Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars, Uncategorized

Your Powers Are Weak: OBI-WAN KENOBI and Tiring Intellectual Property

A curious thing happened to me while watching Obi-Wan Kenobi, the latest piece of event television to emerge from Disney’s wider Star Wars universe.

Part III contained what is arguably the singular momentous storytelling beat for Star Wars since Rey found an old Luke Skywalker at the end of The Force Awakens. Ewan McGregor’s middle-aged, beaten down ‘Ben’ Kenobi faces down his former protege Anakin Skywalker at the peak of his Darth Vader transformation, long before any kind of redemptive beat we will eventually see in Return of the Jedi. They draw lightsabers. They fight. Vader, in his immortal James Earl Jones-style drawl, tells Obi-Wan he is weak. It is pure Star Wars catnip.

Yet I felt nothing. Granted, Star Wars isn’t exactly ‘my’ franchise. I’ve always enjoyed it but the passion for it doesn’t exist as it does for Star Trek or The X-Files or James Bond etc… That being said, I am as readers of this blog will know, someone who laps up popular culture in many forms and frequently the return of characters, or existing franchises, does excite me. Vader’s reappearance properly for the first time since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, to fight Obi-Wan Kenobi no less, should have thrilled me. Except it just left me numb.

It felt like an example of just where mainstream IP has taken us, and is continuing to take us, in the age of the streaming service. Back to a lesser re-tread of a classic, beloved moment in cultural history.

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Star Wars, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)

In so many ways, two seasons in, The Mandalorian is such a contradiction.

On the one hand, it represents precisely the kind of fan service that I have railed against the Star Trek franchise for wallowing in. On the other, it retains a sense of identity within the broader Star Wars framework, taking a strong cue from the Japanese samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, not to mention American westerns of the overlapping period – some of which, such as The Magnificent Seven, took a cue from the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and such; indeed Seven Samurai heavily inspired George Lucas’ original 1977 space fantasy, to the point he even stole the stylistic scene swipe we still find Jon Favreau employing in The Mandalorian today.

Favreau’s show should not be as good as it is, quite frankly.

In one respect, it represents everything we should as a culture be railing against; the monocultural homogenisation of the franchise, in which every last drop is wrung out of a successful IP (something I wrote about fairly recently). In another, it has a confidence, durability, consistency and quality that raises it up beyond the kind of fan pleasing fiction the second season in particular stoops to. Because while the first season, set as it is in the shadow of the Galactic Empire’s fall at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plays with familiar elements and ideas from Star Wars, it primarily doubles down on the spaghetti western trappings of the galactic underworld the titular Mandalorian exists within. It works, as much as possible, to stand apart and craft a pocket universe within the broader recognisable framework of Star Wars.

Season Two does the exact opposite. It runs heart and soul toward both the Original and Prequel Star Wars trilogies and does a remarkable job in working to stitch together and unify them as never before.
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Film, Star Wars, TV, Writing

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.
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Film, Writing

Bill, Ted & the Dark Fate of the Legacyquel

With the arrival of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we find ourselves facing down the latest example of what has become known as the ‘legacyquel’.
First coined in late 2015 by Matt Singer in a piece for ScreenCrush, in advance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the legacyquel operates from different principles than a traditional, standard follow up. The standard sequel continues the established story introduced in the original narrative – The Godfather Part II, for example. A legacyquel revives a property and the characters we came to know, years after the fact, often once they have been immortalised in popular culture – The Godfather Part III, for example, which gave us the final part of Michael Corleone’s tragic story sixteen years after we last saw him. Such immense gaps of time are common in sequels which are expressly designed to recapture, in the audience, a sense of reconnection with worlds and characters, and indeed the actors who play them, who mean a great deal to us.

This is certainly the case with Bill & Ted Face the Music, which expressly delivers another key aspect of the legacyquel – familiarity. Most legacyquels do not rock the creative boat and if they do, it is for a specific reason; a good example that bucks the trend is Star Trek 2009, which J. J. Abrams uses as both a legacyquel (allowing us to reconnect with Leonard Nimoy) and canonical reboot in which we rediscover Kirk & Spock while experiencing their origin stories. Star Trek in that sense is an aberration, with most legacyquels operating to the Bill & Ted principle: more of the same, with a much longer gap. This is the appeal of the legacyquel. Reboots offer nostalgia while exploring new ideas. Sequels or continuing franchises build on what has come before. Legacyquels are all about bringing you ‘home’ again.
This was, in many respects, the intention behind Terminator: Dark Fate. What saddens me is that it didn’t really work.
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Essays, Film, Star Wars

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly is Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as important with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually be a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

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Film, Reviews, Star Wars

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga (Film Review)

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

Continue reading “STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga (Film Review)”
Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2016 sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse

Perhaps the best way to describe X-Men: Apocalypse is as the film X-Men: The Last Stand wanted to be, which is a significant amount of damning with faint praise.

