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Has Disney Mismanaged Star Wars? Yes and No

Ah to be in 2012 again, when Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm set off a firestorm of anticipation for new Star Wars content. There actually was a ton of Star Wars content in the pipeline, most of it announced at Star Wars Celebration 2012, and most of it canceled by King Mouse. Almost eight years later, it’s time to assess what the high-pitched, personality-less, mouse-man has done with George Lucas’ most enduring creation.

In 2012, Star Wars was actually in pretty good shape. “The Clone Wars” animated series had established itself as the best received Star Wars property since the Original Trilogy. Del Ray Publishing cranked out an Extended Universe book or two every year. Lucas Arts had just released “The Force Unleashed” series a few years earlier and was deep into production on Star Wars 1313, a game about Boba Fett. The Disney purchase wiped out all three.

What did Disney do with Star Wars? Let’s evaluate.

1. Star Wars Rebels (2014)

I’ve been watching Star Wars Rebels for the first time on Disney Plus. I’m pleasantly surprised by how good it is. It takes the best elements of The Clone Wars and some of the best elements of the Extended Universe and combines them.

The problem? Disney broadcast it on the little watched Disney XD channel. What should have been the triumphant start of Disney’s Star Wars ownership largely met a collective shrug outside of the Star Wars fan base because no one could watch it while it was actually on television.

2. The “New” Books, Comics, etc.

It took twenty years, dozens of novels, comics, and video games to fill in the story of what happened during the thirty years after Return of the Jedi. Instead of taking the best elements of that Extended Universe and incorporating them into the new stories, Disney wiped the slate clean. While this allowed for creative freedom, it also resulted in a rush to fill in the gaps.

I haven’t read very much of the new books or comics or played all the new video games, but some are much better than others. The Battleground games were a dumpster fire, for example, but the new Timothy Zahn Thrawn books have been well received.

The original Extended Universe was often hit or miss as well, so we’ll call this one a wash.

3. Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens is a well made, entertaining film. Critics and audiences loved it at the time, and re-watching it a few years later, I find it holds up extremely well. It may not be the most creative film, though, since it borrows heavily from the original Star Wars (Episode 4: A New Hope).

Was it a missed opportunity to borrow so heavily from Star Wars? Did we really need another Death Star? Certainly Disney left some of the creative cards on the table here. In fact, trying to establish a brand new story while at the same time trying to connect to the older story resulted in the Sequel Trilogy’s biggest flaws.

4. Rogue One

Rogue One, also known as “The One Where Everybody Dies,” had production issues, but the final result was a bold, propulsive action movie of the highest caliber. I have no complaints about the film itself.

Rogue One’s success gave Disney too much confidence in it’s strategy to make a “side-quest” movie every other year. Disney couldn’t reasonably expect to pump out a Star Wars movie every year, AND have all of those movies finish in the top ten of the highest grossing films of all time. However, that seems to be exactly what Disney expected.

5. Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi

I’ve defended The Last Jedi for over two years, but even I have to admit that the film is a house of cards. It looks spectacular for the most part, and it certainly contains a new take on Star Wars. It certainly has its champions. In retrospect, however, I think we will grow to see it as the weakest film of Disney’s initial five film output.

Too much of The Last Jedi simply does not work. Leia’s “flying through space” scene should have landed on the cutting room floor for bad shot composition. The Canto Bight detour robbed us of the best character interaction set up by J.J. Abrams: the friendship between Poe and Finn. In exchange, Johnson gave us dumber, more isolated versions of both characters.

The list goes on and on. What we’re left with is a Star Wars bottle episode that feels out of place given what J.J. Abrams did with Episode 9.

6. Star Wars: Resistance

Did you know there’s a cartoon created by the Rebels/Clone Wars team set during the Sequel Trilogy era? I didn’t either until recently. It’s been somewhat well reviewed, and I’ll check it out on Disney Plus. Disney has no excuse for any Star Wars series having such anonymity, I’ll tell you that much.

7. Solo

Ron Howard turned around a hellish production and gave us a solid, enjoyable film. It’s not exactly The Godfather, but it’s fun and pretty damn rewatchable. It also made so little money at the Box Office (relatively speaking compared to other Star Wars movies, it still made a ton), that it killed Disney’s “Star Wars movie every year” strategy. That will serve us well in the future.

8. Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker

Want to piss off the entertainment media? Make a move like Episode 9, apparently. I’ve purposefully avoided reviews and commentary online about this film, but critics can’t help but take pot shots at it even while discussing other topics. I really enjoyed it, and I saw it twice just to make sure. What I like most about it was how heavily J.J. Abrams bought into the high fantasy elements of Star Wars to create a movie that felt big enough to conclude a nine movie epic.

Episode 9 does feel like Abrams cramming two movies into one at times, however, and that was entirely avoidable.

As a completed product, the Sequel Trilogy feels like a push and pull between two filmmakers with wildly different ideas as to what direction to take Star Wars. If J.J. Abrams took too few risks in Episode 7, Rian Johnson took too many in Episode 8.

