Some Sunday Star Wars thoughts

I’m obviously very delighted by the return of The Clone Wars. It’s wild to reflect on how my relationship with the show has evolved–and how I’ve evolved as a person. I think I’ve already beat that drum on this site before, though. It’ll be interesting to see how much the show’s conclusion crosses over with Revenge of the Sith. And the whole season is a fascinating artifact, partially prepared while Lucas was still involved in the series. To what extent? How much does the final season reflect his vision for The Clone Wars, or for Star Wars overall? If we talk about Lucas’s vision for Star Wars, is that the saga films plus TCW, or all that minus the last season? (What about the Ewok movies, which he prepared stories for and in which he served as executive producer?)

And what of Dave Filoni? He’s often been presented as sort of the storytelling heir to George Lucas, but he’s of course coming to Star Wars with his own perspective and impulses. I find myself viewing Rebels as closer to what George Lucas would have done with Star Wars if he stuck around–but is that right? (I could see something like Underworld having gone the animation route eventually.) How does Lucas privately view the state of Star Wars today? Does he feel his vision is most fully realized through some particular media or through a specific story or through an individual storyteller? Or is he still mostly just bitter about the loss of creative control in the sale?

I think it’s safe to say that the films don’t track with how he would have wanted the story to go, for better or worse. I find myself increasingly viewing every non-Lucas-involved project as another Expanded Universe franchise deviation, a way to keep money flowing into the machine. At one point, that was guided by a flawed auteur with a unique vision, who still seemed to enjoy making his own Star Wars projects in his own sandbox. In Kathleen Kennedy, there is some sense of continuation, but I get the impression that she’s better at getting movies made than being a storyteller. And I think she’s done an overall good job of shepherding the franchise post-Lucas! But while Lucas did not write his movies all by himself, and while he didn’t even direct all of them, he still was the man behind the story throughout his films. The books and comics and games could do their own thing because they weren’t his story; there was room for others to dabble in his universe, but he still held the keys to the most visible presentations of that galaxy far, far away.

I think that there’s something lost in the removal of the single, personal vision. Still, creators like Dave Filoni and Rian Johnson (and the creative team behind The Mandalorian, including Filoni but also Deborah Chow, Rick Famuyima, Bryce Dallas Howard, Taika Waititi, and of course showrunner Jon Favreau) certainly show the benefit of other perspectives bringing their own personal ethos to the franchise. No version of Star Wars is perfect. Every creator brings their own flaws, and the fundamental nature of the franchise is to filter through so much pop culture history that it’s hard to keep problematic elements entirely out of the distillation process. But these creators feel like they’re bringing something new and fresh to the franchise. For that matter, I think there’s a lot of good content in Star Wars literature, and there are probably more consistent successes by a more diverse range of artists now than in the old Expanded Universe–especially when keeping in mind that this is only about eight years from the reboot and corporate transition (wow, it’s almost been a decade already?). In contrast, J.J. Abrams’s films, though fun to watch, bring nothing of substance–they feel more like the production-by-committee, formulaic Marvel movies that have grown so stale for me.

What’s my point? I don’t know for sure (and writing without a point is probably always bad writing). This is something I return to every now and then, and I think that I’m just barely scratching at much deeper conversations about the nature of art, including pop art, and consumerism and popular culture and late-stage capitalism and nostalgia that have been explored in much greater length by many other writers over time. I guess I find myself returning to my hesitancy about the great beast of manufactured pop content that Star Wars represents. It’s funny that my concerns dissipated somewhat after the purchase by Disney. I guess I was just hopeful for the reset. Here we are, though. I’m not bitter. And I’m certainly not over Star Wars, Disney or otherwise. This isn’t a manifesto. Just half-formed reflection born out of equal parts eagerness and uneasiness.

Thankfully, the release of expectation, the recognition that this Disney era of Star Wars isn’t exactly “official,” no matter who “owns” Star Wars, allows me to enjoy the stories I want and to disregard the rest. It’s been a few years in the making, but I’ve cooled in my urge to simply consume every new “canon” Star Wars story coming out. (A seemingly impossible goal at this point, given how many stories have piled up and in light of my persistent refusal to read solely new Star Wars content.) I doubt that this will be the last time that I touch on the subject, but I don’t know if I’ll ever find a satisfactory conclusion to it.

