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: The Force Awakens

Michele and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Thursday evening. We both wanted to go ASAP in order to avoid the inevitable spoilers that would soon be proliferating the Internet.

What did I think of it? Short answer: I liked it.  Long answer: read the rest of this review.

Be advised: there are MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you have not seen the movie yet and do not want it ruined for you then do not proceed any further.

SW The Force Awakens poster

1) First things first

In many ways the set-up of The Force Awakens is similar to the original trilogy. Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the remnants of the Empire have reorganized as the fascist First Order.  Opposing them is the Resistance, a movement made up of both veteran members of the Rebel Alliance including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and a younger generation of freedom fighters.  The Republic has begun to reform and is providing backing to the Resistance.  Both the Resistance and the First Order are attempting to locate Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who vanished years before.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have gone back to smuggling. Due to personal tragedy, Han is once again a man who wants no part of any noble cause.  He’s looking to stay as far away from the war between the Resistance and the First Order as possible.  However, once again, despite his wishes, Han and his Wookie best friend are reluctantly drawn into the conflict.

2) New faces

Writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt introduce several new characters in The Force Awakens.

The main protagonist is Rey (Daisy Ridley) a teenager eking out an existence on the desert world of Jakku. She comes across the droid BB-8, whose owner is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot captured by the First Order.  (For those who didn’t catch it, Poe is the son of Shara Bey and Kes Dameron from the Marvel Comics miniseries Star Wars: Shattered Empire.)

BB-8 contains part of a map Poe located, a guide to Luke Skywalker’s location. Rey and BB-8 soon encounter Finn (John Boyega), a young Stormtrooper who defected from the First Order and helped Poe escape.  Crash-landing on Jakku, Finn is separated from Poe.  Looking for a way off the barren planet and away from the First Order, Finn joins Rey in attempting to return BB-8 to the Resistance.

On the opposite side of the fence, the First Order’s efforts to locate BB-8 are spearheaded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force. Accompanying him are the ruthless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and armored officer Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).  Ren and Hux report directly to the Supreme Leader of the First Order, the mysterious Snoke (Andy Serkis), who only appears as a hologram.

SW The Force Awakens Rey and Finn

3) The Good, the Bad, and the Whiny

Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt do a good job introducing the new heroes in The Force Awakens, making them compelling characters. I definitely became very interested in Rey, Finn and Poe as the movie progressed.  The fact that Ridley, Boyega and Isaac all turned in solid performances certainly helped to sell this next generation to me.

I did think Finn had a few too many humorous “Aww yeah” lines of dialogue. You would think someone raised by a militaristic dictatorship might be a bit more socially awkward and have some trouble coming up with snarky remarks.

There’s also the breakout “star” of the movie, namely the droid BB-8, who looks across between R2-D2 and a soccer ball. The SFX and sound people gave him a fun, mischievous personality.

Wisely, much of the movie was devoted to introducing these new heroes. Other than Han and Chewbacca, all of the original trilogy characters have small roles.  That was a good way to establish ties to the previous movies without overshadowing the new characters.  Ford and Ridley definitely work well together, as we see the world-weary, mournful Han begin to once again lower his guard and become something of a reluctant father figure to Rey.

On the other hand, the villains Hux and Phasma are both very one-dimensional and don’t have too much screen time. Well, most Star Wars antagonists are unfortunately underdeveloped, so this is not too surprising.

And then there’s Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa.  He reminds me of a brooding Goth teenager who wants everyone to take him seriously.  Ren idolizes Darth Vader and wants to follow in his footsteps.  One gets the impression that the reason why Ren wears a sinister black mask with a voice modulator is because he is so desperately attempting to emulate Vader.  And if you thought Vader had a short fuse, well, Ren is worse.  Something goes wrong, next thing you know he’s furiously hacking up equipment with his lightsaber.  I don’t know how the heck the First Order can afford a weapon like the Starkiller if they have to repair all the property damage caused by Ren!

It appears that Ren’s weakness as villain is actually deliberate. Han Solo suggests that to Ren that Snoke regards him as nothing more than an easily manipulated pawn that can later be discarded.  Certainly Ren would not be the first hotheaded bully attempting to mask an inferiority complex with a façade of strength.

SW The Force Awakens First Order rally

4) Take this job and shove it

In the past I touched upon a question occasionally asked by fans, namely who would actually want to work for the Empire. That query is especially raised in regards to Stormtroopers, who appear to have the most thankless job of all, typically serving as cannon fodder.

