort to compress every salient detail about Han’s past (how he met Chewbacca and defected from the Empire, his friendship with Lando, winning the Millennium Falcon, the circumstances surrounding the Kessel Run, etc.) into one feature film. Is there any doubt Solo would have worked better as a full season of television rather than a movie?
There’s always going to be a certain degree of familiarity to the Star Wars movies. They’re epic, sweeping stories of space fantasy and mythic heroism that have to remain broad enough to appeal to the widest possible audience. It’s in the TV realm where storytellers have more room to surprise fans and flesh out these Jedi Knights, bounty hunters, and droids. Baby Yoda would no doubt play well anywhere, but would fans have taken as strongly to the enigmatic Din Djarin if The Mandalorian were condensed into a film rather than allowed to unfold over the course of eight episodes? The prequel movies showed us the very beginning and end of the Clone Wars, but it’s only thanks to the animated series that we truly understand how destructive that conflict truly was and the significance of Episode III’s proclamation “there are heroes on both sides.”
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As Lucasfilm slowly develops new Star Wars movies, no doubt we’ll come to meet new heroes who live both before and after the time of the Skywalker family. But in the wake of the underwhelming Solo and The Rise of Skywalker, the prospect of new movies isn’t half as exciting as what lies in store on the small screen.
The Mandalorian saga has only just begun. There’s the prospect of a new animated series building on the loose ends from Star Wars Rebels. There’s the hope that we’ll eventually see the sequel trilogy’s answer to The Clone Wars – a show that fleshes out those missing years where Luke built his Jedi Academy, Leia spearheaded a new government, and Ben Solo fell from grace. Maybe we’ll even one day see Rey return in a new series that explores what happens to the galaxy after the First Order is defeated.
It’s not that Lucasfilm needs to stop making Star Wars movies altogether. But given the course of the franchise in recent years, the time has come for a shift in focus. Television is now where Star Wars feels truly at home.