Saturday, December 22, 2018

It’s about character: the two-for-one official Black Owl review of “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” and “Aquaman.”

December has been an uncharacteristically busy month for superhero films and I as I have seen three in the last three weeks! I am not going to get into a review of ‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ here, but to be fair many of the things I have to say about ‘Aquaman’ and ‘Into the Spiderverse’ actually do apply. 

Sorry Wade; next time.

These movies all work because of two things: One, they absolutely present the character as the character was intended; Two, they are in no way ashamed of their comic book roots, understanding exactly what makes such story telling great in the first place. Potential spoilers from here on out.

‘Spiderverse’ leans so far into it’s comic roots, the production actually created new methods of animation to present the visuals on screen like they might appear in four-color newsprint. I was occasionally distracted by this when color wouldn’t always line up with the line work, something that rarely detracts on a printed page, but seems to be more like a blur when it motion.

Is that Kirby Crackle? Yes, yes it is.
That is however my sole complaint about what may be one of the best written superhero movies our current Golden-Age of superhero movies have given us. We meet Miles Morales, a teenager whose cop dad and medical-professional mom kind of set him up to be a person who has to help. The awkwardness of teenage years though often get in his way, and there is that cool Uncle (who may be up to no good…very up to no good) he’d rather hang out with. Add to this the bite from a genetically altered spider, and you have a prime, modern reimagining of the 1960s version of the Peter Parker story. A good movie would just give us that; this GREAT film however is still leaning into that source material.

We see the Kingpin (and the stylized version of the character is both simple and dramatically sinister) wants to reach into another universe to recover love and family lost. In the process, he manages to kill the Spider-Man Miles knows, (voiced with aplomb by Chris Pine; stick around to the end of the credits to hear a sample of his Christmas album, “Spidey-Bells”) and bring several flavors of Spider-Hero into this world.  Miles collides with all of them on his hero’s journey, while discovering his own family in a way he had not thought possible. 

Pictured Center: Guy I can understand.

All of the character work here is great, as each Spidey has to deal with their own tragedy that led them to the suit. Spider-Woman (popularly called Spider-Gwen in fandom) is given a great role here, but perhaps I most commiserate with the middle-aged Peter Parker from Earth 616. A few too many pizzas, a little too much letting ‘work’ get in the way of his relationship with Mary Jane. He’s the smart-ass Spidey we all knew, but with 25 years of baggage, and as all of the Spider-folk here, he is a perfect distillation of his character, filtered into our modern world.

And I haven’t even talked about Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham yet.

We never do really know why his hand is wet.
We walk out with an incredibly human story where we sympathize and empathize and can see ourselves up on that screen with a Spidey-flavor for all viewers.  The live-action Spider-Man films have been all up and down the quality spectrum, with some pretty good ones out there, but I think I have to say ‘Spiderverse’ is the best foray into the Spider-world we have gotten yet.

‘Aquaman’ does the exact opposite and takes a man, making him more than human. And that’s exactly how it should be. The difference in these movies perfectly illustrates to me what the difference was between classic Marvel comics and classic DC comics. Marvel gives you characters who are YOU in extraordinary circumstances.  I identify with Peter trying to do the right thing and stay out of trouble with Aunt May.  I identify with Bruce Banner unable to control his anger and suffering the terrible consequences thereof. I identify with Tony Stark, his arrogance, and his flaws, as he still has to get it together and do the right thing. DC on the other hand gives us gods, archetypes to which we aspire. Superman as the archetype of hope. Batman as the archetype of justice.  Flash as the archetype of kindness. Wonder Woman as the archetype of peace. Aquaman as the archetype of a king.

Marvel heroes to identify with, DC heroes to aspire to; that’s what drives the readers’ preference. Marvel movies figured this out early and have ten years of success. I have felt for years the DCEU mistook those human factors for why the Marvel movies worked and tried to emulate that. Hence, we get a depressed Superman, troubled by his place as a hero. A Batman who has given in to human foible and left behind justice for vengeance, killing indiscriminately.  Wonder Woman in BvS, who no longer works for peace, but just roams the world mourning Steve Trevor and WWI.

Thankfully, the movie ‘Wonder Woman’ broke this pattern, and gave us Diana as the archetype again. Luckily, ‘Aquaman’ does the same thing, calling on its source material, and recognizing those old DC comics were the mythology of the modern world.

As I understand, this picture will quench anyone's thirst.
Not everyone will appreciate that about ‘Aquaman.’ The film’s story follows the old Joseph Campbell “hero’s journey” almost slavishly, taking Arthur Curry from the call, to the ordeal, to the black moment, to the descent and resurrection, etc. Anyone who has studied mythology through this lens will find no surprises in this story. For me however, that is exactly how an archetype should be built, and the strength of the movie lies in getting this pattern right.

Along the way, we get some very corny dialogue, and some of the most over-the-top production design you are likely to see. From weaponized sharks to Lovecraftian horrors of the Trenches below the sea, everything is cranked up to eleven.