The Force Awakens addresses that particular question, and the answer is very unpleasant. Stormtroopers are conscripts who are kidnapped while only infants, who are then indoctrinated with the ideology of the First Order throughout their childhoods, emerging as adults who mindlessly follow the orders of their commanding officers.

Finn was one of these children. In fact, Finn isn’t even his real name.  All he knows is his serial number, FN-2187.  The capture of Poe on Jakku is his first mission in the field, and despite years of brainwashing FN-2187 is shocked at the slaughter of innocents.  Horrified at what the First Order is doing, FN-2187 helps Poe escape from them.  It is the Resistance pilot who gives him the name “Finn” after the letters in his First Order ID.

There are real-world analogies at play here.  Over the decades various totalitarian governments have utilized this technique, such as the various Communist regimes of the mid-20th Century.  More recently various terrorist groups like Boko Harem have kidnapped large numbers of children to mold into future members.

But the most obvious example of this is Nazi Germany, with its Hitler Youth program, which indoctrinated young children into serving the State first and foremost.  Which brings us to that scene…

5) Springtime for Palpatine

At one point in The Force Awakens there is an assembly of First Order military forces that is very reminiscent of the infamous Nuremberg Rallies , with General Hux delivering a chilling Hitler-esque rant against the Republic.

The original trilogy drew a few parallels between the Empire and the Nazis, but this is far and away the most obvious evocation of the Third Reich’s evil in the Star Wars universe.

6) Build a better Death Star

Seeking to outdo the Empire, the First Order has created an even more insanely dangerous superweapon. Instead of a moon-sized battle station, the First Order transformed an actual planet into the Starkiller (no doubt a nod to George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker in the early drafts of Star Wars).  Rather than merely destroying nearby worlds, Starkiller can obliterate multiple targets on the opposite end of the galaxy.

The Starkiller is also a hell of a lot more fortified than the Death Star. Even after Finn provides the Resistance with the location of the Base’s obligatory weak point, destroying it still proves to be an almost-impossible task.

7) Go Snoke yourself

Sorry, but Snoke is just too ridiculous a name for a character who is supposed to a dark, menacing villain. Yes, I know, nearly all Star Wars character names are strange: Obi Wan Kenobi, Boba Fett, Mace Windu, Padme Amidala, etc.  But most of the time George Lucas devised names that were odd but still cool.  Snoke just sounds goofy.  I mean, that’s a character from a mid-1980s Saturday morning cartoon, right?  No, wait, those were Snorks.  Never mind.

Maybe in this particular case Abrams should have asked Lucas for a favor. “Hey, George? Look, I know that you sold Star Wars to Disney, and that we then decided not to use any of your ideas for the new trilogy of movies. But could you help us out on one thing? We’re having a hell of a time coming up with a really cool, evil name for our Big Bad. Got any ideas?”

SW The Force Awakens Chewbacca and Han Solo

8) There’s no service like fan service

Michele expressed the opinion that The Force Awakens was much better than the prequels, stating “They made the movie that the fans wanted.” I responded that the prequels were better than most people give them credit, and that sometimes it is not a good idea to give the fans exactly what they are asking for.

The late Marvel Comics writer & editor Mark Gruenwald once observed “The writer’s job isn’t to give the fans what they want. The writer’s job is to give the fans what they didn’t even know they wanted.” Another comic book writer, the very talented Steven Grant, has expressed similar sentiments, and also offered the view that “The best ideas are usually the ones that are almost obvious, the ones that when you get it you stop and wonder why no one ever came up with it before.”

As much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, as well made and visually impressive a movie as it was, in a certain respect it was by-the-numbers. One can visualize Abrams and his collaborators literally going through a checklist of what to include…

Appearances by a whole bunch of the original trilogy characters? Check!  A ragtag group of freedom fighters struggling against a monolithic adversary of pure evil?  Check!  A massive superweapon that can destroy entire planets?  Check?  A hero who grows up on a desert world and who discovers that it is her destiny to embrace the Force and become a Jedi?  Check!  Another hero who is concerned with self-preservation but who gradually comes to believe in a cause bigger than himself?  Check!

