F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 3 - The DCEU Lays An Egg)

DC is home to characters that are not only global icons, but archetypes – the standards by which superheroes are judged. Superman, the benevolent protector. Batman, the embodiment of justice (or revenge, depending on your point of view). Wonder Woman, ambassador for love and peace. All tap into very fundamental psychological aspects of the human condition when distilled to their essences. As the anchors for a roster of characters that, personally, I find more interesting than the MCU’s, these three mythological figures, along with many other interesting characters, should have been easy subjects for a DC cinematic universe. Yet it’s clear that Warner Bros was its own enemy and studio interference, at least partly due to a desperate need to compete with the MCU, perpetuated repeated acts of creative malpractice. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, whose director’s cut may never see the light of a theatre (although there is hope), is a prime example. Ostensibly intended to focus a mission against a global threat around Harley Quinn’s emancipation from the Joker (among other plot intentions), the theatrical cut instead offered a tonally confused and creatively compromised vision of the film – a far different experience than I anticipated from the director of the excellent WWII drama, Fury. (I do think that Suicide Squad was serviceable enough as a film to be enjoyed in the moment and then more or less forgotten, a mostly harmless sideshow to the DCEU’s main continuity.)

It’s impossible to hand-wave away the failure of the Snyderverse, however, although I think that the criticism leveled against Snyder often rests on inconsistently applied criteria. I’d argue that Snyder is not only a skilled director, but a visionary filmmaker with a strong instinct for the cinematic. From production design to direction and cinematograph, his films demonstrate panache as well as purpose. Watching Henry Cavill’s Superman in Man of Steel, whether taking flight or fighting against Zod and his minions, I remember being impressed by how visceral an experience Snyder created. More so than any MCU film, I could really believe his characters are superheroes and not just special effects.

Of course, it’s his storytelling more than his direction that is controversial and divisive. But like it or not, it’s clear he did have a storytelling concept – that is, a trajectory to guide his characters from their introduction to their teaming against a formidable threat. With characterizations rooted in a far less idealized, idol-worshipping attitude than we find in the MCU, the arc of his films moves his characters from doubt, uncertainty, even cynicism to inspiration, heroism, and teamwork. The extent to which his vision was compromised is well known by now, with Joss Whedon’s takeover of Justice League effectively ending the momentum of his multi-film narrative. Though a tad overstuffed, Snyder’s cut of Justice League nevertheless offers a much more coherent plot with richer characterizations than Whedon’s version. Before that, we saw the effect of studio interference in the difference between the theatrical and director’s cut of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: the director’s cut also offers a more coherent story and deeper characterizations than the theatrical version.

Yet it’s not hard to see why Snyder’s approach received a mixed reception. A gloomy Superman, with a dour adoptive father prone to giving morally ambiguous advice, is too drastic a departure from the sunnier version embodied so memorably by Christopher Reeve. A brutal, Frank Miller-esque Batman, while not an unfamiliar depiction, is too unabashedly cynical in his lethality. The problem isn’t so much that Snyder may feel that deadly violence reflects the reality of superheroes. He has a point, within reason, insofar as the realities of violent conflict are concerned. While the scene was contrived, Superman killing General Zod in Man of Steel made sense given the circumstances. The Joker being alive and on the loose in Batman’s corner of the world, in both Suicide Squad and Snyder’s Justice League, seems philosophically inconsistent, especially after Robin’s murder, but otherwise it’s entirely plausible that people who try to kill Batman might be the ones who get killed instead. In any case, I’d say the problem is that Snyder presents a rather narrow conception of heroism, one focused on bravery in battle and the willingness to beat up bullies rather than serve as positive role models. Despite returning to Jor El’s speech about Superman being able to “give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards” and helping them “accomplish wonders,” the Snyderverse doesn’t explore how Superman actually inspires change for the better. Even Batman’s inspiration to do better following Superman’s sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman doesn’t come close to exploring how his redemption could positively impact Gotham. And Wonder Woman? For all that she has a kinder disposition, she’s nevertheless a warrior whose valor is demonstrated by beating up the bad guys. Whatever version of Justice League we go with, the culmination of Snyder’s arc is not how the superheroes inspire humanity to defend themselves or just generally be better people, but something more reductive: the equivalent of a special ops team going on a secret mission to defeat violent invaders. I wouldn’t even rate it as a “deconstruction” of the characters. The Snyderverse is rather straightforward in presenting emotionally ambivalent characters whose personal dilemmas are overcome to get them to exactly where they need to be within the conventions of superhero stories: ready to beat up the villains!

As to whether Snyder should have been allowed to finish his arc or not, well, I have mixed feelings about it. Personally, the planned story of Superman falling victim to Darkseid and the Anti-Life Equation (a concept equally stupid, if not more so, than the Thanos snap) doesn’t appeal. The “Evil Superman” schtick, already done within the comics, just doesn’t resonate with me. The prospect of time travel being key to unravelling the Knightmare future strikes me as a disappointing cheat. And with recent revelations of a planned trilogy of Flash films, culminating in the revelation of Reverse-Flash as the ultimate evil master mind engineering events, I am even less enthused at what the DCEU would have ultimately offered.  It’s enough to wonder, along with Giant Freaking Robot (https://www.giantfreakinrobot.com/ent/zack-snyder-worst-thing-dc.html, why Snyder’s vision was chosen as the blueprint for the DCEU.

But while I won’t mourn the excellent decision to chart a new path for the DCU under James Gunn and Peter Saffron, I do think it’s unfortunate that Snyder couldn’t at least bring his story to a conclusion. Perhaps he should have just been given one movie and a smaller budget, but whatever the approach, at least Warner Bros would have had a complete story to sell on streaming and DVD for people to enjoy if they’re so inclined. The DCEU wouldn’t then be a room full of baggage to burden future movies. Regardless, the lesson points to Warner Bros lack of trust in their filmmakers, whose films might not have scored with critics but could have at least fulfilled their intention to entertain the fans.

Looking beyond the Snyderverse, around which other DCEU films orbited, I find the results more compelling. Shazam! and Aquaman might not challenge genre conventions, but at least they work well within them by offering interesting characters in fun adventures. Despite a disappointing third act culminating in the usual boss battle, Wonder Woman offers an overall hopeful tone that is a welcome contrast to Snyder’s cynicism. (I can’t comment on Wonder Woman 1984, which I haven’t watched, but going by the plot synopsis at Wikipedia it seems the film does take the character in an interesting, convention-defying direction. It’s a shame I find Gal Gadot rather unremarkable in the role.) And James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad not only makes up for Warner Bros’ botching of David Ayer’s film, but stands out for its blend of heart and brutality in an energetic covert ops action/adventure plot.

