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What 'Solo's' disappointing ticket sales prove about the difference between Star Wars and Marvel

Opinion: Star Wars films may be oversaturating the market, writes Ani Bundel. So why doesn't this problem to plague Disney’s other major franchise, Marvel?
by Ani Bundel /
Image: Alden Ehrenreich is Han Solo and Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
This story is one we’ve basically already seen.Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm Ltd.
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“Solo: A Star Wars Story” astonished over Memorial Day weekend by being the first of the Lucasfilm releases this decade to tank (relative to expectations) at the box office. The three-day opening weekend receipts came in at around $84 million, down nearly $100 million from the initial estimates.

One reason being thrown around is that the release date was too close to December’s release of “The Last Jedi.” Two Star Wars films in the space of six months is simply too many, some critics theorized. And, as Deadline reported, some movie distributers are feeling Lucasfilm is “over-saturating the market.” (Even franchise star Mark Hamill is worried about it.) But if that's true, how does Marvel manage to release three films a year, and bring in hit after hit?

Two Star Wars films in the space of six months is simply too many, some critics theorized. But if that's true, how does Marvel manage to release three films a year?

When “Solo: A Star Wars Story” tickets first became available during the fan-created Star Wars holiday of May the 4th, pre-sales were brisk. In fact, sales were good enough that long-term estimates for opening weekend soared all the way $170 million, which would break the box office record for Memorial Day weekend, currently held by “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” with $139 million, and put “Solo” in the same category as other Star Wars releases, all of which have easily smashed the $150 million mark upon their first weekend. (The only other 2018 films to break $100 million in the first weekend are “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Deadpool 2.”) All the malaise surrounding the film’s production drama seemed to be in the past.

Instead, those projections turned out to be a flash in the pan. “Solo” came in so low it didn’t even beat the DC Comics “Justice League” belly flop last November at $94 million. (When a film’s price tag is $300 million and initial estimates set box office expectations at $120 million, $94 million is a disaster.) Adjusted for inflation, the three-day total is lower than any of franchise prequel openings, and the smallest opening since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”

Audiences just didn’t seem to be interested in seeing two Star Wars films this close together. Not to mention how crowded the last couple of weeks have been for superhero fans.

Audiences just didn’t seem to be interested in seeing two Star Wars films this close together. Not to mention how crowded the last couple of weeks have been for superhero fans, what with “Avengers: Infinity War” arriving at the end of April and “Deadpool 2” premiering on May 17. Plus, the highly anticipated “Oceans 8” premieres on June 8, meaning “Solo” is unlikely to have a long tail at the box office.

Frustratingly, at least for executives, this problem doesn’t seem to plague Disney’s other major franchise, Marvel. “Black Panther,” for instance, arrived February 16, and “Avengers: Infinity War” arrived April 27, barely eight weeks apart. Audiences opened their hearts and wallets to both. What does the Marvel universe have that Lucasfilm does not?

Simply put, the Marvel fan base supports multiple films a year because it is kept interested by a wide variety of films. Look at its line up over the last two years. Starting in May of 2017, Disney released “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” (opening weekend: $146 million), followed by “Spider-Man: Homecoming” ($117 million) and “Thor: Ragnarok” ($122 million). This year they've given us “Black Panther” ($202 million) and “Avengers: Infinity War” ($257 million), with “Ant-Man & The Wasp” to come on July 6th. In the space of a 12-month span, they premiered five films all of which crossed the $100 million mark easily.

And yet, while connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in various ways, all six of these films are different. This is, ideally, what the "franchise universe" idea is supposed to do. It gives the studio a way to release films of all different stripes as sequels to one another, even though they’re all completely different, and most star different casts.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, the assumption was that they would follow Marvel’s lead and do an entire franchise universe of their own. (This was only natural, as “The Avengers” had just proven the model worked by becoming the biggest opening weekend of all time in May of that year, a position it held until 2015.) So far, though, this universe has yet to materialize as Lucasfilm seems unable to branch out from the core trunk. The franchise's episode installments (“The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi”) are still part of the The Skywalker Saga. The “stand-alone films” don't really stand alone. Both “Rogue One” and “Solo” revealed twists at the ends of their narratives that tied both directly back to the episode films. (“Solo” even tied itself back to the prequels, the first of the Disney produced films to do so.)

Ron Howard did his best, but “Solo” ultimately does not feel like a different kind of Star Wars movie.

I should be clear: “Solo” isn't a bad film. (It's a bad script, but the film itself is enjoyable as hell.) Ron Howard did his best, but “Solo” ultimately does not feel like a different kind of Star Wars movie. Yes, the opening crawl is gone and the film feels more like the original “Spaghetti western in space” model than other reboots. But in the end, the story is one we’ve already seen. And the same goes for “Rogue One.”

Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise could support two to three films a year, Marvel style, if they trusted themselves to write completely new material. Instead, they just greenlit a film about Boba Fett, which is essentially exactly like greenlighting a standalone film about Han Solo, but with a completely uninteresting main character.

There is talk bandied about that come 2020, new trilogies will arrive that don’t involve the Skywalker saga, both on the big screen and for TV. While new mediums are good, viewers have been exploring the same galaxy since 1977. Revisiting this nostalgic if well-traveled turf may work once a year; to try more than that is simply foolish. Until Lucasfilm realizes this, there will likely be a lot more disappointing numbers at the box office ahead.

Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.

Read more: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' is a great show but a terrible film

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