Note: The movie’s been out a few months now, so any spoilers you stumble across herein are your own damned fault.
I loved Rogue One. It is my favorite movie in the Star Wars franchise short of Empire Strikes Back, just edging out Return of the Jedi for the second spot. A lot of people didn’t like it as much though. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion, but I think the movie deserves an explanation for the root of my glowing praise. So, let me answer the movie’s criticisms with why I feel those perceived weaknesses are actually strengths.
Critique 1: It Didn’t Feel Like a Star Wars Movie
Okay, so Rogue One does not have the same tone or style of the other Star Wars movies. This, of course, was intentional, as this movie is not meant to be exactly like the other Star Wars movies. This is one of its chief advantages, in my opinion.
First off, last week I explained how I felt that Lego Batman was a miserable slog primarily because the source material has been permitted to stagnate. Same thing has been happening to Star Wars for some time now. My chief criticism of The Force Awakens is that, while I love the characters, the plot of the movie was formulaic, dull, and often nonsensical – Abrams is just pushing the buttons labelled “Star Wars” and not really doing anything new and interesting in terms of plot, setting, or even dramatic tension. Star Wars, it is assumed, has to be a family story about the mystical struggle between the Light and Dark Side. Throw in an alien monster (at least 1 per movie, every movie), one lightsaber duel, one space battle, and one commando raid of some kind and I’ve just described every single Star Wars film with two exceptions: Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One.
Rogue One is not a family story. It’s not even a tale of good vs evil. It’s a war movie – specifically, a straight up homage to World War 2 movies like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and The Guns of Navarone.
This is a story about a bunch of rag-tag commandos with conflicting priorities who team up to to take out a fascist superweapon and, in the process, almost all die. They gun down stormtroopers. They go undercover. Get locked inside restricted facilities. They fight on top of high towers and/or mountains. They have a sniper. There’s always one dude you aren’t sure you can trust. The mission seems impossible. No one will remember their names. And on and on and on…
We always knew the Empire was the Nazis, but this is the first movie to actually show what that means.
Yeah, it’s not your average Star Wars story, but it’s a story that makes all the other Star Wars stories (1) make more sense and (2) gain a greater sense of what’s at stake. The Empire is depicted in its full brutality here in a way the other films don’t bother. We get a broader sense of the scope of the world and the risks people have to take. So, no – there are no Jedi, no Skywalkers, no glorious victories, no larger-than-life stunts. It’s regular people trying to do incredible things. I love that.
Critique 2: The Characters Aren’t Greatly Developed
Okay, on the one hand I can see what you’re saying – they could have done a better job in some spots of making these people more rounded and involved. That said, I actually liked the stripped down character development they got. First off, I don’t think the character development was weak, in particular – it just asked you in many places to draw your own conclusions. These aren’t people who discuss their feelings regularly anyway, so there was no Luke-and-Leia-on-the-Forest-Moon confessionals. For what it’s worth, I understood their motivations just fine. I know why Cassian didn’t shoot Jyn’s father. He wants to believe Jyn is right – he doesn’t want to kill innocent people anymore. It eats at him the whole movie. Does he come out and say this? No. He never does and, yeah, its unclear. Hell, I could be wrong (though I don’t think so).
Then again, what is gained her is that this movie allows us to connect with the characters not as characters but in the sense that they can (and are supposed) to be ciphers for us to occupy. This was the same tactic used in those World War 2 raid movies – character development was always sparse, and it was sparse to allow the audience (many of them actual WW2 veterans) to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. You don’t really give a crap what Clint Eastwood’s character’s name is in Where Eagles Dare. You just want to picture yourself with the MP40 gunning down Nazis.
In this same way, I submit to you the following: Rogue One is the film impersonation of every single time you and your friends pretended to be soldiers of the rebellion on school playgrounds from around 1980 until 1990 (with some variation given your actual age, of course). I know me and my friends used to play as rebels getting blown up (and blowing up) stormtroopers in my backyard for years and years. Did our “characters” have names? Not really – we were “the guy with the super-huge gun” and “the guy who knows jedi powers but isn’t a jedi and, oh yeah, he’s blind and really cool.” It’s that. They made a movie about that. Yeah, the character development isn’t super deep, but it doesn’t have to be to get the job done.
Critique 3: The Whole “Death Star Plan Transmission” Was Silly
Okay, first off: debating “realism” in Star Wars is a ridiculous place to start from. I’d follow up with this: if you gave this movie crap but didn’t get frustrated by The Force Awakens, you’re being a raging hypocrite, because this movie made vastly, vastly more sense than any single part of that movie.
But okay, let’s entertain the debate for a moment. Why is it so hard to get the Death Star master plans, anyway? Here are my suggestions:
- They are made deliberately hard to transmit because they are super-secret plans.