As I’ve observed before, the prequels were flawed, but they were still enjoyable. What Lucas really, REALLY needed to have on those three movies was a strong co-writer on the screenplays, someone like, well, Lawrence Kasdan, who previously worked on The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.  I expect that the reason why the dialogue in The Force Awakens is so well written is due to Kasdan’s involvement.

Because of weak scripts, as well as the fact that Lucas was attempting to tell a story that was somewhat different from the original trilogy, the prequels were not well received by many.

Imagine a scenario where you enjoy a new music group because they do amazing cover versions of old songs that you love. In fact, you like this new group even better than the more recent work of the original artists, whose later albums weren’t as well written, and who no longer can hit the high notes as often, or play the guitar as fast.

That’s sort of how The Force Awakens came across to me, as J.J. Abrams doing a cover album of Star Wars Greatest Hits. But the thing is, no matter how you play around with the material, tweaking it, speeding it up, emphasizing certain things over others, no matter how fantastic it turns out, at its core are still the same notes  & lyrics Lucas wrote over three decades ago.

As I said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun, well-made movie. It is also a movie that plays it very safe.  Obviously Disney was not going to allow anything too experimental or offbeat on their very first Star Wars movie.  I hate to think that they are going to require the entirety of the franchise to remain so formulaic.  Hopefully in the future, in some of the spin-off movies that are in the works, Disney will let the directors & writers strive for a different tone and go in new directions.  We shall have to see.

Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about it on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was futilely attempting a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of Gordon’s entire life.  But the Commissioner is still very much in possession of his sanity.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!  By the book, you hear?  We have to show him! We have to show him our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain part of a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 38

The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.

Thoughts on Criminal Minds season eight part two

The second half of Criminal Minds season eight wrapped up a few weeks ago, and it was definitely one hell of a ride.  The various subplots set up in early episodes all came to a head, beginning in the mid-season opener “Zugzwang.”  Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) had, over a period of months, been developing a relationship over the phone with Maeve (Beth Riesgraf), a geneticist who was in seclusion due to her being menaced by a stalker.  Just when it seemed that Maeve was in the clear, and she could finally meet Reid, the stalker finally surfaces in the persona of a very loony Michelle Trachtenberg.  Maeve is kidnapped, and is soon the tragic victim of a murder/suicide, killed right in front of a horrified Reid.  As a viewer, it was a real kick in the gut.  The socially awkward BAU agent finally found his soul mate only to have her cruelly taken away like that.  Maeve’s death would continue to haunt Reid for the remainder of the season.

Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) also went through the emotional wringer, as his past came back to haunt him.  In the episode “Restoration,” the BAU is investigating a series of brutal beatings in Chicago, and they soon realize that the UnSub is a past victim of Carl Buford, a sexual predator who molested dozens of teenage boys, including a young Morgan.  The BAU is forced to turn to the imprisoned Buford to get his help in narrowing down the suspect list, bringing Morgan face to face with his childhood tormentor.  That’s the interesting thing about Morgan.  On the surface, he appears to be this confident, happy, handsome guy who has it all.  But underneath all that there is this painful past which has led him to join the FBI in order to aid other people who have been victimized.

Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight.
Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight

Another member of the BAU with layers is Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook), the BAU’s former communications liaison turned profiler.  JJ often comes across as having a very laid-back, casual demeanor.  But she is also a mother to a young son, Henry, a role equally important to her.  In the previous season, we saw hell hath no fury like a mother scorned, as she engaged in a vicious hand to hand fight with Tricia Helfer’s serial killer bank robber in order to keep Henry safe.  This season, another case hit home for JJ’s maternal instincts.  In “Nanny Dearest,” we learn that the BAU has been attempting to solve a case for several years.  Each year, a nanny and the child in her care are abducted by an UnSub.  The child is typically returned unharmed within 24 hours, but inevitably the tortured & drowned body of the nanny is found disposed of in Los Angeles on the exact same day of the year.  Hoping to prevent a new killing, the BAU fly out to LA, only to learn the latest abduction has occurred ahead of schedule, except this time the child has yet to be recovered.  JJ is reminded of her son, who due to the work schedule of herself and her husband, is often left with a nanny.  Following a number of leads, JJ and Morgan finally locate the UnSub, and a determined JJ kills the murderer in a tense shoot-out.

