My Dragons Are More Sophisticated Than Your Super-Heroes

Responding to dumb ideas that refuse to die, and how it all relates to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

I’ve only seen one complete episode of Game of Thrones, but that was enough. Seeing a beautiful young woman pushed into an arranged marriage that was essentially slavery and then violently raped, and then an incestuous couple pushing a child to his death for witnessing them having sex, convinced me that this wasn’t the HBO prestige series for me.

Even if it wasn’t for me, though, I’m not interested in trying to put it down or anything. It had a lot of talent behind it, and I know a lot of smart people who got really into it. Plus, it inspired a lot of creative people to try their own hand at fantasy world-building themselves.

For instance: in an opinion column in The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg constructed a fantastic, elaborate, alternate reality in which Game of Thrones was a dramatized extrapolation of the War of the Roses designed to engender thoughtful, mature discussions about trauma, parentage, the foundations of a just government… and which also, occasionally, happened to show titties and people being beheaded or getting their eyes gouged out.

I’m not suggesting that the depth and nuance Rosenberg describes wasn’t actually present in the series, but I am absolutely 100% saying it’s comically disingenuous for her to act as if Game of Thrones‘s popularity was due to its mature and thought-provoking ideas, and that its TV-MA content and promise of dragons and zombies was just a happy accident. I have to call foul when TV critics claim not to understand how prestige TV works.

As Rosenberg describes the state of popular media as toothless and “flaccid,” while lamenting that Watchmen and Promising Young Woman weren’t more popular, it’s clear that this just boils down to the familiar refrain: the stuff I like is complex and sophisticated; this other stuff that’s popular is trite and simplistic. The part that I can’t get over is how weird this version is.

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One Thing I Like About Godzilla vs Kong

Godzilla vs Kong seems perfectly happy to be spectacular, beautiful nonsense

Title Image: Kong vs Godzilla in Hong Kong in Godzilla vs Kong

I liked Kong: Skull Island quite a bit, although apparently that didn’t come through clearly enough in my post about it. A few years ago, I was applying for a job on a licensed video game that I would’ve hated working on, so I’m very fortunate I wasn’t offered the job. At the interview, though, the interviewer mentioned reading that post and seemed skeptical I’d be happy working on a project that was part of a major franchise subject to scrutiny from tons of invested parties.

I was reminded of that while watching Godzilla vs Kong, because it’s very much the culmination of a movie franchise. But it also doesn’t betray a hint of pretense that it’s anything else, or that there’s anything wrong with being the culmination of a movie franchise.

And I really enjoyed the hell out of it. It was big, gleefully dumb fun, on a scale that I don’t think I’ve seen since The Mummy. The aspect of it I love the most is that it knows exactly what it wants to do, and exactly what people want to see when they watch a movie titled Godzilla vs Kong. Which is perfectly illustrated by this scene:

(The rest of this post has spoilers, which I really suggest you avoid reading because there are some fun surprises in the movie, even if you, as I did, go in thinking you’d already been spoiled for all of it).

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Is… THIS your identity? (One Thing I Like About In And Of Itself)

Doing my part to add to the hype around Derek DelGaudio’s emotional magic show

I was hyped for the Hulu broadcast of Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself before it premiered, because people on Twitter — not just “people,” but artists I really respect — were breathlessly describing it as a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The consensus was that it was breathtaking, and that you should watch it knowing nothing about it going in.

I’d agree with the first part, but I’d actually recommend knowing at least enough about it to keep expectations in check. My take is that it’s very good; I was openly sobbing through much of it, and that’s only about 25% because I’m extremely prone to sympathetic crying. The rest is because it’s a genuinely impressive production.

Still, I feel like it would’ve resonated with me even more if my expectations hadn’t been raised so impossibly high by the buzz around it. So I’d actually recommend going in with a reductionist idea of what it is: an ingenious combination of one-man play and stage magic show.

The one aspect I’m most impressed with is how it’s presented, so that it’s practically impossible to be too cynical to appreciate it. It’s a series of feats of stage magic that are telling you, in every moment of the show, including the title of the show, that the “tricks” aren’t the point.

To explain why would definitely be a spoiler, though, so please don’t read the rest of this post until after you’ve seen it.

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He vas… my boyfriend!

Celebrating Cloris Leachman’s amazing career

It seems odd to try and write a celebrity obituary as some random person on the internet with a blog, but how phenomenal was Cloris Leachman in everything?