- There is no precedent for nor is their evidence of any kind of “Galactic Internet.” Transmission of incredibly complex and dense data across interstellar distances is likely very, very difficult.
- The world-shield on the data haven planet made it hard to get the data transmitted.
- The data could not be instantly copied and distributed to multiple Rebel ships because of how large the files likely were and the rebel ships were not equipped to transmit such data easily.
- They had to keep it on that one chip because that chip represented the easiest, most secure method of transport for the data which, again, was of such size it could not be easily contained on the Tantive IV.
- R2-D2 is magic.
There, settled. Now it’s your turn to explain to me how the Starkiller Base is supposed to work, how some fringe group built it, and why it’s so damned easy to blow up, and the astrocartographical phenomenon that allowed people in star system A see the explosions in system B as two distinct points of light rather than one tiny blip.
Overall, I loved this movie. It was tense, it was different, and it makes me like all the other movies more, which is itself a reward for watching that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I hope to see more like this – more departures from the Star Wars script, more risks being taken to make the franchise last and be fresh and interesting. More franchises could use such treatment.
This is going to start with a gaming story and then will wrap up somewhere in the neighborhood of me talking about Star Wars, so set your Geek Shields to maximum, folks.
I ran an RPG once that was set in Medieval Japan. As the setting was ostensibly historical, I used the most realistic ruleset I could find, which was (and is) namely The Riddle of Steel. TRoS has a brutally realistic combat system, which I loved. I loved the idea of extremely high-stakes samurai fights. It was going to be so cool.
And then the samurai player took a samurai sword to the groin in his first fight (he engaged an armored opponent while wearing only a loin cloth, which was seriously cool and also really stupid), nearly died, and was laid up healing for the next few months of in-game time. He was also literally emasculated. Unsurprisingly, for the rest of the campaign all the heroes tried very hard to avoid combat with anybody. There were precious few samurai duels and way, way more “stab him from behind in the dark” kinds of things. Which was fine, but not exactly what I had imagined in my mind.
Because of its realism, TRoS basically robbed all main characters of their plot armor – that mystical force that makes main characters invulnerable to everyone but the really scary bad guys. This is fine if what you’re going for is gritty realism, but very much not fine if you’re trying to tell tales of high adventure. The more realistic you get, the fewer superheroes prove to exist. Batman gets taken down by a Saturday Night Special in the waistband of a punk he thought he put down. Inigo Montoya is out of action after that first knife in the guts. Han and Luke never make it off the Death Star.
I see a lot of people constantly ragging on Imperial/First Order stormtroopers for “not being able to hit anything.” It’s a constant meme at this point, and it kinda annoys me. For one thing, with the singular exception of the Battle of Endor (which, yes, was totally stupid), stormtroopers are pretty damned good at shooting things. They kill pretty much every other unnamed force they are faced with, from Geonosis all the way to Maz Kanata’s Tavern. It’s just they can’t seem to get many hits in on anybody who’s got a name. Why? Plot armor, obviously – you know it, I know it, everybody knows it. So why complain? Do you actually want Stormtroopers to be able to gun down main characters regularly? Do you want them to constitute a real existential threat to our protagonists?
If the answer is “yes,” then you’re asking for Star Wars to tell a different type of story – one less about pulp novel heroics and more about grim, gritty “cost of war” kinds of stuff. Less John Wayne and more Oliver Stone, right?
If the answer is “no,” then consider what stormtroopers, for all their inability to hit anybody with a name, add to the story. They make it bright and loud and exciting. Even though we know the stormtroopers won’t kill our heroes, they might get injured (Leia!), might have their ride destroyed (Poe!), might have to be rescued at the last moment by a friend (Finn!), and so on and so forth. They are an important plot device, one that forces the heroes to run, to fight, to undertake heroics, and so on – it’s what we want out of the movie. Stop being so dismissive of their point and pretending they’re inept when they aren’t actually portrayed that way at all.
Now, I guess you could just use them more sparingly and set things up so the heroes are harder to hit or something. Or maybe we can watch our heroes be more stealthy. But, in the immortal words of the late Han Solo: “Bring em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around!”
Which pretty much sums up exactly what the audience thinks, too.
Innumerable are the reviews and commentary on The Force Awakens, so I don’t want to pile on. Overall I enjoyed the movie, though I readily concede it was hardly spotless nor was it terribly heady. I do, however, have one thing I think needs explaining: Rey and the Force.
I would caution you against spoilers here, but the movie has been out for a month now, so if you’re that worried about having the movie spoiled, you probably should have seen it by now.
A lot of folks out there seem to have a problem with Rey and how Rey goes from “junkyard girl” to “OMG jedi badass!” over the course of the movie, seemingly on her own. Just a brief sampling of comments I’ve seen:
WTF? How does Rey figure out how to use a Jedi Mind Trick when it takes Luke THREE MOVIES to get there?
