Breaking down the many Force-related developments from Thursday’s Investor Day
At Thursday’s Disney Investor Day blowout, Lucasfilm lifted the lid on its future contributions to the Mouse’s onslaught of streaming and cinematic releases. At the climax of the Lucasfilm portion of the presentation, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy stood on a stage like General Hux right before the First Order fired at Starkiller Base, flanked not by officers and stormtroopers but by logos of upcoming projects. Hux fired at five planets at once, but Kennedy let loose an even more multipronged broadside aimed at rival streaming services. Just look at the big board behind her: My god, it’s full of Star Wars.
Lucasfilm did diversify slightly from its signature franchise, reaffirming its commitments to making another Indiana Jones movie (coming from director James Mangold in July 2022, the month when star Harrison Ford will turn 80), Jon M. Chu’s small-screen Willow adaptation (also 2022), and an adaptation of Tomi Adeyemi’s 2018 fantasy novel Children of Blood and Bone. But beyond that trio, it was Star Wars all the way down.
In addition to offering further details on previously confirmed series Andor, The Bad Batch, and Obi-Wan Kenobi—the last of which, Disney divulged, will feature prequel star Hayden Christensen reprising his role as Darth Vader—Lucasfilm also revealed the name and premise of Russian Doll cocreator Leslye Headland’s Disney+ series (The Acolyte); confirmed two long-rumored spinoffs (Ahsoka and Lando); dispensed details about three previously unannounced and unsuspected series (Rangers of the New Republic, Visions, and A Droid Story); unveiled the next Star Wars movie, Rogue Squadron (which will be helmed by Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins and released in 2023); and reminded the world that a separate Star Wars film is also on the way courtesy of Taika Waititi. That spate of announcements increased the total number of known Disney+ Star Wars series to 10, counting The Mandalorian.
Disney’s news drop set off a serious disturbance in the Force, so let’s break down the deluge into five more manageable takeaways.
There’s so much Star Wars
Last year, then–Disney CEO Bob Iger seemed to place a restraining bolt on the Star Wars film franchise, admitting in September 2019 that pumping out five movies in four years was “a little too much, too fast” and adding, “You can expect some slowdown. … I think we’re going to be a little bit more careful about volume and timing.” Iger doubled down that December, saying that his company “made and released too many films over a short period of time” and continuing, “I think that there’s something so special about a Star Wars film, and less is more.” This summer, Kennedy seemed to echo that cautionary note, telling Vanity Fair that “you can’t turn this into some kind of factory approach. … You can’t even do what Marvel does, necessarily, where you pick characters and build new franchises around those characters.”
Iger is no longer Disney’s CEO, and “less is more” is no longer the operative philosophy when it comes to the Star Wars franchise, at least where the small screen is concerned. Hard news about future Star Wars series has been scarce since this spring, when Headland’s and Waititi’s then-unspecified projects were announced. But as Sio Bibble once said, a communications disruption can mean only one thing: invasion. And when Lucasfilm intensified forward firepower on Thursday, it clarified the future of the franchise in a single stroke.
Disney disclosed that roughly 10 Star Wars series would debut directly on Disney+ “over the next few years,” but the exact timing and order are still hazy. We know that The Bad Batch and Visions will premiere in 2021, along with the third season of The Mandalorian (seemingly around Christmas, a little later than usual). Obi-Wan Kenobi will reportedly start filming (in England, not New England) next March, putting it in line for a late 2021 or early 2022 release, and Andor, which started shooting last month, will debut in 2022, followed by Rogue Squadron in theaters (if theaters still exist) in 2023. Everything else is TBD (or at least TBA), but it’s looking like Disney+ subscribers can count on a steady diet of three to four Star Wars series per year.
The concerns about Star Wars saturation that stemmed from the subpar box-office performances of Solo and The Rise of Skywalker may arise anew in light of Lucasfilm’s latest teases. But despite Disney’s bumpy behind-the-scenes track record with making on-screen Star Wars, the company has made many more hits than misses: Rebels, Rogue One, The Mandalorian, and Season 7 of The Clone Wars met with widespread acclaim, most fans liked at least two of the three sequel films, and the underrated Solo was at worst forgettable fun. For any Star Wars fans who lived through the lean years between the original and prequel trilogies, the perks of this Star Wars content cornucopia more than make up for the few misfires.
The future of Star Wars lies on the small screen
We’re still three years away from the next Star Wars movie, which means that by the time Rogue Squadron comes out, as much time will have elapsed since the last Star Wars big-screen release as it took Disney to release five films starting in 2015. Disney offered no details about Waititi’s project and no updates about previously announced films that were in the works from Rian Johnson, Kevin Feige, or J.D. Dillard. Given the extended silence about Johnson’s involvement, it’s starting to seem like The Last Jedi’s director’s supposed trilogy may go the way of Benioff and Weiss’s.
