Star Trek and Star Wars signings at New York Comic Con 2021

New York Comic Con 2021 was held a couple of weeks ago, and it was a tremendous amount of fun! After a one year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was great to have NYCC return to the Big Apple.

In addition to a wide variety of comic book creators (please read my write-ups on First Comics News) I got to meet a couple of actors who have been involved in Star Trek and Star Wars.

It’s odd: I’ve been a fan of both series for many years, but until now I’ve never obtained autographs from actors who appeared in those franchises. Well, okay, in the past I met a few people who had appeared in Star Trek, but I got their autographs for other roles. So I’m glad I was finally able to rectify that with two great actors who appeared in Star Trek and Star Wars, respectively.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was a little kid, watching reruns of the original series on WPIX Channel 11 on Saturday evenings in the early 1980s. It was definitely a thrill to meet actor George Takai, who portrayed Hikaru Sulu on the show and in the first six movies. I really admire the fact that Takai has utilized his fame from Star Trek to promote progressive political & social causes.

They Called Us Enemy, the graphic novel George Takei wrote about his childhood imprisoned in an internment camp, is a sad, moving book. I am Jewish, and when I was growing up I was taught about the Holocaust, about the Nazis forcing the Jews into concentration camps. So I remember that when I first learned about the internment of Japanese Americans I was horrified to discover that nearly the same thing had happened here, in this country. It is definitely one of the darkest chapters in American history. Unfortunately I now realize that there are many dark events and periods in this nation’s history. So I am grateful for works like this. They bring those failures to light, and serve as warnings as to what can happen again if we do not learn from the the past. They Called Us Enemy is a great example of how comic books & graphic novels can play a valuable educational role.

Takei came across as a good person. It was a pretty long line to get his autograph, but he took the time to speak with everyone for a minute or two. The day after I got Takei’s autograph, he had a panel discussion at NYCC. He was such an engaging, entertaining speaker.

Another guest at NYCC 2021 was Dee Bradley Baker, the actor who voiced Captain Rex and all of the other Clone Troopers in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, among his many, many other voice acting credits in numerous other series.

My father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater for my fourth birthday, and I’ve been a Star Wars fan ever since. Admittedly, I only saw a few episodes of The Clone Wars during the original run from 2008 to 2014, and at the time I didn’t really care for it. However, I recently watched the entire series on Disney Plus. While the first two seasons were uneven, there were still several good episodes. The show then got consistently good with season three, and steadily improved from there. George Lucas, Dave Filoni & their collaborators also did a great job utilizing the show to explore adult topics such as war and politics, loss and faith, duty and patriotism. The later seasons are among the best SW material ever.

I was on line to get Dee Bradley Baker’s autograph, and at 45 years old I was literally the oldest person waiting to meet him. Everyone else on line was either in their late teens or in their 20s. These fans literally grew up on The Clone Wars animated series. For them, this is their Star Wars, just as the original trilogy was my generation’s Star Wars. I think it’s great that The Clone Wars became an entry point for a new generation of fans.

So I got Baker’s autograph… but until now I had no idea Momo and Appa were in the Grand Army of the Republic. Hmmmm… Star Wars / Avatar: The Last Airbender crossover, anyone? Now I’ve got this image stuck in my head of Ahsoka Tano riding around on a flying bison!

Seriously, I was saying to myself “Oh no! Did he mean to write ‘Captain Rex’ instead but I distracted him by gushing about how much I loved his work on Clone Wars and Bad Batch?” Eh, whatever the reason, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, it’s still his signature, and I got it personalized, so I’m obviously not going to be reselling it, and I got to meet him, which was very cool. I guess the Avatar reference just adds to the piece’s uniqueness.

Anyway, Baker is incredibly talented, I love his amazing work on the various Star Wars animated series, so it was cool to meet him & get his signature.

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.

Star Wars reviews: The Bad Batch part one

We are now halfway through the first 16 episode season of Star Wars: The Bad Batch on Disney+, which makes this a good time to look at the animated series so far…

A group of experimental and defective clone troopers created by the Kaminoans, the Bad Batch made their debut last year in the seventh and final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  When I first heard these characters were getting their own series I was skeptical. My first impression of them was that they were a set of broadly-drawn stereotypes, i.e. the level-headed leader, the brainy intellectual, the big, angry strong guy, the brooding lone wolf, and the battle-scarred veteran. I really didn’t know if they could carry a series on their own.

So I was pleasantly surprised at how good the premiere episode “Aftermath” actually was. It definitely went in directions that I wasn’t expecting, and left me looking forward to seeing more.

I think the game changer was the introduction of Omega, a young female clone created by the Kaminoans as part of a mysterious experiment. Plucky teen sidekicks can be a tricky feat to pull off, but The Bad Batch succeeds admirably. Omega is just the right mix of clever and innocent. Her presence also pushes the Batch members into unfamiliar territory. Now, instead of a military squad, they are a family, and they have to raise Omega. That really changes the dynamic of the show.

Omega definitely has had a visible impact on Wrecker, the aforementioned big, angry strong guy. Wrecker was previously my least-favorite member of the Batch, but Omega’s presence has really brought out another side of the character. Wrecker is really just a big kid; consequently he and Omega establishing a sibling-like bond which is actually really sweet & funny. I loved the bomb disarming sequence with the two of them at the beginning of this week’s episode.

The Bad Batch has been exploring a number of questions Star Wars fans have had for quite some time: After the Clone Wars ended, what exactly happened to the clone troopers and the droid armies? How did the Republic transform into the Empire? What were the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance? I like that The Bad Batch is exploring these topics, and getting some pretty good stories out of them in the process.

“Cut and Run,” the second episode of The Bad Batch, sees the return of AWOL clone trooper Cut Lawquane, his wife Suu and their children, who previously appeared in The Clone Wars episode “The Deserter.” I was happy to see them again. Cut and his family are actually the perfect characters to appear at this point.

Back in “The Deserter” Cut was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Captain Rex that the clones were only being used, and that it was more important that they find their own purpose, instead of fighting & dying for the Republic. The audience, of course, knew Cut was actually correct, because we knew how the Clone Wars would end in Revenge of the Sith. So it’s nice to return to Cut, to a point where the rest of the characters have realized that he was right, that the clones were nothing more than pawns used by Palpatine / Darth Sidious to eliminate the Jedi.

Additionally, I felt this episode was a good illustration of creeping fascism. It is very rare that people go to sleep in a free democracy and wake up the next day in an absolute dictatorship. Usually the process is much more gradual, some might even say insidiously gradual (yes, deliberate choice of wording there), with liberties slowly being eroded and freedoms surrendered bit by bit.

Here we see the nascent Empire acting in a seemingly-reasonable way to make its citizens feel that, hey, these new “chain codes” are actually a great development and everyone should be happy to have them. Only a handful of people realize that the chain codes are how the Empire is going to keep track of and monitor the entire populace of the galaxy.

“Cut and Run” also did excellent work showing Omega’s first experiences on an alien world, and Hunter having to adjust to being a parental figure rather than a squad leader.

The Bad Batch also brings back Trace and Rafa Martez from the final season of The Clone Wars. While I felt the four episode arc with the Martez sisters on that show was padded out, I nevertheless thought it was a very necessary one, because it showed the Clone Wars from the point of view of the average person on the street, and caused Ahsoka to realize just how badly the Jedi had become disconnected from the people they were supposed to be protecting.

So I’m glad to see the sisters return in episode six, “Decommissioned.” It once again allows for these events, the transformation of the democratic Republic into the fascist Empire, to be seen from the POV of ordinary people.

Some people were writing off “Decommissioned” as “filler.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to write off something as filler because you often don’t know if it’s actually setting up something for a big payoff later. I mean, when I was watching Rebels, I initially thought the space whale episode was just a throw-away story… and then two seasons later we got to the series conclusion, and it became hugely important.

The Bad Batch also returns to the subject of the “inhibitor chips” which caused the clone troopers to carry out Order 66 and execute the Jedi. I know some fans didn’t like the inhibitor chip retcon. However, reiterating what I’ve said before, I think that once The Clone Wars became an ongoing animated series it was an essential change. It enabled Dave Filoni and the other writers to develop the clones into actual three-dimensional characters and still have a plausible reason for why they would then immediately turn on the Jedi the instant Sidious told them “Execute Order 66.”

In the way, the clone troopers were just as much victims as the Jedi were, having their free will stolen from them, forced to betray their oath of loyalty, turning them into murderers. That’s definitely the case here, with Crosshair being the only member of the Batch to have his chip activate, turning him against his friends. Throughout the next several episodes the audience, if not the Batch themselves, were aware that the chips were bombs just waiting to go off, and it was shown that Wrecker’s was bothering him for several episodes, before becoming active in “Battle Scars.”

“Battle Scars” also elaborates on the effect the inhibitor chips have on the clones, first through Rex’ recalling his experiences during Order 66, and then by Wrecker’s chip activating. As they each explain to the other members of the Batch, they were aware that they were being controlled and made to act against their will, but they were completely powerless to do anything about it. That is just horrifying.

Anyway, I’m glad that The Bad Batch got the business of the chips getting removed out of the way in “Battle Scars” because I really don’t know how much more suspense I could have taken, wondering each week if Wrecker or one of the others would get activated and turn on everyone else.