How is that Kylo Ren, who can stop freaking blaster bolts in mid-air loses to some chick who is just picking up a lightsaber for the FIRST TIME?
Why is it, all of a sudden, Rey can fly the Milennium Falcon better than Han and fight with a lighsaber better than Kylo and…(rant rant rant)
It goes on like that for a while. Now, this could turn into a post about the double standards for male and female heroic leads in action movies and how the objections to Rey are, at their heart, a basic rejection that a girl could be that badass. I’m not going to do that, though. I’m going to explain to you all why Rey’s sudden, amazing skills are not only totally believable but entirely in keeping with Star Wars mythology.
How does Rey magically go from nobody to proto-jedi without ever having instruction?
BECAUSE SHE JUST FUCKING DOES IT!
The Force is not a correspondence course. It’s not like working towards your bachelors or studying for the SAT. It is not a quantitative entity. What does Yoda tell Luke on Dagobah over and over and over:
You must unlearn what you have learned! Let go your conscious self!
Do or do not. There is no try.
Feel the Force flowing through you!
Luke: I…I don’t believe it!
Yoda: That is why you fail.
This message is carried throughout the series, even in the prequels. The Force is not some kind of thing you earns points in, like an RPG (and I feel RPGs have really messed with our heads about this.). It is not a linear model of progression, where you master simple stuff first and more complicated stuff later. There is no simple or complicated stuff. It is all just stuff.
The Force operates on instinct (Obi Wan: “Let go your conscious self and act on instinct.”). Instinct is not something you necessarily have to learn. Granted, instinct can be learned (through exhaustive repetition) and can be improved through discipline, hence why a Jedi Academy ever existed at all, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, a lot of people in the Star Wars universe go around using the Force all the time and never realize it. Consider little Anakin Skywalker and his superhuman pod racing abilities, or Luke’s capacity to bull’s-eye womp rats with his T-16. As for Rey and her “sudden” abilities, they really aren’t so sudden at all. She can do a mind trick because she’s already done one before! Remember this scene:
She just up and takes a valuable droid from a scavenger and tells him to scram. What’s he do? He scrams! THAT’S A JEDI MIND TRICK, PEOPLE!
Rey is able to become badass at the end because she actually starts to understand how she has been able to do things she has always done. It takes the stress of the New Order’s pursuit of her to unlock that potential. Then she does exactly what Obi Wan and Yoda and Qui Gon have been telling their students for ages: She acts on instinct. That’s how the Force works, folks.
I know this sounds implausible or counter-intuitive to a lot of you, but you really have to listen to the teachings of the Jedi Masters we have in the films. The Force is counter-intuitive! That’s what makes it so hard to use – you can’t think about using it, you should just use it.
Just like Rey does.
Star Wars is on everybody’s mind lately, so I figured I’d revisit this little topic: how to fix the Star Wars prequels. And boy, howdy, do they need fixing.
Now, in order for this post to make sense, you’re going to need to read my opinion on what to do about Episode I since, obviously, this builds off of that one. Also, this post stands to be a bit longer than the previous one, since Episode II is an absolute train-wreck of a movie that is watchable only because Sam Jackson, as Mace Windu, pulls out a purple lightsaber and says:
Oh, and Jango Fett, who is also cool, even if completely underutilized and involved in bizarre plot elements.
Anyway, here’s what I’d do in the (supremely unlikely) scenario that I was in charge of somehow overhauling the prequels:
Step 1: OH MY GOD, THAT CREEPY LOVE STORY!
The absolute most unbearable part of Episode II – so unbearable as to be completely unwatchable – is the love story between Anakin and Padme. I think I’d rather get shot in the leg with a BB gun seven or eight times than watch those scenes again. Ugh! Anakin with that creepy stalker vibe, Padme with her awkward dialogue…bleh.
The problem here (beyond the terrible, awful, no-good script) is that we, the audience, can never accept Padme and Anakin’s relationship as plausible. Anakin comes off as a lunatic and Padme’s attraction to him is wholly inexplicable.
The Solution: The film should begin with Anakin and Padme already courting. No “falling in love on Naboo” crap – Padme, who is already infatuated with Jedi (established in the last movie) and firmly put off by Obi Wan at the conclusion of Episode I (see my previous post on this) is making eyes at the attractive young Anakin. Since the first movie didn’t have their ages as far apart, the relationship isn’t as crazy – they are both teenagers, and teenagers are apt to do crazy things. So, along those lines:
- When Obi Wan and Anakin are assigned to guard Padme from assassins, we get a private moment between Padme and Anakin where they kiss and discuss their secret love and whether Obi Wan knows. Anakin says Obi Wan doesn’t, but Obi Wan totally does. Ani and Obi Wan fight about it. During the argument, Amidala is almost killed (since they weren’t paying attention). Cue chase scene.
