The $175.5 million domestic opening weekend for Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is both one of the best-ever bows for a December picture and a staggering step down for the mainline franchise. Despite delivering the third-best opening weekend for any December film, the picture will likely go down as a disappointment for The House of Mouse. 

Episode IX's domestic opening weekend came in well below the $248 million opening in 2015 for The Force Awakens (Episode VII) and the $220 million opening in 2017 for The Last Jedi (Episode VIII). 

And the decline in international performance was similarly stark. The Rise of Skywalker delivered an international opening of roughly $373 million, down from $437.5 million for The Last Jedi and $494 million for The Force Awakens. Judged by the standards of a less-storied franchise, the opening weekend for the latest Star Wars could be heralded as a huge win. But the picture is different when placed in the context of previous titles in the series. Basically, Star Wars is declining.

Stormtroopers in 'The Rise of Skywalker.'

Image source: Disney.

The fall of ticket sales

The Rise of Skywalker came in at the low end of tracking estimates. At the end of November, the picture was projected to post opening weekend sales between $175 million and $200 million. Just days before its debut, some projections had the picture tracking to post a global opening north of $450 million. The table below breaks down opening weekend results and total box-office sales for Disney's Star Wars films so far:

Movie Release Global opening weekend Total global ticket sales
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens  December 2015 $494 million $2.07 billion
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story December 2016 $290 million $1.06 billion
Star Wars Episode: VIII: The Last Jedi December 2017 $437.5 million $1.32 billion
Solo: A Star Wars Story May 2018 $148 million $392.9 million
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker December 2019 $373 million N/A

Source: Box Office Mojo.

It's now almost certain that Skywalker will wind up as the lowest-grossing entry in the mainline sequel trilogy, and it could actually underperform one of the franchise's spinoff films. 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, posted a domestic opening weekend of roughly $155 million and a global open of roughly $290 million before going on to record a total gross of roughly $1.06 billion. Skywalker's opening haul in the U.S. came in significantly above Rogue One's, but the performance was actually weaker in another key territory. 

Disney didn't succeed at building an audience for the franchise in China, the entertainment industry's most important growth market in recent years. Skywalker tallied a meager $12 million in its opening in the country and is now projected to gross just $22 million at Chinese theaters -- well below the $126 million for The Force Awakens and the $42.6 million take for The Last Jedi. The spinoff Rogue One posted lifetime ticket sales of $69.4 million in the country.

Attention now turns to how Skywalker holds up in the coming weeks. Warner Bros.' Batman v Superman famously posted a massive $420 million global opening in 2016, but it wound up delivering just $872 million in lifetime ticket sales, and it's not unusual to see big drop-offs if word of mouth isn't strong. Episode IX (Skywalker) will still likely cross the $1 billion mark at the box office and surpass Rogue One's total, but that no longer seems like a given. 

Just 57% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes have given the picture a favorable review score, while the audience approval score has held steadfast at roughly 86% even as tens of thousands of new reviews have poured in. This is starkly different from the critics/audience score breakdown for 2017's The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes, which saw 91% approval from critics and a 43% approval score from audiences.

It's worth noting that Rotten Tomatoes changed its user-review scoring standards earlier this year, and aggregate user scores are lower on other platforms. The new film currently has a 7-out-of-10 user score on IMDB and a 5-out-of-10 user score on Metacritic. Social media sentiment seems to be mixed, and it's still too early to get a clear read on how audiences feel about the film.

Why is Star Wars fading?

While The Rise of Skywalker's $373 million global opening would be a dream come true for most other pictures, it looks like a disappointment in the world of big-budget franchise building. Declining ticket sales for the sequel trilogy's concluding installment adds another concerning data point for the property's trajectory. The Star Wars fan base appears to be divided on what they want from the series, merchandise sales have declined sharply over the last four years, and Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge theme park attractions have gotten off to a weaker-than-expected start.

Some industry watchers have attributed recent disappoints to "Star Wars fatigue," with waning interest stemming from Disney releasing too many movies in the franchise too soon. The company has released five films over the last four years, and while release timing for entries like Solo: A Star Wars Story can be called into question, that release schedule hardly looks like overkill when viewed in the context of today's franchise-driven film industry.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe saw three releases in 2019 alone, each of which proved very successful. The tremendous success for the streaming television series The Mandalorian on Disney+ also confounds the idea that audiences have universally grown tired of Star Wars. It seems more likely that many fans lost interest in the world of the sequel trilogy because they were unimpressed with the quality of the output, and this spilled over into merchandise and theme park performance. 

The Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian has been a bright spot in recent Star Wars productions. Image source: Disney.

The Last Jedi managed to put up roughly $1.3 billion in global ticket sales -- a fantastic figure by most standards, but a performance that also fell short of expectations and came in roughly $735 million below the box-office take of its mainline franchise predecessor. The relative underperformance for the picture was made worse by the fact that it wound up being perhaps the single most divisive release in the franchise's history. Dissatisfaction and controversy surrounding The Last Jedi was likely a significant factor in the Solo spin-off grossing just $393 million at the box office -- a figure so shockingly low that it prompted Disney to narrow its ambitions for the franchise and cancel or delay a number of in-development Star Wars projects. 

A galaxy divided

While Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe has benefited from a meticulously plotted franchise plan, it seems that kind of structure was never in place for the company's take on the galaxy far, far away.

The Force Awakens delivered a tremendous performance in 2015 and was laden with the mystery-driven approach to storytelling that director J.J. Abrams is known for. Comments from Star Wars cast and production members suggest that Last Jedi director Rian Johnson wrote most of the script for his film prior to The Force Awakens being completed, and it did away with many of its predecessors' thematic and narrative threads. The change in direction seems to have been divisive for audiences -- and internally at Lucasfilm.

Director Colin Trevorrow was originally signed to direct Episode IX but departed from the project due to creative differences related to dissatisfaction with plot choices in The Last Jedi. The Rise of Skywalker, in turn, seems to undo much of the ground that was laid in The Last Jedi. The production history for the franchise's relaunch under Disney has been troubled and convoluted, and these difficulties have had an impact on performance.

Some fans blame The Last Jedi for discarding plot elements and themes from The Force Awakens and preceding films in the series. Supporters of The Last Jedi seem to be blaming The Rise of Skywalker for breaking from plot points and themes established in Episode VIII. Somewhere along the way, an almost political divide seems to have solidified among the Star Wars fandom, and that's going to make plotting the franchise's next moves more difficult.   

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.