TPM on the 20th

Like many people, I celebrated The Phantom Menace‘s twentieth anniversary today by watching the film. I remain very much so someone on the outside looking in on fandom, but it has seemed to me that fans of the movie have become more vocal in celebrating it over the past five or ten years, and general opinion has mellowed.

I have a bad habit of providing opinions amplified by several layers of hyperbole in person, and so I know over the years that my expressed opinion on the films has changed rather a lot. I was ten years old when the movie came out, and still a fairly new Star Wars fan, and so I was the perfect viewer in that moment. I loved it. In my adolescence, as a result of the combination of vehement criticism from older fans and my natural teenage aversion to anything silly or earnest, I joined my friends in decrying the film–typically in the context of condemning the course of the prequel trilogy as a whole (Attack of the Clones has always been my least-favorite Star Wars movie, so at the time, it felt like the movies were getting progressively worse). It was in college that I started to come back around to the film, returning to it as to an old friend. My opinion today is tempered. I think it’s a fine but flawed film, and it typically lands in the middle of any personal ranking of the franchise installments.

My personal criticisms of the film, despite my broader changes in attitude toward it, have remained relatively consistent. The podrace scene is too long and bogs down the story. It’s unclear why Palpatine’s Sith identity is treated like a secret withheld from the audience, even while the camera lingers over him ominously in many key scenes and everyone who’s seen Return of the Jedi knows how this all turns out. The scatological humor, while not unique to this episode, isn’t funny. Anakin is too young, with too much of an age gap, to take his childhood crush on Padmé very seriously, and to the extent that she reciprocates it (“my caring for you will remain”), it’s just creepy. Despite the increased diversity of the human cast, many of the new aliens pick up uncomfortable racist tropes in their characterization. And while a common complaint is that the plot is boring in its focus on trade route taxation, I’d counter by saying that it’s actually a rather action-packed adventure that expects its viewers to jump right into the setting and come along for the ride, resulting in gaps in exposition that actually make that trade conflict, and the associated governmental and commercial bodies, rather muddled, simply dressing up a MacGuffin to get things going. (In general, one of my biggest complaints about the prequels as a whole is that they provide a lot more complicated galactic society but do a very poor job of properly framing how these complicated pieces actually function and fit together.)

Despite all that, it’s a really fun movie that takes risks both as a film and as an installment in the Star Wars saga, and it feels incredibly invested with the vision of George Lucas. It quickly introduces new characters that millions of people now relate to and admire deeply–including a character like Qui-Gon Jinn, who is given considerable humanity in this one-off appearance through the performance of Liam Neeson. More broadly, all of the performances are effective, and I would push back at those who claim that Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman were stiff or wooden in their roles here. There’s a lot of affection and yet tension between McGregor’s Obi-Wan and his master. Portman is reserved and imposing as Queen Amidala, yet when she dons her handmaiden identity, she often allows herself to be frustrated, angry, affectionate, and engaged.  (Furthermore, the distant identity and elaborate clothing and makeup as Queen Amidala allow Padmé to use a handmaiden as her double–and it is impressively difficult to tell Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley apart when the makeup is on.) Ian McDiarmid is always incredible as Palpatine, and here we first got to see the mirage of a warm and endearing politician, even as McDiarmid portrays a depth of hidden meaning in his distant frowns and tiny smiles. If we look at Ahmed Best’s performance, and the special effects work that went into creating Jar Jar Binks, I think we could all agree that it’s impressive, even if you can’t get behind Jar Jar’s goofy slapstick or the uncomfortable echoes of minstrelsy. Ray Park is scary and compelling as Darth Maul, a character with an iconic visual design, and the fight scenes between Jedi and Sith are some of the best in the franchise–especially that final fight set to “Duel of the Fates,” which in turn has to be a franchise highlight for John Williams’s scores. Even Jake Lloyd does a good enough job as Anakin, despite having to deal with ridiculous lines like “Yipee!” His farewell with Pernilla August as his mother Shmi is a heartfelt, beautiful, earned moment that always touches me.