Living in the franchise flow

My last post might have ended up sounding shockingly bitter or defeatist. Maybe it sounds like I’m engaging in an activity that I don’t even like anymore? But that’s simply not true.

I suppose pop culture fandom is a bit like an addiction. You could definitely keep consuming past the point of enjoyment. You might take deep reward from fandom, or you might merely remember at one point feeling a sense of reward, and after all you’re so invested that there’s no reason to quit.

But I could quit if I wanted! I say this jokingly, of course; that phrase is the recognizable cliche of any addict ever. Yet there’s truth to it. I bashed pretty hard on Marvel films last night, but I don’t have the history with Marvel to feel any sense of personal identity bound up in its IP. I could walk away and never look back. But they’re still fun films!

Rather than a true addiction, it’s maybe more appropriate to look at my franchise fandoms as junk food. It’s way too easy to take in way too much of it, to keep consuming beyond any possible benefit. And just like junk food companies, these big studios are always trying to sell you on way more than you need, way more than you would otherwise want, way more than you should have. It all feels good–until you’re way past the point you should’ve stopped, and you feel a little bit sick. The metaphor is definitely not original to me, nor is the recommended treatment: moderation. Limit the junk food, and try to mostly eat healthy.

I admittedly don’t mostly eat healthy. Figuratively, or, uh, literally. But I try–both in the metaphor of media consumption and in my real-life dietary habits.

My big franchise fandom is, of course, Star Wars. But I’m more broadly a fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And this of course means that there are plenty of original works out there without the burden of franchise. In the past few years, I’ve read plenty of Star Wars and revisited writers like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft and George R.R. Martin, but I’m very glad to say that I’ve also read works from writers I hadn’t before, like Molly Glass and Victor Milan and Marie Brennan and Naomi Mitchison and Octavia Butler and even Carrie Fisher. I’ve also kept a steady stream of nonfiction works in my reading rotation, including a couple histories of Indiana, a few books on the paranormal, and a recent streak of true-crime books. I similarly try to keep my mix of films and games a combination of franchise favorites and new material.

I’m actually not trying to be prescriptive or judgmental. My own frustrations with franchise juggernauts, and my own efforts to counter my overexposure to the biggest commercial cash cows, are merely my own. I’m not an expert in, say, media studies or psychology. If you think that there could always be more Marvel movies, and you could never have enough, I’m not here to say that you’re wrong! It’s just my subjective experience.

What I’m trying to get at is that I get frustrated with my fandoms, and I recognize that these franchises are not healthy as one’s sole source of entertainment. But I still get a lot of enjoyment and engagement out of them, and I sometimes get a lot of inspiration or insight too. It’s just important to splice that with more enriching material. At least, it is for me.

Phase Three Fatigue

I accidentally caught up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend. That doesn’t include the entirety of the continuity of this extended universe, since I’ve seen very little of the television shows and don’t really care to change that.

Because I’m caught up, I think I will see Infinity War. But it’s less that I’m excited about the movie. I feel a sad, pathetic impulse to see it because, hey, why not? I’ve seen the other ones, and it’ll play at the Indiana State Museum IMAX. That’s enough of a reason, I suppose.

This Phase Three of the MCU is a bit of a wash for me. I’ve said before that I have superhero fatigue, and Marvel is the leading culprit. But these movies get talked about enough that it’s hard to ignore them–and whenever I do ignore them, that seems to be just when an actually worthwhile new film comes out. There were some really great films in this cycle, but I don’t feel rejuvenated or excited about the future of this franchise or of superhero films in general.

These movies, no matter what they do to their characters, feel safe and locked in stone. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor tells Loki that “life is about growth and change. But you just seem to want to stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief. But you could be more.” It’s as though Thor is commenting on the state of the superhero genre. With each new Marvel movie, we get more and more tricks but very little lasting change or impact to the characters or the world.

There are two interesting exceptions to this general static nature. The first is to Thor himself. He appears to permanently lose his hammer, and an eye, and ends up with a new look and a new focus and a new manifestation of his power. Ragnarok shifted the positions of all the characters, killing off some franchise figures rather quickly and even shuffling Odin off the board. For the moment, Loki even seems to have grown and rethought his motivations–though the Infinity War trailers do seem to suggest that his turn to Good is not very long-lasting. Even Asgard itself is “changed” quite dramatically by film’s end.

