At the behest of some friends I’ve made some time in my Serious Adult Reading/Researching schedule to watch Star Wars: Rebels over the weekend, and I’m into season two now. My goal was to watch a little bit at a time as long as I got caught up before season three started and introduced Admiral Thrawn, but I ended up getting sucked into the story and marathoning the episodes back to back, as you do. It nails the feeling of the original Star Wars trilogy better than any other piece of media I’ve encountered to date, in spite of the… well, let’s say extremely stylized and simplified animation style.
I guess I should probably break this into a few parts, since Star Wars has influenced my life about as heavily as Discworld, Tolkien and Star Trek, and it’s been with me as far back as I can remember.
Luminous beings are we, not this… crude matter.
First and foremost, the original trilogy. There’s not enough I can say about how much I love these movies, but I can try to break down why I love these movies. They’re a naked celebration of the monomyth, for one. Their adherence to the hero’s journey lends them a real mythic quality, because they echo the structure of western myths we’ve heard since antiquity. They’re a celebration of storytelling and they nail everything that human beings crave in a good story, even with how silly they are. They’re goofy space fantasy films about robed men wielding laser katanas and flying around space in ships where technological realism isn’t even a consideration as long as the design looks cool at a glance, where planets are biomes with no climate differentiation anywhere, not even close to the poles or equator. But at the same time they’re about the journey from childhood to adulthood, the gradual shedding of negative character traits, prophecy, magic weapons, clash of religions, stuff that makes up the DNA of storytelling and has been present since we first figured out how to tell each other tales. You could lift the plot threads from Star Wars and put them in any setting and still have them work, just like Shakespeare. In fact a great many creators have done just that and profited immensely. Hell, George Lucas did it himself by lifting the threads from Akira Kurosawa’s work and placing them in space instead of ronin-infested feudal Japan.
As a younger kid I was into Han Solo. I still love Han Solo. He’s a great character. He’s the archetypal rogue. He may care about his friends and do anything for them but he doesn’t have an ounce of honor in his actions otherwise, he’ll happily screw over or murder anyone who isn’t one of his friends, or who he doesn’t consider a decent person at least. He’s edgy in a way that’s appealing, that we’d like to imagine ourselves being able to pull off because it’s edginess around the core of goodness instead of being roguish just for the hell of it. As I’ve grown, though, I’ve come to appreciate Luke Skywalker so very much. As a kid he felt like the whiny side character who lucks into a magic sword and complains his way through a galactic war. As an adult, looking at him, he’s exactly the kind of character children should be exposed to on a regular basis. He’s such a good person, even at his darkest moments he’s willing to drop everything to help people he barely knows. Luke’s the space equivalent to a paladin, and although he faces temptation his actions are guided by a desire to be the best person he can be. His confrontation with Vader in Return of the Jedi is one of my favorite fight scenes ever. For three films we’ve seen him tempted by the dark side, and here, with none of his mentors or friends around to support him and only his core values to fall back upon, he makes the decision not to give in. Even with one last surge of anger, when he uses his saber as more of a club than a sword and just slams into Vader like he’s bludgeoning him with a baseball bat in a fit of rage, he refuses to follow through with it. Knowing that the Emperor can tempt that much anger out of him, he throws his lightsaber away and doesn’t give himself the opportunity to use it. If he doesn’t leave having redeemed Vader, he won’t leave at all.
There have legitimately been times when I fell back on jedi quotes to guide me through life decisions. It’s geeky and silly as hell, but even in my twenties I still routinely ask myself what Luke or Yoda might do in a situation, or what advice they might give. When I see suffering in the world around me, bigotry and senseless violence, I know you can trace it back to hate, and that hate can be traced back to fear of the unknown and the other. It’s one of the reasons I refuse to let myself be afraid of change and of things that are different, and why I go out of my way to learn about and understand the other.
You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.
The prequels. The era when Lucas somehow became the great betrayer, when he surrounded himself with so many yes-men that he lost the capacity to judge his own work fairly, and when he didn’t allow for other people to go at his beloved work with a hacksaw, which is a painful experience but something every writer should not only tolerate but actively seek out. My feelings on the sequels are complicated. I will never argue that they are good movies. In fact, I find rewatching them painful, with the exception of Revenge of the Sith. So many good actors and actresses squandered, and so many neat plotlines handled the worst way possible. What I like about the prequel trilogy is the potential it never reached and the aesthetic is laid out. I have definitely done the obnoxious “well if I wrote the prequels, I would” thing before and a lot of it comes down to changing the pacing so we’re introduced to Anakin as a young adult instead of wasting a film on him as a kid. Show his childhood in flashbacks or allude to it and set up his first taste of the dark side by the end of the first film instead of brief flickers in the second and then a rapid shift from jealous boy scout to deranged child-murderer in the third. A lot of what I like about the prequel films is that they get the imagination running off of cool concepts that are poorly executed. Maul and Dooku are awful villains but they introduced very interesting and different forms of lightsaber combat that have been done better in the years following the films. The Clone Wars could never live up to how bizarre and intriguing they sounded when Leia’s recording mentioned them in A New Hope, and the clone troopers themselves were criminally under-utilized, but they set the stage for the later animated followups that actually did a good job of exploring the moral greyness of genetically engineered soldiers used with the same callous disregard as droids, and painted a picture of the jedi council as something that maybe did need to be wiped out in order to bring balance to the force, because they had stagnated and grown cold and aloof and considered themselves well above the people they had been charged with serving and protecting. I mean, I can’t bring myself to bash even a bad film that allowed Tartakovsky to pump out some astonishingly cool animated shorts that retold the story better and with more imagination.
