There is an argument to be made, of course, that it doesn’t matter who Disney parks in the director’s chair; it’s Star Wars, after all, and what sells the movie isn’t the filmmaker, but the brand. And to some extent, that’s true. But if we learned anything from the tepid critical and fan reception to the prequel trilogy, it’s that even this brand has its limits. What was most promising about the Disney deal, from the moment it broke, was the tantalizing possibility that Lucas was finally turning over his baby to better writers and directors than himself.
So far, that’s held true. The drafting of Abrams (poached from the job of performing similar rebooting magic on the floundering Star Trek movie franchise) was a safe bet — too safe, maybe. But now they’re starting to take some risks. First the company announced that Chronicle director Josh Trank and Gareth Evans (who helmed this summer’s surprisingly not-terrible Godzilla) would make standalone spin-off films; now comes the news of Johnson’s very direct role in the franchise’s future. All three hires are reminiscent of Warner Brothers’ then-controversial decision, back in 2003, to turn the Batman franchise over to Christopher Nolan (who’d made two independent films and one mid-level studio thriller, Insomnia). It was a gamble, but one that paid off handsomely — for both the filmmaker and the studio — and one that Marvel took as well, by hiring idiosyncratic, strong-voiced writers and directors like Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, and the Russo brothers for gigs that could have been handed to anonymous, vanilla hacks, with little effect on those all-important opening weekend grosses.
But they’re playing the long game here, bringing on real talents and giving them the chance to shine in a giant spotlight, and that’s worth celebrating. Some of Johnson’s fans didn’t take warmly to the Star Wars news, grumbling that they’d rather the filmmaker spent the next few years on his own, original projects, rather than grinding it out at the Skywalker Ranch, but that’s shortsighted. After all, look at Nolan, who didn’t just make three Batman movies, but used the power and budgets those hits accorded him to make The Prestige and Inception between them. And even better, he took a series that could have been (and had been) pure Product and made it into popcorn art. If (no pressure!) Johnson can accomplish the same feat with Star Wars, everybody wins.