Solo, and the appeal of smaller storylines
What do you get when you take away the usual ingredients of a Star Wars movie, such as lightsaber duels, the Jedi, and the Force? What happens when you tell a more prosaic, character-driven story that delves into the background of well-known characters but is disconnected somewhat from the larger events of the Star Wars universe? Well, judging from the reception and box office results, you get an underperforming disappointment that fails to deliver on providing entertaining filler before the sequel to The Last Jedi.
I find the contrast between Solo: A Star Wars Story and Rogue One an interesting one. Both films bridged the gap between new trilogy releases but did so by taking very different approaches. Rogue One told a big story: the backstory of a major event within Star Wars, and the capture of the plans to the Death Star. Solo told a story with a lot less historical significance. It told a story of how Han Solo got started on his journey, and how he met other famous characters like Lando and Chewie. It was, as sometimes described, a “heist” movie, and for the most part a standalone one, and an adventure that reminds one of early Star Wars published fiction, like (appropriately enough), the Han Solo Adventures or the Lando Calrissian Adventures. Although a bit dull at parts, it had good humor, Donald Glover’s performance was good (getting to see more of the character of Lando was fun, considering his absence in the new trilogy), and seeing a younger Han and Chewie interact was fun. It was, I thought, a good change of pace from the “fate of the Star Wars galaxy” stakes of the new trilogy. But the change in approach didn’t pay off.
The tendency to “go smaller” in a standalone movie is a natural and understandable one for a franchise following a movie that may be part of a much larger crossover storyline, or one that may have had a budget larger than the GDP of a developing country (although a smaller-stakes storyline doesn’t have to mean smaller budget of course, as Solo and others show). There’s a perception that attempts to top a big action blockbuster will be futile and only lead to unflattering comparisons. So the approach is to go in a different direction rather than leave it open to that type of comparison.
I think that the recent Ant-Man and the Wasp was an example of where this worked well. Coming after the opposite type of Marvel movie, a worlds-spanning cosmic space opera with epic stakes (I feel like each of those descriptions should be written in all capital letters) and a dominant supervillain, Ant-Man is a contrast in almost every way. The villains are forgettable, the tone is light, and the scope is much smaller. Ant-Man and the Wasp was generally well-received, thanks to the comedic tone and performances by Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd. But it was building off of a previous movie that had been more in the realm of comedy than some other recent comic book movies, so the expectation was already there from the audience.
Although shrinking the scope doesn’t necessarily mean lightening the tone, it does tend to go that route, as an example of another movie in a sci-fi franchise shows. Star Trek: First Contact was action-heavy and darker in tone, and one of the most action-oriented Star Trek movies featuring one of the most popular villains from The Next Generation, the Borg. It was one of the most critically and financially successful Trek movies to that point. In approaching the story for Star Trek: Insurrection, Michael Piller asked himself, “How do you create a villain or adversary that will be their equal? The answer is don’t try. Make a different kind of movie.” Insurrection was certainly a different movie from First Contact, as a more overtly comedic film, like the movie it was clearly trying to emulate the success of, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Insurrection was a disappointment for a lot of reasons, including a flawed premise, and the humor seemed forced in comparison to The Voyage Home, which seemed to emerge effortlessly from the characters’ interactions and response to the setting.
The risk in such a shift in scope and stakes is clear, from the box office performance of Solo and the previously mentioned Star Trek: Insurrection. For a while, the idea in comic book movie sequels seemed to be to increase the villains that the hero had to face to up the ante. Superman II did this with General Zod, Ursa, and Non. The ’90s Batman and Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies did this as well, to the point where both were cramming in backstories for three new villains at a time when the hero would be facing a more personal issue as well. I think that two of the sequels to avoid this tendency, X2: X-Men United and Iron Man 2, were better for avoiding it.
For the most part though, more villains or threats can mean bigger stakes, bigger battles, and bigger buzz. Franchise movies depend a lot on buzz, especially in an era of shorter theatrical runs. The Last Jedi featured a galaxy-wide conflict, with the Resistance on the verge of defeat. It had the fate of the Jedi Order at stake and the first appearance in over thirty years of Luke Skywalker on the big screen. The fate of a lot of the major characters in Solo weren’t at stake, since we know what’s going to happen with them later. If the potential downsides to movies that have a smaller scale or are more focused on character backstory is the difficulty with maintaining audience interest and being dwarfed by bigger franchise movies, there are clear upsides here as well. There can be more room to maneuver story-wise when freed from an existing story arc. There is the opportunity for humor that may seem less forced than in the kind of movie where the stakes are more urgent. And the audience gets to see parts of the setting that may get less attention when the focus is on fighting the Borg, the First Order, or Thanos. The Star Wars universe is a big sandbox as so much of the Expanded Universe stuff shows, and there’s a lot of potential in the overlooked portions or unexplored histories of the characters.