The voice acting on The Bad Batch is impressive. Dee Bradley Baker returns to voice the clone troopers, including all of the members of the Bad Batch. Baker has always done an amazing job at giving the physically-identical clones individual personalities with his performances. He’s definitely upped his game with the members of the Batch, all of whom sounds different from one another. If you didn’t look at the credits you might think they were each of them was being portrayed by a different actor. This video on the Entertainment Weekly website of Baker going through the voices of each of the Batch members really demonstrates his talent.

New Zealand actress Michelle Ang also does a good job voicing Omega. I was surprised to learn that Ang is actually 37 years old. She does a convincing job making Omega sound like a genuine teenager.

Fennec Shand, the highly skilled assassin played by Ming-Na Wen on The Mandalorian, appears in episode four, “Cornered.” Fennec has been hired by someone (the Kaminoans?) to retrieve Omega. Wen returns to voice this younger version of her character. That’s definitely an advantage of animation: it allows you to play a character in live action who is your own age (57 in Wen’s case, although she certainly doesn’t look it) and then voice the same character in stories set three decades earlier.

Likewise, in the debut episode we briefly see young Jedi padawan Caleb Dume, who a decade and a half later, having adopted the alias Kanan Jarrus, is one of the main characters in Rebels. Freddie Prinze Jr. returns to voice Dume, and does a credible job at performing a teenage version of his character.

Andrew Kishino, who voiced the younger version of guerilla fighter Saw Gerrera on The Clone Wars, returns to the role. Here we see Gerrera immediately transitioning from fighting the Separatists to fighting the Empire, as unlike most of the galaxy he is immediately aware that Palpatine has set himself up as a dictator.

Cory Burton once again voices Cad Bane, that incredibly dangerous and ruthless bounty hunter with a fondness for wide-brimmed hats. Seriously, the second this guy showed up in today’s episode I was like “Uh oh!” Burton has stated that he used Peter Lorre’s voice as inspiration of Bane, and it definitely always results in a creepy performance.

The format of The Bad Batch is effective, with each episode being mostly self-contained, yet nevertheless setting up and advancing various different subplots that arc throughout the entire season. The most recent episode, “Reunion,” does end on a cliffhanger, though, with Cad Bane having captured Omega, and the rest of the Batch being pursued by Crosshair and the Empire. And now I have to wait a week to find out what happens next!

Dave Filoni, head writer Jennifer Corbett, supervising director Brad Rau and everyone else involved have done a fine job with these first eight episodes of The Bad Batch. The stories are well written, the characters are engaging, and the quality of the animation is fantastic. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go with the second half of the season.

(For some great detailed reviews of the individual episodes of The Bad Bach, I recommend heading over to the blogs Star Wars: My Point of View and Star Wars Thoughts.)

Star Wars reviews: The Clone Wars Season 7

Presenting a really late entry in the latest round of Super Blog Team-Up, looking at Expanded Universes. Everyone else got their contributions up around June 24th. Oh, well, maybe that’s actually appropriate, since I’m looking at the much-delayed conclusion to The Clone Wars.

The long-awaited seventh and final season of the Star Wars animated series The Clone Wars was released earlier this year thru the online streaming service Disney+.

My initial experience with The Clone Wars was underwhelming.  In the three year period between Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) there had already been numerous stories set during the Clone Wars presented in Dark Horse’s Star Wars comic books, in various novels, and the original Genndy Tartakovsky animated series.  So when the computer animated movie The Clone Wars was released in 2008, followed by the ongoing series on Cartoon Network, my initial reaction was basically “Why do we need more of this?”

There were a couple of other reasons.  I actually read Karen Traviss’ excellent novelization of The Clone Wars before I saw the movie.  Traviss gave the characters some very complex, subtle motivations, and explored the ambiguity of the conflict.  None of that was present in the actual movie, leaving me disappointed.

And then there was the character of Ahsoka Tano, the teenage Jedi padawan introduced as Anakin Skywalker’s student in The Clone Wars movie, created by George Lucas & Dave Filoni and voiced by Ashley Eckstein.  I’m going to quote Wikipedia here…

“Although initially disliked by both fans and critics, Ahsoka developed into a well-rounded, complex character who received positive reactions from both groups. Serving as a foil for Anakin Skywalker, she has been highlighted as a strong female character of the franchise.”

Yes, that sounds very accurate, and it was basically my experience with Ahsoka Tano.  At first I did not like her, and I thought she was a pointless addition to the Star Wars mythos.  I never followed the ongoing television series, only catching an episode here or there, so this impression lingered for a while.

However, over the next several years The Clone Wars developed a huge following of younger viewers.  For these new fans, this was their Star Wars, and Ahsoka Tano was their Jedi hero, just as Luke Skywalker had been mine growing up in the early 1980s.  I did catch a few of the later episodes, and read some summaries of the others.  I realized that the overall writing on the series had improved tremendously, and Ahsoka had developed into an interesting, three-dimensional character.

Season Six came out in 2014, meaning there’s been a six year wait for the series’ conclusion.  In that time another animated series, Star Wars: Rebels came out, in which we learned Ahsoka Tano and clone trooper Captain Rex both survived the war.  I’m sure this must have left a lot of regular viewers with plenty of burning questions about what had actually happened.  So now we finally have the conclusion, and the answers.

Season Seven is 12 episodes long, divided into a trio of four-episode storylines:

The first four sees Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) working with a misfit group of clone troopers known as the “Bad Batch” to go behind enemy lines in order to discover how the Separatist armies are seemingly anticipating all of the Republic’s battlefield plans, and to find out if Rex’s comrade, the missing and presumed dead clone trooper Echo, is actually still alive. (A spin-off animated series featuring the Bad Batch was just announced by Lucasfilm.)

The second storyline features Ahsoka, who has left the Jedi Order due to the hypocrisy and politics she saw the Jedi Council practicing.  Ahsoka’s speeder bike breaks down in the undercity of Coruscant, and she meets teenage sisters Trace and Rafa Martez (Brigitte Kali and Elizabeth Rodriguez).  Trace is a brilliant, idealistic mechanic, and Rafa is a more cynical figure who believes that breaking the law is the only way the two of them will ever escape poverty.  Ahsoka initially sympathizes with Trace, but she comes to realize that Rafa has a legitimate point, that the sisters’ socioeconomic circumstances have left them with very few paths.  When the sisters’ involvement in a spice-smuggling operation goes pear-shaped, Ahsoka helps them escape from the ruthless Pyke Syndicate.

I did think this four part segment was a bit padded out.  It reminded me of a Doctor Who serial from the Jon Pertwee era, with Ahsoka and the Martez Sisters getting captured, locked up, escaping, running around, getting recaptured, locked up again, escaping again, running around again… you get the idea.  Nevertheless, it was still a fun and thoughtful story.  It also leads into the next segment, as Ahsoka learns that Darth Maul (Sam Witwer) is working with the Pykes.

The final four-parter chronicles the Siege of Mandalore.  Ahsoka has joined forces with a group of Mandalorians led by Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff) who want to liberate their planet from Maul’s control.  Realizing they don’t have the numbers to stage an assault, Ahsoka goes to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Sywalker, who she has not seen since she left the Jedi.

Unfortunately the Separatists have launched an attack on Coruscant and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, and Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) has orders to return there right away (placing this immediately before Revenge of the Sith, with these four episodes then running parallel to the events of that movie).

Ahsoka accuses the Jedi of once again playing politics, of prioritizing the Chancellor over the people of Mandalore.  Anakin (Matt Lanter) agrees to split up his clone forces, giving Ahsoka and Rex half of them to take to Mandalore.  Ahsoka, Rex, Bo-Katan and the clone army arrive, and there is a huge, stunning battle against the Mandalorian commandos allied with Maul.

Ever since the introduction of Boba Fett waaaay back in the animated sequence from the Star Wars Holiday Special and The Empire Strikes Back, there has been a lot of speculation about Fett and the other occupants of Mandalore.  Due to the technical limitations of the early 1980s, as well as Fett actually being a fairly minor character in the original trilogy, very little of this was ever explored on-screen.

I think part of the appeal of this storyline is that we finally get to see the mythical Mandalorians in combat.  The same goes for the live-action series The Mandalorian, also on Disney+.

Initially I thought bringing Darth Maul back from the dead was a bit ridiculous, but it is another area that worked out well in the long run.  Maul is a lot like Boba Fett, a visually interesting character who was ultimately underused in the movies.  Maul in The Phantom Menace was basically Darth Sidious’ attack dog, nothing more.  Maul, resurrected in The Clone Wars, and then later seen in Rebels, is a cunning, dangerous agent of chaos who seeks to carve out his own power base and undermine the plans of Sidious.

There are definite parallels to Ahsoka and Maul at this point.  Both of them have become disenchanted with their previous beliefs.  Ahsoka has lost faith in the Jedi Order, and Maul wants revenge on Sidious for casting him aside.  Maul makes a pitch to Ahsoka to join forces with him, and we can see that she is definitely tempted.  In the end, though, she rejects the offer, and the two come to blows.  Ahsoka, with the aid of Bo-Katan and Rex, eventually defeats the former Sith.

And then everything goes to Hell.  Anyone who has seen Revenge of the Sith knew this moment was coming, but it nevertheless remains a wrenching experience.

