Star Wars reviews: The Bad Batch part two

The first season of Star Wars: The Bad Batch concluded on Disney+ last week. I previously took a look at the first eight episodes, and here’s my thoughts on the second half of the season.

When we last saw Omega (Michelle Ang) she had been captured by ruthless bounty hunter Cad Bane (Corey Burton) who was acting on behalf of the Kaminoans. I was expecting the rest of the Bad Batch to have to come to Omega’s rescue. Instead, she nearly succeeded in rescuing herself, and then the arrival of Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) did indeed enable Omega to escape, requiring only a last minute assist from the rest of the Batch. Omega is definitely no damsel in distress.

It was surprising to learn that Fennec Shand had actually been hired by Kaminoan scientist Nala Se (Gwendoline Yeo) to protect Omega. Back during The Clone Wars animated series Nala Se had actually been one of the most ruthless of the Kaminoans.  She regarded the Clone Troopers merely as property, and helped the Sith cover up the true purpose of the Clones’ inhibitor chips, thereby indirectly assisting them in wiping out the Jedi with Order 66. So I am curious why Nala Se is now acting so benevolent and trying to save Omega’s life.

The next episode, “Common Ground,” sees the Bad Batch (Dee Bradley Baker) sent to rescue Avi Singh, a former Senator in the Separatist government, from the Empire, who are now occupying his  world. Echo, who was previously a prisoner of the Separatist military and who was experimented on by them, is understandably reluctant to help Singh. However, as was seen in several episodes of The Clone Wars, many of the Separatist’s civilian leaders did genuinely want what was best for their worlds, and just like the Republic’s Senate, were being used & deceived by the Sith. Such is the case with Singh, who is truly despondent at the thought of the Empire enslaving his people.

Singh is voiced by Alexander Siddig, formerly Dr. Julian Bashir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, making him the latest actor to have roles in both franchises. I hope the character will return again in the near future. Perhaps he will become a founding member of the Rebel Alliance?

The next two episodes shifted the focus to a few familiar faces. Hera Syndulla was one of my favorite characters from Star Wars: Rebels, so I really enjoyed seeing a two-part “origin story” for her and her sassy astromech droid Chopper.

I thought Vanessa Marshall did an incredible job portraying a teenage version of the Hera, clearly making it the same character that she previously portrayed in Rebels, but distinct enough that it’s clear this is Hera at a much different time in her life. Marshall is definitely a talented actress. I really appreciated the fast friendship that develops between Hera and Omega, who plays a major role in setting the Twi’lek teenager on the path to eventually becoming an accomplished pilot and an leader in the Rebel Alliance.

I was genuinely surprised to learn that, due to the COVOD-19 pandemic, all of the actors in The Bad Batch recorded their parts separately, and that Marshall had no idea who Omega was or what she sounded like until the two Ryloth episodes were broadcast. Credit to Marshall and Ang for their performances, really making it seem like they were acting opposite one another in the studio, giving the two teenage girls a genuine friendship & chemistry.

By the way, it was interesting to watch these two episodes and then read the novel A New Dawn written by John Jackson Miller, which explores how Hera first encounters Kanan Jarrus. I really appreciate the thought Dave Filoni & Co have given to how Hera develops as a character throughout the years.

What I found really surprising about these episodes is that Hera’s father, the militant Cham Syndulla (Robin Atkin Downes), is shown as initially being willing to give rule by the Empire a chance. After the Clone Wars, he wants peace for his people, and his family. Unfortunately the fascist, duplicitous Empire is completely uninterested in acting in an honorable manner

I like how these episodes also continued to examine the reasons why the Empire chose to replace Clone Troopers with Stormtroopers. On the face of it Clone Troopers were much better soldiers. But as we previously saw in the Umbara and Fives arcs on The Clone Wars, the clones are intelligent beings who are capable of independent thought, of feeling compassion & loyalty, and of disobeying orders that they feel are morally wrong. The Bad Batch has further explored that.

It’s very obviously that without the inhibitor chips the majority of the clones would never have turned on the Jedi, and even with the inhibitor chips functioning we still see Howzer and other clones on Ryloth questioning orders. So from the Empire’s perspective it makes sense that they switch to Stormtroopers, who may be inferior, but who they can just draft wholesale from the populace and indoctrinate to be complete loyal and follow orders without question.

Anyway, props to Dee Bradley Baker for getting so much of Howzer’s internal struggle across vocally. And the animators did an amazing job at the very end when we see Crosshair’s expression, and rather than being gleeful at the idea of finally going after his former comrades, he looks genuinely ambivalent. The animation for the planet Ryloth was also stunning.

The next episode “Infested” was a heist-type episode, with the Batch and their manipulative employer Cid (Rhea Perlman) stealing a shipment of spice in order to pit wannabe crime lord Roland Durand (Tom Taylorson) against the Pyke Syndicate. This one was fun, although it did seemingly come across as unimportant. However, I do wonder if this was a setup for future developments, and if we will see Durand again in a larger role.