And that’s EXACTLY the bold, outrageous, mythology-level storytelling I want from DC. Arthur is a boorish man-child who goes through all the trials to become a God-King; the fulfillment of prophecy and destiny; precisely the origin story a King of Atlantis deserves.

I would not mind a spin-off.
Along the way we do get some good updates. Mera is a delight, and the agent of Arthur’s salvation more than once. The villains, Ocean Master and Black Manta, do have a point, allowing us to sympathize a bit with their motivations if not their actions. The re-imagining of the undersea kingdom is stunning, and would have been impossible to render on screen just a few years ago.  Each scene that takes place underwater actually feels like you are underwater.

I would not mind a spin-off.
Though I do have to admit there was a moment I hoped a certain character would sing “Shiny” from the ‘Moana’ soundtrack; Tamatoa, is that you?
Aquaman Spoiler out of context.

So in the end we get two movies that are completely different in tone, but each work for this long time comic fan because they both completely understand, accept, and rejoice in their source material.  I hope it’s a lesson that Warner Brothers takes to heart, and in the future they continue to give us Deities in capes to whom we can aspire, while Marvel (and apparently now Sony too) shows us how we normal folks can find ways to be super too. ‘Aquaman’ and “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” hitting all together like this has made up for my lack of a Star Wars movie this holiday season.

And you, Wade. And you.

Thursday, June 28, 2018


It’s 1982; I am 10, and my brother is going on a trip and my folks are going to watch his daughters for him. To help keep them occupied, he loans us this magical new device called a “Video Cassette Recorder.” We knew VCRs existed, but here was this magical device that allowed you to watch and rewatch movies.  We didn’t even have cable at the time. The only problem was the movies he lent us for that week were kids’ movies. Luckily, my dad knew an unsavory character.The neighbor down the street was not just the type of bastard who raised Pitt Bulls as fighting dogs, he was also a movie bootlegger.  My dad, risking reputation, went down to “Rick’s” house and came back having borrowed about a dozen little brown rectangles, all of which contained an actual movie. My parents set out to watch as many as they could. We were poor.  And by “poor” I mean we lived in a one bedroom trailer in Southern Arizona and I slept on the couch.  So, one morning my dad gets up to watch a movie early while my nieces were still asleep in sleeping bags on the floor, and I wake up and lay there on the couch while he sits in his self-built plywood, throne-like leisure chair to watch “A Boy and His Dog,” starring Don Johnson (Miami Vice had not happened yet) and Suzanne Benton. It is a twisted little story about a young man and his intelligent psychic dog wandering the post-World War IV wasteland looking for women.  It is the first R-Rated movie I ever saw, and it left an indelible impression.

It’s 1983 and I have discovered I love Star Trek more than Star Wars. My source of Star Trek is the local video store from which we rent video discs (we’ve ALMOST moved into modern home entertainment at that point) and they have the entire classic Trek series, two episodes per disc.  I see “City on the Edge of Forever” for the first time.  While reading fan materials, I find out the original story was very different, and there was controversy around a man named Harlan Ellison. I begin to look up his other work, only to find he wrote the original novel for “A Boy and His Dog.”  He hated the movie’s ending.  I read the novel, and begin to understand the real differences creative vision can bring to things. 

It’s 1989, and I am dating the girl of my dreams.  She’s cute, she’s smart, and puts up with the fact I am not only a huge nerd, but trying to learn how to write myself.  Best of all, her dad like me too. He likes the fact I can quote Clarke and Asimov and the greatest of them all, Bradbury. From an extensive collection hands me a copy of Harlan Ellison’s “Deathbird Stories.” I read it all in one night.

It’s 2013 and I am about to publish my own collection of short stories. I have to pay tribute to the two writers who have influenced me the most in that medium, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. One is a muse of light and possibility who gave me the gift of rockets and the joys of the everyday miracle.  The other is a master of pragmatism and darkness who gave me the gift of indicting tyranny, of calling out cruelty, of using the dark to shed light. I portray them as gods on my shoulder whispering in each ear as I desperately try to claim even a spark of their fires as my own.
It’s 2018 and I am sitting at work and I get a text from a friend that Harlan Ellison has died. The Master has passed in his sleep in an age when his direst warnings have come true, and we need his voice to censure the rancorous. But he’s gone, and we have to carry on in his place.  I am still trying to nurture the fire he sparked in my head and heart, but I have not come close.

We will never do what he did as well as he did, but the best memorial we can give him is to try. My condolences to his family, and to the rest of us who now have to live in a world post-Harlan Ellison.
“The trick is not becoming a writer; the trick is staying a writer.” –Harlan Ellison

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Cup of Star Wars: The Official Black Owl Review of "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

I will give you a quick spoiler free bit here before I dig into the weeds.  Solo is a delightfully entertaining film full of nostalgia, fan service, some deep dives into the old Expanded Universe, and a pastiche of genres including heist, film noir, western, and even a little cyberpunk. The supporting characters are mostly a delight, and it manages to both give some surprises and pretty much be exactly what you hoped for. It is not flawless, but it is well worth your time if you are even a casual Star Wars fan, and I would imagine stands on its own pretty well as a space romp.  Assuming anyone out there who likes space romps could be unfamiliar with Star Wars.