The other example is the actual state of the world, as evidenced by Spider-Man: Homecoming. We see the rise of a new breed of criminal, reacting to the fallout of the age of superheroes, taking advantage of the collateral damage left behind after the great battles of previous films. Homecoming, in many ways, is about how the third-act, depersonalized chaos of the previous films has had a profound impact on the people on the ground (to be honest, it’s covering a lot of the same thematic ground of Batman v. Superman, not to mention the street-level superhero approach of the live-action Marvel TV shows).

But most of the heroes are still just reacting to a string of events, not truly evolving or being marked, physically or emotionally, in lasting ways. In Phase Two, we saw a lot of growth for Iron Man and Captain America, as they questioned alliances and as Tony Stark in particular was affected by his experiences in The Avengers. While this led to some explosive interpersonal conflict in Civil War, we see the characters as the archetypes they’ve always been. Tony in particular seems to always bounce back into the roguish scoundrel whenever convenient–for all his paternal efforts in Homecoming, he still feels a little removed, distant, selfish. As much as we are supposed to believe that Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility and maturity, I would say that Homecoming really highlights Tony’s failures at honest communication and mentorship.

And while Tom Holland is an excellent Peter Parker / Spider-Man, the existence of yet another Spider-Man film where Peter must balance personal life versus super-heroics is mostly yawn-inspiring. At least it wasn’t an origin story, and Holland is better in the role than Garfield and might exceed Maguire’s early performances in the role. But a Spider-Man film seems bound by particular narrative expectations, and there was little fresh here (the most memorable moments, as is so often the case in a Marvel film, were the many gags and one-liners).

Doctor Strange was even more by-the-numbers: yet another origin story, incredibly boring in comparison to the similarly done-before beats of Ant-Man but lacking the humor and charm. Where we could have had a weird film that examines spiritualism and the occult and truly challenges perception, we have pretty light shows and special effects tricks that haven’t been cool since Inception.

Thor: Ragnarok was hilarious and self-aware and had some awesome nods to metal and fantasy; Black Panther I’ve written glowingly about before. But Ragnarok‘s flaw is that it is so dependent upon the net of the existing continuity–while willing to burn down expectations and kill off previously important characters, it didn’t really do anything so narratively risky as to disrupt Thor and Loki’s ability to bounce from project to project, and it required at least passing knowledge of events in Dark World and Age of Ultron to fully process what was happening. In other words, Ragnarok was not so much a standalone film as a really funny link in one chain of this sprawling franchise.

Shockingly, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seemed to have the most original storytelling vision, focusing on developing Star-Lord’s crew. But I also found that more original story more flawed, a little looser and maybe too slow. More experimentation invites more risk, after all. But this film was neither too experimental nor too risky. (This mini-review could be used almost verbatim for The Last Jedi‘s place in the Star Wars franchise, as well).

In sum, it’s all fine. It’s fine and forgettable, and the franchise is sure to continue making millions of dollars. There is pathos and humor and action in each film, all measured out in more-or-less the right portions per the old recipe, a formula only modestly revised since that first Iron Man a decade ago. But I think anything these films might actually have to say is crushed under the weight of franchise perpetuity and creation by committee.

The most unpleasant thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the constant reminder that most of our pop culture loves are slickly designed to continue to sell, not stories in and of themselves with intrinsic value but instead utilizing extrinsically valuable intellectual property to continue to push out product that apparently plenty of people still find desire for. It’s not just Marvel, but Star Wars and classic monster movies and classic sci-fi television (ironically including the plucky, post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek) and anything else that can be rebooted or resurrected or impersonated.

Maybe what really kills me about this is that I’m detached from Marvel. I don’t have the childhood nostalgia. I didn’t really get into comic books until college, and I didn’t stay invested for very long. And my college years paralleled the start of the MCU. So I can see the trappings of this franchise juggernaut more clear-eyed than if I were personally invested. And so I can see how much that franchise development resembles the development of the Star Wars franchise, especially post-Lucas. And as much as I’ve loved (most) of this new era of Star Wars, it’s too easy to see as more of the same, with the same bloat and continuity creep and constant churn of product. And where I could otherwise blithely ignore the rotted element of my own fandom, I’m forced to stare it in the face in the mirror image of Disney’s other adopted child.