Then there’s The Flash, which bombed at the box office and met with heavy criticism from the pop-culture trades (e.g. The Escapist, ScreenRant, Inverse) who view it as a weak, even cynical whimper to end the DCEU. To a large extent, The Flash was doomed to fail. Not necessarily because of Ezra Miller’s unfortunate troubles, although they certainly didn’t help generate enthusiasm, but because the film was burdened with too many expectations related to financial performance, ability to wrap up the DCEU, and generally just offer something fresh in a genre whose bar has been set by the MCU. It’s hard to see how the film could have succeeded in satisfying both comic fans and general audiences when success depended on fulfilling so many criteria. For my money, I think The Flash is actually one of the better DCEU movies – even one of the better superhero movies. It offers some delightfully bonkers action spectacle like the opening “baby shower” scene, features an exceptional performance by Ezra Miller as two similar yet distinguishable versions of Barry Allen, and gives us a character arc with emotional heft.  The Flash is also surprisingly subversive in its hero’s journey in comparison to the MCU and Snyderverse films. Where these openly embrace the use of superpowers, celebrating exercises of force, The Flash argues in favor of caution and restraint through a story on the necessity of making peace with the inevitability of death. Allen may have incredible superpowers, but learning when not to use them is just as important, if not more so, than knowing when they can be truly helpful. As for the cameos? Despite all the hemming and hawing over whether any given cameo was cynical pandering, nonsensical, or what have you – I have no vested interest. Personally, they were all fun and the film’s core drama wouldn’t have changed with different cameos. And as far as ending the DCEU goes, I think it succeeds it setting up the DC multiverse without bludgeoning us with a hard continuity reboot. I find it rather annoying when time travel movies ask us to invest in characters and situations, only to erase them so that the same characters are reset for a different story – as in Donnie Darko, for example. The Flash establishes the existence of a multiverse with all its many DC stories, setting the DCEU as one of its many branches but not requiring Gunn to specifically use Snyder’s version of the characters moving forward, even with retconned histories.

Then, there’s the Arrowverse, of which I can only say that, exhausted, I gave up on all the shows I was watching – Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow – long before they reached their end. They all became mired in the worse, most exhaustive soap opera impulses of comic book storytelling, from endlessly returning or revived villains to nonsensical fantasy that is rarely anything other than arbitrary no matter how often it’s labeled “science.” The (melo)dramatic core always reduced itself to a duel between homicidal megalomaniacs with personal vendettas against our heroes, which became repetitive and dull – the one-note Reverse-Flash being a particularly irritating example. I also found the use of superpowers to be very shaky, with villains often made to seem more powerful by making the heroes weirdly dumb or weak. Case in point: Captain Cold, who is somehow a formidable threat despite the fact that he can’t, logically, unholster let alone fire his special gun faster than the Flash can disarm him. While I get that narrative logic, mature drama, and the usual expectations of plausibility are generally beside the point for the Arrowverse (as in comics), suspending disbelief in a story in the name of fun adventuring shouldn’t be an act of faith. By the time I called it quits, the Arrowverse was beginning to feel like a multi-car pileup in a freeway accident.

When all is said and done, I’m perfectly fine with leaving the bulk of DC’s media output behind. But I do harbor a cautious optimism that James Gunn, who has so far delivered among the best superhero films to date, can deliver a DCU that fulfills the superhero genre’s potential to tell meaningful stories with heart as well as thrills.


F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 2 - The Un-Marveling of the MCU)

 In itself, my confusion as to what’s going on – and not going on – with the MCU isn’t much of an indictment for the pop-culture juggernaut. But it is telling that I’m seeing more commentary expressing fatigue with the MCU, such as this sign of resignation from a self-described life-long Marvel fan. Following Avengers: Endgame, the MCU seems to be creatively adrift. Attempts to launch new characters have met with mixed results – does anyone other than hardcore comics fans care about the Eternals? Sequels to characters who peaked with Endgame don’t seem to have stuck their landings. Efforts to put non-white-male characters in the spotlight come across as afterthoughts rather than a purposeful expression of value. And if there’s a unifying thread, whether as the build-up to a Thanos-level threat or something else, it doesn’t seem very clear in the hodge-podge of films. That it’s taken several films to give the next Thanos a name, Kang the Conqueror, isn’t especially encouraging, especially since the controversy surrounding Jonathan Majors is derailing that plan. If the fans are lukewarm, what can the MCU offer the rest of us?

My involvement with the MCU ended with Avengers: Infinity War, which means that, yes, I’ve never watched Endgame. The magical fluff of the infinity stones – a complete disregard for actual cosmology and physics – completely eroded any possible interest I could have in the resolution to Thanos’ snap. After all, when magic stones can fundamentally alter the fabric of reality, the plot could just as plausibly be resolved by introducing yet another magic stone to reverse the effects of the others than it is with whatever Endgame ultimately presented. When the problem is arbitrary and the solutions are equally arbitrary, there’s no reason to be invested in any outcome.

