Can you all stop being dicks, please

A woman, pictured here oppressing men by existing.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I went on a little moan about fan culture this week.  The thread can be viewed in its full, erm, magnificence here, but if you fancy a sneak peek, here’s the first one.

A good, solid set-up, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The way fans treat each other has long been a bugbear of mine, but it’s got much much worse in recent years. The influx of new fans – younger fans, people of colour, even (oh God!) the wimmins – has set the alarm bells ringing among some (not all, it must be noted) older fans, who seem to view them as a threat to their particular property. Star Trek fans got in on the action this week by moaning about ‘Discovery’ foregrounding two women of colour, while women-only showings of Wonder Woman at the Alamo Drafthouse in the States riled the cinema’s male patrons.

Before attacking this attitude I’m first going to try to understand it, because there is some part of me that can stand back, scientifically judge it, and try to work out objectively where it comes from. As far as I can tell, it’s the erosion of the element of fantasy that people look for in things like Star Trek and Star Wars. If people watch a film set in a galaxy far, far away, they want to be transported there and the greater push for diversity and inclusion draws them out of it. Suddenly, they’re watching a film that reminds them of the world they live in rather than helping them escape it.

As I say, I get that, but, well, y’know what…

Tough shit.

When I was a kid, I loved Spider-Man. He was shy like me, a wallflower who couldn’t articulate himself and didn’t have the confidence to make friends. I needed Spider-Man because I saw myself in him. As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen myself in many more characters. Some of them – like me – are white and male and straight, others are not. I loved Sophie in Spielberg’s The BFG for her determination. I loved Finn in The Force Awakens for his redemptive goodness. I loved Willow from Buffy for her smarts and power. These are great characters and I often think ‘what would they do’ in my every day life because I relate to them so strongly.

The argument so often goes that good stories don’t depend on the race, gender or sexuality of a character, just the story that’s being told, but this is often put over by straight, white, male fans and it’s missing the point. I find it easier to relate to people who aren’t like me because there are so many characters who are like me. I’ve had my fill. If you’re gay, where’s your shining hero? If you’re black or Hispanic or Asian, where are the characters you can look up to and aspire to be. They’re there, for sure, but they’re hard to find and they really shouldn’t be; they should only be the flick of a remote control button away.

Slowly but surely, we’re getting there, but sadly that slowness is far too slow and it’s because of fans, which is something I simply can’t comprehend. It’s completely against what I think is common decency and – more to the point – against what so many of our heroes stand for: the goodness, humanity, and empathy we claim to love about them. There are kids out there of all creeds and colours, sexualities and genders who are desperately in need of the same hero I found in Spider-Man, or Indiana Jones, or Luke Skywalker when I was a kid. They need them and they deserve them. They’ll not only entertain those kids, but help them in times of despair, giving them the strength to say ‘what would they do’ when they’re being bullied, or coming out, or being told that they’re not good enough because they ‘throw like a girl’.

Why on earth would you want to take away the strength you found in your heroes yesterday from those who need them today? That’s not what Spider-Man would do? That’s some straight up Green Goblin shit.

Even if you ignore that, even if you throw your hands up and dismiss that as ‘social justice warrior crap’, fine, but you’re killing the thing you love. Nothing lasts forever. People get old, they stop having disposable incomes and so the money they plough into their favourite things, the money that allows those favourite things to stay alive, diminishes. It happened with Star Wars in the late 80s and early 90s, when the franchise’s core base had grown into teenagers and moved on from such childish things as lightsabers and The Force. It needed the release of the Special Editions to bring people back into the fold and show new audiences what that glorious galaxy far far away is all about.

