“A Jedi, like my father before me”: The Star Wars films have an Identity Crisis

This post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.


Attack of the Clones is the most ironic Star Wars title of all.

Episode II ranks regularly as one of the worst films of the franchise. It’s stodgily acted, goes hell for leather on the CGI, has an at-times nonsensical story and is not an intellectually or viscerally satisfying movie. Even as popcorn entertainment – which is, by and large, the franchise’s stock in trade – the film doesn’t do well, at least until that last twenty minutes of Clone War ‘splosions and far too many lightsabers.

But at least, compared to both what came before and after, it’s doing something different. Not necessarily well, and most of its storytelling decisions are drawn from a well of dumb, but different nonetheless. The political intrigue on Coruscant and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s secret mission to Kamino and beyond don’t really have antecedents within the films that came before, and there’s certainly no other Star Wars film that puts as much of a focus on the romance (which is, provably, for the better). For a movie that’s part of a franchise dedicated to reliving and copying what’s already been done, I’d argue that Attack of the Clones is the least similar of its brethren.

We know that Star Wars lives and dies on the power of its nostalgia. The sequel trilogy was bankrolled by Disney as a deliberate throwback to what made the series great back in the 70s and 80s; no more of this Clone War crap or any trade tarriffs and dry political bullshit. The Force Awakens, for all its innovations and social progression – for starters, having a central trio with no white guys as the heroes – is more or less treading a lot of the same ground that A New Hope spent its time on. There’s even a lot of that at work in the new expanded universe, with classic writers like Timothy Zahn being enlisted to give us the origin story of the character he made his name from back in the 90s, in an attempt to draw old-hand readers into the new continuity.

It might seem like I’m taking Disney’s work to task, but the truth is I love the majority of their output since they acquired Lucasfilm. I enjoyed The Force Awakens and loved The Last Jedi (not as in love with Rogue One, which gets progressively worse every time I watch it). The novels and comics are (mostly) quite good, and do a great job filling the space left by the absence of the original expanded universe. There’s every reason to love the nostalgibaiting Disney use as their primary approach to the galaxy far, far away.

But at the end of the day, what does that make Star Wars about?

That’s a dumb question; of course we know what it’s about. A decades-spanning space opera about the eternal struggle between good and evil, mostly centred on a prophetically-powerful bloodline created by immaculate conception. We’ve known since 1977 what Star Wars is about.

What we don’t know, and what Disney are going to have to decide, is what the franchise is about.

Say what you will about Attack of the Clones and its wooden acting, bad romance and overuse of CGI. Speak ill of the prequels as a whole if you like, since Lord knows I do at every opportunity. But at least they, and the original trilogy they were connected to, had a purpose: the prequels told the story of Darth Vader, which informed the original trilogy’s story about Luke Skywalker, all taking place within that eternal good and evil struggle. The identity of the franchise, at least as far as its films were concerned, was clear and readily understood.

So when The Force Awakens dropped in 2015 as an almost point-for-point retread of A New Hope, the immediate thought was that we were in for more of the same. Not only did director JJ Abrams smash the nostalgia button with a mallet, we also knew this was the start of a Disneyfied franchise. We’d already had seven years’ experience with the Marvel Cinematic Universe at that point, and those films are more or less copies of each other in terms of structure, tone and plot developments (though if early buzz is any indicator, it seems Black Panther might buck that trend a little). The following year saw the release of Rogue One, a standalone story that drew much of its audience power from being a literal prologue to A New Hope by featuring almost every element of that film, up to and including Darth Vader’s original voice actor. As I said before, I like a lot of what Disney’s put out since 2015, but it was all comfort food. Familiar, safe, warming.

The two films were coupled with the announcements of not only Episodes VIII and IX, but also of a Han Solo standalone film, another about Boba Fett, and rumours of a third involving Obi-Wan Kenobi, the latter even potentially starring Ewan McGregor back in his Jedi robes. It served at the time to make one thing clear: the Star Wars film franchise identity was now firmly rooted in sanctifying those original six films and the story they’d created. If Marvel can make cookie-cutter capefilms with little substantial variety between them, then why can’t George Lucas’ magnum opus? Those copies, explicit and derivative, sell like hot cakes, so there’s no reason to break from that mold.