I really thought The Clone Wars would end before the events of Revenge of the Sith, because I just could not imagine the series actually showing Order 66.  But they went full-in.  Palpatine / Sidious orders the elimination of the Jedi.  Ahsoka, just like all of her former comrades, finds the clone troopers turning against her.

A good development introduced in The Clone Wars was the idea that the clone troopers had control chips implanted in their brains, chips that when activated would make them follow Sidious’ commands without question.  This enabled the clones to be loyal, courageous, honorable soldiers throughout the series, and explain why they so quickly turned on the Jedi.  In the end the clones were also victims of Sidious, robbed of their free will, reduced to mindless assassins, forced to murder their own generals.

Ahsoka discovers the existence of the chips and is able to extract the one in Rex, freeing him from Sidious’ control, but she is unable to save the rest of her troops.  The final scene of Ahsoka and Rex standing before the graves of the clone troopers is genuinely haunting.

Someone on Twitter recently commented “The last four episodes of Clone Wars was some of the best written, acted and directed Star Wars ever created.”  That’s a sentiment with which I definitely agree.  Those final four episodes are exciting and moving and heartbreaking.  Dave Filoni’s scripts were incredible.  The voice acting by Eckstein, Baker, Witwer and everyone else was superb.

The animation on this final season was absolutely stunning.  There were moments when I forgot that this wasn’t live action, that’s how good it was.  I realize that there is a large group of people involved in creating the animation for this project, and the majority of them unfortunately do not get the recognition they deserve.  My compliments to everyone involved in literally bringing all of these characters and all of these action sequences to life.  Job well done!

I recognize that some of the Star Wars movies released under Disney have been underwhelming.  This final season of The Clone Wars, as well as the first season of The Mandalorian, are refreshing reminders that there is still a tremendous amount of potential to the franchise, that there are many more fun, exciting, interesting stories that can be told within this fictional universe.

Here are links to all of the other #SBTU contributors. We had a lot on entries this time. Please check them all out. Thank you.

Star Wars birthday memories

A number of people on social media noted that May 21st was the 40th anniversary of the release of the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back.  This prompted me to revisit my own memories of seeing it.  Giving it some consideration, it’s one of the earliest memories I have.

My father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back at the movie theater, probably in early June, 1980. I was three years and eleven months years old at the time, so truthfully I remember very little about watching the actual movie that day.

As is probably typical of childhood memories of movies and television, my recollection of that first viewing is vague & distorted.  For example, I remembered the scene from near the beginning when Luke Skywalker was hanging upside down in the Wampa’s ice cave.  I also remembered the scene in the cave on Dagobah where Luke fights an illusion of Darth Vader.  However in my young mind those two moments got squished together, and for a while there I really thought there was a scene in the movie where Luke is hanging upside down in a cave and gets loose just in time to fight Darth Vader.

Oh, yeah… I think I remembered the Imperial Walkers attacking Hoth. As a kid I thought they were pretty scary, and I referred to them as “Metal Dinosaurs.”

I much more vividly remember the experience that surrounded going to the movie. My father and grandfather took me to see it at The Central Plaza Cinema on Central Avenue in Yonkers, NY.  We got Burger King for lunch beforehand, and I seem to recall that we brought the food in with us to eat during the movie.  I definitely remember that I had a fun time. That was the beginning of my lifelong love of Star Wars, and of science fiction in general.

Obviously it must have been apparent to my parents that the movie made a huge impression on me, because a few weeks later at the end of the month I turned four years old and they had a Star Wars themed birthday party for me.  They even got a cake with a spaceship on it.

I mentioned this to my mother last week, and she was able to locate a couple of pictures from that party in one of the old family photo albums. In my memories I recalled the cake being decorated with a generic sci-fi rocket ship, but looking at that photo I see the bakery actually did a fairly good job drawing a Star Wars type ship along the lines of an X-Wing Fighter.

I guess that was also when my parents got me that large toy R2-D2.  I remember having that as a kid, but I’d forgotten it had been a birthday present.

Yes, that is four year old me in the photo below holding the R2-D2.  I guess my hair was always a mess!

When you are a kid time seems to pass by very slowly. The three years until Return of the Jedi came out felt like forever.  Since this was before the era of affordable home media, both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back returned to the theaters during that three year period, so I was able to see the first entry in the theater, as well as watch the second as a slightly older viewer.  I also filled that seeming eternity by making up my own Star Wars adventures with the action figures my parents bought me.

When Return of the Jedi came out in late May of 1983, I was well and truly ready for it.  It was amazing, and for many years it was my favorite Star Wars movie.  Why?  It’s very simple: I was almost seven years old, which is probably the ideal age to be watching the Star Wars movies.

I really believe that a great deal of what we enjoy as genre fans is subjective, heavily reliant on when and where and with who we experienced it for the first time.  I would not be at all surprised if there are people who saw the prequels when they were seven years old who regard them as their favorites.  The same thing holds for The Clone Wars animated series, and for the recent sequels from Disney.

In any case, thinking about all of these old memories, I realize that I was fortunate to have good parents.  Back when I was a kid I often had a difficult time recognizing this, probably due to a mixture of immaturity and undiagnosed childhood depression.  As an adult I am now able to look back and understand that they did the best they could to raise me, and I appreciate their efforts.

Star Wars reviews: The Rise of Skywalker

The reviews and reactions to the new Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker have been extremely mixed.  In a way, that is to be expected, because this movie is intended to be the conclusion of the decades-long saga that has unfolded through the eight previous “episode” installments of the franchise.  Episode IX had an extremely formidable task to fulfill and, let’s face it, there was almost no way writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio could possibly fulfill everyone’s expectations.

Here are some of my thoughts about The Rise of Skywalker.  Call it a review, an analysis, or just the ramblings of a 43 year old fan, and (as always) feel free to disagree.

SW TROS

1) Star Wars is for kids

I have been a Star Wars fan ever since my father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater in 1980 when I was four years old.  In the early 1980s I was absolutely mad about Star Wars.  I had a whole bunch of the action figures, and I would make up my own adventures.  The three years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi felt like an eternity to my young self.  Finally it arrived in the theaters.  My father took me to see it, and I absolutely loved it.

Star Wars creator George Lucas has long argued that the series is really intended for kids.  I believe there is some truth to this.  Yes, there are quite a few elements to the movies that older viewers can appreciate & enjoy.  But at its heart Star Wars is basically a space opera, the big budget descendant of the old movie serials featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, high tech fairy tales set in outer space.

As an adult, watching first the prequels from Lucas and now the sequels from Disney, I have always endeavored to try to remember that I was a kid when I saw the original three movies, and to mentally bring myself back to that place.

Seven year old me would have absolutely loved The Rise of Skywalker.  It was a really fun, exciting movie.  There were a lot of parts that I genuinely loved, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that left me gasping in awe.

Having said that, I am an adult, and there were several aspects of The Rise of Skywalker that my older sensibilities found to be flawed or problematic…

SW TROS Finn Rey Poe

2) Rey of sunshine

Two of the best parts of the sequel trilogy have been the characters Rey and Finn, played by Daisey Ridley and John Boyega.  Both are great additions to the mythos.

In the previous installment, The Last Jedi, it was revealed that Rey’s parents were basically nobodies, and she was not the heir to any kind of family legacy.  This was a crucial aspect of the movie’s main theme, that the Force was not just for the Jedi, that anybody had the potential to access it, no matter who they were or where they came from.

I liked this development.  Unfortunately others did not.  Following Rey’s introduction in The Force Awakens there had been a ridiculous amount of speculation on social media about who she really was.  There were some really insane theories put out there tying her to established characters.  So when Rian Johnson revealed that Rey was no one in particular, these people lost their collective minds, seeing this as a huge disappointment.

Unfortunately Abrams either disagreed with Johnson’s approach, or was pressured by Disney to reverse this because of the supposed fan backlash.  So in TROS we find out Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.  Watching the scene where this is revealed, in my head I could almost envision Disney shouting to the audience “Okay, okay, stop yelling at us! Fine, Rey isn’t a nobody! She’s actually Papatine’s granddaughter! Are you happy now?!?

This felt like an attempt to placate angry fans, with the story falling back into the well-trod, traditional structure of myths & fairy tales.  I don’t think it was necessary.

Having said all that, Ridley does her best with the material. She really shows just how shocked & horrified Rey is at discovering she’s kin to the most evil being in the galaxy.  Ridley definitely sells the character’s inner turmoil, as well as her struggle to leave her heritage behind and become her own person.  Obviously the theme of “transcending your family’s dark legacy” was already done with Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, but Ridley nevertheless does a good job showing Rey’s journey through this difficult process.

I’ve also enjoyed the character arc of Finn through these three movies.  He really grows during the course of the storyline.

When you think about it, Finn is a brave, extraordinary individual.  When he was only a child he was kidnapped by the First Order and conscripted into their Stormtrooper army.  Despite years of indoctrination by his fascist masters, Finn was able to retain a conscience, to recognize what the First Order was doing was wrong.  More important, he found the strength to actually do something about it, first by deserting their ranks, and then by standing up to his former masters, actively fighting against their tyrannical cause.

TROS continues Finn’s development.  He is a much more confident figure than he was in the previous two movies.  Additionally, the idea that potentially anyone, no matter what their background, can use the Force is basically transferred from Rey’s character to his, and it is revealed that Finn is Force-sensitive.

