Why Disney Can Risk Rian Johnson Helming a Star Wars Film

By enlisting relatively obscure directors and spinning off cult characters, the studio is taking a Marvel-style approach to the galaxy far, far away.
Under Marvel's new business plan, cult character Boba Fett will get his own film franchise. (Reuters/Anis Mili)

Rian Johnson, the director of Brick and Looper, is going to write and direct the next two Star Wars movies. Johnson all but confirmed the news in a tweet that summed-up the hopes and fears of fans who watched all three prequels and still cannot figure out why Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side.

Johnson is beloved by internet geeks. He combines bold thinking (Brick was a film noir set in a Californian school) with action (Looper featured a time-traveling assassin played by Bruce Willis on a quest to murder a small child). He is just the sort of person that everyone on the internet says should direct a Star Wars film but who doesn’t usually get the chance.

That said, Johnson is among the least successful directors to take on a franchise of such magnitude. His last three films—BrickThe Brothers Bloom, and Looper—have made a total of $72 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The last Star Wars film, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, alone made $380 million worldwide. But taking a creative risk can pay off, as with Christopher Nolan’s direction of the Batman franchise.

The imminent news of Johnson’s hiring comes after Star Wars owner Lucasfilm appointed two other young directors—one of whom directed Chronicle and the other the recent smash, Godzilla—to helm Star Wars films that for the first time will not be part of a single saga. The spin-offs, rumored to star Yoda and Boba Fett, were part of the plan when Walt Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012. Disney seems to be following the game plan of its other subsidiary, Marvel, which it bought for the same price in 2011.

By hiring talented but untested directors and taking some creative risks, Marvel set out to create individual franchises set in the same world, just as in the comics. In this way, audiences have bought into individual characters like Iron Man and Captain America, and each exists as its own money-spinning franchise against the backdrop of a larger universe. Fans are buying into a character’s journey, rather than a Marvel sequel. And stories that unite the universe, such as The Avengers, become must-see global blockbusters that bring together these different fan-bases once every few years. The Marvel method has upended the blockbuster formula, which, ironically, was created by the original Star Wars film in 1977.

Will Disney be able to do the same with Star Wars, credibly expanding the universe beyond the story of the Skywalkers? We will begin to find out when the next film, Episode VII, currently filming with the original cast under the hands of Star Trek director JJ Abrams, is released in December 2015.

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Kabir Chibber is the weekend editor at Quartz.

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