Solo and Rebels S4: On the State of Star Wars

Given that the last half year has given us three of the most important recent entries in Star Wars history (The Last Jedi, the Rebels series finale, and now Solo) I’d like to muse for a few paragraphs on where we find ourselves in the Star Wars universe, both the still transporting internal universe of the Galaxy far, far away, and the the more pedestrian, and, some might say, mercenary world of the Lucasfilm/Disney content machine. I’ve broken my musings down into a handy list.

First of all, I’d like to put my cards on the table: I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan, having been born less than a month after Return of the Jedi was released. I LIKE the worlds of Star Wars, both the story world and the merchandising juggernaut. I spend as much time reading reviews of Star Wars Lego sets as much as of Star Wars movies and TV shows. I’m a dedicated fan of the TV shows (Clone Wars, Rebels) as well as all the movies. I read the books and comics from time to time, but am not a completist when it comes to written Star Wars stories. It’s what’s on the screen (both big and small) that matters to me.)

1. The Last Jedi proved that Star Wars is no less important AND no less divisive to fans than the prequels

I’ve spent too much digital ink on TLJ already, and coming out of January felt honestly exhausted from talking and writing about it. Suffice it to say that the fallout from Johnson’s controversial Episode VIII proved we still REALLY care about Star Wars. Overall, the oldest fans seemed the most and the youngest fans the least bothered by Johnson’s creative choices, but there are exceptions to this. There is definitely a neo-traditionalist strain among younger millennials that felt Johnson had betrayed the heart of Star Wars. It’s interesting that the loudest of these (at least that I heard), were born during the Prequels Era, not the OT Era.

Whatever that case, it’s arguably a good problem to have Star Wars be something that’s passionately discussed because of its polarizing ideas and not because of questionable casting/acting, as was often the case with the prequels. I’d rather discuss the proper response to war profiteering or how to cope with educational failure than rehash the whininess of Hayden Christensen’s line delivery any day. The fact that Johnson and co. made me think and wrestle at the level of Rey’s and Luke’s and Ben’s choices and attitudes, and never at the level of Daisy’s or Mark’s or Adam’s acting is an important step forward in keeping Star Wars alive in fan’s lives. One of the greatest failures Star Wars could experience is that fans simply stop caring what happens in to those characters in that galaxy.

Thus, Coming out of TLJ, it seemed that moving forward, Star Wars would be something we discussed for its big ideas and complicated characters, even when we vehemently disagreed with those ideas and character choices. Rebels and Solo test this theory a bit, with mixed results.


  1. Rebels concluded with welcome surprise and (a little too much) mystery.

Dave Filoni’s two Star Wars shows (and not the films) have always been the central place for exploration of the Force and its mysteries. Filoni outdid himself in the fourth and final season of Rebels: Force-sensitive Loth-Wolves, the return of the Father-Son-Daughter Force-Trinity, and the insane, interdimensional “void world”. With this last element, Filoni toed the line between dazzling imagination and narrative cheating. Ezra’s salvation of Ahsoka was welcome to those of us who want to keep her character around, but felt like something Star Wars has never allowed itself to do before: save characters through time travel. In the end, Filoni showed restraint in not having Ezra save Kanan, nor giving in to Palpatine’s Back-to-the-Future-style temptation to spend time with his parents in the past.

This may be a matter of personal taste, But I’d prefer that Star Wars stay out of the time travel business. Luckily Filoni makes the time travel stuff the penultimate plot of the season/series, and focuses front and center on the long-awaited iberation of Lothal and the showdown with Thrawn as the final conflict. Having the Wolves and Purgills be the secret weapon that defeats the imperials in the end brings a wonderful fulfillment to the theme of Ezra’s special Jedi power of being able to connect with and relate to nature, especially the fauna of Lothal. The images of giant space whales destroying ships joins the original Purgill episode as one of the most visually stunning in the show.

I’m left wondering, however, whether the choice to have both our main hero, Ezra, and our main villain, Thrawn, disappear into the Galaxy, was a responsible one.

I do love the idea, however, that somewhere out there Sabine and Ahsoka are having adventures searching for Erza across the Galaxy. And by including a coda narrated by Sabine that brings us past the Battle of Endor, Filoni managers to answer pretty much all of the “where are they now” questions that fans have been collecting over the course of Rebels (and Clone Wars, really)–except, of course, one of the “where are they now” we most care about, namely, “Where is Ezra?”!

Back in 2013, after the Clone Wars TV show ended, and The Force Awakens and Rebels was announced it felt like we were finally done with the Prequel Era of Star Wars, an Era that had been going on in one form or another since 1999. And now, in 2018, on finishing the Rebels finale, one is left with the feeling that the Original Trilogy era is finally, really, over. We know the fate of all the major characters from the Prequels, Clone Wars, and Rebels up through Return of the Jedi. Though we’re already two movies into the sequel trilogy, it feels like we’re finally ready for the Sequel Era to begin. The recent announcement of Filoni’s third show, Resistance, seems to confirm this distinct era shift. I love this feeling, honestly. The Original Trilogy Era is still my favorite Star Wars Era, but I’m excited to be moved forward. No more Rebels vs Empire. We’re entering the new frontier: the origins of the First Order in the Unknown Regions, Leia’s formation of the Resistance, Luke’s Jedi Academy, the as-yet-mysterious-machinations of Snoke: it’s a new world, folks!