Another important development for Finn occurs when he meets other ex-Stormtroopers who have also fled the First Order.  Boyega’s really does a good job of showing just how much it means to Finn to find others like him who have broken free from the First Order’s brainwashing and are now fighting against it.

SW TROS Kylo Ren vs Rey

3) Ren faire

One of my favorite online bloggers / reviewers is Darren Mooney.  He is an intelligent, insightful writer.  Even when I disagree with him, I find his arguments & reasoning to be well-constructed and thought-provoking.

Two months ago Mooney wrote a piece entitled “The Rise of Skywalker Can Correct Return of the Jedi’s Failings.”  One of Mooney’s criticisms of ROTJ is as follows:

“Return of the Jedi isn’t interested in whether Vader is redeemed. It only matters that Luke’s idea of Vader is redeemed. Vader never faces any justice for the crimes that he has committed. But Luke is able to convince himself of his father’s decency rather than confront the reality of what he’s done. The Star Wars franchise has always been about generational strife, with children inheriting a world scarred by their parents’ mistakes. Return of the Jedi retreats from that concept and betrays the franchise.”

A bit harsh, perhaps, but possibly accurate.  Now, none of what Mooney argues ever occurred to me when I was seven years old watching ROTJ.  Indeed, in 1983, having only seen Vader’s very limited actions in the original trilogy, killing the Emperor to save his son did appear to be a genuine act of redemption.

However, in the decades since, having witnessed Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side depicted in detail in the prequels, actually seeing the atrocities he committed in Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One, the Rebels animated series, and the comic book stories set during these periods, you might very well find yourself asking if turning against the Emperor in ROTJ to save Luke really does balance the scales, if it is truly enough for him to earn redemption.

So I had what Mooney wrote in mind while watching Kylo Ren’s arc unfold during TROS.

Leia uses the Force to connect with Kylo Ren, dying in the process.  A distracted Ren is mortally wounded by Rey, but she immediately uses her own Force energy to heal him.  After his mother’s sacrifice and Rey’s act of mercy, it’s clear that Ren no longer wants to continue down the terrible path he is on.  At the same time, he is fully aware of all the horrible crimes he has committed, including the murder of his father, and he is afraid that, with all the blood on his hands, he does not have the strength to change.

Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo really is haunted, especially when he reaches this turning point.  The conversation between him and his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is both well-written and subtly performed.  I appreciated that it was left ambiguous if Ben is truly communicating with his father’s ghost, or is actually struggling with his conscience within his own head.

Looking at it from an adult perspective, Ben’s ultimate act of redemption does feel more genuine than Vader / Anakin’s did.  Yes, Ben turns against the First Order and stands side by side with Rey in opposing the Emperor.  However, he truly redeems himself after the battle is over, Palpatine has been destroyed, and victory has been achieved.  Rey has been killed, but Ben uses his own life energy to revive her, sacrificing his own life.  His final act is not killing an enemy, but selflessly saving the life of a friend.

SW TROS Leia

4) Farewell to a Princess

One of the obvious obstacles that faced Abrams & Terrio in making TROS was Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death in December 2016.  Early plans for the movie would have had General Leia Organa as one of the main characters; obviously all of those plans had to be scrapped.  Abrams & Terrio were left with about eight minutes of unused footage from TLJ featuring Leia, which meant that they had to write the story around that.

To their credit, Abrams & Terrio do a good job of smoothly incorporating the footage of Fisher into the movie.  None of it feels forced.  If you were watching the movies and had no idea how real life events had dictated the production you might be left wondering why the character of Leia had so little screen time, but there wasn’t anything there that leaps out to indicate that Daisey Ridley was acting opposite footage of Fisher that was shot two years earlier.

5) Cavalcade of cameos

It was good to have Lando Calrission return to the series. I had a huge smile when he first appeared on screen.  It certainly seemed like Billy Dee Williams was having a blast playing the character again.  I think Lando’s character was pretty well served by the screenplay, so his presence wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia to please older fans.

We also see a glimpse of Wedge Antilles during the final battle, although in that case it was unfortunately just a cameo.  It would have been nice if Denis Lawson’s character had gotten a bit more screen time.  I realize Wedge was a minor character in the original trilogy, but he became a major figure in the X-Wing comic books & novels from the old Expanded Universe.

The most surprising appearances by older characters were during Rey’s confrontation with Palpatine.  Rey taps into the Force to give her strength, and she hears the voices of a number of Jedi Knights, both from the previous movies, as well as from the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels, certainly a cool nod to those characters.

SW TROS Lando

6) United we stand

The Rise of Skywalker is much less overtly political than The Last Jedi.  Nevertheless, there is a message to the movie.

We meet Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) a smuggler Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) knew from his pre-Resistance days operating on the fringes of the law.  Speaking of the threat posed by the First Order, Zorii tells him:

“They win by making you think you’re alone… There’s more of us.”

This is later demonstrated when Lando organizes a fleet made up of ships from numerous planets to stand against the Emperor’s armada on Exegol.  On their own, none of the ships from these disparate civilizations would be able to stand up to the First Order, but united together they are a match for Palpatine’s forces.

Without getting into too many specifics, the point here is that the far left, liberals, moderates and centrists need to set aside their differences and work together to fight against fascism.  Once that is accomplished then we can sit down and hash out compromises for our various positions, but until then we must present a united front.

Also, the whole subplot with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) turning out to be the spy in the First Order giving information to the Resistance feels timely.  Considering what a smug, sadistic creep he it, at first Hux would appear to be the last person you would expect to help the Resistance, at least until he explains to Fin and Poe: “I don’t care if you win. I need Kylo Ren to lose.” Yes, that is perfectly in keeping with Hux’s petty, selfish nature.  I was instantly reminded of the numerous anonymous leaks out of the Trump Administration, as well as the backstabbing and scheming that has taken place over the past three years as the grifters and opportunists have jockeyed to grab power.

Likewise, it is not surprising that General Pryde (Richard E. Grant) takes the first opportunity available to shoot down Hux in cold blood.  Later, after Kylo Ren abandons the First Order, Pryde quickly & eagerly switches his allegiance to the Emperor. There is no loyalty or honor in the First Order, only a craving for power at any cost.

7) Bursting at the seams

There was enough material in TROS to fill at least two movies.  That resulted in some rushed scenes, and certain characters getting short shrift.

The most notable instance was Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran.  Rose was a central figure in TLJ, but she spends most of TROS sidelined.  Maybe it was that there were too many characters.  Maybe it was because Rose was created by Johnson, and Abrams didn’t have much interest in her.  Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate, because following the release of TLJ both the character and the actress were subjected some truly vile racist and sexist attacks on social media.  Even if it’s inadvertent, Rose’s diminished screen time here feels like Disney kowtowing to toxic fandom.

Another area where there wasn’t anywhere enough development was with the mysterious Knights of Ren, who were first briefly glimpsed in TFA.  They finally show up in TROS, but they’re just a bunch of faceless, nameless mooks who silently follow Kylo Ren around for most of the movie and then, after he turns away from the dark side, unsuccessfully try to kill him.  And that’s it.

8) Let’s get Sidious for a moment

The return of Emperor Palpatine, played by Ian McDiarmid, was certainly one of the most noteworthy aspects of TROS.  Even though he was spectacularly killed off at the end of ROTJ, it does feel appropriate to bring him back.  While Darth Vader is, thanks to Ralph McQuarrie’s design and James Earl Jones’ vocal performance, the most iconic villain of the whole SW saga, it is the Emperor who is the true Big Bad of the first six movies.  So if TROS was to be the conclusion of the Skywalker family story then it makes sense for the ultimate evil of the saga, Darth Sidious, to play a key role.

The Emperor’s return doesn’t make much sense in-story (more on that below) and the actual mechanics of his resurrection are left extremely vague.  When Kylo Ren threatens to kill him, Palpatine merely responds by saying “I have died before” and then repeating his famous declaration from Revenge of the Sith: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.”

Later on a member of the Resistance suggests a few possible explanations, one of which is cloning.  Perhaps this was a nod to the now out-of-continuity comic book miniseries Star Wars: Dark Empire by Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy, published by Dark Horse in 1991, which saw the Palpatine return in a cloned body.  (Likewise, the ancient Sith planet Exegol might be inspired by Korriban, which appeared in several of the Dark Horse SW series.)  Whatever the process the Emperor returned to life, it was apparently not perfect, as he spends the entire movie looking even more ancient & wizened than before, hooked up to an elaborate framework of life support machinery.

The Emperor’s plans are also left vague, other than a general “conquer the galaxy again” type of thing.  He seems to alternate between wanting Kylo Ren to kill Rey so that she can’t oppose him, and getting Rey herself to kill him so that his spirit can transfer into her younger body.  Towards the end of the movie Palpatine seems ready to abandon both those plans when he suddenly discovers he can drain energy directly from Rey and Ben to restore his own body.

However dodgy the plotting is, it was good to have McDiarmid back as the Emperor.  He’s played the role on & off for over three and a half decades now, and he effortlessly slips back into the Emperor’s foul persona, turning in an evil, twisted performance, once again making Palpatine the man we all love to hate.

The resolution of the battle between Rey and the Emperor was also well done.  Rey is faced with a seemingly-impossible conundrum.  If she kills the Emperor his spirit & powers will inhabit her body.  If she doesn’t kill him than he still has more than enough life in him to live long enough to destroy the Resistance.

