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.

rebelsstarwarscelebration

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

starwarsrebels

*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.

Fist of Darkness a.k.a. Fistpocalypse Now, or, Iron Fist

ironfist

I don’t know, some joke about Iron man playing rock-paper-scissors.

For all the casting controversy surrounding it, Netflix’s newest Marvel Series, Iron Fist, does very little to assuage concerns viewers may have had regarding the cultural appropriation of a white guy from New York kung-fuing about. Iron Fist has always been white, but his origins are propped up on the same antiquated ideas that fuel as The Last Samurai, or Farcry 3, or that one where some honky joins a bunch of blue cat people and can immediately fly their magic pterodactyl better than any of them – a white guy comes across an “exotic” culture that far outdates his own and is wondrously able to learn and harness the facets of said culture far better than any of their native practitioners, in ways that are nothing short of prophetic. That’s the starting point of the source material for Netflix’s new show, and it’s one they hold to.

As a boy, Danny Rand (played by Finn Jones) and his parents get in a plane crash in the Himalayas. While his parents are killed, Danny is taken in by the monks of the mystical city of K’un-L’un. Fifteen years later he returns home to New York City, having been trained by the monks and surpassing all other denizens of the ancient city to become the Immortal Iron Fist, a living weapon.
Not only did Marvel take zero initiative in trying to freshen up this decrepit, hackneyed narrative, not only do they neglect the opportunity to provide even a minimum of self-reflection regarding the trope that props their tale up, they double down on all of it, presenting a story that hinges entirely on unapologetic cultural appropriation.

Netflix’s Iron Fist is an exercise in colonialist sentiment.

Make no mistake, the power of the Iron Fist is a resource, and a rare one at that, considering it exists in a city that is only accessible once every fifteen years and requires one fight an undying dragon. Danny Rand acquires that resource, used for the protection of K’un-L’un, and takes it away from its stewards, bringing it home with him to New York City to aid him to his own nebulous, insular, vengeful ends. Iron Fist is a story about the complete displacement of a city’s essential natural resources (the dragon karate superpowers of K’un-L’un) to a place that by no means has any pressing need for them (at a minimum, NYC has Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man on neighborhood watch, but damnit they need an Iron Fist too), by a guy who’s scarcely, if ever, gives the whole thing a second thought as he’s to wrapped up in what the resource can do for him. And when viewers finally encounter another citizen of K’un-L’un who calls Danny out on his actions, the accuser is vilified, made to look petty and jealous.

Daredevil’s explorations of guilt and vigilantism may not have been anything new, but they were something to chew on. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage gave us an intellectual four course meal with their discourses on everything from surviving abuse to the corporate prison system. Inversely, the literary depths found in Iron Fist are in its shortcomings: the empty spaces the show doesn’t fill in, the angles it fails to consider, the unfortunate sentiments it (hopefully) doesn’t realize it’s perpetuating.

Amongst its flaws, Iron Fist boasts an excellent performance from Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, a gripping score from Trevor Morris and a location that was also in John Wick, but on the whole, even without its problematic foundation, Iron Fist is largely dull. Hopefully it will stand as an example for more adventurous, nuanced storytelling in the future of Netflix’s neighborhood of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Monomyth: The Sitcom, or, Crashing

crashing

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Crashing, the new HBO comedy from comedian Pete Holmes and executive produced Judd Apatow, is the closet you’re going to get to a sitcom written by Joseph Campbell.

Based on Holmes’ real life experience as a burgeoning stand-up in New York, Crashing follows the sort of mythological, archetypal story beats seen in galaxy-spanning epics, here applied to a story with a scope as small and as vast as one guy’s life.

At the start of Pete’s journey he leads a comfortable, suburban life with his wife outside of New York City. The twin suns of Pete’s humble beginnings are preconceived notions of adulthood and unimaginative sex. He isn’t leading a bad life, but it’s clear that he’s leading an unfulfilled one, defined by known quantities.

Enter the inciting incident: marital infidelity.

Pete’s wife cheating on him is the archetypal call to action, the pull to something bigger, and like so many calls to action before it, Pete’s initial reaction is to reject it. But, like Luke Skywalker rushing back to a burning farm, Pete finds there is nothing for him in his old life.

From there he is whisked from adventure to adventure, pairing up with various comedic Buddhas that form a wide swath of unconventional mentors for our intrepid hero from week to week.

In applying the narrative ebbs and flows of archetypal mythology to a smaller, more intimate story than we are used to seeing them in, Crashing shows the power of the story beats and characters we know so well. These are ideas that ring true for a Jedi and superheroes precisely because they ring true for far more terrestrial, pedestrian protagonists as well.

