We’ve seen the figures in black and white, but the underperformance of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” becomes startlingly clear when the contact is face-to-face.
The spinoff of the space opera that forever changed Hollywood opened last weekend to tepid box-office numbers for a hopeful blockbuster, struggling to squeak past $100 million by Monday of the Memorial Day weekend. The diagnoses were swift, sometimes draconian: Disney, the corporate steward of the “Star Wars” franchise, made a fatal blunder bringing out the Han Solo origin story so soon after the saga installment “The Last Jedi.” It erred in releasing it too closely on the heels of special-effects spectacles “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2.” Alden Ehrenreich didn’t look enough like a young Harrison Ford. The film’s female characters, played by Emilia Clarke and Thandie Newton, were fatally underused.
The list goes on.
But when I visited some sophomores studying AP English at Baltimore City College High School on Tuesday, no one mentioned release schedules or casting. Instead, I got a collective shrug: When I asked who had seen “Solo” over the weekend, two hands went up here, one there. As the children of Gen-Xers who presumably grew up on the “Star Wars” saga, they eagerly moved on to ask about “Black Panther” and “Get Out.”
It was a telling moment, and one that studios — who since the release of “Star Wars” in 1977 have pinned their fates on never-ending comic-book and superhero franchises — would do well to heed. Working within a medium that is simultaneously an art form, a mechanism for mass entertainment and a profit-driven industry, the executives in charge of mainstream moviemaking have focused mostly on the latter two, obsessively courting huge audiences and minimizing financial risk. Hence the countless prequels, sequels, threequels, spinoffs and adaptations of preexisting properties, from TV shows to board games.
But it’s precisely by playing it too big and too safe that Disney left money on the table with “Solo”: The movie cost upward of $200 million to make, plus an estimated $140 million for promotion and advertising, and was another example of a studio desperately throwing money at a problem while ignoring the fundamentals of cinema: a great script executed by a director of technical virtuosity, visual ingenuity and willingness to trust audiences to accept the unexpected, the subversive, the new.
Instead, “Solo” reflected the workmanlike sensibilities of director Ron Howard, as well as a script, by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, that conveyed a feeling of boxes being checked (Han meets Chewie; Han does the Kessel Run; “surprise” villain cameo) more than novelty, deep emotion or delight.
Meanwhile, as analysts predict that “Solo” will have difficulty recouping its shamefully high costs, the year’s most profitable movies prove that innovation still sells: “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski’s $17 million directorial debut, has become a global juggernaut, earning more than $300 million. As a relatively modest horror thriller, “A Quiet Place” follows the playbook of last year’s “Get Out,” which yielded similarly impressive results.
Both of those hits looked hopelessly weird on paper. There were no guarantees or “built-in” audiences, just the instincts of their respective directors and the feeling that what intrigued and delighted them would connect with audiences, and the courage of the conviction that they and only they were the ones who could tell those stories.
You could say the same thing about much bigger exceptions that proved the rule: A playful, jokey take on comic books would never work with the crowd who loved the broodingly self-serious “Batman” movies — until it did in “Iron Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” White audiences would never understand or accept a universe grounded in the history and contemporary experience of the African diaspora — until they did with “Black Panther.” Little boys would never identify with a female superhero — until they flocked to “Wonder Woman” alongside their moms and sisters.
Voice and vision are the elements that define our most lasting and cherished movies, and they’re the elements that are so muddled and indistinct in “Solo.” What’s more, voice and vision are the first things to be sacrificed within a Hollywood system that has taken the maxim “You’ve got to spend money to make money” to its most profligate and self-destructive extremes.
For too long, studios were willing to risk hundreds of millions of dollars simply on the data-driven hunch that fans would show up, when they should have been marshaling their resources to support artists willing to take genuine risks — with storytelling, casting, tone and deeply personal taste. Having experienced the downside of a strategy better suited to stamping out widgets than seizing imaginations, the movies’ corporate overlords might want to remind themselves that they’re an industry and a mass medium, yes, but also an art form. And in the name of art — and commerce — it’s time to start blowing things up, and not just on screen.