A little less Marvel and Star Wars would be a good thing

Today is May 4, which means you’ll hear, “may the fourth be with you” from the diehard Star Wars fans in your life, marking the date that they and the Disney corporation have declared as “Star Wars Day.” This year, some fans of The Mandalorian series might mix it up a little by declaring, “this is the May.”

The Star Wars franchise is still a pop culture juggernaut, but it’s in weaker shape than a decade ago.

There hasn’t been a big-screen Star Wars movie since The Rise of Skywalker in 2019, and the preceding movie in 2018, Solo, did the once-unthinkable for a Star Wars movie: it lost money. (One big contributing reason is that by firing the original directors and bringing in Ron Howard, the studio effectively made the film twice, and nearly twice as much as normal.) Over the last few years, Disney has announced various Star Wars projects under development, only to see them delayed and delayed. Supposedly there are three new movies definitely coming in the next few years, but fans have heard similar announcements before. The idea of Wonder Woman director Patti Jenkins making a Top Gun-style story about fighter pilots in the Star Wars universe seemed like a sure-fire hit, but apparently that idea has been shelved.

You can find a lot of fans who blame this on Kathleen Kennedy, or Disney meddling, or Dave Filoni, or Jon Favreau – actually, no, wait, you have to look far and wide to find fans who don’t like Favreau, and almost everyone enjoys Filoni’s animated offerings.

As a Star War–obsessed kid who grew up into a dad with Star Wars–obsessed kids, I’m bummed that the films, televisions, and cartoons depicting adventures in a galaxy far, far away have devolved into so many cookie-cutter offerings that feel so “meh.”

One problem with the world of Star Wars may well be that we, the audience, simply have too much of it. The release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the early Eighties were just about the biggest deal imaginable to us grade-schoolers back then, because those films represented the first time we got to see something new with our favorite heroes and villains in about three years. As kids, we spent a probably hilariously large amount of time arguing if Darth Vader could really be Luke’s father or whether Han Solo was going to get out of carbonite.

And if you played with the toys, the world of Star Wars was one where you and your friends and siblings played out your own scenarios and adventures and provided your own answers, often leading to some odd team-ups based upon what action figures you had – “Admiral Ackbar uses the X-Wing to shoot at Jabba! Hoth gear Han Solo, Bespin Security Guard and the Ewoks are chasing Boba Fett and the Tie Fighter Pilot! Pew, pew! Kaboom!” Legally, Star Wars belonged to George Lucas. In our bedrooms and playrooms and backyards, it belonged to all of us.

I wonder if today’s grade-school fans feel as much need to make up their own adventures, because now some new show about Star Wars arrives on our screens almost every month. Just in the live-action series, since the start of 2022, fans of Star Wars have had the Disney+ series The Book of Boba Fett — the odd series that halfway through, chose to forget about its titular protagonist and went back to check on what Mando and Baby Yoda* were doing — then Obi Wan Kenobi, and then the third season of The Mandalorian. We’ve reached the point of a mini-movie arriving every week for several chunks of the year . . . and as a result, none of it feels particularly special or must-see anymore. As the quantity of offerings increased, the quality of them decreased. (Yes, I know a lot of people who watched Andor, including myself, liked it a lot. But a lot of people apparently never gave it a chance.)

For two seasons, The Mandalorian was the freshest and most enjoyable Star Wars offering in a long time. The show largely put aside the Jedi and Sith and grand battles, and told a much simpler story of the ultimate tough-guy bounty hunter learning the joys and responsibilities of unexpected adoptive fatherhood, while navigating the dangerous and largely lawless outskirts of the galaxy. And it started Pedro Pascal’s habit of portraying a weary and bruised tough guy who finds himself in an unexpected surrogate parent role to a vulnerable child who may well be the key to saving the world. It is the most specific typecasting since David Harbour found himself repeatedly trying to escape from a Russian prison.

Your mileage may vary, but I thought this year’s third season of The Mandalorian felt choppy, weirdly unfocused, and was an overall disappointment. The titular character felt like a supporting character in his own show, and Baby Yoda was reduced to a mascot. We spent nearly an entire episode following two minor supporting characters from previous seasons as they navigated the galactic capital’s bureaucracy. The main plotline shifted from protecting Baby Yoda – a goal that the audience immediately identified with and rooted for – to watching Bo-Katan and The Armorer (say, isn’t this character long overdue for name?) work out differences among their people and recolonize the Mandalorian homeworld. Those weird celebrity cameos didn’t help. For the first time, the show felt like an endless series of scenes of stuntmen in masks gesturing, while other actors recited the dialogue in a recording studio later.

There’s a similar phenomenon at work with Disney’s other massive, childhood-dominating pop culture steamroller, Marvel. The movie studio that turned your old comic books into blockbusters used to come out with two movies a year, one in the summer and one before the holidays. After the pandemic, Marvel got in the habit of releasing three per year; this year, Marvel has already given us another Ant-Man movie, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 coming out tomorrow, and The Marvels coming in November. Then, on Disney+, in the coming year, Marvel fans can watch Secret Invasion, What If…?, Echo, Ironheart, the second season of Loki, and perhaps a new animated series, X-Men 97.

That’s a lot of superheroes jumping around your screen, overworking digital effects artists around the globe, and it feels like Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige and the gang are just throwing ideas up against a wall and seeing what sticks. And the geeky among us know that Disney, by purchasing the rights from Fox a few years ago, has had the X-Men and the Fantastic Four characters in its back pocket, ready to use them when the fanbase is hungry to see their old favorites again. A few of those characters were already dusted off to jazz up the Doctor Strange sequel.

Odd as it sounds, maybe to make Star Wars and Marvel more enjoyable, we need less of them. Maybe we need some time between movie and television offerings to start missing our favorite characters. It’s okay for Star Wars and Marvel to take their time on the scripts, make sure they’ve got the best stories, characters, and ideas possible, take the time needed to make the computer-generated images look like something better than blurry mud and flashes of light. Whatever else you think of these series, George Lucas’ original film and The Empire Strikes Back were labors of love, and it showed. Most of Marvel’s early firms felt like an exuberant effort to win a bet to get audiences to care about unlikely heroes like a narcissistic, quick-witted arms manufacturer, a musclebound hammer-throwing Norse god, and a straight-arrow unfrozen World War II veteran. There was charm, humor and an easygoing energy and momentum in those films. That’s probably the sort of thing you can’t rush, or put together on a metaphorical assembly line.

*Yes, yes, I know his name is “Grogu.” As Carl Weathers said, “if you say so.”

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