  1. For all its fun, Solo feels like nothing new on first viewing. 


Alas, it turns out it’s the same old world. At least it is in the diverting, if unessential, new Solo: A Star Wars Story. Solo turns out to be everything I expected from it when I was being slightly hopeful: fun quips and derring-do from fan favorites in younger guises. In a way, it’s of a piece with Lucas’s prequel trilogy: though the backstories we heard/knew of are filled in colorfully, there’s a lack of narrative necessity to it all. As fun as the first meeting of Han and Chewie in the mud-prison on Mimban is, we already sort of know this all happened. This doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it a bit of an unrequested detour after the promises of the Rebels finale and The Last Jedi.

My favorite parts of Solo are those concerned with two totally new characters: Kyra and Enfys Nest. As other reviewers pointed out, Kyra’s character feels a bit inconsistent over the course of the film, but her final decision, and the truly surprising reveal of her boss/new ally Maul made Kyra one of the most interesting characters in the film for me. The other character, the Marauder/proto-rebel Enfys, is probably the most sure handling of a new character: she swoops into the film with drive and confidence, showing herself a formidable opponent to all parties in the film. The reveal of who exactly is under her very cool mask was the other genuine surprise of the film. If I had to quibble, I’d say that we have gotten at least one too many origin-of-the-rebellion moments in Star Wars content, but maybe that’s kind of the point. The rebellion was begun in many places, by many players.

The more I think about it, the more I find that what is most enjoyable about Solo is that it takes place in a part of the universe we know exists, but seldom think to focus on: the criminal syndicates and the freelancers who bounce between them. When we think of major organizational conflicts in the Galaxy, they usually boil down to three: rebels vs Empire, Jedi vs, sith, and, between these two, the intramural conflicts of the bounty hunters. But in Clone Wars, Filoni introduced us to the warring crime syndicates: Black Sun, Pyke, the Hutts, etc. The reason it’s so satisfying to find that Maul is behind Crimson Dawn is that we already saw his prowess in this world in Clone Wars Season 5, when he and Savage Opress took over Black Sun. Enfys adds another dimension to this world: if Solo’s syndicates we’re the drug-gangs of The Wire, Enfys would be Omar, with a laser-pike instead of a shotgun. Or, to pick a more classic example, this is the first Star Wars movie to draw as much from The Maltese Falcon as it does from Flash Gordon.

So where does this leave Star Wars as a whole? Overall, I still think we’re moving into the Sequel Era proper. But Solo has kept the limbo between the original two trilogies open just enough that I’m afraid Lucasfilm will continue to mine the era for its lingering delights instead of moving on. Do I want to see another Solo movie that follows Maul and Kyra as its main villains? Of course I do (heck, make it Enfys vs Mail and dispense with Han entirely, I don’t care!). It would feel like subplots from Clone Wars and Rebels were continuing on the big screen. Given the rumors, I think it’s likely Lucasfilm is all set to make another two Solo films if this one does well enough at the box office. But they probably shouldn’t. Let have more Sequel-Era adventures; let’s make Episode IX the best it can be.

In the end, I’m glad Lucasfilm  was brave enough to make the last two Star Wars Stories. Solo and Rogue One were interesting experiments, though the results were mixed. Solo sadly never rises to the level of the transcendent moments in Rogue One: Galen’s message to Jyn, the beauty of Chirrut’s faith, or the Vader hallway massacre. When Rogue One was over, the story was clearly finished, with real pathos and real closure. Solo feels like a TV episode that can’t help but add in some cliff hangers to get you ready for the next one. That may be good marketing, but I’m not convinced it’s good storytelling.



A Review of Power Rangers (the movie) by Someone Who Never Watched Power Rangers (the show)


I was an 80s kid who loved GI Joe, Star Wars, and Ninja Turtles, but I never really got into Power Rangers. For some reason, by the time Power Rangers ruled the airwaves of the 90s, I was a little too old for it. Plus the commercials always looked dubious: brightly colored costumes with inexplicable unmoving lip-molds, robots, and rubber-suited villains. The practical effects that worked for me in Star Wars seemed more laughable and lame to my nine year old eyes, and so I never watched it. I resented the Power Rangers toys next to my beloved GI Joe’s on the K-Mart shelves, like some new kid on the block who starts calling your best friend their best friend.

Well, now it’s 2017, and we’re so far into a decade of rebooted 80s and 90s entertainment franchises that a Power Rangers movie seems now rote and humdrum. After two new GI Joe movies AND two new Ninja Turtles movies, I’ve come to accept that the childhood reboot movies (CRMs) will never be satisfying. The question will never be “How good is it?” The question will always be “How bad is it?” And thus the highest praise will always be “not bad”.

After I watch a CRM, I have a strange feeling that maybe I’ve never seen a good movie. That maybe I should praise what I just saw because movies aren’t ever really any better. Movies are always a few funny jokes and one or two likable characters, a bland plot and not much else. I felt like this walking out of Power Rangers. But then I remembered that last week I watched The Wind Rises, a patient, beautiful, haunting film. There are still good movies, that both adults and kids can love. They just don’t really exist in the world of CRMs.

So, let’s get it over with [Spoilers follow]

Power Rangers begins, a title card tells us, in the Cenozoic era, the screen sprayed with exploding earth and vague jungled mountains in the back-ground. It feels like it’s shot on a backlot that was used the day before for Hacksaw Ridge. Let’s call it scorched-earth chic.(Hey, that was a good move too. Not classic, but pretty darn good. Faith in movies restored). Anyway, the Red Ranger is crawling desperately for some reason. I know he’s the Red Ranger because his suit is red. It turns out his name is Zordon. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – very close to Zartan from GI Joe. But Zordon is a good guy is this one. In particular, he’s trying to hide some shiny stones from a bad-looking witch lady. He calls her Rita.