That made the surprises of 2017s The Last Jedi all the more potent. Yes, it copped a lot of the same accusations as Awakens did in being a derivative film; a friend of mine likened it to a hybrid of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and to a point he’s not exactly wrong. But the film seemed to consciously buck that nostalgic security blanket that Awakens and Rogue One hid beneath, dismissing almost every callback or hint at a replica of the original mythology that JJ Abrams introduced in the previous film. Given the mystery surrounding her parents, the prior movies had trained us to expect Rey to be a Skywalker and to follow a similar path to Luke; turns out she’s a nobody whose late parents were drunkards. Kylo Ren seemed primed to turn back to the Light Side, in a confrontation with Supreme Leader Snoke that near-completely copied the climax of Return of the Jedi; nope, Kylo’s full evil, yo. A confrontation with the First Order on a white planet seems like a distracting tactic so the Rebellion can flee, a la The Battle of Hoth; nah, the Rebels are making their last stand on Crait and, until Luke shows up, are pretty sure they’re going to lose (also, Hoth had snow and Crait had salt – differences, people). Part of why I loved the film so much was because it had a foot in both camps, giving me the nostalgic pandering that I expected along with the newer twists on the formula that I didn’t.

The similarities between The Last Jedi and its forebears are inescapable, but I’d argue that the film does enough that it hints at new directions for next time. Director Rian Johnson is a creative storyteller and a huge Star Wars fan, so those little hints of transgression from the replication of the past convinced me that he’s more concerned with newness, rather than nostalgibaiting, even if the former comes disguised within the latter. One could almost call Johnson as the leader of a rebellion in and of itself. Retroactively, that made the announcement of his own Star Wars trilogy a welcome one.

But that potentially fresh approach directly refutes both the model that Disney have fashioned with Star Wars and Marvel, and the road map they’ve laid out for Star Wars‘ future. Abrams is back for Episode IX, and while I have no doubt it’ll be great, chances are good that it’ll go back to the well for its story rather than forge one of its one. If the recently-released Solo film teaser shows us anything, it’s that the film looks content to soak in the same nostalgia bath that Rogue One wallowed in. This morning’s announcement of DB Weiss and Dan Benioff also getting their own run of Star Wars films – earned off the back of their work as Game of Thrones showrunners – hasn’t really told us anything, but if they’ve been hired to put their Thrones-style sensibilities into the Star Wars universe, we could potentially be looking at a franchise content to not only copy itself, but also to copy other franchises. I apprehensively await the gore-spurting lightsaber fights and Wookiee sexposition.

To call Star Wars derivative is nothing new; most good stories are ones that borrow from others. At length in his fantastic book, Chris Taylor documents the filmic, artistic and structural influences that went into George Lucas creating the original films, some of them blatantly ripped off from the source material. We also expect a franchise to keep creating new texts for both its fandom and its stakeholders; the MCU will probably be making films and TV shows long after the heat death of the universe. But Star Wars right now is in a period of awkward transition, where one of its tentpole installments hints at a desire for change while the others contently remain in the familiar. A franchise spawns a lot of replicas, but there’s nothing to say that it can’t make something aberrant, either.

Going forward, Disney needs to decide what kind of identity the Star Wars film franchise is going to have. Will it be content to make copies of copies of copies of itself for as long as we’re keen to throw money at them, or is there a genuine impulse to explore strange new worlds and to seek out new civilisations? (shit, wrong franchise) All of this might be conjecture, since we have no idea yet what kind of narrative thrusts that Johnson and Benioff & Weiss’ respective films are going to have. But they’ll undoubtedly be a good indicator of the kind of film franchise Star Wars is going to end up being, for better or worse.

 

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Chris’s 2015 Catch-Up

Did you think I’d forgotten you?

Actually, no, you didn’t. You were probably too busy watching The Force Awakens. It’s ok, so was I.

I mentioned at the close of my 2014 best and worst roundup that 2015 was going to be a quiet year on the website front for me, and it was. Work, thesis writing and tumultuous adventures (and adversity) with domestic situations got in the way of all those wonderfully mediocre reviews I like to write. As such, the only Chris Kills Comics entry for me in 2015 was a part-sarcastic/part-serious guide to which post-Secret Wars Marvel titles might be worth a look. Not that I’ve yet read any of them at time of writing, but I’m never afraid to judge books by their covers and writing teams. That’s also why it’s unlikely I’d ever stoop to checking out the gonzo mess that is Miller and Azzarello’s new Dark Knight Returns sequel.