- Anakin is so pissed at Obi Wan for the attack almost succeeding, he insists on guarding Padme personally over Obi Wan’s objections.
- They do NOT go to Naboo (if you’re trying to assassinate the Senator from Naboo, hiding her ON NABOO makes no damned sense). They go to Tatooine. Cue glorious homecoming for hero Ani, he reunites with his mom (now married), they have the best of good times. Padme sees what a great guy this Anakin is and Ani tells her how he doesn’t do what the Jedi Council just tells him to – he’s his own man!
- They are married by a Hutt, just for funsies.
Step 2: Clones and Fetts and Bug Aliens and…what the hell is going on?
Obi Wan is trying to unravel a mystery – clone army, Count Dooku, Separatist factions, etc., etc.. The thing about a mystery, though, is that we should feel some kind of suspense while it remains unsolved and we should understand the consequences of any given reveal. Instead, we watch Obi Wan walk around Kamino with a befuddled look on his face while we, also, are befuddled. And then Jango Fett tries to kill him for some goddamned reason. As cool as that fight is, we are left sitting there going, “What the hell, bro?”
The Solution: This needs to change. Obi Wan needs to know the stakes. Obi Wan needs to understand the urgency. When he arrives at Kamino, he should figure out the plot. He knows the Separatists are going to attack. He knows somebody ordered this army so the Republic could fight it. He knows they are about to get in a big goddamned war unless he can come up with a way to diffuse the situation. How do we do this?
- Jango Fett is the assassin on Coruscant. He gets away, but not before Obi Wan gets a good look at him.
- Investigating Jango Fett leads Obi Wan to Kamino, where he discovers the Clone Army of Fetts and learns the clones are going to invade Geonosis to start a war. Jango Fett tries to kill him. In the battle, Obi Wan’s long range communicators are damaged on his ship. There isn’t enough time to warn Coruscant of the battle plans, but there is enough time to go to Tatooine and get help.
- Obi Wan confronts Anakin, who has decided he wishes to leave the Jedi. Anakin refuses to go with him. Obi Wan tasks Ani with warning the Jedi Council, at least, and heads off on his own.
- Obi Wan is captured, as before. Count Dooku is revealed. Cue evil laughter.
- Anakin senses his friend’s impending doom. He tells Padme and his mother he must go to help him. Padme decides to go with.
- They are captured, they fight monsters, there’s a big battle, Dooku escapes, etc.. I guess Yoda also fights. Ani keeps his hand, though.
Step 3: Anakin Turns
Okay, but the movie ain’t over yet, right? We haven’t murdered any sand people yet. In the original, this murder seems to be proof positive that Ani and Padme wouldn’t get married, but they do anyway, causing everybody in the world to say “what is WRONG with you, Padme?” It doesn’t work and it doesn’t make much progress towards Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, either, since he seems to forget that ever happened by the start of Episode III.
The Solution: So, we change it up and, with that, change the ending.
- After saving Obi Wan’s life from Dooku and so on, the two of them shake hands and Obi Wan tells him he can go – the Jedi won’t keep him if he won’t stay.
- Ani returns home to find his mother stolen and dead, etc.. He loses his shit – this is Obi Wan’s fault, for dragging him away from where he should be. He kills all the sand people.
- There, sitting in the desert, his lightsaber in his lap, he contemplates the horror of what he’s done – no one can forgive him for this. He is doomed.
- Enter Palpatine: he strides out of the desert gloom, clapping. “Well done, young Skywalker. I knew you had potential.”
- Anakin turns (or starts to) at the conclusion of the film. He goes back with Padme, he stays with the Jedi, but as Palpatine’s agent.
There. This plan I feel manages to thin down the intrigue (which was perplexing and boring for the most part), amp up the action, and make the character development more sensible. And you still get the Clone Wars, except now, Ani has a shadowy mentor nobody else knows about, who has dirt on him and can expose him if he walks, and is gradually pulling him towards the dark side. In other words, Episode III.
Let me start off by posting a few memes I’ve come across in the past 48 hours:
Now, I’ve talked about this before, but I feel the need to reiterate. You might think I’m a bad geek for saying this, or insist that I don’t really love Star Wars (which would be utterly false), but let me say this right now:
GET OVER YOURSELVES, YOU RAVING NUTBALLS!
Look, I get it – you don’t want somebody spoiling Star Wars for you. Fine. That’s fair. Spoiling somebody else’s fun is a jerk move. That, however, doesn’t mean you get to tromp around the internet lighting fire to anybody who wants to discuss a movie they just saw and didn’t appropriately warn you beforehand. You’re acting like spoiled children. It’s embarrassing.
I don’t want the movie spoiled for me, either. If some jerk comes along and deliberately spoils the movie in the comments of this post, for example, that makes them a consummate ass and no friend of mine. But accidental spoilers are a different thing entirely. So is having a conversation about an experience other people haven’t had. Even beyond all that, there is the simple fact that it is just a goddamned movie and you should act like a fucking grown-up.