Watching all three in order, it feels like Johnson throws out everything Abrams set up in Episode 7. Then Abrams throws out most of what Johnson did to do what he wanted to do anyway. The lack of a central creative focus, or in fact, any plan makes the Sequel Trilogy enjoyable, but a missed opportunity.

In retrospect, I think that Disney would have been better served by adapting Timothy Zahn’s groundbreaking “Heir to the Empire” series for the Sequel Trilogy instead of starting wholecloth. People would have gotten over re-casting the main characters with younger actors. If that was Disney’s only hang up, it’s a massive, unforced error on its own, but there’s no evidence that Disney even considered adapting Heir to the Empire – a bantha sized mistake.

10. The Mandalorian, Clone Wars, Cassian Andor Series, and the Future.

First of all, The Mandalorian rocks. It rocks harder than any of the five Disney Star Wars films.

Additionally, The Clone Wars series will finally get the wrap up it deserves. While we know what happens to Cassian Andor, Diego Luna is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, so I’m looking forward to that series too. On Disney Plus, Star Wars has found a good home.

Game of Thrones ended with a thud, but it also demonstrated that a television series is a better platform for high fantasy storytelling than the “film trilogy” model. The Mandalorian has more room to breathe in its world than the Sequel Trilogy, for example. Then again, that’s also part of why The Clone Wars is light-years better than the Prequel Trilogy.

Conclusion

Is Star Wars in a better place now than in 2012? The Sequel Trilogy contains better films than the Prequel Trilogy, but it largely left creative capital on the table. Rogue One and Solo are solid films, but also showed Disney why they couldn’t water down their product. The “new” extended universe content does not appear better or worse than the old extended universe content.

That said, the television output of Star Wars has gotten better and better.

While there have been missteps, Star Wars also has a bright future ahead of it. I for one, am excited to find out what the future holds for Baby Yoda and company.

(C) 2020 D.G. McCabe

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Something Rotten in the State of Criticism

“Tis hard to say if greater want of skill,

Appear in writing or judging ill,

But of the two, less dangerous is the offense,

To tire our patience than mislead our sense.”

– Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1711

I’ve spent countless hours reading lazy, shallow, repetitive criticism of film and television online. For the last week, I purposefully avoided all critics in anticipation of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” I deleted social media apps from my phone, blocked popular culture websites, avoided aggregators like burning sulfur.

I saw Episode IX. I quite enjoyed Episode IX. Then, having no need to avoid the critical “conversation,” I ended my embargo and found a “conversation” that I had no interest in joining. It was the same conversation that praised David Simon’s dumpster fire “The Deuce” and awarded the three worst seasons of Game of Thrones with the Emmy for best drama series. The same conversation that told fans that hated Star Wars: The Last Jedi that their opinions were wrong, and the critics knew best. It’s the same conversation that recognizes movies as “films of the decade” that weren’t well reviewed or widely seen at the time.

The state of film and television criticism has descended into a culture of mindless aggregators, shallow hot takes, and a devaluation of successful storytelling tropes in favor of what’s new and shiny. However, I outlined three very different points of contention above, so I’m going to give each one its space.

1. Against Aggregators

Aggregators offer quick, ultimately meaningless data points for whether or not a movie is “good” or whether the intended audience will actually enjoy the film.

For example, the Rotten Tomatoes score for the classic, original Anchorman (66%) is lower than its pointless sequel Anchorman 2 (75%). Star Trek: Into Darkness (84%) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (87%) have similar scores, even though the former is a far inferior remake of the latter. The viewer scores for Star Wars Episodes 8 (43%) and 9 (86%) are the opposite of the critical scores (91% and 57% respectively), demonstrating an extreme disconnect between reviewers and audiences. Did I cherry-pick these examples? Of course. Are they the only examples? Hardly.

An aggregation of reviews diminishes the value each individual review, while providing an ultimately useless number that may or may not reflect the actual quality of the film. Aggregators give the appearance of advice, while, in fact, providing very little useful information.

2. Against Recapping

I admit, I used to love episode by episode recaps. About ten years ago, this format greatly contributed to the conception of a “golden age” of television. I’m not disputing that. What I take issue with is not what recapping was, but what recapping has become.

In a rush to be the quickest to publish, episode recaps have become sloppily written, and at worst, lazy descriptions of what went on in the episode that add nothing of value.

Recaps can also mislead about the quality of a show. Take for example HBO’s “The Deuce.” The Deuce was an unfocused endeavor that spent too much time on too many boring characters. David Simon and George Pelacanos intricately recreated a setting no one wanted to revisit, to tell a story no one asked for. However, if you didn’t actually watch the show and just read the episode by episode recaps, you’d think it was phenomenal. In a rush to publish, it was faster and easier to simply praise a show created by previously successful producers than to question the show’s quality.

3. Against Challenging Successful Tropes Just for the Sake of Challenging Successful Tropes

On the one hand, I get it. We can’t forever keep calling back to the same properties that were popular in the 1980’s, can we? There certainly have been lazy, unnecessary remakes. I argue, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to give fans of a property something they’d enjoy or calling back to an earlier film that worked well.

