I: Ye old quality vs. quantity
2017 is a pretty good time to be alive if you’re a sucker for sci-fi, fantasy, horror, superheroes, and generally any and all things that may be deemed even remotely geeky. “Geek culture” as a whole has received the proverbial shot in the arm and is rocketing towards bigger and better things… Or is it?
During the past few years we’ve witnessed a boom of everything and anything within the geek sphere, and sometimes the bulk rate at which this content comes out can be overwhelming. Dozens of movies, games, 20-episode/season shows and a plethora of comic books that include one-shots, crossovers, multiple storylines et. al. You can see a pattern emerging – the demand of the genre as a whole is at an all-time high, and supply just keeps on delivering. But while it’s easy to churn out brutto hours of film or pages of content, what about the quality of all the aforementioned items?
As the title may have tipped you off, this article will circle around Disney-run Star Wars, and its subsidiaries, so it’s only fitting and relevant to context that we take a short look at their other geekout, multiple-entry-spanning behemoth IP first: Marvel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, has had a few heavy-hitters interspersed with mediocre and even sub-par entries, while some of its series have waded through entire arcs of identity crises trying to find their footing and are even now on shaky ground or have never actually recovered (Agents of SHIELD, Inhumans). And with too many movies to even count coming out over the next few years, ending out Phase 3, and presumably setting up the next Phase, there’s a certain fatigue starting to creep up across the MCU, having more and more fans groan rather than cheer as another entry to the series shows up with a little less shine on than the previous one. Especially when only a few of these actually stand out and dare to be different (here’s lookin’ at you, Dr. Strange!) while the rest fall into the same tired tropes, even rehashing the same type of villain (here’s frowning at you, Iron Man!), tone, and story arc. And don’t even get me started on what’s going on in the western comics world at the moment, with sales dropping faster than Marvel can come up with erroneous reasons why. But that’s a story for another time… Back to the stars and the wars.
The lack of originality seeping into and out of our films at the moment, may stem from something that rears a pale, ugly head out from under all the acting, writing, and developmental paces they go through: companies keeping too tight a leash on what they want the end product to be, and giving their teams of directors and writers so little wiggle room they end up branching out from one another (sometimes before they even start proper). And nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s Disney-run series of Star Wars flicks.
Win some, lose some, still please many
On one hand, this started out… well… let’s call it “cautiously promising” with Episode VII trying to toe the line between flattery and outright imitation, copiously falling through the cracks to the less desirable side of that duality, playing it overly safe and bringing nothing truly new to the franchise, but eventually delivering on at least the promise of things to come. It was a by-the-numbers action flick where many things didn’t make sense and fewer still stood out as stellar, unique, or original, be it acting, set-pieces, decor, new characters etc. But hey! It’s Star Wars so it’s gonna rock the charts no matter what. Unpopular opinion of the week, eh? Well, yeah. And valid, the reasoning of which will follow later on.
Rogue One blew people of both old and new camps out of the water , turning some of the curmudgeons around (hey, that’s me!) and soared above anything we could have expected following Episode VII. That said, it was definitely not without its shortcomings. The bounce-around, fast and furious onset of the movie is a leave-it-or-leave-it for most people, and its juggling of multiple (too many) characters in a 2-hour runtime meant so much content and history is merely hinted at and not fully explored. But it managed to at least glance at a sweet spot that Episode VII veered entirely off course from: bringing something new to the fold, and going against the tried-and-true (and tried again) formula that we’d gotten thus far.
Little tidbits like U-Wings or Scarif Troopers, the glimpses at the fallen might of Jeddha, the sprawling action set-pieces that brought the hustle and bustle of Episode I’s ending to mind, rather than the tired old ”let’s blow up the next Death Star!” trope, interspersing just enough known characters in to aid the action but not upstage the fresh, main cast, means that R1 did a bunch of things right. Not the least of which was the fact that Disney eventually opted to kill off one of their princesses – not many of us gave them credit for making that (right?) call and giving the story even more gravitas through copious amounts of personal sacrifice from the entire main cast… Incidentally, that was a good way of not having to tie them into the original trilogy years, so an elegant way of dealing with continuity. Well done, D! Pat yourself on the Mickey ears!
Then again, even R1 was not without its hurdles. Running into its final few months before release, extensive reshoots were needed, due to the movie’s original take (and incidentally Gareth Edwards’) being deemed too gritty and dark. Reshoots are nothing abnormal for movies these days, but these included everything from cutting a myriad scenes to completely rewriting or adding dialogue, as well as the final act itself. People eventually glossed over this seemingly minor detail because the end product was so good, but we can’t ignore the fact that some of the film’s remaining less-than-stellar spots could have been ironed out with it having more flesh to the solid bone it built upon. Flesh that may have been lost along with the reshoots.
But while R1 may have had a happy ending (the irony of that statement is not lost on me), lately things are getting thorny again.
May I direct your attention to...
During the past few months, both the Han Solo… solo movie as well as the still-in-pre-production Episode IX have seen their directors leaving the projects and being replaced. One of them, episode IX’s Colin Trevorrow, with none other than JJ Abrams, this on the coattails of Disney pledging not long ago to have new directors for each new entry in the saga in order to keep things “fresh” across the years. And if you add into the mix Mark Hamill himself going on record multiple times as saying that he fundamentally disagreed with the path Luke was set on in The Last Jedi… Well… We’re having some questions being raised left and right, and they seem pertinent.
Is Disney (and indeed Kathleen Kennedy as many seem to suggest) trying to run too tight a ship? Is the set yearly release schedule going to mean there is little room for veering off the general idea that the draft presents initially? Will we ever get to see Darth Jar-Jar?
Again, while people rubbing each other the wrong way and production not seeing eye-to-eye with their directorsis a regular thing these days, literally firing a director with a few months left for shooting (pun sequence not intended) could be indicative of more underlying problems than the public is currently (and possibly ever will be) privy to. The one thing we don’t want, with the current swathe of movies slated for release, including the Obi Wan solo movie, as well as the other rumored solos down the line, is this escalating to something that ends up trying to “fix” too many issues only to do a complete 180 and damage the final product itself. For now, Disney have managed to reshoot R1 and keep it safely on the “good” side of the quality spectrum, but will these fits of over-meddling end up being something disruptive to the franchise in the long run?
Commercial successes as they may be, there’s no denying that the ones most affected by the changes in style and substance with the newer movies are old/older Star Wars fans. And while they’re (or rather we’re) sometimes being painted as hateful, spiteful, clingy, and unable or unwilling to adapt, they’re very aware of the fact that the beloved original trilogy was flawed, but it had something that the couple movies we’ve seen thus far have only hinted at: character beyond the sets, the gadgets, the gimmicks, and the spaceships... Real, fun, relatable, quirky, cheesy, smart, strong characters that naturally fit into their roles and were given plenty of time to shine both on their own as well as within the greater scheme of things.
And speaking of groups, the Star Wars fandom is a motley one, but we’ll talk about that and more in Part II of this article...