But my inclination to part ways with the MCU began long before Infinity War, bubbling to the surface with Captain America: Winter Soldier. By now, it’s hard to hold on to any tangible memory of the film, other than recollecting that it was briskly entertaining while, in my view, offering only the illusion of insight into the theme of freedom vs security. Whatever critique of imperialism and militarism the story might express is rendered harmless by its conventional hero-vs-megalomaniacs framing. Still, while I don’t think the film offers anything that hasn’t been done better in other films, I respect it as one of the MCU’s more successful attempts to add some thematic depth to its narrative. I can’t say the same of Captain America: Civil War, which is pretentious in its pseudo-moral posturing and embodies the most objectionable quality of superhero comics. Fundamentally, the film asks a good question – what oversight should the Avengers be subject to? – with a good scenario, namely, the deaths of innocent bystanders during the Avengers’ self-assigned operation to prevent the theft of a bioweapon. Unfortunately, the core drama that emerges from the tragedy is a shock tactic more than good characterization. We’re supposed to be surprised that the roguish, arrogant Tony Stark agrees that the Avengers should be overseen by the UN while the more selfless Steve Rogers argues for complete independence. And from there, we’re manipulated into viewing this as contest between ideological perspectives of equal weight. Yet Rogers is clearly wrong, and Stark – who at least has the good graces, and conscience, to feel guilt over the consequences of his past arrogance – clearly right. We don’t expect police officers, or the military, to act unilaterally without the oversight of civilian authorities so why would we make an exception for superheroes, especially when their capacity for destruction is so much greater? If the point was to dim Captain America as a moral beacon, the film certainly succeeds, but the rot is deeper than that. For one thing, the film frames the debate as between two men, along with military and political leaders, and excludes from the conversation the very people they and their fellow Avengers apparently care about protecting. Where superheroes risk a slide down the slippery slope to fascism, it’s here, in the powerful making decisions without the input, or even consent, of global communities. Worse is how the conflict plays out through violence, with Stark and Rogers each assembling their teams of super-powered sympathizers to fight it out (and cause extensive property damage in the process). That’s bad enough, but the worst comes at the film’s climax, when Stark learns the truth of his parents’ assassination by Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, and that Rogers knew but didn’t share this truth. The result, of course, is Stark suggesting the three men seek out a psychologist for some group therapy to heal the emotional wounds. Oh, nah – that’s not what happens. They fight it out, just like noble comic book heroes are supposed to! The reflexive and consistent use of violence to solve conflicts, even interpersonal disagreements, confirms the extent to which the entire point of the film was to get characters to fight. It also proves the point that superheroes, especially these ones, certainly should not be blindly trusted – further confirmation that the comics industry hasn’t really learned the lesson Alan Moore tried to impart with Watchmen.

Beyond that, the MCU has generally been to me a variably entertaining offering, with only a few films  - Iron Man, Black Panther, Captain America, Ant-Man – standing out from the spandex-wearing crowd. The Guardians of the Galaxy films are my favorites of the lot. While he got a lot of flack from fans, I think Martin Scorsese was right in comparing the MCU to theme park experiences, given the emphasis on sensationalism and spectacle. I’d rate most of the MCU films as generally well-made B-movies. But I’d qualify the comparison by re-emphasizing my view that quality and entertainment value don’t necessarily correlate. A movie doesn’t have to be High Art to be enjoyable or personally meaningful, and it’s entirely plausible to view the MCU as a theme park experience but differ on how worthwhile it is to go for the ride. It may come as a surprise, but I’m actually disappointed that the MCU turned out the way it did. The finite nature of films offered a tidy solution to those aspects of the comics – sprawl and continuity – that make them inaccessible to the casual reader. Like a film version of DC’s Earth One series, the MCU’s curated content distilled, or at least tried to distill, the years of storytelling to give us the most essential version of their characters in a separate continuity, while intriguing fans with a reasonable reinvention and update that doesn’t rotely copy what they can get from the comics. For someone not into Marvel, I welcomed the opportunity to meet characters I hadn’t previously given much thought to. And with Jon Favreau at the helm, Iron Man offered a reason to be optimistic. Not only did it thrill as a superhero action/adventure, it offered a compelling moral transformation for Tony Stark, who is forced to confront his global impact as a weapons manufacturer. While Marvel ultimately did not extend the arc of that moral transformation, with Tony essentially continuing to create weapons or security systems with global impact, it was a terrific start that signaled the potential for more self-aware heroism, and richer storytelling, than the reflexively violent fare we were actually given.

Add to that the need to watch TV series to make sense of the most recent films, as well as the constant set-up of future movies, and the MCU has come to embody the exhausting sprawl that keeps me disinterested in Marvel’s comics. The exhaustion is even more damning when it comes from a comics fan like Jenna Busch, who calls for a slowdown to the churn in her article for Slash Film:

“Nowadays, it's almost impossible to understand what's going on in these superhero stories if you don't already have a pretty good knowledge of the MCU or the DCU.

I've been a fan of this stuff for most of my life, and even as someone who can tell you a lot about obscure characters, I still have to give myself a refresher course for every entry. People like my parents, who don't have a deep knowledge of this stuff, have already given up. I used to be able to explain some things to them before a film, but it's too much now. I'd have to give a college-level class on it, and they have, you know, lives to live.“

Then there’s the issue of diversity, which has improved in the MCU with films like Black Widow, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Shang-Chi, The Eternals, and phase 4 offerings, but nevertheless feels like a late action – especially considering that the first movie, Iron Man, came out in 2008. The coy, minimal representation of LGBTQ+ is hardly impressive. Nor is the whitewashing of black culture, for example, in the way Black Panther replaces the reality of the Black Panthers – a militant Marxist group whose advocacy for Black power included calls for freedom from police oppression and violence, housing, education, and all the fundamentals for building thriving communities – with a capitalist comic book fantasy that pits Black people against each other. As Nick Irving, whose commentary I also recommend reading, puts it:

“Admittedly, the MCU put far more effort than I expected into Black Panther, which, as almost everyone pointed out, was a pretty spectacular Afro-futurist vision. But it was just as cynical a move. The title and eponymous hero appropriate the phrase ‘Black Panther’ from its radical and Marxist history, and simultaneously hints at a cartoonish version of the radical and violent aesthetics of the real Black Panthers in the character of the antagonist Killmonger. In the end, it’s another triumph of a very white western liberalism. Wakanda is as much Liberia as it is a Pan-African technological Utopia.”

From homework and narrative drift to ongoing diversity challenges, among challenges reported on by the trades, it remains to be seen if Disney/Marvel can course-correct the MCU to refresh interest. I’m done, however. The MCU is a theme park attraction I’m just no longer interested in riding.


F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 1 - Comics)

