George Lucas may be the father of Star Wars, but Kathleen Kennedy is currently the captain of the franchise ship. THR reports that Kennedy, the current president of Lucasfilm, has extended her contract for another three years, through the year 2021.
Since taking charge of this absurdly popular franchise, the Star Wars universe under Kennedy’s supervision has added new and memorable characters like Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Kylo Ren, all already making their way to recognition with the franchise’s legacy characters. The films have made an obscene amount of money, breaking box office records left and right, with plenty more films and television projects on the way.
On the other hand, some of these films, particularly The Last Jedi, have raised significant ire, and the recent spin-off film Solo was the first such to receive lukewarm reception from critics and in the box office. As one can imagine, this news has raised passions in the historically outspoken Star Wars fanbase, with rampant complaining—much of it rooted in blatant sexism and other forms of intolerance, because hey, the internet sucks.
That aside, there are actually plenty of valid points to make when criticizing Kennedy’s management of the franchise—but first, let’s discuss the positive.
Regardless of your opinion on the Star Wars prequels, that trilogy of films is largely considered a misfire and reduced the once-celebrated series into a punchline. With apparently no hope of the series coming back to theaters, it appeared as if Revenge of the Sith would be Star Wars’ swan song, with only prequel memes and some subsequent hour-plus long YouTube reviews being the trilogy’s primary legacy.
Enter Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, a move that rightfully gained some skepticism. Quite possibly the largest entertainment corporation (with its own dubious business practices) in the universe was buying the production company behind a franchise that is quite possibly worshipped more than any known deity, with plans to jumpstart the film series again being fast-tracked quicker than you can say “Yoda.” With George Lucas out of the picture, taking control of this sudden task of reviving this franchise appeared to be an impossible feat.
But just take a quick look at Kathleen Kennedy’s resume and filmography—it is evident that she was by far the most qualified person to take on the gargantuan burden. Her production work includes the Jurassic Park films and a bulk of Steven Spielberg’s movies. With a few decades of experience and her Hollywood connections, it just made sense. From there, she became the new face of Star Wars. Watch any behind-the-scenes footage or group interviews with Kennedy present—it is evident just how hands-on she is with revitalizing Star Wars. Even if The Force Awakens isn’t your cup of tea, that semi-reboot served as an injection of adrenaline that returned Star Wars from a joke to a pop culture force to once again be reckoned with.
Kathleen Kennedy made Star Wars “cool” again.
At the same time, Star Wars also became too much. Critics and internet commentators have their hot takes on “Marvel fatigue” and whatnot, but at least all of those movies have different visual and storytelling flavors. With the inclusion of Star Wars “Stories” and anthology films, fans were receiving familiar tales recycling the same Rebels vs. Empire imagery repeatedly. Moreso than the array of superhero franchises, the singular Star Wars series is becoming distilled with a lack of new, bold ideas.
And that’s a shame—I quite like the idea of anthology films. The Star Wars universe has the potential to be massive and diverse, but instead, it regurgitates the familiar from our nostalgia-drugged brains. With so many new planets to invent and set foot on and different time periods to explore, the Star Wars franchise could be host to new, crazy, wacky, and fun material. Instead, we’re trapped in the “dark times” between Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars, forever treading water as the filmmakers fetishize TIE Fighters and X-Wings.
Not to mention the numerous trade stories about discord within Lucasfilm under Kennedy’s supervision, with directors being fired on a regular basis—one has to wonder what her management style is to let go creatives after having the confidence to hire them in the first place and put out press releases expressing their excitement. Josh Trank was buried before we even knew what project he was doing, Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards was side-lined in reshoots, Colin Trevorrow was taken off of Episode IX, and Solo’s Chris Lord and Phil Miller were infamously booted mid-production. While every production has their share of creative differences, and Marvel Studios has its own sagas with the likes of Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins, it is absurd that the majority of directors that Kennedy hired ended up leaving their projects.
To cap it all off, despite Kathleen Kennedy’s apparent commitment to diversity, which itself raised a wave of hatred, boycotts, and overall puerile behavior, Kennedy has yet to hire a director or writer for Star Wars who isn’t a white man. Representation may be important on-screen, but it’s just as (perhaps more so) important behind the camera.
Despite my gripes about the end results of Kennedy’s management and her underwhelming action in regards to progressive identity politics in the industry, I still welcome the news of her staying on as captain of the S.S. Star Wars. The new era of Star Wars may have been tumultuous thus far, but it hasn’t been a total public disaster with regime changes every other week—take a look at DC Films and Warner Bros. if you want to see an example of truly awful production management. While the likes of DC and WB simply have no idea what they’re doing, burning through directors and still announcing way too many projects, Lucasfilm under Kennedy tried out a strategy, with some parts working and some not, and are appropriately readjusting.
Not every blockbuster studio can be Marvel Studios with its streak of well-received movies under the watchful eye of one executive (Kevin Feige, in that case), but it’s worth a try to emulate that model if you’re trying to build your own mega-franchise. Even with missteps, I struggle to think of anyone else with the clout and experience to take Kathleen Kennedy’s place. With several cases to learn from in the past three years since the release of The Force Awakens, there is much to learn to refine the direction that this franchise is taking. Maybe Rian Johnson’s new trilogy will be wacky and weird, maybe Kennedy will fulfill J.J. Abrams’s promise of including queer characters, and maybe we’ll one day see women filmmakers and people of color take charge of projects—I am forever holding Kennedy’s stated desire for a Taika Waititi-directed Star Wars film to her.
Of course, that’s after accepting that Star Wars will stay as massive as it is. I miss the times when Star Wars movies would release three years in between, with plenty of supplemental material in between. It isn’t a new take to say that the volume of Star Wars material coming out now is ridiculous to the point of every new release becoming background white noise. It’s now a massive business operation that initially grew from an independent filmmaker defying conventions decades ago. While I have cautious optimism over Kennedy’s leadership, I am a bit sad to end with a bit of cynicism, as the massive, stupid controversies and endless debates that have ignited within the fanbase has recently led me to question if this franchise that I loved during my childhood is even worth all of the fuss.
If Star Wars is to shamble on, the franchise is lucky to still have Kennedy in charge. Even after the fallout from all of the toxic discourse, it is my hope that the hits and misses of the new films will lead her to make some reevaluations, not only to add some stability to their filmmaking process but to create something new from the old. While my qualms about Star Wars in general remain, Kathleen Kennedy has a responsibility to younger generations, to inspire and spark imagination the same way the Star Wars films of yore did.