#CloneWarsSaved, or, A Poe Boy Hot Take

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I’m not crying, you’re crying. Ah, look at that, now you’ve got me going. I guess we’re both crying now. So silly.

Have you heard the good news!? No, not that, the OTHER good news! I have a brand new Star Wars podcast, Poe Boys! Check it out on Podbean and Apple Podcasts!

It was a confluence of events that threatened to sour Star Wars, my great pop culture love, for me.

Solo: A Star Wars Story had performed poorly at the box office and thus any and all discourse to the film was relegated to everyone and their mother’s hot takes on what went wrong, rather than any sort of discussion regarding the contents of the actual film.

Unfounded rumors began to swirl that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy would be resigning and that Disney was entirely scrapping any and all planned Star Wars anthology films.

It became impossible to forget that Solo and Star Wars were products, to the point that it began to feel as though that’s all they were.

Around the same time, Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, essentially expunged her social media presence in response to the toxic little pigs that have coopted Star Wars fandom for their own racist, sexist agendas.

And of course who can forget the rogue band of fans offering/threatening to fund a remake of Episode VIII, a pursuit for which they claim to have raised… $400 million.

All this left me feeling like Star Wars fandom was something best left unengaged with, like politics at Thanksgiving. I felt like I’d been looking at Star Wars through rose-colored glasses and now my third eye had opened to reveal a dollar sign.

Look gang, I’m just trying to talk about the progression of heroism from Episode III to Solo and how that progression serves as a thematic bridge between the prequel and sequel trilogies, but it feels impossible to pry Solo out of its hardened fiscal resin!

And then San Diego Comic Con rolled around, and it was announced there would be a panel celebrating the tenth anniversary of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and they showed concept art and talked about the development of the show and OH YEAH THE CLONE WARS IS COMING BACK BABY THIS IS NOT A DRILL THIS IS HAPPENING THANK THE MAKER OH BOY OH BOY!!!

I don’t know that I’ve been as excited for a Star Wars announcement since I learned there would be an Episode VII.

The Clone Wars was what took me from a casual Star Wars fan most moviegoers could identify with to waking up at four in the morning in Orlando, Florida to wait in line for the Star Wars: Rebels panel at the last Star Wars Celebration. It is the beating heart of my fandom, and shortly after Disney acquired Lucasfilm Mickey buried a rusty axe in it, leaving untold stories in various stages of development and production dangling before fans’ imaginations, pesky what-ifs and what-could-have-beens just out of reach.

I’ve talked about it here one or five times.

I don’t remember if I wound up officially forgiving Disney for their flagrant transgression, but if I did I take it back, even in the face of the show’s eminent return.

#CloneWarsSaved rekindled my excitement for a franchise that seemed to be moving further and further from the contents of its actual stories and characters, not only because of the prospect of seeing more of my favorite show, but because of the fandom I saw on display during the panel at which it was announced.

Not every Star Wars fan is a Star Wars animation fan. We’re certainly a smaller subset of the sprawling audiences that flock to theaters for the live-action films. And if the panel in question is any indication, we’re also a subset that won’t immediately harass and berate creators and performers into digital oblivion because we don’t like the cut of their jib.

Perhaps because of that there exists a transparency, an openness between the creative forces that be and the fans of Lucasfilm animation that is not mirrored elsewhere in the Star Wars machine. Reading through The Art of Solo: A Star Wars Story, for instance, I found no mention of the directorial transition behind the scenes and how that may or may not have affected the art direction of the film. I’m not looking for juicy gossip mind you, I genuinely am curious about the creative mindsets at play and how the film’s art direction grew. But that’s unseemly and secret and even though anyone who’s buying The Art of Solo knows exactly what happened behind the scenes, we just don’t talk about it. Inversely, on the Clone Wars panel, Star Wars animation guru Dave Filoni openly jokes about episodes fans have deemed “filler” and story arcs that viewers were ultimately less than enthusiastic about. There’s an openness to the conversation in which fans are just as ready to dislike something as they are to like it and creators are ready to acknowledge those feelings playfully because it never devolves into the Thunderdome. It’s the kind of back-and-forth you get when a fan base isn’t littered with ointment-sullying maggots.