While I love comics/graphic novels as a beautiful and meaningful art form, superhero stories don’t typically capture my imagination; certainly not with the consistency and intensity that marks a fan of the genre. Growing up, I read mostly French adventure comics like Tintin, Lucky Luke, Asterix, Gaston, The Scrameustache along with American comic strips like Peanuts, B.C., and Archie. It wasn’t until later in life that I delved into superhero comics, with the Death of Superman arc being one of the earliest stories I remember reading. On TV, I tuned in to Spider-Man (1967) reruns and the 90’s X-Men cartoon. Movies like The Rocketeer and Tim Burton’s Batman/Batman Returns selectively brought me closer to the genre, as did the seminal Batman: The Animated Series and associated movies like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Also, the fantastic Jim Carrey-starring film, The Mask.
Throughout the years, I’ve periodically added some superhero books – particularly Elseworlds stories, along with seminal works like Kingdom Come – to my bookshelf along with other graphic works such as V for Vendetta, Dean Motter’s Mister X, and others, while staying comfortably away from publishers’ mainstream continuity. A notable exception: I threw myself into Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe and diligently collected its many books for years until I eventually gave up out of sheer exhaustion. I also attempted to devote myself to DC’s Earth One series, appreciating the initiative to develop independent and updated stories for classic characters. But I gave up on that too as I found the writing to be uninspired at best and the art unexciting– at least insofar as the Batman and Superman books were concerned. (I haven’t read Grant Morrison’s Earth One Wonder Woman books, so have no comment to offer on their merits.) 
For all my mixed appreciation of superhero comics, it’s not for rejecting their fundamental concept – namely, to tell stories of people with extraordinary abilities – that I’m a genre skeptic. At their best, superhero comics certainly earn their comparisons to the old mythologies of gods, goddesses, strange and magnificent creatures, and the gifted (or cursed) heroes and villains of epic sagas. And they unquestionably can offer a perspective on the societal issues that preoccupy us today as well as stories in any other genre. But in my observation, these great stories are instances of superhero comics that transcend their genre more than they inhabit it. If we consider genre as a pattern of storytelling, superhero comics rely on a generally consistent application of narrative methodologies, formulas, and tropes that often bely disturbing assumptions and philosophies beneath flashy spectacle. 
In this respect, while Alan Moore may arguably lack a bit of nuance in his criticism of superhero comics, I can’t disagree with the general cut of his perspective. From The Guardian:
“Hundreds of thousands of adults [are] lining up to see characters and situations that had been created to entertain the 12-year-old boys – and it was always boys – of 50 years ago. I didn’t really think that superheroes were adult fare. I think that this was a misunderstanding born of what happened in the 1980s – to which I must put my hand up to a considerable share of the blame, though it was not intentional – when things like Watchmen were first appearing. There were an awful lot of headlines saying ‘Comics Have Grown Up’. I tend to think that, no, comics hadn’t grown up. There were a few titles that were more adult than people were used to. But the majority of comics titles were pretty much the same as they’d ever been. It wasn’t comics growing up. I think it was more comics meeting the emotional age of the audience coming the other way.”
He thinks that’s not just infantile but dangerous. “I said round about 2011 that I thought that it had serious and worrying implications for the future if millions of adults were queueing up to see Batman movies. Because that kind of infantilisation – that urge towards simpler times, simpler realities – that can very often be a precursor to fascism.” He points out that when Trump was elected in 2016, and “when we ourselves took a bit of a strange detour in our politics”, many of the biggest films were superhero movies.
Perhaps the correlation between the popularity of superhero movies and Trumpism is unfair, but looking at the patterns of superhero storytelling I have to agree with Moore, if not in the specifics than at least for the need to take a critical look at how superheroes signify in pop culture. 
An emphasis on the status quo, with narratives almost invariably rooted in violent conflict. While comics clearly allow for changes in some respects – for example, Harley Quinn’s turn from villain to anti-hero, hero Hank McCoy’s development into a villain, Batman’s changing Robins and expanding roster of allies – there is nevertheless a status quo expressed in the way in which the victories, defeats, deaths, and transformations of both heroes and villains are always provisional and reversible. That status quo? Conflict, specifically violent conflict – the perpetual antagonism of heroes and villains. Batman will never save Gotham or defeat the Joker, the Green Lanterns will never oversee a peaceful galaxy, the Kingpin will always be a criminal kingpin, and so on, because the absence of conflict removes a key rationale for superheroes. The genre’s fixation on conflict isn’t hidden, either; scan the headlines of comic book news sources like ScreenRant, or comment boards, and we easily find questions about who would win in a battle, who is most powerful, who has the heavier boots with which to kick ass, etc.. Batman vs Superman? Hulk vs Ghost Rider? Black Adam vs Superman? Ironman vs Captain America? This Marvel character vs that DC character? 
A related problem is the extent to which character growth, despite the odd exception, also seems to favor stagnation rather than growth, particularly for villains. Maybe there are nuances I’m missing from my outside perspective, but every time I read about the latest arc in this or that comic, it always seems as if villains are consistently the same in terms of motivations. They don’t learn from their mistakes, change for the better, or suffer tragic (and permanent) consequences for their actions. They just keep coming back time after time, reinforcing the impression that the underlying impulse for superhero comics is to sustain conflict.
A fixation on power and vigilante action. The desire to pit heroes and villains against each, in any number of combinations, comes with a necessary fixation on the power needed to win a fight, whether in terms of force, intellect, or both. This is typically expressed by continually expanding a character’s power set and/or increasing the potency of these powers (even to a god-like scale). Considering that most superheroes (or antiheroic protagonists) are vigilantes – they act outside the law regardless of their respect for it (e.g. Batman and Spider-Man, who turn over criminals to the police, vs the Punisher who tortures and kills criminals at his own discretion) – much of their heroism rests on the moral quality of their individual characters. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this raises serious ethical questions on heroism defined in this sense, because beyond the escapist power fantasies of defeating bullies/villains and avenging wrongs, there comes the question of how to hold superpowered people accountable when they specifically act outside of institutional, or at least social/communal, frameworks. While some works, like Kingdom Come, are quite thoughtful on the topic, I tend to see more pseudo-profundity in the genre. For example, the X-Men are often seen as a commentary on civil rights, given the discrimination mutants face from humanity, but the analogy never made sense to me. Black skin, non-heterosexual orientations – these don’t vaporize people, cause objects to explode, violate people’s mental privacy (or override their will) or actually hold the potential to harm/kill anyone the way mutant superpowers do. If anything, the gun control debate is the better framework, but that would require challenging the idea of superheroes operating unchecked in the world.
Moore is right to point out, in my view, how the comics industry missed the point of Watchmen not only by ignoring justifiable skepticism of “heroes,” but by glamorizing antiheroes. They don’t seem to have adjusted their storytelling to account for Watchmen’s critique of power. Works like The Boys notwithstanding, the default attitude is to continue valorizing the powerful as messianic saviors of the powerless, a gesture made especially easy when the stories are really little more than fights between superpowered beings without any really connection to their societies. Our role is to trust in these beings and have faith they won’t turn against us – a faith that is often used to harshly judged skeptics – as heretics and/or villains – who develop fail-safe plans in case a superhero goes rogue, as Batman does in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. To put it simply: comics tend to focus on superheroes as empowered beings, not empowering beings.
An algorithmic approach to novelty and the seemingly unavoidable shift away from realism. From variations on the original character, including evil doppelgangers and alternate dimension variants, to saddling heroes with kid or animal sidekicks, the comics industry has a somewhat predictable approach to introducing novelty in their stories when the original character runs out of steam. A related tendency, when creators become bored with realism, is the decision to include magical, supernatural, or miraculous science-fiction elements to the story – an effect that, to me, is similar to how Hanna Barbera ruined Scooby Doo by having the gang confront actual ghosts rather than exposing charlatans posing as ghosts and monster. At times, it reaches the point where what is appealing about a character, the premise underlying their story, is diluted by all the additional characters and conceptual shenanigans. An example that comes to mind is the Hulk, initially interesting as a modern reinvention of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Jekyll/Hyde binary, who these days is reconceived as a starship piloted by Bruce Banner. Really?
Incoherent worldbuilding. The universe superheroes inhabit, particularly Marvel’s and DC’s, mash together so many different mythologies, cosmologies, and theologies that they achieve an impressive incoherence in which their worlds cannot possibly function. Magic, supernatural entities, advanced technologies, science-based powers, aliens, mutants, angels, demons, ancient gods, the Judeo-Christian God, vampires, zombies, and what-have-you – all seem to collide together on account of insisting that characters exist within a shared universe. The impact isn’t only on the physics of these universes, which is confused at best, but also their histories in that if the world has a particular set of natural laws than societies would have to develop differently than in a world with a different set of laws.
It’s not only that superhero universes tend to be conceptual kludges, however. Even familiar activities such as scientific discovery and invention tend to be detached from reality, with lone geniuses single-handedly inventing devices so far beyond our current capabilities that they might as well be magic. It’s tempting to look at all this and appreciate the boundless imagination of these mash-ups, however implausible, illogical, and even nonsensical they are. If superhero comics were typically written as hard science fiction, that would be something. But even when dressed in sci-fi clothes, what we get is essentially fantasy – and not the disciplined fantasy of a Modessit Jr. or a Tolkien, but rather the kind of fantasy in which anything can happen because the storyteller’s whim is not bound to a narrative universe with clear rules, fictional or otherwise, just as our real universe is. Plausibility isn’t necessarily about being realistic – that is, true to our world – but about creating a methodically conceived and purposefully implemented internal logic for narratives to follow. In the end, I’m of the view that smart fun is more fun than dumb fun.
Reminder ...
Before moving on to discuss Marvel and DC’s cinematic universes, it’s worth re-emphasizing that any critique of patterns in superhero storytelling doesn’t preclude any specific story from being excellent across any number of facets – art, characterizations, plot – either separately or all together. In this sense, then, my enjoyment of superhero stories really depends on the extent to which they diverge from the patterns, cliches, tropes, and philosophical assumptions I’ve described.