While I’m sure that some fans will look on The Phantom Menace with a special sort of purity, even as others continue to view it only with contempt, I’ll still enjoy it as an imperfect and unique episode in my favorite film franchise. I think, all in all, it’s stood up to the test of time better than many might have expected twenty years ago.

Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

Forces of Destiny, Round 5: Season 2.5

Whoops. I was plain wrong when I believed that the first eight episodes represented the entirety of Forces of Destiny Season 2. Now we have another seven more. At this point, I feel fully indoctrinated into this series. The character models are crude, but the animation looks slick. The backgrounds are lacking in detail but make up for it with crisp architectural lines and paintbrush-like landscapes. And most importantly for my transformation of opinion, no moment in this batch of episodes felt forced or over-packed. We have some things happening in and around the movies and Rebels, but the moments happen in spaces that make sense (at least, I think so–I haven’t seen the final season of Rebels yet, and while I’ve been spoiled on plenty of the broad details, I wouldn’t be able to place where exactly the Rebels moments are happening).

One of my favorite new episodes was “Perilous Pursuit,” which appears to have been based off a deleted scene in The Force Awakens. It fits into the general chronology of the film, and it’s just a great buddy action scene between Finn and Rey. Rey’s the pilot, Finn’s the gunner, and they’re just a damn good team together (and so supportive of and excited for each other!). The episode left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

I also liked “Monster Misunderstanding” for its focus on Padme. It let her use her intelligence and empathy to arrive at a solution for the central dilemma of the episode. And it was also a glowing reminder that there is so much room for storytelling throughout much of the period of Padme’s time as queen and then senator of Naboo. I’d love to see more involved stories following some of her political adventures (and occasional aggressive negotiations) during this decade-plus time period.

I enjoyed the Ewok-infused, post-battle episodes set on Endor, too. They were fun, fit conveniently into the timeline as our heroes are handling mop-up duties after the destruction of the Death Star, and provide happy little insular adventures. The Ewok episodes in this round–“Chopper and Friends” and “Traps and Tribulations”–were even more fun because of the goofy reincorporation of old Legends material, like the Gorax from Caravan of Courage or the little female Ewok who looks like (and apparently in fact is) Princess Kneesaa from the Ewoks animated series.

 

“Art History” and “A Disarming Lesson” are fun Rebels-adjacent moments that fit within the types of stories that show told. And “Porgs!”…it’s about porgs! Plus Chewie being sweet. (Actually, that’s probably my least favorite episode–not bad, but sort of boring, and I don’t love how sentient Forces of Destiny has made these little birds.)

All in all, another good batch.

 

Machete Viewing?

I watched the Star Wars films again over the Thanksgiving break, in anticipation of the release of The Last Jedi. To try to give myself a novel perspective, I decided I’d play with the “machete” viewing order I’ve heard so much about. Now, I believe that normally calls for a viewing of IV, V, II, III, VI, but my goal was to watch all the films, not trim things down. What I settled on was R1/IV double-feature, V, I, II, III, VI, VII. It was in some ways illuminating and made me think about how these movies were conceived and how they are viewed.

I took notes while viewing, and they raised questions that I might probe further at a later date. For now, I just want to briefly talk about my viewing experience as a whole. It won’t be comprehensive or conclusive, but it’s a start.

What most surprised me about my viewing was how dissonant Rogue One and A New Hope actually are. Of course, Rogue One has a darker ending than any other Star Wars film except perhaps Revenge of the Sith, but I was surprised to realize that when watched back-to-back, the films don’t bridge well together even with A New Hope picking up almost exactly where Rogue One left off. One of the biggest elements of discord: Rogue One is specific, whereas A New Hope is mythic.

A New Hope lays out the visual language and storytelling tools used in all the other saga films. We deal with archetypes, not just heroic archetypes or film tropes but in broad principles and institutions. Jedi Knights (whatever they are, exactly) defended the Republic for a thousand generations before the Dark Times, before the Empire. There is a Rebellion against that Empire. There is an Emperor. There was a Senate, but no more. Vader is all menace, seemingly completely removed from the military chain of command. He is almost a force of nature. Contrast with Rogue One, which has all the lore to work with of every film that has come since then. Rogue One shows the specifics of the Rebel Alliance, with political infighting and uncertainty over how to proceed. We see special forces operatives making bad calls. We see something approaching more specific, real organizations. Even Vader is not quite so removed. It’s sort of the nature of the film; where A New Hope is intentionally mythic, Rogue One fills in the details. It’s still bizarre.