In the end Rey wins by turning the Emperor’s own power against him.  She uses her lightsabers and the Force to deflect the Emperor’s lightning bolts back at him, in effect causing him to kill himself. As Yoda advised in TESB, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

SW Dark Empire 2 pg 18

9) Making shit up as we go along

It’s pretty obvious that bringing back the Emperor in TROS, revealing that he created Snoke and was controlling the First Order from behind the scenes all along, was something that Abrams & Terrio came up with pretty late in the day.  There’s absolutely no indication of any of this going on in either TFA or TLJ.  A revived Palpatine hiding away on Exegol and preparing a massive fleet of Dark Side Star Destroyers capable of obliterating entire planets, and using the First Order to keep everyone occupied in the meanwhile, doesn’t make much sense, because the previous two movies already showed the First Order wiping out the New Republic and making good progress in seizing control of the entire galaxy all on its own.

Over the past few years several people have suggested that it was a mistake to have the First Order simply be the Galactic Empire with a new coat of paint.  It would have made more sense to have the First Order be some sort of insurgent group organized by Imperial war criminals who had escaped justice, a subversive entity undermining the New Republic via terrorist attacks.  That sounded like it would have been good idea even before TROS came out.  It would have made even more sense now that it’s actually been established that the First Order was always intended by Palpatine to be a diversion while he rebuilt his forces in secret.

All of this speaks to Disney’s failure to plan this trilogy out ahead of time.  It was a mistake to have the writers / directors working in isolation, with no general overarching plan.  Abrams did TFA, then passed the ball to Johnson to do TLJ, and who in turn was supposed to hand it off to Colin Trevorrow to do TROS before that fell through due to “creative differences,” with Abrams getting brought back late in the day to wrap things up.

Honestly, this has been a problem with Star Wars throughout much of the series’ existence: it was made up on the fly.  Despite what Lucas later claimed, it seems pretty obvious that the original was intended to be a stand-alone movie.  Otherwise Lucas would not have asked Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind’s Eye as a story that could be filmed quickly & cheaply, using as many existing costumes & props, just in case Star Wars happened to do well enough for a second movie to get the green light.

It was only when Star Wars unexpectedly became a gigantic runaway success that Lucas really committed to the whole nine episode storyline, and even there he continued to make it up as he went along, working with several other writers.  For example, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were still separate characters in the early drafts of TESBThe early plans for ROTJ were for only Darth Vader to die, and for the Emperor to escape at the end.  That was supposed to set up the next trilogy, which would see the Empire rebuilding, and Luke searching for his twin sister, who was hidden away at the opposite end of the galaxy. Unfortunately while Lucas was starting work on ROTJ his marriage fell apart, and he was in such a bad place emotionally he decided to just bring everything to a close with that movie.  So suddenly both Vader and the Emperor died, the Empire was defeated, and Leia was implausibly revealed to be Luke’s sister.

This meant that three decades later, when Disney decided to finally make that third trilogy, they found themselves having to undo the final, decisive defeat of the Empire in ROTJ.  So all of a sudden the First Order appears out of nowhere, and the New Republic is quickly wiped out, in a really blatant resetting of the status quo.

Looking at all of the movies, it’s clear that the ones that are most internally consistent are the prequel trilogy, all of which were written & directed by Lucas.  Say what you will about the scripting or the acting or whatever, the fact is that Lucas appears to have plotted the whole thing out ahead of time, and stuck to that plan throughout the making of all three movies, resulting in a trilogy that actually does feel like a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end.

Disney really should have looked at the missteps that Lucas made with the original trilogy, and the successes that he did actually achieve with the prequels, and planned the entire storyline for their trilogy out right from the start.  Instead they just rushed into it without any concrete idea of where they were going, and it shows.

SW TROS Emperor

10) To make a long story short… Oops, too late!

I’ve already written over 3,500 words about The Rise of Skywalker, so let’s cut to the chase.  I enjoyed it.  It had some really great action sequences, as well as some genuinely good, moving character arcs & developments, and felt like a pretty good emotional conclusion to the overall saga.  Nevertheless, it also had a lot of flaws.  It was good, but it could have been better.

I really think Disney should step back for a bit, learn some lessons from the missteps of this new trilogy, and take the time to decide exactly what they want to do next with Star Wars.  The franchise still has a ton of potential to tell all sorts of stories, but it’s the kind of property that cannot be approached half-assed, that needs a certain amount of thought & planning.  I wish them luck, because I would love to one day see Star Wars return better than ever.

Star Wars reviews: Allegiance

Star Wars: Allegiance is a four issue miniseries published by Marvel Comics.  Allegiance is written by Ethan Sacks, drawn by Luke Ross, colored by Lee Loughridge, and lettered by VC’s Clayton Cowles.  Cover artwork is by Marco Checchetto.  The miniseries is set between the events of the movies The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.

SW Allegiance 1 cover

Back in 2015 Marvel published Shattered Empire, which was set after Return of the Jedi, in order to explore into some of the events that eventually led to The Force Awakens.  Marvel did not do one of these linking miniseries bridging The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi since there’s only a day or so between the two movies, which really doesn’t give much room to tell any stories of significance.  I suppose Marvel could have done a story about the Resistance packing up their base on D’Qar, but maybe they figured they’d be pushing their luck trying to stretch that out into a four issue miniseries.

In any case, The Last Jedi ended with the Resistance down to one ship and a couple of dozen people.  I’m sure a lot of people were left wondering what the heck was going to happen next, how the Resistance could possibly recover from their devastating losses to again pose any sort of impediment to the First Order.  I definitely was!  It certainly seemed there would have to be some gap in time between TLJ and the next movie during which the Resistance reorganized.

Indeed, Allegiance sees the Resistance attempting to acquire new ships, weapons, recruits, and allies.  Unfortunately the First Order is trying to prevent this by ruthlessly destroying any planet that give aid to the Resistance, or that has spoken to the Resistance, or possible has even simply heard of the Resistance.

The First Order’s action here are not surprising, given that it is ruled by Kylo Ren, a spoiled, entitled brat with no impulse control whose first instinct is to lash out at anyone that pisses him off, and who is served by such deplorable sycophants as General Hux, a petty sadist who is looking for an excuse to bully others.  The writing by Sacks and artwork by Ross depict the First Order’s actions in a very brutal a light, never glossing over their evil.

SW Allegiance 1 pg 5

The original plan for The Rise of Skywalker was to have General Leia Organa as one of the main characters.  The unfortunate death of actress Carrie Fisher in December 2016 obviously prevents this.  Reportedly Leia will appear in TROS via several minutes of unused footage from TLJ, but her role will no doubt be limited.

Keeping this in mind, it feels like the Allegiance miniseries sets out to rectify this by focusing on Leia, giving the character one last opportunity to  step into the spotlight and play a central, important role in the SW narrative.

Rey and Rose Tico are supporting characters in this story.  Rey is basically trying to figure out how to handle the burden of now carrying the legacy of the Jedi squarely on her shoulders.  Rose is fully on board with the Resistance movement.  It seems likely both women will have a lot of screen time in TROS, so Sacks understandably limits their roles here, instead focusing on Leia.  That said, Rey does get a couple of good action sequences, which are well-rendered by Ross.

Leia, accompanied by Rey, Rose Tico, Chewbacca and C-3PO, travel to the planet Mon Calamari to mourn the passing of her longtime comrade-in-arms Admiral Ackbar, as well as to ask for new ships for the Resistance.  Given how perfunctory Ackbar’s death was in TLJ, it was good to see Leia take the time to pay tribute to the character here.

Ackbar’s son Gial wants to help the Resistance, but others on Mon Calamari, witnessing the First Order’s violent crackdown on anyone who has aided them, and remembering the Empire’s brutal occupation of their planet, are extremely reluctant to offer assistance.

It is to Sacks’ credit that he offers no easy answers, demonstrating that sometimes people are only left with different bad choices.  Avoid fighting evil in an attempt to protect yourself and you may only be postponing your own subjugation.  Actively fight against evil and you will be placing not just yourself but your family and friends and neighbors squarely in the crosshairs.  Our own real-world history unfortunately has all too many examples of this bitter choice having to be made.  During World War II, the Nazis routinely responded to the actions of resistance groups throughout Europe by brutally massacring civilians.

The Mon Calamari do eventually provide ships & personnel to the Resistance, but at a very clear cost to them.  The miniseries ends on a very grim note, with the First Order descending on the planet, ready to exact retribution on the planet’s civilian population.

SW Allegiance 2 pg 12

The B-Plot of Allegiance is Poe Dameron, Finn and BB-8 searching for a cache of New Republic weapons while avoiding a gang of mercenaries who want to claim the bounty the First Order has placed on their heads.  This provides a more fun, light, humorous storyline to balance out the somber A-Plot of Leia on Mon Calamari.

Sacks does a good job of scripting both Poe and Finn, having the two play off each other as they sort of bumble their way through their heist.  They get some humorous exchanges.  I laughed out loud at one particular moment…

Finn: This is shaping up to be the easiest mission we’ve ever had.

Poe: Why… why would you say something like that? Don’t you realize that’s just asking for trouble?

The miniseries has really nice artwork by Luke Ross.  He is an artist who has definitely grown immensely since he entered the comic book field in the mid 1990s.  He started out with a very Image Comics inspired style on New Gods and Spectacular Spider-Man.  A decade or so later he worked on several issues of Captain America.  I found his work there impressive.  Now, in the present, looking at Ross’ art for Allegiance, it is obvious he has continued to improve, turning in art that is even better.

