Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy recently said the studio feels it can’t recast original Star Wars trilogy characters without upsetting fans and losing revenue. But with a slew of new streaming projects and positive critical and audience reception, I think the Star Wars franchise is popular enough worldwide and has enough top talent keeping everything operating at optimal levels to successfully “reboot” with a new cast taking over classic roles. If that sounds like heresy, the details might convert you.
Kennedy was speaking of the fallout from the 2018 film Solo: A Star Wars Story, which cast Alden Ehrenreich in the iconic role of Han Solo originally portrayed by Harrison Ford. That film’s $393 million box office haul is the lowest ever for a live-action Star Wars theatrical release and not even enough to cover the production and marketing costs.
There’s no argument that Solo suffered from low theatrical attendance and backlash, even if critics mostly liked the film and some of the audience disinterest was surely due to opening just five months after Star Wars: The Last Jedi (which itself suffered from some backlash and a significant drop in box office from its predecessor, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as well as a lot of negative or mixed coverage during development and early marketing.
Those external factors matter, as does the fact 2018 was a year stacked with must-see releases and the average filmgoer only manages four or five multiplex visits per year, but in the end there were clearly mixed reactions to the film and that’s what matters most. So Kennedy has reason to worry about how audiences feel about recasting.
Luckily, there’s additional evidence to consider, which demonstrates fans and audiences will actually accept recasting of the iconic roles from Episodes IV through VI, it’s just a question of how it’s done and in what context.
The entire prequel trilogy — Episodes I through III — required recasting of Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, the Emperor, Boba Fett, Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma, and others. Chewbacca was likewise recast starting with Episode VIII and continued with subsequent films. R2-D2 was recast a few times. And Grand Moff Tarkin wasn’t just recast but also CGI’ed into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
It’s important to recognize just how much the franchise’s current revival owes to the success of the prequel films that recast several major roles. The prequels made a combined $4+ billion in inflation-adjusted dollars ($2.5 billion from 1999 to 2005 in contemporary dollars), and despite controversies and mixed reactions, the majority of critical and audience reactions were positive.
Those films created a new generation of fans who also watched the animated series The Clone Wars and grew as attached to their generations’ Star Wars stories as original trilogy fans are to the 1970s and 1980s films, and are now sharing their love of the franchise with their own kids. Star Wars has a future precisely because of the initial recasting in the prequels.
The multiple streaming Star Wars series on Disney+ have continued the recasting and used digital versions not just of characters’ faces but also of their voices. And I suspect as we get more of these shows, we’ll see additional recasts when necessary.
So there’s actually ample proof of audiences and fandom accepting recasts in the Star Wars universe, including of beloved characters and core team members like Chewy, Obi-Wan, and R2.
But does that mean audiences are ready for recasting of the three leads — Luke, Leia, and Han? Well, I’ll remind you that Luke was already “recast” when Mark Hamill’s appearance in The Book of Boba Fett included a stand-in with a “de-aged” version of Hamill’s face CGI’ed onto his body and a digital version of Hamill’s voice dubbed in.
Every franchise and fandom at some point has or will have to face the prospect of recasting beloved characters. Recasting is common, including even mid-stream in ongoing film franchises and TV series. I don’t believe Star Wars is unique among franchises in cinema history as the only series where it’s just not possible or acceptable. If Star Trek can recast Kirk and Spock, I promise fans will learn to live with a new Luke and Leia.
It’s been 45 years, and the franchise has grown and expanded. So if Star Wars is going to keep reaching back in time to tell stories and make expansion of the brand contingent on connective tissue to the original trilogy, then at some point it will have to come to terms with the “never recast these three people again” rule. And the best place to do that is on Disney+, where the streaming Star Wars series can recast without the same level of financial risk and investment of a feature film.
Disney was already destined to change the film and streaming industries with a shift toward heavy investment in high-budget major IP series and films for their new streaming service Disney+, which I discussed in great detail at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.
While we are still in the early stages of the shift and the full force and results of initial investment hasn’t been felt yet, we’ve reached the end of the early development stages and are about to experience the first big wave of new series dropping one after another.
My thinking is, if they’re filling in the backstories with all-new shows and stories, why not fill in the gaps between the original trilogy films?
Imagine for a moment if there were a set of amazing stories set during those missing periods, already scripted and storyboarded. Well, you don’t have to imagine, because you can already see them by reading the rebooted Star Wars comics from Marvel, released after Disney bought Lucasfilm. They are terrific stories, thrilling and fun and with the perfect tone and approach to exist alongside the original film trilogy, and it wouldn’t be hard to adapt them to live-action. If you’ve not read them, I highly recommend it, even if you normally don’t read comics — the quality of the original year or so of stories in particular is stunning and on par with the films themselves.
We’ve seen Luke essentially recast and digitized already, and the technology we saw is already behind what they can accomplish today. But honestly, I’d just recast without much/any digital changes to the actors — if (just for some hypothetical examples) Anthony Ingruber or Tye Sheridan portrayed Han Solo, for example, and Graham Hamilton (Hamill’s body double in The Book of Boba Fett) played Luke, and perhaps Phoebe Fox took the role of Leia, then it would work fine with just makeup and wigs.
I liked Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo, and in fact for a few years before he took the role I’d written here at Forbes that Ehrenreich would be a great casting choice to play Han’s and Leia’s son (this was early on after plans for a new trilogy had been announced, and we all suspected or knew it would include the son, but no casting had taken place yet). But I also admit in retrospect that while audiences can and have accepted recasting of Star Wars roles, the three main characters are so popular that it would be helpful to have actors who resemble them, to reduce the dissonance for viewers with greater attachment to the original cast.
A new Star Wars series adapting the Marvel comic book stories to live-action, or with a different set of stories set between the original films, can definitely work on Disney+. With such exceptional writing quality, the right cast, and someone like Jon Favreau or Deborah Chow in the director’s chair, I think a Star Wars original trilogy continuation series would wind up being a big success.
This isn’t just for older fans. Young fans would have these shows as a new entry point to the older stories, as well as having the new ones to enjoy. It’s a good way to get the new fans invested more in the older characters, which was part of the problem for Solo as well — fans who loved either the prequels and the Clone Wars, and/or who love the new trilogy of films, just weren’t much invested in Han Solo, recast or not, outside of the new trilogy of films in which he dies quickly and the story baton is handed off to a new younger generation of characters.
But a new streaming show that brings the original characters back with a new cast and features plenty of tie-ins for the larger universe would go a long way toward getting younger fans even more interested in them by helping make the original trilogy more relevant for that audience.
If Star Wars chooses to move forward with mostly new characters and stories that mostly forego use of the original trilogy characters, it’ll have plenty of territory and potential to do so successfully. But I think there is a huge windfall of popularity and potential to be found in the seemingly taboo suggestion to recast and tell stories about what went on between Episodes IV, V, and VI. And this being the entertainment and movie business, I would bet money that a recasting or even full reboot of the original trilogy stories is inevitable, it’s only a question of when.
So I say, if Lucasfilm is going to make so many other stories set in the past and fill in those empty pages of Star Wars history, the timing seems right to consider a recasting and fill in some blanks that, in turn, will open up doors for even more expansion of the series and new stories featuring characters.