It’s times like this that make me feel like I’m not a geek after all. I mean, hell, I play (and sometimes write) role-playing games, I have a Warhammer 40,000 hobby, I write science fiction and fantasy, I’ve LARPed, gone to movie premieres in costume, I love Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and the rest of it…but I’m not a fanatic. I’m just not. I am not freaking out right now. I’m excited to see The Force Awakens (I see it tomorrow), but I’m not bouncing off the walls, eight-year-old-on-Christmas-Eve excited.
Irrational, blind enthusiasm for things is always, has always been, something that freaks me out. People who paint their chests at football games are basically an alien species. The people who scour every second of movie trailers to reveal the smallest hints at prospective plot points are as bizarre to me as Donald Trump supporters (well, maybe not Trump…how about Cruz supporters? Yeah, that’s still pretty freaking gonzo nuts). I do not get it. I recognize that it’s a central part of our species – fanaticism is as old as ideas themselves – but I am not comfortable with it. I cannot turn off my rational brain and allow the emotional one to take the reins. Not over something like a movie, anyway.
So go forth, enjoy the movie, discuss it with friends. But don’t go burning bridges with Uncle Hank because he accidentally let something slip. Don’t cuss out some teenage cousin because they “ruined” something so insignificant as a Star Wars movie. Yes, I said insignificant. Because it is. I might love it, you might love it, but ultimately it’s just a movie about things that never happened in a place that doesn’t exist. It probably doesn’t even rise to the level of art (and if it did, spoiling it would be impossible, anyway – you can’t “spoil” The Great Gatsby or VanGogh’s Starry Night). It should never rise to the level where we would jeopardize our friendships and emotional well-being over it. That’s childish.
I remember once I had a book spoiled for me (accidentally) by a friend. I snapped at her about it. She snapped back. It was then that I realized she was right. It was childish and selfish of me; I had no right to act that way.
Neither do you.
- The Iron Ring is coming off a hell of a run after being selected as Book Bub’s “Fantasy pick of the day” about a week ago. It peaked at #2 overall on Amazon for Fantasy e-books! It is still on sale for 0.99, but probably not for much longer. Act now!
- My short story, “Adaptation and Predation” has been published by Escape Pod science fiction podcasts. It’s the first time an audio recording of one of my stories has been done, which is pretty damned cool. The story is set in The Union of Stars, so if that world of mine had piqued your interest at all, go and check it out now – it’s free!
I just read a piece by Aliette de Bodard on Tor.com about how oppressive systems perpetuate themselves. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (good read, by the way – nice, fast paced, and very Star Wars-ish). Also somewhat coincidentally, I’ve been working on another book in The Saga of the Redeemed that, in fact, deals with popular revolution against an oppressive regime.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that revolution is very much on my mind.
(please pause as the NSA zeroes in its internet snoopers…)
De Bodard’s article has it exactly right – oppressive systems do not persist in spite of the people but with their approval (tacit or begrudging as it may be). One of the things I liked about Wendig’s novel is that he goes out of his way to mention and show how people put up with the Galactic Empire for so long because that was basically how it was done. That was just how the world was. Yeah, they sucked, but if you kept your head down and didn’t cause trouble and just went along to get along, you’d be more-or-less fine. Luke Skywalker, remember, was going to apply to the Imperial Naval Academy in Episode IV. Not the rebels. The rebels, I’m betting, didn’t offer much in the way of career options or recruiting centers. Yeah, young Luke wanted off the farm, but he didn’t want off it that badly that he was going to throw in his lot with a bunch of crazy terrorists.
Wendig also tries to demonstrate how messy the transition from Galactic Empire to New Republic is going to be, too. For one thing, as the tagline says, the war isn’t over. There’s a lot of Galactic Empire out there, folks, and it isn’t about to roll over and die. Well, not all of it. Some of it will, some of it will go rogue, other parts will keep fighting. Criminal syndicates will take over backwater systems. Vigilantes will run amok. Basic systems and services will break down. Lots and lots and lots of people will die. That’s just for starters, too, and during that time you are going to have a lot of people asking one question:
“Was the Galactic Empire really all that bad? Was it worse than this?”
In Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, he talks about something called the Thermidorian Reaction – the period of calm that follows the furor of revolution. Most interestingly, this reaction sees the relaxation of some revolutionary policies and, in the end, results in the new order sharing a number of potent similarities with the old order. In other words, the revolution, in the end, doesn’t change society half as much as it thinks it will. The Russian people weren’t a hell of a lot better off under the Soviets than they were under the Czars; the new system of the United States wasn’t all that much different than Britain; the current rulers of Egypt are scarcely any different than Mubarak. Heck, it’s basically the same people in charge. Again.