The return of Clone Wars doesn’t make me excited just for a dozen more episodes tying up loose ends, it makes me excited for a discourse that, for a brief moment, felt in danger of being beaten to death by bigots and bullies. For me, and my relationship with the multi-billion dollar juggernaut of a franchise, it isn’t just The Clone Wars that was saved.

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Star Wars: Rebels, or, Something Like an Ending in a Franchise That Will Never End

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Fixing to get jumped by some cats.

For the first time since, arguably, Return of the Jedi, there’s been a proper ending in a galaxy far, far away. After four seasons, Lucasfilm Animation’s Star Wars: Rebels has come to a close, or at least a premeditated line of demarcation between it and the future of the animated Star Wars saga.

The Star Wars that Rebels leaves behind is vastly different than the Star Wars it entered into in 2014, more than a year before the premiere of The Force Awakens. Looking at what Star Wars was then and is now, and considering the now completed story of the Ghost crew in its entirety, we can already gleam some sense of the legacy the (admittedly fantastic) Band-Aid Disney slapped on their unjust, premature cancellation of The Clone Wars will leave behind.

Star Wars: Rebels was the debut of a new era of Star Wars, the post-Lucas, Disney era, and it proved to be a smart, capable and worthy successor, but also a very appropriate one. The end of the Lucas era, the end of Star Wars made by the maker, was The Clone Wars, so it’s fitting that that ending would dovetail into the beginnings of the Star Wars we have today. In many ways, notably the oversite of Lucas’ heir-apparent Supervising Director/Executive Producer Dave Filoni, Rebels was the strain of current-day Star Wars that best carried on Lucas’ adventurous, if divisive, storytelling sensibilities. The show doesn’t skimp on TIE Fighters, which are starting to feel like an incessant nostalgia bell Disney rings throughout its every Star Wars entry, but Rebels was never content to rest on the past glories of the Star Wars franchise. It continually blazed forward, broadening the canvas of what Star Wars can be right through to its finale. The show often engaged with and introduced ideas and concepts that felt jarring, or goofy, or even heretical, challenging the notions of what the Star Wars universe encompassed. Not the controversial character decisions or shocking identity revelations that haunt the theories and vitriol of fans, but big, grand ideas of cosmic and mythological scope. Ideas about what a Jedi is, about what the Force is. It went weird, real weird, and profound, and Star Wars as a whole is more nuanced because of it.

But Rebels was also distinctly effective because of its smaller scale. Where Clone Wars was something of an anthology series bouncing across a sprawling cast spread around the entire galaxy, Rebels stuck like glue to a regular cast of characters, largely on one planet.

While I personally got a little sick of Lothal and relished any chance to see more exotic locales, the show’s focus on one planet lends a viewpoint of the Empire and the Rebellion that Star Wars viewers previously haven’t been exposed to. We’ve always known the Empire were bad guys because they blew up a planet and because the good guys fought them. But Rebels showed us what the Empire looks like on a Monday. It showed us what the Empire looks like to a fruit vendor, to a neighborhood, to a local government. In Rebels we got the day-to-day Empire.

Similarly, we got a better understanding of the Rebel Alliance and its severe limitations. What does the existence of some rumored band of radicals mean to one person on one subjugated planet amongst many? What does that one person mean to the Rebel Alliance? Rebels provides thoughtful insight into the conflict the world was first introduced to in 1977. It isn’t information you need to know to understand the Star Wars films, but if you’re curious, the information is there and it’s been presented with the same amount of thought and care that goes into the films.

Rebels won’t hold the same place in my heart as The Clone Wars, which is very likely more a matter of timing than of either show’s inherent qualities, but as with its predecessor, Rebels has given me some of my favorite moments and characters in all of Star Wars. Where Clone Wars had the daunting task of carrying the torch for the entire Star Wars franchise in its day, Rebels carried the torch for something more fleeting, more specific, that adventurous, beyond-the-establishment spirit that ran through all of George Lucas’ Star Wars, that urge to move the conventions and mechanisms of storytelling forward.