Almost as disconcerting to me is how Rogue One seems to only loosely honor the connection to A New Hope. While Vader says he knows that plans were “beamed aboard” the Tantive IV, we know that the transmissions were actually to a capital ship; Vader saw the plans physically handed off to a courier who boarded Leia’s own ship. Leia outright lies to Vader about her purpose even though her crew barely escaped from an active war zone and Vader’s physical presence moments before his arrival. And Vader becomes more and more active and powerful in every new Star Wars installment so that it is curious why he becomes a lead-from-the-rear officer and conservative fencer by the time of the classic trilogy. Nothing is outright contradicted, as far as I can tell. People make mistakes; they lie; they alter the truth. This certainly happens in Star Wars. And Vader maybe has reasons for his varying degrees of displayed power. It’s not ruinous, but it just creates nagging moments of disconnection between the two films.

And while Rogue One adds further urgency and importance to the delivery of the Death Star plans with the lives lost and faint glimmer of hope at the end of this prequel, A New Hope, by way of being a preexisting entity, cannot take advantage of that urgency. The film is a much slower-paced title. The MacGuffin of the Death Star plans only becomes vital to the viewers when we realize that the Rebel base will be destroyed–meaning Leia and 3PO too!–if Luke isn’t able to blow the bad guys up in time. Rogue One’s fast burn dissolves into a slow sizzle. After the opening battle of A New Hope, everything slows.

At the end of the day, Rogue One is a fairly safe film that fills in gaps that don’t really need to be filled in. Its changes in focus and urgency and tone don’t really connect with the feel of the original film. On this re-watch, I appreciated more than ever the questions and dangling threads and implied epic scope of A New Hope. It’s a great film. It doesn’t really need Rogue One, and while I still enjoy R1 for its beautiful planetary vistas and the chemistry in its ensemble cast, I am realizing more and more that it’s simply an unnecessary film.

Unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite film after the viewing. I watched the special editions of the classic trilogy this time, in contrast to the “theatrical” versions that came with the DVD release, and I think that Empire benefits most from the retroactive editing. The wampa cave scene and the Hoth battle scene are improved. And Bespin is just absolutely stunning with the addition of more exterior views. The special edition makes Empire feel bigger. Regardless, this viewing order neither helps nor hurts it.

Jumping back to Episode I was interesting at this point. If you were a new viewer, and you just learned that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, finding this little boy to be Anakin Skywalker would be incredibly jarring. Maybe Vader was lying, you might assume, without the guidance of Return of the Jedi. Maybe Anakin and Vader really are separate people somehow. How could such a sweet boy become Vader? As I recall, many fans of the original films were annoyed by this little, dorky, sweet version of young Anakin. It was an over-share. We don’t need to see Anakin as a child! But I’m thinking about how it would feel to go from V to II, or to live in a world without The Phantom Menace. And frankly, if your first exposure to Anakin is in Episode II, I think you lose something. That Anakin is already tortured by his fear of losing his mother, already tempted by a girl he met years ago, and quick to do very evil things in moments of anger and grief. That Anakin, though whiny, is someone we can immediately believe to be Vader. That even a good person can become evil, that even a seemingly normal person can harbor such great demons or grow into them, is a far more interesting message, and I think I understand more what George Lucas was trying to do with Episode I. There are larger problems with that film–chiefly, the time distance means that Episode I feels more like a prequel to the later two prequel films rather than a part of the trilogy, very little of narrative significance happens in this film since most of Anakin’s personal concerns are established in Episode II again anyway, and the pod race is excessively long and fairly pointless. But Lucas had purpose even if the delivery was flawed.