It could have happened again after the release of Revenge of the Sith. The films were done, the story of the Skywalkers over. The poor critical reception of those movies had tarnished the series as a whole and there really was the threat  – as hard as it is to believe now – that it could all fade away. Then, along came ‘The Clone Wars’ with a new hero, a female hero. Ahsoka Tano was roundly criticised when she first hit the screen, but now she’s gone on to become a lynchpin of the saga, appearing in ‘Star Wars Rebels’ and a wide range of ancillary media. Why? Simple: new, and often female, fans. Young girls could relate to Ahsoka and – thanks to Ashley Eckstein, who voices her – felt welcomed into the community. Female fans have always been there, of course, but there were more now and they all felt empowered because they were represented.

I’m not suggesting Star Wars would have died without Ahsoka and ‘The Clone Wars’, but history could have played out very differently. Without those female fans, without that new audience, would Star Wars and Lucasfilm have been as enticing a proposition to Disney as it was? Would George Lucas have sold to someone else? Would that company have been as careful with the property as Disney has been? Impossible to say, but I doubt we’d be in this spot: witnessing an increasing, and increasingly diverse, following that’s demanding  – and often getting – brilliant films, TV series, books and comics from a company that knows it can’t deliver anything but the best.

From a personal point of view, I look to the diversity and size of the Star Wars franchise with envy. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a big Steven Spielberg fan, and wish there was a thriving community for his films. Sure you get fan followings for Jurassic Park, Jaws and Indiana Jones, but there are few people who love Bridge of Spies, The Terminal and Empire of the Sun as much as they love that aforementioned trio. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it makes me wistful. I wish there was a community who I could engage with, who would love to discuss why Catch Me If You Can is a semi-sequel to E.T. as much as they love discussing Short Round’s back story, but there isn’t and that kinda sucks. Other fans should be grateful that they’re not ploughing their furrow on their own.

It’s not always easy seeing other people enjoying ‘your thing’. They come in and they shake it up, offering new and sometimes critical opinions that you’d prefer not to hear. It’s important to hear them though, not just from a social and political view, but also a creative one (I’m the least stylish person on the planet but love the interest in fashion that female fans have brought to Star Wars). Doing so won’t nudge anyone out of the way or shift the focus onto something else; quite the opposite, it’ll only make the community and therefore the property richer and stronger. Isn’t that, y’know, a good thing?

So please, older fans, stop. Stop getting angry, stop reacting to new and diverse fans like they’re thieves stealing your favourite things, and please, please, please stop being dicks. Just stop. Star Wars is great, Star Trek is great, Wonder Woman is great, Spider-Man is great. These things we love are fucking great, and it’s why we love them. So let people love them. As many people, and as many different people, as you possibly can. Because they need them. Because it’s what your heroes would do. And if that doesn’t persuade you, because there’s nothing worse than debating why Empire of the Sun is Steven Spielberg’s best film with yourself.

Trust me on that one. I know.

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More powerful than you can possibly imagine

Of the many wonderful things that came out of the Women’s Marches this weekend, I was particularly heartened by the appearance of Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher on a number of signs that people took with them. We’re nearly a month on from her untimely passing, and it’s inspiring to see that for women across the world, Fisher remains a source of empowerment and hope. To paraphrase a famous Star Wars quote, the world struck her down, but she became more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine.

Seeing these signs reminded me of the power of fantasy and fairy tales. Star Wars is arguably the defining fairy tales of the 20th Century, and I hope the 21st Century gets one just as popular. Perhaps it’ll be Harry Potter, which I appreciate began in the 90s, but continues to be a significant force today – as evidenced by the many signs referencing that series at the Marches. Perhaps it’ll be something else, as yet unwritten, but fermenting in the brain of a child who witnessed the marches, either in person or on television, and now feels inspired to express themselves.

One day, I’m going to write more in-depth thoughts about fairy tales. They’re critical to our very being as humans, a way to engage with difficult and abstract concepts in a engaging and entertaining way. Sadly, however, I don’t have time at the moment, and am actually trying to formulate my own mini fairy tale, which I’m working up the courage to complete and post here. I’ll keep you up to date on that one.

So instead of a full blog, I’ll simply leave you one of my favourite images from yesterday and a quote, from fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes:

“Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, and perhaps earlier, have been “a means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor.”

