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.