Wait, let me Google a couple things: okay, to my surprise, the Cenozoic era is a real thing, though it’s hardly specific: for instance, we are currently living in the Cenozoic era. 66 million years ago, it was also the Cenozoic era. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a few million years ago in this opener, for what it’s worth, so we’ll just call this the early Cenozoic.

But I’m afraid I can’t buy that Rita is a real name used a few million years ago; case in point, Rita is a diminutive of Margaret, which is from the Greek for pearl. Saint Margaret, who is responsible for the popularity of the name, was martyred in the 4th century AD. I’m pretty sure Rita is a much more recent nickname. So, historically speaking, it’s highly improbable anyone would be named “Rita” in, like, 10 million BC. “Zordon”, of course is much more plausible.

Anyways, Zordon seems to temporarily defeat Rita, and hide the jewels – one red, one pink, one yellow, one black, and one blue – before our transition to the present day (or, the late Cenozoic, if you will). Two jocks are trying to pull some prank with a cow at their school, and a joke about milking a bull is made. It’s surprisingly crude and very funny in a Judd Apatow sort of way (if you like that sort of thing, which I do from time to time), but feels a little out of place here, especially when made by a character who will only appear in this scene.

One of our jocks, it turns out, is the star quarterback, but after crashing his truck running from the police, he’s kicked off the team and placed in Saturday detention. This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to do a “super hero team as The Breakfast Club”, but the effort feels half hearted, and doesn’t quite land. Instead, the scene sets up an unexpected friendship between Jason, the humbled Jock, and nerdy Billy, another detentionee who Jason defends from a wholly cliche and uninteresting bully. We get to see that Jason has a Steve Rogers streak, though Dacre Montgomery, who plays him, is no Chris Evans.

Billy, played by RJ Cyler, on the other hand, is the best character in the movie by far – funny, awkward, endearing, motormouthed, and guided by love. Whereas other characters talk about their families only at times that feel prescribed by the script, Billy talks about his mom and his late father incessantly, as if they are more real to him even when absent than the people around him. He also latches onto Jason as not just a friend but a big brother. Even when surrounded by all the other Rangers, he directs his comments to Jason as the one out of the group he both most cares about and feels is somewhat in charge of looking after him. I could stand to watch a movie all about Billy.

At detention we also meet Kimberly, played by Naomi Scott. She looks like a cross between Krysten Ritter and Chloe Bennet, though unlike their typical cynical outsider characters, she here plays a cheerleader – the archetypal analogue of Jason’s quarterback – who has been, surprise, surprise, also defrocked of her social status due to some mean girl drama over a boy. I would have liked to have seen both of them in their prelapsarian states; especially in a movie that will try to be about teamwork between teens, it would have been nice to see several contrasting examples of teens working as teams, football, cheerleading, etc.

Kimberly also likes doing Yoga on rocky outcroppings overlooking quarries, which is convenient, because later that night the quarry is exactly where Billy drags Jason. The three of them are not the only ones who like an evening stroll in the trees and crags. There’s also Zach, played by Ludi Lin, who has a generic swagger and has the questionable habit of watching Kimberly do yoga through binoculars. This creepiness is never really addressed. There’s also Trini, played by Becky G. (Yes that’s the entriety of her stage name. She’s a musician. Go figure.) Trini is… possibly gay? A Selena Gomez look alike? Has parents who just don’t understand? Honestly neither she nor Zach has much of a character. Zach has a sick mom that lends his character an easy sympathetic note, and helps smooth the bad-boy rough edges. Trini has none of this and deserves more of a character.

After a requisite cave in (caused partially by Billy’s penchant for pyrotechnics), the five find themselves in a gravity defying pool and then a buried spaceship, where they receive the stones we saw at the beginning, and are invited by a wisecracking robot to become a team of… superheroes? Alien warriors? It’s unclear what exactly the Power Rangers are. They keep being called “guardians of life” which sounds generic enough to mean whatever we want it to mean. There turns out to be a crystal that holds some sort of life force, and that crystal needs to be guarded from Rita, who, wouldn’t you know it, has woke from her millions’ year long slumber and is now stealing/consuming gold all over town in an attempt to…

Are you still reading? If so, you’ll have to forgive me, because at this point in the movie I really needed a bathroom break, and I may have missed something about the whole Rita plot. It didn’t matter, because the rest off the movie still made enough sense after I came back, though my popcorn had gotten cold.

Back with the Rangers, they decide over the course of a few scenes that they do indeed want to take on this responsibility. It helps that there’s both a funny and helpful robots (Bill Hader channeling a KiKi’s Delivery Service era Phil Hartman), who shows them the ropes of being a Ranger. There’s an austere, Jor-El-like talking head that happens to belong to Zordon himself. He’s somehow stuck in another reality or dimension or somewhat, and cannot return until the rangers can “morph”, which pretty much seems to me put aside their differences and work as a team and thus access cool suits and robot vehicles? This morph will open the portal through which Zordon can come to earth. I think. Is Zordon dead? Are we learning that teamwork is really the key to human resurrection? I remain confused.

Some of the training montages are fun. The single best scene on the film is a short sequence of Kimberly and Trini eating breakfast together at a restraint, and fighting over the last bite of a cinnamon roll by flipping it back and forth from fork to fork, ninja style, through the air. The scene has an energy the rest of the movie lacks, and must itself be from an alternate dimension where Chris Evans plays Jason and people’s names are not so anachronistic.

As bad as Rita Repulsa’s name is, Elizabeth Banks plays her with winking relish, and some of the early scenes of her eating gold off jewelry store counters in full view of cowering salespeople and customers are creepily effective.

