We’ll make heaven a place on earth…
The closing credits of Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode triumphantly blared Belinda Carlisle’s seminal 80’s hit “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” And with good reason. In a year that littered the television and digital platform landscape with the bodies of queer women left and right, “San Junipero” made the choice to be bold. Not only did Black Mirror gift us with a touching, moving story of two women finding each other across space and time and falling in love, not only did they give us an interracial queer relationship, they gave us a happy ending.
And the kicker out of all of that? They buried the gays. The truly amazing twist “San Junipero” gave us was taking the tragic queer death and not only obliterating it, but transforming it into a moment of wild, transcendent joy. And this from a show that never ends happily, a show for which technology is almost always a thing to fear. Instead of fear, technology became the path that brought two aging queer women a chance at happiness not only in their last days on earth, but forever. It’s the literal definition of “…and they lived happily ever after.” Only in the afterlife, so you know, their happy ending isn’t so much an ending as the beginning of their eternity.
Amazingly, that bright, burning moment of triumph for queer women didn’t stop there. Some of you might have heard, but “San Junipero” was nominated for two Emmy Awards this year. For “Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Drama: Charlie Brooker” and “TV Movie.” “San Junipero” swept not one, but both categories.
Let that sink in.
The episode about two interracial queer women who died and had a happily forever after won the most prestigious award available in the United States for television. The Emmys are also one of the most public venues in the US for the celebration of storytelling and its power; queer women could not have asked for a more powerful validation of the beauty and significance of their stories.
Seeing a story about queer women loving each other, getting their happy ending, and getting to have agency over their lives… that matters. And when those stories are recognized and awarded for their merit, that sends out a powerful message to those in charge. So, writers and showrunners of American media, take note:
We matter. We’re here. We deserve our happy ending.
Image courtesy of Netflix
The Expanse Season Two Still Fares Well As An Adaptation
The Expanse has had the seventh book in the series released this month, while its third season (meant to adapt the second half of the second book) is scheduled to come out some time next year. In other words, both the authors of the source material and of the adaptation are keeping busy, making it a very current show. So allow me to continue in my attempt to assess how it fared as an adaptation.
The second season works with the second half of Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, and the first half of Caliban’s War, the second installment. It continued its similarity to Game of Thrones as an adaptation by diverging from the source material significantly more than in the first year it was on air. The good news, however, is that the changes are not so dramatically for the worse as is usual, and in some cases are even for the better.
Warning: the following contains spoilers for both the show and the books.
Some problems remain from season one. Chiefly, two of them. One is the scope of the world as it is depicted on the show. The other are the universally dark and gritty visuals. Ganymede is supposed to have corridors carved in ice. Wouldn’t it have been awesome to see that? But now, just more indistinguishable black and grey.
The most significant difference between the books and the show in season two is, without a doubt, all the added drama. It’s everywhere. Every little thing that is routine in the books becomes exceedingly tense on the show. Starting with the Somnambulist, which is not taken by force – or near enough to force – in book!verse, but is simply a ship at OPA’s disposal that Holden is given by Fred. Continuing through Bobbie’s escape from her rooms in the UN compound; she simply walks away in the book and that’s it. And ending with the escape from Gynemedes, which, int he books, is not so much of an escape as simply, you know, leaving. I could keep listing other instances, but this serves as a good example of the sort of tension added for television.
Related to this is also the complete secrecy that surrounds everything on the show. The books work much better with the reality of modern technology where things are streamed immediately. Billions of people watch Eros crash into Venus live, for example, and the data available from what happens there is available to everyone. Or there is the whole thing with the zombie terminator attacking on Ganymede. On the show, it’s a huge secret Chrisjen has to exert extreme energy to ferret out. In the books, everyone knows and there is footage of the attack available. One of my favourite little moments is when Holden tries to hide his identity behind a scruffy beard as he comes to Ganymede, and you end his chapter feeling that he succeeded. Only to open Chrisjen’s chapter and find out that he really, really did not.
Secrecy adds drama, so it is understandable why the show decided to go this way. The need to keep viewers hooked is evident, too. And ending the season in a middle of a book, they needed a suitably dramatic bang to end with. So while all of these things make me roll my eyes, I do not truly blame the show for them. I feel the missed character beats much more keenly.
Captain James Holden
Holden is one character whose arc from the first half of Caliban’s War was adapted truly well. There was the inevitable added drama, as everywhere, but his essential story arc remained.
With regards to the end of Leviathan Wakes, however, the issues from season one continue, and Holden is treated as more of a boy scout by the show than he is by the book. One fantastic moment (though one that could hardly be adapted) was seeing inside Holden’s head when the Head Human Experimenter tried to convince him to join forces before Miller shot him. The reader can see, with intimate certainty, that Holden is this close to giving in when Miller pulls the trigger. We know for certain that it was done at just the right time. Yet Holden condemns Miller for it without the slightest trace of self-awareness, confident he would have resisted. It’s no doubt intentional, and it’s perfection. It should have been replaced by a similar scene suitable for the visual medium that would have conveyed the same. It wasn’t, and Holden’s character suffered for it.
On the other hand, I very much appreciate the change made to Holden’s dynamics with Naomi. In the books, when they start their romantic relationship, it turns out that not only has Naomi been in love with him for ages, so had pretty much every female on the Canterburry, because he is obviously God’s gift to womankind. It’s something to be thankful for that we don’t have to deal with that on our screens, even though I admit that the way book!Naomi handles Holden after that is exquisite.
I’m also very much in favour of the open communication that happens between them before they have sex in the books, as opposed to the “thick erotic tension” kind of deal the show went with. It would be easier to teach people about affirmative consent if there were actual examples of it in the media. There was a scene like that in the book, and guess what? It didn’t get adapted. Let’s all pretend at astonishment.
Dr. Praxidike Meng
I must admit that I was surprised when I saw he was one of the point of view characters. I neither knew nor expected it, and that in itself sums up the biggest problem with his show adaptation. He was very much pushed into the background. I understand why, I suppose – it might have been felt that there were too many new characters – but he lost a lot of his appeal when his role was cut. He is there to represent a valuable civilian point of view among all the trained soldiers and expert politicians. And his expertise adds a crucial dimension to the catastrophe of Gynamede.
