Category Archives: Star Wars

‘The Force Awakens’ worth the wait

force kylo ren

It’s been fun and a little frustrating, as the decades pass and “Star Wars” fandom changes, to view the movie series and everything associated with it from the perspective of an original fan.

There are millions of “Star Wars” fans who never saw the original trilogy in a theater, like I did, and didn’t know what it was like to wait three years to see if Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker’s father. In today’s world of continually-in-production genre fare, from Marvel’s movies and TV series to now Disney’s “Star Wars” sequels and spin-offs, there’s never ever again going to be years of wandering in the wilderness, wondering what was happening with the characters and story you enjoyed. Want a “Star Wars” fix before Episode 8? Well, you can see Episode 7 again in theaters now, of course, and you’ll be able to watch it on disc and streaming in a few months and you can keep in touch with the extended Skywalker family through animated and, someday, live-action shows on TV.

So it was fun to watch as the younger crowd caught onto the saga – unfortunately for them, sometimes via the prequel trilogy – and went back and discovered what had come before and made it their own.

Thats the best thing about the strongest genre stories, of course: That with decades of history, fans of “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” or any other series or movie or book or heck, I dunno, audio drama like the newly produced “Doctor Who” audio episodes, fans can jump in at almost any starting point.

It’s also frustrating because it’s easy to get spoiled and forget (I promise this isn’t a “get off my lawn” rant) that the genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror and comic-book-based shows and movies – hasn’t always been such a huge part of pop culture. I remember well getting odd looks (not from my family, thank god) and hostile comments for my avid consumption of genre fiction going back 50 years.

Now it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t consume some kind of genre work, from TV’s highly-rated “The Walking Dead” to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Who that has Netflix didn’t have an opinion on “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones?”

As I’ve said before, my son knows Batman and Wonder Woman and Finn and Kylo Ren and Captain America and Black Widow as much from their constant cover appearances on the magazines we subscribe to as much – more, really – than their source material.

So what started out as an entry about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which I saw last night, has turned into a rumination on pop culture and waiting and not having to wait.

While one of my first thoughts about “TFA” was that it felt like old-school “Star Wars,” almost to the point that it felt as if it had been shot back-to-back with “The Empire Strikes Back” in the late 1970s, fans won’t have to wait forever, like we did back in the day, to see it again or get at least hints of what happens next time.

That’s good, because “TFA” has me wanting more, and I’m not sure I expected it to.

Don’t get me wrong. While the prequel trilogy left me mostly cold, the original trilogy left adolescent me in high anticipation of what would happen next.

“Star Wars” (later dubbed “A New Hope”) was a high-water mark, right up there with “Jaws” two years earlier, in moviegoing. It didn’t have much contemporary competition for the love and loyalties of fans. While “Close Encounters” was released a few months later, the other genre movies of 1977 didn’t have much to offer fans. I mean, seriously: “Damnation Alley?” “Island of Doctor Moreau?”

By May 1980, my friends and I were standing in line outside a 900-seat Indianapolis theater to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” We repeated that three years later with “Return of the Jedi.”

You’ll never know how long three years could seem.

So while I wasn’t avidly anticipating “TFA,” I was looking forward to it. Not quite as much as your average new Marvel movie, to be honest. When I turned out 90 minutes early for “TFA” last night, it was less about eagerness and more about not wanting to sit someplace where people would cough on the back of my head.

That worked out pretty well and so did the movie.

“The Force Awakens” did everything it set out to do. Maybe a little imitative of the original movie – secrets hidden in a droid, family estrangements to the extreme, intercut X-Wing and lightsaber battles – but director J.J. Abrams could do a lot worse than use that same template.

(I’ll go very light on the spoilers here, by the way.)

As anybody who has read this far knows, “TFA” takes up 30 or so years after “Return of the Jedi.” I think the most interesting thing about this choice, besides the fact it lets actors like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher play Han and Leia in totally sensical aging mode, is that the story lets us know that the events of that time – Luke’s defeat of the Emperor with help from his father, Darth Vader – have almost faded into the stuff of myth. The names Skywalker and Solo are familiar but hazily-remembered by people on isolated planets who heard stories told not second-hand but hundredth-hand.

So while the movie very rightly so focuses on a new generation of characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the “old” cast is introduced gradually. Very gradually, in some cases.