Frederik vs the Franchises: Reckoning with the Force From A Galaxy Far, Far Away

In pop culture’s pantheon, Star Wars may reign supreme, challenged nowadays only by the MCU, but in my personal pantheon of media juggernauts I’ve always favored Star Trek. Exploring strange new worlds and seeking new life and civilizations has always engaged my imagination far more than fighting in a galaxy far, far away. Still, I won’t deny enjoying Star Wars’ popcorn fun, at least insofar as the Original Trilogy (OT) is concerned. I retain an affinity for the iconic characters that have loomed larger-than-life over popular storytelling, and keep a DVD set of the OT on my shelf to watch again when the mood strikes me. But as more and more content is added to the Star Wars universe, the more the OT is the general limit to my appreciation. As a vast media empire, Star Wars has come to embody everything I find annoying and alienating about franchises – the endless churn of product, risk-averse storytelling overly dependent on nostalgia, the collision of creative visions. It appeals to the dark side of fandom, where marketing influences artistic decisions by giving consumers what they want rather than engaging them with stories told with integrity and respect for authorial intent.

The Force Is Definitely Not With The Sequel Trilogy

While the Prequel Trilogy (PT) left me unimpressed, but not necessarily closed off to further Star Wars stories, it’s the misguided Sequel Trilogy (ST) that ultimately drained the force out of any interest, however casual, I might have in anything further Disney wants to sell. The best thing I can say about The Force Awakens is that it looks professional, which isn’t saying much because I’d expect nothing less given the money thrown at it. While I’ve never felt that J.J. Abrams offers any particularly visionary directing, let alone a substantive understanding of the franchises he works with, I won’t deny the polish he brings to his films. If nothing else, The Force Awakens is a technical improvement over George Lucas’ awkward filmmaking in his prequel trilogy. Beyond that, however, I couldn’t be more mystified by the critical consensus that yields a 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. While the film introduces mostly interesting new characters – Finn is particularly notable as an off-template character, a Stormtrooper who rebels against his masters as a matter of conscience –, these are smothered by a story that yields no surprises in its development on account of being so derivative of A New Hope. Sure, Abrams may have intended to play off the new characters against the mythology of the original, as he asserts in an interview with Rolling Stone: “… to tell a story that was not just history repeating itself, but a story that embraced the movies that we know as the actual history of this galaxy.” But how disingenuous. Cf course he tells a story of history repeating itself. All the events from the OT are repeated and rendered moot – the New Republic is easily (and glibly) dispatched in a single blast by a long-range weapon powered by ridiculous physics – and the attempt to exploit its iconic characters to excite fans only comes across as a depressing attempt to replace the old originals with passable replicas not beholden to Lucas’ vision. To offer an analogy: it’s like replacing checkers with chess pieces on the board only to continue playing checkers.

It’s not only in the broad and derivative gestures of the narrative that The Force Awakens sets a poor stage for the sequel trilogy; it’s in the details too, those small character-defining moments. The most memorably stupid one is the scene in which Kylo Ren tries to Vulcan mind-meld with Rey to extract information, only for it to backfire and reveal his own greatest fear. You’d think that the revelation would be something psychologically insightful, the key piece of the puzzle that is Kylo’s motivation for serving Snoke and the First Order from the Dark Side of the Force. Perhaps a deep alienation from humanity, a fear of parental abandonment, his inability to find someone to lose his virginity to – give me something! But no. What we’re given as his great inner fear is his worry that’s he’ll never be as powerful as Darth Vader. Kylo’s character never recovers from this missed opportunity to uncover an essential insight into his personality and inner conflicts. As a result, the consequences of his actions – notably, murdering his dad – ultimately comes across as pathetic and gratuitous rather than tragic. Rather than a villain whose fascistic pursuit of power has a deeply personal impact on his family, we get a weirdly entitled kid who whines and throws temper tantrums. Sorry, critical consensus: botching key dramatic moments and telling a derivative story just doesn’t add up to a good film, irrespective of its entertainment value (or lack thereof).

