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Relentless Mediocrity Is Killing ‘Star Wars’
Star Wars has lost its way. I think it lost its way long before Disney acquired LucasFilm, though the sins of the House Of Mouse tend to differ fundamentally from the shortcomings of George Lucas himself. The former has inundated us with unsatisfying content; the latter let his once-brilliant IP whither on the vine.
Which brings me to a different headline I was toying around with: ‘Andor’ Has Ruined ‘Star Wars’ For Me
Andor is simply so much better than anything else from the Disney era—and better than anything, I’d argue, since the original trilogy in its original format—that the rest just pales in comparison. The Mandalorian Season 3 felt cheap, directionless and slapdash. The less said about Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Book Of Boba Fett the better. Ahsoka, so far at least, leaves much to be desired. All this money and so little to show for it.
Relentless Mediocrity At Disney
Mediocrity is the word I’m looking for.
Star Wars has become relentlessly mediocre. It’s not that there isn’t anything to like about these shows, it’s that they all feel half-baked and overblown, like butter spread over too little bread, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Baggins.
Did Obi-Wan Kenobi need to be a TV series? It had about enough content for a two-hour movie. The rest was awkward and rather boring filler. The new Willow series was dreadful for many reasons, not the least of which was Disney’s inability to hire talented writers who actually understood what made the original film so beloved, and I can’t help but wonder if it might have been better as a 90-minute film. (Alas, Willow will now once-again languish in obscurity for decades I suspect).
Does Ahsoka need to be an 8-episode series, or would it have been better served as a more tightly-drawn film? I can’t answer that yet, but looking back on most of the Star Wars and Marvel Disney+ shows I can honestly say that the vast majority, with a few exceptions, would have made better movies than shows.
In the Marvel space, WandaVision is the only Disney+ show that works perfectly as a TV series. There are many reasons for this, but the clever format that drops Wanda and Vision and the other townsfolk into different sitcom eras, works perfectly as a TV show. The episodes were generally shorter as well, and each had a different intro song that adopted the style of the sitcom era it was lampooning. Structurally, WandaVision was perfect for TV.
Other Marvel shows, from Falcon and the Winter Soldier to She-Hulk, would have worked better as movies. They didn’t need so much time to tell so little story.
Andor, like WandaVision, shows us that the television format can work for Star Wars, but only if constructed properly. Gilroy blocked out several different story arcs within the first season of the show, handing each to a team of writers and directors while overseeing the overarching series. Each arc had a beginning, middle and an end that propelled viewers through (albeit, often slowly, as this show is certainly a slow burn) to a series of climactic moments that led directly to the next block of episodes. (Indeed, at the time I lamented the weekly release, believing still that releasing each chunk of episodes each week would have been the savvier move).
There is no way to take all four(ish) arcs in Andor and turn them into a satisfying film. But fans have already stripped down Obi-Wan Kenobi into an unofficial film, and I bet it would be easy to do the same for Falcon or Hawkeye or Book of Boba Fett.
A Mess Of Movies
Of course, it’s not just that Andor works well as a TV series that sets it apart. It’s also better than any of the Disney-era Star Wars films and leaps and bounds better than Lucas’s prequel films. This is largely because the writing is excellent, the attention to detail in every set and costume is unparalleled in Star Wars, and the terrific actors are all given great material to work with.
In other words, at every turn Andor strives for excellence, whereas just about every other modern Star Wars offering trucks in cheap tricks, cameos, Easter Eggs and half-cooked ideas. Fan service in all the wrong ways.
The sequel trilogy was not only rushed, it was incoherent, with nobody overseeing an overarching storyline for all three films. This oversight—this dreadful calamity—remains utterly baffling to me. With just a little effort and care—not to mention competent management—the trilogy could have been mapped out all at once with a compelling arc from Episode VII - IX. Instead, we get whiplash between each film. Relentless, unabating mediocrity prevails time and time again.
Gilroy was also the man Disney brought in to save Rogue One, though he came to the project well into production. Save it he did, as Rogue One—warts and all—remains the best of the new Star Wars movies.
“I’ve never been interested in Star Wars, ever. So I had no reverence for it whatsoever. I was unafraid about that,” Gilroy told the Hollywood Reporter of his work on the film. “And they were in such a swamp … they were in so much terrible, terrible trouble that all you could do was improve their position.”
Watching Rogue One post-Andor, it’s hard not to notice all the little things it gets wrong. Andor gave us something new while also managing to feel more Star Wars than anything since the original trilogy. They never say “May the Force be with you!” or fight with lightsabers but it still feels so intrinsically Star Wars. The aesthetic is just so.
But Rogue One wasn’t the only thing in so much terrible, terrible trouble. The problems facing the entertainment industry after the broken promises of Netflix’s streaming future remain an existential crisis for Hollywood writ large.
One could argue that the reason so much Star Wars content has felt like its in one stage of identity crisis or another is because of Disney’s decision to start making all the new content for its streaming service, Disney+, rather than releasing theatrically or on traditional cable television.