Three episodes in, Crashing promises to be something between a sitcom and a saga. Anyone with a penchant for waxing poetic on The Hero’s Journey will find something to chew on watching Holmes’ cross the threshold.

The DCW Superhero Crossover Spectacular, or, Literally Legends of Tomorrow

invasioncrossover

TABLEAU ATTACK!

CW’s recent superhero crossover, an alien invasion story spanning the shows Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, is the kind of goofy, exciting, carefree storytelling that’s usually written in action figures and movie soundboard beat boxing. Creepy aliens, time travel, space travel, lasers, fire, explosions and a variable toy box of heroes and villains make the Invasion crossover a sight to behold.Despite their success (what was once just Arrow has now spun-off into four different shows airing four nights a week) it’s still remained easy for some to roll their eyes at CW’s DC lineup. It’s not held in the same esteem as the likes of Game of Thrones or even Netflix’s various Marvel series. But unlike Game of Thrones and Netflix’s various Marvel Series, the DCW isn’t tailor-made for the world weary TV-MA audience. It’s for everyone.

I couldn’t help but chuckle when the heroes of the DCW were commended by the President of the United States in full superhero attire, but there was a part of me that has rarely shown itself since I turned 12 that absolutely, unapologetically, unequivocally loved it. The DCW is everything DC’s films struggle so hard to capture. They’re everything DC Comics are aiming to recapture with their new Rebirth initiative. They’re uplifting and exciting and fun and they never wink at the audience for it. There isn’t an ounce of irony in the performances of these characters. They are absolutely going for it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen is the the Robert Downey Jr. of the DC Universe, and the performances that have followed in his wake have followed his example.

But you aren’t going to see any of these shows on year end lists. You aren’t going to hear about Stephen Amell pulling $50 million. I’ve yet to heard of any angry positions insisting the cast and crew who commit so fully and enthusiastically to these roles, ludicrous as they may be, have been robbed by the Emmys. No one’s going to reference Arrow in a think piece on prestige television.

Yet.

Watching the likes of Firestorm and The Flash stand next to the President I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something monumental for popular culture to come.

If I were a betting man I’d wager that the DCW circa 2016 is comparable to Star Trek in 1968.

The people writing blogs and tweeting and think piecing and compiling Best of 2016 lists for major publications aren’t the vessels through which these shows’ influence will be felt. These are shows a family could watch together, think pieces are for shows with orgies. But the kids who get sent to bed at 8:45 on Sunday night just might be a different story. Maybe no one at your office is talking about the Invasion crossover, but I’m willing to bet people on the playground are.

Sure kids love Iron Man and Batman, but Green Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl are the heroes that are in their home, week to week. They’re the Adam Wests, William Shatners and Linda Carters of the day.

Watching the Invasion Crossover bob and weave through the characters and story threads of four different television shows I couldn’t shake the feeling that the event was bigger than I could appreciate, that across the country there were ten year olds in their living rooms just losing their shit like nobody’s business.

The DCW is far from obscure television, but it’s playing the long game. Despite its current popularity I’d be shocked if NPR ran a story about the Invasion crossover, but I won’t be surprised to hear the creative forces behind the genre fiction of tomorrow citing these characters and stories as a major influence.

The Future of Fast-Forwarding, or, The Walking Dead Season Seven Premiere

walking_dead_s7_poster

How ’bout them Cubs, amiright?

It was the tacky POV shot seen round the country. It wouldn’t be fair to call the finale of The Walking Dead’s sixth season divisive because I can’t recall hearing anyone have anything good to say about the episode’s now-infamous cliffhanger ending.

In summation of a previous post, last season’s finale squandered what was a disciplined hour of stomach-turning tension, built up slowly and steadily over the course of the episode, on a gimmicky cliffhanger that put the idea that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” to the test.

The Walking Dead set a high bar for itself on the occasion of its most recent season premiere as it didn’t only have to resolve the aforementioned gimmick of a cliffhanger, it also had to convince viewers that cliffhanger wasn’t a gimmick in the first place.

They certainly managed to resolve the cliffhanger.

Rather than try to compensate for the harsh reaction to the previous episode, last night’s premiere leaned in to the same kind of stunt storytelling, drawing out the big reveal for as many commercial breaks as possible (though if I’m being totally fair I do have to wonder if the delayed reveal was at all influenced by just how much violence they could get away with at 9:30 rather than 9:00). But not only was the reveal delayed, it was delayed by a combination of on-the-nose sentimentality and an unabashed retreading of the final minutes of last season’s finale (and here’s what it looked like from here, and here’s what it looked like from over there, and here’s what it looked like from in a tree…). That retreading is particularly infuriating given that the rationale the show’s shepherds gave for the big cliffhanger in question was that it was a clear point of demarcation that ended one story and began another.