If I had any hope that The Last Jedi might prove more persuasive, it came from my enthusiasm for Rian Johnson as writer and director. And for the movie’s first third, I absolutely did feel that rush of exhilaration comparable to the fun of watching the OT. If nothing else, Johnson at least succeeded, where The Cashgrab Awakens failed, in surprising me with a wholly original plot that isn’t photocopied from past film scripts. Even better, he introduced some genuinely new themes into the storyline, namely the conflict between economic classes (via Finn and Rose’s mission to the Monte Carlo-like casino town of Canto Blight) and a perspective of the Force from outside of the Skywalker family.  I also applauded his revelation that Rey’s parents are actually no one of mythic or historic significance, an intriguing subversion of fan expectations and a further view of the Force beyond the Skywalkers. It’s unfortunate that these ideas landed rather awkwardly given a lack of setup from The Force Awakens and, worse, died quietly off screen with The Rise of Skywalker. But Johnson deserves credit for at least trying to offer a richer context to the conflict between the First Order and the Resistance.

I entirely reject his treatment of Luke Skywalker, however. It’s bad enough that the sequel trilogy essentially erases the events and outcome of the OT and replaces them with facsimiles, but Johnson leans into this revisionism by reversing Luke’s character development in Return of the Jedi. I understand that ROTJ isn’t a fan favorite like The Empire Strikes Back, but whatever its overall merits, its climax is much more subversive than people typically think. Luke not only senses the good in his father, unlike Yoda and Obi-Wan, but actively relies on it in a plan for redemption. At first, it seems like his faith is misplaced, as Vader does bring him in front of the Emperor, the Dark Side’s most fearsome and powerful embodiment. For a time, it seems as if Luke will indeed succumb to rage and fall to the Dark Side as he duels his father. But a moment of empathy, arising from the realization that he severed his father’s hand just as his was severed, pulls him from the brink. In refusing to continue the duel, he once again allows his (purposeful, it seems to me) vulnerability to draw his father back to the light side, which is what happens when Vader kills the Emperor to save his son. So what do we get? We get an ending that not only shows Luke confronting a supremely powerful evil, but using an approach to being a Jedi that is markedly different than Yoda’s and Obi-Wan’s. This is hard to reconcile with the character Johnson gives us, a Luke who can be so terrified of the Dark Side that he’d reflexively consider murdering not only a student, but the son of his best friends. The problem is further compounded in that this single moment, which is all the less believable given how empty Kylo Ren’s character is, unravels everything about Luke and renders him an utter failure at, well, everything. For all that time after Return of the Jedi, Luke is given no accomplishments – no new generation of Jedi, no new Republic to support, not even his friendships, which only highlights how bizarre it is for Johnson’s ending to ask us to see Luke as a symbol of hope to the galaxy.

Johnson’s vision for Luke does have its supporters. Daniel Finney presents one in an article at the Des Moines Register, citing a University of Iowa playwriting instructor who pushed back against his “hate” for The Last Jedi:

"It blew up some of the sacred cows of the 'Star Wars' universe," she said. "Characters developed, grew and changed. That was so satisfying to watch."

Gogerty argues that Luke's temptation to kill his nephew fits the arc of Luke's life. He's always rushed in when he should have waited.

Gogerty noted Luke disobeyed Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back," taking his weapons into the cave to face the dark side projection of Darth Vader.

Luke abandoned his training early to rescue his friends on Cloud City despite Yoda's admonishment he wasn't ready to fight Darth Vader.

That rashness cost him a hand.

"Luke has always been pretty impressed with himself," Gogerty said. "It makes sense that he would give into a moment of darkness when he was frightened by a vision of his nephew turning to the dark side."

Setting aside the question as to why people seem so eager to see Luke dismantled, and whether it’s an exercise in cynicism or not, interpretations like Gogerty’s don’t persuade me to change my opinion of The Last Jedi because they don’t strike me as a good fit with what we see on screen. It’s a strange argument to advocate for Johnson’s “change” in Luke by returning to his character in The Empire Strikes Back and ignoring his subsequent personal growth – let’s even call it spiritual growth, since understanding the Force, light and dark, and handling it with skill is surely what defines a Jedi Master. Luke clearly evolves from The Empire Strikes Back to Return of the Jedi, growing from an arguably rash apprentice to a patient, calmer, more spiritually courageous, and more assured planner. Indeed, insofar as there is any character development in the OT it’s in the hero’s journey Luke experiences. Even Yoda, who criticized Luke for abandoning his training in Empire and rushing unprepared to face Vader, eventually tells Luke in Return of the Jedi that no further training is needed and that he must confront Vader to truly become a Jedi. Yoda’s acknowledgement of Luke’s growth makes it all the more disappointing when Johnson brings him back to push a spiritually defeated Luke into action in a scene that plays back the teacher-student dynamic in The Empire Strikes Back and essentially emphasizes Luke’s failures. But while the scene makes some sense in terms of Johnson’s characterization, it rests on a rather unsteady reading of Yoda’s character, and Obi-Wan’s by association, as a wise Jedi in the OT. Is that really what we see, the impetuous Luke disregarding his teacher’s sage counsel as proof of his life’s arc of rash action? Consider an alternative interpretation. On sensing that his friends are in trouble, his moral intuition is to do what any good friend would do: try to help. Yoda reacts, not by offering to go along and help, but with a disapproving attitude and dubiously helpful advice. And what about Obi-Wan, the man who told Vader “if you strike me down, I shall only become more powerful?” Apparently, that translates to him telling Luke: “If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere.” Add to that the blatantly manipulative withholding of information when it came to being Vader’s son, I’d argue that neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan come across as shining moral examplars. As for the consequences of Luke’s alleged recklessness, while he clearly suffers from his encounter with Vader, what doesn’t happen is just as notable as what does: he doesn’t join the Dark Side and become the Empire’s new weapon, choosing suicide instead. Dark, sure. But not without some nobility and perhaps even a long-term benefit. If his hand hadn’t been severed, would Luke had felt a saving moment of empathy when he later cut off his father’s hand? I’d argue that the premature confrontation with Vader ultimately enabled the Rebel Alliance’s eventual victory, which makes Yoda’s warning – “If you leave now, help them you could, but you will destroy all for which they have fought and suffered” – quite wrong.