Rebels has now also given viewers something Disney’s Star Wars has yet to confront: something like an ending. And what an ending it was. The finale of Rebels was so exciting and well executed that it heightened the show as a whole, highlighting just how complete a story the series had been all along. Much as you don’t need to see Rebels to enjoy Rogue One, you don’t need Revenge of the Sith or A New Hope to enjoy Rebels. It’s a story with its own beginning and ending, its own heroes, its own challenges, mysteries and revelations. Whatever Lucasfilm Animation does next, if the folks behind Rebels are involved it’ll be well worth watching.

CW Years, or, Black Lightning

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ZAP ATTACK

If the CW’s stable of DC Comics-based television shows are good for one thing (they’re good for many but bear with me) it’s gaggles of attractive young Canadians wadding through seas of dead parents and betrayal towards inevitable mac-attacks with other attractive young Canadians, undoubtedly breaking the heart of a third gaggle of attractive young Canadians.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that the protagonist in the CW’s latest superhero show, Black Lightning, is played with instant gravitas by Cress Williams, who is a 47-year-old man, which basically makes him 1,000,000 in CW years. At 47 years old, Williams’ Jefferson Pierce is the DCW’s equivalent of Frank Miller’s aging, crotchety, Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne. Which actually turns out to be a pretty apt comparison when considering the show’s pilot.

At the onset of Black Lightning, Pierce has hung up the titular moniker for some time, opting instead to improve his community, Freeland, as a high school principal. But a rise in gang violence perpetuated by the growing threat of The 100 Gang. It’s a problem that effects the entire community, to the chagrin of both Jefferson and his two daughters.

Kind of like how in The Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman anymore and instead he improves Gotham by driving race cars while contemplating suicide, but a gang called the mutants is wreaking havoc on Gotham and it pisses Bruce Wayne off, much as it annoys young Cary Kelly, daughter of two local deadbeats.

The Dark Knight Returns is a worthwhile point of comparison when considering Black Lightning as the disparities between the former, a staple of 1986, and the latter, a show that is ever so 2018, reflect a changing attitude towards heroism.

Frank Miller’s Batman is a dick. Always has been, always will be. He is essentially and old, rich, white guy who disagrees with the direction the world around him is taking and in response uses his economic resources to beat the culture around him to death with his personal ideology. Cary Kelly, the kindling of a youthful, feminine power in TDKR, does not have opinions of her own in the narrative. She’s an acolyte. The culture around her is more her own to inherit than Batman’s to cling to, but despite the fact that she actually lives in Gotham, rather than in a mansion, she’s indoctrinated rather than consulted.

While Jefferson Pierce certainly wouldn’t shirk the opportunity to align his daughters’ worldviews with his own, that isn’t the cards he’s dealt. Black Lightning is less a show about deciding to engage in heroism and standing up to villainy than it is a show about deciding how to stand up to that villainy.

Enter a white guy blogging about race.

Jefferson Pierce and his family are confronted with everyday evils, little treacheries like being pulled over by the cops based on the color of their skin. In many ways, they don’t have a choice as to whether or not they react to the world’s ills because more than Barry Allen or Kara Danvers, the world’s ills seek Pierce and his family out. But how to go about reacting and combating those ills is a topic of open debate in the show. Vigilantism? Protest? Social media? Education?

Spoilers, Black Lightning becomes Black Lightning again in Black Lightning. And when he does so, he doesn’t saunter down the middle of the stage to the bowed heads of a subdued, formerly directionless youth. Black Lightning takes a trope we’ve seen before, the grizzled, retired hero called back into action, and confronts it with a youthful eye that is not worshipful, but skeptical.

He might be 1,000 CW years older than the likes of The Flash, Supergirl, or the Green Arrow (who himself is getting into his CW 80s) but make no mistake, Williams is just as charming and engaging as CW’s established superhero protagonists, and the world around him has the potential to provide a show that is just as philosophically engaging as it is ludicrously-costumed.

Ups and Downs and Loop-De-Loops, or, The Punisher

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Spooky attack!

Do you like roller coasters?

Metaphorical roller coasters?

