Saturday, April 16, 2016

How to Break a Franchise

Comic
Princess Leia and Sana Starros take take Dr Aphra to the Rebel Prison Planet. A mysterious third party breaks into the prison, and begins executing the prisoners. Then, the power cuts out, the cells open, and Leia is trapped in the dark with  a mob of cold blood imperial murderers.

When Marvel's new Star Wars title launched last year, it felt impressively like a comic book adaptation of a lost 1979 movie, albeit with material from the sequels and prequels folded into it. So deftly and tactfully was this handled that it smoothed over some of the cracks in the Star Wars Saga; almost convincing us that the Episode IV Darth Vader really was still the Episode III Anakin Skywalker underneath. Issue #15, (an excerpt from Obi-Wan's lost journal) was both a shameless exercise in faux nostalgia and also a cunning synthesis of the old and new movies. A young kid called Luke shoots womp-rats near Beggars Canyon watched over by a figure who is older than Ewan McGregor but younger than Alec Guinness. It was the most enjoyable Star Wars Thing in years. 

But there is a growing sense that, now Luke has read Ben’s diary, and now that Darth Vader knows who destroyed the Death Star, writer Jason Aaron has filled in the space between Episode IV and Episode V and been reduced to making stuff up. And the more stuff gets made up, the further away from Star Wars we move, until, in issue 50, 60, 70 we'll realize that, even though the main character is based on reference photos of a very young Mark Hamill, what we are reading a generic space opera comic unconnected with any movie and Uncle Walt declares the whole thing non-canonical. 

I remember reading the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man when it came out and loving it like I hadn't loved any comic in a decade. Everything that was ever fun and good about Spider-Man, re-imagined in a millennial setting. I forget how many issues it took before Peter Parker was being hassled by Nick Fury and dating Kitty Pryde and meeting up with his father’s old colleagues and dying heroically and being replaced by a much younger kid. Nothing against the comic: stuff had happened. Stuff had to happen. But the more stuff happened the more obvious it became that we were no longer re-imagining Spider-Man but, reading about a completely different character with a similar costume.

Sana Starrors and Dr Aphra? Who the hell are they? (*) And what the hell is the Rebel Alliance doing with a Prison Planet?

The new Rebel Prison arc (beginning Star Wars #16) is perfectly logical. The Rebellion, as depicted in the movies, is something way beyond being a guerrilla force or a bunch of terrorists. It has medals and insignia and battleships; I seem to think that the role-playing game described it as having its own currency. It's the remains of the Old Republic; the other side in a pretty substantial civil war. So of course it must take prisoners. And if it takes prisoners it must have a prison, unless it executes them on the spot, which is what rebels would do in a civil war but not what goodies ought to do in an heroic space opera. And if there is a Rebel Prison, then the prisoners must be very scary indeed, and there must be lots of people who would like to free them and lots of people who would like to kill them.

Perfectly logical. But if you are going to apply perfect logic to Star Wars you might as well go home. 

Jason Aaron has a pretty good handle on the character's voices and Princess Leia still sounds a bit like Princess Leia. But she is forced to have conversations that are just not the kinds of conversations that Princess Leia ought to be having. 

— I won’t let you do this, I won’t let you gun them all down.

— I know you won’t because you still believe you’re fighting a noble fight, don’t you. But there’s nothing noble about war, princess. Not if you want to win.

—I’m not going to debate you. I’m just going to stop you. You’re not killing anyone else.

—You’re right. You are. I’ve just released 17 cold blooded murderers from their cells, Princess. Perhaps you can have that debate with them. Though if you’d rather live, I suggest you get busy killing them. 

Princess Leia, the Princess Leia who called Chewie a Walking Carpet and was only a little bit sad when her planet blew up is just not big enough or real enough to be having Socratic dialogues about ethics. She doesn't become more real by debating with Hannibal Lecter, any more than Penelope Pitstop becomes more real by carrying a huge great phallic gone. She just becomes less like Princess Leia. To even ask the question "is war ever noble" is to abolish the franchise called Star Wars. 

Okay then, clever clogs: what would you have done if you were writing Star Wars and were forced to address the question of what the Rebels do with baddies they capture?

I would have imagined something shiny and wonderful. One of the races in the Alliance is a telepathic mind parasite that subsists by sucking the evil out of other life forms. Someone knows an Old Jedi Trick of gently turning people back to the Light. The same medical science that can graft new limbs onto wounded heroes can also teach bad people to be good. There is a beautiful, paradise like planet many millions of light years away where bad people are sent to live more or less contented lives until they can no longer harm society.

But actually, I would say "This is not the sort of question you ought to ask about Star Wars, any more than you should ask if Luke killed the civilian crew of the Death Star or how Biggs joined the Rebellion quite so quickly. It’s just not that sort of story."