By far the biggest plotline of Season Eight was the emergence of the Replicator.  In the first half of the season, the BAU was being stalked by a mysterious figure, an individual who then began committing copycat killings of various cases the team had recently solved.  As the second half of the season progresses, the Replicator steps up his game, actively taunting the members of the BAU, as well as manipulating another individual into carrying out some of the killings.

As I mentioned in my write-up of the first half of the season, I was wondering if there might be some connection between the Replicator and A) the person stalking Maeve or B) the fumbled FBI investigation that nearly ended the career of Alex Blake (Jeanne Tripplehorn) twelve years ago.  Well, I was wrong about the first connection, although the Replicator did take advantage of Maeve’s abduction to offer his first taunt of “Zugzwang” to Reid.  However, I was totally on target on the second point.

After nearly a year of build-up, I was hoping that the reveal of the Replicator wouldn’t be a let-down.  Criminal Minds definitely came up with pitch-perfect casting, as the BAU’s arch-foe is revealed to be portrayed by none other than Mark Hamill.  And if you thought he was creepy as the voice of the Joker on Batman: the Animated Series, here as the Replicator he is downright scary.

The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent turned serial killer John Curtis
The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent
turned serial killer John Curtis

Who is the Replicator?  He is FBI agent John Curtis, and a dozen years previously his career suffered a major setback as, along with Alex Blake, the blame for a botched investigation into a series of anthrax attacks was shifted onto him by Assistant Director Erin Strauss (Jayne Atkinson).  Curtis blamed Strauss for delivering this near fatal blow to his career, he was jealous of Blake for rebuilding her position in the FBI when he was unable to do so, and he resented the BAU for offering Blake a place on their team, something he felt he deserved much more than her.  All that set off his obsessive stalking of the BAU, and the replication of their cases, with the end goal of first humiliating and then killing them.

The character who Curtis directs much of his ire towards, Erin Strauss, is an interesting one.  Early on, Strauss was an ambitious, ruthless figure who often maintained an adversarial attitude towards the BAU.  As the series progressed, Strauss gradually mellowed, becoming more of an ally.  When it became apparent that Strauss was suffering from alcoholism, the members of the BAU helped her to both enter recovery and to save her career.  So the Strauss who the Replicator confronts is a very different woman from the person who threw Curtis and Blake to the wolves back in 2001.

Unfortunately, the vengeful Curtis takes Strauss prisoner and forces her at gunpoint to drink, destroying her hard-won sobriety.  Having taken her dignity, the Replicator then murders Strauss.  Hardest hit by this is David Rossi (Joe Mantegna).  Over the past year or so, there had been a number of hints that Rossi and Strauss had become involved, and it is confirmed here, as Rossi mourns and rages at the death of a woman he has come to care for.

The final episode of Season Eight really was riveting.  As events hurtled towards the confrontation between the BAU and the Replicator, I was wondering if the finale would actually end in a cliffhanger.  I also was seriously worried just how the BAU was going to outwit the Replicator, who all along was shown to be several steps of them.  I was a bit worried that there’d be some sort of cop-out, that he would conveniently make some sort of silly mistake at the last minute.  Fortunately that is not the case.

The Replicator very nearly does succeed in trapping most of the team in a room with a bomb rapidly counting down to zero.  However, he does make two slight miscalculations.  Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangness) manages to reboot her crashed computer network quicker than anticipated, enabling her to jam the countdown.  Rossi, who was earlier poisoned by the Replicator, also recovers sooner than expected, and the delay caused by Garcia gives him time to get the rest of the BAU out of the locked room.  A fleeing Curtis leads a pursuing Rossi back into the booby-trapped room, determined to take at least one of the BAU out with him.  In an act of poetic justice, though, Rossi has used Strauss’ one year anniversary coin from Alcoholics Anonymous to wedge open the lock.  Rossi makes his exit, leaving the Replicator to be blown up… probably.  Because, y’know, we do not actually see a body.

With the Replicator presumed dead, the members of the BAU gather at Rossi’s house to hold an informal memorial service, remembering the fallen Strauss, who in the end they counted as a loyal friend and colleague.

I thought the second half of season eight was quite good.  Despite the fact that the Replicator storyline was a major feature of the season, it did not dominate events, and we did get plenty of stand-alone episodes.  The mystery was resolved quite satisfactorily.  And I’m actually glad that Jeanne Tripplehorn will be returning in season nine.  At first, I wasn’t sure about Alex Blake, but in the end I warmed up to her character.