The Punisher, Netflix’s latest Marvel television series, is something of a ride. You know what it is before you go on it. You can look at it from the outside and get the gist, and you’re opinion of it, I suspect, will largely hinge on your eagerness to get on the ride to begin with.

The roller coaster in question? One of the oldest around: revenge. Straight-up, brutal, Old Testament vengeance.

Like any good revenge narrative, The Punisher isn’t necessarily a fun ride, but it’s one that is easy to insert yourself into because of the primal nature of the story and the out of this world portrayal of the titular vigilante Frank Castle by Jon Bernthal.

In many ways Castle is an agent of fantasy, of wish fulfillment. While the healthy majority of us hopefully aren’t chomping at the bit to have our families murdered, or to beat a guy to death with a sledgehammer, there’s likely a little Punisher in each of us. Whether it’s the feeling we get being cut off in traffic or the simmering resignation forced upon us when we see power abused without consequence there’s a universality to what The Punisher can offer: a world in which justice and one’s own righteousness are intertwined and absolute, in which they are elemental forces of sheer will tapped from a bottomless, primordial well.

Bernthal finds the fine balance between embodying those forces like a bloody monument and portraying the misery of a battered and broken human being. His grunts and silences and screams and scowls breathe life into Frank Castle so that we are able to not only tap into the aforementioned universality of his motivations, but his humanity as well. He is one of easily one of the greatest casting decisions the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever made. We can move through the story with him, in some respects we can move through the story as him. He is the car on the tracks of this rollercoaster and it is exactly the car you want to be in.

If, that is, you want to be on a rollercoaster.

Like any other revenge yarn, engaging with The Punisher is chasing a dragon of sorts. Fully immersing yourself in Frank Castle’s quest requires a suspension of one’s better angles in the hopes of achieving that sweet nirvana of vicariously reaping brutal revenge. Inconsequential means to an inconsequential end, given that we’re talking about watching a television show, but a bargain that still isn’t for everyone.

The Punisher is also fueled by the sort of superhuman masculinity at the center of many revenge yarns that may turn some viewers off, though it makes efforts to explore and subvert that trope and its potential toxicity

If you like the character of Frank Castle, smart money says you’ll enjoy Netflix’s take on The Punisher, and even if you aren’t a fan of the character there still might be a chance that Bernthal’s stellar performance could win you over. Like any metaphorical roller coaster, you don’t have to get on to get a pretty good idea of what you’re getting in to. It goes up. It goes down. It does loops and spins. If that isn’t for you it isn’t for you, but man if it is for you holy crap the ups and downs and loops and spins on this thing are insane.

 

The Defenders, or, The Avengers: Appendices

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Mike Colter: statue of human perfect. And three other jabronies.

Like the first Avengers film before it, season one of Netflix’s The Defenders is tasked with bringing together the worlds and aesthetics of various intellectual properties (in this case the Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) into a single cohesive unit. However, The Avengers was and is the vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the banner behind which everything from Thor to Inhumans to Foggy Nelson must fall in line. Where The Avengers had the opportunity, and burden, of defining a universe, The Defenders has to define itself within an already established world.

Essentially, The Defenders has to do what The Avengers did, in the shadow of what The Avengers did.

Fans will be happy to find that over the course of its eight episode first season the series is able to stake a claim to its own identity both in relation to its own tributary shows and in the context of the MCU at large.

Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and even Iron Fist (Finn Jones) react to and interact with one another believably and enjoyably, never betraying the world of each individual character built within their own shows. Some of them, Cox in particular, deliver their best performances yet. Watching these four disparate elements find their way to tracks set on a collision course for one another is exciting and propels the early episodes of the season forward at a brisk pace. But once the titular cabal come together things get particularly interesting for the MCU.

Since the first season of Daredevil Netflix’s Marvel series have used the destruction of New York City in the first Avengers film as a jumping off point, but The Defenders solidifies the first phase of these series as a Tolkien-esque appendix to The Avengers, the kind of tucked away supplemental material that elevates the text from which it is derived.