Cartoon

Three elderly Clone Troopers are holding out on a cobbled together Old Republic Walker. Two Imperial AT-ATs are bearing down on them. They know that they have no chance, but mean to go down fighting. They attempt to ram one of the AT-ATs legs. Suddenly, with a literal fanfare, a Rebel spaceship zooms in. It loops over the top of one of the Walkers, and three people jump onto the roof of the cockpit. Two of them, a man and a boy, cut a hole with their lightsabers; the third, a bad tempered alien, jumps through it and bangs the heads of the two pilots together. The rebels commandeer the AT-AT and immediately start shooting at the other one. 

In one sense, it’s the total lack of ambition which makes Star Wars: Rebels the one iteration of Star Wars that honestly recaptures the spirit of '77. Clone Wars always felt too big and self-important. It was not only the story of a major galactic war; it was an attempt to justify the existence of the prequels: to convince us that galactic politics and swashbuckling could go together; to redeem Anakin’s character from what Hayden Christensen did to it. Rebels doesn't pretend to be about anything other than five incredibly generic characters running errands for the Rebellion. Episodes sometimes seems to have been created via a Random Mission Generator from the Star Wars role-playing game. “We need you to fly to the Planet Such-and-Such and deliver supplies / pick up supplies / make contact with Rebel agents there." One episode is lifted directly from a West End adventure module. 

So all that matters is that everyone should be having fun; that every plan should be more complicated than it needs to be; that every battle should involve a silly stunt; that no character can ever face certain death without a wise-crack and smart remark. And in almost every episode, Rebels triumphantly delivers on this modest objective.

Why didn't they shoot at the AT-AT with the ship's cannon? Because that would have been no fun. 

Why did Zeb bash the troopers' heads together rather than punch them?  Because it’s more fun that way.

Can lightsabers really slice through armour like butter, even armour that's impervious to heavy gunfire? No, not all the time. Only when it's fun. 

In the final episode of Season I, our heroes end up flying a captured imperial TIE-fighter, which Hera, the resident graffiti artist has resprayed with a psychedelic, floral pattern. How do they get away with it? Player-character immunity and an awful lot of Force Points.

Even now the Extended Universe has been purged, Star Wars is a strange, four dimensional text, and that temporal depth makes Star Wars: Rebels something more than the thrilling adventures of Kid Jedi. The cartoon takes place 14 years after Revenge of the Sith, and five years before A New Hope. So the prequels are something which the older characters can look back on; but the original trilogy is something which hasn't happened yet. Every time Princess Leia or Moff Tarkin or, yes, the big guy with the black cape and the breathing problem come on stage we fans look back to Star Wars but the heroes look forward to adventures yet to come. Kanan, the aging not-quite Jedi, remembers the massacre of the Jedi Knights from Attack of the Clones: 14 years ago, from his point of view; 11 from ours. Princess Leia looks much as she did in Episode IV, which is 40 years ago from our point of view, but still in our hero's future. And most interestingly, in series 2, running the Rebellion is none other than Ahsoka Tano.

Who the hell is Ahsoka Tano? If you missed out on Clone Wars, then you won't know that Anakin had an apprentice: at first, as reckless and irresponsible as he was; but by the end, a wise and noble warrior. She walked out of the Jedi Order in the final series of Clone Wars in 2012, which is to say, 18 years ago. 

Whoah, Andrew. A minute ago you were complaining that the Star Wars comic was focusing on characters who were never in the movies. Now you are excited because an older version of a character from one cartoon series has turned up in a different cartoon series?

Yeah. It's a matter of how you do it, I suppose. I had a hundred a twenty episodes in which to get used to Ahsoka; and it helps that the cartoon series offered a more convincing picture of the Clone Wars than either of the movies that referenced them. And I am more inclined to buy into Ahsoka's presence in Rebels, because a confrontation between "the Sith Lord" and his former apprentice is an intrinsically interesting set up; just the kind of thing that ought to be happening in Star Wars. We've never seen someone who knew and liked Anakin Skywalker confronting him as Darth Vader before. (When Obi-Wan confronted Darth Vader, Anakin Skwalker didn't exist; not in that sense.)
The little boy from Episode I who is addressed as "grandfather" in Episode VII; the young, comic relief character ("Snips") in on cartoon who is also the mature, tragic leader in another; characters who look back on previous movies as parts of of their youth or as parts of a past known only from folklore...

It would be silly and over the top to say that Star Wars is about time and memory; Remembrance of Things Past considered as a weekly cartoon strip. But remind me: what are the first words of the caption that appears at the beginning of ever Star Wars movie? 

Trailer

The Binary Suns motif taps out on a tinkly instrument: a piano or a harpsichord or some such. The same only different. 