That obituary from The Washington Post highlights her work in The Last Picture Show and Young Frankenstein, which is undoubtedly one of the best comedies ever made and in my top 10 of best movies ever made. Comedic performances never get the same respect that dramatic ones do, but it says a lot that she stands out even in a movie filled with pitch-perfect performances from several of the best comic actors of the 20th century.

The obituary also makes a point of how much she was not just willing, but eager to take risks. I wasn’t aware of the true scope of it, but even as a casual fan, I could tell that she took thankless parts and made something great of them. Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show could’ve been just the irritating neighbor lost in an ensemble of great performances, but she managed to nail the comedy so perfectly — making sure that she was always more funny than obnoxious — that even as a little kid, I thought naturally she should have her own show.

Two more quotes from that Washington Post obituary: “‘My intention,’ she told the Los Angeles Times, ‘is not to do something I’ve done before.'” and “…for the most part, she embraced unorthodox, aggressively undignified parts.” That seems like the best legacy for anyone, not just actors. We may not have her talent, but we could all aspire to her fearlessness.

True Believers

(Over-)Thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it’s “cinema,” or if it’s something even more relevant to the 21st century

Hey, did everybody catch the latest episode of WandaVision. It was pretty rad. The feeling of a TV-series-long homage to “It’s a Good Life” was stronger than ever, with the added depth of being invested in the characters to make it super sinister. My favorite gag in the whole episode was how they called back to the various ways TV series have tried to hide an actor’s pregnancy over the years: putting them in big coats, standing behind counters, holding a bowl of fruit.

While I was reading back over my gushing about WandaVision, a few things stood out: first was that I seriously need an editor.

Second is that I referred to Paul Bettany as “Jennifer Connelly’s husband,” which could come across as a weird dig against him out of nowhere, but I really intended it as a dig against his agent. Or probably more accurately, the byzantine union rules that resulted in his getting top billing over Elizabeth Olsen. Because that doesn’t seem fair at all. Bettany himself, on the other hand, seems pretty cool.

But third was how I put in a dig against Martin Scorsese for saying that “Marvel movies aren’t ‘cinema.'” This was a quote that I’d heard a while ago, back when the internet was trying to gin it up into a controversy, but at the time I just rolled my eyes and moved on. Last week I realized that if I’m going to keep referencing it, I should probably look it up and see what he actually said.

And I was disappointed. I’d expected it disagree entirely, but I figured that coming from a filmmaker with Scorsese’s stature, it would be a well-thought-out and multi-layered argument. Instead, it’s just the same old “high art vs low art” gate-keeping that fans of “genre fiction” have been used to seeing for decades. It uses a narrow definition of “cinema” that is just flexible enough to include the stuff that Scorsese likes, it conflates subject matter with artistic merit, and it goes on to conflate artistic merit with financing, production, distribution, and exhibition. And it should come as little surprise that it frames the predominance of “franchise pictures” as the death of the auteur-driven film model in which he became world-famous and widely respected.

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MustyTV, and a scaredy-cat’s guide to horror

Recommendations for spooky movies that I probably can’t watch!

We’re getting closer to Halloween, and all month my friend Rain has been doing her annual lineup of recommended horror movies and how to stream them on her Musty TV blog.

This year the twist is that she’s choosing movies she hasn’t seen before. Which means there are several interesting suggestions that I’d never even heard of; you’re likely to find some good recommendations on there so check it out!

I’m not sure how many I’ll check out, since I’ve always had a very low tolerance for horror movies, and that tolerance just keeps going down the older I get. It really sucks, because intellectually, I love horror, but it’s as if I physically can’t enjoy it.

In movies, horror is the genre with the most potential for being multi-layered: there can be a horror/suspense story that’s being experienced viscerally, while any social commentary or over-arching theme can be going on in a “separate channel.” It’s also got the most potential to be high-brow or low-brow, and you never know what you’re going to get. And filmmakers who really understand the genre, like Sam Raimi, can blur the line between low-brow and high-brow and combine them into one movie. Drag Me to Hell is still underrated.

I still think that’s why Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies work so well. He approached them as a horror movie maker doing an epic fantasy, instead of someone trying to make an epic fantasy story with a few scary moments. It’s most apparent in the scenes with the Nazgul and with Shelob, which feel as if they’re not holding anything back. See also: the transformation of Doctor Octopus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

But that seems to be as close as I can get. Several times over the years, I’ve pledged to go to a Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, or Knott’s Scary Farm, and the pandemic isn’t the only reason I’m not going this year. I know from time in hospitals earlier in the year that I can’t just intellectually turn off my reaction to seeing blood; it makes me feel light-headed and just on the verge of throwing up or passing out (or both).