The thing that most worried me about Solo was something that it turns out was the least problematic: the recasting of Han Solo. I was not familiar with Alden Ehrenreich’s previous work, but he manages to capture all the cocksure swagger we need to see in a young Han (who is given his last name by an Imperial recruiter when Han tells him he has no family) with enough of an echo of Harrison Ford to be convincing, but no so much as to come off like parody. The interaction between Han and Chewbacca (particularly an early conversation in Shyiiwook) is a delight throughout.  Ehrenreich and Joonas Suotamo (who steps into Peter Mayew’s enormous shoes) bring their characters to life wonderfully, and I never doubted this was Han and Chewie, right down to the replicated scar on Alden's chin. 

Donald Glover also does a very credible job giving us a legacy role, and he’s just one Colt 45 away from being a young Billy Dee Williams; suave, shifty, and notorious, Lando is also a pleasure.

New characters also get their best feet forward, particularly with Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s L3-37. Both help us expand the Star Wars universe a little further.  There’s nothing wrong with Emilia Clarke’s performance; Qi’ra was just hard to connect with for me, though that is entirely in line with the character (and the eventual reveal of her true loyalties), and in no way Ms. Clarke’s fault. 

The big surprise character moment for me was actually Enfys Nest. Initially presented as a marauding pirate with her “Cloud Riders,” the Mad Max influence is evident (which in my mind called me back to the “Phasma” novel and her home world of Parnassas…will there be a connection?), when the warrior removes her mask to reveal a woman who can’t be more than 20 I gasped audibly. When it turns out she is actually intending to fund a nascent Rebellion against the Imperial system (further evidenced by the appearance of one of the Two-Tubes brothers who will later work with Saw Gerrera in Rogue One) I cheered. Sure, a Glover as Lando sequel would be great: but I will take Enfys Nest: A Star Wars Storyany day of the week. The unmasked Erin Kellyman completely holds her own on screen, and given her character’s surprise connection to the early Rebels, I would be quite curious to see how Enfys relates to Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, or even later Saw Gerrera. She is now on top of my spin off wishlists.

The plot moves at a good clip with plenty of action, and the type of theme resonance we should get in a Star Wars film. It’s a good look at the underbelly of the Empire that has been the purview of the cartoon and ancillary materials until now, and it was nice to see on the big screen. As much as I lamented not treating Star Wars like the big winter event it has been the last three years, this is a summer movie, and came out right when I needed it.

So, what’s wrong with it? Some of the cuts for me felt odd from a technical standpoint, almost like Ron Howard had to work with footage from the previous directors and try to make it fit. There are a couple of scenes that jarred me when the camera switched angles and forced me to reorient to see what I was looking at. A less minor quibble I have though is the waste of three great characters.

Early on we meet Thandie Newton’s Val, and John Favreau’s Rio who are part of Beckett’s crew, and Val is romantically involved with Tobias. More importantly, she’s a fantastically competent character both charming and dangerous who we get comfortable with rather quickly…and then has to blow herself up. Rio is very well written, providing some good comedic timing while every line reveals a trait about his character…so he can be shot in the back after about 10 minutes of screen time. 

It doesn’t stop there, the delightfully liberated L3-37, who is a champion of droid rights and quirky as well dies sadly in Lando’s arms after about 20 minutes of screen time. She has this great scene with Qi’ra where the droid says life with Lando is awkward because he’s in love with her, and we chalk that up to her odd personality, but when she’s in danger, it really does seem Lando has romantic feelings toward her. That’s something I want to see explored, I wanted to see all of these characters explored some more, but alas they are gone. I am not saying we need a deathless movie, but it was jarring to lose them before they were fully explored, and it left me with the wrong kind of “wanting more.”

Beyond all of that however, this is a really entertaining piece of Star Wars that I would like to think will not be subject to the “Not What I Wanted” gripes of those who disliked The Last Jedi. This one is ripped right out of the lore, steeped in Lucas EU, and by the Force even features a reference to Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu. I felt like we were about to be treated to Jaxxon from Marvel Comics any minute.

You say his name, he appears.
So, a really fun addition, though by no means a melodramatic blockbuster. Very interested though to see where some ideas brought to the fore here (Maul and Qi’ra???) are going. I’ll definitely hit the theater at least once more to take this in and look forward to seeing it at home on blu-ray.

Hopefully right around the time they announce Enfys Nest: A Star Wars Story.

(all images property of Disney and Lucasfilm)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Long Road, Getting from There to Here: One middle-aged Trekkie’s look at “Star Trek: Discovery.”

With the exception of a few tweets here and there, I have been mostly pretty quiet about DISCO (a nickname I love, by the way), as I have wanted to let it play out before I cast full judgement.  Looking at TNG or DS9, both had pretty lackluster first seasons before they went on to greatness. Indeed, TNG, like ENT later, found it’s stride really in the 3rd season in my opinion.  I find myself now additionally glad I waited because DISCO is not structured like any series that went before it. The story is so continuous, these 15 episodes are really structured like one long episode with a teaser and four acts.  