Mankind has created a horrifying terror. Princess Leia will help conquer it.

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Rogue One and the Future of Darth Vader

With Rogue One now on general release, it’s worth looking a little closer at one of its main stars: Darth Vader. He may not be in it all that much, but the artist formerly known as Anakin Skywalker looms large over the film, dominating the handful of scenes he’s in and leaving you with plenty of questions. Why’s he on Mustafar? What’s he doing in that big old watery pod? How does he get his helmet so shiny black?

Valid questions, all (especially that last one: Polish? Turtle Wax? Does he have his own little waxing droid?). But what runs through my head whenever I see Vader appear in Rogue One or the TV series Rebels is: what’s he thinking? Come on, big guy…

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Why? Because one of my biggest frustrations with Revenge of the Sith (my least favourite of all the Star Warses) is that I can’t reconcile the Vader at the end of that film with the one who appears at the start of A New Hope. The latter is so full of rage and hatred, while the former is pretty much just a scared boy who’s lost everything and is now stuck in a big black tin can. At what point did one become the other? And more importantly: how?

The re-emergence of the Star Wars franchise gives us a chance to find out, and I’m sure we will. The marketing for Rogue One teased Vader’s cameo perfectly, showing Lucasfilm and Disney are well aware of his continued impact on pop culture. There’s simply no way we won’t get a Vader standalone film, though I suspect it won’t be until Episode 9 is released as the character will likely continue to have a significant bearing on Kylo Ren in the new trilogy. This will hopefully give Lucasfilm plenty of time to think about how to approach the film, because it really isn’t easy.

The difficulty with making a Vader film is that the character works well when used in moderation. He’s a monster: the xenomorph from Alien, the shark from Jaws. Balance is everything. Show too much, and he loses his sense of mystery. Show too little, and the film loses its sense of threat (which is one of the problems I had with Rogue One). Vader exists on the edge of nightmare: always there, but just out of sight. We should’t know him too much: we should let our imagination run away with itself.

That said, there’s a fascinating character study to be had in a Vader film, one that shows the man behind the monster. Because the man is definitely still there. While watching him hack his way through rebel after rebel at the end of Rogue One, I didn’t just see a bad guy doing what bad guys do. That scene is one of the most thrilling in the movie because it’s utterly desperate: the Rebels are desperate to secure the Death Star plans, and Vader is desperate to get them back. At the end of the sequence, he looks on as the Rebels escape, not angry, not plotting their demise. He’s motionless, empty.

Again: what’s going on in his head? Whatcha thinkin’ Vadey!? My own interpretation is that everything he does in Rogue One, everything he did in the preceding, unseen 20 years after Sith, and everything he’ll continue to do is because of Padme. If his evil in the prequels was down to a love for her and a desire to protect her, isn’t it just as true that everything he does after the prequels is a bid to honour her memory? He wouldn’t just let that all go. The fact he’s still based on Mustafar, perhaps as some kind of weird tribute to Padme or act of self-punishment, shows that. Anakin Skywalker doesn’t simply let things go.

Don't rub it in, Elsa.
Don’t rub it in, Elsa.

The Rebellion isn’t just political for Vader then; it’s deeply personal. Every sabotage, every insurgency, every attack is an affront to his efforts to preserve the memory of his lost love. So he would be pretty desperate in that final sequence: just as the Empire is close to completing something that could essentially end the Rebellion and secure the peace he’s been longing for since Padme died, these pathetic, treacherous Rebels have come along and ruined that. He’s desperate, he’s angry, he’s going to destroy every last one of them to get those plans back. He’s the hate-filled Vader we see at the start of A New Hope.

If a Vader standalone is made, I’d love to see it take that angle. To see Vader as a purely bad guy is to misunderstand the point of the series. Star Wars deals in broad strokes: good and evil, light and dark, Rebellion and Empire, but the dramatic core is the stuff in between them, the frailties and contradictions that make us human and drive us to do the things we do. For good and for evil. Rogue One hints at that complexity in Vader, but there’s still a lot to build on. Hopefully a standalone can take it even further.

