With Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams resuming the director's chair for 2019's Star Wars: Episode IX, Disney's move to retain Johnson for future Star Wars installments comes as a big sign of confidence in both Johnson and the quality of the forthcoming The Last Jedi. As revealed by Lucasfilm's official statement, Johnson will write and direct at least the first installment, which will "introduce new characters from a corner of the galaxy that Star Wars lore has never before explored."
"Rian will do amazing things with the blank canvas of this new trilogy,” said Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy in a statement, further suggesting an entirely new spinoff series that — unlike Rogue One or Solo — won't have any immediate ties to the episodic saga first launched with A New Hope in 1977.
Like the rest of the internet, we're left with more than a few Death Star-sized questions.
With the ever-expanding scope of cinematic universes and the size of movies themselves, it seems we're seeing less and less filmmakers commit to one series of films for too long.
And considering the massive undertaking that these blockbusters prove to be — and considering the fact these franchise installments generally always have release dates pencilled in before anything else — it's completely understandable that nearly any filmmaker who isn't James Cameron wouldn't want to anchor themselves to a time-consuming and Herculean effort like making one trilogy for half a decade straight.
There are a few who have done it: Sam Raimi only made Spider-Man movies between 2002 and 2007. There's Zack Snyder's DC trilogy of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the forthcoming Justice League. Directing team Joe and Anthony Russo went from Captain America: The Winter Soldier to Captain America: Civil War to the upcoming sprawling superhero epic Avengers: Infinity War. Before Snyder, the last single director to tackle an entire superhero trilogy was Christopher Nolan, who (unlike Snyder and the Russo brothers) didn't make three consecutive superhero films: he made The Prestige in-between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and he made Inception in-between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.
Johnson didn't return for Episode IX for the same reason Abrams didn't return to direct VIII: because making Star Wars movies is a big deal, and with the Sequel Trilogy releasing installments every other December between 2015 and 2019, the turnaround is too little.
“I realized when I was working on [The Force Awakens], the amount of energy that was required to tell the story, and do it justice, knowing when Episode VIII would start shooting, there was no way — if I wanted to still have my children talk to me in my old age — that doing that would make any sense,” Abrams said in early 2016 about his decision not to immediately jump into what would become The Last Jedi.
Lucasfilm's statement says Johnson will be "shepherding" this new trilogy, and it's unknown whether or not the filmmaker will be directing the two sequels — if that decision has even been made yet — or if he'll take an overseer role after writing and directing the first, mirroring the way franchise creator George Lucas handed directorial duties over to Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, respectively.
That leads into our next question: when will this new trilogy hit theaters?
The episodic saga is currently on an "every other year" release schedule, with standalone movies in-between: The Force Awakens in 2015, Rogue One in 2016, The Last Jedi in 2017, Solo in 2018, and Episode IX in 2019. Even if Johnson began work on his new trilogy right away — and we don't know how much work has been put in as of yet — it's doubtful we'd see the first installment any earlier than 2020.
Disney-owned Marvel Studios is best known for its shared cinematic universe where separate films operate in the same continuity, with characters and franchises crossing over — a business model Disney has already applied to Star Wars, with Rogue One and Solo taking place away from the Skywalker-focused story in the episodic saga but still existing in the same (ahem) universe. What we've yet to see — yet — is Lucasfilm adopting Marvel Studios' increased output of multiple films per year.
In 2017, Marvel upped their annual output of two movies to three movies — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok — all of which proved to be major box office and critical successes, cutting down the already-tired theory of "superhero fatigue." (Marvel will also be releasing three movies in both 2018 and 2019.)
If one other franchise can get away with releasing three films a year — without worry of over saturation or fatigue reflected in poor box office performance — it's Star Wars.
Johnson's trilogy could conceivably drop in 2020, 2022 and 2024. If Johnson directs the first and hands the next two to other directors, the trilogy could even wrap up in 2022 with one film released per year. For all we know, these could be envisioned as smaller, more intimate Star Wars tales not on the scale of something like Rogue One or The Last Jedi — and once Disney ups the number of Star Wars movies from once yearly to twice yearly (or more), there's really no telling what could drop and when.
So far, all we know about Johnson's upcoming trilogy is that it will take us to a corner of a galaxy far, far away that "Star Wars lore has never before explored." That could mean it's not only new ground for the films, it's new ground for Star Wars period — including all those canon cartoons, comic books and novels.
Maybe it will explore the time of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which takes place far removed from the era of Luke, Han and Leia and the newer crop of heroes like Rey, Finn and Poe: the events occur during the time of the ancient Galactic Republic, four thousand years before the rise of the Galactic Empire. Or maybe it's so far off in the future from the current trilogy that Rey and co. have become mythic figures of a long-ago past.
It's reasonable to believe Johnson could be returning audiences to the era of the Prequel Trilogy — maybe for a Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers take on the Clone Wars — or maybe he'll be taking us back to the time of the Original Trilogy, to show what the universe was up to outside of Luke Skywalker's galaxy-spanning adventures; but with the "never before explored" caveat, we should be expecting something entirely new.
It should also be mentioned The Last Jedi will be introducing new characters, creatures and locations, and it's possible Johnson had such fun with one of these never-before-seen elements that he wanted to explore it further in their own sliver of the Star Wars galaxy, making The Last Jedi, in retrospect, kind of a "backdoor pilot" that spun out this new trilogy. You should be excited for Solo and that Obi-Wan movie fans have been calling for, but because of the popularity of those characters, those movies come with a certain amount of expectations attached.
With Johnson's trilogy, we just don't know what to expect — for now, at least — and as a Star Wars fan, that's an exciting prospect.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens December 15.