We are following someone into the Rebel Base; walking behind her. 

(The Rebel Base on Yavin; the actual Rebel Base on Yavin, with all the technicians and X-Wings and droids Is Biggs there, for example? I bet he is, even if we can't see him.)

The back view of a character is familiar to anyone who has ever played a third person computer game. "Identify with this character" it says "She will have a little bit of individuality, but she's basically just your avatar in the virtual world." 

Note also the lens flare. Computer games love lens flare even though no actual lenses are harmed during the making of computer games. Lens flare says “documentary”. It says "this isn’t a thing we made, this is a thing being shot, by some camera man embedded with the Rebel Alliance".

She is Jyn. She is a woman. She seems to be in handcuffs. The voice over must be an Imperial Officer reading out a charge sheet. She must be some kind of criminal who the Rebels have rescued. 

There is a flashback. Another market. Another heroine. Another hood. She is shooting Stormtroopers. Stormtroopers used to fall over politely when they were shot. Now they are propelled across the landscape. 

There is stuff which everyone can see; everyone who has ever been to the movies; everyone who has ever been inside a toyshop. X-Wings; the Death Star; Stormtroopers; Walkers. They are what tell us that this is Star Wars. You could make a movie about someone going to the shops to buy some potatoes and if there were Stormtroopers, Walkers, Death Stars and X-Wings you would still know it was Star Wars. 

And then there is stuff which only the fans can see. Not so much a dog whistle as a little pat on the head. The person talking to Jyn is Mon Mothma. Mon Mothma is the leader of the Rebellion. She appeared for a few seconds during Return of the Jedi and even fewer seconds during Revenge of the Sith. And now she is talking to a lady called Jyn in the actual secret rebel base on Yavin from Star Wars. Good fan. Have a treat.

We always knew that the Death Star was the sort of thing you could mistake for a small moon; but the beauty shot of the small-tiny Star Destroyers passing in front of it… It sort of sums up the ever escalating scale that Star Wars was about but never quite had the special effects for.

The Death Star. The actual Death Star. The Death Star from Star Wars, only awesome. 

The very first thing we knew about Star Wars was that Rebel Spies had managed to steal plans to Death Star in capital letters, and that they did this while Rebel Spaceships were winning their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, also in capital letters. That was all we knew about the Galaxy, and all we needed to know. 

Someone stole the plans and gave the to Leia, who gave them to R2D2, who gave them to Luke, who gave them to that guy with the beard at the end of Star Wars. Is there any reason at all why it shouldn't be a lady called Jyn? Revenge of the Sith ended with C3P0 and R2D2 on the Ship from scene one of Star Wars, which is to say, the Rebel Blockade Runner, which is to say the Tantive IV. Is there any reason why Rogue One should not end with Jyn handing the Plans of the Death Star to Princess Leia? 

How much back-story be piled onto one film before it breaks? Robin Hood can always play another trick on another fat monk. Ishmael can never be seen to go on another whaling voyage?

We do not know, at this stage, if Jyn is the hero of the movie; or merely the one that the first trailer has decided to focus on. At least four other characters appear in the montage: 

White Guy With Mustache. 
Asian Guy With Stick. 
Bald Black Guy.
Guy With Beard and Plaits.

Trailers have a structure as fixed and invariable as the Journey of the Hero itself. No longer is there a booming voice saying “It was a TIME of heroes” or “Never before in the history of motion pictures..."
Instead, you get clips of dialogue playing over one or two scenes from the film: enough to tell you a tiny fragment of the story. And then, quickly, and totally without context, a montage of other characters and scenes, and another bit of dialogue which sums up what the story is About. Unfortunately, the story is never About “dinosaurs” or “gangsters” or “huge great space stations the size of a planet”. The story is always About family, or love, or how one man must choose. 

It seems that Bald Black Guy is Jyn’s mentor. He is the one who gets to announce what the film is About. 

"What. Will. You. Do. If they catch you. Whatwillyoudoiftheybreakyou? If you continue to fight. What will you. Become!” 

That’s the important question. What will you. Become? How will delivering the plans to Princess Leia affect you personally.``

Tell us, Jyn, tell us, about the personal journey you’ve been on.

*
It was been widely reported that Star Wars fans were unhappy that the protagonist of Rogue One is a lady. 

This is not true. 

Anyone who noticed the sex and/or gender of the main character was by definition not a Star Wars fan. The only possible reaction a Star Wars fan could possibly have had to the trailer was "bloody hell it's the actual Death Star and it's huge" with a possible side order of "AT-AT walkers! AT-AT walkers. I had one of those on my bedroom floor when I was a kid." The people who were unhappy about the protagonist being a lady are male supremacist nut jobs pretending to be Star Wars fans. They are cross about a lady having a big part in Star Wars because they are always cross about ladies having big parts in anything, on general principles.