In the Saga of the Redeemed, particularly in the next book or three, I want to deal with the awkwardness and horrible mess that is involved in “fixing society.” Tyvian, bound by the ring’s influence, has to act to do what is “right,” but what is “right” doesn’t always translate to what is “best” (as he points out strenuously and at length). Indeed, there seems to be some doubt on his part that any improvement at all is possible, especially given that, in the end, all new world orders are made up of the same things: human beings.
While I am perhaps not as cynical as my protagonist (heaven forfend!), I do wonder if people understand what they’re advocating for when they propose to tear down an oppressive system. We make it sound so easy sometimes – the American Revolution was won at the Battle of Yorktown, and that was it (and yet, in 1812, we were basically still fighting it). One battle – one war – does not a revolution make. Society changes slowly, very slowly; it’s like the melting of a glacier. Sometimes a big hunk falls off all at once and there’s a huge crash, but that was made possible by a long, long process of the supporting ice melting out from underneath. Even then – even after it falls – it will just freeze back again come winter unless we are vigilant (or we raise the ambient temperature of the globe sufficient to…actually, you know what? Different discussion for a different time.).
The revolutions of the world are not just the stories of Luke Skywalker or George Washington. They are also the story of the pain, suffering, and deaths of thousands or even millions of souls trapped beneath the wheels of history. If you need a reminder of just how ugly a thing that can be, you need look no further than the barbed wire fences surrounding the nation of Hungary and the poor, starving people huddled on the other side.
You ever notice that we tend to like the bad guys better than the good guys? I mean, let’s face it – Darth Vader is way cooler than Obi Wan or Luke. Luke only gets cool when he starts wearing black and force choking Gamorreans who piss him off.
Same goes for comic books. Who’s your favorite: Wolverine or Cyclops? Everybody picks Wolverine. Never mind that he’s irresponsible, violent, rude, and bloodthirsty – Cyclops looks smug. We can never forgive smug. Batman Vs Superman? Clearly the violent vigilante trumps the boy scout in blue. Every single time.
In The Oldest Trick, I’ve got a pretty bad guy as my main character. Calling Tyvian a “scoundrel” is putting it very mildly. He’s a petty, conceited, manipulative narcissist who thinks nothing of throwing other people to the wolves for the sake of his own comfort (comfort, mind you – not even his safety). You really ought to hate his guts.
And yet we don’t. From Frank Castle to Hannibal Lecter, from Dexter Morgan to Lucifer himself, we’re always willing to give the jerks, the creeps, the psychos and the villains the benefit of the doubt. Weird, isn’t it?
Here’s my thinking: Antiheroes (and I use the term loosely, as it can be defined in many ways – here I basically mean someone who is an amoral, immoral, or ‘dark’ protagonist) appeal to us in three major ways.
They Do What We Dare Not
Have you ever wanted to spill coffee on someone because they were being a jerk to the barista? Have you ever wanted to chew out your boss in front of everybody? Have you ever wanted to smash flat some jerk in a BMW who ran a red light and almost killed you? Well, guess what? The bad guy will do it for you.
In a world full of petty (and not so petty) frustrations, there is catharsis in those who simply break the rules to inflict what we see as justice on those we dislike. We refrain ourselves, of course – unlike the villainous personality, we are functional members of society – but we do so enjoy watching the wicked get a taste of their own medicine from those even worse than they are. Heck, this is the entire underlying theme of the Saw franchise, right? Those jerks deserve what they got on some level. We show up to watch them get it.
They Make Us Feel Like Better People
There is also a certain joy in realizing you are a better person and a better judge of character and situation than these otherwise exceptional people. For Example: Hoo, boy – are we ever glad we aren’t Walter White, right? Man, I mean, he’s pretty awesome and what-not, but he just keeps making decisions that’ll get him in deeper, doesn’t he? Were it me, I woulda walked away way, waaay earlier than that. I could do it. There has to be a way, right?
Shakespeare trades heavily on this notion in his tragedies. Iago and Othello keep digging themselves deeper and deeper and deeper and, oh man, you know what’s going to happen, right? That’s what makes it awesome. The good guy – the guy who keeps doing the right thing – he’s dull (or so we think). Captain America is never going to lie to his girlfriend. That makes us feel inferior. You know what the most common criticism levied against Superman is? He isn’t “identifiable.” This I take as code for “he wasn’t a fuck-up in high school.”
Sure Supes is identifiable. He grew up as a farmboy in middle America. It’s not his Kryptonian heritage you find alien. It’s the fact that he never set his dad’s car on fire while trying to re-enact a Jackass stunt. With Batman – brooding, obsessive, loner Batman – you never have that problem. You got it together compared to that nutjob.
