Lessons From Lucasfilm: How Marvel Studios Can Learn From Star Wars
As part of the relaunch of Murphy’s Multiverse we invited several friends, old and new, to write some guest features. This was written by our good friend, Marvel News Desk’s very own Caleb Borchers.
2019 was an important year for Marvel Studios as they finished out their first saga of films in triumphant fashion. One of the facets of their success is that Marvel Studios passed up Lucasfilm as the most financially dominant arm of Disney. While Star Wars films had historically outperformed their Marvel counterparts, Marvel is now clearly ascendant. It may not be a totally apples to apples comparison, but both Marvel and Lucasfilm released the final film of an era of storytelling. One could argue that Rise of Skywalker was actually set up to be an even greater event in that it capped off 35 years of film making across several generations of fans. When the dust settled, however, Avengers: Endgame dominated Rise of Skywalker with far more than two times the international gross.
Despite their general dominance, Marvel Studios still has a few things they could learn from Lucasfilm and their company compatriots in a galaxy far, far away. As fans of both franchises can attest, Star Wars still provides some things to fans that Marvel just hasn’t been able to duplicate. Here are three ways that Marvel Studios could benefit from some of the practices over at Lucasfilm.
(Obviously one could write the opposite article and it might even be longer. First on my list for how Lucasfilm could learn from Marvel Studios would be something like “Hire a director and actually trust that director, keeping them on board until the movie is released!” I don’t mean here to pretend that Lucasfilm has no flaws, just that they do some things really well.)
Make Use of Animation, Particularly on the TV/Streaming Side
Many Star Wars fans feel that the best material to come out of Lucasfilm since the Disney takeover has nothing to do with the Skywalker saga or the big screen. Instead, The Mandalorian and Star Wars: Rebels have been the big homeruns of the era, in addition to positive reception of the latest season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. While Lucasfilm has struggled to match Marvel in producing multiple successful films a year, Marvel hasn’t even touched the world of animation, with the exception of the upcoming What If…?
Animation for Star Wars has been great in its ability to extend and deepen their universe. Anakin Skywalker was a dud in the prequel trilogy. But fans of Clone Wars are much warmer to the character after he was more fully realized in animation. Almost every planet in the Star Wars universe has multiple stories of lore now between the various animated projects that have returned to settings from the films. Imagine a TV show that could explore what life is like in Wakanda or what the daily cases handled by X-Con Security might look like or what threats the Nova Corps have defended against. Animation allows all this exploration on a minimum budget. The only limits are the imaginations of the animators.
Another advantage of animation is that it allows for connections and cameos that are impractical in live action properties. Just in Rebels alone Star Wars fans saw Leia, R2-D2, C3PO, Lando, Mon Mothma, Obi-Wan, Vader, Maul, and the Emperor operating within the larger universe before A New Hope. Imagine the Marvel connections that could happen within the bounds of animation. Peter Parker and Shuri could meet at a youth science expo. We could get a history of Mar-Vell and the Skrulls with Ego stopping by in the midst of things. Or Red Skull could be in a confrontation with Odin during his attempts to find artifacts in Norway during WWII. Kevin Feige has rightfully been hesitant to force those kinds of interactions into films where they would be a side show. Animation would allow him to make those interactions the focus of what would literally be a side show to the main MCU.
Animation also serves as a lab in which new characters can be added and developed. Lucasfilm is about to cash in on a decade and a half of animation to bring the like of Ahsoka Tano, Bo Katan, and Sabine Wren into The Mandalorian. Casual fans might not know those characters but the loyalists most certainly do. And everyone will know them when they explode onto Disney+’s most popular show. While Feige and crew have done an excellent job blooding new characters in other films (including Vision, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and more) their capacity could open in animation. There would be more screen time if nothing else.
Another advantage for Marvel Studios is that it increases output. Star Wars fans are kept somewhat happy between films because there are more stories happening in the animation world. They’re seeing the biggest stars of their universe on the small screen too. This has ancillary benefits of selling more merchandise. Fandoms generate revenue disproportionately from the most dedicated fans, why not give them something else to enjoy and purchase? (To be fair, comics do serve this function for many MCU fans.)
Now some will argue that Marvel already has an arm to do these kinds of things and that is Marvel TV. Fans of both universes will know that the crossover and continuity of Star Wars television is on a totally different level than the crossovers between Marvel films and TV shows. While ABC’s shows and Netflix’s universe were given lip service by Marvel, it was always a one way relationship. TV shows worked hard to connect over and the films just ignored the TV universe. Certainly one would never hear the voice of Charlie Cox in Endgame the way Rey hears from half a dozen TV only Jedi at the climax of Rise of Skywalker. Also, with the exception of Fury and Sif in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. film characters hardly come into TV shows. But in Star Wars characters, ships, locations, etc. move back and forth. Perhaps the most distinct version of this is the TV character Saw Gerrera appearing in a pivotal role in Rogue One. Marvel TV could do this function, but it hasn’t. Maybe that will change with Disney+, but live action Disney+ shows are still not going to provide the flexibility of animation.