There are callbacks and references to the events of the original story, with little jokes about Han’s troubles as a smuggler and the prowess or not of the Millennium Falcon, but there’s no doubt the movie is carried by and its heart is greatly invested in Finn and Rey and Kylo Ren.

There’s a great part for Harrison Ford as Han Solo and a number of old favorite characters are back, but this is the story of the new characters and it serves them very well. The movie is a series of funny scenes followed by thrilling scenes followed by heartfelt scenes followed by huge spectacle and it all really works.

When George Lucas’ “Star Wars” came out, people commented on it’s “lived-in universe” feel. The prequels, set at an earlier time, felt too scuff-free to me. Too full of palaces and pristine rooms and opera houses where at least it seemed understandable, if not desirable, to hear about trade delegations and midichlorians.

The new movie covers some familiar geography, from a desert planet to a snow-covered planet to one that turns out not to be a moon or even a Death Star but a big honkin’ Starkiller. But it plays with the iconography. There are Imperial Walkers, those lumbering, four-footed transport vehicles, and Star Destroyers but they’re as often as not half-buried where they fell after some long-ago battle.

I wonder if some of these settings, some of these moments, will become as iconic as those from the original films have become. There’s an enormous interior, with one of those dizzying catwalks that the “Star Trek” spoof “Galaxy Quest” made fun of, that sees one of the movie’s most dramatic confrontations played out. I’m already wanting to get another chance to peer into its darkest depths but know that I won’t be able to look away from the drama being played out in the foreground.

I’ve mentioned the main characters but a quick word about some of the secondary characters. And that word is: they all feel right, from Oscar Isaac’s pilot Poe Dameron to Fisher’s General Leia Organa to Lupita N’Yongo’s mysterious Maz. The prequels stuck us with main and secondary characters that never felt right. I’d go so far to say that “TFA” has a better supporting cast than the main cast of the prequels.

Still, there’s a lot about “The Force Awakens” that remains a mystery to me after just one viewing. What’s the story of Chrome Stormtrooper Captain Phasma? What about the spooky visions in the junky little room where Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber was stored? (They made me think of the creepy Dagobah cave/tree in “Empire” where Luke confronts the Dark Side and his destiny.)

What will happen after that sad and thrilling final scene?

So many questions, or at least intriguing mysteries. I don’t know if they’ll be answered in Episode 8, which will continue this story.

I do know, however, that we won’t have to wait three years this time. Disney has scheduled the next sequel for May 26, 2017. And less than two years is better than three. After all, who wants to wait anymore?

Fun trailer for ‘The Force Awakens’

forceawakeshanchewbacca

Today marked the beginning of the latest “Star Wars” Celebration – my attendance at the first few Celebrations is something I should get around to telling you about sometime – and today’s events were marked by a panel of actors from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the sequel – Episode VII as the titles will no doubt have it when it opens at the end of the year – and a new teaser trailer.

And have no doubt, the teaser is pretty fun.

The shot of Han Solo and Chewbacca up top there closes the teaser and, judging by the response online, greatly increased the anticipation.

forceawakensboyega

I’m looking forward to seeing some of the new cast in director J.J. Abrams’ film, including Daisy Ridley and John Boyega (above).

forceawakensluker2

But what about that narration by Mark Hamill and that shot of Darth Vader’s melted helmet?

forceawakensvader

Goosebumps.

Here’s the teaser.

‘Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo’ by Alex Raymond

flash gordon ming alex raymond
Like Doc Savage was the inspiration for many superheroes that followed him, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were the forerunners for many science fiction stories that followed, including “Star Wars.”

So “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo,” the first in a series of beautiful hardcover collections of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday newspaper strips, is essential perusing for anyone who wants to understand the origins of modern space opera.

The first oversized hardback collection curates Raymond’s Sunday strips from Jan. 1, 1934 to April 18, 1937 and features an introduction and appreciation by artist Alex Ross.

What’s fascinating about the collection is how quickly Raymond populated the world of Mongo with bizarre characters and creatures. By the time of the second Sunday strip – the second – Raymond had introduced giant dinosaur lizards for Flash to battle. By the third Sunday, red ape-like creatures are brought out to wrestle a Speedo-sporting Flash.

