Last Friday I went to see Solo. I booked tickets at my local multiplex for 7pm on Friday evening. You can’t really get more prime time than that. And yet… the cinema was almost eerily deserted. The large screening room couldn’t have been more than 5 or 10% full.
This experience presumably wasn’t unique. By all accounts, though Solo went in at number one in the UK box office, it has underperformed the galactic expectations expected of a Star Wars film. And while film nerds and box office geeks can debate the definition of the word “bomb”, it doesn’t look great: The film is rumoured to have cost around $250m (£188m) thanks to Ron Howard reshooting most of the film, and at the time of writing it has only delivered $103 (£77m) in revenue after five days of release in the US (and a good rule of thumb is to double to the cost of a film’s production to get a sense of how much it really cost to make, once you take into account marketing and distribution and so on).
By the same point after release, Infinity War had already reached $305m, and The Last Jedi had hit $261m (again both are US-only figures). With massive films like this, you would expect a large chunk of the gross to be front-loaded, because of the hype and anticipation of fans.
So you can probably forgive Disney CEO Bob Iger and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy if last weekend they started to wonder “why, oh why did we leave the ending open for a sequel?”.
The big question then is… what went wrong? How did Star Wars, aka a license to print money... fail? It’s a question that will no doubt be picked over by fans for years to come — so in a bid to get in early with the wild speculation, here’s six hypotheses to start off the conversation.
1) Poor Timing
Can you have too much of a good thing? Perhaps Solo demonstrates that yes, you can. Solo hit cinemas a mere five months after The Last Jedi, and is the fourth Star Wars film in three years. Could this simply be an example of fatigue? Are audiences just not ready to spend more time in a Galaxy, Far Far Away?
My gut reaction is that there must be something in this theory — but then it's surely challenged to a certain extent by the franchise’s Disney stablemate, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Panther came out in February, and Infinity War followed it, and both are two of the highest grossing films of all time. So what gives?
There’s also another, arguably more practical dimension to the timing question: Solo was the third high profile blockbuster in a packed month of cinema releases. Infinity War only landed a month ago, at the end of April, and since we’ve also had Deadpool 2.
Both films are likely to appeal to the same sort of audience as Solo, and while seeing three films in a month might not seem like a big deal to childless nerds like myself, it’s easy to imagine how finding childcare or working around other commitments two or three times in such a short space of time could be challenging for others.
And let’s face it: If you can only manage one cinema trip in a month or two and you had to pick, you’d definitely pick Infinity War over Solo, right?
2) Han Solo Is Too Iconic To Replace, and Should Remain Enigmatic Anyway
What’s unfortunate is that Solo is actually good. Despite everything (more on that later), it’s a solidly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema. The cast are all enjoyable characters to spend time with: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s right-on robot, L3, Woody Harrelson’s Beckett and Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos are all fun new additions to the Star Wars canon. And, of course, the ubiquitous Donald Glover was great as Lando.
And the biggest surprise: Alden Ehrenreich was actually good. Despite (overwrought) rumours about him requiring an on-set acting coach, he was totally fine in the titular role. So why did fewer people than expected feel the need to see his performance in the cinema?
Perhaps one explanation is simple: Audiences couldn’t get past Han Solo being played by someone else. Harrison Ford is Han Solo — so why should we care about some other person doing an impression of him?
Beneath this, there’s a deeper criticism of the film’s premise: Do we need to know where Han came from? Just like seeing Darth Vader shout “yippee” undermines the dark, bad-ass who no one should dare mess with, do we really want to see Han do the Kessel Run? Does it not work better as legend?
I’m not sure I’m convinced by this latter point, as it would require Star Wars fans to believe that they don’t want more Star Wars. And as we live in a world where everything on screen with a pulse has an extensive backstory (including Max Rebo, the blue elephant-like alien that plays the organ in the cantina), I’m far from convinced about this.
3) Behind The Scenes Drama Prepared Us For The Worst
The weird thing about the modern world is that thanks to the internet and websites like, umm, Gizmodo UK, it is possible to follow the production of any given film all of the way from the studio giving the green light to the deluxe remastered Blu-Ray release, to the star being exiled from Hollywood in disgrace following a scandal.
This means that while we might have gone into Return of the Jedi in the dark about what actually went into making it, when it came to Solo, attentive fans were already deeply familiar with the twists and turns of production.
We know about the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller as the film’s original directors. We know about the extensive reshoots. We know about the aforementioned acting coach thing. We thought we knew that the film destined to be a disaster creatively. We remembered the similarly troubled Justice League.
So it is definitely a nice surprise that Solo is actually fine. If you didn’t know about the behind the scenes drama, it would have been difficult to spot. There was no awkward tonal mismatches like when DC tried to turn a grumpy Zack Snyder film into a quippy Joss Whedon affair.
But, I wonder, did the production shitshow put anyone off? Even people with only a casual interest in film will have at least been dimly aware of the production difficulties — so how many people simply assumed that it would be terrible, and didn’t bother booking a ticket on opening night?
If you’ve read this far into this article, this probably isn’t you — but for more casual fans, perhaps the negative background noise could have made an impact, as the damage has already been done, and the disaster narrative has already been set in their minds?
4) The Last Jedi Killed Our Enthusiasm
This will undoubtedly be the most controversial hypothesis.
Now, it’s basically impossible to hate The Force Awakens. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the criticisms: It is… unadventurous. It is essentially a remake of A New Hope. But hate? Even if viewers didn’t like the film, it could never have provoked such a strong reaction.