Given the many ways in which Luke could have been included or simply referenced in The Last Jedi and, previously, in The Force Awakens – the underlying question is: why commit to a tragic and pessimistic characterization? Without requiring perfection, noting that even great teachers may make mistakes or simply not achieve the desired connection with students that makes learning possible, Luke could still have been presented as a person whose life overall had a positive and inspiring impact – especially in contrast to wishy-washy hand wavers Yoda and Obi-Wan. (It’s worth noting Darren Mooney’s charitable reading over at The Escapist, but I personally agree with commenter Inkstained Wretch that the equivalency between Yoda/Odi-Wan and Luke misreads the OT. More fundamentally, I think The Last Jedi could have addressed the theme of exhaustion, cynicism, and optimism in the context of vigilance against fascism, or perhaps as an analogue to the struggles of civil rights movements, in a much better way than it did, and with greater focus on Rey rather than Luke. If that was indeed Johnson’s intended subtext.)

So we’re stuck with tragic Luke leading into Rise of Skywalker, a film that manages not only to insult intelligence but dumbness as well – as in, it doesn’t even rate as good dumb fun. Sidelining Finn and Rose, effectively ending their stories, is a wasted opportunity for interesting characters with genuine potential, while Rey and Kylo’s stories amount to little more than melodramatic mush. (Rey’s adoption of the Skywalker name, after it’s been dragged through the muck in The Last Jedi, is a particularly sour cherry on the film’s tasteless sundae.)  Of course, the crux of the movie’s is that somehow, Palpatine returns. I’d point out how the franchise tends to give the Sith all kinds of novel powers while Jedi seem limited to tricking minds, levitating objects, and telling the truth from a certain point of view, but the Force has never been anything other than an incoherent concept bendable to whatever scriptwriters want, a magic plot device akin to a deus ex machina. Still, while the magically arbitrary means of Palpatine’s return is ridiculous in and of itself, the decision itself to revive Palpatine as the ultimate evil behind the First Order makes the film worse and demonstrates bankrupt storytelling. In keeping with the ST’s commitment to erasing the OT’s (few) accomplishments, Palpatine’s return renders moot the victory Luke and Anakin achieve at the end of Return of the Jedi. (And forget that whole balancing the Force thing from the prequels.) It also takes deprives Supreme Leader Snoke from a deeper characterization, even if in a retroactive manner given his death in The Last Jedi. When considered as a whole, the ST merely expresses the worse tendency of franchise storytelling: compromising story, characters, and artistic vision by wallowing in the past rather than focusing on new ideas – storytelling by committee and marketing.

Looking Back at the Original Trilogy

As much as I can criticize Disney filmmakers, the root cause for the ST’s failure, in my view, actually rests with the OT or, to be specific, with how it’s been perceived and interpreted. I’m not alone  – see here and here ­– in being skeptical of the perception that the OT films are great cinematic art, noting they have many of the shortcomings that sunk other films. Sure, the OT benefits from fantastic design. And many action scenes, like the Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth, are energetic and engaging. But the OT films don’t surpass earlier or later films in terms of cinematic experience and the fight choreography is hardly groundbreaking even by the standards of the time. Some scenes, like Obi-Wan and Vader’s duel in A New Hope or the barge fight scene in Return of the Jedi, are fine, but hardly worth getting overly excited about. Shaolin kung fu movies coming out of Hong Kong at the time offer more kinetic and imaginative fight scenes than even the best lightsaber duels in the OT.

Nevertheless, I’d agree that Star Wars generally succeeds in providing a cinematic experience befitting the spirit of adventure serials. It’s the quality of the writing that really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  To begin with, characterizations are thin. Only Luke experiences meaningful growth, and arguably Vader although his growth is less of an arc than a sudden epiphany. Han’s transition from self-interested mercenary to team playing hero happens quickly in A New Hope and doesn’t evolve much from there. Leia starts as a strong leader and ends a strong leader. The romance between the two is rather incidental, requiring only a few scenes to develop. Beyond that, most characters serve as set dressing and fashion models, with great costume design but little personality let alone impact on the narrative. Even those few given opportunities to utter some lines of dialogue here and there, like Boba Fett, barely get to register as personalities let alone characters with psychological depth.

As for the plot, that too is rather thin, with A New Hope having more plot than The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi combined. It’s rather interesting to consider how The Empire Strikes Back is rated the best of the trilogy when its “story” consists of rebels escaping from an Imperial assault, Luke going to Yoda for training, Leia and Han on the run until they get captured, then another escape from the Empire at the cost of Han’s capture. Without A New Hope, the film is meaningless. Without Return of the Jedi, it’s incomplete. And while it does have one of the trilogy’s most dramatic scenes, a scene does not a story make. All in all, the OT is an example of sacrificing plot on the altar of zippy action.

Plot isn’t the only sacrifice, though: so is worldbuilding. The politics of the Empire and Rebellion are poorly explored. The Force is nebulous hand-waving, at best, with no conceptual structure beyond boiled fortune cookie utterances. (What is the Force? How does it work? Why is it divided into such Manichean moral sides, and what is the psychology of Force practitioners within this division? Perhaps it’s no surprise that the physics of the Force are so poorly determined. After all, Lucas couldn’t even be bothered with real physics in his space-based dogfights.) Even the dramatic impact and moral contexts of key moments are glossed over in the rush to get to the next action spectacle, Alderaan’s destruction being a prime example.

These shortcomings are not disparate, but rather symptomatic of a deeper issue, namely, that Lucas’ vision for Star Wars has been opportunistic rather than coherent and methodical. Compare Star Wars to the depth of literary universes such as Dune and Lord of the Rings, or comprehensively planned TV series like Babylon 5. There’s a clearly visible difference between a series whose story and background details have been methodically mapped out and a hodge-podge approach, however creative in parts. Although to some extent it’s no different than the brainstorming any creative goes through before finalizing a story, the many stories of the various ideas Lucas considered and discarded offer some proof of this. For more definitive proof, consider this: Lucas commissioned sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the novelization of A New Hope based on early script drafts, to write a sequel that could be filmed on a lower budget if the first movie performed poorly at the box office. That sequel was the novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and its significance isn’t only that it gave us an entirely different story direction than The Empire Strikes Back, it highlights the extent to which Lucas was perfectly content with outsourcing Star Wars to other people rather than conceiving his own vision. And, crucially, allowing his vision to be drastically altered by financial considerations. The Empire Strikes Back and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye are the cinematic equivalent of A/B testing in online advertising.