I enjoy Star Wars, The Last Jedi, and so did critics. The latter mainly did so because the film challenged established Star Wars tropes and answered the questions posed by Episode 7 in unique ways. I’m always captivated by the film’s images while I’m watching it, but I admit that its story is a house of cards.

Many, many people did not enjoy The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson challenged established Star Wars tropes, but never asked whether those tropes needed challenging.

Successful tropes are successful for a reason, and this is nothing unique to Star Wars. After all, one of the main sources of Star Wars is Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” which is entirely about the common themes that exist between popular myths throughout human history. Sometimes challenging those tropes in popular media is simply unnecessary.

As for nostalgia – the greatest advantage of film as an art-form is its ability to create an emotional response in the audience. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. There is nothing inherently wrong with using it to tell a story.

Conclusion

I’m done with aggregators and re-caps. I’m also done with this idea that using nostalgia and fan service are automatically negative things. More on Star Wars, Episode 9 later.

(C) D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Full Analysis Part 2

Since I wrote Part One of my analysis of The Last Jedi, I have done two things.  First, I saw the film a second time.  Second, I re-watched Rashomon (1950).  This has sharpened my view of the movie.  While I initially lauded it as a masterpiece, I’ve dialed that back some.  It is still a very, very good movie, probably the third best Star Wars movie.  But it is an imperfect film, so calling it an unequivocal masterpiece is misleading.

None of The Last Jedi’s flaws particularly bother me, but that does not mean they aren’t present.  Most feel nit-picky to me.  One example is how the film hand-waves away several of the science fiction elements.  Star Wars has never been science fiction – its proper genre is fantasy.  Still, it made some viewers wonder why, for example, a hyper-drive collision hadn’t been used more frequently if it could destroy several ships at once.

The one problem that’s hard to explain away has to do with the characterization of Luke Skywalker.  The film doesn’t do a great job of explaining why Luke wouldn’t have tried to deal with Kylo Ren before going into exile.  The closest to a reason that we get from him is when he tells Rey, “What do you expect me to do? Grab a laser sword and take on the entire First Order by myself?”  Luke has concluded that trying to deal with his nephew would lead to nothing but certain doom.  But why?

I didn’t need to know exactly what happened that made him so jaded – the failure of everything he had fought for was enough of a reason for me.  I also can excuse a lack of exposition in an already jam-packed film.  The counter-argument is that this isn’t Snoke we’re talking about – a character who we didn’t really need a backstory beyond “stock dark-side villain.”  Luke Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars saga and a film should describe his motivations clearly enough that everyone understands them.  If The Last Jedi did not universally accomplish this clarity, that is a flaw.  But how serious of a flaw is it?

Compare, if you will, The Last Jedi to a nearly flawless film, Rashomon.  Rashomon may be known for its unforgettable images and non-linear storytelling, but at its base it is an extremely well constructed film.  Akira Kurosawa gives us just enough plot and characterization to accomplish his storytelling goals, nothing more.  This limits distraction and allows the audience to be fully immersed in four different versions of the same story.  For example, the audience doesn’t even suspend its disbelief to question why everyone in the story takes a medium speaking for a dead samurai seriously.

The Last Jedi is a well made film, but it is not economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  One could argue that The Last Jedi needed to walk a tightrope between viewer reactions ranging from “this is like the boring, blah, blah, blah from the prequels,” and “we demand more world-building.”  That equates the amount of backstory with economy, but less backstory doesn’t cause a movie to be economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  You need enough backstory to keep the audience from questioning the movie in the middle of the experience, and The Last Jedi does not do this for a good chunk of its audience.

Kathleen Kennedy and her team at Disney are terrified of the prequels, and with good reason.  The first two are bad movies, full stop.  The third is okay, but still disappointing, and not a good enough film in its own right to overcome the problems of the Episodes I and II.  I can understand erring towards annoying the “we demand more world-building” people by cutting exposition, but sometimes you need backstory to make sure that your story is universally understood enough to keep its audience immersed in it.  A more economical movie would understand this – and to some extent this is a problem in the Force Awakens too.  We shouldn’t need to read a tie-in book to know what the difference between the New Republic and the Resistance, for example.

That brings me to why the lack of backstory in The Last Jedi isn’t a fatal flaw in the same way that the flaws of Episode I and II destroy those movies.  The information that The Force Awakens leaves out is available in tie-in books.  If we didn’t know about that information then, we know it now.  The Last Jedi will get its share of tie-ins too, which will fill in some of the missing worldbuilding and potentially clarify Luke’s characterization to viewers who wanted more information.

If this is Disney’s scheme to sell more books, comics, and video games,  so be it – film has always been a commercial artform.  But this isn’t a problem in the Original Trilogy and that made plenty of tie-in loot.  If it is going to be Disney’s strategy going forward to play loose with economical storytelling in order to sell side-content, this will prevent its films from being great movies like Rashomon.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe