Hollywood is a place of endless insecurity and uncertainty – but over the last four decades, few things have been more of a sure thing than a Star Wars movie. Before this year, George Lucas’ saga of a Tatooinian boy with major daddy issues had produced 10 movies, and with the exception of 2008’s forgotten animated spinoff Star Wars: The Clone Wars, each has been a box-office colossus. (Of the other nine, only Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones failed to be that year’s highest-grossing film. It was merely the third-highest of 2002.)
That perspective helps put into sharp relief what a relative disappointment this weekend’s Solo has turned out to be. After initially being projected to snag anywhere from $130 million to $150 million, the Han Solo origin story starring Alden Ehrenreich as everyone’s favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder stalled at an estimated $103 million. Most blockbusters would be thrilled with such a haul; for the Star Wars empire, however, that’s cause for concern. What happened? Here are five explanations for why Solo ended up so low.
1. The film couldn’t outrun its bad buzz.
This is now the second Star Wars spinoff that’s had to combat press reports of behind-the-scenes problems. With 2016’s Rogue One, original director Gareth Edwards’ version of the movie was significantly reworked late in the process by Michael Clayton and Bourne Legacy filmmaker Tony Gilroy, who oversaw massive reshoots. But while Rogue One mostly escaped the stigma of being a troubled production, grossing $1.1 billion worldwide, Solo was dogged by bad buzz for months. Back in June, the movie’s original directors, 21 Jump Street masterminds Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were fired in the midst of filming, opening a floodgate of rumors about creative clashes and, worryingly, stories that Lucasfilm had hired an acting coach for Ehrenreich because the company wasn’t happy with his performance.
To steady the ship, Lucasfilm replaced Lord and Miller with one of the industry’s most reliable and respected veteran directors, Ron Howard. But it appears that, at least in the public’s mind, the damage was already done. Just about every Solo story leading up to its release noted its difficult production – and that’s not even including the random anonymous reports that emerged from those on the set detailing a shoot without a clear artistic vision. Like salesmen and magicians, movies have to win us over in part through sheer confidence: We have to believe that they believe they know what they’re doing. For perhaps the first time since Star Wars became a global phenomenon, the franchise seemed unsure of itself, and audiences could feel the disturbance in the force.
2. Star Wars fatigue is real.
Before 2015’s The Force Awakens, there had not been a new Star Wars film in 10 years. (Oh, right, sorry, The Clone Wars did come out in 2008. But c’mon: Nobody remembers The Clone Wars.) Yet in the span of the last 30 months, there have now been four. (Star Wars: Episode IX hits theaters in December 2019, and a just-announced Boba Fett film may be arriving in 2020.) We’re currently living in the most Star Wars-heavy period ever, and it’s worth asking whether Solo was simply one too many Star Wars movies in such a short amount of time.
Of course, Lucas’ franchise has been an inescapable cultural force for quite some time. But in the last decade, Star Wars has been everywhere, whether it’s in video games, books or in the many television series that have cropped up. And that’s not even including how often the original trilogy and the prequels play on cable: Where it used to be a rare treat to see a Star Wars movie marathon over a long holiday weekend, now it’s not unusual for The Phantom Menace to be playing on TNT on a random Tuesday afternoon.
A new Star Wars movie was once an event – now it’s just a routine occurrence, and so it’s inevitable that audiences will start to feel fatigue. But whereas Marvel has fought this problem by ratcheting up the suspense for Thanos’ inevitable epic battle with the Avengers, culminating in April’s hugely successful Infinity War, Solo is probably the first Star Wars movie that felt kinda inconsequential. With that in mind, the movie’s estimated $103 million Memorial Day weekend performance is actually pretty decent: Even when the culture has been saturated with Star Wars flicks, a new one can still do relatively well.
3. Audiences weren’t buying Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo.
It is both blessing and curse to be cast in an iconic role. On the one hand, you’ve been chosen to assume the mantle of a character beloved the world over; on the other, you have to live up to the unreasonable expectations of a whole planet’s worth of fans, who will be scrutinizing your every inflection, mannerism and line reading. Sometimes, the actor transcends those expectations: Think of how Heath Ledger rewrote our collective impression of who the Joker is. Other times, unfortunately, you get Brandon Routh in Superman Returns, viewed as merely an inferior knockoff of the original (Christopher Reeve).