Watching Episode I after V gave me something to think about. I parallels IV in that it is a happy-go-lucky sort of film with a big explosion at the end and a big celebration after victory; both films inform the later films in their trilogies, but they are somewhat apart from them. If I were coming up with my own viewing order, I would probably remove Rogue One (it’s not a main saga film anyway) and start the viewer with A New Hope followed by The Phantom Menace. A new viewer would interpret Anakin to be Luke’s father without the knowledge that Anakin is Vader. Vader’s absence from The Phantom Menace would be a gnawing tension; where is the future threat? And viewing IV and I back to back shows them as companion pieces, kindred spirits, both about the journeys of Skywalkers. Follow The Phantom Menace up with The Empire Strikes back, to progress Luke’s story further and make the connections between both trilogies explicit; this viewing order also makes a reveal out of both Palpatine’s and Anakin’s true ultimate identities. Now that this darkness in Anakin is revealed, we can jump back to finish up the prequel trilogy…

And finish up the prequel trilogy I did. Maybe for the first time in my life, I somehow found Anakin charming and liked many aspects of his romance with Padme in Attack of the Clones. I don’t know exactly how this happened. I don’t know why it did. I think the new viewing order disrupted my default opinions about the films. Maybe I was able to shift away from popular opinion a little bit. Yes, Anakin can be creepy or intense, but he’s sensitive and caring and a bit of a flirt. Yes, he can be awkward–but in the way that many young men are awkward, for better or worse. This isn’t a flaw; Lucas clearly wants you to view him as awkward, angsty, still growing up. He lingers on Anakin’s flailing moments, plays up shots of others reacting to him, pairs the images with music that drives home the discomfort. It works. I can’t and won’t defend the failures in dialogue present, but I would point out that Lucas has always written fairly artificial and awkward dialogue into the films.

The most frustrating thing about Episode II is still that Anakin murders a whole village of indigenous people and somehow is not already branded as a Dark Sider. You don’t get much more Dark Side than that, no matter how big your anger and grief. No matter how Padme felt about Anakin, it’s also a shocking lack of judgment on her part that she would (a) simply accept Anakin afterward without reprimand and (b) not report Anakin to the authorities. They weren’t even in a relationship!

I think Attack of the Clones is still my least-favorite saga film, but Obi-Wan was charming as hell, I got more out of Anakin/Padme than I usually do, and the final battle was enjoyable as always (though the Yoda/Dooku fight has become more and more ridiculous to me with time).

Revenge of the Sith remained strong as always. You either buy into the tragedy or you don’t, I think. My wife and I both buy into it. Watching Return of the Jedi afterward provides a lovely bit of symmetry and a satisfying conclusion to the entirety of the saga, as well.

Interestingly, while The Force Awakens replicates so much of the previous films and nails the tone, on this viewing I found it to be rather peripheral and irrelevant (though still great fun). Then again, the same could be said for A New Hope or The Phantom Menace in isolation. We’ll have to see how the rest of this sequel trilogy goes.

All of the above is to say that changing viewing order did get me to rethink each of the films and their place in the larger saga. I think that the most logical viewing order remains either release date or sequential order, but I don’t begrudge the experimentation.

And if I wanted to do my own bit of experimental viewing order, that hopefully creates the most dramatic interconnection I could manage just by remixing the sequence, I think I’d go: IV, I, V, II, III, VI.

Maybe not the galaxy’s greatest

I’ve never really been active in any fan community. At best, I’ve been on the periphery. Suits me fine. But I am an observer, and from the periphery I’ve been observing the Star Wars fandom, especially through Twitter, more and more. The people I follow are people I like, with interesting things to say; they generally have warm, positive attitudes, which is impressive for an impersonal venue like Twitter. My little bubble blinded me to a lot of the gross, hateful elements of fandom, however.

My bubble’s been burst a little bit. I’ve watched from the periphery as fanboys flailed about in rage, insulted by the very idea that someone would publicly announce, in the context of an off-hand tweet, that they thought Boba Fett was boring. I have no role in that conversation, and I’m not going to involve myself there. It doesn’t affect me at all. But it did remind me of the toxicity and rigid adherence to nostalgia that fan communities so often become consumed by.

Again, I have nothing to say about that larger discussion. It has nothing to do with me, and it’s not my place. But it did make me reflect on my own engagement with Star Wars. While I try to critically engage any property, no matter how much I love it, at some point views do calcify. With something like Star Wars, where I’ve had exposure since a young age, it can be surprising to realize that my views have crystallized, sometimes in ways that would never have occurred to me.

