The original Star Wars more or less created the modern blockbuster. The space saga, which was not expected to be a hit, delighted fans in a way that made its sequels (and later prequels) some of the most anticipated movies of all time.
At various points in history, the often rereleased story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader has topped the all-time box office chart. Inflation and rising ticket prices, however, have pushed the movie to number 50 on Box Office Mojo's all-time highest grossing films list, placing it behind two of its prequels, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (38) and the not-so-well-loved Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (16).
It's truly a disturbance in the force when the film that introduced R2-D2, C3PO, and Han Solo to the world sits behind multiple Shrek films, two Ice Age movies, and even the truly dreadful Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in box office earnings. Star Wars may lead the known universe in toys sold, video game tie-ins, and name recognition, but it's a hyperspace jump away from Avatar, which tops the all-time global box office list with $2.78 billion in ticket sales.
But with Episode VII comes a new hope for fans of the story set "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ...." It's possible that the long-awaited sequel could not only best the $775 million the original film has made since its 1977 release, but also top James Cameron's opus about blue-skinned aliens.
That would leave new corporate owner Disney (NYSE:DIS) and countless Ewoks with a reason to celebrate that might eclipse the parties thrown when the second Death Star was destroyed in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
These are in fact the droids you're looking for
Star Wars has a huge box office advantage in that it advances the story line of familiar, beloved characters, many of whom who have not appeared on screen since 1983's Jedi. Though the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca continued in book form, to most fans these beloved icons have been essentially frozen in carbonite since (spoiler alert) Darth Vader died killing the emperor and reawakening the good in the man who was once Anakin Skywalker.
Since 1983 two generations of children have grown up schooled on the original trilogy, the prequels, the toys, games, and even The Clone Wars TV series. Where the first Star Wars played to an audience that was completely unaware of the universe the movie contained, the sequel will open to an audience of grandparents, parents, and children, all eager to see where The Force has taken some of the most beloved and iconic characters.
And that anticipation will be even greater because, amazingly, despite it being over 30 years since Jedi was filmed, all the principal actors -- Mark Hamill (Luke), Carrie Fisher, (Leia), and Harrison Ford (Han) will return. Even the guy in the Chewbacca suit (Peter Mayhew) and the two droids (Anthony Daniels as C3PO and Kenny Baker as R2-D2) will be back.
It might be good
The prequel trilogy has two films in the top 50 all-time box office list despite the fact that The Phantom Menace was not very well-received. That film has a 57% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, placing it well below the original Star Wars, which scored 93%. To put that in perspective, the demand for Star Wars was so high that Phantom Menace made over $1 billion at the box office despite fans and critics liking it less than 2014 box office bomb Hercules, which scored 58% and pulled in under $250 million.
Many blame the general lousiness of the prequel trilogy on the man who created Star Wars n the first place, George Lucas. Now, however, the man called "The Creator" in the hallways of the company he built and sold to Disney has given over control of the franchise to director J.J. Abrams, whose golden touch relaunched Star Trek and changed television with Lost.
Lucas is still on board as a consultant as are some Star Wars legends, including Jedi writer Lawrence Kasdan, but with Abrams leading the ship fans are more willing to trust that the new film won't get bogged down in the intergalactic C-Span-style politics that dragged down the prequels.
It's a question of how much
Episode VII may be as close to a sure thing as the New England Patriots taking on a junior college, but the difference between an almost-certain $1 billion in box office and catching Avatar comes down to quality. If the new Star Wars delivers on the magic of the original, the darkness of Empire, and the triumph of Jedi then it won't just be a phenomenon driven by fan-boys camping out to see it on opening night.
If Abrams delivers a picture that advances the story in smart and shocking ways that embraces the familiar while introducing new elements then the movie has the potential to lure the repeat viewings needed to climb past Avatar. It's a huge question as to how you build a Star Wars without its lead villain, and the ultimate box office fate of the movie may depend on how Abrams answer that question. If the new bad guy packs the legitimate menace of Darth Vader and not the undercooked villainy of Darth Maul or the lame foppishness of Count Dooku then Episode VII has a chance to be the biggest film of all time.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He is a Star Wars fan whose wife vetoed the name Boba for his son Joshua. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.