Part Of A Wider Hollywood Collapse
While the problems with the Star Wars films can’t be laid at the feet of the streaming wars or pandemic-induced delays, the wider issues facing Hollywood—which have led directly to the current writers and actors strikes—are major culprits in this fiasco nonetheless.
Writing at The Ankler, showrunner Alena Smith (Dickinson, Apple TV) lays out the great Netflix scam in no uncertain terms:
The story of the streaming wars has been widely told by now, but I’ll provide a short recap. In the pilot episode of this limited series (so to speak), TV and film’s “great disruption” was kicked off by Netflix, who came raging into the business with a firehose of speculative cash, unleashing the biggest spending spree in the history of the industry. Netflix did so while deploying the classic Silicon Valley strategies of predatory pricing, vertical integration and hoarding of data in order to grab market share and make it impossible for the so-called “legacy media” companies (translation: those dinosaurs who still needed to make a profit off of entertainment) to compete. Netflix — like Uber, and yes, like WeWork — was selling a story: a story of unlimited growth and infinite scale; of monopolistic market domination. As long as interest rates remained at zero and subscription numbers kept going up, Wall Street bought the story. And so did the old guard of legacy media, who, tossing aside a century’s worth of experience and relationships in the notoriously unpredictable entertainment business, one by one threw their hats in the streaming ring, seduced by the promise of unwavering growth, each starting their own (often amusingly-named) direct-to-consumer subscription “content” platforms.
She notes that artists, writers, actors and all the rest were also seduced into this new streaming utopia, where early payouts cloaked dangerous realities.
And once Netflix made this model the new normal, other companies followed suit. Now there were no more Nielsen ratings, no more box office numbers, no more publicly-available feedback loop of any kind to reveal to anyone — artists, executives, audience, critics — which of the ever-mounting heap of shows or movies were actually being watched and enjoyed. To make matters still more murky, Amazon and Apple joined the money-burning carnival, setting up in-house branding operations disguised as entertainment studios that were really just diversified “value-adds” to the products and bundles that form the core of their massive tech ecosystems.
Smith says she has no idea how successful her own show was on Apple, and isn’t certain that Apple can even tell. The almighty algorithm continues to churn out the relentless mediocrity we’re all slowly coming to accept as the new normal, with only these rare diamonds in the rough to remind us what ought to be.
“In their mad rush off the digital cliff, these companies transformed Hollywood from a high-wage, high-profit, hits-driven industry into a low-wage, low-profit, subscription-driven one,” Smith writes. “They also broke the basic bargain at the heart of show business, which is that creative artists and independent producers will share in the financial success their work creates.”
Less Is More
Smith quotes Warner Bros boss David Zaslav, speaking in an earnings call that sounds more like a confessional. “Let’s face it, the strategy to collapse all windows, starve linear TV and theatrical and spend money with abandon, while making a fraction in return, all in the service of growing sub numbers, has ultimately proven to be deeply flawed.”
You can say that again.
They’re old adages, but good ones: Less is more. Quality over quantity. You pay for what you get. You reap what you sow.
If you want to save Star Wars, you have to make less Star Wars and you need to release more of it in theaters. You can’t just throw money at this IP and flood Disney+ with content, content content! You need to hire the most talented writers and directors and producers and costume designers and special effects people and give them time and money to make something great and you need to make that profitable. Invest in the creative people making your content and you’ll get better content.
The same applies to Marvel. Less is more. We are inundated with content that isn’t very compelling, that increasingly feels not just designed-by-committee, but designed-for-algorithm. Consumers have trouble keeping up with all this lackluster crap. What we want is quality: The White Lotus, Barry, Severance. That’s what will bring us back in the long-run, and not just superfans who will watch everything and buy all the toys. But it’s unclear if Hollywood even has the right tools to gauge success anymore.
Star Wars has fallen on hard times. Maybe it’s always been on hard times, at least since the end of the first trilogy, and certainly beginning with George Lucas’s unforgivable edits to the original films. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and Andor proves it. If Disney wants to save Star Wars, they need to dial it back, do some soul-searching, maybe shake up management a bit, and then proceed with caution.
As for the bigger problems facing all of Hollywood? That’s trickier. In her article, Smith calls for political action against monopolistic forces threatening to usher in a dystopian future, and I can’t argue with her conclusions. “We’re already well on our way to that dystopia,” Smith argues, “but we can still change course. We must restore open markets for TV and film and stop these monopolies from ruining a time-honored industry that has, for generations, created so much of what makes it good to be alive.”
Without major changes to the current trajectory, our entertainment industry is poised to collapse, and one of America’s most powerful cultural exports—and one of the most crucial and defining aspects of our society—will crumble and fade.
A great deal of damage has been done to the Star Wars brand and to the entertainment industry writ large, but I still have hope that it can be saved.
Rebellions are built on hope, after all.