I thought about Boba Fett in particular. I don’t love Fett, but I have (typically) thought he was a cool character. I started thinking about Fett and some of the other small, supporting characters I loved in The Empire Strikes Back, thinking about why I liked them, and trying to reexamine them from different angles.

Background characters from the film that I’ve been especially fond of are Admiral Piett, the bounty hunters, and General Veers. While I still like the characters, and I think they serve their roles well, I realized they may be less a collection of the galaxy’s most badass and more a collection of the galaxy’s…most simply bad. (Note that I’m evaluating the characters here based on the new canon, so things like Boba’s death-defying crawl from the Sarlacc are simply irrelevant to these versions of the characters).

databank_admiralpiett_01_169_18014135.jpegPiett’s an easy example of how my uncritical childhood fandom obscured flaws. I saw him as a survivor, someone who could course-correct and avoid the pompous ego of Admiral Ozzel. He seemed to have a healthy respect for Vader. And the fact that he made it to Return of the Jedi indicated (to child-me) that he was capable.

But really, Piett is a bumbling idiot. He gets promoted to Admiral by Vader not because of quality but because he happens to be the highest-ranking officer aboard the ship after Ozzel is killed. While it may be unfair to blame Piett for the many escaped rebel ships in the aftermath of the Hoth invasion, since he was left with what could be salvaged of Ozzel’s failed plan, he led a very ineffective search for the Millennium Falcon. And while it was Captain Needa’s crew that was fooled by Han’s quick flying, Piett did not uncover the deception. Nor did his fleet find Han–the bounty hunters he dismissed as scum did that job. And he fails to properly carry out Vader’s orders on Bespin: his troops fail to secure the prisoners, his technicians fail to droid-proof their sabotage of the Falcon, and his crew fails to seize the freighter before it makes its jump to hyperspace. Piett surely escapes death at Vader’s hands for the mounting failures only because the Dark Lord is distracted by his encounter with his son.

Then in Jedi, Piett dies, the whole of the Executor along with him, because he only recognizes the weakness to forward defenses in a reactionary fashion. He is emblematic of every other Imperial officer who fails to adequately assess the ability of the rebels until it is far too late.

He’s a decent military officer in the sense that he can comply with orders, he doesn’t seem to get a big ego (at first), and he manages to stay on Darth Vader’s good side. But he’s not a great officer, nor a clever tactician, nor even a challenging foe.

bountyhuntersAs with Piett, so with the bounty hunters. A couple of droids and a bunch of low-lifes in mismatched armor and bandages, the group does manage to at least look cool. But none of them do anything. I always viewed Boba Fett as a badass for two reasons: (1) the “no disintegrations” line, and (2) his capture of Solo. Not that his Return of the Jedi death by way of jetpack malfunction did much to help his image. But even the two reasons I’ve cited can be easily weakened. As many have pointed out, Darth Vader could be warning Fett, not because of lethal efficiency, but because the bounty hunter has a history of messy screw-ups and virtually-impossible-to-identify bounties. As for the second reason, and I’m surprised that I never realized this (or heard the theory circulated, not that I looked), but the only reason that Fett realized Solo’s trick and could find him amid the emptying garbage of the Star Destroyer is that Obi-Wan had pulled a similar disappearing trick on the back side of an asteroid during Boba’s formative years. Given that Obi-Wan’s escape soon after resulted in a sequence of events that left Boba’s father dead, the boy probably would have remembered it. Boba was not necessarily a skilled tracker; his prey just so happened to use the one trick that any prequel viewer would know he is very explicitly aware of.

The Clone Wars also establish Boba and his fellow bounty hunters as a lot of losers, for the most part. In “Death Trap,” Boba repeatedly fails at a covert mission to assassinate Mace Windu. Bossk, Boba, and their companions also screw up another attempt to take down Mace Windu in “R2 Come Home.” Bossk and Boba end up captured in the following episode. Bossk and Dengar fail to escort moving cargo in “Bounty,” and that same episode sees Boba outdone by Asajj Ventress. In short, they’re definitely not top-notch hunters like Cad Bane.