Though if someone had to be cut short, I’m glad it was Dr. Meng. I understand they could hardly reduce Hodlen’s role, as much as I’d appreciate it, and both of the ladies are more interesting than Dr. Meng.
Still, I remember lamenting the sharp division between the first and second half of season 2 and pointing out that had Dr. Meng been included in some of the earlier episodes, it would have helped to make the transition more seamless. Now that I know he is one of the point of view characters, I feel this even more strongly.
Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala
I cannot quite decide whether Chrisjen is an adaptational success or failure. Because she is perfection on the show…but she is also quite different from the books. If I should compare book!Chrisjen to someone, it would probably be Miranda from Devil Wears Prada, or characters of that sort. She is not likable in any straightforward way, but at the same time, she has a charm to her that is oddly irresistible as much as you want to punch her in the fact at the same time.
Show!Chrisjen, on the other hand, is much softer on the surface, not showing her hard lines so obviously. Even when she swears, she does it with a kind of disarming smile that takes the edge off it. Book!Chrisjen is nothing but edges.
I don’t want to complain, because show!Chrisjen is one of the best things that ever happened to me, and there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either of their characterisations. But I cannot help but wonder how far gender stereotyping played a part in making Chrisjen less obviously hard. And it becomes especially problematic when paired with her stupidity in season 2, which takes the form of that oh-so-very-feminine failing of trusting too much in her friends, or ex-friends.
I wrote out my thoughts about that elsewhere in detail.To summarise, it was a subplot that prioritized a male character over a female one, and made Chrisjen look naive. But it was also an excellently done one. So while it troubles me, I cannot with a clear conscience say I wish it didn’t happen. I just hope it won’t again.
Additionally, one change I definitely appreciated was Chrisjen not being Errinwright’s subordinate on the show. It changed the dynamic significantly, and very much for the better. It also made this whole added subplot in season two possible.
Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper
Bobbie has a similar problem as Chrisjen: she, too, is made to look markedly more stupid on the show. Only as Chrisjen is effectively a genius, she ends up being just a little incompetent. Bobbie sometimes ends up looking downright stupid.
To be fair, her character is exceedingly hard to adapt. She has that in common with Dr. Meng. While Jim and Chrisjen constantly talk to people around them and even the things that are part of their inner monologue are easy to change to a personal conversation with someone close, Bobbie doesn’t have that option. She doesn’t have anyone close to her left. For a long time, the only person she talks to at all is the chaplain, whom she just dismisses in many different ways when he tries to ‘help’. There is no way to naturally have her talk about what she thinks and feels, because being alone is an important part of her character arc. But not everything can be shown with images.
But that is not the biggest problem with her character. No, that is reserved for the mysterious decision to make Bobbie into a fanatical war-monger at the beginning. I have been complaining about lack of proper representation for Mars in the first season, and so was very happy to see Bobby in nr. 2. And it’s not like seeing her slowly change her approach when confronted with new facts was worthless. But it also made her into a very flat and irritating character for the first two thirds of the season.
It’s not like book!Bobbie goes through no character development after she sees Earth with her own eyes. It’s not like she’s not patriotic or proud to be a marine. But she can be all this and still retain some nuance, and some brain cells. The showrunners seem to have forgotten that. Bobbie on the show frequently comes off as a brat, something her book self never does.
There are other characters worth a mention, naturally. Fred Johnson is probably the most significant. His role was changed significantly as well, and much more tension withing the OPA was included. It adds to the problematic depiction of OPA as uncultured and wild space terrorists, but on the other hand it’s masterfully done. One can understand the sources of tension and where the different branches and wings are coming from. Much like with Errinwright, here again one is willing to forgive the problematic nature of the added material for a large part, because it forms such excellent additions.
In the end, the only thing I truly blame the second season for is the assassination of Bobbie’s character. While changes to Chrisjen upset me, they were compensated for by the excellent quality of Errinwright’s subplot. Yes, it is telling that the two female protagonists were undercut by the adaptation, making them look less smart than they are in the source material. But Chrisjen still comes out of it pretty impressive. The changes to Bobbie, on the other hand, are much more destructive, and they held no compensation, no hidden bonus. She is simply depicted as unlikable, to such an extent that even when we finally get legitimate reasons for sympathy, it’s long in coming.
Season 3 should fix that, and fast. Hopefully, Bobbie is here to stay. She shouldn’t have to carry the weird season 2 baggage with her throughout the show.
Images courtesy of SyFy
Star Wars Rewatch: The Critic Awakens
Ah, would that we could return to that bygone year of 2015. Things seemed so much simpler then, especially with the promise of a revitalized Star Wars franchise. After the bad taste that the Prequel Trilogy (PT) left in even many mouths—even with the 5 seasons of damage control that was The Clone Wars (TCW)—it was an understatement to say that the fandom was salivating for a return to quality. This anticipation only increased when it was announced that the entire Original Trilogy (OT) cast was reprising their roles.
Still, it is somewhat difficult to gauge the quality of this film, as it is only the first of three parts. That said, with its riveting pace, numerous unanswered questions, and fantastic new characters, most viewers agree that The Force Awakens (TFA) is a solid addition to the franchise.
Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm was nothing short of monumental when it happened. What did you think of the news when it was first announced?
Ian: I’d have to say I was cautiously optimistic. After what the prequels put me through in the 2000s, it was difficult to imagine what a good new Star Wars movie would look like. As details trickled out though, like Abrams’s use of actual sets and practical effects, I warmed to the concept. I was never much of an Extended Universe (EU) fan outside of one or two novels and comics, so the eradication of the old EU canon did not affect me. Having seen Abrams’s Star Trek adaptations (which is a subject unto itself) I felt he was competent enough to get the job done.