Part of me wants to insist on drawing a line. Value the works of original creators, and keep looking for new original content by new creators telling new and meaningful stories for our time. Stop investing in a product merely because of nostalgic familiarity and safe name-recognition. Stop with Marvel and DC and Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter and James Bond and all the rest of the bullshit.

But the ugly side of me, the side that sighs and shrugs and continues to “invest” in the next film and the next one and the one after (as though I’m gaining any equity in doing so), will win out. It’s too tiring to keep watching and it’s too tiring to quit. After all, I might as well keep up on the current pop culture conversations. After all, there’s Infinity War to watch. And these franchises sure feel infinite.

Review: Black Panther

I don’t usually see Marvel movies anymore–at least, not right away. I can’t be bothered to go to the theaters for most superhero films anymore. There seems to be a general attitude that we have all adjusted to this glut of comic book-based feature films, that where we once worried about superhero fatigue we now know that this is a valid movement and not just a fad. But I have superhero fatigue. I’m exhausted with these movies. They so often seem like transparent money-making, brand-building vehicles. They seldom take risks; they seldom really have anything to say. And I’m especially exhausted with Marvel movies, each one so bubblegum, so formulaic, a smooth, soft, numbing spectacle at the time to be quickly forgotten in a background of more and more battle scenes and sarcastic quips.

Spider-Man: Homecoming had positive reviews, and people were glad to see a superhero film that didn’t begin with yet another origin story. Having now seen, what, five?, Spider-Man films, I did not see this movie. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 came out, and the reviews were fine, and I was told that this was funny but more of a character piece, and if I liked space opera (which I do), I should see it. I did not see it. Then Thor: Ragnarok came out, and the reviews seemed even more positive, and friends told me it was hilarious and weird, and I liked the actors, and I certainly liked Taika Waititi for his involvement with Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows. But I haven’t liked any of the Thor movies so far, and somehow this was a third Marvel movie for 2017 alone, assuming that I hadn’t lost track of still others, on top of the TV shows, and I was just over it. So I did not see this, either.

I was similarly prepared to simply skip over Black Panther. But the reviews for this film were shockingly good, and I heard over and over that this film was something truly fresh and unique for a Marvel movie, not dependent on the bloated interconnections throughout the rest of the franchise. And one friend in particular insisted that I should see it. So I’ve finally seen it, and my opinion should surprise no one: like most people, I thought it was great. Not just a good superhero film, but a good film. It even got me excited about Marvel movies again, at least a little (maybe I’ll track down Ragnarok sooner rather than later, though I could care less about the upcoming Avengers sequel).

I don’t know where to start in talking about this film, and I also feel that there is little that I could say that would add to the discussion. Yet I feel compelled to say something. [In saying something, I managed to also discuss a few spoilers, so keep that in mind.]

The direction and cinematography were fantastic. The writing, by director Ryan Coogler in addition to Joe Robert Cole, is so good. The music and sound design throughout is a real treat (one of my favorite moments in the film was the hop-in of a popping up-tempo song over a chase scene after secondary villain Ulysses Klaue demands something to the effect of, “What do you think this is, a funeral? Put some music on!”). I loved virtually every performance, and while I hated Killmonger the same way I hate any good villain, I could sympathize with him, and I could understand why he was the way he was, and I could even see the logic behind what he did.

I’m just joining a string of other voices in saying that Michael B. Jordan’s villain is probably the best in a superhero movie since Heath Ledger’s Joker or Ian McKellen’s Magneto, with a plausible and emotional motivation that puts him more in line with the latter character. What I hadn’t heard anything about, actually, is Andy Serkis’s return as Ulysses Klaue–he plays the character with such gleeful, chaotic abandon, such a delight for mischief and mayhem, that he seems the truer successor to the Joker. Serkis is always great as a villain, and this seems to be the year for Serkis’s over-the-top villains meeting untimely (but rewarding) ends mid-film. But it’s not just the villains; Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa has layers of emotion behind a regal coolness, and his chemistry with Lupita Nyong’o’s (badass, hyper-competent, graceful) Nakia fills out relatively understated dialogue between them; Letitia Wright’s Shuri is charming and fun and brilliant and goofy, a sisterly Q to Boseman’s Wakandan James Bond; Daniel Kaluuya and Danai Gurira are fantastic supporting actors who demonstrate how love and bravery and loyalty can lead to some pretty bad decisions, and how redemption is always possible.

