On Friday, the Star Wars Universe begins in earnest. After acquiring the rights to Lucasfilm for a hefty $4 billion and announcing a new trilogy to begin with Episode VII, Disney officially joined Marvel and DC in the great universe race of Hollywood a year later in 2013 by plotting two separate anthology films (later expanded to three). It was a no-brainer for Disney to try its hand at universe-building with what was already the greatest movie franchise of all time. But now, with Rogue One, it’s finally time to prove it can tell compelling stories outside of the Skywalker family.
Fair or not, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One will determine the expectations for the next two Star Wars anthology films and whatever additions will likely follow. If it’s a brick, there’ll be tapered excitement for the next standalone film, an unnamed young Han Solo flick helmed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. If it’s a triumph, we’ll have a lot less doubts, and Lord and Miller will owe Edwards a steak or a starship for easing their burden. So what does Rogue One have to do to ensure the latter?
The most important thing is to give us reason to care about these characters who are almost entirely separated from the saga. Because we’ve all seen Episode IV (please tell me you’ve seen Episode IV), we all know the end result of Rogue One: the rebels successfully steal the blueprints to the Death Star, allowing Luke Skywalker to exploit an improbably simple flaw to destroy the planet-killing weapon. Knowing what’s to come doesn’t automatically doom a project, but it makes the task of storytelling much more difficult. These better be some compelling characters, and there has to be subplots on subplots on subplots. The best hope seems to be Mads Mikkelsen, the legendary villain actor who’ll play Galen Erso, Jyn Erso’s father and a scientist whose allegiances are up in the air. As Mikkelsen told IGN, Galen is “the most guilty man in the world.” There’s also Bodhi Rook, played by the excellent Riz Ahmed, a pilot defected from the Empire who’s been compared to Han Solo because of his attitude. And of course, there’s Felicity Jones’ Jyn, the second consecutive female protagonist in Star Wars, much to the chagrin of men’s rights activists everywhere.
The most discussed component of the film—and the most contentious, if rumors from the reshoots are to be believed—is its tone. Edwards has more room to toy around than J.J. Abrams did with The Force Awakens, and some have said Rogue One feels more like a war film than anything else, with speculation that it went too far in that direction before reshoots. Edwards himself has described the film as more ambiguous and reflective of the gray areas that define many modern conflicts. The trilogies have centered upon a black and white conflict (or blue and red, if you will). The Empire (with all its Nazi overtures) and the Sith are the clear bad guys, while the Jedi are the unquestioned heroes. The rebels in this film, however, look to be less bound by the binary. Some are believers in the Jedi mythology, though not full practitioners, while others are just regular people. What motivates them and which methods they’re willing to engage in have much more room for complexity. If all of these nuances can be captured artfully, Rogue One can stand on its own more than any of its predecessors.
And of course, there’s the matter of building a universe. For all the films and all the planets involved in the saga, the galaxy far, far away feels awfully small. Tatooine and Jakku may as well be the same place, and Takodana may as well be Endor. (We won’t even go into the similarities of the Death Star and Starkiller Base.) We need more distinct locales, as well as social circles. Jedha is the most promising planet added for a while, with connections to the Force and the Jedi that remain to be known. We also need to learn a lot more about how this universe works. Kyber Crystals, key pieces of lightsabers that have been left for only the biggest of Star Wars nerds to discuss, are set to play a major role in Rogue One, as Edwards has likened the material to oil on our own planet. This idea could fall into a cliche or become another crucial dynamic we hadn’t yet considered.
The Star Wars Universe needs to feel like a place where more can happen than lightsaber battles and planetary destruction. The fate of the franchise isn’t necessarily dependent on Rogue One—you don’t need critical acclaim to make hella money—but its cultural impact is resting heavily on it. We could be set for years of tired but profitable projects a la Transformers or the threat to the MCU that DC has never been able to muster.