Gretchen: I honestly didn’t think anything specific when I heard it. At the time, it had been years since I was fully invested in the Star Wars fandom. Like Ian, I’d only ever read a few EU novels, so the switch to Legends didn’t mean much to me. I think I shrugged? A lot has changed since then.
Zach: When I first got news of the merger, it was because Disney had canceled TCW on Cartoon Network. Then I learned that Disney was doing away with the EU and calling it “Legends.” To say I was “frothy” would have been an understatement. Several of my favorite characters from the Clone Wars era now had their powerful and moving stories erased completely, specifically Jedi Masters Aayla Secura and Shaak Ti, neither of which had featured very heavily in TCW. I was fit to be tied, and I promised to never watch the new series out of pure spite.
Then, from out of the darkness came Julia’s fantastic retrospective on Han and Leia’s relationship and suddenly I began to reevaluate my priorities. A few rewatches of the OT and retrospectives later, and suddenly I could not wait to see the new movie. I guess you could say The Fandomentals saved Star Wars for me.
What were your feelings on the movie going in?
Zach: Good gosh, I was so nervous going into this movie. On the one hand, it was a new series and a new generation of characters. On the other hand, I had been burned before. Although I was too young to feel the complete disappointment of the PT, as I grew up and got standards, I realized how bad they were. I was afraid to get my hopes up, though at the same time I could not help but feel excited.
Ian: Excited as f$%&! I don’t remember feeling as excited or as nervous for a new movie opening ever before, not even for The Phantom Menace. I actually took half the day off work that Friday to go see it and beat the crowd. So jazzed. So pumped. Couldn’t wait.
The feeling I had going into Revenge of the Sith was more like obligation. I guess I should see this thing. I’ve seen all the others. I felt trepidation this time as well, like should I be this excited? Am I setting myself up for disappointment? I hadn’t been spoiled on the movie, only heard some whispers that, yes, it’s good, rest easy, friends. So, excitement tempered with nervousness.
This time, after having watched it a number of times, I feel like it still holds up. It’s still exciting and funny, and I was happy to watch it again.
Gretchen: When I heard they were making more movies, I was mildly annoyed. My first thought when they announced a new trilogy was, “This again? Why can’t they leave well enough alone?” I expected to hate it, but also secretly wanted to like it. The OT was classic sci-fi for me and had formed a huge part of my childhood, so the opportunity to have that experience as an adult had me both nervous and excited. Going into the rewatch, I had a similar mix of feelings. I liked TFA when I came out of the theaters two years ago. But, the fandom soon soured me on certain aspects of it, and I spent a good portion of 2016 grumpy about it. Engaging with the books and comics of New Canon in 2017 gave me some perspective, though, so when I sat down to rewatch TFA, I wasn’t sure which side would win: the Grumpy Side or the Fangirl Side.
What did you think of the characters, new and old?
Gretchen: I’ll start with our new heroes, and the answer is I love them. While there are things I don’t like about TFA, the new trio of protagonists isn’t one of them. I unabashedly adore Finn, Rey, and Poe with all my fangirl heart. While many have pointed out that they echo the original trio in many ways, what I find fascinating about Rey, Finn, and Poe is how they switch who they’re echoing. None of them are a straight up copy of Han, Leia, and Luke despite how their story beats play off of ones in the OT.
Zach: Hell yes. I would let Rey punch me in the face and I would thank her for it afterward. I know that there was a lot of … shall we call it “inexplicable” backlash against Finn for a while, but that has mercifully died down for now. Gretchen points out that they are echoes of the OT trio, not direct copies. As George Lucas said: “It’s poetry… it rhymes.” We could do an entire article about how these characters echo each other. I think it is telling that, when people have any praise for the Prequels, it is usually for the story, while the Sequels have received their due praise for their characters. I think it is easy to tell which one is more compelling.
Ian: The new characters were what sold me on this movie the first time through. Plot holes and regurgitated ideas from the OT can’t make me love Rey, Finn, or Poe any less.
Gretchen: SAME. As far as old characters go, I’m still a bit salty about the original trio in many ways. After reading Bloodline and Legends of Luke Skywalker, I understand the intention behind the character choices better. However, I still don’t like certain aspects of it. More than anything, not getting a Han/Leia/Luke reunion on screen felt like a punch to the gut. Oh, and can you let Han and Leia kiss for the love of the Force???? They might bicker and have drifted as they dealt with their grief over losing Ben in different ways, but these two love each other goddamn it. LET MY MIDDLE-AGED OTP KISS ON SCREEN.
Ian: I’m a little bummed we never got to see Leia go full Jedi. If she’s as powerful or more powerful in the Force as Luke is, one could reasonably assume she would want to learn to use it. We get some brief flashes in TFA, but nothing more. I understand Carrie Fisher wasn’t in the best physical shape of her life, so I wasn’t expecting a big action-y fight scene, but just something that hints at her power would have been nice, like Galadriel in LOTR. I consider it a lost opportunity.
Zach: I think most of JJ Abram’s direction for the OT trio was “How can I make it as angsty as possible without any of that soft and squishy stuff.” He seems to have a mild understanding of their characters. Based on the things that the cast and crew have said when they worked on TFA, Abrams had no idea how to justify any of his choices for their direction, but he did it anyway. Just like we agreed in our reviews of the PT, the expanded canon stuff does not excuse sloppy writing in the film itself. We should not need that expanded canon stuff to understand what happens on the screen.
I feel that I should warn you all right now that I have a lot of Opinions™ about J.J Abrams.
Gretchen: Don’t worry, I do to. Very few of them are glowing.
Zach: Another of my Opinions™ about Abrams’s direction is how he writes about Darth Vader. He seems to be deliberately ignoring all the previous films’ information about Anakin Skywalker, like his motivation and redemption. It seems like no one knows that Anakin was redeemed in the end. This is especially thrown into sharp relief with Han’s comment “He’s got too much Vader in him.” What does that mean? A fierce love for people and a willingness to do anything to protect them? A feeling of constant inadequacy? Disillusionment with a corrupt system that is attempting to control him? Vader’s evil was a consequence, not his goal.
