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After Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, where does Disney (and the franchise) go from here?

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” brings to a close the epic nine-film tale that has spanned three generations in continuity and more than 40 years of time here in the real world. But as the saga draws to a close, what will be the next step for the Star Wars franchise. What will happen to it, now that the original storyline is completed? What more is there to say about that galaxy far, far away?

It’s natural to ask these questions. But the truth is that most of them have already been answered by last year’s very mediocre “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

As the saga draws to a close, what will be the next step for the Star Wars franchise. What more is there to say about that galaxy far, far away?

“Solo” — which was separate from the “Skywalker” trilogy — is not often discussed as part of the future of the franchise. The movie, which attempted to provide a backstory for the swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, was a box office dud. It lost $50 million at least, making it the first Star Wars movie to fail to break even. Critics didn’t like it either; it got a paltry 70 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and just about everyone agreed that Alden Ehrenreich, who took over the Solo role, was several light speed jumps from being an adequate replacement for Harrison Ford. The film’s lackluster showing has put direct sequels in limbo. By just about any metric, the movie was a failure

This would not be the first time critical and financial setbacks brought a would-be franchise to a grinding halt. Remember Universal’s planned Dark Universe? Most people don’t either. Yet, Star Wars has barely paused. On the new Disney+ platform, mini-series “The Mandalorian” — a derivative and unambitious space Western — has been greeted with rapturous enthusiasm. The series received a 93 percent “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and spawned enough viral Baby Yoda memes to give a Sarlacc a saccharine overdose.

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Meanwhile, pre-sales for “The Rise of Skywalker” topped even “Avengers: Endgame.” Total sales for the debut are heading towards a strong $190 million, which puts it slightly below “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” the previous entries in the three-film sequel series. Early critical reaction has been mostly negative, which might dampen the box office, though it’s hard to imagine the franchise’s (millions) of dedicated fans won’t want to see the finale.

As the tepid reaction to the premiere indicates, Disney has had some difficulties with the franchise. Satisfying fans while moving the narrative forward has been challenging. In the run up to the final film, director J. J. Abrams made some comments that seemed to denigrate “The Last Jedi” and its director Rian Johnson, sparking a huge fandom controversy about whether “The Last Jedi” was or was not a worthy entry in the series. But such arguments only go to show that people really like Star Wars, and really like to talk about Star Wars. They want to see new Star Wars movies and TV shows, even if, as with “Solo,” the last Star Wars movie they saw was not necessarily all that great.

The truth is that Star Wars has always been a leader in demonstrating that brand recognition and goodwill can overcome shockingly bland product. The first Star Wars spin off film, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” in 1978, was legendarily awful, featuring an array of Chewbacca Wookie relatives and Art Carney, of all people. Time Out critic Adam Feldman pointed out, accurately, that stars like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford all looked “embarrassed” and “mortified” onscreen. Yet, that humiliating initial misstep didn’t harm the box office of “The Empire Strikes Back” two years later, which earned around $538 million in 1980 dollars, making it (like its predecessor) one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

Similarly, the three prequel films telling the story of Anakin Skywalker were widely and justly panned; in a 2003 poll by the E! television network, “The Phantom Menace” (1999) was voted the worst sequel ever, beating out such turkeys as “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and “Jaws: The Revenge.”

Nonetheless, the Skywalker films were financially successful, and people still talk about them and think about them, in ways they don’t talk about “Speed 2.” The prequels weren’t intelligent, or worthwhile, or well made. But they were Star Wars, so they matter.

This is, after all, why studios have turned to franchise films in the first place. Familiar brands don’t guarantee success in every instance, but they make it much more likely your investment will pay off. Popular things are likely to be popular.

Sociologists Matthew Salganik of Princeton and Duncan Watts of Microsoft have conducted studies that show that pop culture success is essentially a cascade. They asked people to listen to songs and say which ones they liked better. When the songs were simply given to the listeners without any other information, there tended to be a random distribution of likes and dislikes. When listeners were told that one song was more popular than another, though, people tended to say they liked the popular songs more.

Familiar brands don’t guarantee success in every instance, but they make it much more likely your investment will pay off. Popular things are likely to be popular.

Pop culture is a public, popular phenomenon. It’s fun in part because you get to share it with others. People therefore, and understandably, want to like what others like.

An awful lot of people liked the first Star Wars movie in 1977. Its adjusted box office is about $3 billion, making it one of the most successful films of all time. Even that understates its influence; the movie transformed the toy industry, and made science-fiction films one of the important genres in Hollywood. Four decades later, it continues to generate successful sequels and pop culture enthusiasm, drawing in new fans who weren’t even alive when the first film was released.

So, the answer to the question “What will happen to Star Wars now?” is the same answer you could have given 10, or 20 years ago. Star Wars will go on, in film, in television, in toys, in books and comics. If history is any guide, many entries in the Star Wars franchise will be uninspired, poorly thought through and even terrible. But fans will watch them anyway — or at the least, will pass over them with a sigh on their way to the next Star Wars hit.

People want to like Star Wars. They want to get wildly excited about Star Wars with crowds of other Star Wars fans. Even if Disney gives them the occasional “Solo,” they’ll find a way.

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