At a time of existential uncertainty for theaters and heightened competition for streaming subscribers, it’s only logical that movies would be on the back burner, but shifting to TV still represents a sea change for Star Wars, a franchise whose backbone for its first 40-plus years was the big-screen Skywalker saga. In July, Disney delayed each of its next three Star Wars movies by a year, rescheduling them for December releases in 2023, 2025, and 2027, respectively. That timeline left open the possibility of another trilogy, but Kennedy noted last December that Lucasfilm might move away from three-act structures, which still seems to be the case. Rogue Squadron (which may spawn a series) seems to be first up, and if Waititi is slated to take the 2025 slot, the 2027 opening is still unassigned. Then again, the future is always in motion, and Disney could always add to its big-screen schedule if movies make a comeback post-pandemic.
Ultimately, the medium may not make much of a difference to Disney. The company’s streaming service has racked up 86 million subscribers in little more than a year—a number boosted by the high-profile streaming releases of would-be blockbusters Hamilton and Mulan, soon to be followed by Pixar’s Soul and, next year, a passel of live-action adaptations. Investors are urging Disney to invest even more heavily in winning the streaming wars, and with a price hike coming in March, the company will have to keep the exclusive content coming to sustain its service’s growth.
The medium may not matter much for fans, either. The expanding Disney+ audience is enormous enough to attract top-tier talent both behind and in front of the camera, and Disney doesn’t seem to be skimping on budgets. Living on the small screen hasn’t suppressed the popularity or quality of The Mandalorian, which boasts innovative special effects that rival those of the films. Much of the teaser for Andor that Disney dropped on Thursday harps on the series’ cinematic nature and massive scope. The screens may be smaller on Disney+, but the ideas don’t have to be; as Iger said on Thursday, “The only difference between [our TV series] and our feature films is length.”
The Mandalorian is the center of Star Wars
If it wasn’t already obvious that The Mandalorian is the bright center of the Star Wars universe, Disney’s presentation cemented it. The Mandalorian’s proof-of-concept streaming success eased the Rise of Skywalker sting and made this rapid proliferation of Disney+ series possible. It’s also seeded some of the expected spinoffs: Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka Tano was eased into her own live-action series via a backdoor pilot on The Mandalorian, and Rangers of the New Republic, which is “set within the timeline” of The Mandalorian, will presumably feature a character or characters first introduced by the flagship show. It wouldn’t be surprising to see additional characters use the larger platform provided by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni as a springboard into their own starring roles. The Mandalorian has also served as a farm system for directorial talent: Waititi, Deborah Chow, and Rick Famuyiwa entered the Lucasfilm ecosphere through Mandalorian episodes before grabbing the reins for a movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Children of Blood and Bone, respectively.
Just as notable as The Mandalorian’s importance in Thursday’s proceedings was the sequel trilogy’s absence from the spotlight. Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times last year that Lucasfilm wouldn’t abandon the sequel trilogy’s characters, but Rey, Finn, Poe, and Co. aren’t the ones receiving series orders. None of the projects Lucasfilm announced appears to take place primarily during or after the sequel trilogy—although there’s a chance that Lando or A Droid Story will—which suggests that Disney is backing away from the Last Jedi/Rise of Skywalker controversy as fast as it can. Maybe The Mandalorian’s world-building will redeem the decisions J.J. Abrams made, or maybe the passage of time will make that era and its real-life famous faces more palatable, a la the prequels and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But for now, Lucasfilm will attempt no landing there. And while Darth Vader and little Luke may play prominent roles in Kenobi, the future of Star Wars looks a lot less Skywalker-centric than the past.
Lucasfilm is mixing it up
Thursday’s Star Wars road map outlined a largely compelling mixture of formats, genres, and creators. If you like Star Wars, there’s almost certainly something on Lucasfilm’s schedule to pique your interest or induce deep-seated excitement.
For the most part, Disney is betting on proven characters or concepts. Four of the series (including Lando, Ahsoka, and Kenobi) are named after protagonists that fans have already learned to love—or, in the case of Cassian Andor, at least recognize. (Here’s hoping Diego Luna finally gets to touch Jabba.) A Droid Story will feature “a new hero guided by R2-D2 and C-3PO”; The Bad Batch is based on a squad introduced in The Clone Wars; and Rogue Squadron’s titular force is familiar to fans from the original trilogy, Factor 5’s acclaimed video games, and Michael A. Stackpole’s beloved 1990s X-Wing novels. Rangers of the New Republic may incorporate Cara Dune, Captain Teva, or other figures from The Mandalorian.
That leaves only a couple of complete ciphers. Visions, an anthology series of “animated short films” that “celebrates the Star Wars galaxy through the lens of the world’s best Japanese anime creators,” may recycle some famous characters, as does Forces of Destiny. But Headland’s “mystery-thriller” The Acolyte is set during the High Republic era, a period roughly 100-300 years before the original trilogy that marks the golden age of the Jedi and the Old Republic. The Acolyte will likely tie into the series of High Republic books and comics that Disney and publisher Del Rey are about to roll out, but its setting seems to ensure that with the possible exception of Yoda, there won’t be much crossover with established on-screen properties.
The Acolyte aside, Lucasfilm seems to be sticking within the periods bounded by the trilogies: The Bad Batch, Kenobi, and Andor will take place between the prequels and the original trilogy; Rogue Squadron may coincide with the original trilogy; and Ahsoka and Rangers, like The Mandalorian, will hover between the original trilogy and the sequels. But as The Mandalorian has demonstrated, there’s plenty of room to color within the trilogies’ lines. The Bad Batch, for instance, promises to flesh out the murky aftermath of Order 66, and Andor will explore the origins of the Rebellion.
Although it hasn’t been so bold as to jump back by millennia to the Knights of the Old Republic era (so far) or flash forward by a century to the territory of the Legacy comics, Lucasfilm is experimenting with form. Andor is a prequel to a prequel, while Rogue Squadron sounds like a sequel to a prequel. (The Rogue Squadron is named after the squad in Rogue One that sacrificed itself to obtain the Death Star plans.) The Bad Batch, Visions, and A Droid Story—which may be a kid-centric series along the lines of the lackluster Resistance—are all animated, while Kenobi is a six-episode miniseries and Lando is an “event series,” which also implies a limited run. Capping a couple of series at a single season, alternating between animation and live action, offering a range of episode lengths (following the lead of The Mandalorian), and catering to viewers who appreciate both the serious and lighthearted aspects of Star Wars may help Disney avoid taxing its creative talent and exhausting its audience.
On Star Wars Day in May, the hashtag #DoBetterStarWars trended as some social media users lamented a lack of diversity in the franchise’s casts and creators, an issue John Boyega also raised this year. Kennedy has been promising to appoint a woman as a Star Wars feature film director for more than five years, and after reaffirming that promise earlier this year, she’s finally fulfilled it. Rogue Squadron and Waititi’s film will be the first Star Wars movies directed by a woman and a person of color, respectively. The Acolyte and The Bad Batch will be cowritten or run by women; Lando and Kenobi will be written and/or directed by people of color; and Visions will open the door to more non-American creators. Of the upcoming projects cited on Thursday, only Andor’s creative team definitively fits the white, male mold that makes up most of the history of Star Wars writers and directors, and Lando, Andor, and Ahsoka will revolve around non-Caucasian leads. (Ahsoka will also constitute a departure from the franchise’s preoccupation with human protagonists.) Perhaps it’s not yet time to retire #StarWarsSoWhite, but Thursday represented a significant step toward a more representative collection of actors and creators—and, by extension, a broader range of Star Wars stories.
Many mysteries remain
Even after Kennedy pulled back the curtain, there’s still a lot we can’t quite foresee. Will Justin Simien’s Lando series star Billy Dee Williams, Donald Glover, or a new actor, and when will it take place? Will the divisive Gina Carano play a central role in Rangers despite the backlash to her tweets? What about Boba Fett? Will Temuera Morrison have to be content with a recurring role in The Mandalorian, or will he eventually land his own series? And what will Obi-Wan do while he’s waiting for Luke to hit puberty?
Speaking of Kenobi: What will Christensen do as Darth Vader? Christensen has clearly come to terms with—and learned to laugh at—his widely panned performance in the prequels (which was sabotaged by George Lucas’s script), and he voiced Anakin again in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s great that he’s getting to rehabilitate his reputation among the franchise’s faithful—and it’s touching that he and Ewan McGregor will act (and fight) together again—but it will be hard for him to put a personal stamp on Kenobi. The series is set 10 years after Revenge of the Sith, so Vader is ensconced in his suit. Will Christensen silently wear the armor and have Vader’s dialogue dubbed? (Pedro Pascal at least gets to talk.) Will he do his best James Earl Jones impression? It would be difficult for Christensen (who’ll turn 40 next year) to play an adolescent Anakin again in flashbacks, and if we see his face, it would probably have to come in a Sebastian Shaw–esque glimpse within Vader’s meditation chamber.
Thursday’s revelations created the potential for many more crossovers of the kind we’ve witnessed in The Mandalorian’s second season. (That sure looked like a young Fennec Shand from The Mandalorian in the trailer for The Bad Batch.) Will the likes of Grand Admiral Thrawn, Ezra Bridger, and Sabine Wren make cameos in The Mandalorian, or will they skip straight to Ahsoka? Might other original trilogy or Clone Wars characters cross paths with Kenobi? Will more small-screen characters make their movie debuts? What’s the “climactic story event” that will serve as the culmination of upcoming crossovers between The Mandalorian and its two spinoffs? And how long will The Mandalorian last? The Mandalorian’s links to Rebels and The Clone Wars seem to have encouraged some of its fans to delve deeper into the Disney+ catalog, and Disney will be looking for ways to maximize Star Wars synergy without compromising any standalone stories.
Also left unspecified on Thursday was what roles (if any) Favreau and Filoni will play in managing this sprawling expansion of Star Wars, beyond executive producing the Mandalorian spinoffs. Filoni oversees all Star Wars animation efforts, but will he head up the Ahsoka series? And will he and Favreau have a hand in charting a long-term course for Star Wars or sprinkling The Mandalorian’s magic on the series it set the table for by breaking out last year? The Mandalorian established that live-action Star Wars was viable on TV, but it also set expectations high. And just as the prequels and sequels sought to measure up to the trailblazing original trilogy, the small-screen offspring of the precedent-setting series will try to uphold its legacy while also escaping its shadow.