Ian: Yeah that’s a little weird. Kylo’s worship of him seems out of place as well for those same reasons. What was it exactly that Vader started that you’re going to finish, Kylo? Was it having a decent relationship with his kids?
Gretchen: This is another one of those times that Abrams love for ~secrets~ got the better of him. We all saw Vader choose Light in the end, so give us one on-screen reason why Kylo would want to follow in his footsteps. It doesn’t have to be the main reason, just one that makes sense. Even “I hate my Uncle Luke and wish Vader would have killed him instead of the Emperor” would have been better than a handwave. “…Reasons” just isn’t going to cut it.
One thing I do appreciate, however, is what the film is trying to say about this new generation of heroes lacking mentors and authority to ground them. Han and Maz are the only mentors our heroes have, and neither of them are Force wielders. Han is a former skeptic. Poe is the only protagonist with a sense of direction, and he’s given the least screen time, which I think is on purpose. Our two main heroes have very little to go on to find their way and decide between right and wrong. Rey doesn’t even have anyone to lie to her about her family like Luke did. She literally has nothing. Same with Finn. The sense of being adrift and lacking any reliable authority is a message that I think has a lot of meaning to our current generation.
Zach: TRUTH. I had not even thought about it like that.
Ian: What about Kylo? He had a mentor. He had Luke. How did that turn out? Not good. So the two characters cast adrift ended up in better shape than the one with his family intact, and a teacher to boot. He had all that and he rebelled. Hard. Now he has a new authority figure, one that’s feeding him the things he wants to hear. What does that say about the current generation’s relationship with authority?
Kylo himself I found pretty compelling. He’s my least favorite of the new batch, but I think that’s by design. I do like the way he seems out of control. His emotions get the better of him time and time again. I think that is indicative of some of the shortcomings in being a dark side user.
What do you love most about this movie?
Ian: Mostly, the sense of fun and adventure that the film brought back. The prequels were such odd things. They professed to telling this emotional story about the fall of a great hero, and love and betrayal, but it was all so devoid of emotion. Blame the acting, or the direction, or the extensive use of green screen, but those films don’t have any humanity to them. The moment–THE MOMENT– that sealed the deal for me with TFA, the moment where I sat back in my seat and breathed a sigh of relief and knew I was in good hands was that line from Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) when he is brought before Kylo Ren. They stare at each other for a beat and then he says, “So who talks first? Do you talk first?” I laughed. The whole theater laughed. After that, I was all in. We have real characters. They are allowed to be funny. They are allowed to be human. That moment I think is still my favorite in the movie just because of the memory it brings back of that first watch in the theater.
Gretchen: Same. I love that they established early on that these characters, and the films, have a real sense of humor (not one that relies on racism and stepping in poop) and adventure about them. We’d get more honest, human, and real characters rather than tropes. I adore that line from Poe for the same reason. It gave me hope that we were getting something truly good.
Zach: For me, the moment in the movie that sealed the deal for me was Rey’s introduction scene. While I do have a lot of Opinions™ on Abram’s writing of characters, I cannot fault his handling of the new characters or the cinematics. Both of them come together beautifully, stunningly, in Rey’s introduction. We spend several minutes following her around her home on Jakku. She never says a single word, but we get a real sense of who she is as a character and we bond with her immediately. I think Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the character goes a long way too.
Ian: I love Rey. She’s fantastic. I have no problems with her seemingly quick grasp of the Force, or her aptitude in combat or piloting, or mechanics. Anyone who says she’s a Mary Sue either doesn’t understand what a Mary Sue is, or wasn’t paying attention when they watched the movie.
Gretchen: Preach. Gotta love how most of the people who complain about this don’t seem to lob the same complaints at Luke in the OT or Anakin in the PT. An unusually gifted hero just waiting to discover their power is a well-established trope in fantasy literature, yet “Mary Sue” seems to only be a complaint thrown under specific circumstances (hint: like when the protagonist is a woman). The only thing that annoyed me was the whole “she knows the Millennium Falcon better than Han” thing, and that was a minor nitpick, really. Han may not be an intuitive mechanic like Anakin, but the one thing he does know is his own ship.
Ian: I love Rey and Finn together. They are both damaged in a way that they compliment each other so well. That hug on the Starkiller base is another favorite moment.
Gretchen: They drew me from the first moment I saw each of them alone, and then again when they finally met each other. They’re fantastic as both a matched pair and foils. They’re both so lonely and aching for a real home. Both lack a family and are defined by their relationship to their past. Rey can’t let go of hers, no matter how incomplete and tenuous it is. Finn, on the other hand is desperately trying to forget who he is. Rey wants to go home; Finn wants to run away. Neither know who they are and neither has any strong heroic aspirations at the outset of the film—like Luke’s desire for adventure in A New Hope (ANH). However, together they find both family and begin to help each other find the balance between their opposing positions regarding their past. Just…this is everything I love about found family narratives and breaking the cycle of violence.
Ian: I love the whole tone of the movie, too, the way it moves from a kind of breezy adventure to some heavier action. The visuals are stunning. I don’t know, I can’t decide.
Zach: PRACTICAL. SPECIAL. EFFECTS. They saved my life in this movie. Just watching it and seeing all these beautiful creatures in the background it really, really sells it to the audience. The PT’s over-abundance of CG effects in every scene immediately pulls the viewer out of the moment. For whatever reason, our brains can know, even if everything on the screen is perfectly right, if something is fake. EVERYTHING in the PT was fake. Compare that to TFA. You have a really hard time trying to figure out what is a puppet and what is CGI, but it all feels real to you. You can believe it more easily.
Ian: God yes. That was one of the things that made this movie feel real to me. They are on location, they have sets, they have actual people and creatures to interact with. The best CGI in the world can’t compare to the real thing… yet…
Gretchen: I barely noticed the effects, and that’s a huge compliment. It’s all so seamless. God and the music! My heart soared so many times hearing those themes again.
Zach: John Williams is back! While his scores are not as good as some of his previous work in Star Wars, Rey’s Theme and March of the Resistance really do a good job at setting the tone and telling the story with music.