With a relative dearth of writing about the Empire bounty hunters in the new canon, we have not fully seen their stories developed. What there is remains mixed. For example, Boba is shown to be a brutal hunter when tracking down Luke in the Star Wars comics, although he fails to capture the boy in the ensuing confrontation.

On further reflection, I kind of like the idea that the bounty hunters are not aboard the Executor because they are the best, but instead simply because they could get there the fastest. Perhaps they’re just a bunch of desperate Outer Rim lowlifes who could hop into orbit around Hoth to get the mission almost immediately after the end of the battle because they were already in a nearby backwater sector.

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So that leaves General Veers for reexamination. What are his flaws?

Um, none. He’s an awesome bad guy. He successfully leads a massive Imperial land victory even after the Imperial Navy screw-up on approach. He obeys orders and keeps a cool head. He delivers. He’s great.

 

George Lucas, Star Wars, and Race

It is more difficult than it might seem to make a coherent and consistent statement about George Lucas’s views on race. This is, in part, because those views appear to be rather complicated, if not fully developed, and rather confused/confusing.

After the release of The Phantom Menace, there was of course some (often quite reasonable but sometimes hyperbolically pearl-clutching or bizarrely wrong) backlash to the minstrelsy evidenced in the hijinks and accent of Jar Jar Binks, the anti-Semitic stereotyping of Watto the Toydarian junk dealer, and the Asian caricatures imbued in the greedy Neimoidians like Nute Gunray (examples here, here, and here). But The Phantom Menace also brought us competent black heroes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi Master Mace Windu and Hugh Quarshie‘s Naboo Royal Guard Captain Panaka. The later prequel films broadened the previously limited (human) racial mix of Star Wars with the addition of prominent characters like Captain Typho, Queen Jamillia, and Jango Fett (played by Maori actor Temuera Morrison, who would also be the face of the clone troopers), as well as background parts like Bultar Swan and Depa Billaba. Thus Star Wars looked a little less white, with a range of characters with different ethnic backgrounds who could be heroes and villains, and yet that change came about along with some loaded ethnic stereotyping that hadn’t really been present in the films beforehand.

Of course, it’s easy to avoid ethnic stereotyping when the only humans in the room are white people (mostly men) speaking with American or British accents. In the classic trilogy, there was only Lando (Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, though voiced by James Earl Jones when the mask was on, was of course portrayed, over the course of the films and their various editions, by David Prowse, Sebastian Shaw, and Hayden Christensen). There may have been people of color hidden as background actors in the streets of Cloud City, and there are a couple of black and Asian pilots who appear just long enough to blow up in the Battle of Endor, but Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is the only prominent person of color in the entirety of the visible Star Wars galaxy throughout the original three movies.

Overall, this suggests growth on the part of George Lucas. Maybe he realized that representation of people from non-white ethnic backgrounds was important. Maybe he was just responding to critical and consumer complaints. I’m not sure if he really knows. One of the most awkward passages in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays comes from an excerpt of an interview with George Lucas. Lucas says:

At one point in the original Star Wars, Han Solo was going to be black. I was in the casting, and one of the finalists was a black actor, and I just decided that I liked Harrison the best. It didn’t have to do with race at all. I had a lot of different ideas. At one point Luke, Leia, and Ben were all going to be little people, and we did screen tests to see if I could do that. At one point Luke and Leia were going to be Oriental. I played with various ethnic groups, but when there are four main characters, it seemed better to have them all be the same race. But I had been interested right from the very beginning to get ethnic diversity into the project. So when I got to adding the Lando character, who was not originally written as a black man, there was a chance to put in variety. You know, at the time Star Wars came out, a lot of critics attacked the film for not having one of the characters be a black person. They also said that it was a chauvinistic movie. And I thought, Wait a minute, Leia is not a man, she is tough and independent, how can that be chauvinistic? The film got attacked for everything.

I don’t exactly have graceful oratory ability, and I put my foot in my mouth rather often, so I’m sympathetic to the possibility that Lucas just did a really poor job of conveying what he meant. But I’m not quoting out of context–that’s the entirety of the excerpt provided. He reads as defensive to me. It certainly seems like any addition of diversity was specifically a response to criticism. And remember, The Annotated Screenplays were published in 1997, so Lucas had these thoughts as he was preparing for the prequel trilogy.