The Hope for Redemption
This last one is a bit rarer, but it comes up a fair amount. We all love a good redemption story. We like to think that those crazy villains that we (secretly) admire can, one day, clean up all their bad habits and become good people like us. The whole of the existing Star Wars movies, for instance, is just one long story dealing with the fall and subsequent redemption of one Anakin Skywalker. We eat that up. Likewise, the journey of Tony Stark from playboy to superhero is the most compelling aspect of the MCU at the moment. His character’s personal journey is the one we love best.
See, as much as we enjoy the antics of those antiheros doing what we dare not, we also realize that their lives are not happy ones. Batman is a tortured, tragic soul in many ways. Wolverine is fundamentally alone. Conan the Barbarian lives an empty life. That sad music played at the end of every Incredible Hulk episode for a reason, guys. Being the antihero sucks. Even Lucifer has a rough time of it.
So we watch in the (sometimes) vain hope that they can pull themselves together. That, even in their tortured hearts, the darkness can be pushed back and good can prevail. Even if only for a moment, before they plunge back into shooting mob bosses and blowing up corrupt politician’s cars.
As you know, if you read this blog, I will be attending ITVFest in Dover, VT on September 24th-27th where I will be giving a talk about World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction on Saturday, 9/26, at 11am. Go and check it out!
Also, The Oldest Trick will be coming out in Mass Market Paperback on September 29th! Pre-order your copies now!
Finally, watch my Goodreads page for the possibility of a giveaway of some The Oldest Trick e-book copies! I plan on doing it as soon as I figure out how!
Upon the advent of the latest Star Wars Trailer, I feel this is apropos.
There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest…
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It should come as no surprise to any of you that I love Star Wars. It has shaped me as much as any other work of art or literature I can name and viewing its films (specifically episodes 4-6) count among my oldest and fondest memories. Which is why I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say to you:
90% of modern Star Wars franchises are no good.
Yes, yes, yes–there are notable exceptions, and I can’t claim to have read all or even most of them. That said, since Return of the Jedi, though, I have only seen/read a tiny handful that do true and honest justice to the original. Of those, the best I’ve seen is a current Saturday morning cartoon on the Disney Channel called Star Wars Rebels.
What does it do right, exactly? Well, to do that, perhaps it is easiest to explain what I think everything else has done wrong.
Misconception #1: The Star Wars Universe is Inherently Fascinating
Incorrect. Sorry guys, but it just isn’t. One of the errors made by most of the Expanded Universe and by all the prequels is the presumption that we actually care that much about the continuity and complexity of the Star Wars Galaxy. Folks, there really isn’t much there to be fascinated with.
No, I mean it! What’s the one thing that everybody complains about in Episode1? It’s that the primary conflict is over a trade dispute. “Trade Dispute?” we scoff, “how boring is that?” Well, you know why it’s boring? Because we don’t give a crap about the Star Wars Universe. We. Don’t. Care. If we did – if we actually found the Star Wars Universe interesting all by itself – we would be riveted by a tale about a trade dispute. We would be aghast at the predations of the Trade Federation and proud of the noble people of Naboo. However, since we don’t know these people from Adam, we don’t give a shit.
The world of Star Wars has always been one of larger-than-life stories and over-the-top settings that really require no practical explanation. It’s a city in the clouds – that’s all that really matters! The world is just a colorful, exciting backdrop to what happens with the characters, which is really where it’s at. The good Star Wars out there knows this.
In this regard, Star Wars Rebels does a great job – it gives us fun and engaging characters with just enough backstory to make us love them and keep us watching. The world exists only as backdrop, not as main show. You don’t need to know much of anything about Star Wars to enjoy it, and those things it does reference are only relevant to the characters themselves.
Misconception #2: The Rebellion Against the Empire is So Done.
No, no it is not. Star Wars was made great by telling the story about a team of underdogs who took down a big evil Empire. Every other story that has tried to tell something else has been missing something essential. This is related to misconception #1: we thought the Star Wars universe has other, better stories in it, but it doesn’t, or not really, anyway. It always, always comes down to stormtroopers bearing down on our heroes as they try to find some desperate avenue of escape. The Jedi of the Old Republic? Boring. The Clone Wars? Boring. The New Republic and its flavor-of-the-month villains? Boring!
Every one of those stories is trying to recapture that lightning in the bottle when it was Han and Chewy and Leia and the droids against the whole Imperial Fleet, and it never quite works. Star Wars Rebels simply shows us the rebellion again, except from an earlier point in its history and with a different group of freedom fighters. It works, because it is doing what we originally loved all over again.
Misconception #3: Lightsaber Battles are Inherently Interesting
I sometimes wonder if people who say this actually watched Episode 2 at all. There were about a billion lightsaber duels in that movie and they were all spectacularly dull. The reason? You need context for battles to be interesting. Just fighting some random guy for the heck of it is not interesting. Darth Maul? Who is that guy, anyway, and why do we care that they’re fighting with him? We don’t.