And, much as the pilots of previous Trek series spend the first three acts building the problem before we see our crews gel to fix it, DISCO delivers its story the same way; but in this case, that means it is in episode 13, “What’s Past is Prologue” that we get that moment when we are reminded this is a Star Trek show, and this is a crew united in great purpose.  I know people who checked out after the pilot episodes (“The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”) as the show was too dark, didn’t feel right, and seemed to project some pretty non-Trek themes.  They were correct; but those TWO episodes are just the teaser before the credits in my model, or Sisko’s flashback to Wolf 359 in the DS9 pilot. The show continues to be dark in places after that, but indeed it is building, and when its pieces fall into place it is satisfyingly Star Trek.  But you have to watch them all.

So that non-Spoilery summary being there, I do recommend the show, and I will get into greater detail why in a moment. I am not going to discuss CBS and their model for distribution.  I think there are valid complaints about it, in particular when it would have problems streaming, or the service didn’t quite offer all that it was supposed to.  I am just here to talk about the show; and that show is very well written, delightfully well performed and produced, and despite taking its time, certainly finds itself a worthy if imperfect addition to the Star Trek universe. I would certainly hop on the Discovery for more adventures, and I hope we see them soon.

Now, let’s get straight to the biscuits; there is something old time Trekkies like me are going to have to accept in order to watch the show.  The producers, so far as I can tell now (and it is possible there will be some in-universe multiverse answer in later seasons), consider story to be canon, but not visual aesthetics.  So, when we see this complete re-design on the Klingons, the idea is just these are Klingons. When we see a Constitution Class at the end of the show and it does not look like the original Matt Jefferies design, well that’s just what they look like in this show; it’s intended to be the same ship. I know visual continuity is important to a lot of fans, and if you don’t think you can put it aside for the story, perhaps DISCO is not for you. I will admit I still struggle with seeing these Klingons as “Klingons.” I also understand that it’s the 21st Century and a new audience is not going to watch something that looks like it’s ten years older than a show produced in the mid 1960s.  

One might argue that they should not have done a prequel then. I would agree if not for the great context they manage to bring to events we thought we knew. Yes, we seem to have traded human looking Klingons suffering from the Augment Virus for Lou Gossett Jr. from “Enemy Mine,” but we gain an incredible look into Sarek’s household and his relationship with Spock that left me reeling.  We see why it seems Starfleet is so small in TOS, though it was much bigger in ENT and later in TNG. We see why Kirk and crew are so adamant about how vicious the Klingons must be in “Errand of Mercy.” In the end the benefits outweigh the lack of visual continuity, and the show does look fantastic.

Mostly.  I did spend the first few episodes wishing the Klingons felt more kinetic. Choosing to do all of their dialogue in Klingon is bold, but it made for some very slow scenes for a while.  Also, I am not very enamored of the Starships we see on the show, with the exception of the Discovery, which I love, and the Constitution Class that shows up at the end.  Oh, all right, we’re in spoiler territory: It’s the Enterprise. I like their update of the Enterprise. The Klingon ships to me look clunky and not at all predatory enough. I think I would have preferred something like the Kelvin Timeline battlecruisers (or Klingons for that matter) or an update to the great old Jefferies design closer to what they do with the Enterprise. 

Beyond that however, set design, costume design, props, makeup; all superb.  Doug Jones brings a great alien-ness to Saru, and I do have to credit Mary Chieffo for the performance she gives through layers of new Klingon makeup.  We do see a world that is based on but not beholden to a fifty year old version of the 23rd century; we see a 23rd Century that looks like a future conceived today.  That may be a tough sell for some people, but I chose to take it, and I am glad I did.

The story overall is very good with themes and character development intertwining through multiple storylines.  There are some twists, but I have to say with rare exception, I saw them all coming.  I won’t claim any rare gift, and in retrospect there were subtle clues I did miss, but the reveals of Tyler being Voq, Lorca being from the Mirror Universe, and Georgiou being Terran Emperor all seemed pretty obvious. However, each actors’ performance regarding these revelations was fantastic. In particular the way Shazad Latif transforms his demeanor and voice between Tyler and Voq was astounding. Truly great performance.  And that is saying a lot on a show full of great performances.

If I have any other gripe though, it is probably just me being a complaining old man. I think I should be able to put on any Star Trek and let my grandkids wander through the room. Network and syndicated standards and practices have kept most of Trek at that level of accessibility. Streaming allowed for some gore here that would be a little strong for my Granddaughter, and of course Cadet Tilly’s “fucking cool,” “those assholes,” and a “shit” there at the end. Except for the f-bomb, I can get past the others, but for me “fucking cool” just felt wedged in because they could. I did however really adore Tilly as a character and May Wiseman did deliver the best and most heartfelt comedy on the show. She was an absolute find by casting, and the many phases of Tilly hair did always keep me guessing! Seriously though, her ability to portray naiveté and nerves while still delivering her knowledge with a bit of brass and confidence of someone who will grow into an amazing officer, was fantastic.  Captain Tilly will one day be as badass as Captain Killy, but she’ll have the heart to go with it (more on that in a moment). 