This brings us to the final three part story of the season. The Empire accelerates its plans to transition to Stormtroopers, bringing in the clone Gregor to train them. Rex asks the Batch to rescue Gregor, but that leads to Hunter being captured by the Empire. The rest of the Batch now must return to Kamino to save their leader, who is in the custody of their former comrade Crosshair.

The surprising development about Crosshair was his claim that his inhibitor chip was removed some time before (perhaps destroyed in the starship graveyard on Bracca?) and that he’s now acting of his own free will in working for the Empire. Unlike the rest of the Batch, who remain loyal to the principles of the fallen Republic, Crosshair regards himself as a superior being who has an important place within the Empire’s fascist system. The rest of the Batch are despondent at the possibility that their brother is willingly working for the Empire, and that he actually wants them to join him.

There’s a brief interaction between Crosshair and Tech where the later explains that Crosshair has always been like this, and his behavior actually makes perfect sense. It’s one of the very few times Tech has ever been developed at all this season. He remains the most thinly-drawn members of the Batch. I hope that next season he is actually given more material.

The Empire, having seized the Kaminoans’ cloaning technology and forcibly recruited Nala Se, destroys Tipoca City. The finale has the Batch struggling to escape the rapidly-sinking ruins. Truthfully I found this episode to be a bit drawn-out, consisting of an extended action sequence. Nevertheless, it does set the stage for the second season.

There were some criticisms that the first season of The Bad Batch was tonally inconsistent, alternating between light family fare and exceedingly grim, depressing violence. I think that description pretty much sums up the entirety of the Star Wars franchise! After all, in the original movie one minute R2D2 and C3P0 are engaging in their latest round of comedic squabbling, and the next the Death Star blows up Alderaan. Personally I’ve always found Star wars to be at its most effective when it can successfully shift its tone back & forth between comedy and drama.

So what happens next? Well, I guess we’ll have to wait until 2022 to find that out! A few bumps in the road notwithstanding, I did enjoy the first season of The Bad Batch, and I look forward to season two.

Ron Lim vs Rik Levins, or how a teenage Captain America fan experienced his first major disappointment

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 30 years since this happened. It was the Summer of 1991, and I experienced my first significant disappointment as a comic book fan. But first, a little background is necessary…

I’ve been a fan of Captain America from Marvel Comics ever since I read issue #278 and issue #291 when I was a kid. My father got me a one year subscription to the Captain America series in 1985, and I read those issues until they fell to pieces.

Captain America #378 by Ron Lim & Danny Bulanadi, one of the favorite issues of my teenage years

I was 13 years old in 1989 when I finally started reading the Captain America comic book on a monthly basis. This was when my father began taking me to the comic shop every week, so it became much easier to follow the series.

I really liked Kieron Dwyer’s pencils on Captain America. In 1989 Dwyer was still a young, up-and-coming artist, but even then you could see how much talent & potential he possessed.

A year later Dwyer was replaced as the penciler on Captain America by Ron Lim, whose work at the time I actually liked even better. Lim was the artist on the book from January 1990 to June 1991, drawing issues #366, #368 – 378, and #380 – 386. He was paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi on inks. Lim’s penciling on Captain America was absolutely dynamic, and I immediately became a HUGE fan of his work.

Some of the best work by Lim & Bulanadi was on the seven part storyline “Streets of Poison” that ran bi-weekly in the summer of 1990. Written by Mark Gruenwald, it involved the Red Skull challenging the Kingpin for control of New York City’s illegal drug trade, with Cap getting caught in the crossfire. Lim & Bulanadi drew some amazing action sequences as Cap fought against Bullseye and Crossbones.

Cap versus Bullseye from Captain America #374 by Lim & Bulanadi

So I was incredibly disappointed when Lim left Captain America and was replaced by Rik Levins with issue #387, which was cover-dated July 1991. I felt there was an immediate, steep decline in quality, and I was really upset 😭😭😭

(Keep in mind I was a teenager, and we all know how melodramatic they can be about really trivial things!)

Lim’s departure also coincided with long-time Captain America scribe Mark Gruenwald writing 1991’s six part bi-weekly summer storyline “The Superia Stratagem” which involved the female supremacist Superia gathering together an army of super-powered female villains on an island sanctuary and attempting to sterilize the outside world. A number of Cap fans, myself included, feel this storyline was the moment when Gruenwald jumped the shark.

Making this story even more ridiculous was the fact that at one point Cap and his ally Paladin, to infiltrate the island, disguise themselves as women. Yes, really. Yes, it was as ridiculous as you can possibly imagine.