Inevitably, the Rangers end up being lured into a trap by Rita, who knows they haven’t learned to morph yet, and easily disarms and ties them up. She then – and this actually happens – kills Billy. She drops him into the ocean with his hands tied, and he drowns before the other rangers can get to him. I kept expecting him to be resuccitated by Kimberly (you’d think she’s know CPR?), but no. Billy is dead. His four friends carry him to Zordon in slow motion while “Stand by Me” plays. At this point I was proud of the movie. It may be bland and generic, but I did not at all expect Billy to die.

Still, because of Billy’s death, the Rangers all bond and work together, and this opens the portal, but instead of Zordon coming through, Zordon sends Billy (Billy’s soul?) back, and surprise, he sputters to life. At this point I wrote in my notes “Good guy Zordon”. This proves to Jason that Zordon is actually trustworthy and all around a pretty chill guy, something he struggled with early on.

(Why – if I may digress – is the white guy automatically the leader? Why not Billy – who happens to be black? Or Kimberly? Why MUST it be Jason? At one point, Zach, ever the hot head, questions Jason’s leadership, and we seem forced, as the audience to say that Zach couldn’t possibly lead. By why not? [Okay, okay – I get it. Jason is Leonardo, Zach is Raphael, Billy is Donatello, etc etc. I liked it better when everyone was green and amphibian.])

Due to Billy’s death and resurrection, the team has now bonded enough to “morph” together, which involves Jason saying, with maximum cheese, “It’s morphin’ time!” at which point their power ranger costumes magically appear on their bodies. What happens to the clothes they were wearing before is anyone’s guess. I’ve wondered this about Green Lantern as well… anyway, I digress.

Now that they have their costumes the Red, Blue, Black, Yellow, and Pink – yes Yellow and Pink are the girls, but no, Billy’s not the Black ranger, thank goodness – Rangers are ready to take on Rita and her minions. An escalating fight sequence now takes place. It’s honestly pretty fun in a sort of throw back way. There’s no shaky cam or Michael Bay grandiloquence. Mostly it’s just people in silly costumes jumping around fighting each other, aided by CG embellishments to their costumes (especially Rita’s minions, who appear to be some sort of rock golems. The fact that they remind me of the similar minions at the end of suicide squad is not a great thing).

The final fight turns out to be not Rangers vs Rita, but Rita’s golden, three story tall monster Goldar (guess what he’s made out of!) vs a three story tall robot made out of smaller robots, each piloted by a Ranger. When their robots first form this giant robot, which seems to called a be called a Mega-Zord, it turns out the Rangers don’t know how to steer it, and it immediately falls over. This is funny in a Marvel/Whedon way, and I salute whoever had the idea.

Anyway, in the end Mega-Zord body-slams Goldar, WWE style, and the town is saved. But what of Rita? The fight sent her spinning into space, much like Vader in the original Star Wars, and my guess is she’s scheduled return for the sequel. I don’t think I’ll see the sequel, but I do thank the movie for reminding me of another film, which is both aesthetically coherent and also features robots body-slamming monsters: Pacific Rim. I should really watch that again. That was a good movie.

7 Thoughts about Star Wars: Rebels S3E1

star_wars_rebels_season_three_posterWell, Rebels season 3 is here, and has begun with some of the same old rebels we love, and a few new twists thrown into the mix. It’s not a perfect episode, but it’s the beginning of what promises to be an intriguing season. Here are my seven big thoughts about tonight’s episode:

  1. As a season premiere, this episode was relatively unambitious. Whereas last season opened with The Siege of Lothal and included both a lightsaber battle with Darth Vader AND a space battle with Darth Vader, this season gives us another “steal ships for the rebellion” plot, which we’re now relatively familiar with from last season. This isn’t a misstep, though. The character moments that the episode wanted required the mission to be relatively routine.
  2. Thrawn is surprisingly creepy. The big bad for the season got teased at Star Wars Celebration, so I knew to expect Thrawn, but I didn’t expect him to be so effectively scary – cool, patient, silky voiced, and, we get the feeling, absolutely ruthless. I’m glad we’re taking a break from Inquisitor big bads, as they were getting tiresome.
  3. Am I the only one who’s tired of Hondo? 
  4. The Bendu was… intriguing. For me, the most compelling part of this episode was always going to be Kanan dealing with the fallout from last season’s finale in which he was blinded by and almost lost his apprentice to Maul. Using the Bendu as Kanan’s counselor/new mentor figure was interesting and effective, even if we’re still unsure about who/what the Bendu is. I for one am worried about the fact that the sith Holocron is in the Bendu’s possession. Won’t the Holocron corrupt the Bendu, as it clearly has been doing to Ezra? Or is the Bendu a sort of Tom Bombadil character which won’t be unbalanced by such things? Time will tell.
  5. I honestly don’t know what to make of Ezra. It’s cool to see that he’s matured, and I’m glad that he got to learn a lesson about  overreaching and failing, but I just don’t know how worried to be about him. Kanan seemed to go from being appropriately worried about Ezra’s use of the sith Holocron to overly confident that everything is alright. I think Kanan wants nothing to be wrong with Ezra so much that he’s not seeing Ezra clearly. I think that the pacing of the Ezra/Kanan scenes was a little off, too. The writers tried to fit a little too much character development into a single episode. In any case, I’m interested to see how all this plays out.
  6. Okay, what’s with the owls? They’re everywhere: owls ended the season 2 finale – an owl flew off from the Sith Temple after Vader defeated (?) Ahsoka; an owl was watching over the rebels when they arrived back at their base. Now, an owl leads Kanan to the Bendu, AND Sabine has an owl image painted on her shoulder-plate. Something’s definitely going on with owls.
  7. RIP the Phantom. I’d really grown attached to the Phantom, and it was sad to see it destroyed due to Ezra’s over-confidence. Still, I noticed that there’s a Star Wars Lego set slated for a 2017 release named “Phantom II”. I’m already excited to see what the new model looks like.