So another little something bothering me is the death of Hugh Culber. The matter-of-fact presentation of Culber and Stamets’ marriage made up for a gaping representation hole in Star Trek, and their relationship was palpable right down to their little photon toothbrushes. I bought every minute of them as a couple, and really looked forward to the moments they shared onscreen.  It is an effective “oh shit!” moment when Tyler snaps Hugh’s neck, and when Stamets later confronts Tyler over it, I wanted to weep at how well Anthony Rapp conveys his sorrow while holding on to his own humanity in response. Producers have mentioned that Culber’s death does not just mean the standard “kill a gay guy” trope, and I hope that proves correct. I would love to see the Doctor and the Mycologist reunited, but I am not sure it’s something that can be pulled off in a plausible way. Of course, the mycelial network works in mysterious ways.  As much as I have reserved judgement on a few things until this season is done, perhaps I need to hold out  a little longer for some others. After all, ENT waited until season 4 to have their Vulcans really make sense. 

Other things I would praise include Rainn Wilson’s appearances as Harry Mudd, and the plethora of easter eggs scattered throughout the show.  But I really need to talk about Jason Isaacs as Lorca. Indeed, the more I have thought about his character and the eventual reveal of him being from the Mirror Universe, the more I have actually thought of a different TOS episode being revisited: “The Enemy Within.”

One of the points that older episode makes is that Kirk is ineffectual as a commander without the wolf inside. The compassion of the lamb must have the jaws of the wolf to back it up, but so does the predator need the feeling of mercy to temper it. That’s a fascinating statement to make 50 years ago, and honestly one that holds up. In an age where we are as divided as a society as we have ever been, it may be true that a nation of the meek cannot stand, but a nation of wolves would be monsters.  Finding the balance, the compromise is the better way forward.  Watching Discovery, and especially looking back at earlier episodes now knowing the eventual motivation of Captain Lorca, it is interesting to note that despite some horrible acts (mostly in abandoning people like Mudd and Admiral Cornwell where mercy should have been in evidence) he is a good Captain. He wants the best from his crew, he does forge them into people who will survive the war. The right actions for the wrong purposes.  It is an interesting dichotomy that certainly sets the stage for Kirk a decade later referring to himself as “a soldier” or “admit that we’re killers,” or dealing with his wolf when torn asunder from his sheep. We can say the more diplomatic Jean-Luc Picard has evolved beyond that, but we see the steel of violence in him when he needs it. Hell, Sisko punched Q. Back to Discovery, I found Lorca’s character fascinating for this reason, and Jason Isaacs really brings it in his performance. I would imagine even Mirror Lorca had a part in the growth of the future Captain Tilly, and man I’m hoping that’s a movie we get someday.

So despite some reservations (though I can’t think of a Star Trek for which I don’t have a few of those), the first season of Discovery has surprised me in how much I have come to like it. I can see where some very die hard folks won’t be able to get past the shifting aesthetics or the suddenly curvier Enterprise, but it took me a few years to realize that Star Trek was not about starships. It’s not the quality of the set, it’s the heart of the content and despite some slips and starts, the Discovery crew has the heart of Star Trek on its sleeve. I can’t ask for more than that.

Well, maybe some Kelpien soup too.

 (All images property CBS)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Saving what you Love: The Official Black Owl Review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

I want to start by describing the evening of Thursday, 14 December 2017 to you.  After a nice dinner, my wife Jennifer and I, along with her parents Rick and Anne, our daughter Hannah, and Hannah’s girlfriend Bree, went to the theater for a 7PM showing of “The Last Jedi.”  We watched the film, and as it is two and a half hours long, when it was over, most of the crew went to compete for the line to the restroom, while Hannah and I watched the credits.  (I have an Instagram buddy who did work on the film, and I wanted to see a name in SW Blue whom I actually knew- shoutout to Julianne!) We emerged from the theater, sharing a dad/daughter moment, arm in arm and all smiles, simply blown away by what we had just experienced.  We found our crew, also similarly impressed, exchanged a comment with my brilliant Mother-in-Law that this was not just a great Star Wars film but a great film on its own merits, and we all cheerfully went home.

My first sign of trouble came when another friend of mine, an avowed fan and collector (Shoutout to Aaron!) messaged me describing how awful the film was.  I actually thought he was joking, and asked him as much.  Nope, he was really put off by the movie.  

I was sorry to hear that, but I posted my standard Facebook “Spoiler-free mini review” as follows:

This movie defied every expectation I had for almost every character, and I am not sure I could love it more. Very pleased to have tickets to a second viewing already.

Then, I opened the internet and looked into a fandom civil war the likes of which a Galaxy far, far away had never seen.  There was rage against the film, name calling in support of the film, feelings of betrayal, messages of astonishment at the achievement.  It was rare I saw a mediocre comment; it was either adoration or vitriol.  “Star Wars,” always full of passionate, expressive, and opinionated fans, and become as divisive as American politics.  I always expect there to be naysayers, and I can see where there might be pushback against things this film does, in particular with the character of Luke Skywalker, but I was blindsided by how divided it was, and the lines I saw divisions forming along.  