I’ve tried playing Phasmaphobia, and I haven’t made it past the tutorial. I want to love it, since it’s about ghost hunters and solving puzzles in typical horror movie environments, and it seems really clever. But it’s too good at setting a mood and being extremely creepy. I wasn’t able to distance myself from it at all, and it was just like walking around my own house with voices whispering and hissing, and doors opening and closing — not like being in a fun haunted house, but that feeling when you’re woken up in a dark house in the middle of the night. Even if I do play this again, there’s no way that I’d play it in VR.

But back to the horror movie recommendations: I may see Chopping Mall, since it looks silly, and I’ve always wanted to see it. I could also probably handle Host and Lake Mungo, since video adds a layer of detachment that I can always handle. I’ve already seen Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, and that just made me a little sad, because it feels like they were going for a self-aware tone and just not pulling it off.

One Thing I Love About Hamilton

We’ve been hearing such effusive praise about Hamilton for so long that I’m not surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But I am surprised that the ending had me ugly-crying.

The title photo is of the Great Gasp ride visible over the entrance to Six Flags Over Georgia.

For years, I’ve been hearing about how Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theater. I’ve never had the patience or money to get tickets for a live performance, so I’ve just had to listen to the soundtrack and take everybody else’s word for it. I thought the music was good but nothing exceptional enough to warrant such universal praise, so I figured that there must be something spectacular in the live production — maybe Hamilton dodges a falling chandelier like Phantom of the Opera, or the founding fathers form a roller-skating train like Starlight Express.

Like much of the rest of the country, I finally got to see the filmed version on Disney+, and I think now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the brilliance of the show isn’t dependent on any big moment of spectacle — to be honest, I had it running in the background and was only halfway paying attention as I was doing something else, so I completely missed the time-rewinding during Angelica Schuyler’s song, and I only heard afterwards that it was one of the most breathtaking moments of the play. And even only giving it half my attention, I still loved it, so I’m expecting to love it even more when I finally get to watch it without distraction.

The brilliance of the show is that it’s two and a half hours showcasing one standout performance after another, and it’s all a celebration of intelligence, wit, diversity, integrity, ambition, and the American ideal. It’s hard to describe how nice it was on July 3, 2020 to be seeing a bunch of phenomenally talented people all getting together to celebrate intelligence and integrity and diversity. Even if it was a relic of the Obama administration.

Part of the reason it feels so relentlessly intelligent is because it’s packed with meaning — on top of all the wordplay itself, there are layers upon layers of things that the play is saying implicitly. One of the unexpected advantages to first seeing after everyone else in the world has spent five years obsessing over it: the internet is full of interpretations and lists and even — ugh — “explainers” pointing out details that a first-time viewer probably missed. The speed at which characters rhyme indicates their mental state or their self-confidence, and even the way that they move across the stage suggests their character. It’s daunting to think that not only does the play have more words than most in sheer number, but that every single one feels meticulously planned and placed.

And even the casual viewer can pick up on the most obvious things that the play says implicitly rather than explicitly. The casting itself is brilliant. It’s relatively easy to see why a Puerto Rican from New York City would choose to empathize with and emphasize Hamilton’s immigrant status. It’s significant to cast a black man as Thomas Jefferson. It’s significant to cast women of different races as the Schuyler sisters. It’s significant to show how women’s roles were prominent in Hamilton’s story, especially since our most popular stories about the founding of the USA usually act like women didn’t even exist apart from Betsy Ross, or an occasional nod to Dolly Madison.

I admit that when I first heard about the play, I thought that the casting was a good move, but effectively little more than a stunt, like gender-swapping roles in a well-known story, or setting Shakespeare in a different time period. But after seeing Hamilton, I realize I was completely wrong. It’s not the fiction of theater to show a diverse group of people active in the formation of the country; the fiction has been the centuries-long lie telling us that only white men were making a difference. I already knew that lines like “Immigrants, we get the job done” got applause in the play, but I feel like the stronger statement is made as soon as the actors walk on stage. It asserts that the history of America belongs to every American on that stage. Not just the white men who’ve traditionally dominated the story.

