Those complaining that ‘Star Wars’ suffers from a small universe problem will undoubtedly find little solace in this message.
Sometimes Hollywood news items catch you completely by surprise; sometimes you wish they’d bothered to make it official months ago. As noted in The Hollywood Reporter yesterday – and covered extensively by our own boss Neil Miller – the long-gestating Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff now appears to be a reality. While the film seems close to locking in Stephen Daldry, the Academy Award-nominated director of The Hours, as its helmer, there’s still a lot of road to travel before the film is in the can. At this point, Disney could replace Daldry as the director in the final week of shooting and nobody would act particularly surprised.
But with a standalone Obi-Wan Kenobi movie comes questions about the fidelity of the Star Wars universe. This isn’t exactly a new path for Lucasfilm and Disney – we’ve been hearing rumors of a standalone Kenobi movie for at least three years now – but since the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Lucasfilm has found itself subject to whispers about the staying power of the Star Wars universe. First the studio elected to remove two decades’ worth of Extended Universe fiction from the Star Wars canon – an event I’ve written about with some modicum of authority – but they’ve also greenlit several spinoff movies that refuse to step beyond the immediacy of the main Star Wars timeline. If you’re going to make a Star Wars movie, it seems, there must’ve been a Skywalker alive to support it.
I’m certainly not the first to point out the narrow scope of the Star Wars universe. Last December, FiveThirtyEight published an article – provocatively titled “Star Wars Killed a Universe to Save a Galaxy” – where Walt Hickey examined the full impact of the Expanded Universe on the remaining Star Wars canon. What Hickey found was a slaughterhouse of original storylines. “If plans go awry,” Hickey wrote, “the primacy of the franchise in modern storytelling — and storyselling — means the universe may need to be destroyed and rebuilt, as many times as it takes to get things right.” In other words, the Skywalker bloodline is the franchise, and as long as there’s a Hollywood to make movies, Star Wars will choose to iterate on its central characters, not expand on them. Queue your think pieces about The Matrix‘s architect character predicting modern Hollywood franchises.
What makes a solo Obi-Wan Kenobi movie particularly insidious is the fact that Ewan McGregor is one of the very few elements of George Lucas’s sequel prequel that is held in high regard by the fans. While few elements of those films escaped the ire of diehard Star Wars fans, McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine – whose slow consolidation of power in the Star Wars universe has become a surprisingly effective statement for our times – remain the few elements that work and work well. Even more surprising is how well McGregor’s age matches up to the Star Wars universe; few actors are allowed to ‘age into’ their roles, but the Ben Kenobi of the original Star Wars trilogy is old enough to give McGregor a second chance at an action career. He doesn’t have to be the geriatric star of the original Star Wars film, only an actor with enough gray in his beard to justify his halfhearted lightsaber battles.
Do we need a standalone Obi-Wan Kenobi film? No more than we need a Han Solo prequel or a Rogue One adaptation that explains how the plans to the original Death Star were stolen from an Imperial Compound. Like many authors before me, I echo the sentiment that films focused on characters from the original trilogy only serve to hold the franchise back, re-litigating the lives of Star Wars characters long after the narrative has moved beyond their presence. I like the idea of McGregor returning to play Kenobi one last time, but I unequivocally love the idea of a movie that tackles distant points in Imperial history that helped shape the galaxy as we know it. Star Wars is too big a universe to be stuffed into one small Skywalker-shaped box.
It’s also worth noting, I suppose, that the Star Wars standalone movies offer insight into Disney’s approach to their franchises as a whole. We’re about to hit a tipping point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans step down from their iconic roles and give the mantle of MCU stars over to some of the franchise’s younger actors. If Disney has shown a willingness – perhaps even a preference – towards rebooting or retelling the stories of the main Star Wars characters, then this doesn’t bode particularly well for those who want the Marvel universe to push beyond and through its own cinematic universe. As franchises consolidate down to a handful of major studios, we may find that whatever works for one will work for all, and the lines between the Star Wars universe, the MCU, and others will become increasingly blurred over time.
As someone who read the books, played the video games, and even dog-eared dozens of pages on his copy of the Star Wars: Encyclopedia, I think Star Wars will continue to suffer from its insistence that the world-building performed by Lucas only extends as far as the Skywalkers themselves. I would love to see a movie that takes place centuries before (or after) the main storyline, that attempts to pick up with the lessons of the lost soldiers of the Rebel Alliance. But until Lucasfilm feels enough confidence in its product to take it off the rails, expect to see countless movies about the secondary characters of the Star Wars universe. I, for one, won’t rest until I experience a Lobot origin story. You know that robo-dude has some crazy secrets to share.