‘Star Wars’: ‘Game of Thrones,’ Sequels and the Cheapening of a Franchise (Column)

With the announcement of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' series of films, the number of 'Star Wars' movies is set to double. What does that mean for a fan?

Star Wars the Phantom Menace

It is astonishing to me that in just a few years, my enthusiasm about the latest announcement of a new “Star Wars” film has gone from giddy, barely contained excitement to complete indifference — if not, at times, a more rancorous frustration. The announcement this week that “Game of Thrones” showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are slated to helm an entire film series of the beloved science-fiction franchise felt like a nail in the coffin of something I used to love.

It’s a reaction that is not wholly about the deal itself, which itself must make perfect sense to anyone outside the fandoms of these franchises. “Game of Thrones” is one wildly successful genre drama and “Star Wars” is another; on some level, this is an obvious pairing. This is more about reckoning with what a film franchise is, and the possible shapes it can take as it moves forward. In this case, the business incentives behind the expansion of the “Star Wars” universe have exposed the creative dearth at its heart. This is yet another signal from Disney that “Star Wars” is rapidly becoming like its Marvel universe — a multi-platform, multi-story universe that advances its narrative and expands its world with each successive print, screen, and digital installment. Since 2008, Marvel has produced 18 films, with six more on deck to be released by 2020; since 2013, it has put on 16 seasons of television. It’s a sprawling monster of content. But to be brutally honest, most of the content isn’t that great. It’s chain-restaurant pop-culture: warm, satisfying enough and quickly forgotten, like a meal at Chili’s.

Aside from the merits of bucketloads of cash, there are critical merits to this approach, too. After all, at least Marvel content is generally fine. Many other franchises don’t have the quality control or consistency of the Disney machine — and for a good example, look no further than “Star Wars” before Disney, which was distressingly inconsistent and shamelessly focused on merchandise. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm, it was to save a franchise that had almost been exploited to death. And to the company’s credit, it did: It refocused the universe back to the films, and produced a few well-made, thoughtful additions to a story that began in 1977.

But this careful rollout is becoming a deluge, and that does have consequences for quality. First, there’s “Solo,” which will be released May 25 — just six months after the huge, global push for “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi,” the highest-grossing film of 2017. The trailer, which dropped last Sunday during the Super Bowl, is just the first salvo in a global marketing blitz that we have by now all become familiar with. But this time, it’s starting while the last installment of the “Star Wars” franchise is still playing first-run in theaters across the country. That “Solo” is a prequel film, about the younger versions of characters who are already beloved, makes its promotion feel particularly manipulative: Like the ad campaign is milking us for emotions when we have already spent them all on “The Last Jedi.”

The director of that last installment, Rian Johnson, struck a deal with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy for his own “Star Wars” trilogy, which was announced in December. According to an interview Johnson did with SlashFilm, Kennedy greenlit his trilogy without a story. Now Benioff and Weiss have signed on for an undisclosed number of films, based off of storytelling during a point of time in the “Star Wars” mythology. The fact that the word “series” is being used instead of “trilogy” suggests more than three, although specifics are scarce. Johnson’s trilogy more than doubles the number of “Star Wars” films made by George Lucas; Benioff and Weiss’ would likely add at least three more. This may be just the beginning; rumors about a Boba Fett film and an Obi-Wan Kenobi film have been circulating for some time.

In our era of franchise cinema — and streaming television! — more is supposed to be better. More seasons; more episodes; rebooted titles; longer episodes; two-part finale films, like two-part finale seasons. Three movies spanning from 1977 to 1983 were enough to keep “Star Wars” fans fascinated and passionate for decades; the first time that the available “Star Wars” films doubled, it was bad news. Does the set of available “Star Wars” films really need to double — again?  Won’t all this production mean that each future installment of “Star Wars” becomes more disposable, as it joins a dozen other films in a multi-platform universe? I feel as if I am watching one drop of something essentially wonderful dilute and dissolve into an ocean of content; you can barely see where it came from.