(If I were ever to write a “One Thing I Love About All Narrative Art,” it would be when an artist is able to use the format of the storytelling to deliver more of the story than is told explicitly. When changes in voice or pacing suggest greater narrative changes, or when assumptions made by the audience are subverted to make them nervous or uneasy. I love that stuff, and it gets my highest respect when I find it in any work, from Psycho to The Hunger Games novel).

So I love all those aspects of the play, but that’s not the “one thing” I’m focusing on here. All of the wit, and intelligence, and knowledge of the history of the nation and the history of theater, and multiple layers of meaning, would all make for a great thesis and likely a very entertaining play. What pushed Hamilton from “excellent” to “sublime” for me is the ending. I’d already been weepy for most of the last act of the play, with its concentration on death and the legacy we leave to others, but the last moment had me ugly-crying. It took me completely by surprise.

I didn’t expect to be surprised by Hamilton, any more than I was surprised by Titanic. Even people like me, who can never remember history classes, can remember the “Got Milk?” commercial. And even if you don’t have that context, Aaron Burr gives away the ending in the opening number, and the play foreshadows the duel twice. The final songs do recount what’s known about the characters from the historical record, but they’re not about that so much as about the play itself, and the reason it exists. (Which is why criticizing the play for historical “inaccuracies” misses the point entirely). It is explicitly about stories, how they’re told, and why they’re told. Stories about the “founding fathers” are deliberately made semi-mythical and removed from everyday life, to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution: the battles fought and the words written by these brave and god-like men must never be sullied or diminished by your shallow, modern concerns.

But Hamilton is encouraging a different kind of patriotism. It humanizes these historical figures, not for their benefit, but for ours. It says that these stories are our stories; they belong to every one of us as Americans. A lot of mostly white people have spent many, many years trying to spin history to suggest that a decidedly anti-monarchist revolution brought about its own type of monarchy. Through battles or writing, they earned a kind of divine right, and were gracious enough to allow everyone else — women and people of color, purely coincidentally — to enjoy the bounty of the country that they created. Hamilton asserts that these people aren’t so different from any of us, and we have the right — and responsibility — to choose our own fate just as much as they do.

And again, that would’ve made for a perfectly moving and satisfying ending to the musical, earning the kind of blurb that Disney+ uses (and which I genuinely love), “the story of America then, told by America now.” But then Eliza, who’s outlived everyone by decades, and who’s told all of their stories, and who’s made so many contributions of her own, finally reaches the end of her story, and her very last moment is to look to heaven, and gasp.

I’ve heard from family members about what they saw or heard during their loved ones’ final moments. I’ll never forget it; it brought a kind of hope and comfort and wonder to something that could otherwise be fearful or sad. The moment in Hamilton is ambiguous, but I read it as rapture — a person unprepared to suddenly be met with so much indescribable beauty. Again: cue the ugly crying.

I found out from a Wired interview with the cast, of all places, that the gasp is not even in the original play. That stunned me, because it seemed the key to the final act if not the entire play. The end of the play is largely about death, loss, grief, and running out of time. They’re ideas well-communicated, but also communicated in a surprisingly traditional way, for a musical that fearlessly combines so many different musical styles and clever wordplay. The song “Quiet Uptown” repeats “have pity” on the characters who are going through “unimaginable” grief, which are both distancing. They suggest sympathy instead of empathy.

But that final gasp shows shocking empathy. It’s humanizing to show that the figures credited with founding America all had their own failings and their own personal tragedies. But while we may not ever fight in a war, or get in a duel, or be betrayed, or lose a child, there’s one thing that every single one of us will go through; the ultimate thing that makes all of us human. After seeing the other characters spending their lives obsessing over their legacy and their places in history, Eliza’s final song transcends all of that. Her proudest achievement isn’t her “place in the narrative,” or a monument, but her work to help people. It has little to do with “history,” and everything to do with how we live in the present. What’s great about that moment is that you can interpret it however you want. My interpretation is that she’s rewarded, not for her role in Alexander Hamilton’s story, but for her own life well-lived.

Do or do not; there is #nohomo

More spaceships and laser swords, less snogging.

Whenever Star Wars comes into contact with the internet, dumb things happen. One of the most annoyingly dumb things recently has been the insistence that the new sequel trilogy is a perfect stage for better LGBTQ representation, but Disney overlords have kept it from happening.

The kiss between two women at the end of Rise of Skywalker is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it example of tokenism, they claim, kept short so it could pander to liberals but still be easily cut for less gay-friendly foreign markets. And of course the characters of Finn and Poe were obviously well-suited to be a couple, until skittish Disney execs insisted that they each be paired off with hetero romantic interests.

