So, there we go. Rise of Skywalker wrapped up a trilogy of trilogies in satisfying and exciting fashion, despite (almost inevitably) not being able to please everyone. Now that the nine-film arc is completed, what can we say about the franchise and where is Star Wars going from here?
The Original Trilogy
Lest we forget and embark on the worst sort of revisionist history, Lucas only called Star Wars “Episode IV” because he wanted audiences to feel they were dropping into the middle of one of his beloved Saturday sci-fi serials. A possible 9-film arc was in no way set in stone back in the 1970s and indeed it was only upon Lucas’s realisation of the leaps and bounds that had been made in CGI when seeing ILM’s work on Jurassic Park that he was prompted to first of all revisit the original trilogy and then plan seriously for the now much-lamented prequel trilogy.
The original trilogy was of course a towering success in every sense. By using different writers and directors for each episode but retaining overall story control, Lucas managed to keep each part distinctive, while retaining a clear through-line of plot and “look”. For better or worse, A New Hope helped (along with Jaws) to invent blockbuster cinema and it remains a barn-storming action adventure film, exciting, well-told and lovingly constructed. The revelations and denouement of The Empire Strikes Back worked perfectly (far better than those of Avengers: Infinity War, to be honest, as we knew most if not all of those seeming calamities would soon be “fixed”), before we moved into the tonally lighter and narratively more upbeat Return of the Jedi. There are, of course tonal parallels between the rhythm of the original trilogy and George Lucas’s other beloved creation of that era, Indiana Jones, but that is something for another article.
Empire was a near-perfect part 2, expanding on and enriching the franchise, long before every franchise worth its salt started wittering about how the next one would be “darker, edgier”. Aside from the utterly spectacular opening battle on Hoth, Empire had very little in terms of big action set-pieces, preferring character beats, revelations and compelling narrative developments instead. As stated earlier, Return of the Jedi went lighter, with Ewoks and the mother of all up-lifting endings (Vader is redeemed! Palpatine is toast! The galaxy is free!) and although the recent trilogy showed that there were still interesting stories to be told and there was still life in the Dark Side, Jedi didn’t need a follow-up, even though it left room for one.
The Prequel Trilogy
Many of us lost our perspective with the prequel trilogy over the years, variously over-lauding the films on their initial releases, before what was possibly an unfair (over) course-correction. With Lucas writing and directing all three episodes, there was certainly uniformity, but not in a good way, as Lucas’s shortcomings as both a writer and director were laid bare.
The rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker probably didn’t require three films, but in an age when even something as slight as The Hobbit gets a trilogy, we shouldn’t be surprised that this is how it went. Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith all have their moments and plus-points (the pod race, Duel of the Fates, Yoda with a lightsaber, Order 66), however fitting all of the backstory into the existing framework created by Episodes IV-VI proved too Herculean a task for Lucas’s admittedly limited screenwriting prowess and it would take until Rogue One for a film to seamlessly transition from the backstory into the beginning of the original trilogy without raising more questions than it answered.
The Sequel Trilogy
Although one might argue it is too soon to carry out a comprehensive post mortem on Episodes VII-IX, all three are now in the bag and we have a couple of years’ perspective on all but ROS. Force Awakens felt like the world’s most expensive (and commercially successful) fanfilm/homage (Starkiller Base, hitting all the beats of A New Hope, etc) but it was generally very well received, it was undoubtedly entertaining and was a huge uptick in quality, entertainment and coherence from the prequels. Most of us are aware of what has become the furore surrounding Rian Johnson’s unfairly maligned Episode VIII. Yes, it appeared to side-step, abandon or ret-con some of the new trilogy’s seemingly interesting ideas (Rey’s origins, Snoke) and the tone of the comedy seemed out of kilter with the franchise’s usual approach. But it was an interesting, exciting film that went in intriguing directions, even if JJ Abrams wound up making Episode IX a de facto sequel to his Episode VII, swerving around or re-thinking some of Johnson’s attempted new ideas.
Given that Rise of Skywalker had not only one trilogy, but arguably three to wrap up, it is a wonder it didn’t wind up being twice the length of Return of the King and whatever misgivings one might have about the pacing, density of plot and the short shrift given to some supporting characters, it must be conceded that in view of the pressure Abrams was under, he performed (as both writer and director) admirably. Like Return of the Jedi before it, ROS wrapped up most of the trilogy’s loose ends, doesn’t need any further sequels, but has left room for further stories to be told about Finn, Rey and Poe.
Where are we headed next?
Since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm (including Star Wars and Indiana Jones) to Disney, we’ve had a trilogy of Star Wars films, two spin-offs/prequels/side-quels (Rogue One & Solo) and The Mandalorian on Disney+. Rumours persist of a Ewan McGregor-starring Obi-Wan Kenobi film or series and Rian Johnson still seems to have Disney’s blessing to press on with his mooted trilogy set “somewhere within the SW universe”, despite the fact that a certain section of SW fandom seems to think TLJ is to the Star Wars universe what Requiem was to the Alien universe.
Given that Solo was a significant down-tick in terms of box office receipts compared to both Rogue One and the usual success of “proper” SW films, paired with a worrying recent history of director changes, Disney seems to be suddenly keeping its cards closer to its chest in terms of where the franchise goes from here. The consensus seems to be that the Skywalker Saga is done for the time being and that whatever stories remain to be told, they should be more along the lines of The Mandalorian.
With what feels like a flurry of creative differences and changes to directors (Lord and Miller on Solo, Colin Trevorrow on Episode IX, the aforementioned hostility towards Rian Johnson), the Star Wars universe feels far from settled. Whereas the MCU had 11 or 12 years of stability, creative control and box office success, Star Wars has had much more mixed success (both critically and commercially) and, much like the DCEU, seems uncertain about where its strengths lie, what audiences are interested in and therefore, where it is headed.
With the success of The Mandalorian on Disney+, the temptation will be to lean towards television, but the monstrous budget of a series like that means that even that option represents a significant risk. If the commercial success of the films had grown and grown, more films would have felt like a surer path to continued success, but it feels like SW is now in limbo.
It is certainly a universe (or at least a far-far-away galaxy) that is rich in characters, worlds and ideas, the question that remains is, can someone with enough creativity, drive and vision grab hold of it all and steer a successful path through the next decade?