3 Already Classic Rey Moments from Force Awakens, Lego Style

Haters may quibble about plot points, but one thing is already quite clear about Star Wars Episode VII: Rey is the best – a bold, clever, strong,  adorable (in the best sense of the word) protagonist. What she needs is to be celebrated for the revelation she is. And what better way to celebrate than by rendering her best moments… in Legos! (Warning: Mild Spoilers ahead)

Moment 1: when we first meet Rey, she’s deep in the bowels of a star destroyer mining it for parts, all the while wearing an awesome facemask to keep the sand at bay:


Moment 2: Rey kicks back to eat her quarter portion of gelatinous green food, leaning against the ruins of an AT-AT among the sand dunes of Jakku, all the while sporting an old Rebel pilot helmet:


Moment 3: You know the one: it’s snowing in the woods, and Rey just force-grabbed herself a light-saber. It’s showtime.




5 Reasons We Need Star Wars This Christmas

tfa_poster_wide_header_adb92fa0As another Christmas approaches, the season looks anything but merry: a malevolent regime kills and abuses thousands in the middle East and seems to extend terror throughout the globe. First world nations squabble and choose self interest over human rights. Here in the US, Presidential candidates capitalize on global suffering to further their polling numbers. The poor stay poor. The outcast remain outcast. And popular culture and the media seem to care most about promoting another blockbuster movie sure to rake in money while fans bicker about its worth and ignore the real problems facing the world. So the argument goes…

And yet… And yet. This movie is the seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, a series of films that invented and reinvented not just visual storytelling, but the whole western understanding of how films are marketed, discussed and, yes, even complained about. The beloved original trilogy of 1977-1983 may have given way to the controversial-at-best prequel trilogy of 1999-2005, but the buzz and the fascination with the universe Lucas made has not diminished. It has only grown. Now we are on the eve of the sequel trilogy, and I for one would like to meditate, in the calm before the cultural storm, about why, in this fraught and cynical age of global awareness and global nausea, Star Wars may teach us just what we need to survive:

  1. There are always threats to the galaxy, and the greatest threat is within: the villains of Star Wars are a big part of its appeal: Darth Vader, stormtroopers, The Emperor, General Grievous. They put a face (or a hood) on the villainy that too often arises in human culture. It is not for nothing that the evil Empire of the original trilogy seems so obviously patterned after  Nazi Germany. The late 20th century understood evil best as a bunch of drab-uniformed white men exterminating other races and cultures. But what the original trilogy, and the prequels in their due time showed, is that the most insidious threat to us may not be the totalitarian baddies a planet away. It is ourselves, our own recklessness (see Luke’s colossal failure at the end of episode 5), our own fear (see Anakin’s maddening descent into terror in episodes 2 and 3), our own petty justifications (see uncle Owen’s and Obi Wan’s continual lying to Luke for his own good in episode 4), and, perhaps most insidious of all, our assumption that because we are on the “right side” of a conflict, we needn’t police our own institutions or intentions. This is best seen in the arrogance and mis-administration of the Jedi order in the prequel trilogy and Clone Wars TV show. By the end of episode 3, one of the most believable and moving moments is Yoda’s grief over having failed the republic, and knowing he – perhaps as much as Darth Sidious himself – is to blame for its fall. It is the human heart, not a  bunker full of terrorists, from which evil springs.
  2. The path to wonder lies in the understanding of the  Other: Throughout the Star wars saga, when a character – especially a protagonist – is wrong about a stranger, that mistake costs them joy, and sometimes lives. Han dismisses Obi Wan as an “old fossil”, and so misses out on even knowing one of the greatest men of his age. Luke dismisses Yoda because of his size and demeanor and so is shamed and humbled when he learns the Jedi Master’s true identity. And the Empire, who cannot abide the stranger, loses its grip on the galaxy because it misjudged everyone: Leia, the rebellion, the millennium falcon, the ewoks, the wookiees – the lost goes on an on. Those who embrace the other – and Leia is a great example of this in episode 6 – see the value and wonder in the other. If not for Leia’s befriending and trusting of the ewoks on endor, the rebellion most surely would have lost. In this she is like her mother, Padme, who trusts the offputting Gungans, and so saves her planet from the Trade Federation.619_Leia_Wicket_HR
  3. Our passions can destroy us: Simply put, emotion and appetite unbridled by reason and virtue lead to ruin in the Star Wars universe. Anakin is the best example of this, but we see it in other prominent characters: watto, sebulba, jabba, the whole host of sith who cultivate anger and fear, and always lose to the patient and the kind.
  4. The halls of power hold no satisfaction: those who seek and achieve power in the Star Wars universe seldom become more joyful. Lando Calrisian’s administrative power, far from helping him do good, leads him only to compromise. Palpatine seems positively bored by his position (this is borne out in the TV shows and books). The Senate of the Old Republic, as much as they seem preferable to the Emperor’s despotism, are a glum and impotent bunch. Star Wars reminds us that political power, even when it doesn’t corrupt, causes grief, anxiety, and plenty of temptation to compromise.
  5. You don’t believe in the force, do you? Finally, Lucas’s universe is one that questions the materialism of our age. Lucas assumes that we want the Old legends and religions to be true in our ideal story. His universe is open to the divine, to eucatastrophe, to a host of the departed who watch and aid the living. And he asks us, as C.S. Lewis did before him: does this spirit-shot world of wonder and danger not lick your modern world hollow?