THAT’S NOT HOW THE FORCE WORKS!
I think that a lot of us approached The Force Awakens with trepidation. It certainly looked cool from the trailers, but most of us were old enough to remember being wowed by the initial teasers for The Phantom Menace (and then again with Attack of the Clones, because we were gullible and optimistic) and JJ Abrams had a very unique directorial style that didn’t seem like it would jive well with Star Wars.
The film has been pretty well received but also divisive among Star Wars fans, mainly because it’s such a retread of the stories told before. Beat for beat in some cases. That’s not something that bothers me too much, because I view the Star Wars films as themselves being enormous retreads of stories that came before, but it’s odd to see a sequel cannibalize its own predecessors so blatantly. Starkiller Base is never going to have the gravitas of the Death Stars.
There’s a lot that I love about The Force Awakens, though. The unsaid things about the New Order. Look at them. They’re basically kids playing at being imperials. Hux is a pasty-faced neo nazi who read a lot of books about Grand Moff Tarkin and somehow thought that he was a hero to be emulated instead of a genocidal warlord. They’re a pale imitation of the empire who have funneled all their resources into building a superweapon at the cost of their own equipment and humanity. The only thing menacing about them is they give off the palpable menace of a regressive force in its death throes and with nothing to lose, seeking to drag everyone else down with it. They stand in stark contrast to our heroes, a motley collection from all races, genders and backgrounds. Rey and Finn are fucking awesome and drag themselves inch by inch to greatness against whatever adversity the universe throws at them, while the First Order sits around and gripes about how they were promised the galaxy.
Kylo Ren is basically the kind of Star Wars fan that would sit around on the internet and complain about how unfair it is that a woman can learn the force as quickly as Rey does, or that it’s ridiculous Finn would survive a brief duel with a sith warrior. He’s the dark reflection, the evil nerd who learned all the wrong lessons from the original trilogy, the one who thought Vader was a compelling character because he was a badass psycho killer instead of because he ultimately redeemed himself and made the right decision in the end. I have known Kylo Rens in my life. They are infuriating and dug into various SF/F fandoms like so many ticks. They are the reason that female friends sometimes ask me to go into comic/gaming stores and conventions with them so they don’t get harassed as much. Kylo Ren is everyone who’s felt the need to quiz and judge another person as not a “real” fan. Half the fun of The Force Awakens is watching Kylo Ren and his little posse of wannabe-fascists get their shit kicked in by the kind of people who they believe don’t hold any claim to the Star Wars legacy.
“Your master cannot save you, boy. He’s unfocused and undisciplined.”
“Then we’re perfect for each other.”
But back to Rebels. Like I said, I’m enjoying the show quite a bit. The animation style is very blocky and simplified, but intentionally so because that fits Ralph McQuarrie’s old concept art so perfectly and allows them to translate a lot of the stuff I had in my old art books as a kid. The show routinely blows my mind with vistas and vehicles I only vaguely remember flipping through when I was nine or ten years old, disappointed that they didn’t make it into the films.
The characters are great. Usually when I indulge myself and watch an animated show, there’s at least one or two side characters that are just incredibly annoying and put in for cheap comic relief to the benefit of the youngest audience members, but that never really happens in Rebels. The closest you get is Chopper, who turns out to be the best character of the bunch because he’s R2D2 if our favorite old astromech droid grew the robot equivalent of muttonchops and spent a lot of time electrocuting people and listening to Motorhead. Hera and Kanan are fantastic work spouses, Zeb manages to avoid pigeonholing himself as stereotypical tough brawny dude and actually reminds me a bit of D’Argo from Farscape, Sabine is a really interesting take on the mandalorian culture we’ve seen so far and the idea that they are a very artistic race at heart and that just happens to manifest in weapon and armor customization most of the time. Ezra is a completely believable teenager who discovers that he can throw ships around with his mind and wants to do the right thing. He’s very much in the vein of Luke, just a little rougher around the edges from growing up on the streets in the kind of society that fundamentally values selfishness. Someone once described the show as Firefly set in the Star Wars universe and as of season one that’s spot on. The inquisitors are great antagonists, too. Not quite as scary as Vader or another “true” Sith but challenging enough to be a believable threat to a half-trained knight and the padawan he’s been training from half remembered lessons he himself never quite mastered.
Seeing that Thrawn is being brought into the new canon makes me very happy and I hope they continue importing the best aspects of the old EU, even if it’s just to these side stories. I’d love to see someone like Darth Traya show up, a Sith who isn’t necessarily devoted to the dark side so much as fervently believing that both sides of the force are actively malevolent and feed off the conflict and bloodshed they inspire in mortal practitioners. I’d love to see a Jolee Bindo figure who argues that dark side powers can be used for good and light side for evil. Rebels isn’t afraid of exploring grey morality. There are already jedi here who will shoot you in the face with a blaster if you corner them, and imperial officers you feel sympathy for, true believers in the empire who see the stability it brings as far outweighing the loss of personal freedoms. It’s an angle that is ripe for future exploration and I’m hungry for it.