As to that last line–this movie could probably be summed up as: good intentions lead to bad decisions. And those bad decisions can have disastrous consequences. Killmonger, to loosely paraphrase T’Challa, was not born a monster but made one–and by the actions of those who believed they were doing what was right and necessary. On a broader scale, Wakanda’s rightful concern that they would be facing constant war and opposition if they were public about their resources seems legitimate, especially in light of the history of European colonial ventures in Africa (it was interesting to learn of parallels between Wakanda’s mineral wealth and that of Congo).

Issues of race and post-colonialism, and of ongoing oppression, are near-constant in the background of the beautiful Afro-futurist imagery and pulse-pounding fight sequences. This was perhaps the first Marvel movie that actually engaged seriously with real issues of significance (yeah yeah, Iron Man had something superficial to say about the military-industrial complex, and Civil War had something to say about patriotism, sort of, in a really broad way). These issues were not just in the background, not just as subtext, but dealt with explicitly and honestly. Even Killmonger’s final scene (which, in its effort to address the fact that the hero lets the villain die when he could save him, offers some explanatory dialogue that had me thinking of Luke and Vader at the end) powerfully hammers home that messaging. This was far more than just another superhero movie.

In the real world, of course, there is no super-rich, super-secret African country that could stand up to oppressors and offer aid to the oppressed around the world. But it’s hard to ignore how Wakanda’s situation can be applied toward isolationist rhetoric here in America. As someone who favors open borders, refugee relief, and foreign aid while opposing military intervention abroad, I found Wakanda’s solution by the end of the film to be a particularly artful and responsible one. How cool that it took the appeal of Killmonger’s extreme messaging to shift T’Challa and Wakanda to a less isolationist route–talk about a complex narrative.

Speaking of complexity, I expect plenty of writing to come out of the fascinating culture of Wakanda, the varied real-world inspirations it draws from, and the great political intrigue emerging from the path to the throne.

Lastly: I won’t say I have “complaints” with the film, but there were a few weaknesses that I perceived.

First and foremost, while this movie was refreshing, it still drew from the old Marvel formula. Big battles? Check. Sarcastic quips? Check. Hero loses his powers or has to fight someone with an equivalent set of powers? Actually both apply here. Fairly low stakes because Marvel still doesn’t really kill off anyone but mentors and villains? Check for this too. Black Panther has done the best with these elements since the first Iron Man. And I admit that if I make the formula vague enough, I’m basically just describing the plot beats for any blockbuster film. But it’s something that I think is worth noting: it does a lot of cool things, and it uses the bones of the Marvel formula very well. But it does not dispense with those bones.

Second, while I actually thought the movie would take risks with some characters, and so the stakes felt high at first, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that all the primary and supporting characters (except for the old people) had plot armor. Even Martin Freeman’s character, who seemed set up to die in a moment of heroic sacrifice for the greater good, survives!

Third, I thought that Freeman was very good in his Agent Coulson-alike role, but he seemed largely unnecessary to the larger plot. The movie gave him something to do at the end, but his removal wouldn’t have felt like a major loss. It was a little awkward, like someone felt that an all-black cast of heroes simply could not draw a white audience, so better insert the White Friend Character…

And finally, while not actually a criticism of the movie or of Forest Whitaker, I could not help but hear all of royal adviser Zuri’s lines as though spoken by Saw. This is truly not a comment on Whitaker’s talent or range–Rogue One was just so good and memorable to me that I’m going to have that imprinted on every Whitaker role now.

I’ve said what I wanted to say about the film. I don’t have a radical opinion, and I don’t think anything of what I said really counts as a hot take. But I liked the movie–maybe I loved it–and I wanted to share my thoughts.

P.S. I didn’t really know where else to say this, but the first moment where I thought, “I could love this film,” was the first sequence from the ’90s, where the sighting of a Wakandan aircraft matches perfectly with popular UFO sightings from the era.