Ian: Rey’s theme is the best. I bought the soundtrack for that alone.
Zach: Again, say what you will about Abrams’ writing, but he has a true gift for creating thrilling action sequences. There are a lot of scenes that we could talk about, but I think the most standout among them is Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku with the Millenium Falcon. First of all, it innovates on Star Wars’ signature space-dogfights by putting them in the atmosphere of a planet. The setting is also fantastic; flying amongst the cavernous ruins of Star Destroyers from the old Imperial days serves as both an obstacle to avoid and a grim reminder of what will happen if there is the slightest mistake. Other scenes have fantastic direction too, but that is the one I have singled out. Anyone else have any favorites?
Ian: That lightsaber fight at the end. The overwrought and insanely complicated fights of the PT are gone. We’re back to two actual characters just kind of hammering away at each other. Rey gets a lot of flack for being too good here, but she’s shown her ability with a staff. Plus Kylo is gutshot with a bowcaster, he’s not exactly at one hundred percent. Seeing that lightsaber fly past him into Rey’s hand was a jump out of your seat moment for me, and the fight after was great. (And it’s on an actual set).
Gretchen: That’s my favorite as well. Having just watched Return of the Jedi (ROTJ), the similarity in the sequence stands out so starkly. This is Luke and Vader all over again, only Rey has less training and Kylo less control. Plus, my boy Finn is there, too, and he gets his chance to be ‘Luke’ only to trade off to Rey. It’s a beautifully-shot, beautifully written and choreographed action sequence that’s brimming with thematic significance and character work.
Zach: Kylo Ren is a fun villain. We still have a lot to learn about him in the New Canon, but from what we see in TFA, at the very least he is entertaining. He is a little less murderous than his grandfather when underlings give him bad news, but he is just as extra. The fact that he just has tantrums every so often while simultaneously being an absolutely terrifying and effective villain really gets to me. Though I have difficulty imagining his redemption arc now, I am keeping an open mind about his direction until I see TLJ.
Gretchen: I can see a potential redemption arc, I just really, really want him to earn it. Star Wars is a story about hope and the presence of light no matter how powerful the darkness seems to be. However, I think the sequel trilogy has a real chance to show us how someone lives out their redemption arc rather than just making a death bed choice. Not that Vader’s turn isn’t valuable, but I want a journey to redemption and then a trajectory for life afterward. That’s how it will feel earned to me.
What do you like least about this movie?
Ian: I’ve had a problem in recent viewings with Finn. There is some dissonance to his character and what the movie tells us about him that I find a little troubling, but not story-breaking. Think about Finn’s motivation. He breaks away from the First Order presumably for moral reasons. He sees a fellow trooper gunned down, and then disobeys the order to execute a whole village en masse. Rather than go to be reprogrammed, he breaks Poe out and escapes the toxic situation he is in. One can assume from this that Finn has deep misgivings about the First Order’s methods, and about violence and killing in general. Finn is a victim of the system. He was taken at an early age and trained for trooperdom. We empathize with him even as we root for him to succeed. That in itself isn’t a problem.
The problem comes when in the remainder of the movie, after humanizing one storm trooper, the rest of the storm troopers are regulated to their position throughout the OT as simple cannon fodder. These are all presumably victims of the First Order machine, being forcibly recruited and brainwashed. Of course, there might be some actual bad guys in there, but we don’t really know or care about the rest of them because they have to get blown up by the good guys. Sometimes, their deaths are even played for laughs.
It’s at odds with the reasons why we root for Finn, who doesn’t seem to have a problem with the death of hundreds of his former peers, some of whom he almost certainly shared day-to-day life with. There is a dissonance there that is troubling, but I generally tend to whistle past it. Of course, it could be that Finn is an exceptional case, and that no other trooper has been able to overcome their conditioning, but they are still victims of the First Order military machine, and humanizing one makes it difficult to see the rest slaughtered.
Gretchen: I agree with you, and I think there’s a way to read that as meaningful. That cognitive dissonance is very much in line with what the rest of New Canon is doing. One of the goals, I think, is to humanize the ‘canon fodder’ and force us to recognize that not everyone who participates in the oppressive system does so of free will and malice. The humor aspect is out of place, and I think that’s a sign that something wasn’t executed properly because I think Finn is meant to lead us to acknowledge that there are victims within the First Order, not just outside of it.
My one complaint about Finn stems from the film not doing a good job clarifying that he’s actually a very competent and intelligent Stormtrooper. You have to read the novels to know that he was the best in his class and that sanitation was a standard shift and not a sign of his incompetence or him being unskilled at battle. I think it was meant as a joke, but it has crept into the fandom as a sign that he’s stupid, weak, and untalented (fandom racism is the worst, you guys).
Other than that, what I truly like least about TFA is Starkiller base. It was one plot echo too far, and the lampshading didn’t help at all. No matter how people spin this or how many explanations I read, I still think it was stupid. Sorry, Abrams.
Ian: Yeah, even Han’s snarky lines about Death Stars can’t save that one.
Zach: Oh yeah. Starkiller Base was abysmal. For me, the movie was fine with all its echoes until we hit Starkiller Base and the dogfight over it. It was way too similar to ANH for comfort. The first act keeps me invested, but everything beyond that read like a bad fanfic. I always say “Every story has already been told, so we’re going to judge this by how the story is told,” but I draw the line when a story plays it too close to one that has already been told.
Ian: Nothing about Starkiller base made sense. I know this isn’t hard sci-fi, but it should at least be trying to sound plausible, right? People watching the streaks of red across the sky from Maz’s place is impossible, as is the distance that beam of energy travelled in a short amount of time. It was just too much. Then once that sun is drained, what? The planet flies to a new sun? Really? Just dumb.
Zach: ARE YOU READY TO HEAR MY RANT ABOUT TFA’S ART DIRECTION!? BUCKLE IN, BECAUSE I HAVE OPINIONS™. IT WAS ALL LAZY AS FUCK AND TRYING TOO HARD TO COPY THE OT RATHER THAN IMPROVE IT.