Notes from Rogue One

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up

WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS BUILT ON SPOILERS. MASSIVE ONES. DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Rogue One was always something of an anomaly for me. It’s a Star Wars film, so I was excited to see it, but it was a very different kind of Star Wars film: a gritty war film rather than a mythical fairy tale. As someone who loves the fairy tale quality of the saga, I was unsure about this new direction, and so my anticipation for Rogue One never hit quite the same levels as it did for The Force Awakens last year.

Now I’ve seen the film, I remain a little unsure. I love parts of it, but as a whole, it never quite seems to gel. It’s a bold and ambitious film; arguably one of the most ambitious blockbusters I’ve ever seen. For that it deserves a huge amount of praise. But it also creates some of the film’s biggest problems. Here are a few very spoilery notes from the film.

  • Felicity Jones is incredible here. While I think the film struggles significantly with the depth it gives some of the characters, Jones manages to counter that with a performance of deeply affecting silence. Her eyes in particular are tremendously powerful: full of despair, hope, fire, and anger. Everything is done with the eyes. The moment when she breaks down while watching the hologram of her father is one of the film’s greatest moments.
  • Just as he did on Godzilla, Gareth Edwards demonstrate a great ability to ground the fantastical in a tangible sense of reality. From the moment Krennic and his Deathtroopers turn up to take Galen Erso from his family at the start of the movie, everything feels real and that has a particularly important effect on the stormtroopers, who here feel like an actual oppressive army – irrepressible, genuinely scary – rather than a bunch of useless underlings who need target practice.
  • The film’s core message is brilliantly prescient, and is likely to have particular resonance with late teens/20-somethings. Contrary to Bob Iger’s recent comments about the film’s lack of political message, Rogue One is not just deeply political, it’s about becoming politicised. Jyn is so beaten down by the cruelty of the galaxy and her lot in life that she feels she can’t achieve anything and so resorts to apathy. The film forces her to take up a cause so she can express her frustration more positively, and as the real world darkens, that’s a worthwhile message for the film to convey. Also: super-political, Bob. Come on, dude, grow a spine.
  • The last 20 minutes of Rogue One are genuinely remarkable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything so thrilling at the cinema. Like all the great finales, it convinces you that anything can happen, that there are no guarantees, and that either good or evil could win. The very final few sequences, in which Rebel troops desperately flee Vader, Death Star plans in hand, while the Sith Lord cuts through them like a hot knife through butter is as terrifying, desperate and vital as blockbuster film-making gets. This is a prequel. We know how it ends. But somehow, in that final act, everything feels up for grabs.
  • (Sidenote: the moment when the destruction of Scarif creates a gigantic mushroom cloud style explosion that resembles a sun is one of the richest and most poignant uses of Star Wars iconography I’ve ever seen. If Luke looking out towards the twin suns on Tattooine was an expression of pure hope and potential, Jyn and Cassian framed against a sun-like mushroom cloud is an expression of that same hope tainted by tragedy. Rebellions are built on hope… but also desperation.)
  • And yet, for all that, the finale also exposes one of the film’s key flaws. It has big moments that never quite feel earned. As our heroes are picked off one by one, it feels like Rogue One‘s doing it for shock, a way to underline how dark it is and make the wider point about the sacrificial nature of political resistance. That’s a valid point and the deaths make it well, but I wanted to care more about these people than I did. As the deaths kept coming, I sorta expected it and they lost a little impact.
  • This is extended throughout, particularly with Jyn. A key moment for her is when she tries to encourage a rebellion stripped of morale to fight on. They want to give up, convinced that there’s no way they can possibly fight a weapon like the Death Star, but Jyn insists they keep going, stating the film’s signature line: “rebellions are built on hope”. But the film doesn’t feel like it earns her change of heart. Key relationships – with her father, with Cassian – feel too thin, key moments in her life –  her childhood, her abandonment by her father and Saw Gerrera – feel underdeveloped. I wanted to see all that, not simply be told it. Perhaps the prequel novel Catalyst expands this, perhaps there’ll be future media showing her as the 16-year-old tearaway we’re told about, but for Rogue One to function like it needs to, all that really needs to be here, in Rogue One.