The Last Jedi is a different story. The film was clearly hugely divisive among audiences. Yes, it was different — but it was perhaps a little too different for some viewers, both in tone and in content.
I have very mixed feelings about the film. I enjoyed it, but I can understand why some fans took so strongly against it. In that the message of the film was: screw you for caring.
If those mysteries had been resolved differently to how fans expected, that might have been fine — but it was deeper than that: It was saying that they didn’t matter.
As we saw when Luke casually tossed away his lightsaber, or when Snoke was handily disposed of… what Rian Johnson was saying was clear: “Hey! You know all of those mysteries that you care about? The ones we set up the previous film? The ones you’ve spent the last two years speculating about on forums? Yeah, none of it matters and you’re just a sad, lonely nerd”.
Okay, so I’m paraphrasing. But it was like that episode of Sherlock at the point where the series got self-indulgent, and decided to not just take the piss out of fans for theorising how the Holmes survived the fall, but it even showed on screen a “fan” of Sherlock in order to ridicule her for caring. The Last Jedi wasn’t this egregious, but I can definitely understand why some people felt this way.
I think what elevates this criticism further is the importance and pomposity which Star Wars carries with it, both because of its place in our culture, and through its own myth-making. It’s a fairy tale, and completely — and the only way it makes sense is that if everyone involved treats it with a seriousness that a stupid space magic film for children doesn’t really deserve.
Imagine if at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, if someone had shouted “Hey, why are you wearing that stupid, ridiculous hat? And why is the Archbishop of Canterbury wearing a silly dress and pretending to believe in magic?” — it would completely puncture the inflated sense of importance, and would reveal how silly and pointless the whole thing is. The Last Jedi, arguably, did this to itself.
It’s not a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. In this case, the Emperor took his clothes off, grabbed a megaphone and shouted to his subjects “LOOK AT MY BALLS”.
So given this, would it be surprising if some viewers felt that they didn’t need to check in with the next one? If nothing matters, then why should they care about Han’s backstory?
5) Do Kids Simply Not Care?
Here’s a slightly left-field theory: Has Star Wars slipped outside of the playground zeitgeist? Young fans are undoubtedly important because, well, whisper it but Star Wars is a film for children. And as Disney has long known, making something popular with kids can be lucrative: Kids will watch the same films on repeat, and will keep the cultural conversation going for much longer, while their parents have gone back to worrying about mortgages and Brexit.
But here’s my piece of wild speculation: Do kids simply no longer care about Star Wars? To find out I actually contacted a company called Kids Insights, which surveys 400 children every week about their interests and tastes.
I asked if they had any data on perceptions of Solo, and according to the company, in the 30 days prior to the release of the film only 2% of children aged 4 to 18 cited Solo as the film they were most looking forward to — behind Infinity War, Deadpool 2 (!), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Incredibles 2, and even Peter Rabbit. Yes, the one with James Corden, the Jar Jar Binks of humans.
What’s especially interesting about this is that this is much worse than The Last Jedi. In the 30 days before that film hit cinemas, it was the top film that kids were most looking forward to — with 12% of kids expressing an interest (The split was 17% boys and 7% of girls). In the month following the film’s release, it was the second most watched film with 11% of kids saying they’d seen it — just behind the 13% who had seen Paddington (obviously it is too early to have this data for Solo).
So what this data suggests is that Solo perhaps isn’t cutting through to the demographic where it matters, and this makes some intuitive sense: The original trilogy re-release and the prequels were some of the biggest cultural moments for kids of the of the 90s and early 2000s. But today, the kids have a brand new Marvel film to look forward to three times a year, not to mention access to an endless diet of Twitch Streamers and YouTube Racists to enjoy. They’ve never had it so good, but the bad news for Disney is that it might have accidentally cannibalised itself.
6) The Star Wars Universe Just Isn’t Big Enough
And my final hypothesis? This goes back to creative, rather than structural arguments: is the Star Wars universe simply too limited? The obvious comparison is once again with Marvel: Part of what makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe such a stunning achievement is that the company has hit upon a way to tell dozens of unconnected stories, while still making them feel a part of a cohesive whole.
You don’t need to have seen the three Iron Man films to appreciate Doctor Strange. You don’t need to know who the Guardians of the Galaxy are in order to enjoy Thor. But if you have seen multiple films, they gently enhance each other in the margins, providing an extra kick of endorphins for eagle-eyed viewers.
And crucially, all of the Marvel films are different: Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy set in space. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller. Black Panther is an afro-futurist inspired debate about the legacy of colonialism and identity.
But what are the Star Wars films? They’re hugely enjoyable but they’re basically all the same. They look the same and they sound the same. Going in, you know exactly what you’re going to get. There’s a whole universe to play with, and yet everywhere you look, everything is the same.
And so far, rather than doing their own thing, but in the same universe, the main films have all been telling parts of the same story: The most recent “main” films are a continuation of the same story that Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan began. Rogue One slots into the main timeline like a jigsaw piece.
Thematically too, Star Wars films are much more similar: Compare the black and white “good vs evil” of The Empire vs The Rebellion, to the much more nuanced arguments in Captain America: Civil War.
Here’s hoping that Disney can make the Star Wars Universe a little bigger in the fifty million planned future films in the franchise.
So why is Solo underperforming? I’m not sure, but please do wildly speculate along with me in the comments.
James O'Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.