Literally every single bit of this movie was a direct ripoff of the OT. Compare it to the Prequels; for all their numerous flaws they had their very own art style, and canonically they only happen 20 years before the OT. TFA takes place 30 years after the OT, and literally everything is the same. Compare the X-wings. In the PT, the classic T-65 of the prequels had not been invented yet, but we had the ARC-170. With its long nose and splitting s-foils, it is a definite step in the X-wing’s direction, but it has its own distinct silhouette. Compare that to the Resistance’s T-70 X-wing. The only difference is that now the wing-split is down the middle of the wings. If the other starfighters shown in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and walkers shown in The Last Jedi trailers are any indication of the future art direction, it looks like more of the same. Expect more salt after I see that movie.
Ian: Wow, Zach, you have entered a level of nerdery I could only dream about. Well played, sir. Yeah, it’s weird how samey things are there, but then the storm trooper helmets got a total redesign. Does The First Order have a marketing division? “Has Jeff turned in the concept sketches for those new helmets yet?” “Oh yeah, General Hux is reviewing them now.” Like, the TIE fighters just have new paint jobs, the X-Wings are the same, the Star Destroyers are (basically) the same. Why overhaul the trooper uniforms? Maybe the original molding equipment was confiscated or destroyed?
Gretchen: Heck, they even copied the exact same biomes from three of the planets in the OT. If you’re not going to break the “every planet has to have a single biome” rule, can you at least branch out from desert planet, forest planet, snow planet? At least we’re getting a new planet in TLJ. Though I have to admit, a salt planet has me giggling. You might have to move to Crait over the art direction, Zach.
Zach: Oh, believe me, I was actually born there. Abrams was so wrapped up in copying the feel of the OT that he forgot to justify how he got there. When the OT closed, the implication was that freedom and justice had returned to the Galaxy, and TFA’s opening crawl says that there is a new Republic, but that aside we have no idea what is going on in the galaxy. Are we supposed to believe that a galaxy-wide government had no idea that the First Order had a planet-killer just floating around? Why is the Republic not taking an active role in fighting the Space-Nazis next door, and is leaving the fight to the Resistance instead? Why is the Resistance separate from the Republic starfleet? Why does the Republic not oversee the assets that it is funding to fight the First Order? Who is Lor San Tekka, outside of being “[Leia’s] old ally” as described in the opening crawl? Uuuuurgh, I hate it.
Ian: The politics of the Galactic Republic are very poorly laid out, or not laid out at all, and I found that a little troubling. One would think if there was an Imperial uprising, the Republic military would have been mustered to snuff them out, not some rinky-dink resistance.
Gretchen: A lot of this comes up in the extended materials, like Bloodline and the Aftermath trilogy. They’re really good at filling in gaps. However, I am of the opinion that the films ought to make sense on their own. Casual fans who only watch the movies should be able to understand the basics of how to get from A-to-Space Nazis have a planet-sized wmd that no one noticed. Abrams penchant for “mystery boxes” and unexpected plot twists bit him in the ass when it came to setting up TFA. Way too much was left un-explicated between ROTJ and the sequels, and the film suffers for it.
Zach: We need more Phasma in our movies. She better be more prominent in TLJ.
Gretchen: I literally cannot wait for Finn to confront Phasma again. It’s gonna be so good. (Fingers crossed for Finn leading a Stormtrooper uprising!)
Ian: The Phasma comic miniseries and novel flesh her character out better. And yes, you are right.
The first installment of a trilogy often sets the tone. What did you think of the tone and themes of The Force Awakens?
Gretchen: Ironically, I think the films are the weakest parts of New Canon for me. A lot of my increased enjoyment of TFA this time around comes from my engagement with the novels and comics. More than either of the New Canon films, the print materials lay out the themes and direction for where Star Wars is headed as a franchise. When you engage with them, you can see the threads in the films, but they’re subdued. Part of it is medium, part of it is that the films are meant to reach a much wider audience and have to stand up to that. Part of it is Abrams leaving things out for the sake of ~mystery~.
Still, I do think that TFA fits within the wider tone and themes of the franchise, even if casual fans might not pick up on all the pieces. As mentioned above, I find the theme of disconnection from the heroes and stories of the past quite compelling (though with mixed success as to execution), same with the found family narrative. I have even more mixed feelings about Ben—too many to go into here. I’ve never found the idea of a Solo, Skywalker, or Organa child going Dark Side remotely appealing, so TFA was working uphill to get me to engage with that.
Zach: For me, the themes of TFA that I picked up on initially were a little too close to those of ANH, but on closer examination I think that they are still applicable, especially to our modern times. When TFA was released, white nationalism seemed to be on its last legs. Now, the president defends it. A group of determined individuals fighting against an implacable enemy speaks to me a lot more now.
Ian: I have no problem with the way it echoes certain story beats from ANH. Yes, it is a similar story, and yes, some of the actual story beats are very similar. This does not make it the same story or the same movie. It is not a re-make, and again, anyone who says so wasn’t paying attention. Disney played it safe with this film, and understandably so. This HAD to go well. If this movie tanked, it could quite possibly have killed the franchise. So I understand why they played it safe and went with a similar story. That’s not to say it is the same as some people criticise it for being.
Gretchen: TFA actually goes through beats from all three of the OT films, which I find interesting. That’s what tells me that while it is mixing in elements from ANH, it isn’t a straight-up retelling. On rewatch more than the first viewing I realized just how many beats from Empire Strikes Back and ROTJ end up in TFA. As with the new trio both echoing and switching up the original trio, the film itself does so, too. We get bits and pieces of all three OT films, but in different or sped up order and with different context. We’re seeing bits of the PT and OT unravel and reweave themselves together in a different way. It’s like a symphonic variation, and I really enjoy it.
Ian: I have a hard time with theme because I tend to just turn my brain off and enjoy it. The found family aspect is always there for me. I guess the tone is really what spoke to me. The sense of fun and adventure is back in the series, and that’s a good thing even if thematically it’s not quite there.