I watched the film the next day, eager to look past the giddyness of a first time viewing that might have skewed my opinion toward a more positive look than the film deserved, and instead the movie worked like a wine that has been allowed to breathe for a while before drinking- more texture, more subtlety, more nuance came to the surface, and I walked out of my second viewing even more sure I had just witnessed something truly amazing from a storytelling perspective, but also more sure that the things that made me love this movie were going to be impediments to others, and I would never convince some of my dear friends how great this actually was.  And though I do see people out there who are hating because it’s fashionable, or because their delicate man-sensitivities were offended by the fact women have to save a lot of men from their own mistakes in this story, or just because their deeply developed “who is Rey” or “who is Snoke” theory fell through, I also see people, who love what Star Wars has meant to them their whole lives, and legitimately can’t fit what happens here into their paradigm.  Given what this film does to expectation, given the risks this movie takes to unfold its story, I can honestly understand their reasoning, though I completely disagree with it.  It doesn’t make me a better fan than them, or them better fans than me (it’s my love of the Holiday Special that makes me a better or worse fan, we all know that), but I am legitimately sad there are people whom I normally spend hours chatting about what we love about Star Wars with that I can’t do that with regarding “The Last Jedi.”  They aren't wrong.  We can both look at the sky and see it's blue, and some people love that color and some people don't.  That's taste.  

Yes, I know plenty of people who loved it, but it does force me to wonder if the fact the film is so divisive is something that should be held against it, regardless of the movie’s quality (I hear some of you already saying yes).  But in the end, I will be exploring this movie for years to come, and we might all be looking at this as a turning point in Star Wars lore, even more than the Prequel Trilogy did.  I am sorry as a fan that has happened, but I cannot turn away from the fact that this movie stunned, moved, and entertained me, and made me want more Star Wars.  I have to almost liken it to another divisive movie this year, “mother!” which (see my review) I also loved, but can see why people hated it.  There are people I know to whom I cannot recommend “The Last Jedi” (indeed, another good friend and deep SW fan texted me last night in how disappointed he was…and I knew that was coming; shoutout to Eli!) not because they aren’t fans, but because they are, and others to whom I will strongly recommend the film, because they too are fans.

So, a thousand words in, and still not having actually discussed what happens in the movie, I am going to take a lesson from the movie.  I am not going to argue against the criticism I see, but rather, I will “save what I love,” and just give my raw thoughts and feelings on this movie, as removed as I can be from the gestalt of  Star Wars fandom, and just be the 45 year old man who 40 years ago first visited a galaxy far, far away and never quite came back.  The man who spent the last two years digging through cartoons and books and dialogue for clues as to Rey’s origin, or where they were going, or why they were going there, only to find nearly everything I had surmised was wrong, and the truth was both simpler and more complex than anything I had guessed.   Perhaps I’ll do an argument or become a Last Jedi apologist at some point, but not here.  Here I am going to save what I love, because I love The Last Jedi.  It is moving, complex, nuanced, exciting, and far more invested in telling its story than delivering for fans, for better or for worse.  It’s similar to what “The Wrath of Khan” did for Star Trek 30 years ago, breaking all the paradigms to expand the consciousness of what Trek could be and challenging what Trek was to do it, leaving a bigger, better universe in its wake. People forget how vehemently TWOK was hated at the time-to include Gene Roddenberry among its detractors-but time passed and it’s greatness came to be recognized.  I hope that happens someday with this film.  But until then, here is why I loved “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”


Let me start with what I didn’t like, as that’s short.  I think there were missed opportunities to have a deeper tie to the wider Star Wars universe.  “Rogue One” at least acknowledged “Rebels” and it has seemed Rebels was giving us some Easter Eggs that would crack open in “The Last Jedi.”  That does not happen, and I am willing to bet a lot of justified displeasure grows from that.  As a Rebels fan I was hoping we get a little more acknowledgement of what should be a shared universe, but we don’t.  There is some possibility still that Benecio Del Toro’s “DJ” is a future downtrodden Ezra, as he has a matching scar, that for some unfathomable reason they decide to put on the opposite side of his face.  It’s poor sport if Rebels is just being used to create Red Herrings and not feed the universe at large.  Another missed opportunity is the “Master Cracker” Maz Kanata (in a delightful cameo) points them toward on the casino world of Canto Bight, should quite obviously have been Lando Calrissian.  Even in the short cameo, it would have really tied us to the larger universe, and OF COURSE Maz knows Lando, and OF COURSE we find him in a casino.  Real mistake there.  

I wanted to also say that the movie makes the mistake of forgoing the famous “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”  However, it seems that in fact BB8 “says” the line, to have Poe Dameron retort, “Come on, Buddy; happy beeps.”  Those are my hangups, but now let’s get to a lot of what works for me.

The plot is mature, well paced, and complex.  It may be a little inaccessible to some who aren’t expecting, or wanting, that, but it worked for me.  There are plotlines I have seen dismissed as going nowhere, but I think all of them do the only thing more important that moving along story: Developing character.