But while it was a more sedate year for me comics-wise, 2015 still had no shortage of great titles. I did spend a lot more of 2015 reading novels and non-fiction books, thanks to a new gig I’ve got as a book reviewer over at Geek of Oz, but there was still the occasional moment for graphic diversions. I’ll admit up front that I maaaaaybe read a tenth of the good comic titles 2015 produced. Ok, probably closer to a twentieth. Call it a fiftieth, at least?

sandman overture coversex criminals 2 coverhawkeye 4 coverlumberjanes cover

PICTURED: Some of 2015’s greatest hits that I haven’t read yet, but totally will. At some point. Yup.

So, in an effort to offer a mea culpa and address the deficit of comics critique from the past year, presented herein are some gems from the few comics I did read in 2015. I promise, once my thesis goes in on February 15th (submission forms are in, markers are being picked…oh God this is really happening), there’ll be more on the comics front from me. In fact, there are some fairly big plans being made for The Writer’s Multiverse as a whole, including one hell of a facelift…

But those will be in due course. For now, highlights from last year:


SAGA, VOLUME 5

Like you didn’t know this’d be on here.

saga 5 1There’s not much I can add to my previous gushing over how good Saga is. Suffice it to say, Volume 4 (from the tail end of 2014) was par excellance to its peers, and Volume 5 continued Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ overall conquest of the comics industry. Keep believing the hype; Saga is consistently delivering a thoughtful, engaging, nuanced and engrossing story across its gorgeously illustrated pages. Volume 5, while at times feeling a little like a bridging narrative than a story in its own right, closes with a nice hook that has me wringing my hands with apprehension during the wait for Volume 6. I guess what I’m saying, then, is that Saga‘s good for those who like feeling anxious and nervously expectant while they wait for the next book.

Actually, maybe don’t read it if you’re susceptible to that kind of thing.

saga 5 cover

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 5/5

DIALOGUE: 5/5

OVERALL: 14/15


THOR: GODDESS OF THUNDER

Jason Aaron’s Thor run has been a rollicking sine wave of quality, with some thrilling highs and lackluster bottoming-out. Despite that, I think it’s fair to say Aaron really hit his stride wthor goddess 1hen he made Thor a woman.

Now, let’s be clear: this is not a gender-swap the way Loki’s was handled during J. Michael Stracynzski’s landmark run in the late 2000s; Chris Hemsworth hasn’t been turned into a woman, but instead has lost his worthiness to the mantle of the God of Thunder. Aaron’s new Thor is an entirely different character from her male counterpart (for reasons which become clear in the second book), uncertain of her new powers and bringing a more grounded persona to Marvel’s eminent deity superhero identity. It also helps that Aaron’s got a good story to go with the new protagonist, as well as some stellar artwork by Russell Dauterman and Jorge Molina. In an age where we need more powerful, prominent and well-written superheroines (and in a year where Meredith and David Finch were accidentally allowed to ruin one of them), it’s laudable to have one who’s as approachable, relatable and entertaining as Aaron’s lady Thor. Also, note my lack of capital on the “lady”; she’s Thor, not Lady Thor, Mrs Thor or Thorette. She is, you might say, the definite article.

thor goddess cover

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 4.5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 12.5/15


MS MARVEL: GENERATION WHY

ms marvel generation why 1Continuing the theme of female empowerment, G. Willow Wilson’s landmark Ms Marvel run has also shone a light on diversity in cape comics. Muslim action girl Kamala Khan is a Ms. Marvel who couldn’t be more distinct from her contemporaries, or indeed her predecessor (who’s busy flying around space). She’s fun, kicks ass and, much like Bryan Q. Miller’s Pollyanna interpretation of Batgirl, doesn’t ever seem to really be brought down. Generation Why builds on the massive success of No Normal, introducing Wolverine and Lockjaw to Kamala’s world of burgeoning superheroics and navigation of young adulthood.

While the real world issues Wilson wraps her story around can get a little heavyhanded – including a protracted scene regarding seizing your life between Kamala and some misguided young people modeled off socially-inept World of Warcraft players – there’s still a very joyful, bouncy tone throughout. Like Aaron’s Thor, Wilson writes Kamala as an approachable, relatable hero, a character women can look up to as truly realistic; despite her superpowers, Kamala’s still burdened by the everyday problems of work, friends and family that the Muggles among us are plagued with.