Lion Men, Hawk Men and other staples of the strip follow one after the other.

Raymond quickly grew more confident in his art. The early strips contain up to 12 panels. They’re colorful and stuffed full of wild figures and story twists but Raymond’s talents are not shown off by the cramped layout.

By the fall of 1934, Raymond had made his panels bigger – sometimes using as few as eight – and telling his story more effectively.

By mid-1935, the panels were as few as four a week. On June 16, 1935, Raymond used just three panels – one taking up much of that week’s strip – to show Hawkmen, spears in hand, buzzing out of the sky on an enemy army on the ground below.

In these first adventures, Flash and his allies war against Emperor Ming, explore undersea kingdoms and are forever being thrown into pits with reptilian beasties.

It’s all fun and, thanks to the propulsive plots and beautiful art of Alex Raymond, a classic.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ takes us out there

guardians infinity stone

A lot of people are saying “Guardians of the Galaxy” is this generation’s “Star Wars.” I’m not sure that’s the case, or that anything could be this generation’s “Star Wars.” Some people forget just what a game-changer “Star Wars” and, two years earlier, “Jaws,” were. Those two movies solidified summertime as a time for big-screen escapist fare and proved that people would pay to see it.

Others say that “Guardians” is this generation’s “The Last Starfighter” but I think that’s selling “Guardians” short. As fond as my memories of “Starfighter” are, I think “Guardians” is a better movie.

So what role does “Guardians” fill?

Roles, really.

First of all, it’s a really good summer movie. It’s good-natured and funny and full of action.

Secondly, it’s a sure-footed next milestone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although it only slyly references the quest for the Infinity Stones – the sources of power that will, almost certainly lead Thanos to Earth in the third “Avengers” movie, probably in 2018 – it keeps that subplot to the first three phases of Marvel movies in moviegoers’ minds.

Thirdly, it expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s how:

The comics published by Marvel in the past half-century-plus have covered a lot of territory, literally and figuratively speaking.

There’s the street-level superheroes, like Spider-Man and Daredevil, dealing with maniacal villains and street punks alike. The non-Marvel Cinematic Universe “Spider-Man” movies and Marvel’s upcoming Netflix series like “Daredevil” map out this world. (They’re the Marvel counterparts of Batman, for you DC lovers out there.)

There’s the global superheroes, like the Avengers, who have the power to face threats to the entire world. The non-MCU heroes like “Fantastic Four” also fall into this category, as does DC’s Superman and Justice League.

What “Guardians” does is give Marvel Studios a beachhead in the cosmic universe where the comic books have played for a half-century.

There’s always been some crossover among all these Marvel realms, such as when Galactus, devourer of worlds, shows up and is tackled by the FF. Cosmic threat comes to global heroes.
But quite often, the links between the cosmic and Earth-based heroes have been only tenuous. Captain Marvel or the Silver Surfer or Warlock show up and fight and eventually team up with the FF or the Avengers to face a menace like the Kree-Skrull War, but by the end of the story, things are back to a Marvel status quo and the Avengers are dealing with Earth-based villains like Doctor Doom.

“Guardians” plunges us headlong into that cosmic Marvel universe with only occasional looks back at Earth.

I won’t recap the plot I’m sure you’re familiar with by now or even go on and on with my thoughts about “Guardians.” Director James Gunn had made a fun, “Star Wars”-ian adventure pitting an unlikely band of heroes against evil forces. Along the way, the movie introduces, more smoothly than most would have thought possible, fantastic creatures like Rocket Racoon, a small but ferocious animal with a pitiable past and a love of big guns, and Groot, a walking, talking (well, a little) tree creature. Space raccoon and gentle plant-based giant you say? Sure, why not. It’s a testament to Gunn’s handling of the characters and plot of “Guardians” that what the characters are matter less than who they are.

If you remember, Thanos, Marvel’s go-to cosmic bad guy, showed up at the end of “The Avengers” to take credit for pitting an invading alien army against Earth and grin at the thought of courting death.

Thanos wants the Tesseract – the Cosmic Cube in the comics – that the Red Skull wielded in “Captain America” and Loki sought in “The Avengers.” Along with the Aether, the cosmic power from “Thor: The Dark World,” and other Infinity Stones, Thanos can make the Infinity Gauntlet, a weapon of unimaginable power. It’s a certainty that will be the major plot point of the third “Avengers” movie.