Alden Ehrenreich is a terrific young actor who’s worked with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to Woody Allen to Warren Beatty, combining old-school Hollywood charm with a winning mixture of sweetness and humor. In 2016, he enjoyed a scene-stealing role in the Coen brothers’ period Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar! as a dimwitted actor confronting his limits as a serious thespian. Soon after, he was announced as the man who would play the young Han Solo, which should have been confirmation of his rising stardom. Instead, Ehrenreich had to contend with Star Wars fans’ grumblings that he couldn’t measure up to Harrison Ford – which is ironic, considering that the veteran actor has actually spent most of his life trying to distance himself from the role.
Nonetheless, Ehrenreich was put into an impossible, defensive position – the acting-coach stories certainly didn’t help – and when he did press for Solo, he basically had to justify his casting. (“You can control your decision to say yes, and you can control your own work, the work you put into it. … And that’s about it,” he told Esquire when asked how people will react to him in Solo.) And even though Ford gave his blessing to Ehrenreich’s performance, that hasn’t stopped plenty of critics from laying Solo‘s commercial underperformance at the young actor’s feet. That’s not fair – he’s actually quite likeable as the cocky pilot. But Hollywood is all about perception, and Ehrenreich could never overcome the received wisdom that he wasn’t worthy to sit at the controls of the Millennium Falcon.
4. Not all spinoffs are created equal.
We live in a world of reboots and sequels as the film business focuses its creative energies on maximizing its most evergreen intellectual properties. But the one I.P. delivery device that Hollywood hasn’t yet quite mastered is the spinoff. And the reason is right there in the name: A spinoff story inherently feels unnecessary, an afterthought. These movies can do well, but often not as well as the films that spawned them: For instance, The Scorpion King wasn’t as big a hit as The Mummy was. Other times, however, like with the Annabelle movies, which came out of The Conjuring, the commercial returns can be equally impressive. (And Minions actually made more worldwide than any Despicable Me film.) More often than not, though, when we think of spinoffs, the mind goes to something like Planes, a cheap, uninspired cash-in on the Cars gold mine.
Lucasfilm has now made two Star Wars spinoffs … so why did one soar while the other sputtered? In retrospect, Rogue One may have succeeded because of two factors that Solo didn’t possess: It felt closely connected to the main Star Wars storyline; and there was a sense of urgency to it. Even though the latter features one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, while the former had a bunch of nobodies, audiences understood Rogue One‘s stakes – it told the story that led up to A New Hope – whereas Solo just felt like a random Han Solo adventure. It appears that Lucasfilm overestimated just how much the universe’s number-one rogue himself would be a draw. Even if you subtitle your film A Star Wars Story, you’ve got to give audiences a reason to think a spinoff is worthy enough to stand on its own.
5. Memorial Day weekend ain’t what it used to be.
When the first Star Wars premiered over Memorial Day weekend of 1977, the holiday wasn’t the big event-movie launching pad that it has since become. A New Hope shifted that paradigm – and from then on, the long weekend was viewed as the official start of summer movie season. That changed in 2002 when Spider-Man was released on May 3, creating a new dynamic in which the warm-weather blockbusters started coming fast and furious beginning in early May. (And this year, Marvel went even sooner by moving up Infinity War to the end of April.)
All of that is to say that Memorial Day weekend, once a coveted spot on the release calendar, has merely become another big tentpole date on a schedule that’s now littered with them. And while that fact doesn’t excuse the mistakes Lucasfilm made while producing and marketing Solo, it’s important to note that Memorial Day has been losing its luster in recent years. The holiday’s all-time record belongs to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which came out 11 years ago. The films at No. 2 and No. 3 on that list are 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. In other words, it’s been about a decade since Memorial Day weekend was a commercial behemoth. In recent years, the weekend hasn’t seen comparable grosses and, if anything, Solo actually performed better than 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and 2015’s commercial disaster Tomorrowland.
That may be faint consolation for the folks at Lucasfilm as they try to figure out some lessons from Solo‘s awkward launch. But it’s a cruel irony that the same holiday weekend that gave birth to the galaxy’s most iconic franchise also conspired to give the Star Wars family its most disappointing opening ever.