With that in mind, what do you expect from The Last Jedi?
Ian: They’re gonna kill Luke. Oh God, no, please don’t kill Luke. No they’re going to make him evil. Look at the posters. He’s in the bad guy position. He’s gonna be evil. They’re going to kill Leia and make Luke evil. No, Rey’s gonna turn evil. Kylo Ren’s going to turn her over to Snoke and then Kylo’s going to turn good. That’s wholly unearned, why would they do that so soon? Oh God, no, please don’t kill Luke. But Rey… But Luke… Leia… Oh, God, this movie is going to rip my heart out and stomp on it! At least there will be porgs.
Gretchen: Honestly? Same. Though having read Legends of Luke Skywalker, I’m less worried about Luke going evil than I was. As far as him dying, with Han dead and Carrie Fisher no long available to do more Leia scenes, it makes zero sense to kill off the other member of the OT. I do, however, fully expect to have my heart broken seeing Leia on screen again. And I have a feeling things with Luke and Rey are going to hurt me as well. It’s going to be a looooong two years until 2019, folks.
Zach: Of course it’s going to be a feels-fest. As Yoda said, “Fandom leads to feelings, feelings lead to being attached to characters, being attached to characters leads to suffering.” I’m with Gretchen in that I do not expect Luke to turn evil either, same with Rey. I think that they might up the ante on Kylo Ren’s villainy and make him usurp Supreme Leader Snoke, but that is pure conjecture. I honestly have no idea what is instore for us in VIII
Ian: I’m scared, you guys.
Gretchen: As Leia said, “hold me.”
Zach: If fear is a path to the Dark Side, I’m toast.
Gretchen: I enjoyed it more the second time around, despite my almost year long salt binge. Extended materials in the Star Wars universe have given me a lot of hope, and a new perspective, on what the sequel trilogy is doing. I love the sense of adventure, the humor, and the strong pathos that the new protagonists bring with them. Also, I adore BB-8 with my entire being.
Zach: It is a long awaited return to form after the prequels. Sure it is pretty derivative, Abrams has no idea what he’s doing with the OT trio, and there is no innovation in art direction. But, the characters, slick pacing, and adventure make it all worth watching.
Ian: I love this movie. It’s imperfect, flawed even, but it has great characters and a lot of fun and drama. It’s just the shot in the arm this franchise needed.
Gretchen’s Score: 7 – Satisfying: Fantastic! Entertaining! I would be willing to watch it again. It isn’t perfect, but it hits an emotional or thematic sweet spot that leaves you glad you spent time on it.
Zach’s Score: 6 – Good: Very watchable and with enough honey-potting it can be considered great. Leaves the viewer with a smile and a desire to see more.
Ian’s Score: 8 – Inspiring: Any shortcomings are nothing but small dots on an otherwise perfect painting. Despite some minor issues, it’s on par with some of the best. I could definitely watch it more than once (or twice).
Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
The Legend Of Korra Is A Perfect Deconstruction Of Superman
Superman is arguably the single most recognized fictional character in human history. He’s right up there with Batman and Mickey Mouse. His ‘S’ is, at times, even more widely known. “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” We know that these phrases are attributed to Superman, even if we don’t know the specific origin or, in most cases, how in the world we even learned them in the first place.
For 80 years, Superman has served as a beacon of hope and change for anyone and everyone. His origin, that of the immigrant whose home and culture were lost the day of his birth (an identity he can never fully regain), is a tragic yet resonant one that has, and will continue to, stand the test of time. Even if it has been re-appropriated into that of a pseudo-messianic myth, the immovable Jewish foundation of Superman’s internal struggle between assimilation (Clark Kent) and refusing to do so (Kal-El) isn’t something anyone has any intention of erasing.
Superman is the bedrock on which all modern heroes are based. Every divergence and every variation, no matter how big or how small, starts with Superman. He is the source, so, naturally, that means he’s the most prone to deconstruction and revisionism.
There have been so many attempts to deconstruct Superman as a concept, as well as his character, that it’s become almost a cliche to even consider it. Nearly every run at it ends in failure, most often due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what Superman even is. What he means, why he is who he is, etc. Off the top of my head, I can name two stories that actually succeed in deconstruction, as they have something worth saying: Superman: American Alien and Superman: Red Son. Wait, no, three examples.
The Legend of Korra. And it does it in a way that is embarrassingly similar to what Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman failed to be.
Xenophobia, A Modern Take
The narrative of Superman is one that is eternally relevant. Immigration as part of the American Dream, let alone an aspect of the nation’s entire identity (“Give us your poor, your wounded, your huddled masses…), has always been a hot button issue. In the new millennium, however, with the onset of the age of instant communication and social media, as well as the events of 9/11, it has ballooned into a political issue based almost entirely on fear. Fear of the “other”, to put it simply. And who is more “other” than Superman himself? He looks like us, and talks like us, but if you’re you and Superman just showed up one day in the real world…you’d have no idea where he came from and what his intentions are.
The only thing you, and everyone else, would know is that he’s different, and possesses abilities that effectively make him a living God. And that is terrifying. Even if the first thing he does is save a plane from falling out of the sky, he’s still going to be looked at with suspicion and fear. At any moment, he could decide to burn the world to the ground. And that’s exactly how Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice treats Superman.
Something to fear, because he isn’t like us. Because he’s too powerful. Because nobody asked for his help, no matter how altruistic his intentions may appear to be on the surface.
It’s a fantastic opening premise for a deconstruction of Superman, as it makes it necessary for him to prove he’s on our side. To do so much good in a world that resents him out of instinctual fear drilled into their heads by the era that they’re eventually forced to give him the benefit of the doubt. That, as far as the public is concerned, it isn’t any more complicated than a man who is just trying to do the right thing. Except that never happened in those movies.
We never saw Superman be Superman. We saw him save people, yes. We saw him do the thankless job. We saw the world resent him. But we never saw him inspire. We never saw him do anything to make us want to trust him at all. To challenge our preconceived notions of who Superman is.