The Defenders and its four preceding shows weave a tale of trickle down responsibility. The Avengers descended upon an unsuspecting New York City with thunder and monsters and fury, saved the day and irrevocably altered the status quo of the planet in one fell swoop, then left. Though likely unknowingly, The Avengers abandoned their responsibility for the new world order they established, one that took hold in the streets of New York. In their place ninjas and blind lawyers and nefarious business tycoons and bullet proof men fill in the cracks in the city like militias in an abandoned colony.

If The Avengers were equated to Return of the King (spoilers for Return of the King) The Defenders would be the burning of the Shire, a reminder that even heroism can have unintended consequences and that even hardships brought on by demigods and superhumans can be overcome by folks on the street.

The Defenders weren’t in Civil War and they may not show up in Infinity War (though they totally should) but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is better and more nuance for their presence in it.

Star Wars Rebels Season Four Preview, or, I Saw an Episode of Star Wars Rebels You Probably Haven’t Yet! Neat, Huh?

Last month I was able to make my wistful daydreams a reality and not only finally attend Star Wars Celebration, but also wake up at 4am to stand in line and finally sit down for a LucasFilm Animation panel in person. At the panel, for Star Wars Rebels, I was able to see a screening of an episode from the show’s upcoming fourth and final season, Heroes of Mandalore Part I. Below, some spoiler-free thoughts to tide you over until Rebels returns this fall.

Oh who am I kidding, I just wanted to brag about seeing the episode first.

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Did you have the wherewithal to con your way into a children’s pass to Star Wars Celebration? I bet you didn’t.

If Heroes of Mandalore Part I is any indication, Rebels’ fourth season may prove to be its most energetic yet. The episode is essentially two acts, each of with centered on an aerobic-heavy action sequence. The episode finds our heroes more confident and capable than ever as they take on an UNDISCLOSED of UNDISCLOSED at UNDISCLOSED to UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED’S UNDISCLOSED.

My take away from this episode really was the action. Humor and drama are both present and deftly wielded, but more than any previous episode I can think of, Heroes of Mandalore felt relentless and almost out of breath. The second action sequence in particular felt akin to something between Indiana Jones and (a more grounded) Fast and Furious. There’s a lot of momentum in this episode, which is a promising sign given that the Rebels panel also brought with it tidings of the show’s ending with this coming season.

That aerobic momentum is what you want from a final season, a sense of barreling for the finish line like an insane person, limbs flailing, breath be damned. The episode left me with the impression that Rebels’ would have a lead boot on the pedal for its final season.

Also that part where UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS SPOILERS HAHA I SAW AN EPISODE OF REBELS YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T SEEN YET UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS was something else!

Star Wars Rebels Season Three, or, Oooooo Oooooo Growin’ Up

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*laugh track*

Coming off of one of the GOAT achievements in Star Wars storytelling with its second season finale, Star Wars: Rebels’ third season launched the interquel animated series into adolescence in more ways than one.

Rebels has always been something of a Star Wars sitcom in that it revolves around a core family with parents and kids and a grandpa and family pet. This season the family dynamics began to shift as the kids, Sabine and Ezra, started to come into their own as young adults, leaving the rest of the family (and the audience) uncertain, annoyed and surprised by their developments. But beyond its characters, Star Wars: Rebels as show exhibited signs of maturation in its third season.

The more Rebels defines itself as an entity the more comfortable it has become in interacting with other clearly defined Star Wars entities. In a sense it’s like the show has gotten old enough to have play dates with other corners of the Star Wars mythos. Part of the excitement of season three was watching week to week as Rebels reached out and interacted with the Prequels, the Clone Wars, the Original Trilogy, the old expanded universe and now it’s closest sibling, Rogue One. With two years of fairly insular soul-searching under its belt, Rebels is now sure-footed enough to interact with other Star Wars stories without being utterly overpowered by them. By the time the season finale rolled around Rebels was actively, seamlessly consorting with elements from The Clone Wars, the expanded universe, Rogue One and the Original Trilogy.

Rebels may not be entirely out from under the shadow of its predecessors, The Clone Wars (never forget, never forgive, Disney), but Star Wars has never felt like more of a single, cohesive narrative than it does on this show.