  • (Sidenote: While I admire the braveness of the film killing its cast, I wish Jyn at least had survived. It feels like they could have done so much with her. Imagine, for example, her watching or taking part in the Battle of Yavin, finally seeing the fruits of her and her father’s endeavours. Hope is a part of the film’s make-up, and in many ways her surviving to see the Death Star’s destruction undermines that message: hope, by its nature, is about believing in something, not actually seeing it. But it’s still a shame (though an admirable one) that we won’t get any more Jyn stories.
  • Director Krennic’s another key character the film never quite gets right. In isolation, he’s a fascinating villain: a middle manager with arrogant ambition. He’s pretty normal really, and the moment where he realises he’s about to be destroyed by the monstrosity he’s created underlines how pathetically human he is. But the film needs a bigger sense of threat. It needs the murderous sneer of Tarkin (who appears here but isn’t the main threat) or the cold calculation of Grand Admiral Thrawn (who would have been perfect for this), but Krennic doesn’t have that stature. Rogue One is the beginning of an endgame: the set-up for a battle that will bring 20 years of conflict to a head. It just never quite feels like that’s on the line.
  • While Edwards largely helms the film very well, there are definite flaws, mostly with tone. At times, Rogue One feels at war with itself, fighting to be a different kind of Star Wars film, but still knowing that it needs to be a Star Wars film. So you get some moments, such as the scenes of the insurgency on Jedha, that are deliberately touching upon very real world concerns. Others, meanwhile, feel like classic Star Wars, such as the aerial attack on Scarif. It creates a film that, on first viewing at least, feels patchwork and inconsistent, unable to feel entirely like one thing or the other. I hope that feeling recedes on repeat viewings.
  • Despite all of this, I did very much enjoy the film – I just didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, or as much as I loved The Force Awakens. Ultimately there’s a mix of issues, some that simply won’t go away (the thinly-written characters) and some that maybe will (the sense of clashing tones and styles). But whatever flaws there are, they’re created by Rogue One trying something that nobody really had any right to expect. It’s a brave film that tears up the Star Wars rule book and asks us to accept a different version of the franchise. I have a feeling it’ll reward repeat viewings, but even after just the one, for its boldness and ambition alone, Rogue One deserves the benefit of the doubt and a huge amount of praise. The Star Wars universe is a vast and diverse place. Rogue One shows us that Lucasfilm and Disney are brave enough to explore it.

The Best of #GiacchinoStarWarsPuns

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Yesterday (16th September), one of the great modern movie score makers, Michael Giacchino, was announced as the new composer of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He replaces the equally brilliant Alexandre Desplat, who for scheduling reasons forced by the film’s reshoots, could no longer commit to the project.

Giacchino is known for the brilliantly awful puns he and his music editors create for track titles. A few of my favourites are: Caesar No Evil, Hear No Evil (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), A Thern For The Worse (John Carter), It’s a Small Jurassic World (Jurassic World), From Russia With Shove (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol), Cryo Your Heart Out (Star Trek Into Darkness) and arguably the greatest of them all… Hellavacopter Chase (Mission: Impossible III).

To celebrate the Star Wars news, I couldn’t resist taking to Twitter to drum up a hashtag covering all the brilliant puns Giacchino could put to use on Rogue One and any other Star Wars-based projects he may participate in in the future. My first offering was the somewhat predictable ‘When You Wish Upon A Death Star’, and there I expected the hashtag to die a sorry, unceremonious death.

How wrong I was. So here (in no particular order) are the best #GiacchinoStarWarsPuns the fine folks of Twitter threw together yesterday.

The full #GiacchinoStarWarsPuns list can be seen here