Until General Zod and company arrived, he only operated in secret, using his powers when it was convenient for him. And even when he was forced to face Zod, he brought untold destruction and and collateral damage to his adopted world…completely invalidating the point of the post 9/11 narrative in the first place. How can the world trust a man who destroys the very city he is trying to protect? They don’t need or want Superman, especially since the only reason Zod attacked at all was because he had been “hiding” on Earth.
When Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rolled around, Superman is stuck in an inconsistent guilt spiral from the destruction of Metropolis. Except he doesn’t actually do anything to address that, and the movie doesn’t really either. The first thing Superman does is intervene in a fictional African nation to take down a warlord for the sole purpose of saving Lois Lane. Which, if the film wanted take the very-often-overlooked implications of Superman being an American icon, thus leading to him acting as a sort of unintentional symbol for American interventionism, would have been extremely interesting. Except it doesn’t do that either. Superman is there because he wants to save Lois, and that’s it.
Batman acts as a sort of audience surrogate for the fear that Superman inflicted on the world during his battle with Zod, which might have worked had that gone anywhere aside from Batman trying to kill Superman. He never tries to talk to him or understand him; not even after the infamous Martha scene. If he’s supposed to represent our combined terror of what Superman could be capable of, we should probably be able to agree with his rationale (or even understand it) for not stabbing the man who he saw as a monster two seconds ago in the face.
And then Superman dies, only to return in Justice League to a world that, for reasons that aren’t in evidence and also directly contradict everything that came before it, loves and adores him. A world that was on the verge of eating itself because of his death, despite no one wanting or needing him in every other instance.
None of it is earned. None of it really makes any sense, and the whole production, over multiple films, is only half of what is necessary to convey the narrative Zack Snyder clearly tried to tell.
Avatar Korra, Sequence Breaker
As Kylie so eloquently laid out last week, The Legend of Korra is one hell of a transgressive narrative due mostly in part to its titular protagonist. Korra is brash, overeager, and immeasurably powerful. Her series arc is one of self discovery and self acceptance in a world that actively rejects her existence every chance it gets. She wants to be, essentially, Superman, in a world that has no need nor desire for one. The similarities don’t stop there.
She holds ultimate, untold power and uses it with reckless abandon at the start of the series. In her first few hours in Republic City, she undertakes vigilante justice and violently destroys several storefronts. Because that’s the kind of person she is.
People don’t trust her the moment she announces herself, they wonder why they need her, even though previous incarnations of her have almost always been treated like spiritual leaders and authorities. No matter how many times she saves the world, people still hate her. They are suspicious and cynical of the stranger, since she is inherently an outsider due to her birthright and connection to a world (the Spirit World) few can even comprehend or understand.
This set-up is supposed to make us question and consider what being the Avatar actually means when the assumed role is no longer relevant or necessary. What can Korra reasonably do when the geopolitical climate isn’t as simple as “stop evil”? When every action she takes is looked at with intense scrutiny from a far more connected public. That is to say, the show asked us to consider Korra in relation to her previous incarnations to explicate the disparity just as Snyder’s Superman did by contrasting him the with the multitude of other versions of Superman across every form of media imaginable.
Zack Snyder’s Superman begins his journey in much the same place Korra did. He has powers he doesn’t know how to control, and hides them until the world is ready, just as the White Lotus hid Korra. Of course, this is where the deconstruction of Superman falls apart: it doesn’t actually go anywhere. He starts where Korra starts, and doesn’t progress at all. He does the thankless job, sure, but he doesn’t learn from any of his choices or mistakes. He intervenes without thinking about it, and chooses to brood instead of facing his issues and trauma.
At the end of Man of Steel, Clark faces off against General Zod and causes devastating damage to Metropolis. Zod has the same abilities as Superman, as they are both Kryptonian, meaning that he’s basically supposed to serve as an evil mirror. This is far from dissimilar to the finale of Book 2, where Korra fights Unalaq after he becomes the Dark Avatar and starts destroying Republic City. She even kills him in the end, as there was no other way to save the world.
Even Superman’s death at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — as well as his subsequent resurrection in Justice League — is paralleled and unintentionally blown out of the water. Korra did something very similar with the end of Book 3, sacrificing herself at the hands of the Red Lotus to save the Airbenders. Though she is not killed, she vanishes from the public eye as she heals…just as the world enters a state of actually, truly needing her intervention with the chaos spreading throughout the Earth Kingdom like wildfire.
Superman and Korra are both on isolating journeys of self discovery. Korra’s takes place before and during the final season where she learns to cope with her PTSD, and how to better approach her role even though it is so undefined and volatile. She can be the kind of person she wants to be without constantly fighting for relevance, and even if the world resists her she can pick and choose her battles.
Korra learns how to be happy as Korra, rather than her title and all of the baggage she had stripped from her in the finale of Book 2. Previous Avatar cycles (much like previous incarnations of Superman) operated in a traditional way, but that’s not how the world works anymore and that’s okay! She can still find happiness and purpose in whatever she chooses to do, even if it’s not what her childhood self believed it would become due to the White Lotus jamming that into her head. Not unlike Jor-El did to Superman in Man of Steel.
Superman’s journey takes a confusing amount of years throughout Man of Steel, given that he wanders the world as a bum with a depression beard. The entire sequence doesn’t seem to serve a purpose, since he discovers who he is from the Fortress of Solitude. He doesn’t learn anything about himself as an outsider living in a foreign land, nor does he have a wound that requires isolation and introspection to heal or understand. This is the kind of thing that would have made more sense to happen after killing Zod.
But since it doesn’t, we’re left with an angry, brooding Superman with no redeeming qualities or justification to treat him as Superman. He’s just a superhuman guy in a cape who does things that are kinda nice sometimes.
Korra, meanwhile, justifies her own existence and acts as the hero people grew to mostly tolerate, and occasionally love. She gave them every reason to trust her, and a good amount of people do by the end of the series. Unlike Snyder’s Superman, it was something she earned by deconstructing her own legacy.