Star Wars has vanished. For the first time in four years, December is underway without a new adventure in the galaxy far, far away, as Disney and Lucasfilm this year opted to put out Solo: A Star Wars Story over the summer instead. But bucking the yearly tradition of releasing every Star Wars film shortly before Christmas turned out to be a mistake. Since 2015, it has become apparent that Star Wars and December belong together, a fact that became apparent after Solo underperformed but that is especially clear now that the franchise’s absence this month has created a disturbance in the Force.
The December tradition started in 2015 with The Force Awakens, and it was kind accidental. Disney was originally eying a May release for the franchise relaunch but ended up delaying it. December quickly developed into the unexpected new home for Star Wars, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: The Last Jedi following suit in 2016 and 2017. The franchise had settled into a slot that has historically allowed films like Titanic, Avatar, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to triumph, as December is the ideal time for blockbusters with four-quadrant appeal to attract audiences of all ages gathered together for the holidays, reaching levels of box office success nearly impossible to achieve in the summer.
With The Force Awakens, once Disney planted its flag in December, no studio dared release a similarly-sized tent-pole film remotely within the same vicinity out of fear of not being able to compete. The last giant blockbuster before The Force Awakens was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2 on November 20, and the next one after it was Deadpool on February 14; the only other movies that came out during that time period belonged to completely different genres, such as Kung Fu Panda 3 on January 29. The Force Awakens was, therefore, able to absolutely dominate at the multiplex for weeks on end and become the highest-grossing film ever released in the United States, staying number one at the box office well into January. Rogue One and The Last Jedi prospered under similar circumstances, each feeling like events especially because they were the last blockbusters audiences were going to see for some time.
And so each December, the new Star Wars was always able to remain in the public consciousness for weeks on end. The experience of the whole world talking about one piece of media simultaneously, and for longer than a day or two, used to be common, but it has become increasingly fleeting as film and television viewing grows more fragmented and we all seem to be out of sync with one another in various stages of catching up on five different TV shows. Now, though, when the holiday season rolled around, Star Wars was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, always managing to spark some lively discussions at holiday parties.
Besides, what franchise could be more fitting to become a new holiday season tradition than one that is so uniquely multigenerational? The warm, fuzzy, nostalgic sentiment exuded by Star Wars is in line with the way one feels upon returning home for Christmas, and so the link felt natural. This holiday connection soon began to apply retroactively as fans, whose Christmas lists were surely full of all of the new merchandise and tie-in books, made a habit of rewatching the old movies post-Thanksgiving and turned November-to-December into a yearly Star Wars ritual.
But that all changed this year when Disney did not release Solo: A Star Wars story in December, giving the pre-Christmas spot to Mary Poppins Returns and plopping Solo on Memorial Day weekend. While it was easy for studios to simply steer clear of December to avoid Star Wars in the past, even Disney couldn’t clear an adequate enough runway for Solo in the ridiculously crowded summer movie season, which only seems to grow more colossal with every passing year. May was when all of the Star Wars films hit theaters before 2015, to be fair, so it wasn’t a completely illogical decision. But in the decades since A New Hope, the number of massive blockbusters looking to capture the same basic feeling that George Lucas was aiming for in 1977 has grown exponentially. It was only natural that Solo, which hit not long after Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2, and not long before Incredibles 2 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, did not feel as obviously special and unmissable as The Force Awakens, a film whose main competition was a third Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel.
We all know what happened next. Solo came and went in a flash, severely underperforming at the box office and quickly fading from the collective pop culture conversation. The May release isn’t entirely to blame for that; there’s also the fact that this was the first Star Wars since the Disney relaunch that fans were widely skeptical about, not to mention that it was coming just five months after the last one. But putting out The Last Jedi in May wouldn’t have been right, either. When December has consistently allowed the series to serve as the year’s spectacular blockbuster finale and have over a month to itself during which to keep attracting audiences, and after fans for years had become trained to form a connection between Christmas and Star Wars in their brains, why mess with that by jumping into a much more crowded pool seven months early and desperately attempting to generate the same excitement? It wasn’t broke, so why’d they try to fix it?
Now, the dynamic at the multiplex this December is drastically and regrettably different than we’ve seen since Star Wars was resurrected. Going back to 2015, there has more or less been a single major blockbuster offering every Christmas: the new Star Wars, although Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was also an unexpected hit in December 2017. But this year, audiences have a whopping five options over the holiday: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Mortal Engines, Aquaman, Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. The result, it seems, is that everyone will be split up among several films rather than being basically united behind one. Right now, none of the five is projected to have a three-day opening above $100 million in the United States. The Last Jedi, for comparison, opened to $220 million. It’s hard not to already grow nostalgic for a time when there was one widely-agreed upon topic of conversation movie-wise heading into Christmas — that time being last year.
Luckily, Lucasfilm will begin to make things right next December by releasing Star Wars: Episode IX on December 20, with the film having been delayed from May 2019. After that, no future movie has been officially dated, but going forward, Disney should never release a Star Wars film outside of December again, even if it means skipping some years in order to leave room for Avatar. That’s one of many lessons learned by Solo’s financial disappointment and by the empty void now left in the holiday season. To quote our little green friend: the greatest teacher, failure is.