As a red-blooded American white male gay nerd, I’m calling that a bunch of nonsense.

Of course I’d prefer it if a company as large as Disney would choose to stand its ground. Release the movie with its completely innocuous kiss between two women, and let the market decide. (Retaining the arbitrary and unearned kiss between the trilogy’s hero and villain is a lot more offensive, anyway). But then they’d get accused of cultural insensitivity, so I guess there’s not one easy solution. At least the Huckabee family has to see it and get angry about it, so that makes me happy to think about.

But as for making it a more significant beat in the story, my question would be: why? What do you hope to get out of it? These aren’t stories that do a great job with romance in any case; the most successful one in the entire series is still insufferably corny in places. If it’s just a question of representation — which is absolutely important — then I think showing two secondary characters kiss during a happy moment is a great way to handle it.

When I was growing up watching these movies, I would’ve been happy to see any acknowledgement that other gay people exist, and that they don’t need to be primarily defined by or driven by their sexuality. In a series that doesn’t tend to focus on the personal lives of any of its secondary characters, devoting more time to those characters’ relationship would inevitably feel shoehorned.

The one that I feel a lot more strongly about is the business about Finn and Poe. With that, I can’t be as sympathetic to the call for representation, because I think it’s actually a huge and disappointing step backwards. In modern American entertainment, it’s getting increasingly common to see representation of two men in a romantic relationship. What’s still disappointingly rare, though, is to see two men in a supportive, affectionate relationship that isn’t romantic or sexual.

I’m sure that the people pushing for a Finn & Poe romance (including Oscar Isaac himself) believe they’re pushing for open-mindedness, but I think it just reinforces the kind of toxic masculinity we’re already overwhelmed with. It sets a limit on how much two men can show they care about each other before it turns gay. They hug, they’re concerned about each other, they even share clothes — now let’s see them kiss!

Believe me, nobody wants to see Oscar Isaac kissing another dude more than I do, but I think the better and more valuable representation — which could impact more of the audience than just the people who identify as gay — is to show men being caring and supportive of each other without having to be romantically linked. If for no other reason than it reminds all the guys in the audience who don’t identify as gay or bisexual that being affectionate isn’t a threat to their sexuality or their masculinity.

Now, the obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker in particular is that they introduced Zorii Bliss as a character whose presence in the movie is at least 75% to give Poe Dameron somebody to mack on. I think they handled it well for the most part, seeing as how she’s portrayed as a bad-ass who’s able to show she cares about someone while still not being just a sexual object. And it gave the movie one of its best moments, when Poe turns on the full smolder, and she shoots him down immediately. But there’s no denying that it’s hella heteronormative.

Since that whole character relationship was already loaded down with the kind of corny, when-do-I-get-that-kiss “romance” that already exists in Star Wars, I say the “best” LGBTQ representation would have been to have Zorii Bliss open the helmet and reveal another man. (Like, say, me. I’ll do it. Just call me). It would’ve felt every bit as shoehorned in, but it would’ve at least been somewhat novel.

But let background characters stay in the background, and let Finn and Poe just be friends. It’s not progress to push for gay characters at the expense of telling men that they can’t be straight and give another guy a hug.

The Rise of Skywalker: The Last Gatekeeper

It’s partly true. Some of it.

This post is full of spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.

While I was psyching myself up for seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I said I was bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the disappointment of The Last Jedi. As it turns out, I didn’t really feel either.

I definitely felt none of the exhilaration of the first movie. The Force Awakens felt like the gasp of new life after someone plunged a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the franchise — (Note: I don’t know if that is actually a thing outside of Pulp Fiction. Please consult your doctor) — but this story was full of bad decisions that they couldn’t just lightspeed-skip over (like, say, an over-long discussion of thermal oscillators or a weird repetition of “kanjiclub”).

At the same time, even as I was shaking my head and mouthing the word “no” over and over, I didn’t feel the miserable deflation I did while watching the bad decisions play out in The Last Jedi. I’ve grown into a begrudging acceptance of that movie — and honestly, it’s a more ambitious and more daring movie than The Rise of Skywalker — but watching it felt like the cold touch of a Dementor was draining me of my renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars.