The biggest thing about these characters that made an impression on me is how they are allowed to make mistakes.  We have to start that discussion with Luke Skywalker, who is almost Jonah in this film.  It would have been easy just to leave him as a bombad Jedi, ready to come back and save the day, but the years have gotten to Luke, old mistakes have taken their toll, and he’s quite broken and pretty much waiting to die when we come upon him.  His quest for the first Jedi temple has not been one for spiritual awakening after the fall of his new Jedi Academy, but rather simply looking for escape.  The same flicker of Darkness that he had to keep in check when he defeated Darth Vader leads to him standing over young Ben Solo with a lightsaber, wondering if he will have to stop that rising darkness in Ben in the worst way possible.  He discards the though almost as quickly as it rose, but the damage is done, and Ben destroys the temple.  Luke hides, unable to face Leia after losing her son in that way.  It’s not the Luke we’re expecting, but it is a powerful character development, and reminds us that he was once just a talented farmboy.  As Rey slowly begins to bring him out, his redemption comes in fits and starts, and there is a major confrontation between the two characters, with her convinced she can save Ben Solo, and him, with some guidance from Yoda (who is a puppet again, yay!) realizing that there is a way he can still help, a way he can set the next generation off on the right path.  One of the big spoilers for this movie is “Luke dies at the end.”  I disagree.  We’ve only seen three Jedi “ascend” to join the Force in the saga: Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin.  In each case, they physically die first before they fade; not Luke Skywalker.  Luke chooses to ascend, sitting up watching a double sunset before his body fades away.  It’s a beautiful moment demonstrating the master Luke is, despite what has happened before.  He leaves behind one Jedi to take his place.

Rey.  Rey is headsure, conflicted, and thinks there may be a way to save Kylo Ren from Snoke.  She also spends this movie going through her own “trial” to become a Jedi, she touches the dark side, sees what it holds for her, but does not give in to its temptation.  Her experiences on Ahch-To have a profound effect on her, as she not only has her own “cave” experience (like Luke in Empire) but begins to touch on the oldest of the Jedi concepts, visualizing the “Prime Jedi,” shown in art on the island, written of in books (which she squirrels away), and a concept that is one with the Force, understanding that light and dark are what you bring to it, while the Force simply is.  She breaks away from perhaps thousands of years of Jedi tradition to understand that- the Force is not light, she is.  And she hopes to shine that light on Kylo Ren.

That goes poorly.   Kylo in this film teases us with redemption, and his killing Snoke is a plot twist I never saw coming until he was turning the lightsaber.  In the true tradition of the Sith, Kylo Ren surpasses his master and kills him.  It is only when he stops trying to be like Darth Vader that he truly becomes a Sith, turning to Rey as a new apprentice, and revealing something that shoots holes in a million theories, and makes the Force far more powerful than we knew: Rey has no special lineage, she is neither Skywalker nor Kenobi, and her parents died drunk on Jakku.  He tells her he is her only path to greatness.  Luckily, she doesn’t buy it.  All of this does make Ren a truly evil character.  Indeed, his belittling of Rey reminds me of the guy who will flirt with a girl, and when she rejects him, tell her how ugly she was anyway, that she has no intrinsic value outside of what he can bestow on her.  It’s ugly, and it ends forever the idea that he will find redemption.  We were never seeing a new Vader in Ren; we were seeing a new Palpatine (though, he’s going to have to up his subterfuge game).  

A quick word about Snoke and Rey’s parentage before I move on.  The Lovely Jennifer pointed out that the scenes in Snoke’s throneroom, his Praetorians, and the resulting, stunning battle, all felt very “Old Republic” to her, and on a second viewing, I could not help but agree.  Though Snoke is dead, it does not necessarily mean his origin won’t be important to future events, and some of the ways he describes the Jedi/Sith conflict point back to thousands of years of experience. Don’t throw out all of your crazy Snoke theories just yet, there may be more to come.  Don’t throw out all your crazy Rey theories either. Though I admire the idea the movie may be saying that you don’t have to be a Skywalker to be significant in the Force, look back at the allegory I used describing Ren and the Revelation.  When a d-bag tells a woman whom he just propositioned that she’s worthless and no one wants her, its a lie.  He is preying on her insecurities.  Perhaps indeed Rey’s parents sold her for drinking money, but perhaps, just perhaps, it’s a lie to keep her from a greater truth.  Keep some of those Rey theories in an old tree in case you need them too.

Meanwhile, in the Resistance: Carrie Fisher is fantastic here and it just underlines how much we will miss her when she can’t be in Episode 9.  We see that you don’t have to be a Jedi to be strong with the Force as she survives in open vacuum and pulls herself to safety like Yondu or Mary Poppins. Her tough love of Poe Dameron plays off beautifully, and I love how the story let’s him make mistakes and then come to his senses later to understand what type of leader he must be.  

Poe’s interaction with Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo is one of the skewered tropes in this movie as we see her as the new leader who simply can’t stand up to the task at first, but along with Poe get our expectations ripped out from under us as we find out she and Leia had a plan all along.  I could argue that had she shared that plan with Poe, some bad things wouldn’t have happened, but also, had Poe listened to what Leia told him and followed her damn orders those bad things wouldn’t have happened either.  (And Holdo’s sacrifice of the Raddus into the First Order ship brought more than a few stunned gasps to both of my viewings.)

