[This Column Was Officially Published On September 14th]

When J.J. Abrams delivered Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year, he essentially brought life back to one of Hollywood’s most beloved series. The movie was a critical smash, and would go on to become the all-time champion at the domestic box office. While some have chastised the film for relying too heavily on the legacy of the original trilogy, few can argue that the The Force Awakens didn’t bring Star Wars back in a major way, and was a genuine crowd-pleaser for both longtime fans and newcomers to that galaxy far, far away.

The next film in the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, may actually eclipse The Force Awakens because of a few key factors. Today, we’ll explore why Rogue One is so huge, and why its performance is one that we’ll have to pay close attention to.

“A New, New Hope”

From its inception, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was going to be a very different kind of animal. For starters, it’s not an Episode of the main saga. Then there’s the fact that it won’t focus on Jedi, or the Skywalker clan, or advance any of the existing plot lines in any meaningful way. It’s the first live-action, feature film set in the Star Wars universe that is looking to tell a completely separate story. We’re talking new characters, new settings, and a tone that is more “war movie meets espionage/heist film” than the “fantastical space adventure” that Star Wars has represented so far. 

Aside from being set during a period that is familiar to fans- the time leading up to Star Wars: A New Hope, when the Rebels fought to obtain the Empire’s top secret Death Star plans- Rogue One is the first Star Wars film since Return Of The Jedi that promises an exploration of entirely new territory. 

In short, the folks who felt let down by The Force Awakens being very “been there, done that” are about to have a whole new corner of the Star Wars galaxy to explore. And since none of these characters are tied directly to the main Skywalker Saga, there’s a freshness and a spontaneity attached to Rogue One because you have no idea what the fate of any of them will be.

“Was It Just The Brand?”

Make no mistake about it, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a juggernaut. But it had a lot going for it. It had the Star Wars brand name. It had the advertised return of series regulars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. It had the well-oiled Abrams machine behind it- which has produced many hits across the TV and Film mediums. It also had a phenomenal marketing campaign that managed to A. Not give away the movie, B. Feel comfortingly familiar (When Han Solo said “Chewie, we’re home,” you can’t tell me you didn’t feel like you were at home back on the Millenium Falcon), and yet C. Also promised all-new thrills and characters to enjoy.

You could almost say that the film was going to be a smash just based on factors that had nothing to do with the film itself. One could argue that all of these outside factors helped tip the scales mightily in its favor.

When it comes to Rogue One, you don’t really have that sort of safety net. Gareth Edwards is not J.J. Abrams. There’s no Ford, Fisher, or Hamill. There’s no sense of “Hey, we finally get to spend more time with our favorite characters.” Not to mention, the central plot of the film hinges on a mission that every Star Wars fan already knows the outcome of (*SPOILER ALERT*: They get the Death Star plans!). So, unlike The Force AwakensRogue One has to rely almost entirely on the strength of the film itself and the ability of its marketers to make a case for seeing it that doesn’t really have any of the nostalgia fans have come to know and love.

And, Devil’s Advocate: Let’s say the movie ends up being terrible, yet still makes an insane amount of money. This would retroactively prove that The Force Awakens had a leg up merely for being a Star Wars film, and that the franchise is essentially bulletproof.

“LucasFilm’s Big Gamble”

As soon as Disney purchased LucasFilm from George Lucas and installed Kathleen Kennedy as the head of the production shingle, they started talking about expansion. Right off the bat it was reported that there was not only a new Star Wars trilogy on the way, but also a series of anthology filmsthat will stand alone that could result in the release of a new movie every single year for the foreseeable future.  Really big, really bold stuff. 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be the first test of that approach. If it hits, it could open the door for many more spinoffs. If it tanks, you can bet that they’re going to rethink venturing beyond the Episodic saga. 

Also, when you consider the success of The Force Awakens, there’s pressure within the studio to make sure that they keep up that momentum. The last film proved that there’s a massive audience out there for these films, and if they deliver a dud of a follow-up, that would make the size of the film’s failure- or disappointment- seem that much bigger.

Let’s face it, LucasFilm without George Lucas is basically an all-new studio with new ownership and new goals. When your studio’s first film out of the gate is practically declared an instant classic, you can’t afford to stink up the joint with your next one.

“Darth freakin’ Vader”

Darth Vader is set to appear in Rogue One.

Let’s let that sink in for a second. Darth Vader. One of the single most iconic characters in cinematic history. And, for all intents and purposes, this will be the real Vader. He’ll be the Vader we all met and fell in love with in A New Hope. A powerful, mysterious, entity whose presence changes everything for those he encounters onscreen. 

This will be the first time we’ve seen Darth Vader since 1983.

Now, I know what you’re saying. “But Mario, you’re wrong. We saw Darth Vader in 2005 when Revenge Of The Sith came out.” But no. You didn’t. That sad, “NOOOOO!!!!!” screaming stand-in was not Darth Vader. That wasn’t the Force of nature that inspired a legion of fans.

Let’s not forget that while Luke Skywalker was technically the protagonist of the original trilogy, the character that left the biggest mark on pop culture as we know it wasn’t Luke. It was his daddy. And in Rogue One, we’ll finally get to see him again. 

As good as The Force Awakens arguably was, it was also the first big-screen Star Wars movie to not feature Anakin Snywalker in any real way, while Rogue One will feature him in the best way; At the height of his power.

Welcome back, Lord Vader.

“Star Wars: A FlawedProduction Redeemed”

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