I think ultimately, JJ Abrams is too talented a filmmaker to make something I can’t enjoy in the moment. I’m hesitant to assign authorship to something as complex as a feature film — especially a blockbuster with as many invested parties as this one — to one person, but the constant through every JJ Abrams project I’ve seen is that they’re all full of charm, momentum, and seemingly boundless potential. Beautiful, charismatic people exchanging snappy dialogue while doing intriguing things. The stories rarely end on a satisfying note, though: starting with the mindset that the story can go anywhere and literally anything could happen means that all that potential energy gets used up quickly. Once it’s run out, the end result tends to either evaporate into meaninglessness, or land with a baffling thud.

Maybe it’s appropriate that watching The Rise of Skywalker felt to me like watching The Return of the Jedi. I left that movie feeling like they’d taken something great and somehow made it silly, overwrought, and nonsensical, to the point of making me wonder whether I’d “grown out” of the franchise altogether. But then I remembered how rad the speeder bikes were!

The Rise of Skywalker is like that, multiplied by ten. I started Return of the Jedi disappointed that they’d only made two movies and were already repeating themselves with Tatooine and another Death Star; this movie brings back a dead villain with no explanation, and then he also has 1000 Death Stars!

To be clear: I’m still 100% on board with the idea of bringing back the Emperor. He’s a great, over-the-top bad guy who could’ve served as the source of all evil across all nine movies. And I still think it could’ve worked, had it been made the driving force of the plot of the last movie, built up to a climactic reveal and final showdown, and tied into all of the events that led up to it. But here, it was introduced in the first line of the opening crawl. And of all the hundreds of questions that could come from that reveal, the least interesting one to explore was “Okay, how do we get there?” But that’s what they chose to focus on.

It’s so bafflingly arbitrary that it retroactively makes the rest of the final trilogy seem smaller and sillier. I’d been able to justify the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke as building on the idea that The Return of the Jedi was a conclusive happy ending for the galaxy. I thought that The Last Jedi gave it weight by asserting that restoring the Old Republic without fixing its problems would just cause the cycle to continue indefinitely. Now, suddenly re-introducing Palpatine with little convincing explanation just makes it seem like they simply didn’t think you could tell a Star Wars story without bringing back the Empire and the Emperor. (I want to be charitable and use the common defense of repetition in the Star Wars movies by saying “it rhymes,” but there’s a part of me that only thinks this rhymes with “schmack of schmimagination.”)

I was left wondering whether the stable boy shown at the end of The Last Jedi now has to be revealed to be a long-lost grandson of Obi-Wan or something. Most disappointing is that Rey’s story has been robbed of all its potential energy built into the last two movies: the focus shifted from “who are you?” entirely to “who were your grandparents and the long line of now-dead heroes who are entirely responsible for your importance in this story?”

Ever since The Last Jedi came out, people have been calling it a case of filmmakers petulantly refusing to “yes, and…” each other. I never bought it, before. Despite my problems with the movie, The Last Jedi didn’t feel like it was arbitrarily throwing away ideas built up in The Force Awakens, so much as turning the story in a new direction to give a counterpoint to the previous two trilogies. But many of the changes in The Rise of Skywalker feel so arbitrary, even petty, that it just makes it feel like watching a bunch of preposterously rich people fighting over a box of Star Wars toys and refusing to share.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with co-writer Chris Terrio that makes me think it maybe wasn’t as clear-cut or arbitrary. (Or petty). Perhaps the major problems that I had with the story weren’t ones of intent, but of execution. They were trying to build on ideas from The Last Jedi, for the most part. But it sounds as if they had a very narrow interpretation of what The Last Jedi was trying to say, felt an obligation to honor a bunch of other people’s interpretation of the franchise (including George Lucas), and then had to deal with the thousands of things that always happen over the course of making any blockbuster, especially such a high-profile one that has to act as the conclusion of nine movies.

The biggest difference between my experience watching The Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is that this time, I knew that Star Wars isn’t over. There’s no sense that it’s time for me to put away childish things, since I’ve got a huge media company pumping out millions of dollars worth of more stuff or me to enjoy at a steady clip.

If you’d told me that my favorite interpretation of Star Wars would be by the guy who was largely responsible for Swingers, I — well, to be honest, I probably would’ve said, “yeah, that checks out.” But it’s still great to see that Disney seems to have taken the best part of the MCU model — giving creators who grew up loving the material the chance and the resources to realize their own interpretation of it —and applied it to Star Wars. I don’t love the extended comedy beat at the beginning of the last episode of The Mandalorian, for instance, but I do love that it was instantly recognizable as Taika Waititi’s unique contribution.