Assigning a Grade: B

Altogether, the conclusion can only be that the OT is B-movie grade, a triumph of style over substance. But to say that the OT movies are B-movies isn’t to say that they’re bad entertainment or can’t be personally meaningful in some way. Recognizing that a film’s entertainment value doesn’t necessarily correlate with its quality, there’s no contradiction in viewing the OT as engaging but superficial. That “B” isn’t a scarlet letter. After all, it’s not uncommon for B-movies to connect with viewers, especially as cult cinema, while more elevated award-winning fare may shine for a moment at the Academy Awards than take a nap outside of pop culture’s spotlight. A movie doesn’t have to be profound or exceptionally crafted to be relatable, inspirational, emotionally resonant, or meaningful in some way.

Still, the perception of the films as something they aren’t explains why attempts to fix the OT’s shortcomings creak and groan from the strain to make the continuity work, a common problem with franchises. Because with all the later retcons and reinterpretations reinforcing what people want Star Wars to be rather than what Lucas present, we see the franchise transformation from light swashbuckling adventure to Very Serious Storytelling and, in my opinion, losing the quality of undemanding fun that characterizes the OT. (The shift is almost like watching an Indiana Jones movie, deciding that the Nazis need explaining as villains, and creating a spinoff called Indiana Jones and the Rise of Hitler to show us why Nazism is evil all the while doing some PR to rehabilitate Indy’s image as a less-than-heroic figure.)

Rogue One is a tempting milestone for the decision to tell Very Serious (and Absolutely Not B-Movie) Stories, given a downbeat ending that is far from the swashbuckling happy ending heroism of the OT. But Lucas himself arguably changed course with the Prequel Trilogy (PT) and its modeling of a liberal republic’s fall to fascism, providing context and explanations for the state of that distant galaxy leading to the events of the OT. As films, there are some aspects of the PT I can appreciate despite shortcomings both technical (e.g. dialogue, performances) and conceptual. The storyline spanning three films is more cohesive and Lucas is generally effective at presenting a tragedy of complacency, arrogance, and moral bankruptcy as the gateways for the corrupt and destructive pursuit of power. If it weren’t for Hayden Christensen’s unwatchable performances in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I might be open to rewatching the films despite the fact that I don’t feel the PT is quite in continuity with the OT. (Given the skepticism expressed by characters like Han Solo and Motti, my impression of the Force and Jedi Knights in A New Hope is that for all that they might have been guardians of peach and justice, they were less grandiose than their depiction at the center of Republic power in the PT. But that’s just my impression.) In any case, Anakin’s turn to the dark side and the Empire’s rise emerging from systemic flaws in the Republic’s governance, combined with the critical failings and misjudgments of a fossilized Jedi Order, makes the PT surprisingly bleak. And bleak, of course, is quite tonally different from the jauntier OT, especially when it stems from treating the subject matter with a greater attention to realism.

We can draw a line, then, from PT to Rogue One and, apparently, Andor. “One of the things Andor is interested in is how people live under fascism, and how fascism changes environments—natural, built, and social,” writes Abigail Nussbaum at her Asking the Wrong Questions blog. I’m inclined to wonder if – in addition to the retcons, continuity fixes and rationalizations – the decision to start exploring the workings of fascism is a sign that people don’t actually like the OT very much. At the very least, the transition from fluffy adventure to serious storytelling points to an identity crisis at the heart of what is, fundamentally, military fiction. Torn between Lucas’ infantilized approach in the OT, which strips the moral complexities and brutal realities to offer kid-friendly fare, to the current impulse toward grittier, more complex offerings, Star Wars is confused about its premise as a story of war and violent conflict. Alan Dean Foster’s impression of Lucas offers some support to this, as he tells Yahoo Entertainment in response to his inclusion of a particular gruesome massacre in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye: “George is a very sensitive guy; I picked up on that from the moment I met him. That’s why, I think, the Imperial troopers never take their helmets off [in the original movies]. Because if you’re seeing people get shot all the time and their faces are contorted in agony, it gives you a very different cinematic vibe than if its just a figures in plastic helmets that all look the same. I don’t know this, but I think that was a deliberate choice on George’s part to mitigate the violence.”

This essential confusion about depicting war raises cultural questions, such as: to what extent is Star Wars an expression of Hollywood’s tendency to glamorize war and repeat stories in which victory is achieved through the superior application of violence? (How many people fantasize about being Jedi so they can sit and meditate? Not nearly as many as those who dream of dueling with lightsabers.)

Uncomfortable moral questions aside, the tonal shift of later works, along with the attempt to lean into thematic issues from a more adult perspective, points to a key problem with franchise: the hijacking of an original creator’s story by other people with their own ideas of how it should be told.

For my part, then, I’m content with the Original Trilogy in all its B-movie glory. I can excuse its lack of profundity on account of being simplified for the benefit of younger viewers. I can also appreciate how the whole is more entertaining than the superficial concepts of its parts. And when I really want a sequel, especially in a franchise that’s become a choose-your-own-adventure, I can always turn to the Dark Forces story, particularly the trilogy of novellas by William C. Deitz based on the seminal game series. An excellent example of how to do a sequel, Dark Forces works particularly well because it introduces a new character, Kyle Katarn, whose journey only marginally intersects with OT characters. After starting with a gift to fans, with Katarn stealing the infamous Death Star plans, the plot takes off in its own direction, backtracking to Katarn joining the Imperial Army under the belief his parents were killed by the Rebellion, learning the truth about the Empire’s coverup, turning Rebel-aligned mercenary, and eventually discovering his Jedi heritage while attempting to stop a group of Dark Jedi from claiming a tremendous source of power. Aside from being a snappy adventure, Dark Forces succeeds in justifying why the Jedi should be perceived as forces for good, which is less about brute force but moral perspective. Katarn proves to be a Jedi not because he’s better at violence than his Dark Jedi opponent, but because for all his lifetime of cynicism he can still bring compassion to bear in even the most difficult circumstances. The clever way Dietz writes Katarn’s final duel with the Dark Jedi’s leader, Jerec, for example, is an especially memorable demonstration that the light side of the Force doesn’t have to be stronger than the dark in terms of raw power. It only needs to approach the fight with an entirely different perspective in order to win. And all without introducing new hand-waving mumbo-jumbo to magically solve thorny plot points.

One Last, and Very Important, Thing

So as Disney churns out yet more Star Wars content, I have no regret about sitting on the sidelines. The OT, Dark Forces – these are enough for me. But I will end by pointing out an important topic I haven’t addressed: racism and the challenge of diverse representation in Star Wars. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’d encourage you to read these articles from The Playlist, Scientific American and, especially, CHS Globe Online.