New hope for Star Wars? Not if Disney has anything to do with it
As one of the creators of Lost, Damon Lindelof knows all about disappointing endings. But not even the man who helped inflict the Smoke Monster on the world could have foreseen that his dalliance with Star Wars would be snuffed out so quickly.
Lindelof had been involved in a “top secret” bid by Disney to revamp the Jedi jamboree, which it acquired with its $4 billion buy-out of Lucasfilm in 2012 and which an increasingly angry fanbase has accused it of running into the ground. In October it was reported Disney had hired a top-tier writer’s room, drawn largely from television, to work on a new movie – the first since the disastrous Rise of Skywalker in 2019.
This week it was revealed Lindelof had left the project alongside Justin Britt-Gibson (Into the Badlands, Banshee). No reasons were offered. But speaking on a podcast Lindelof said the “degree of difficulty” involved in working on Star Wars is “extremely, extremely high”.
Lindelof’s exit would rate a little more than a footnote were Star Wars firing on all pistons with its TV output. It is, after all, on the small screen that Disney has placed its bets. In 2022 Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy said the success of hi-jinks space western The Mandalorian – the popularity of which appeared to initially catch the company unawares – had encouraged it to lean even deeper into streaming.
She said: “We've been doing so many different stories and shows and developing characters and really expanding things in ways that I don't think we even realised three years ago.”
But here too, Disney Wars has proved a few rocket thrusters short of a full jetpack. With the original run of The Mandalorian, the corporation was praised for bringing Star Wars back to its pulp roots (the original movies being a love letter by George Lucas to Flash Gordon).
Alas, season three has hit with a thud, with viewers complaining about ponderous pacing and directionless plot – to the extent it could be accused of having a plot. Many have just given up on it altogether: according to research in the US “audience demand” is less than half what it was for the first season. This rates as a disappointment and a surprise given the trailer was the most viewed for any Disney+ Star Wars to date. And it follows lower than expected numbers for Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, which came and went last year with minimum fuss.
Disney has more television in the pipeline – including Mandalorian spin-off Ahsoka, starring Rosario Dawson, and the Jude Law-led YA series Skeleton Crew. The latter, described as a coming-of-age adventure in the tradition of The Goonies, looks like a departure. Among those announced as directors are Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once duo Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan.
The minds who brought hot dog hands and kung-fu to the Academy Awards focusing on the world of stormtroopers and sentient dustbins is obviously worth the price of a Disney + subscription. Elsewhere, though, the outlook for Star Wars on the small screen is now as muddy as for the movies. After all, Mando’s woes come as Disney boss Bob Iger warns Disney + would be looking to “reduce the content that we're creating for our platforms” amid “skyrocketing” production costs. The corporation has already cancelled its well-received spinoff of cult fantasy movie, Willow (which failed to break into the streaming top 10 on its release).
Where does that leave Star Wars? Nobody knows – least of all Lucasfilm and Disney, it is tempting to conclude. In Lindelof’s case, rebooting the brand was a challenge too far. “If it can’t be great, it shouldn’t exist,” he said. Employing a food metaphor he added, “maybe I shouldn’t be cooking. Maybe I should just be eating.”
With Disney in charge of Star Wars, it’s been feast or famine. It churned out three hugely loud and widely-loathed sequel movies but since then has been cancelling projects faster than Anakin Skywalker offing younglings at the Jedi Temple
Josh Trank, Colin Trevorrow, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Patty Jenkins, Game of Thrones showrunners Benioff and Weiss are among the talents announced as working on Star Wars only for the projects to be quietly canned – or, in the case of Lord and Miller, for the directors to be conspicuously fired. Of the big names linked to the Galaxy Far, Far Away… only Thor director Taika Waititi has yet to be put out to pasture – though who is to say when he, too, will receive a tap on the shoulder?
Were it possible, the picture may grow even bleaker in the short term. So Star Wars fans will conclude with the news that Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight has been hired to script the film on which Lindelof was working.