 And that brings us to Finn.  It’s his first time conscious since we saw him in The Force Awakens, and he has the same thought that led him to tell the Resistance he could take down Starkiller base’s shields when all he really wanted to do is save Rey.  He is mistaken here for a deserter, but it’s not his own butt he is trying to save, it’s Rey’s.  As the film progresses for him, he comes to understand that doing good for the universe may be his best chance of saving Rey, and he eventually does exactly what he never thought he would do; he walks back into the First Order.  His final battle with Phasma is a delight, though I will certainly miss her character as a villain, she helps him accept what he is: Rebel Scum.

(Though, we see her fall into fire in her full armor which just deflected laser bolts right off the chest.  Maybe we see her again, the exposed part of her face scarred by flames, and still ready to end Finn…Darth Maul got cut in half and dropped down a mile deep shaft, hard to keep a good hater down!)

 But then we have to look at who helps both these guys get better, and in the process learns to be a hero herself: my favorite character in the film, Rose Tico.  In a movie that is painted in shades of grey, there is no moral ambiguity to her.  She practices a little hero worship certainly, and I will allow you to judge what her worship and subsequent judgement of Finn means to the overall message of the film regarding how heroes can be flawed and still be heroes.  She also is willing to dive right into  plan to help save the Resistance fleet, and when it comes to a last stand, jumps right into a speeder to join the fight.  It is her character who delivers the true message of the film: We don’t win by fighting what we hate, but my saving what we love.  I don’t know that I can live up to Rose Tico’s example, but I will certainly aspire to it.  

And that brings us to what this movie tells us all along: Herosim is democratic.  You don’t have to be a Skywalker to be a hero.  Rey doesn’t have to have famous parents.  Rose Tico doesn’t have to be one of the “great heroes of the Resistance” to make a difference.

 We also see that every era will fade into another era.  It’s doesn’t diminish the heroism of the previous generations: Despite what would eventually happen to Anakin, he saved a lot of worlds in the Clone Wars.  Evil rose again.  The Rebels in the Original Trilogy saved the Galaxy, but evil rose again.  It’s not that those things didn’t matter; quite the contrary, the good that DOES get to exist is because people stood up to save that good.  But it is a never ending battle.  Star Wars has always shown us that, from its earliest time.  Destroying the Death Star in “Star Wars” did not destroy the Empire, which soon after struck back.  Winning the Clone Wars did not keep the Sith from rising.  In the EU for years, we still had Imperial remnants rise (The Zahn Trilogy) or new a new Sith Order destroy the Jedi Academy Luke built and reestablish the Empire (Star Wars Legacy, Jedi Academy, the whole Jaina/Jacen Solo story).  Story group editor Pablo Hidalgo recently said something to the effect of the difference between a happy ending and a tragic ending is where you stop the story.  We can stop the story with just episode I and II and claim victory if we want (Yeah, there’s a Clone War, but we have an Army to defeat it, and look!  Anakin and Padme are married!).  We can stop the story at the end of Star Wars, we can stop it at the end of Return of the Jedi.

But in various forms the story has always kept going, and in the end “Star Wars” is going to be about Wars, internal to our heroes and external to the Galaxy.  “The Last Jedi” acknowledges that in ways I didn’t expect, but also shows the struggle to save good is worth it’s own existence.  Never surrender to that.  Be Rebel scum.  And somewhere while you are fighting to save good, there’s a kid with a broom telling your story, and when that kid grows up, they will pick up the baton.

And that, that is hope. Rebellions are built on hope.

Some other small observations:
Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher’s daughter) gets some great screen time as Connix, Resistance member.
Nien Numb!
Rest in peace, Admiral Ackbar.  Caught in his last trap.
BB8 is a beast; the little round guy feels like R2 and Chopper from Rebels bastard child…hmmm.

The flashbacks to Kylo Ren turning on Luke provide two points of view (Obi-Wan would be proud), but also show a dry night, and Kylo defending himself with his own blue lightsaber.  In “The Force Awakens,” in Rey’s vision we see what I had assumed were Kylo and the Knights of Ren descending on the temple.  But there, he’s in full mask and black robes and already has his distinctive hilted red saber.  We don’t hear about the Knights of Ren in this movie at all, and this really now seems like a different event.  An event Rey had a vision of, tied to her ending up with Unkar Platt.  Now, maybe I am wrong, and this is just a discontinuity between JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson (which would be sad, and certainly burn a lot of my goodwill), but it’s part of why I am not yet ready to dispose of my Rey theories; this is the second movie in a Star Wars trilogy.  Remember, Empire left us wondering if Vader was really Luke’s father and who Yoda meant when he said “there is another.”  We don’t find out about Leia until RotJ.  I am willing to bet as much as “The Last Jedi” subverts our expectations, there are still some mysteries floating around to be dealt with in Episode IX.

At least, that’s my hope.  See you in two years.