Friday, November 17, 2023

SWS Roundtable: Let’s Talk Disney Star Wars!

 Life is a Theme Park

G - Let’s start with a quick show of hands: do you give the Sequel Trilogy a thumbs up, thumbs sideways or thumbs down? As succinctly as possible, tell me why you feel that way.

Haley - I give two thumbs sideways. I enjoy and appreciate any glimpse into the Star Wars universe —and I mean that!— but there’s not enough groundbreaking ideas in it for me. Loved The Last Jedi, the other two are meh.

Arturo - Sideways. Episode 7 is meh, Episode 8 is a spectacular masterpiece, and Episode 9 is unsalvageable trash.

Vance - Definitely sideways. I dig The Last Jedi and I’ll throw some more love in The Force Awakens’ direction than Arturo and Haley, but Rise of Skywalker…oof.

G - I’m a thumbs down for the Sequel Trilogy. Force Awakens got the aesthetics right, but at the end of the day these films don’t have much to say—at least, not to me.

Let’s start with The Force Awakens—which sets the Trilogy up as more reboot than sequel. Now allow me to rant for a minute. Rather than set the drama within the context of a nascent New Republic, The Force Awakens tells us there’s this new Empire stand-in, led by a Palpatine stand-in, whose apprentice is “Emo Darth Vader” and whose military has developed a Death Star stand-in. You would think this new Empire stand-in would draw the attention of the New Republic, but you would be wrong. Instead, this new Empire stand-in is opposed by…a ragtag band of plucky Rebel stand-ins getting zero support from the New Republic even after they use their fucking Death Star stand-in to blow up a planet. Can we pause for a second and just consider how stupid this is?

Granted, there were things I liked about TFA. The “world” is suitably junky, I like the core characters Rey, Finn, Po and Kylo Ren and BB8 is very cute. It’s just…well, see above. Now, tell me why I’m right or wrong.

V - You’re not wrong. I love Rey, and I love that they got the feel of the original trilogy right, but everything else is a lazy re-hash. “Lazy” probably isn’t the right word—more like “lowest common denominator.” Like the movie only exists to reinvigorate the franchise merch sales. The new characters are fun and charismatic, the world feels like Star Wars, and the sense of adventure feels like it’s on the right scale, but the criticisms that peg The Force Awakens as essentially a remake of A New Hope are valid. The movie’s logic takes a back seat to the safest possible version of, “People liked the first movie, so let’s do that again, maybe?” So the bad guy is essentially the same, the obstacles are essentially the same, and the Death Star is essentially the same.

Personally, I didn’t mind it in the theater because the prequels were like grounding into a triple play and at least this movie got somebody on base. Not a high bar, but I’ll take it. Then The Last Jedi, for me, advanced the runner (It’s a baseball metaphor!). But unfortunately that lowest common denominator, safety-first mindset prevailed in the execrable Rise of Skywalker, and everything that seemed possible in The Force Awakens and seemed an interesting possibility in The Last Jedi just evaporated.

H - Yeah, the idea of the Resistance definitely confused me. I think I kind of understand the New Republic’s reticence now (thanks Dave Filoni!), but at best it’s not explained well and at worst it’s just silly. I saw a TikTok the other day that was like “who the hell was funding the First Order?!?!” They had ships and infantry and a literal planet-sized Death Star dupe. Why wasn’t that enough for the New Republic higherups to be like “Well we should really address this.” I wanted to love The Force Awakens, and I still think it has some very cool things, but it’s A New Hope for Gen Z—which isn’t a bad thing, but I expected more.

A - The Force Awakens had one great idea: Finn. He's the most interesting character concept of the trilogy, and consequently the most wasted. We could have had an insider view of how evil insidiously drags ordinary people in, how it may take a long time to undo lifelong brainwashing. Instead, Finn was reduced to Rey's sidekick.

Rey is also a good concept (until Episode 9 destroyed everything that made her interesting). Her relationship with Empire junk establishes her as a newcomer Star Wars fan, which is a great way to use an audience stand-in; newcomer Star Wars fans was exactly what this movie needed to create. (No one gets to call Rey a Mary Sue until you admit that Luke Skywalker is the Mary Suest Mary Sue who ever Mary Sued.)

G - I’m with you on Finn, Arturo. The best thing about TFA (in my opinion) is how they set up Finn’s character. And then he gets progressively less interesting and less central to the story as the Trilogy unfolds. 