Apocalypse is a clear and visible step down from X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is, easily, the weakest X-Men movie since X-Men: Origins Wolverine. It is also the most cleanly and directly an X-Men film since The Last Stand, and to an extent the more logical sequel that we could have been given after First Class had Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and the rest of the team had gone in a different direction. First Class introduced the idea of the X-Men as a functional unit but, in order to facilitate the darker, multi-generational, time-spanning narrative of Days of Future Past, chose to roll back on their development in order to provide an origin story for Charles Xavier as Professor X. First Class placed everyone where the needed to be for Apocalypse to happen but this film benefits from the depth of characterisation given to characters such as Xavier, Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr and Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkholme.

Where Apocalypse stumbles is how it attempts to start re-creating the conditions of the first two X-Men movies while lacking their depth of subtlety or clear dramatic through-lines. X-Men had the X/Magneto conflict fully formed at the turn of the millennium whereas, in Apocalypse, X is still building Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into the functional X-Men team we saw in the 2000 film, and Erik has attempted to abandon the Magneto persona after the events of Days of Future Past instead of becoming the ideological, anti-human uber-villain he was in Singer’s first film. Apocalypse wants to be both a First Class-style groundwork-laying origin story and a functional, standard X-Men film—a counterpoint to how offbeat and format-breaking DOFP was—all in one go, and as a result it ends up a busy, silly, often unfulfilling concoction recalling the heady vacuousness of The Last Stand. The fact it also wants to be meta and subversive at the same time just adds to the cluttered mix.

Apocalypse is a better film than The Last Stand. It is not, however, the sequel that either First Class or especially Days of Future Past deserved.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

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Season Reviews, Star Trek: Discovery, TV

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 2) is an exhausting paean to 1960s nostalgia (TV Review)

If there is one criticism many fans would struggle to level at Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, it would be the classic “this is not Star Trek”.

You can understand, to a point, why some fans shouted that from the rooftops about Season 1. Bryan Fuller’s initial vision for Star Trek’s long awaited return to television alongside Alex Kurtzman resolutely set out to buck the storytelling trend you had come to expect from a franchise last on television at the tail end of a very different age. Season 1 was heavily serialised, darker, had a protagonist who had mutinied by the end of the second episode, didn’t even introduce the main ship until episode three, and had the ships Captain end up being the villain.

With hindsight, however, we never knew we had it so good with Season 1. Yes, it was a season compromised by behind the scenes complications, which may have resulted in the fractured balance of the Federation-Klingon War and Mirror Universe stories, but Season 1 pushed the boundaries of what we expected Star Trek to be. As the 90’s era wasn’t your Dad’s Star Trek, then Discovery was proving the 90’s was now your Dad’s Star Trek. It dropped the F-bomb. It went hard to starboard on serialisation. And it wasn’t afraid to craft protagonists like Michael Burnham or Saru (or naturally Gabriel Lorca) who were hard to like and who had to grow on us.

Season 2 in the wake of this spends fourteen episodes systematically undoing everything that made, or could have made, Discovery something special and unique. If Season 1 wasn’t Star Trek enough, then by Kahless, Season 2 absolutely was much “too Star Trek” from start to finish.

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Essays, Film, Star Wars

Skywalker Rising: STAR WARS, Abrams and familiar territory

Until this weekend, Star Wars: Episode IX was in serious danger of having its thunder well and truly stolen by the twin pop-culture giants on the immediate horizon – Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season.

As if sensing a disturbance in the Force, Disney—who bear in mind own Marvel so control two of the biggest cultural entertainment events of 2019—released to much fanfare, including an entire live-streamed celebration event, the long-awaited trailer to a film we now know will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. The trailer naturally didn’t give all that much away – Rey doing a neat Jedi flip over a tie fighter, a desert barge fight channeling major Return of the Jedi vibes, what looks like a crashed Death Star on a watery world, and a very gleeful old Lando Calrissian back behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Enough to stoke some fan theories for the next few months and keep the wheels of speculation moving.

There was, however, one final part of the trailer which seems to have confirmed a suspicion on many fans minds. Namely that returning director J.J. Abrams is steering the Skywalker saga back into safe, familiar territory for the climactic beat.

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