Star Wars now has as many prequels as regular films. The latest, Solo, is now almost upon us and while reviews have been kind their main theme is that the film is inconsequential. A fun thrill ride, but which ultimately adds little to the series. In their wake Lucasfilm has been considering another prequel centred on Lando Calrissian, and this seems to be their direction from now on. Every other rumoured spin-off so far has been a prequel, whether for him or Obi-Wan or Boba Fett, the latter of which was to be directed by Josh Trank before Fant4stic flopped. But there’s a problem here. Star Wars is not a series that can sustain an endless variety of prequels, and this well will dry up sooner rather than later.
The first problem comes down to the nature of Star Wars, specifically that of its characters. As any first year film studies student will overeagerly explain to you, it’s a story that trades in archetypes more than well-rounded characters. The wise mentor, the dashing rogue, the black clad henchmen and so on. These are not particularly deep characters, and are defined by their actions in their first appearances.
This is not to say the cast do not grow or change, as they have since, but they arrive fully formed and without significant backstory. Han is defined by his pre-emptive shooting of Greedo, his agreement to work for the resistance solely for profit and his triumphant return to join their cause at the end. All this takes place in his first movie.
Because of this, no back story you make up for an archetypal character could possibly live up to them. Partly this is because, as it must in some way influence the character to be meaningful, it alters the audience’s perception of them, changing up the character away from what they know and love. This is why James Bond films avoided giving Bond any concrete back story, and when they finally tried to in Spectre audiences rejected it en masse. The same is true of the Joker.
Everything meaningful about Han Solo, as he was in the original trilogy, we learned in those films. His relationships with Chewie and Lando and ownership of the Millennium Falcon were all perfectly clear. What is there to learn from seeing happen what was already perfectly implied? In the end you just end up back where you started. This is partly why Vader’s backstory in the prequel trilogy was poorly received, because Obi-Wan told us all we needed in his first scene.
Another major problem, inherent to prequels, is that whatever you write in a prequel will never be noticeable in the original story. Maleficent is probably the best example. It set out to reinvent a one-note villain as a victimised antihero, but when you re-watch Sleeping Beauty none of that is there. The Maleficent of that film is simply evil, with none of the tragedy or nuance from her own movie. Whatever backstory you write for Han Solo, none of it will come across in his later adventures.
This does not mean prequels are inherently worthless. Rogue One was a very good idea, taking a minor detail from A New Hope and fleshing it out into its own separate story. But it was vastly more effective as a separate story. The film’s low points are when it tries to tie itself more firmly to A New Hope, to the point of rambling on for 10 minutes after its own story concludes.
The last problem is best illustrated by a metaphor borrowed from Alan Moore. There is a fractal pattern called Koch’s snowflake. You begin by drawing an equilateral triangle inside a circle, then adding proportionately smaller triangles on each side, then again on each of the new triangle’s outer sides, and thence on to infinity. As the number of triangles increases the shape’s outline becomes theoretically infinite, but it’s area can never expand beyond the original circle.
(From Hell, 1999)
The circle here is the story of the original trilogy, and the additional triangles each new film. Star Wars as a story is neither particularly deep nor complex. This does not detract from its quality, but it means there isn’t much to meaningfully expand on, and each successive movie can only add increasingly minor details. What more is there to tell about these characters we don’t already know? Why Obi-Wan decided on his house? How Akbar became an admiral? Yoda’s daily routine on Dagobah? The most popular spin-off candidate is Boba Fett, whose entire appeal is based on knowing nothing about him.
The problem with making prequels to Star Wars is that the original trilogy already explored its cast as thoroughly as it needed to. We already know them so well we don’t need to see how they became that way. And if you tell us, any explanation is just disappointing compared to what we imagined. It’s like when Prometheus revealed the unknowable elephantine creature in Alien was just a man in a suit, like an episode of Scooby Doo.