One of the most amusing things about “Guardians” is that much of the history and power of the Infinity Stones is laid out midway through the movie … but to the protagonists and antagonists of “Guardians,” who don’t even know as much as Captain America and Iron Man about the importance of the Stones but know a thing to keep away from bad guys when they see one.

So the collected Guardians, led by the effortlessly charming Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, take on Ronan, an upstart ally of Thanos, in an effort to keep a handle on their particular Infinity Stone and keep it away from Thanos.

It’s an effort that will continue for another four years before the contest for the Stones pits Avengers – and likely other allies – against Thanos in the third Avengers movie, which will likely act as capper to the first three phases of big-screen Marvel.

“Guardians” is so much fun, so funny, so charming, that it carries all the responsibility of furthering the over-arching plot of big-screen Marvel as if it were a feather. Despite its many accomplishments, that might be the movie’s handiest achievement.

By the way, I wanted to mention Marvel’s other comic-book universes, besides street-level, global and cosmic playgrounds, because the big-screen Marvel universe will no doubt incorporate them as well.

(I won’t get into a couple of lesser-known Marvel comic book universes here because, frankly, I don’t think we’ll see big-screen versions of Marvel’s romance and western comic worlds anytime soon.)

We’re all but certain to see Marvel’s mystical and horror universes come into play in movies before long, perhaps in a combined venture.

The studio has already named a director for its “Dr. Strange” movie, about a physician who became a master of the mystic arts and fought supernatural creatures. It’ll be interesting to see who the studio picks to play the part because Strange could be as much of an anchor for ongoing Marvel movies as Robert Downey Jr. has been as Tony Stark.

A “Strange” movie would not only introduce the mystical and supernatural Marvel universes to the big screen but could encompass the company’s long history of horror characters, some of whom regularly cross paths with heroes like Spider-Man (I’m looking at you, Moebius the Living Vampire) but operate in a realm that ranges from the dark corners of the Earth to other dimensions. It’s a world of magic – already explained in the “Thor” movies as simply science that humans can’t understand – and wild creatures.

If the idea seems strange to you, consider how strange a space raccoon and a talking tree might have seemed before this record-breaking opening weekend for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Hey, have you heard? New ‘Star Wars’ movie

star wars episode 7 script reading

So the Internets were ablaze yesterday with this announcement, confirmation of what we already knew.

And the picture above got released.

Reaction was mixed:

Cool, another “Star Wars” movie.

Thank god, another “Star Wars” movie that ISN’T a prequel.

Too many white people in that picture.

Too many male people in that picture.

Is Kenny Baker inside that R2 inside that crate?

Here’s the press release:

The Star Wars team is thrilled to announce the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII.

Actors John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow will join the original stars of the saga, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker in the new film.

Director J.J. Abrams says, “We are so excited to finally share the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, and everyone is doing their best to make the fans proud.”

Star Wars: Episode VII is being directed by J.J. Abrams from a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, and Bryan Burk are producing, and John Williams returns as the composer. The movie opens worldwide on December 18, 2015.

My reaction? That announcement has commas where it doesn’t need them and has no commas where it does need them.

But I’m glad they’re making another (several, actually) live action movies. “Star Wars” needs new blood, new fans. “The Clone Wars” animated series and, yes, even the prequel movies, reached new fans who weren’t even born when the first movies came out.

So we’ll see what happens in December 2015.

 

Today in Halloween: Cute lil Darth Vader

ben cooper darth vader

Who’s a cute Little Darth Vader? Who is? You are!

If you were the appropriate age to wear Ben Cooper Halloween costumes in 1980, and if you were a “Star Wars” fan, chances are good you wore this Darth Vader costume, offered by the company that year.

“The Empire Strikes Back” had come out that summer and Ben Cooper, the maker of half the nation’s Halloween costumes, had Darth Vader, just in time for you to tell the younger kid down the street who was dressed up like Luke Skywalker that you were his father.

Of course, the whole thing didn’t go off without a hitch.

hallow ben cooper darth vadar misspelling

Check out the spelling of Vader in the Cooper catalogue, here courtesy of plaidstallions.com.

Oh well. Not like it was the most popular movie series in history or anything.