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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

Star Wars reviews: Shattered Empire

Over the past few months I’ve been doing something of an informal countdown to The Force Awakens on this blog, reviewing some of my favorite Star Wars spin-offs. Today I’m looking at Shattered Empire, which was released in October by Marvel Comics.

Confession time: I haven’t been following the Star Wars comic books since they returned to Marvel, mostly because I’ve gotten the impression that they suffer from an extremely decompressed style of storytelling. But I decided to get Shattered Empire since it was a four issue miniseries and it was released on a weekly basis.  That meant I’d have the entire story in hand very quickly.  I waited until all four chapters were released and read it in one sitting.

Oh, yes, according to the indicia, the full title of this miniseries is Journey To Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire. What a mouthful!  I’m just going to call it Shattered Empire for simplicity’s sake.

SW Shattered Empire 4 cover

Shattered Empire is billed as a canonical prequel to the events of The Force Awakens. Writer Greg Rucka and artist Marco Checchetto examine how events unfolded across the galaxy in the weeks and months following Return of the Jedi.  We see these developments through the eyes of Lieutenant Shara Bey, aka Green Four, a pilot in the Rebel Alliance, and her husband Sergeant Kes Dameron, a commando in Han Solo’s strike team.

The Battle of Endor was undoubtedly the Alliance’s greatest, most important victory yet. Both Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader were killed, and the second Death Star was destroyed.  However, as we see in this miniseries, this was not the end of the struggle against the Empire.

I was only seven years old in 1983 when Return of the Jedi came out. Even at that young age I briefly questioned if this really did mark the end of the Empire.  Yes, I was obviously too young to comprehend such concepts as the difficulties in dismantling the remnants of a vast dictatorship, the challenges of establishing a stable democratic government, and the likelihood of ruthless opportunists taking advantage of the sudden vacuum of power.  Nevertheless I distinctly remember thinking that much of the Imperial fleet at Endor apparently survived the battle, and it seemed odd to me that they would all surrender.

As we see in Shattered Empire, there are indeed Imperial forces throughout the galaxy that have no intention of relinquishing power. Their defiance is spurred on by none other than Palpatine himself.  Master chess player that he was, the Emperor left in place a deadly contingency plan to be implemented in the event of his demise.  Via technology and loyal agents, many of the Empire’s officers are convinced that Palpatine still lives.  They are given orders to implement Operation: Cinder, the total devastation of numerous inhabited worlds.  Clearly the Emperor intended that if he couldn’t have the galaxy then no one would.

Shara and Kes’s elation at the victory at Endor, their optimism for the future, gradually gives way to weariness and despair, as the promised end to hostilities fails to materialize. Instead the couple is forced to face the possibility that they will have to spend the rest of their lives fighting against an adversary that is unwilling to capitulate.

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I’ve enjoyed Greg Rucka’s work in the past on Whiteout, Queen & Country and Gotham Central. He is definitely good at writing interesting, well-rounded characters.  Certainly he does a fine job developing Shara Bey.  She is a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.  Her husband Kes Dameron is given somewhat less “screen time,” and is consequently not explored nearly as much.  Nevertheless, given the requirements of fitting such a large amount of material within four issues, Rucka succeeds at establishing both characters.

One of the subplots in Shattered Empire involves Princess Leia and Shara Bey visiting Naboo. This provides Rucka with a good opportunity to connect some of the strands from the original trilogy and the prequels.  Naboo is a peaceful democracy, but it was also the homeworld of the late Emperor.  Its people are understandably horrified and ashamed by this, and are quite eager to support Leia’s efforts to organize the New Republic.  Unfortunately this possibility was foreseen by Palpatine, and Naboo is one of the planets targeted by Operation: Cinder.  Leia, Shara and Soruna, the current queen of Naboo, are forced to pilot decades-old fighter craft in a desperate effort to fight off the orbiting Imperial fleet.

The final issue sees Shara joining Luke Skywalker infiltrating an Imperial facility on a rescue mission. The object that they seek to retrieve from the Empire is unusual, to say the least.  Well, perhaps that was why Luke only brought along one other person to help him, because he didn’t want to endanger anyone else on what might have been a questionable task.  This does give Rucka the opportunity to write an exciting action sequence showing Luke using his full Jedi abilities against a squad of Stormtroopers.

There’s another nice sequence Rucka has where he shows the Alliance have learned from past losses. In issue, #2, fighting against the Empire on Sterdic IV, the Rebels are pitted against an Imperial Walker.  Obviously remembering their devastating defeat on Hoth, this time the Rebels launch a group of Y-Wings to fly above the AT-AT, dropping clusters of magnetized bombs onto it.

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As Shattered Empire comes to a close, Shara and Kes have both put in the paperwork to muster out of active service. Shara explains her conflicted feelings concerning this decision to Luke…

Shara: I’ve got a son I’ve barely seen since he was born. A husband I get to see for an hour at a time every couple of weeks, if we’re lucky. I’m tired, and I feel guilty for even saying so. I feel like I’m abandoning the Rebellion.

Luke: But if the cost of our struggle is the lives we fought to protect, the future we hoped to see, then what is it we were fighting for?

At first I was a bit surprised that Shattered Empire ended without much resolution. Thinking it over, I realized that it did have closure as far as Shara and Kes are concerned.  And at its best Star Wars has always been concerned with how the lives of individuals and families unfolded amidst vast galactic events and upheavals.

Besides, until The Force Awakens actually begins showing, there is no way to know if Shattered Empire actually does set up any characters or subplots for the new movies.

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Marco Checchetto, with assists by Angel Unzeta and Emilio Laiso, provides the artwork for this miniseries. Checchetto’s work is very detailed.  He also lays out his pages dramatically.   Checchetto is definitely well suited to drawing both ground combat and space battles.

Checchetto is also good with the quieter, character-driven moments. That’s important, since the relationship between Shara and Kes is a central element of this story.

For the most part I found Shattered Empire to be a strong, enjoyable miniseries. Hopefully Marvel and Disney will ask Rucka and Checchetto to return to chronicling the Star Wars universe in the future.