Hiring Rian Johnson Is the Best Thing That’s Happened to the ‘Star Wars’ Franchise in Decades

The commonly accepted news cycle tradition of treating Friday as “take out the trash day” (per The West Wing, the day when embarrassing stories are dumped, so as to minimize media coverage) apparently hasn’t made its way to the entertainment business, because last Friday afternoon saw the explosion of a bombshell. Deadline broke the story: Rian Johnson, the gifted writer/director behind Looper, will take over the Star Wars franchise after J.J. Abrams completes Episode VII, with Johnson writing and directing Episode VIII and serving, in an unconfirmed capacity, on Episode IX as well. It was a bit of a shocker — Johnson is more a genre fan favorite than a proven entity at the box office. But the fact that Disney (which took over the franchise when it bought Lucasfilm back in 2012) places greater value on the former quality speaks well to where Star Wars is going on their watch.

Johnson’s debut film, Brick, was a clever and admirably hard-boiled slice of high school noir; he followed it up with the delightful, and criminally overlooked, 2008 con man caper comedy The Brothers Bloom. His most high-profile release to date was Looper, an ingenious and thrilling time-travel tale that this site picked as one of 2012’s best films. But truly great popcorn movies have a weird tendency to under-perform — see the baffling box office for Edge of Tomorrow — and Looper’s domestic box office topped out at $66 million (though it did nearly double that overseas, and its budget was a relatively low $30 million); his three films combined have only grossed $72 million.

That’s not a lot of bread in the Star Wars universe — or compared to Episode VII director J.J. Abrams ($747 million and counting). No one’s ever accused Disney of valuing art over commerce, but Johnson has got something that a money-printer like, say, Michael Bay doesn’t: he’s a skilled and engaging storyteller. Looper fused its sci-fi and action elements (along with narrative dexterity and genuine emotion) with a skill long absent from the Star Wars franchise, and Johnson has proven himself adaptable to existing series; he directed three memorable episodes of Breaking Bad, including the widely (and rightly) celebrated “Ozymandias.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in "Looper"

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.