The highest female representation in a Star Wars film to date was Episodes II and III in which 33% of the main characters are female. Rogue One seems broadly in line with the Original Trilogy and the Force Awakens, with four male characters to one female. No Star Wars movie has had more than one woman in a major heroic role. If one wanted to have a sensible discussion about gender balance, one would have to say “Boys feel intimidated if there is more than one girl in the team; the film makers can see that this is a problem and are trying to get round it by allowing the one permitted girl to be team captain."  (**)

When I saw Jyn, I did not think “Oh oh oh she is a lady there will never again be another movie with a male hero, I am undone,  its plickle kreckness gone mad.” 

But there was a small part of me which thought: “Oh oh oh she is an orphan loner who lives by her wits in alien markets and gets into trouble and breaks the rules and says ‘Yes Sir’ in a sarcastic voice. Which is quite close to Rey the orphan loner who lives by her wits in alien junk yards and Ezra the orphan loner who lives by his wits in alien markets, but quite a long way from Luke the restless young man who wants to go to the academy.”

That's the story that the trailer seems to be telling us. An unorthodox rebellious soldier, quite unsuited to the military. An old mentor, who has to teach her discipline, not realising that she is actually showing him that imagination and rule breaking isn’t such a bad thing after all. 

In short the plot of every war movie you’ve ever seen; ever Dirty Dozen movie; every Rogue Cop film. J.J Abrams even turned Star Trek into the story of an unorthodox, rebellious Captain entirely unsuited to any kind of military career. 

By all means, show us the rebels striking from their hidden fortress. By all means, show us the Death Star from an new angle and Walkers from the perspective of the troops on the ground. But please, don’t try to show us “the reality of war”. 

This will be a film, say director Gareth Edwards, in which "good guys are bad and bad guys are good". I could hardly come up with a more precise definition of what Star Wars is not. I’d honestly rather see the film about people buying potatoes.


(*) A former associate of Han Solo, and a rogue archaeologist who worked with Darth Vader in a different comic.

(**)

IV: Luke, Han, Chewie, Ben / Leia 20%
V and VI: Luke, Han, Chewie, Lando / Leia 20%
I: Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Anakin / Amidala 25%
II and III: Obi-Wan, Anakin / Amidala 33%
VII: Poe, Finn, Han, Chewie / Rey 20%
Clone Wars: Anakin, Obi-Wan / Ahsoka 33%
Rebels: Kanaan, Ezra, Zeb / Hera, Sabine 40%



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4 comments:

AndrewSshi said...

Andrew, I love your writing on Star Wars because it hits at the paradox at the heart of the "Star Wars Saga." Star Wars is kids playing at grown-ups having adventures. When you try to imagine that it's part of a universe that keeps going when you turn it off, it gets... incoherent. It's the problem with the Extruded Universe, may it rest in peace, and it's a problem with Disney's New Extruded Universe.

But then, the old EU was never *really* about world-building, ancient insectoid empires notwithstanding. It was just the heroes continuing to have adventures one after another. To say, "Man, isn't this nonstop warfare bad for the civilians of the Galaxy?" would be like asking how the African Natives of a Tarzan movie felt about being drawn into a global market by European imperialism. It's just a backdrop against which to have adventures.

That's why the EU was always silliest when supplemental materials attempted to explain how any of the politics, physics, etc. actually *worked.*

This is all very rambly and just my way of saying, Andrew, you're right.

apophasis said...

"Is there any reason why Rogue One should not end with Jyn handing the Plans of the Death Star to Princess Leia? "

Well, because Darth Vader tells us that the plans were beamed to Tantive IV?

A. L. Brackett said...

When I saw the title I could not help but think... Attack of the Clones?

However, I do not see that much correlation between Jan and Rey. They booth may have had rough childhoods, but that would seem to me to be all they have in common. Jan appears to be jaded and cynical and not entirely scrupulous. Rey on the other hand is optimistic and has a strong sense of justice. Its hard to imagine Rey mocking an authority figure, she practically hero worships a faux resistance fighter of no apparent rank almost as soon as she meets him. She has no apparent guile and basks in a childlike wonder at the universe. I would say she is closer to Luke; both were stuck in situations they were not particularly thrilled with but stuck with it out of a sense of family loyalty, and both had the obstacle removed in a rather traumatic way, and both responded to the obstacle being removed by...ok that is where the analogy breaks down, but till then I think it worked pretty well.

Mike Taylor said...

AndrewSshii writes: "That's why the EU was always silliest when supplemental materials attempted to explain how any of the politics, physics, etc. actually *worked.*"

Oh, this is so, so nearly a perfect comment on the Brexit "debate".