Ross does a great job with the likenesses here.  As I’ve said in the past, I think likenesses on licensed comic book series can be a real balancing act.  You don’t want to go too photorealistic, because that can seem too posed & artificial, standing out from the rest of the art.  I feel it’s more important to capture the essence of the characters, their personalities and mannerisms, than it is to exactly capture the features of the actors.  Ross certainly does that here.

SW Allegiance 3 pg 6

Marco Checchetto has worked on several previous SW comic book series, including the aforementioned Shattered Empire.  His covers for Allegiance are beautiful.  The four covers link together to form one larger image, an impressive montage of the new trilogy’s characters.

Of course when Marvel collected Allegiance into a trade paperback, they put out four different editions, one with each cover.  They don’t seriously expect us to buy four copies of the same collected edition, do they?  I hope not.  I mean, it’s not like Disney to engage in a shameless Star Wars money grab, is it?

SW Oranges

AHEM!!!  Well, looking on the bright side, the multiple trade paperback covers do allow you to buy whichever one has your favorite image.  And if you really want to put them all side-by-side to get the full picture by Checchetto, just look for copies of the original single issues.  Or, y’know, do a Google search online for the complete image…

SW Allegiance covers

As a longtime Star Wars fan I enjoyed Allegiance.  I did go into it recognizing that obviously too much could not actually happen in Sacks’ story.  The big character and plot developments are being saved for The Return of Skywalker.  Nevertheless, it is an entertaining, thoughtful story that works well to bridge the two movies.  It is also an excellent opportunity to have the quieter, more subtle character moments that sometimes get lost in the action-centric pace of the movies.  At the very least Allegiance serves as a nice spotlight on Leia Organa, helping to bring some closure to a character many of us grew up watching on the big screen.

Star Wars convention sketchbook: the new movies

Four years ago, to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars movie from Disney, the contributors of Super Blog Team-Up each wrote pieces dealing with various aspects of the SW phenomenon.  My contribution was to showcase ten of the best pieces of artwork I had gotten drawn in my Star Wars theme sketchbook.

Now here we are four years later, and the final installment of the new trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, will be out in theaters next month.

Star_Wars_Logo

The movies produced by Disney have inspired quite a bit of disagreement among fandom.  However, I think it is very important to point something out: They have been very popular with younger fans, and with newcomers to the series.

It’s crucial to recognize that just as my generation who grew up on the original trilogy were fans of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca, so too has that happened with the subsequent releases.  Kids who watched the prequels in the early 2000s grew up with Padme and Anakin.  A few years later another group of kids had their first exposure to SW with The Clone Wars animated series, and for them Asoka was probably their hero.  And now in 2019 you have kids who are growing up watching the adventures of Rey, Finn and Poe.

In any case, even as a 43 year old I am able to look at the new movies and enjoy these new heroes.  I think they are great, and I’m happy younger viewers are connecting with them.

Here are the sketches I’ve gotten in my SW book over the past four years of some of these great new characters:

Finn by N. Steven Harris

Finn by N Steven Harris

This really detailed sketch of Finn from The Force Awakens was drawn by N. Steven Harris in June 2016 at the White Plains Comic Con.  Harris penciled Aztek: The Ultimate Man for DC back in the mid 1990s. He’s recently been doing great work on the creator owned series Ajala and Brotherhood of the Fringe, and on Michael Cray for DC / Wildstorm.

Rey by Russ Braun

Rey by Russ Braun

Russ Braun draws great convention sketches, and he also does such amazing likenesses. I was very happy with this sketch he did for me at New York Comic Con in October 2016 of Rey from The Force Awakens. He really captured actress Daisy Ridley’s features, and her character’s personality, in this piece.

BB-8 by Nik Virella

BB-8 by Nicole Virella

This was a quick sketch of the adorable BB-8 by artist Nicole “Nik” Virella, who drew the fan-favorite droid in the first Star Wars: Poe Dameron annual published by Marvel Comics in 2017. Virella had previously drawn some really funny, wacky Deadpool stories, but she really demonstrated her versatility with that SW annual. She did great work on it, and I hope that one day soon Marvel asks her to return to a galaxy far, far away.

Jyn Erso by Glyn Dillon

Jyn Erso by Glyn Dillon

After a short career in comic books Glyn Dillon became a storyboard and concept artist for movies and television. He was a concept artist and costume designer for the SW movies The Force Awakens, Rogue One and Solo. Dillon was sketching at New York Comic Con 2017 to raise money for the Hero Initiative. He drew this sketch of Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso in my book. Dillon did a wonderful job capturing the likeness of actress Felicity Jones. It was cool getting someone who actually worked on the movies to contribute to the sketchbook.

Vice Admiral Holdo by Lynne Yoshii

Vice Admiral Holdo by Lynne Yoshii

The Last Jedi provoked some really divisive reactions among fandom, and the character of Amilyn Holdo, portrayed by Laura Dern, definitely epitomized that. People either seemed to love her or hate her. My girlfriend and I both liked Holdo a lot. In any case, I had the idea that Lynne Yoshii would do a really nice sketch of Holdo. Yoshii draws beautiful convention sketches with very vibrant colors, so I felt she would be perfect to draw a character with lavender hair. Yoshii drew this at the Diversity Comic Con held at Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. She did a wonderful job capturing both the character’s personality and distinctive appearance.

That’s all for now, but hopefully I will have future opportunities to obtain sketches of the other great characters that have appeared throughout the Star Wars universe in its myriad incarnations.

Star Wars reviews: The Last Jedi

I finally saw The Last Jedi so I’m now ready to get into pointless arguments about it with other Star Wars fans!

Seriously, from the reactions I’ve seen online, this has been an especially divisive entry in the Star Wars series among fans. Some people absolutely loved it, and others totally hated it.  As for myself, well, I guess I liked it.  Yeah, yeah, it figures I would have an opinion that’s in-between those two extremes.

Here is my semi-coherent review & analysis of the movie. As always, feel free to disagree.

The Last Jedi poster

1) Déjà Vu All Over Again

Whereas The Force Awakens was quite similar to the very first Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi is equal parts The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance, having successfully destroyed Starkiller Base, fleeing from their headquarters, with the vengeful forces of the First Order in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, on the remote planet Ahch-To, home of the very first Jedi Temple, neophyte Rey (Daisy Ridley) is attempting to convince the brooding, aged Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the use of the Force.

As the movie advances, Rey comes to believe that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the former student of Luke who has turned to the dark side of the Force, is still struggling with his conscience, and that it is possible to bring him back to the light. Rey turns herself over to the First Order, hoping to convince Kylo to switch sides, but he instead hands her over to the ancient, evil Supreme Leader Snoke, who is arrogantly confident that he will be able to break Rey.

As well-executed a movie as The Last Jedi is, I periodically found myself rolling my eyes at just how brazen and shameless some of its sequences were in rehashing major elements from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Look, I’m definitely environmentally conscious, but this is not the sort of recycling that I’m into!

2) This Is How Democracy Dies, Redux

The Force Awakens was vague about whether Starkiller Base had destroyed the entire New Republic, or merely its capital. The Last Jedi, on the other hand, strongly implies that the New Republic has been totally obliterated, announcing the First Order is mere weeks away from gaining control of the entire galaxy.

So only three decades after defeating Emperor Palpatine and restoring the Republic in Return of the Jedi, we are now right back where we started. A tyrannical dictatorship that is all-but-identical to the Empire has totally destroyed democracy, and nothing but a ragtag, outgunned group of freedom fighters stands between them and their final victory.

In case you were curious, that loud sound of screeching tires that you just heard was the storyline doing a 180 and peeling off back in the opposite direction.

3) This Is Not Going To Go The Way You Think

In spite of Disney furiously stabbing at the reset button, The Last Jedi eventually did manage to surprise me. That was especially the case with Snoke.

About two thirds of the way through The Last Jedi, Kylo brings Rey before Snoke. This very much felt like a remake of the throne room scene from Return of the Jedi, with the smug Snoke reeling off some reheated eeeeevil Emperor Palpatine dialogue, prodding Kylo to complete his journey to the dark side by murdering Rey.  But then the entire sequence suddenly gets upended. Kylo uses the Force to activate Rey’s lightsaber from a distance, slicing Snoke in half, killing him instantly.  Yeah, I definitely did not see that coming, since it felt like Snoke was being set up as the Big Bad of the entire trilogy.

Kylo and Rey then fight side-by-side in a furious battle against Snoke’s elite guard, making a very effective team. It’s one of the best action sequences in the entire movie, even if Snoke’s guards do look like they’ve wandered in from a hockey rink.

For a brief instant it really seems that Rey has succeeded, that she has managed to convince Kylo to turn his back on the First Order. But once again expectations are brutally subverted.  Kylo is unable to let go of his anger and resentment.  He has no interest in redemption, and intends to become the new Supreme Leader.