I also think those comments feel misguidedly progressive. I think George Lucas probably wanted (and wants) to do the right thing, but for some reason does not quite know how or know whom to ask for guidance. Ethnic backgrounds seem almost like tokenistic check-boxes to him. Lucas claims he always wanted diversity, but somehow he could only find room for one significant non-white role in the entirety of the original trilogy? And why, exactly, did it “seem better” to have all the protagonists of the same race? Again, I think he wants to do the right thing, but it really feels like he misses the point of the criticism and rather belligerently dismisses the idea that there could have been anything that could have been improved with his creative choices or casting decisions.

Look, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Lucas (even though I know it might be hard to believe, especially if you could see everything I said about the prequel trilogy as an adolescent). He created a fantasy world that means so much to me and millions of others. He’s a talented visionary, but he has flaws. Some of those flaws–for instance, as a writer–he has openly acknowledged. But it can be very hard for people to admit to flaws regarding race and sex because it is really an ugly, yucky feeling to admit that something you did is racist or sexist. Racist or sexist is coded, correctly, to mean bad, but the reality is that we can all do bad things and think bad thoughts. We have to strive to be better people; none of us is born perfect. I certainly struggle with the reality that sometimes I do things that are racist or sexist. It can be easier just to defend yourself, to deny, rather than to recognize the flaw and work to improve. I think because George Lucas appears to have been so defensive, he set himself up for other failings even as he made improvements–as evidenced by the presence of a Jar Jar and a Watto next to a Mace and a Panaka.

In that light, Disney’s new ownership of Star Wars is positive. It seems like Kathleen Kennedy and crew have given real thought to those flaws, even while having a great history with and intimate understanding of the intellectual property. And so we continue to see more people of color and more women (and sometimes, though sadly still rarely, women of color) in new installments; we even have actual Hispanic actors in Star Wars, something surprisingly lacking for decades now. The Star Wars universe continues to feel truly more diverse, and not just with the inclusion of more exotic aliens.

Reading the films

I’ve finished my read of the novelizations for the first six Star Wars movies. Above is an image of my own battered copies of the books. They’ve been folded and marked up and underlined and occasionally dropped, and my cat became a bit too fond of the taste of the prequel collection.

I’ve posted reviews on Goodreads: prequels here and originals here. The books were okay. I mean, they’re novelizations; it’s sort of a different standard with adaptations of films than with other forms of literature. It’s interesting to see where books and films diverged, though. I’ve enjoyed learning about the development of the Star Wars movies–and as someone who has always loved to read and write, I’ve especially enjoyed learning about the development of the stories and screenplays for the films. It’s interesting to see how much these films were a collaborative effort, including the screenwriting, and to realize how elements of the films continued to evolve all the way through post-production. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always enjoyed flipping through Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.

Maybe most interesting to me, although it’s not really a comment about the merits of any particular novelization, is how Matthew Stover’s adaptation of Revenge of the Sith so often echoed visual metaphors used in James Kahn’s adaptation of Return of the Jedi (shadow and darkness, of course, but even the use of a metaphorical dragon). This makes sense; Episode III is in many ways a dark reflection of Episode VI, a story where the hero is not able to withstand the temptation to act selfishly. If Stover drew from Return of the Jedi‘s language in crafting his own adaptation, I admire that attention to detail; if not, then it’s still an interesting coincidence.

Overall, III and VI were my favorite of the novelizations. They both benefited from some of the best characterizations of the protagonists (and villains). Kahn offers a compelling supplement to Episode VI; Stover might actually exceed the film version of Episode III. R.A. Salvatore’s Episode II novelization was also pretty good, and I especially appreciated the development of the Confederacy into a more realistic secessionist government with real motivations and goals, rather than the cartoonish league of villains in the films. This novelization and the course of The Clone Wars TV show, paired together, I think are the best examples of convincingly elaborating on the Confederacy.

Regardless, I’m glad that I can now say that I’ve read the Star Wars novelizations, flaws and all. It’s been an interesting experience.