Ranking the Star Wars Canon

Finn and Rey, the new heroes of Episode VII

There are afternoons I am so taken with excitement for the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens that I feel I cannot wait for it. My patience is reduced to that of the proverbial kid before Christmas. Though I consider myself part of several fandoms, (including Buffy, DC, and Harry Potter) Star Wars is my first fandom. It was preordained, I think; I was born in 1983, one month and one day after Return of the Jedi was released. One of my earlier memories is of me hiding behind a couch at my grandma’s house, listening to my uncle and my father watch Empire Strikes Back on TV. I was too young to join them, I was told. I remember the flashes of red on the ceiling, and the screams of laser fire. What was this forbidden story, I wondered. What was flashing and exploding on that screen?

Fast-forward to today, after the Star Wars canon has taken not one but two unexpected turns: first, the prequel trilogy, which were released around the turn of the millennium underwhelmed a majority of viewers and made many downright furious with disappointment. Now that we have some distance from the prequels, tempers seem to have cooled, but it will be a long time before some fans forgive Lucas for what they see as a failure of epic proportions. Secondly, and more quietly, Lucas began making television shows, putting them in the capable hands of Dave Filoni, who has turned out two Star Wars animated TV shows, Clone Wars and Rebels, with surprising critical and popular appeal. Now we are poised on a third great change, as the third trilogy heads toward theaters.

I’ll hold off on speculation about whether the new trilogy will follow suit with the prequels or, more hopefully, replicate Filoni’s TV successes. No, I’m here to provide a ranking of what we have up till now. (I’ve only ranked canon films and shows; I’ll leave it to others to tackle the expanded universe.)

10. The Clone Wars (2008 film): The first sentence of Roger Ebert’s 2008 review of this animated follow up to the prequel trilogy is: “Has it come      to this?” One can practically hear the disappointment in Ebert’s voice, not only that this film is so blasé, but also that this film exists at all. The Clone Wars era had already been smartly handled in an short, animated TV show in 2003, and Episode III had ended the prequel trilogy on a grim high note. Why this let-down, and why now? We now know that Lucas had a long game in mind, that he wanted to kick off a television show and wanted to use the film as an introduction to his new characters, most especially Anakin’s Padawan Ahsoka Tano. But the introduction leaves much to be desired. Ahsoka is mildly amusing at best, and positively annoying at worst. The film’s plot revolves around a minor villain, Ziro the Hutt, who appears to have been dreamed up by Lucas while he was drunk in Vegas. The best that can be said for this film is that in Ahsoka it introduced a character who would later come into her own and become beloved. Other than that, this film is forgettable.

Ahsoka, the only redeeming quality of the Clone Wars film

9. The Clone Wars (2003 show): If the 2008 Clone Wars film was a minor Star Wars story at its worst, this miniseries is a minor Star Wars story at its best. The animation is strange and consistently engaging. The characters are almost figurine-like in their simplicity. The new character that is introduced, General Greivous, would become one of the best villains of the prequel age. With its brief episodes and dialogue-light plotting, this will never rival the films, or even Filoni’s shows, but it is a testament to what a fresh take on the look of Star Wars can sometimes produce. [I’ve since been informed that this show does not count as canon.]

Mace Windu and the Clones get a 2D animated make-over

8. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999 film): Such promise, such anticipation, such confusion. I watched this so many times in the theater, and so many more times on VHS, and I still could not make myself fully satisfied with it. There are moments of pure awesome that we had never seen before, never even imagined: the towers and waterfalls of Naboo, the sprawl of Coruscant, Darth Maul and his double-ended lightsaber, the whole quiet decadence of the Old Republic.

And yet the basic elements of what we looked for in a film were sub-par. The acting felt wooden and rote, most especially in actors we thought should know better, like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. The plot too often relied on Anakin’s abilities in ways that were hardly believable, even while keeping the original trilogies in mind. But now, sixteen years later, Episode I does not need to be the Return-of-the-Jedi-topping masterwork we were all hoping it would be in 1999. It introduced a key arc, and gave us indelible sights, and unforgettable characters.

7. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 film): This is an improvement, we all said. Obi Wan had some wry energy to him, Jango-Fett and his son Boba blasted onto the screen, and the Clone Wars actually, finally, started. We even got some promise of forbidden romance in the early scenes, which seemed at first to be charming and angsty enough. But it progressed all wrong. It didn’t seem to be acted well. The chemistry between the characters was off—too cold, then too obsessive and creepy. In retrospect, this almost seems the right way to do it. Anakin and Padme are supposed to be dysfunctional; we shouldn’t approve of or enjoy their courtship.

Sand-shaming at its most blatant

Luckily, right or wrong, the love between Anakin and Padme gets them into a wonderful scamper with alien beasts in a gladiator arena, which leads to a climactic Jedi, clone, and robot laser-fest that is still a lot of loud fun. And just when we think it’s over, Yoda pulls out a lightsaber, and audiences, for the first time since Return of the Jedi, were left breathless by a Star Wars duel. The Phantom Menace never really got the action right, except for in the final Darth Maul scenes. The real strength of Attack of the Clones is that it remembers the anxious fun of sci-fi action that the original trilogy captured so well.

6. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 film): I remember the first review that I read of Revenge of the Sith said that it was the best Star Wars film since Empire. That now seems to be overblown praise, but there’s no denying that this is the best of the prequel trilogy, and contains some of the most emotionally resonant scenes in all of Star Wars. The Mustafar duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan is nearly perfect, as is the unexpected Yoda vs. Palpatine fight. It is, in fact, Palpatine who really shines, believably corrupting and seducing Anakin and scorning the Jedi’s attempts to stop him. Even the painfully awkward Anakin/Padme love scenes seem to be appropriately painful, even if the acting leaves something to be desired.

Palpatine rules the screen in Episode III.

Perhaps, in the end, this film justifies our whole unease with Episodes I and II. They lacked hope and spontaneity, seemed decadent where they should have been lively and aggressive where they should have been lyrical. Such lacks, such “should have beens” are, Episode III shows, what kill a republic.

5. Rebels (2014 show): I’m taking an awful risk here. This had better work. I’m predicting that Rebels, which is only 13 episodes in, will prove in the long run better than half of all Star Wars canon made so far. But what a 13 episodes they have been! Not in the whole prequel trilogy did I feel the fear, the thrill, the inspiration and the fun that the first season of Rebels has offered. Filoni says that the A-Team was an inspiration for Rebels, and I can kind of see that, but what Rebels really is, to me, is Firefly for the junior high crowd (okay, maybe ALL of Star Wars is for the junior high crowd). Many of Firefly’s adult themes are missing, but the rest is there: a ragtag group of misfits trying to survive off the scraps of outer space, a malevolent government tightening its grip on its frontier, and even a young, mysterious, and radically gifted teen with unresolved angst. And Filoni, like Firefly’s creator Joss Whedon, isn’t afraid to kill characters or crucially change the rules of the plot.

Kanan Jarrus, disaffected Jedi-in-hiding, meets the red-saber wielding Inquisitor in Rebels.

But what Filoni has that Joss doesn’t is the deep mythology of the Jedi—and the Jedi-in-hiding at that—to draw on, which leads to beautiful explorations of the virtue of hope and the activity of return. Return even takes on Judaic resonance in the early episodes, as Erza, the orphaned Padawan, finds Kanan, the lonely Jedi, and together they rebuild an ancient spiritual community. Perhaps one of the things that is so wonderful about Rebels is that is takes place in the Star Wars world we’ve known since 1977, the post-Order 66 world where the Empire is firmly in change. There are so many good stories to tell in this world, and I’m excited to see where they go next.

4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 film): Jedi may be Star Wars at its most fun: Jabba’s palace, Boba Fett’s rocket pack, Ewoks, and a skeletal second Death Star. We finally get the narrative payoff—the redemption of Darth Vader—that we’d been waiting for since Empire in 1980 (if we saw it as it was released), or since Episode I, if we’re in a younger generation of fans. Jedi proves that Lucas lost none of his creative energy over the course of the whole trilogy, even if some of the elements (ahem, another Death Star?) feel a little recycled.

Why isn’t this, then, the best Star Wars? Well, the writing is just noticeably worse than the first two films; what had been the natural humor of Empire now feels a little more knowing and contrived. The sets, costumes and vehicles seem too neatly designed to be converted into merchandise, and there’s a heavy cheese factor at the end of the film with the Ewok party. None of these weaker elements are as off-putting as the Anakin/Padme romance, but they are creative indulgences which render Jedi a weaker film than its fellows in the original trilogy.

3. Clone Wars (2008 show): How can this possibly beat Jedi? It’s a cartoon for crying out loud! Well, sometimes Return of the Jedi feels like a cartoon too. Just hear me out: Clone Wars is the best of Star Wars on TV, and among the best Star Wars ever made because it learns from its predecessors and takes its cultural context seriously. Dave Filoni and George Lucas developed Clone Wars in a golden age of televised storytelling that was unimaginable even 9 years before when Lucas was making Episode I. I think that much of what Filoni and Lucas learned from a decade of prequels is what not to do: don’t focus everything on Padme and Anakin; don’t ignore your villains for the majority of the story, don’t treat the Clones like faceless throwaways, and don’t forget your women characters. Instead, Clone Wars focused on the villains, the soldiers, and the women. Ahsoka, who was just bearable in the Clone Wars film becomes a strong and beloved character; Asajj Ventress may begin as a one-dimensional villain, but by seasons 4 and 5 she is as fascinating as Carmela Soprano.

Darth Maul and Savage Oppress (yes, that’s his real name) wheedle their way into the criminal underworld in Clone Wars season 5.

Speaking of Sopranos, I think that serious TV drama was the real influence on this show. There is a deep uneasiness at the political and interpersonal levels of this show that has more in common with Breaking Bad or Dollhouse than Batman the Animated Series or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows that are pitched at the same audience as Clone Wars. The closest inspiration for Clone Wars, however, is the impressive and disturbing Battlestar Galactica (BSG). Together, Clone Wars and BSG are the best sci-fi television of the new millennium, and arguably among the best sci-fi ever made. Only Star Trek is as good at sci-fi television, and Clone Wars and BSG have surely learned from the Star Trek shows of the 90s how to make good sci-fi TV. What is so effective about these shows is the political and philosophical seriousness. Clone Wars and BSG helped me process and wrestle with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the whole ethos of the War on Terror better than any pundit on CNN or article in The Atlantic. Clone Wars is truly art that reflects on its age; that it does so in a kid’s cartoon makes it that much more impressive.

