“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is officially a blockbuster, pulling in $155 million in its opening weekend and becoming the second-biggest movie launch in the franchise's history after last year's “The Force Awakens.”
That's great news for Disney, and an endorsement of the sprawling side stories the company wants to tell in an effort to expand the Star Wars theatrical universe.
The early success of “Rogue One” — which details how the Rebel Alliance obtained the plans to defeat the Death Star in “A New Hope” — suggests audiences are more than willing to explore beyond the traditional Skywalker narrative that's dominated the series since its first release in 1977.
Now, Disney faces an even greater challenge: developing Star Wars at a pace that won't exhaust audiences, or the source material, too quickly as executives seek to grow the sci-fi franchise into the size of a small moon. Under Disney's stewardship, Star Wars is already being compared to the Marvel universe, a sprawling media empire also owned by Disney that has contributed to what some experts call “superhero fatigue.” Although superhero movies still make loads of money, a persistent critique of the genre is their formulaic homogeneity and a relentless firehose of content. And it's a trap that Star Wars would do well to avoid.
Marvel has won plaudits for weaving an interlocking web of comic books, TV shows and movies that allows for endless spinoffs, sequels, prequels and reboots. Fans of “The Avengers,” for example, have gotten separate movies and shows about individual Marvel characters (“Iron Man,” “Captain America”) or institutions (ABC's “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.").
It's all part of a bigger strategy at Marvel to grow the fan base while also appealing to longtime loyalists. In June, Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso told Entertainment Weekly that his goal is to build a wealth of “diverse, exciting and accessible entry points into our world.”
But the proliferation of those entry points has some fans growing tired of superhero films. The complaints range from one-dimensional villains to heavily digitized fight scenes to an overreliance on magic objects as plot devices, adding up to a cookie-cutter approach to moviemaking. Even comedian John Oliver has piled on.
Analysts say there's a good reason large media franchises suffer from these problems.
“When you're making $100 million bets [as a studio], you need to make every decision with risk aversion in mind,” said Laura Martin, a Disney analyst at Needham & Co. “What works before is likely to work again.”
With “Rogue One” as a tail wind, Disney can plow ahead with its as-yet unnamed spinoff introducing fans new and old to a young Han Solo. But as the custodian of George Lucas's beloved creation, Disney may have to confront with Star Wars some of the same pitfalls that critics say have weakened the superhero-industrial complex.
Box-office numbers show that superhero films continue to impress. Roughly half of films released in the genre between 2008 and 2015 ended up ranking in the annual top-10 lists for highest-grossing movies, according to comScore.
Still, just because a film performs well financially doesn't mean it is a quality movie, critics say. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times called “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” a capable action flick that lacked inspiration, but it did nearly $100 million in box-office sales its opening weekend.
“It's a product of the highest quality, but at the end of the day that's what it is: a machine-made, assembly-line product whose strengths tend to feel like items checked off a master list rather than being the result of any kind of individual creative touch,” wrote film critic Kenneth Turan.
The roteness, some say, has even infected the musical scores of many superhero films, in which filmmakers opt for forgettable placeholder tunes rather than distinctive, creative motifs.
“With every new cycle of deafening promotion, 'there sure are a lot of superhero movies, and it's getting to be too much' inches closer to objective, uncontroversial truth,” wrote Rolling Stone in June.
To its credit, “Rogue One” largely escapes these traps. And Star Wars under Disney may prove to be more complex than the standard superhero fare, which could help inoculate the sci-fi franchise from staleness.
For example, while Lucas's initial trilogy dovetails with familiar superhero tropes — a young boy comes of age amid loss and the discovery of seemingly supernatural powers in an epic battle between good and evil — “Rogue One” seems open to challenging the previously unquestioned moral frame of the Star Wars universe. The Rebel forces are not universally united nor unimpeachable, and some Imperial agents are portrayed as victims of circumstance and perhaps even deserve our sympathy. Looking at the galaxy as a place of nuance and ambiguity affords Disney some greater storytelling perspectives and, ultimately, a more interesting universe to explore.
But even if there may be more room for Star Wars to maneuver, it is still at risk of getting stuck in its own trench run. Many critics soured on “The Force Awakens” for resorting to a tired major plot device; by virtue of the story at play, “Rogue One” was no different, with its all-encompassing obsession with a certain Imperial megaweapon.
The challenge for Disney is threefold. It must introduce new plotlines that extend the Star Wars universe beyond the aging, traditional cast of characters. It must offer a steady drip of fresh material without turning away new audiences that may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of catching up. And it must stay true to legacy fans who view Disney as the responsible steward of one of the world's most beloved film franchises.
May the Force be with it.