The minds behind Star Wars, the brand, want to ensure that there will be at least one Star Wars, the movie, on big screens every year, in perpetuity, until we are dead and buried or (given the way our political moment is going) blasted into little bitty irradiated pieces, like so much Alderaanian space dust. In odd-number years, it seems, we’ll get new “Episodes” — such as “VII: The Force Awakens” or “VIII: The Last Jedi” — and in even number years, we’ll “Star Wars Stories,” like last year’s “Rogue One.”
The latest Star Wars Story has been fraught with peril and filled with rancor, a truly suspenseful journey through the stars with many near-misses and outright disasters. But all that drama has nothing to do with what’s on the screen (material we won’t see until the middle of next year, at the earliest). Instead, it revolves around a phantom menace striking back against those who many thought would be a new hope* for the franchise: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the directing pair behind “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie.”
While much remains uncertain, this much seems clear: Executive producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter/longtime Lucasfilm hand Lawrence Kasdan were unhappy with the work Lord and Miller, the directors of the as-of-yet-untitled Young Han Solo movie, had so far done. As a result, Kennedy/Kasdan removed the duo from the film (or, alternately, the duo resigned rather than bend to the will of their studio overlords) and replaced them with Ron Howard, the director of “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind.”
All sorts of tidbits have dribbled out over the past few weeks. The most amusing of these is the anonymously sourced claim in Variety that “It was a culture clash from day one. … [Kennedy] didn’t even like the way [Lord and Miller] folded their socks” while the most troubling is the report that Alden Ehrenreich, Young Han himself, received help from an acting coach midway through the shoot because higher-ups were unimpressed with his work.
This isn’t the first time that executives have clashed with a director playing in the Star Wars sandbox. “Rogue One” famously underwent extensive reshoots — reshoots helmed by Tony Gilroy rather than credited director Gareth Edwards, reshoots that concluded with Gilroy settling into the editing bay trying to stitch together a movie that seems to have changed quite a bit over its production.
Regardless of what actually happened in the case of Young Han Solo, the simple fact of the matter seems to be that the comedic stylings of Lord and Miller — best understood as a mélange of self-referential irony and on-the-spot improvisational humor — were simply not a good fit for the Star Wars universe in general or the character of Han Solo in particular. They brought a style and a tone and a sensibility to a franchise that has never really needed any of those things to strike a chord with audiences.
Bluntly, Howard, a director with a long track record who can handle big budget action scenes but isn’t wedded to any particular aesthetic, seems like a far better choice to helm a title in a series whose better entries — “Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” — were handled by directors who either hewed to George Lucas’s visual style while improving the level of acting (Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand) or whose own sensibility is so inseparable from the Lucas/Spielberg aesthetic (J.J. Abrams) that it blurs the line between homage and theft.
Kennedy and Co. are more or less emulating the Marvel model, mapping out a cinematic universe that has a clear house style and hews to an overarching storyline even as individual plots show some variation. There’s a reason why “Iron Man’s” Jon Favreau, who Slate’s Sam Adams once described as “the ghost in the highly successful machine,” was the perfect director to kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe: his hypercompetent anti-style more or less defines the look and feel of that entire franchise.
It’s why Edgar Wright was an odd choice to direct “Ant Man,” and it’s why I’m a bit anxious about Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi.” As the proprietrix of this blog has noted, the limitations on creative freedom that come with helming a franchise entry render the gigs relatively pointless — and deprives viewers of truly original, auteurist works.
So maybe we should be happy that Howard is slipping into the director’s chair of “Han Solo: The Kid Years.” And maybe we should hope that studios realize hiring seasoned vets and less-experienced, more-easily-guided younger directors is a better way to go than throwing the latest hot big name into the franchise meat grinder.
*I’m so sorry for this whole paragraph. Please feel free to tweet your complaints/demands for my firing to my editor, Alyssa Rosenberg.