Ahsoka and Anakin in Season 5

2. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977 film): Oh the effortless joy of Star Wars, as it was called when there was only one film, and the world was young. The politics and philosophy of Clone Wars are all there, but streamlined into a concise, transporting story that is almost medieval, even ancient in its plot: the lost princess, the farm-boy, the old wizard, the black-clad villain. Every Star Wars since ’77 has come to be because of our fascination with this new world.

Yes, there are flaws, mostly those of youth and inexperience; Mark Hamill does not know how to play Luke sympathetically yet, and the rubber aliens, especially in the Cantina scene, feel cobbled together from some backlot warehouse. But if anything this low-budget, amateurishness adds to the charm. We now know that all the overblown CGI and clone battles are on the horizon; it’s nice to sit for a moment with Episode IV and relive a more elegant story from a more civilized time.

1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 film): What do you get when you make Star Wars with more experienced actors, a more tightly written script, more creative discernment, and more money? You get Empire, the only Star Wars film to approach Shakespeare in quotability and 2001: A Space Odyssey in sheer spectacle. While the Darth Maul saber battles in Episode I and Clone Wars are among the best in the canon, it is Luke and Vader whose long and varied duel in Empire takes the cake for best saber battle ever.

Han and Leia: Star Wars romance at its finest in Episode V

Joss Whedon has said that he doesn’t like Empire, because it’s not a complete story. This is a fair critique of it as a stand-alone film, but it’s not a stand-alone film. As we learn from Clone Wars, it is often the interludes, the half-way houses, the adventures one has while waiting for consolation or resolution to come, in which the greatest lessons are learned, in which meaning in life is discovered. As Yoda says in the final episode of Clone Wars, sometimes, when we least expect it, we discover that we can have “victory, not in the Clone Wars, but for all time.”

Why Christian Poetry is so Bad


The buzz this week about Old Fashioned, a Christian rip-off/response to 50 Shades of Grey, has got me thinking about a genre of Christian art that’s even more embarrassing than Christian movies: that’s right, Christian Poetry. Let’s begin by looking at two interesting facts:

  1. Christian bookstores don’t even stoop to sell Christian poetry.
  2. Christian poetry has been around for longer than any other Christian artistic genre, and it’s always been embarrassingly bad.

First, let’s talk about the contemporary problem. Say you walk into a Christian bookstore (maybe you need some clearance Duck Dynasty merchandise?), and browse the aisles of books. You’ll see many genres: inspirational biographies, inspirational fiction, inspirational bible studies, and maybe even, way off in a corner, theology. You know what you won’t find? Poetry. No major Christian publishing houses even have poetry on their radar, and for good reason.

Here are some names of Christian poets you probably haven’t heard of (and shouldn’t really need to): Richard Wilbur, Franz Wright, Geoffrey Hill, Luci Shaw, and Scott Cairns.* These poets must be so embarrassing to even Christian audiences that they have to publish their books with obscure secular publishers like Penguin, Harper Collins, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Wilbur and Wright have been known to even win prizes, like the Pulitzer, but it certainly hasn’t helped their situation with the Christian bookstores. These stores know better than to foist iambic pentameter about nuns and laundry (Wilbur’s specialty) on the Duck Dynasty crowd. Maybe if Geoffrey Hill had helped to write a CMT-award winning song, he wouldn’t have to slum it as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (his current job). When only weary British students at some obscure college read your work, you know your career is in the dumps.

There are even rumors that Geoffrey Hill could win the Nobel Prize in literature for his opaque, rambling poems that are riddled with references to someone called “Our Lady of Walsingham” and something called “The Mass”. (Maybe he’s trying to stand up against body shaming?) In any case, if Hill does win the Nobel, it would put him in the company of T.S. Eliot, a Christian poet so characteristic of the genre that both Christians and non-Christians alike ignore his religious poems. Still, one must concede that Eliot did write some successful poems about cats after his conversion to Christianity, but that’s about it. And forget about bringing up his popular and award winning verse play Murder in the Cathedral, that was made into a movie in 1951. The only thing worse than poetry in Christian bookstores is poetry in movies. Gross.

Given that we’ve let the cat out of the bag about T.S. Eliot, it seems like we should move on to the historical kerfuffle that is Christian poetry. We should probably pass over David’s Psalm’s entirely (Honestly: shepherds? pastures? Way to pick horribly dated imagery David! Someone should have told him that no one – I mean NO ONE – is going to resonate with Psalm 23 after 500 BC!)

The real culprit in the sordid story of Christian poetry is this wannabe named Prudentius, who, in the early 400s AD, wrote rip offs of highly original Latin Roman poems like the Aeneid. Prudentius had a fatal notion that one could write poems that had both allegorical and literal significance, and this notion infected such failures as Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spencer, and even—gasp!—Shakespeare himself. Check out this gem from Shakespeare’s King Lear:

So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—

Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—

And take upon ’s the mystery of things

As if we were God’s spies.

High school students who complain about Shakespeare have a point, it seems. Not only are the butterflies inexcusable, but the cliché Christianization of the whole shebang with the final “God’s spies” is just a bridge too far. We’re not inventing names for cheesy CCM pop groups here Shakespeare!

At least John Milton gives us some hope in his seeming celebration of the Devil and his avoidance of allegory, but by the end of Paradise Lost you get the idea that even he might actually believe in a literal Genesis and a real, actual God.

And this brings me to the real point. It’s all well and good to find out how contemporary Christian beliefs ruin the artistic endeavors of today’s religious folk, but it’s even more important to show that Christian belief couldn’t possibly motivate good art. We all know that transgressive anarchism is the essence of art. This is why it’s best to use our critical writing to aid people in forgetting that there ever were Christians who were successful and culture-defining in their art.

*But seriously, read these poets.