The Last Jedi Rey

4) Female Power

The Last Jedi does offer a new perspective to Star Wars that is both refreshing and very timely… Men are hotheaded, macho idiots, and women are sensible, level-headed leaders who are much more capable of seeing the bigger picture. The movie is very much concerned with deconstructing the idea of the heroic male fantasy figure.  One of the ways it does so is through its treatment of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

During the opening scene, as the Resistance fleet attempts to flee their base, the hotshot Poe disobeys General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to lead a counter-attack against the First Order’s massive Dreadnaught. Poe’s plan is successful, and the Dreadnaught is destroyed, but it is a pyrrhic victory, with much of the Resistance fleet also being wiped out.  Poe, instead of being congratulated by Leia for what he sees as bold heroism, is demoted for his rash actions.  Worse, the First Order then manages to track their quarry through hyperspace, and the now-diminished Resistance fleet, severely weakened after their assault on the Dreadnaught, is almost destroyed.  Nearly all the Resistance’s leaders are killed and Leia is left in critical condition.

Having not learned his lesson from this catastrophe, Poe immediately begins clashing with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Poe is convinced that Admiral Holdo is incompetent.  Still believing bold, immediate action is necessary, Poe authorizes Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) to embark on their risky plan to sabotage the First Order’s tracking device.  Later, going so far as to accuse Holdo of treason, Poe leading a mutiny against her, only to finally discover that she had a plan after all, one that she understandably declined to share with the hotheaded pilot.

In the end Holdo sacrifices herself to save the remaining members of the Resistance. As Leia explains, “She was more interested in protecting the light than being a hero.”

Rey, Leia, Holdo, and Rose, the women of The Last Jedi, are the ones who refuse to give up hope, who keep fighting, who are flexible and adaptive, who think outside the box in order to attempt to find constructive solutions. Poe, Finn, Luke and Kylo, the men, are the ones who are impulsive and emotional, who are fixated on their hurt feelings, who find it difficult or impossible to break out of their rigid thinking and behaviors.

5) Who’s Your Daddy?

In the two years since The Force Awakens came out there have been a lot of theories tossed around concerning Rey’s parents, and Finn’s parents, and the identity of Snoke. Some of these have been especially outlandish or bizarre.

The Last Jedi once again subverts expectations by revealing that Rey’s parents are, in fact, no one in particular, and Snoke is just some guy. The movie doesn’t even bother to mention Finn’s parents, since in the end they are probably also no one we’ve ever heard of before.

Considering how ridiculously interconnected certain Star Wars characters have been in the past, it’s actually refreshing to have some major characters who do not have a hidden parentage or an mystery alter ego.

When he is reluctantly training Rey on Ahch-To, Luke tells her “The Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity.” And he is correct.  Just as the Jedi do not have provenance over the Force, neither does one family such as the Skywalkers.  Rey, we are told, is a nobody, coming from nothing and nowhere, but all that signifies is she achieves greatness not due to her parentage but solely by her own actions and beliefs.

The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker

6) Grumpy Old Man

Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens is a bitter, burned-out, mournful figure. He is weighed down by the consequences of his mistakes and hubris, and by the immense looses he has witnessed.  He is a far cry from the enthusiastic, idealistic young man we once knew.

However, in his own way, without quite realizing it, Luke is correct. The galaxy has moved on.  Luke has failed to found a new Jedi Order because he was fixated on their ancient dogma, on recreating them as they had existed in the past.  Luke’s opposite number, Snoke, is similarly afflicted with a blind desire to recapture the past.  Snoke, in his attempt to position himself as the successor to Emperor Palpatine, with the First Order as his new Galactic Empire and Kylo Ren as his own Darth Vader, meets with failure and death, a victim of overconfidence and short-sightedness.

The spirit of Yoda (Frank Oz) manifests itself to Luke on Ahch-To in order to tell him “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Luke, as well as the rest of the galaxy, must attempt to learn from their past mistakes in order to chart a new course forward.

In any case, Mark Hamill does great work with the material he has been given, turning in a very strong performance.

7) Father Figure

I found the scene between Luke and Yoda to be the most touching of the entire movie. It occurred to me that Yoda was, in his own odd way, the closest thing that Luke had to a father.  Yes, Anakin / Vader was Luke’s biological father, but he was definitely not much of a parent, to say the least.  Yoda was the one who, in the end, was there for Luke when it was most important, who decades later transcends mortality to return and teach his old student a message of hope when it was most needed.

The Last Jedi Kylo Ren

8) Evil Is Lame

I was not impressed by Kylo Ren when he was introduced in The Force Awakens. I found him to be a whiny loser who desperately wanted to follow in Darth Vader’s footsteps.

Well, he is still very much the same in The Last Jedi… but I’ve come to realize that this actually makes him a more plausible, believable villain. This is also true of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a strutting, self-important figure whose smug arrogance masks his incompetence.

In real life, dictators and criminals are not suave, coolly sinister, grandiose figures of menace. In fact, more often than not they are petty, insecure, paranoid and jealous.  They are driven by fear and inferiority, by a need to compensate for their own weaknesses.  Their grotesque ambitions are often overcompensation for their inner failings, a futile attempt to fill the empty void within themselves that they are desperate to deny exists.

Kylo Ren and General Hux are both small men. They lash out at anyone and anything they perceive as a threat to their well-being and self-image.  They are concerned with themselves and no one else.  Kylo and Hux demonstrate that evil is not awesome or badass, but sad and lonely.

9) I’m With Her

My girlfriend Michele offered an interesting political reading of The Last Jedi. The First Order, supported by greedy, immoral corporate entities, has set out to crush freedom & liberty in the galaxy.  The Resistance is dedicated to stopping them, but it is nearly crippled by internal conflict.  Kylo Ren is a selfish, oversensitive, short-tempered, petty man-child who lashes out at the world.  Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo is an experienced, intelligent leader who unfortunately has a difficult time being warm or relatable to the people under her command.  Poe Dameron is an impulsive hothead who wants immediate results, who doesn’t have the patience to consider the long-term picture and who is condescending towards the established command structure, undermining the decisions of his superiors.

In other words, the First Order is the Republicans, the Resistance is the Democrats, Kylo Ren is Donald Trump, Amilyn Holdo is Hillary Clinton, and Poe Dameron is Bernie Sanders?  That is certainly one way to interpret the movie.

The Last Jedi Amilyn Holdo

10) Watch the Birdie

One of the few sources of comedy in the otherwise-grim The Last Jedi are the Porgs, the adorable, wide-eyed birds who inhabit Ahch-To, and who stow away on the Millennium Falcon, much to Chewbacca’s consternation.

The Porgs work really well because they are basically just set dressing. The cute critters are not used to drive the plot, or to resolve any crises.  There just there to occasionally lighten the mood in a very dark story.  If you don’t like them then you can basically just ignore them, and if you do like them then they serve to provide a little bit of comedy that offsets the intense drama.

The Vulptex, aka crystal foxes, on Crait are also interesting, with a distinctive visual. Again, they really aren’t there to advance the story, except in cluing in the Resistance on how to escape from their cave headquarters after the First Order show up, and they also add some local color to the final act.

11) Where Do We Go From Here?

The Last Jedi ends with the Resistance down to a handful of survivors fleeing in the Millennium Falcon, with the First Order now in the incompetent yet very dangerous hands of Kylo Ren. The implicit message of the movie’s last scene is that the Resistance will find new strength in the young children of the galaxy who have suffered under the injustices perpetrated by both the First Order and the war profiteers of the galaxy’s military-industrial complex.  Nevertheless, it seems like there’s a lot that needs to be addressed in the next installment.

That task is made all the more difficult by Carrie Fisher’s untimely death. As I understand it, Leia was being set up to be a central figure in the conclusion of this trilogy, and I don’t envy the makers of Episode IX having to write around her enormous absence.

The Last Jedi Chewbacca and Porg

12) See You Around, Kid

On the whole Rian Johnson did a pretty good job writing & directing The Last Jedi. It was an entertaining movie with exciting action sequences.  It also presented some interesting and thought-provoking ideas, although it really didn’t spend enough time examining most of them, instead rapidly moving on to the next action piece.  The movie also did a fair job at developing some of the characters, particularly Rey, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren, and in introducing the tough & likable Rose Tico.  I just wish that all of this could have been achieved within a story that was not such a retread of previous installments, and that relied so heavily on the formula established in the original trilogy.

The Last Jedi is definitely an improvement over The Force Awakens, but it still falls short of Rogue One, which was successful at both presenting a fresh perspective on a familiar universe and at telling a very different sort of story.

Star Wars reviews: Rogue One

The new Star Wars movie Rogue One was enjoyable. While I liked The Force Awakens, I nevertheless felt that Disney played it very safe with their first installment since acquiring the franchise.  Rogue One, in contrast, does attempt to stretch out in different directions.

Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans for the Death Star from the Empire. Despite the fact that it is set immediately before the events of the very first Star Wars movie, Rogue One successfully expands what previously felt like well-explored territory.

rogue-one-poster

1) Rogues Gallery

The protagonist of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a woman in her early twenties who has spent most of her life on the run from the Empire. When she was only a child Jyn’s mother was killed, and her father, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), hauled off to work on the construction of the Death Star by the ambitious Krennic (Ben Mendelsen).  Jyn is recruited at gunpoint by the Rebel Alliance, which hopes she can lead them to her father.  Grim, brooding Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, the sarcastic K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), are assigned to accompany Jyn in tracking down Galen.

2) Darkness Falls

Rogue One has been described as the darkest entry in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. While I think some people are overlooking Revenge of the Sith, which was hardly a laugh-fest, the point is that Rogue One is a very gritty movie by the standards of the franchise.