One final things animation does is that brings in new, young fans. While Star Wars fans may not love how young Star Wars: Resistance skewed, it still captivated younger viewers. The reality for a company like Disney that has centuries in front of it most likely is that they must always capture new fans from young ages. Enticing kids to watch is a way to guarantee another 60 years of revenue from loyal fans. Marvel Studios is clearly aware of this with their focus on a younger Spider-Man as well as all the rumors about Young Avengers. Animation is another easy on ramp to this audience base.
Designate Some Canon Keepers
Almost every time a documentary crew talks to Lucasfilm about a new project, those interviewed includes someone from the Lucasfilm Story Group. This group functions as the official keepers of canon. They appear to have detailed records on every character in their universe, all the appearances of those characters, and important dates involved with characters. They keep up similarly with locations and ships and much more. As such, anytime a filmmaker is interested in doing something there is a definite authority to determine if the decisions will break the canon of the universe.
Kevin Feige and crew need such a group and they need it badly. Some talk has occurred suggesting some of this work happens. Feige has alluded to an official timeline that is kept somewhere at Marvel Films HQ. But none of it is as official as the Lucasfilm Story Group. This has become painfully clear a time or two, with the date cards of Spider-Man: Homecoming being a perfect example. While the concerns are relatively pedantic, it is even more short sighted to not keep up with these things. The beauty of the MCU, even as opposed to the comics, is a relatively cohesive story with a real sense of the passage of time and character development. A group like this could help in so many ways.
Not only would the existence of such a group help Marvel Studios, but they should also publicize who is on the canon committee and make them household names. We should all know someone as “the continuity guy” and Marvel. The opportunities at conventions would be fun. Come to a panel and ask your obnoxious continuity concern and get an official answer. Also, how much time would it save for Feige when on a press tour to deflect the “gotcha” questions by simply saying, “That’s a great question for our continuity guy, you should interview him.”
Stronger controls on continuity and canon would allow Marvel execs to be off the hook, would tighten up the universe for fans, and would just add an overall level of polish to a universe that’s already fairly cohesive. My last suggestion piggybacks off this idea and might not be popular.
Swing the Continuity Axe
Many fans were incensed when Disney bought up Lucasfilm and immediately canned what is known as the “extended universe” canon. This was an attempt to streamline plans for new content. With all the novels and comics about Star Wars post-Return of the Jedi off the table, J.J. Abrams had much more freedom to tell a new and different story about the universe post-Luke, Leia, and Han. It was a bold move but one that greatly simplified a very messy mass of story.
Marvel Studios needs to do the same thing with the so-called “canon” of the Marvel TV shows. While the original idea was ambitious, it never truly worked. Early on there were great moments, like the Hydra overthrow of S.H.I.E.L.D. which occurred simultaneously on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But the positive fan experience of that moment seemed to be a detrimental experience to the creatives behind the products. S.H.I.E.L.D. felt mis-paced for much of its first season but we now know that is because the show was merely treading water until the big crossover reveal. The second season’s helicarrier crossover idea with Age of Ultron is still awkward to this day.
The Netflix shows didn’t fare much better. Despite the Sokovia Accords rocking the superhero world to its core in films, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are out and about in the streets showing off their powers with no concern about the police arresting them for their power usage. Fans have bent over backwards to try to explain the inconsistency away. Maybe it was about the geography or power level of the characters. Maybe you could squeeze the time frames so all the shows happened pre-Ultron. While one can understand the efforts lovers of these shows went into keeping them in canon, it is hard not to see that the producers of the shows (and definitely the producers of the films) just didn’t care as much.
The most egregious example would be the utter nonsense surrounding Thanos, the snap, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The season 5 finale is clearly placed during the invasion of Wakanda and season 6 is clearly in a non-snapped world. This says nothing of the fact that the time travel rules of Endgame and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are in almost complete disagreement. As S.H.I.E.L.D. continued the continuity just frayed to the point of no longer being salvageable.
Dropping the shows from continuity also allows some characters who were poorly done on TV to be reclaimed in the films. The Inhumans are too important to the history of Marvel to allow the utterly disastrous ABC show to be considered the MCU version of Black Bolt and Medusa. Iron Fist fans also deserve a better version of their favorite hero. This isn’t true for every version of every TV character, but Marvel Studios can choose to rehire actors who did work like Charlie Cox, Vincent D’onofrio, or Olivia Holt.
If Marvel Studios would adopt these three practices from Lucasfilm it would improve the already strong MCU. More characters, depth, and breadth would be available to the universe. That increased potential would be kept within logical canon guidelines. And the TV shows which just do not fit into the larger narrative of the show would be freed from those expectations to be enjoyed for what they are.