What a drag! That infamous scene from Captain America #391 by Rik Levins & Danny Bulanadi

Now, I honestly don’t know if “The Superia Stratagem” would have been any more readable if Lim had been penciling it instead of Levins. I just feel that Levins didn’t have the strength as an artist to pull off making it work. It’s also worth pointing out that Lim was still penciling the covers for “The Superia Stratagem” and they were actually quite good.

The differences between Ron Lim and Rik Levins always stood out for me when I compared these very similar sequences from Captain America #266 and #297, as seen below. The first is penciled by Lim, and it’s got so much energy, with Cap having this determined look and gritted teeth as he comes swinging into action. The second one is by Levins, and Cap just has this really bland, bored expression on his face, and from his body language it feels like he’s performing a gymnastics routine rather than fighting for his life.

A comparison of Ron Lim and Rik Levins penciling similar action sequences

I hope none of this comes across as disrespectful to Levins. I did eventually develop a certain appreciation for him. I think his work on Captain America improved, beginning with the very bizarre-yet-entertaining “Man & Wolf” storyline (yes, the one that brought us Capwolf, a subject for another time), and his last year & a half on Captain America was quite good.

I also later discovered Levins’ work on Femforce and Dragonfly and other AC Comics titles, and it was so much better. I think Levins’ contributions to AC Comics were much more personal for him (he created several characters and wrote a number of the stories) so there was probably a greater investment in it, whereas Captain America was just a paying gig. (And, yes, Levins’ work for AC Comics is also a subject for another future blog post.)

A definite improvement: Captain America #410 by Levins & Bulanadi

It’s also definitely worth noting that Levins holds the record for drawing the most consecutive issues of Captain America, having penciled #387 to #422, a total of 36 issues. That even beats out Cap’s co-creator Jack Kirby, who actually only penciled 24 consecutive issues of the series (#193 to #214 plus Annual #3 and #4, for those keeping track).

Levins passed away in June 2010 at the much too young age of 59. In retrospect, I now consider him to be a very underrated talent, as well as a consummate professional, someone who was able to turn in good, solid work month after month. The closest Levins ever came to missing a deadline was when M.C. Wyman had to pencil the second half of Captain America#414. This in comparison to all of the high-profile “hot” artists were constantly dropping the ball and turning in late work in the early 1990s.

Having said all of that that, I nevertheless have to confess: All these years later I STILL keep hoping that one day Ron Lim will get asked to draw the monthly Captain America series again. He has occasionally returned to the character. Lim penciled the final issue of the “Heroes Reborn” run in 1997, and I can honestly tell you that I was absolutely thrilled when I picked up that issue and found he was the artist. More recently, in 2019 Lim drew the Avengers: Loki Unleashed special written by Roger Stern and, again, I snatched that baby off the shelves. It was so great to see Cap and the rest of the Avengers drawn by Lim once again.

Avengers: Loki Unleashed demonstrated that Ron Lim still draws an amazing Captain America

So if Marvel ever does give the assignment of drawing Captain America or Avengers to Ron Lim, yeah, I would definitely jump onboard to buy those comic books!

I actually met Ron Lim a couple of years ago at East Coast Comicon , and I had the opportunity to tell him that him leaving Captain America was the first time I ever experienced a crushing loss over a creator leaving a series. He explained that intially the plan was just for him to take a short break from Captain America so that he could finish penciling the Infinity Gauntlet miniseries after George Perez had to drop out halfway through. However, Marvel then asked Lim to pencil the follow-ups Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, so he never did have a chance to return to Captain America.

I made sure to let Lim know that as an adult I understood that from a career perspective it made perfect sense for him to move over to a high-profile project such as Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels. I think Lim found my anecdote amusing, and he seemed to appreciate the fact that I was such a huge fan of his work.

Wild Thing #1 cover by Ron Lim & Al Milgrom, signed by Lim… yes, I actually enjoyed this series!

Oh, yeah, having finally met Ron Lim at East Coast Comicon, what did I get signed by him? Was it an issue of Captain America or one of the Avengers-related books that he drew? Nope! It was Wild Thing #1. Yeah, I completely forgot to bring any of Lim’s work to the show to get signed, so I picked up Wild Thing #1 from one of the comic dealers. (I bought Wild Thing when it first came out in 1999, but those comics were among the ones that I got rid of when I sold off most of my collection several years ago.) At that point in time I just wanted to have Lim autograph something he drew, since I’m still a huge fan, and nowadays I care much more about creators than characters. I guess that just shows how much my priorities have changed since the Summer of 1991.

It now occurs to me that this is the perfect example of how unique our experiences as fans can be. Most other readers probably didn’t do much more than blink when Lim was replaced by Levins. But for me, I was at just the right age to really connect with the combo of Gruenwald & Lim on my absolutely favorite character, and when Lim then left the book it really felt like the apple cart was turned over, so to speak. I can now understand how it was such an unsettling experience for quite a number of fans ten years before when John Byrne left X-Men, or two decades earlier when Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics entirely. So, yeah, it’s definitely a matter of individual perspective.