The Number One Movie in America - Solo: A Star Wars Story
By Sean Collier
January 19, 2021
When is a film that makes nearly $400 million dollars worldwide a franchise-busting disappointment?
When it’s a Star Wars movie.
Observed from the void of space, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” certainly looks like a hit. Over its Memorial Day weekend debut in 2018, it pulled in more than $103 million, beating its closest competition (the second weekend of “Deadpool 2”) by a hefty $50 million. It won the following weekend as well en route to earning $213.7 million domestic, landing as the 12th highest-grossing film of a loaded year. It played decently overseas, as well.
And for the Star Wars franchise, in the midst of its money-raking 2010s run, that is a massive downturn.
The domestic totals for the other features in the series, since Disney’s acquisition of the brand: “The Force Awakens,” $936 million; “Rogue One,” the other nominal spinoff film, $532 million; “The Last Jedi,” $620 million; “The Rise of Skywalker,” $515 million.
“Solo,” then, pulled in less than half of any of its brethren. In fact, it’s the lowest-grossing live-action “Star Wars” film of them all, dating back to 1977. While the earlier films have the benefit of re-releases, all have outgrossed “Solo,” with the next closest being “The Empire Strikes Back” at $291 million. All the others have passed the $300 million mark, many by quite a bit.
So yes: The hundreds of millions of dollars earned by “Solo” were a disappointment. (Estimates said that the film would need to surpass $500 million global to break even.)
Let’s look at why the weighty thud of the “Solo” returns is fitting — and why it isn’t. The most frequently cited explanation for the film’s underperformance was simple franchise fatigue. On the day “Solo” was released, “Rogue One” was only 18 months old, and “The Last Jedi” had debuted just six months prior. In fact, some theaters were still showing “The Last Jedi” mere weeks before “Solo” arrived. Even for a mega-franchise, that’s a lot, particularly as the (unfair) contention over “The Last Jedi” had made the mention of the Star Wars series a bit culturally exhausting.
“Solo” also hearkens back to the much-maligned prequel trilogy by overly concerning itself with the origins of classic characters — and, more fatally, minutia around them. An origin-story prequel is, inevitably, a story about other stories; rather than find a narrative for the young Han Solo befitting his character, “Solo” seeks to explain and justify why he is who he is, from the broad strokes of his personality down to the reason he calls Chewbacca “Chewie.” (Because two syllables are less than three, apparently.)
On the other hand, there was not all that much wrong with “Solo.” It is certainly a bit labored in its structure — the product of a mid-stream director switch, as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s more comedic take was rejected and Ron Howard was brought in to take over — and clunky in much of its dialogue. But “Solo” also has thrilling, memorable sequences; the train robbery is a gem befitting the series’ space-western roots in a manner not dissimilar to the best parts of “The Mandalorian.” The cast, too, is loaded, with Donald Glover justifying the whole endeavor with his take on Lando Calrissian. (Phoebe Waller-Bridge is perfect in a voice role, as well.)
The limited response to “Solo” prompted a regrouping on the part of the Star Wars brass, temporarily pausing the focus on prequels and origin tales — as if Episodes I-III hadn’t taught them that lesson — and scrapping several planned releases. In many ways, the film itself is more victim of circumstance than culprit.
Should’ve kept Thandie Newton around a bit longer, though.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: An actor’s career path is dramatically changed in one steel-voiced phone call.