Whereas the original trilogy focused on the main figures of the Rebel Alliance, this is the story of the men and women fighting in the trenches against the Empire. Yes, they are motivated by the idealism of the Alliance, but after long years of conflict they are also driven by ruthless pragmatism.

When we are introduced to Cassian Andor, he is meeting with an informant, who tells him of a defecting Imperial pilot in possession of a message from Galen Erso. Unfortunately Andor and his informant are discovered by Stormtroopers.  To prevent the Empire from learning about the existence of the defector, Cassian, showing little hesitation, shoots his informant in the back and flees.

As ruthless as Cassian can be, he is positively tame compared to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) a militant member of the Rebel Alliance. Having spent nearly two decades fighting against the Empire, Gerrera is scarred, physically and mentally, consumed by paranoia.  His followers utilize guerilla tactics, launching attacks against Imperial forces in heavily populated areas.

rogue-one-jyn-and-cassian

3) Parallel Lives

Jyn Erso is, in a way, a reflection of Luke Skywalker. In the opening scene Jyn and her parents living on an isolated farm, in hiding from the Empire.  There are definite similarities between this and how we first met Luke in A New Hope.  We even see Jyn’s mother with a glass of blue milk!

Luke, of course, was bored by the uneventful life of a farmer, and yearned for adventure. He couldn’t wait to leave and explore the galaxy.  Jyn, in contrast, spent a decade and a half scrambling about the galaxy, afraid and alone.  Instead of craving excitement, she yearns for safety and normality.  Having seen her mother gunned down by Stormtroopers and her father dragged off in chains, she would no doubt give anything to regain the quiet life on the farm she once shared with her parents.

4) Old Friends

It was nice to see a few familiar faces in Rogue One. Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, a role he originated in the prequels.  Genevieve O’Reilly once again portrays Mon Mothma.  Nearly all of her scenes from Revenge of the Sith ended up on the cutting room floor (although they later appeared as extras on the DVD) so I’m glad she got some actual screen time here.  C3PO pops up long enough to utter one of his characteristic complaints.  Darth Vader also appears, once again voiced by James Earl Jones.  Via unused footage from the first Star Wars movie, Rebel pilots Red Leader and Gold Leader both participate in the Battle of Scarif.

Saw Gerrera is actually a character who originated in the Clone Wars animated series, and Forest Whitaker is set to voice him in upcoming episodes of the Rebels series, which is set a few years before this movie. Speaking of Rebels, there is also a brief glimpse of grumpy astromech droid Chopper, and The Ghost is part of the Alliance fleet.

rogue-one-saw-gerrera

5) Let’s Get Digital

A contentious element for some fans was the recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin via digital effects. I felt that this started off quite effectively, but the more scenes that Tarkin appeared in, the more artificial he appeared.  It is understandable that Tarkin, who was originally played by Peter Cushing, had to be included in Rogue One in some capacity.  His omission would have been rather glaring, given his position as the commander of the Death Star.  Perhaps it would have been better to have used him in less scenes, or in a couple of instances have him communicate with his subordinates via hologram transmission.

I have heard, however, that casual viewers, people who were not huge Star Wars fans and who hadn’t seen the original movie in a number of years, did not realize that Tarkin was a digital effect. That makes sense.  If you go in knowing that Peter Cushing passed away back in 1994, of course you’re going to focus on how realistic Tarkin appears in Rogue One.  But if you don’t really remember the character from the first movie, you’re probably not going to pay as close attention.

In the final seconds of Rogue One we also see Princess Leia, looking as she appeared in A New Hope, via a digital recreation of a young Carrie Fisher. It is such a brief shot that the movie just about pulls it off.

6) Less Is More

Darth Vader is one of those characters who I have often felt is best used sparingly. He is such an iconic figure that overexposure both decreases his menace and results in fuel for parody.  I think it was a mistake for Marvel to publish an ongoing monthly Darth Vader comic book series.

Vader has two short scenes in Rogue One, and as result has much more of an impact. He first appears about halfway through the movie, with Krennic showing up at the Sith’s fortress to voice his anger at his authority being usurped by Tarkin.   An impatient Vader abruptly dismisses Krennic’s complaints, sending him on his way.

We don’t see Vader again until the very end of the movie. The Rebel fleet has received the Death Star plans and are about to retreat from Scarif when Vader’s star destroyer abruptly emerges from hyperspace, attacking them.  Boarding the Alliance flagship, Vader attempts to retrieve the plans, brutally cutting his way through the Rebel soldiers.  He is a terrifying, seemingly-unstoppable figure.  It was the first time since I was a little kid that I found Vader to be genuinely scary.

(I think I was actually muttering “Oh shit!” under my breath when I was watching that scene.)

rogue-one-vader

7) Plugging A (Plot) Hole

Unlike some Star Wars fans, I never really saw the Empire seemingly overlooking the exhaust port in the Death Star as a glaring plot hole.  It’s very obvious from the final battle in the original movie that the exhaust port is heavily defended, and scoring a direct hit on it is nearly-impossible.

Nevertheless, over the years various people have complained “How can the Empire have missed such a huge vulnerability in their giant planet-destroying weapon?!?” Rogue One provides an answer.  Galen Erso realized that whether or not he assisted the Empire in building the Death Star, sooner or later they would find someone who could get the battle station to function properly.  So he pretended to be browbeaten into submission by Krennic and went to work on the Death Star, which enabled him to sneak a weakness into it: the exhaust port.  Not only is this a nice explanation, it also adds an extra dimension to Galen, revealing that he never completely gave up defying the Empire, that he saw his forced servitude as an opportunity to subvert them from within.

8) This Issue: Everyone Dies!

Going in to Rogue One, I was half-expecting that most, if not all, of the new characters would die. After all, none of them were ever seen or even referred to in the original trilogy.  On the other hand, there was a part of me that really didn’t think that Disney would pull the trigger, and at least a few of the Rogues would escape to fight another day.

But, no, they all die. No cheats, no last-minute reprieves, no cop-outs.  Jyn, Andor, and everyone else die in the Battle of Scarif, all of them sacrificing their lives to transmit the Death Star plans to the Alliance fleet.

Rogue One Galen Erso

9) Nail-Biting Suspense

You might think that a movie with such a foregone conclusion would be a bit dull. Of course the Rebels are going to steal the Death Star plans; anyone who’s seen A New Hope knows that!

Rogue One, however, is so well done that I nevertheless found myself constantly on the edge of my seat. Gareth Edwards does an amazing job directing the movie, making it an exciting, riveting experience.

10) Be Careful Not To Choke On Your Aspirations

There are times when Rogue One’s reach exceeds its grasp. During the first 15 minutes the narrative jumps all over the place, switching between different characters on different planets, leaving me somewhat confused.

Several of the characters also felt underdeveloped. Saw Gerrera feels like he’s being built up to have a major role, only to suddenly get killed off halfway through the movie.  We aren’t given any real insight into why Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook has decided to defect to the Rebellion, other than he was somehow inspired by Galen.  Two of the Rogues, Chirrut Imue and Baze Malbuus are interesting characters, but we get very little background on them.

Jyn could also have used more development. She spends the first half of the movie very reluctantly working with the Rebels, but in the second half she has suddenly become the loudest voice in attempting to galvanize the Alliance to fight against the Empire.  Yes, Jyn has seen the Death Star in operation up-close, and she also doesn’t want her father to have died in vain.  But it still feels like a rather abrupt jump from one position to the other.  The movie could have done a slightly better job at explaining how she came to change her mind.

rogue-one-rebel-alliance

11) A House Divided Against Itself

There has been some debate the last month over whether or not Rogue One is a political movie. I think that all great art (and even some mediocre art) can have a message, even if it might not have specifically been intended by the creators.  If there is a political lesson to be gleamed from Rogue One, one that can be applied to our real world, then perhaps it is this…

The Rebel Alliance that we see in this movie is a very diverse group, made up of cultures and species from numerous worlds. Unfortunately that means they have varying viewpoints and agendas, and as a result are often working at cross-purposes.  They all seek the same ends, stopping the Empire, but they disagree on the means.

Mon Mothma is hoping for a political solution to the injustices perpetrated by the Empire; she wants Cassian and Jyn to rescue Galen so that he can provide testimony about the Death Star to the Imperial Senate. That mission is immediately, and secretly, countermanded by General Draven, who pulls Cassian aside and orders him to assassinate Galen.  Other members of the Alliance, learning of the Death Star, are ready to capitulate, believing that they have no hope of winning.  And then there is Saw Gerrera, who is labeled an “extremist” by the rest of the Alliance, a man who dismisses his former colleagues as too moderate and ineffectual.

On the other side is the Galactic Empire. In spite of the individual ambitions of men like Tarkin and Krennic, the jockeying for influence, in the end they all share the same goal: the subjugation of the galaxy through force and terror.  Whatever their individual aspirations, they are nevertheless ready to work with colleagues who they may dislike for the promise of great power.  The members of the Empire are unified in their ambitions for control over others and their willingness to embrace utter ruthlessness.

It does not matter how noble the Rebels may be, how lofty their goals are.  Until the various factions that make up the Alliance set aside their differences, resisting calls for ideological purity, they remain unable to fight the monolithic Empire. It is only at the end, when the Rebels are unified on a common course of action, working together to achieve their goals, that they are finally able to become an effective opposition against the Empire’s tyranny.