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My Master Ranking of Star Wars Movies and TV Shows

I haven’t written anything in this space for quite some time.  I’ve been occupied with other writing projects.  That said, let’s get back into the swing of this movie/tv blog with a master ranking of all Star Wars movies and TV shows!  Only canonical ones, that is, I won’t be ranking the Star Wars Holiday Special here.

The Landmark Motion Pictures

  1. 1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

It’s important to remember how little experience movie audiences had with serial sequel films back in 1980.  The Godfather Part II (1974) received well-deserved critical and commercial accolades, but most sequels at the time were self-contained episodes rather than the continuation of the story from the previous film, like the James Bond films.  If Irvin Kershner’s film had not successfully built upon the characters established in Star Wars, we probably would not have the rich tapestry of serial “franchise” films we have today.

  1. 2. Star Wars (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

Watch the documentary “Empire of Dreams” and you’ll see that it’s a miracle that Star Wars worked out at all.  Star Wars is a landmark in cinema history, unleashing the power of the innovative technology to push the medium of film forward.

Star Wars Rocks on Television

  1. 3. Star Wars: Rebels

It took me a long time to watch Rebels, but I was blown away. To summarize, it combines the rich characterizations of the Original Trilogy with the detailed worldbuilding of the Prequel Trilogy.  The result is one of the best animated television series I’ve ever seen.

  1. 4. Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I’m not counting the “Clone Wars” film, since it’s the pilot for the TV series (and a weak pilot at that).  The only knock on Clone Wars that keeps it ranked below Rebels is that Clone Wars takes a dozen episodes or so to really get going.  But after this week’s series finale, I’m motivated to revisit the entire series.  It’s the Prequel Trilogy as it should have been.

  1. 5. The Mandalorian

If you’re seeing a pattern, there’s a point.  It has become clear to me that television is a better medium for science fiction and fantasy storytelling than film.  The Mandalorian has the potential to move up this list, but for now, Season One plants it at number five.

Excellent Movies with One or Two Issues

  1. 6. Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens is damn good.  The only flaw in this film is that its plot is derivative of the original Star Wars.  I don’t consider that much of an issue.  Many films have derivative plots.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has almost the same plot as Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example.

  1. 7. Star Wars Episode 6: The Return of the Jedi

Look, I know plenty of Star Wars fans who would have this higher on the list, even number one.  It’s certainly a satisfying conclusion to the Original Trilogy.  For me, they spend way too much time in Jabba’s Palace before the actual story gets going.

The Stand-Alone Films

  1. 8. Rogue One

Rogue One is the only completely self-contained Star Wars movie, since Solo is the origin story of an existing character.  It is a solid film which lends interesting detail to the background soldiers of the Original Trilogy. I considered ranking it higher, but I simply like the aforementioned shows and movies more.

  1. 9. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Every time I watch this film, the more I like it.  There’s always a bit of a “so what” aspect to many prequels. Ron Howard’s film is well crafted enough that, even if it’s a bit unnecessary from an overall story perspective, it is exceedingly entertaining and just plain fun.

Couldn’t Quite Stick the Landing

  1. 10. Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker

I still have not read a single “think piece” or review about this film (although I’ve seen snippets of commentary and I listened to a podcast that didn’t hate it).  I have my own opinion, and I’m sticking to that.  It is an exceedingly entertaining film.  That said, it tries to cram two movies worth of plot and character beats into one movie, so it could have used more breathing space.  However, in his defense, J.J. Abrams had few other good choices.  He had to craft a compelling, epic conclusion to a nine movie, high fantasy story right after Rian Johnson had gleefully set fire to most of the high fantasy elements.  Episode 9’s biggest problem is Episode 8.

  1. 11. Star Wars Episode 3: The Revenge of the Sith

I’ve always been a defender of Episode 3.  I maintain that if all the prequels were as good as Episode 3, it would be a completely different conversation.  That said, it has glaring problems. First, it’s hard to see Darth Vader as redeemable after he murders children.  Second, Lucas should have made it crystal clear that Vader kills Padme, because it reads as “she dies of a broken heart,” not “she dies because she was force choked and only had enough life force left to give birth.”  Third, it has its share of clunky dialogue.  Other than that, it’s a pretty solid movie.

Not Quite Dumpster Fires

  1. 12. Star Wars: Resistance

Resistance isn’t bad so much as it’s just disappointing.  Rebels and Clone Wars set a high standard for Star Wars animation. Resistance belongs on Saturday morning in the 1980’s.

  1. 13. Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi

I’ve come fully around on Episode 8.  I used to defend it, but I’m done.  Episode 8 doesn’t work because: 1) it’s a “bottle episode” in the middle of what’s supposed to be an epic; 2) it “subverts” the wrong things (like Luke Skywalker’s entire character arc from the Original Trilogy); 3) it contains plot and worldbuilding holes that pull the viewer out of the world; and, perhaps worst of all 4) it writes the Sequel Trilogy into a corner so constrained that it negatively affects the quality of the following chapter.

Dumpster Fires

  1. 14. Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones

Episode 8 might have problems, but at least it’s a watchable film.  I often go back and forth with which movie is worse between Episode 1 and 2.  Despite its pacing issues, horrid dialogue, and creepy “romance,” Episode 2 at least has good set pieces.  In fact, if we follow Obi-Wan’s story and ignore Anakin’s, it’s actually pretty decent.  The problem is that the film’s structure is “A plot, B plot,” and the Obi-Wan story is clearly supposed to be the B plot.

  1. 15. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

The only reason redeeming quality of Episode 1 is the lightsaber battle at the end.  Otherwise, it is an unrelenting malformation of cinema filled with crude stereotypes, bad jokes, and spending so much time on its setting that it forgets to tell a compelling story.  Anakin, of course, is played by a child actor that did not want to be there.  Even well crafted set pieces like the podracing scene lack tension because, c’mon, we know Anakin is going to win.

(c) 2020 D.G. McCabe

 

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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