Okay, let’s talk The Last Jedi. This is the most polarizing entry in the Sequel Trilogy—but for a few different reasons. A certain subset of fans don’t seem capable of handling a movie that has a diverse cast—which is bullshit. These films are set in space and populated by aliens and droids; those are okay but skin color or female characters are…to be honest I’m not even sure what the complaint is supposed to be here. But whatever it is, it’s dumb, stupid and dumb again.

All that said, I did not love the film! What about you guys?

H - I absolutely loved it. In fact, I cried three separate times while watching it in the theatre! It felt the most like Star Wars to me of all the sequels. I especially loved Leia’s Mary Poppins scene. I know people hate it, but it’s the first time in any new canon Disney movie where we see Leia’s force powers—it reminded me of when Luke was training her while she was pregnant in Heir to the Empire. She was essentially a cardboard cutout of herself in TFA, so this scene helped breathe some life into her in a way that I absolutely adored. I also loved Holdo, and Crait, and Luke’s arc. The Last Jedi is the only sequel film that I return to, time and again.

A - Ooohhh, you're getting me started on The Last Jedi.

*cracks knuckles*

Let's do this.

The Last Jedi takes everything that the prequels exposed as wrong with the Jedi Order and carries it to its logical conclusion: the Jedis were a rigid hierarchy with too high an opinion of itself, and that made them oblivious to the darkness growing under their nose. If the Force is to be once again harnessed to ensure peace in the galaxy, it can’t be done with the old methods. There’s only so much Luke can teach; the rest must be left up to Rey. That is not a disrespect of the old characters. That is how sequels are supposed to work.

The transformation that The Last Jedi presents within Luke has been tragically misunderstood by the angry manchildren. You already saw Luke as a powerful kickass swordsman with a clear sense of his place in the war; where’s the excitement in seeing more of the same? To demand that Luke be unchanged from Return of the Jedi is to demand that no time have passed at all. Instead, something much more interesting happens to Luke: he’s faced with a problem he can’t Force-punch his way out of. In a crucial moment of bad judgment, he failed his nephew and indirectly pushed him toward evil. Again, that is not a point against the movie. That is how you’re supposed to challenge an established hero.

The ethos of The Last Jedi is summarized in Yoda’s final lesson to Luke: “We are what they grow beyond,” the best line in the movie, and the only time Yoda actually says something wise in the entire movie saga. Luke isn’t in this movie to kick ass. He’s here to hand over the baton. It’s not the movie’s fault that manchildren missed the message.

V - I think I appreciated the film more than I liked it. With all the reasons we’ve discussed about The Force Awakens being a safe play, I dug that The Last Jedi reached for something, and I thought it was setting up what could be a more interesting third film (joke’s on me!). 

But I think the reach exceeds the grasp. Intellectually, I *get* the undermining of the wahoo-wild-west mentality of Han Solo…er…Poe Dameron, but I didn’t *feel* it. I found the commentary on capitalism taking the side of profit over the side of human suffering interesting, but the Canto Bight sequence takes foreeeeeeeever and feels like it distracts from the spine of the film. I mean, when you really zoom out, the whole film seems to take place across the space of a few hours, judging by the Dameron-Holdo conflict…except that such a compressed timeline doesn’t comport with the other plotlines. They feel like they take much longer.

So for me it’s an interesting movie that didn’t really withstand scrutiny. I give it more credit than The Force Awakens because it does take big swings, and I loooove that it undermines the Force=bloodlines narrative. I *want* Rey to be nobody. I want Ren to feel stupid and embarrassed for wearing a silly mask. I like Luke hiding away—a grizzled rejection of his earlier, wide-eyed idealism. I like Admiral Holdo. I think the red/white imagery of Crait is a singular, iconic Star Wars image. I *love* Rose’s line to Finn about how they will win the war.

But I think space-Leia is dumb and the ForceTime calls between Rey and Ben make my tummy hurt. In re-watching it, I thought for a minute, “Sure, this is a really good bridge film between part one and part two…not perfect, but serving up cool patterns.” Then I remembered that The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie of the original trilogy, and the bridging film between one and three can excel on its own terms. And I realized that The Last Jedi felt OK, but could have been so, so much more.

G - I’m mostly with Vance on this one. As with TFA, there were things I appreciated about TLJ. I thought they took Luke in an interesting direction and the Rey/Ben storyline grew more interesting in this installment. Making Force sensitivity more open and less dependent on bloodlines is also a good innovation for the series. The Original Trilogy never says outright that bloodlines matter, but the implication is there (especially when Yoda implies that Leia could be a candidate if Luke falls to the Dark Side, Leia being Luke’s sister).

Here’s what I didn’t like: Canto Bight, Flying Space Leia, Salt Hoth, underdeveloped Snoke and the general need to rehash what’s already been done rather than tell a completely different story. That last one is a problem with the whole Sequel Trilogy, not this installment specifically - but TLJ doesn’t go far enough in breaking the mold in my eyes.

Okay, Rise of Skywalker, the last film before we move on from the Sequel Trilogy to the broader Disney Star Wars universe. This is the worst one of the three, isn’t it?

V - Oh, for sure. I disliked it in the theater, but despised it on a re-watch. It’s a $200-million, stupid-ass response to 4-Chan trolls that didn’t like an Asian woman being important in The Last Jedi. The movie is a wholesale rejection of all the potential of The Last Jedi, in favor of lowest-common-denominator fanboy pandering.

I felt like the prequels were incompetent, but this one was cynical, pandering trash. Disney chose the wrong “fans” to listen to, and poisoned the well.

Not a fan.

A - Canto Bight is the best hidden message in The Last Jedi! It’s a perfectly camouflaged middle finger to Disney, the actual profiteer whose bottom line needs the Star Wars to go on warring forever.

Now, about Episode 9: Chewbacca’s medal is the condensation of everything wrong with it. It feels like the movie was produced with a laundry list of long-standing fan complaints that had to be “fixed.” Luke tossed a lightsaber to the sea? No, now he preaches respect for lightsabers. Rey learned the Force too easily? No, now she has to start the movie with a training scene that adds nothing. Poe and Finn were getting too close? No, now each has a designated girlfriend.

Every single decision in the making of Episode 9 was the most risk-averse possible, the most people-pleasing, the most unimaginative. Including the not-quite-confirmation of Reylo, which joins Disney’s bizarre ongoing trend of trying to redeem Star Wars fascists.

H - It’s a fun enough watch (I enjoy any time I get to drop in on the Star Wars universe) but it’s got no heart. It’s contrived and boring with brief flashes of some pretty cool stuff. I personally loved Sith Threepio, and Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine is always, always a good time. But it just lacked oomph — it’s so clear that it was a course correction from TLJ. Call me a hater, but I don’t trust a man that does both Star Trek AND Star Wars (looking at you, J.J. Abrams).

G - And makes them both forgettable!

I guess, for me, this is how I feel: if Rise of Skywalker wasn’t a Star Wars film, hadn’t been preceded by The Last Jedi and I saw it on a plane, then I probably would have found it okay but forgettable. It isn’t per se a terrible film on its own merits; rather, it’s an unremarkable film on its own merits. But as a Star Wars film it’s just a huge disappointment. Making matters worse, it reverses most of the things I did like about TLJ and then…brings back Emperor Palpatine? That was some of the dumbest shit ever.

Oh, and when the armada finally arrives to bail out The Resistance…it’s not even the New Republic! I know I’m beating a dead horse here but this really irks me. Disney told the wrong story and told it badly.

Thankfully Disney has done other things with the franchise and many of those are cut or ten above the Sequel Trilogy in quality and depth. Let’s talk about Rogue One and Andor together, since they are related. Rogue One tells the story of the covert mission to steal the Death Star plans (which Darth Vader is looking for at the beginning of A New Hope). Andor tells the story of how Cassian Andor, hero of Rogue One, ended up on Scarif.

Of all the Disney Star Wars properties, Rogue One and Andor are the most universally loved. Maybe not the most watched, but the ones everyone seems to agree are great. What makes them work so well? Arturo, I know you have thoughts on this.

A - To me, the key theme of Andor is illustrated in the first shot of the first episode. Andor is walking down a long street lit by lampposts, and the camera does a truck motion in front of the lights, showing us in sequence: Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Then we’re shown the full extent of the street, with no visible beginning or end. I read this shot as establishing the standard Star Wars plot: an unbroken succession of Light and Dark that has gone on forever. And then comes the crucial moment: Andor steps out of that street. This story begins by taking a route that deviates from the eternal thread of Light and Dark. It dares do its own thing.

It’s a risky statement, to put it mildly. Disney very much doesn’t like to take risks, and yet here’s Andor telling us that Star Wars can be much more than space wizards. There’s enough space in the galaxy to tell stories that don’t invoke the Force, stories where people of limited resources have to make complicated choices without the help of magic.

Because the Force has never had precise rules, it has become an authorial wildcard that can fix any story beat. The Last Jedi is aware of this problem, and compensates for it by making the awesome Force projection cost Luke’s life. Evidently not having learned anything from it, Rise of Skywalker has Rey summon the power of every Jedi ever, and it has no consequences for her.

So how does this relate to Andor? In Andor and Rogue One, regular people have to figure out how to bring down a galactic dictatorship with mundane means. That’s orders of magnitude more exciting than space wizards. Starting with The Empire Strikes Back, the franchise fell into the trap of reducing the galactic war to the personal dramas of the Skywalker family, and Andor’s focus on a multitude of nobodies is a small step toward reversing that mistake. History according to the trilogies is steered by Great Men, missing the fact that there already was an active Rebellion before Luke ever sat in a cockpit. Rogue One and Andor acknowledge that history moves by an accumulation of numerous small forces, and I find that a more compelling mode of storytelling.

H - I think that it’s because a brand-new story told with just the barest touchpoints of the originals. We inherit the framework (stolen tapes, a ship that carries them, a rough rebellion trying to make it all work), but everything else is entirely new. Also young Mon Mothma! That was such a treat. And we can never forget that Vader lightsaber scene — our first glimpse of him in his full powers pre-ANH (and that Obi-Wan battle is so poorly filmed it’s laughable).

V - I have not seen Andor —I promised my wife I would wait for her— but I can say that it is the exact type of storytelling that I hoped would happen with the expanding Star Wars canvas. I’ve talked about that concept a few times here over the years. Getting away from the Skywaler family and exploring the galaxy holds as many kinds of stories as storytellers can imagine, and I am much more excited for those journeys.

I do love Rogue One, and echo the shout-out to the Vader fight scene. As we discussed here years ago when Vader got his own title in the Dark Horse comics run, if you base your understanding of the character exclusively on the movies, he’s kind of a dipshit. Everything he tries backfires. So the comics gave us a glimpse of a powerful Vader who earned the respect and fear that we see others around him display in the films. Seeing that same type of brutal competence onscreen was in so many ways the “right” way to tie into the larger canon of films. So much better than the pandering on display in Rise of Skywalker.

G - I love that Disney decided to explore the purely science fictional elements of Star Wars in these properties. I love how gritty they are—and how political. Andor really feels like commentary on the present in a way Star Wars usually doesn’t. Should every Star Wars film or show go this route? No. But I love that there’s room for it. Not everything needs to be Jedi and Sith. That said, Darth Vader’s appearance at the end of Rogue One is bonkers. 

Ahsoka takes a completely different direction—but I loved it almost as much as Andor. It’s an artful show: there’s an elegance and majesty to the way it’s shot, to the way fights are choreographed that feels deeply indebted to Kurosawa and classic samurai films. And it’s pure fantasy, leaning hard in the opposite direction of Andor.

Mandalorian is the other one I fell in love with. It’s basically a Spaghetti Western set in space. The hero, unlike Luke or Rey, doesn’t even want to fight the good fight; in fact, he’s only doing it because the baddies are threatening his adopted child. I’ve always been attracted to stories that center this kind of hero—the Witcher novels do as well. Whereas Andor leans into political science fiction, and Ahsoka into space fantasy, Mandalorian leans into the junkyard Wild West that Ralph McQuarrie developed for the Outer Rim.

H - I’m the only person in the world that thinks this, but Andor to me isn’t Star Wars—it’s just military sci-fi. It’s objectively good, but I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. It wasn’t fun for me, barring the prison subplot with Andy Serkis. I’m definitely more in the Ahsoka and Mando vein of things—I want to have a little fun and cheek with my Star Wars.

G - That’s completely fair, Haley—and I think I broadly agree. Mandalorian is my favorite of all the Star Wars shows because I think, more than any other Disney property, it epitomizes what I find appealing about Star Wars: compelling characters inhabiting a complex, chaotic world that feels “lived in,” which is full of horror but also full of joy. With Andor, it actually took to the end before it really clicked for me—precisely because it’s so joyless. Mando, by contrast, was love at first sight.

V - Yep, I’m with G here on Mandalorian. I love me some Spaghetti Westerns, and this Spaghetti Western in space scratched a lot of the same itch as Firefly, with the added bonus of the Man With No Name hero. Like you said, the episodes felt grounded in really cool, memorable characters, and the world felt lived-in, which is probably the first, most powerful thing I ever connected to in Star Wars. I think the characters also felt lived-in, which gave each episode —with the possible exception of the Seven Samurai episode, which was very much just Doing Seven Samurai— a certain empathy and heart that resonated deeply with me.

A - Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any Star Wars TV shows apart from Andor. When The Mandalorian was announced in terms of a tribute to the Western genre, I was instantly turned off. Western movies have never appealed to me. Same with Boba Fett; the bizarre fascination that fans have developed over this most unremarkable of characters has always puzzled me. As for Ahsoka, I would first have to watch that 2000s cartoon, and thanks but no thanks. Life is too short. And the mere existence of the Obi-Wan series just reeks of desperation. Star Wars is going to have to try much harder to get me to care for any of its future projects.

G - As far as Book of Boba Fett goes, Dean put it well—the character deserved better. Boba Fett had built this mystique over several decades, largely via the old Expanded Universe, where he was this ruthless but unsentimental bounty hunter. Like Parker in the Richard Stark novels, Boba Fett isn’t cruel, sadistic or megalomaniacal—he just wants his money. The “Town Marshall” version the show gave us is…not that. The story would have been a better fit for Timothy Olyphant’s character. But for Boba Fett? It just isn’t what fans had been waiting for. Also it wasn’t very good.

Ahsoka, though…I absolutely loved it. And Arturo—you don’t need to watch Clone Wars or Rebels to keep up. There are added layers for fans who watched those shows, but it’s not required reading, so to speak. What I loved most about Ahsoka is the cinematography, which brought to mind Kurosawa and the great European directors of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The last TV show I remember that looked this good was the first season of True Detective. [Link:]

Okay, last question: where would you like to see Disney take the franchise next? No wrong answers here, and please assume that you have full creative control!

V - You can miss me with the 10,000 years ago caveman Jedi from the Dark Horse series, and I’m going to echo the no-more-Skywalkers sentiment. Like I argued over a decade ago regarding superhero films, “superhero” was going to become an umbrella category that encompassed many different kinds of genre fare—noir, Western, family drama, etc. I think Star Wars is the same. I think what I would most like to see is a story that centers the development of some of the technology on display. Certainly there’s the Oppenheimer route, where somebody creates the technology that winds up powering the Death Star and has to wrestle with the ramifications, but there’s also the Hidden Figures route, where people crack the code of lightspeed and open up the galaxy. Or —and this is a really deep cut— a show like the 1980s fever-dream D.C. Follies, where puppet versions of characters from throughout the Star Wars canon all mingle for drinks with an affable bartender. I’d eat that up.

A - As I wrote in another roundtable: look at the rest of the galaxy. I find it very concerning that Matthew Vaughn is sayingStar Wars is the Skywalker family,” and therefore a hypothetical Star Wars reboot would have to retell the Skywalker saga. That is exactly the wrong approach. The Empire Strikes Back may be very well written and crafted and acted, but it hurt the narrative possibilities of Star Wars by reducing the franchise’s scope to one family. This hyperfocus on Luke’s lineage makes the galaxy feel very small, and before you know it, we’ll have a Disney+ series about the youth of his adoptive uncle and aunt. Star Wars urgently needs to stop eating its tail and look farther and wider.

And I’m probably sounding like a broken record, but The Last Jedi showed the right way to go. Show us how the Force manifests in ordinary people across the galaxy, of all lineages and species. Explore how the Force can be channeled in more interesting ways than wire-fu. And stop being so reverential for the franchise’s past. I may be the only one here who didn’t care for Vader’s fight at the end of Rogue One, but that scene illustrates a big problem with today’s Star Wars: it’s too focused on people-pleasing to the detriment of creativity and experimentation.

H - All I really want immediately is for them to keep their promise of a Rogue Squadron movie! The Michael A. Stackpole novels are some of my favorites of the EU, and I think they would do well now! Captain Teva in Mando and Ahsoka is proof positive that we want our space jocks! If Top Gun: Maverick saved the movies post-pandemic, imagine what an X-wing Top Gun could do!

POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.