What has distinguished “Star Wars” until now was how good the new movies have been — and how spare their rollout has been, versus the ramped-up production cycle of the Marvel films. Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” is remarkable for being not just a fun “Star Wars” film but for commenting and expanding upon the universe that it exists in, in ways that are frustrating and challenging but ultimately pretty cool. There’s quite a gulf between the skillset that Johnson brings to ‘”Star Wars” and the skillset that Benioff and Weiss bring. I am surprised to be in the rare position of defending the distinction between film and television. But bringing on two showrunners who create adapted installments of a story — instead of manufacturing whole, standalone stories — is not encouraging for a “Star Wars” fan hoping the franchise will resist becoming a mere hydra of content. With Johnson — a small-budget independent filmmaker, before “Star Wars” — the emphasis was on making “Star Wars” movies. With Benioff and Weiss — who have been managing a huge franchise for several years now — the emphasis is, clearly, on expansion and replication.

And if “Star Wars” is a franchise that has made mistakes, so too is “Game of Thrones,” which has had a successful but tumultuous path in the spotlight. Naturally not everything that has happened under the “Game of Thrones” imprimatur is the fault of Benioff and Weiss, but as we measure how these franchises move forward, it is notable that two showrunners consistently dogged by concerns about exploitative violence have gotten a crack at one of the most family-friendly franchises currently in production. Benioff and Weiss have been guided by their source material, but that does not explain the decisions they have made that are outside the purview of the books — decisions that have written out characters of color, introduced scenes torturing prostitutes, and filmed violence against women exploitatively. As I’ve written before, the way that violence is packaged on the show belies a privileged lens that plays out violence for entertainment value. This just is not very “Star Wars” — I mean, it was a big deal when the newer “Star Wars” films got a PG-13 rating, over the slightly tamer PG.  

Of course, some of “Game of Thrones'” violence is about staying true to the source material. But some of it, too, is just about keeping the audience’s attention. And maybe that’s something “Star Wars” is planning to start investing in. Because as other franchises and sequels have demonstrated, as any creative universe gets bigger, it inevitably needs to rely on bigger explosions to make an impact. This is one of the reasons that in-universe filmmaking is so predictable and so exhausting; it’s hard to keep reinventing the wheel. Excellent installments — like “Logan” in the X-Men universe or “Black Panther” in the Marvel Universe — are just fractions of overall output. In every other mediocre franchise movie, the world is about to end because of another invading alien; we become inured to the devastation. Even in the newest, quite good “Star Wars” films, the essential threat is the same: the Empire is always being resurrected somewhere; another superweapon is always in the works. What I fear is that Benioff and Weiss have been signed onto “Star Wars” not to adapt to the universe, but to change it; that “Star Wars,” desperate to offer something different to their viewers, would become more like the seamier, splashier “Game of Thrones.”

But “Star Wars” is not about being jaded. It is about wonder. It’s about the romance of space travel, the epic scale of interstellar warfare, and the scale of history as measured across not just time but space-time. “Game of Thrones” is the rebellious teenager of genre franchises — all hormones and death and black clothes. “Star Wars” is an innocent, naïve adolescent, still fixated on first kisses and weird gadgets and lingering views of the sunset. That the romance of this series somehow survived what the first franchise did to it is kind of a miracle. Now I wonder how much more it could take. It would be such a mistake to dilute this series’ beauty, to resign “Star Wars” to the fate that every franchise from “Harry Potter” to “Lord of the Rings” has suffered — the fate of too much, when restraint is so often what makes a work into a work of art.

Admittedly, this frustration is driven at least partly by my own nostalgia. But at least here, I feel very clear: My nostalgia matters to Disney. Our collective nostalgia for these films is what Disney is trying to capitalize on, and sell back to us, by making more of these movies. But the more they do this — the more franchises they do this to — the less potent our wonder becomes. Disney’s “Star Wars” has been, until now, a uniquely restrained franchise. It would be great if it could stay that way.