Go back and watch the lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke in Empire. It wholly lacks the kung fu acrobatics of the modern lightsaber fight, but it is twenty times more riveting than any other. Why? Because we desperately care about Luke and we are actively terrified of what Vader has planned. Without that context, we just don’t care.
Again, Star Wars Rebels does this well. We come to care about the characters before they go into deadly duels with the villains (whom we also know and despise).
All this, coupled with solid characters and fun action sequences and broad, larger-than-life storytelling makes Star Wars Rebels my favorite Star Wars franchise in ages, despite the occasionally clunky dialogue and mid-level CGI animation. It’s fun, and that’s what Star Wars is supposed to be: fun and fast and painted in broad strokes.
You know, just like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Okay, nerds, get ready to be offended. Ready? Go read this post by David P. Goldman. Deep breaths, folks.
Let’s skip past the bit about “obese, pimply-faced losers” and the fairly childish vitriol that accompanies it. The guy doesn’t like Harry Potter – fine. It doesn’t make him Hitler. I’ve ranted at length about such snobs and their churlish insistence upon their flavor of storytelling’s superiority over some other version, and I’ve no need to do so again. What I want to focus on here is the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance of Goldman’s central thesis.
Goldman takes aim specifically at Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as espoused by his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Goldman dislikes it, and in his article he claims the following:
Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false.
He then goes on to claim that both the Bible and Chinese narrative lack heroes in this sense – in that latter instance, they are instead “a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.” Goldman seems to insist that China, rather than being ruled by a hereditary aristocracy, was instead ruled by mandarins (bureaucrats) and compares it to being ruled by the equivalent of the Havard faculty. This dovetails nicely with his opinion of the Biblical “hero”, who is not god-like, but rather earnest and hardworking and hardly qualifying as heroic.
Okay, so first off, this entire premise of the argument is bunk, pure and simple. The supposition that Campbell’s thesis is plainly incorrect and that his heroic mythology
isn’t found in the Bible or in Chinese folklore is patently false, demonstrating both a misunderstanding of Campbell and betraying a blind prejudice on Goldman’s part. Not only is the Campbellian monomyth entirely supported by both the Bible and Chinese folklore, the latter is directly cited in Campbell’s work on many occasions (it seems as though the depth of Goldman’s knowledge of Chinese myth is limited to kung fu movies). In the Bible’s case, the monomyth is repeated time and time again. Take the story of Moses: Moses is called to adventure when he flees into the wasteland. He crosses into the magical world at the foot of the burning bush, and he returns later to Pharaoh’s court bearing knowledge and power. This happens to Jonah, to Abraham, to Job, to Paul, and to countless other prophets and heroes that fill the Bible through both testaments. To say Campbell was antisemitic is fine (he was disdainful of the Jewish religion, certainly), but he did insist upon the power of their folklore, which is in large part what the Bible is made up of.
Goldman, here, is quibbling over the details and missing the larger narrative. Yes, Moses doesn’t have god-like power himself – he is granted it by God. That, however, isn’t substantially different from the power granted to King Arthur when he draws the sword in the stone or to Theseus when he takes Ariadne’s string into the labyrinth. In all monomyths, the power granted to the heroes does not originate in themselves, per se, but rather are rewards granted to them for their behavior and, frequently also, their lineage. The fact that Moses is a descendant of Abraham, though, and therefore special by blood (and this is of significant import in Exodus) seems to elude Goldman. We could play the same game with Chinese folklore and myth (fact: the Chinese maintained a hereditary aristocracy from about 1000 BC until 1911), but I feel I’ve made my point here.
The underlying reason for Goldman’s distaste for Campbell and, by extension, modern fantasy literature has less to do with Campbell’s work and more to do with Goldman’s willful blindness to the clear and apparent similarities Christianity has with other stories. Goldman wishes Christianity to be special and unique and, while it certainly has unique qualities, it is structurally similar enough to all other mythology to make it part of the broad tapestry that makes up Campbell’s theory. Heroes are us, only better. Period. The only thing that changes is what constitutes “better.” For the ancient Greeks, they wanted heroes of strength and cleverness who were willing to stand up to the tyranny of their capricious gods. For the Chinese, they want humility and filial piety, which means their heroes follow slightly different paths, but all well within the bounds of the monomyth. In the Bible, the Christian hero is selfless and faithful, obeying their God and sacrificing their well-being for the well-being of their people. It’s the same sales pitch, just with a different product to sell.
That, though, is upsetting to guys like Goldman – real America’s Americans who believe in Jesus and Built the Railroads (on Irish and Chinese backs). The theory that their deeply-held stories are, in actuality, just another version of a story as old as humanity itself and in no way exceptional, is hard to swallow. Why, then he’d be no better than we “obese, pimply-faced losers,” clinging just as tightly to his own personal fairy stories to make him feel better about himself. We can’t have that, now can we?