Knight is a hugely successful producer, so it isn’t as if Disney and its Star Wars subsidiary Lucasfilm are scraping the very lower reaches of the barrel. But you’ve got to wonder who in the entertainment industry it will next ask to take a shot at the saga.
Ricky Gervais? Simon Cowell? Brendan O’Carroll? Mrs Brown’s Boys in Space sounds absurd – but then think back to Princess Leia's “Mary Poppins” moment in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi and ask yourself, can Star Wars get any sillier than it already is? Factor in too, that, while a master of TV, with his movies, Knight has come unstuck again and again: his 2019 psycho-thriller Serenity, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, is generally agreed to be one of the most inept films of the past decade. Worse even than The Last Jedi. (Knight is also behind the BBC's somewhat divisive adaptation of Great Expectations.)
Disney has said that it is proceeding with caution as it plans the next stage of the Star Wars story. The fan backlash against The Last Jedi – a silly attempt at subverting the George Lucas universe from within – caused huge damage and is seen as dooming from the outset Solo, which followed six months later.
“Solo was a little disappointing to us," said Bob Iger, who had stepped down as head of Disney in 2021 only to be brought back by desperate executives last November as Disney struggled to adjust to the post-pandemic landscape.
“It gave us pause just to think maybe the cadence was a little too aggressive. And so we decided to pull back a bit…We're going to make sure that when we make one, it's the right one, so we are being very careful there.”
Until recently, it had seemed that on the small screen, Star Wars had escaped the curse blighted its movies. Sadly, the contagion has spread. The decline began in 2021 with The Book Of Boba Fett – a spin-off of the Mandalorian featuring rickety action and which, halfway through, decided to turn back into a regular season of its big brother, Mando.
Disney, it felt, had forgotten how to make straightforward episodic television. The show sidelined its eponymous character for two and a half of its six episodes as it pivoted back to Pedro Pascal’s Mandalorian and his sidekick, Grogu, aka Baby Yoda. The problem was the story of the helmeted Bounty Hunter had been more or less done and dusted when Grogu left to train with Luke Skywalker at the end of the second series proper.
But now, Mando was reunited with Grogu – while Boba Fett cooled his heels off-stage. Having realised what a merchandising sensation it had with Baby Yoda, Disney executives were seemingly unwilling to allow the Mandalorian to fulfil his mission to reunite Grogu with the Jedi and for the little green man to jet off into the horizon.
Grogu and Mando are still hanging out in season three, which has now shoe-horned in the bizarre prospect of Baby Yoda training to be a Mandalorian – though without the stipulation that he wear a helmet, as obligated by Mando creed. For Grogu, this isn't the way (to quote Mando’s ubiquitous catchphrase).
Mandalorian showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have also apparently been instructed to connect The Mandalorian to the doomed Star Wars sequel trilogy. Hence the decision to devote most of episode three to telling the standalone story of Imperial cloning expert Pershing readjusting to life in the New Republic. The undigested chunk of franchise extension was parachuted into The Mandalorian, where it stood out like a steel helmet in a sauna.
The one glimmer is provided by Tony Gilroy’s Andor. The grim and gritty prequel to Gilroy’s own Force Awakens gave Disney a rare critical hit in 2022 (though it was a flop with audiences). A second season is in production. It has somehow survived the great streaming cull that has elsewhere claimed the aforementioned Willow (the first of many Disney + cancellations, it would seem) and will presumably impact, too, on Disney’s Marvel spin-offs.
The fear among fans is that, having ruined The Mandalorian by trying to connect it to the wider Star Wars universe, the suits may have something similar in mind for Andor.
“Every cancelled project just has me questioning even more how in the Tony Gilroy was able to make one of the best TV shows of the decade,” said one Star Wars fan on Reddit. “Was it just that they saw it as such a small potatoes project that everyone left him alone and he got to make it how he wanted? Too busy meddling with and cancelling every other project that he somehow flew under the radar?”
The issue now is that Andor is very much on the radar. Gilroy always planned for his creation to run for just two seasons. After that, he’s out. Given the ongoing turmoil over what is next for Star Wars, he must be relieved that he brought along an escape pod.