Also, Generation Why slips into my highlights for this scene alone:

D'awww.
D’awww.

ms marvel generation why cover

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 4/5

DIALOGUE: 3.5/5

OVERALL: 11/15


BATMAN: ENDGAME

As much as I adored Death of the Family (it made it to my Best of 2013 list for a reason), I was hesitant about a return visit with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo to their sickly psychotic version of the Joker. What were we in for in Endgame: more face-cutting and grisly dinner platters?

Well, turns out, not so much. Part of Endgame‘s effort to distinguish itself from Snyder and Capullo’s last Joker story is in having the mad clown come back, not to maim or threaten or cajole, but batman endgame 1to kill the goddamn Batman. As part of his “closing up shop” in Gotham, Joker’s out to murder everybody; Batman, Batgirl, Red Robin, the lot of ’em. Deadsies, in the ground, end of story.

With stakes like that, it’s hard not to like Endgame. As always, Snyder’s on point with his writing, and Capullo continues to ably demonstrate why he’s the best Batman artist since Alex Ross. It may not be entirely inventive in parts of the story, and the ending (which, despite the internet spoiling it to high heaven, I won’t reveal here) might lack tension somewhat. But it’s also got a knock-down, drag-out fight between Batman and a Joker venom-addled Justice League, a compelling emotional core, and one of the best Batman-on-Joker fistfights ever put to the page.

I get the sense Snyder and Capullo might soon be saying goodbye to Batman; if this is the last we see of their Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime definitely ends on a high note.

batman endgame cover

STORY: 3.5/5

ARTWORK: 5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 12.5/15


STAR WARS: DARTH VADER, VOL. 1 – VADER

Believe me, nobody’s more surprised than I that a Star Wars comic ended up here, much less one centered on the Dark Lord of the Sith. 2015 was, obviously, a landmark year for Star Wars that really rescued the franchise from the mire (getting rid of its immense expanded universe probably helped with that). Part of that rescue involved Marvel nicking off with the Star Wars comics license, previously stewarded by Dark Horse Comics.

Of the many series Marvel have produced since they got their toys back – including a superb self-titled ongoing, an ill-regarded Princess Leia miniseries and a nice post-Episode VI diversion in Shattered Empire – I’d offer that Darth Vader is the most compelling. You would think, as I did, that an ongoing series based on Star Wars‘ most public face of villainy wouldn’t have a lot to offer. We know what happens to him, and any stakes regarding his survival in a cliffhanger would be removed based on that.

darth vader vol 1 1Writer Kieron Gillen circumvents that problem by taking Vader in an entirely different direction than the one I’d envisioned. See, the Emperor’s a little pissed off that Vader allowed the first Death Star to blow up, and as such he’s holding deadly auditions for a new apprentice. Vader has to “compete” against an array of colourful psychotics who are vying for the Emperor’s favour. Assisting him are a young doctor, who’s fully aware Vader will kill her when he’s done with her and only asks for a quick kill from his lightsaber as payment for her services, and a black-clad, evil pair of murderous droids modeled off C-3PO and R2-D2, with a dash of Borderlands‘ Claptrap and Knights of the Old Republic‘s HK-47 thrown in. The whole affair is gorgeously rendered by artist Salvador Larroca, whose work I was already in love with from his stint on The Invincible Iron Man.

I’ll have more to say about Vader and the other new Star Wars comics in a Mind’s Eye post I’m working onbut suffice to say I really enjoyed it. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. Vader himself makes for a surprisingly interesting protagonist, even though we know almost everything about him from nearly four decades of films, books, comics, video games and breakfast cereal boxes, and his supporting cast are a lot of fun. The plot kinda becomes like a really dark and twisted take on Doctor Who, with the more relatable human companion being our everyman viewpoint for an inscrutable protagonist. Safe bet says Volume 2 opens with Vader and Friends finding their own ship to go around the galaxy, solving mysteries.

One minor criticism: Volume 1’s subtitle is entirely redundant. We know his name’s Vader, guys; you wouldn’t have a book called Batman, Volume 1: I’m Batman. That’s less a title and more of a crazed inner monologue.

darth vader vol 1 cover

STORY: 3.5/5

ARTWORK: 5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 12.5/15