That allows me to focus on The Rise of Skywalker’s speeder bike moments, the parts that it does well:

  • It was great that they put so much focus on having all the main characters going on an adventure together.
  • Although the story felt overstuffed with characters, I did like that their presence was kept character-driven — hinting at a stormtrooper revolt with Jannah, and the scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold story for Zorii Bliss, to emphasize the idea of “regular people” across the galaxy all standing up to the new Empire.
  • I loved the propulsive energy of the first act that kept things moving (even if I felt they were chasing after the wrong things).
  • I still love the inherent charisma of Daisy Ridley, who manages to make an unwaveringly good character still seem interesting and relatable.
  • I loved the scene with Han Solo and the clever repeat of “I know.”
  • I appreciated that they kept at least a trace of the “democratization of the Force” idea alive, with Finn’s growing awareness that he’s Force-sensitive.
  • I loved Adam Driver’s performance after his transformation back to Ben Solo — after two and a half movies with not much to work with other than “really intense,” he made that character so appealing, with relatively limited screen time and just an “ouch” and a perfectly-delivered, Han Solo-esque shrug.
  • And I loved that they did build on the idea of a unique connection between Rey and Ben, incorporating it into two key moments in the plot. It was a great counterpoint to the iconic moment in The Force Awakens in which she takes the light saber from him, to see her give it back.

Ultimately, I just can’t see the point in getting too upset about the disappointing parts of a movie that was this entertaining. That doesn’t mean I’ve “outgrown” Star Wars, or that I need to retroactively dismiss or downplay its importance to me — I’m still one of the guys who got engaged in Galaxy’s Edge this year, and I’m still considering the feasibility of having a wedding ceremony inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It just means we no longer have to settle for what one person’s interpretation of what Star Wars “is.”

While we’ve spent the last decade or so besieged by reboots and re-interpretations and re-imaginings, it’s often seemed like we’re in a cultural death spiral: everyone lacks imagination or ambition, and they’d rather play to nostalgia instead of creating something new. But there’s something uniquely wonderful about the thrill I felt seeing The Force Awakens, or even seeing The Mandalorian deliver a live-action version of a forgotten toy. Dismissing it as nothing more than nostalgia makes it sound completely selfish, instead of acknowledging that it’s more like a shared cultural moment. They’re not simply showing me the things that I used to love; they’re acknowledging “I understand why you love this, because I grew up loving it, too.”

There’s value in telling stories in these shared universes. And of course, there’s nothing stopping creators from using the money and/or industry clout from these shared universes and applying them to make their own original murder mysteries. I can put references to Harry Potter and Pulp Fiction into my opinions about a Star Wars movie, and we all get it because they’re all cultural touchstones that we share. Not narrow-minded fandoms that we’ve got exclusive ownership over. Take the parts of it that you love, don’t get too upset over the parts you don’t, and go on to enjoy — or make — new stories.

Back in middle school, I heard that Star Wars was planned as an epic trilogy of trilogies, and I tried to imagine all the different ways that such a long, huge story could play out. Now, though, limiting it to only nine stories seems remarkably unambitious.

But Not For Me

Thoughts on living in a world where both The Force Awakens and Rogue One exist, and each has huge fans.

I might as well make this week all Star Wars, all the time, since it’s impossible to navigate the internet without seeing someone’s opinion of the new movie or the new TV show blasted in my face. A headline from Forbes in my RSS feed reads “The Rise of Skywalker Is The Worst Star Wars Movie Ever,” and it delights me to see Comic Book Guy getting work again. Plus thinking about spaceships and Force powers is more fun than thinking about any of the other stressors that adults are supposed to think about.

It’s an odd time to be an obsessive Star Wars fan. It’s not a case of being surprised by how big it’s gotten — anyone who was alive between 1977 and 1983 has seen first-hand how it got preposterously huge almost immediately — but in the ways that it’s gotten so big. It’s not just that it’s a huge cultural phenomenon that appeals to millions of people, but that it has to appeal to millions of people who don’t all want the same things from it.

The feeling is similar to that of seeing the long list of Kickstarter backers rolling in the credits of the Netflix Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot: the realization that this thing I’d always felt a personal connection with wasn’t actually targeted specifically at me.

Which sounds like the typical problem of a white middle-aged American man having to grapple with the idea that for the first time in his life, he has to come into contact with things that aren’t made specifically for him. And no doubt that’s a big part of it for me. But there’s a less selfish aspect to it, that’s tied into how I think about art and entertainment in general.

I’ve always thought that the main overriding goal of analyzing a piece of art was to evaluate its success based not just on what I want to get out of it, but based on how well it achieves what it sets out to do. I don’t believe it’s possible to get a truly objective review of anything, but I do think that we should at least be able to distinguish between things that work or don’t work for us, and things that succeed or fail at doing what they wanted to accomplish.

I always think back to a review of The Empire Strikes Back that I read in Starlog magazine, not long after the movie was released. Starlog was a niche magazine aimed directly at a particular kind of genre nerd, and the reviewer prefaced his article by saying that he knew that Star Wars was already a phenomenon, the movie was widely beloved, and he was offering his opinions to an audience that didn’t want to hear criticism of it. Even back then, before the internet and arguments about “SJWs” and who shot first, everybody understood that Star Wars attracted a passionate and not-always-socially-well-adjusted fandom.

But this review was formative for me as a nine- or ten-year-old, because it was the first time I’d seen a review of anything that I didn’t immediately classify as either dismissible trash, or an expression of joy and hype from someone who loved this stuff as much as I do. Honestly, it’s probably the first time it even occurred to me that you could examine Star Wars critically.

The key thing that stuck out to me was that the reviewer brought up points that hadn’t occurred to me while watching the movie six times in theaters, but were still valid criticisms. The space slug couldn’t exist because there was nothing in an asteroid field for it to eat, and the Millennium Falcon would take years to travel from one star system to another if it had a broken hyperdrive. Both are true, but they ultimately don’t matter, because the movies aren’t science fiction and don’t try to be.

But the reviewer also says that Yoda shouldn’t have pulled Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp, because the entire purpose of the training wasn’t to teach Luke that the Force was powerful, but that he could be powerful. That’s a criticism that has always stuck with me, because it’s not based on sci-fi but on story. It’s evident that this was a moment that was intended for spectacle but doesn’t make sense in terms of character development.

Reading that review, and recognizing the distinction between science fiction and story, shaped how I think about every piece of art or entertainment worth thinking about. It’s also why I reject the typical line — Star Wars is for children, and we should put aside childish things — that’s been used as either a blanket defense or a lazy dismissal all the way back to 1977. It’s no doubt intended as a blistering take-down of adults like me, accusing us of refusing to engage with material that’s intellectually or artistically challenging, but in reality, it’s not just snobbish but stupid. It shows a refusal or inability to engage with a piece of art according to its own mission statement, instead of the viewer’s own biases. Which is something I’ve been able to do since I was 9. Suck on that, New Yorker.

That all was thrown into disarray when I saw The Force Awakens and then Rogue One. With The Force Awakens, I realized that it’s completely impossible for me to see it objectively. I’ve heard the criticisms of it, and I have several criticisms of my own, but they’re all but completely irrelevant. It’s not just that I disagree with the opinion that it’s just a retread of the original trilogy; I don’t care about that opinion at all. My enjoyment of that movie still bypasses any rational thought and goes directly to the portion of my brain that loves Star Wars.

Rogue One is the opposite. I still have criticisms of that movie that I think are objectively valid in terms of cinema and storytelling, but in the end my main complaint is that I just don’t think it’s what Star Wars is “about.”

At the same time, there are thousands of people who think Rogue One is exactly what Star Wars is about, and it’s everything they could want from a Star Wars movie. For me to point out all the ways I think it’s off tone is as irrelevant to them as it would be to point out to me that having a bunch of costumed adults standing around a screen talking about a “thermal oscillator” is clumsy and silly exposition.

So it’s distinctly odd cognitive dissonance to see a film that slavishly — and near-perfectly! — re-creates the exact look of the original Star Wars, right down to the sideburns, and still have to acknowledge that it just wasn’t made for me.

I’ve already written about going to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, seeing myself surrounded by so many other middle-aged bearded nerds, and the sense of camaraderie that comes from knowing that at last I’m among My People. But there’s also the realization that many of the people there have an intensely personal connection to Star Wars (and Disneyland, for that matter) like I do, but are expecting to get something entirely different from what I’d recognize as being definitively Star Wars.

As someone who considers art and art interpretation as being fundamentally about communication, it’s kind of unsettling and isolating. I’ve long been able to recognize that even if something doesn’t appeal to me, I can at least engage with it based on what it’s trying to do. But what if I don’t understand what it’s trying to do?

I guess basically what I’m saying is that even if The Rise of Skywalker turns out to be a disappointment, we’ll still have The Mandalorian.