The second by second recap that takes up the first chunk of Season Seven’s premiere muddies up that line of demarcation between Season Six’s ending and Season Seven’s beginning until it is a near-perfect-circular of a Venn diagram.

Holding off on the reveal did manage to regain an infinitesimal bit of the tension from the previous episode that was so recklessly squandered at the altar of the Dukes of Hazard, but it’s a stunt that only works (to whatever extent it worked) once. Rewatching huge swaths of the episode will likely prove a thankless, tedious undertaking as with the reveal having been, you know, revealed, you’re essentially just going to be watching the same sequence over and over again.

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of all of this cliffhanger blues is that the story being told across the two episodes in question is pretty compelling stuff. The tried and true cast fully commits to the nauseating hopelessness of their situation and newcomer Jeffrey Dean Morgan displays perfect balance walking (dead, amiright?) the tightrope between deplorable and charismatic. To “fix” the last two episodes of The Walking Dead you wouldn’t have to shoot so much as an additional second of film. Somewhere out there in the infinite multiverse there’s a seamless cut of these past two episodes that goes in chronological order and never looks back and damnit it just might be the best episode of The Walking Dead yet. Seriously. But due almost exclusively to the manner in which the material was presented, the two episodes we got in this universe were something less.  Such is the power of post-production.

Long story short, the Season Seven premiere of The Walking Dead isn’t going to do jack shit to retcon how irritating the end of the Season Six premiere was.

And yet…

If nothing else, the questionable handling of Negan’s introduction proves just how impactful a sequence writer Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard originally crafted four years ago in the pages of The Walking Dead #100. Even the most infuriating editorial shenanigans couldn’t entirely offset how affecting a cocktail of controlled, sadistic brutality and utter impotent helplessness the main event is. It’s easily the scariest The Walking Dead has ever been and it’s a piece of work that lends credence to the idea that true horror stems from a loss of control. It isn’t just the wonton cruelty on display that is so chilling, it’s our hero’s utter lack of recourse in the face of it that makes it so hard to watch.

The Walking Dead television show may have fumbled in its unveiling of the story beats at hand but it also failed to dilute one of the most upsetting, monumental sequences ever to come out of the source material, which I guess is some kind of victory.

 

Luke Cage, or, Eat Your Heart Out Hell’s Kitchen!

luke-cage

I got nothing. This is badass as hell.

Much as I love Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, there’s something of an underlying buzzing in my ears I get the entire time I watch them. Nothing huge, but it’s there. A small, persistent nagging in the back of my head throughout the adventures of the first two Defenders. As much as I hate to use such a word when referring to any sort of genre entertainment, there’s a part of those shows that just doesn’t feel realistic. I know, I’m rolling my eyes too, but stay with me. I don’t mean Jessica Jones’ superpowers or Matt Murdock’s hyper senses. I mean the neighborhood.

Hell’s Kitchen sucks.

Not the real New York neighborhood, mind you, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recreation of it as Frank Miller’s wet dream. It can require a big enough suspension of disbelief that the events of two seasons of Daredevil and a season of Jessica Jones take place in a neighborhood that is less than one square mile in size, but I don’t have a problem with that. Superheroics are built on suspending your disbelief. What I do have trouble grappling with is just how unbelievably crappy and unlovable Hell’s Kitchen is. It doesn’t feel like a city worth saving, because it doesn’t feel like a city. It feels like an antagonist with one defining characteristic: utter shittiness. Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t a place people live, it’s a place ninjas and human traffickers go to get strung out and collect STDs.

And it’s not just Hell’s Kitchen. This is a trend throughout gritty, realistic vigilantism. Gotham City is cool because that’s where Batman lives. Other than that, it’s pretty terrible place filled with pretty terrible people. Similarly, I really couldn’t have cared less if the fictionalized Hell’s Kitchen burned to the ground. Not because it’s portrayed as a bad neighborhood with a high crime rate, but because it’s portrayed as a high crime rate possessing the concrete and steel of a city block.

Netflix’s latest Marvel outing, Luke Cage, has gotten no shortage of much-deserved praise for its representation and portrayal of anyone that isn’t a white dude, but it also does something else few, if any, other superhero stories have managed to do: create a setting that feels alive and breathing.

The Harlem of Luke Cage doesn’t just feel like a real neighborhood, it feels like a community. The MCU’s Harlem has history. It has heroes and villains that can’t fly or deflect bullets. It has hangouts and landmarks. I feel like I can imagine the places kids would be playing Pokemon Go.

Harlem feels like a community where people live, where people sleep at night and go to work in the morning. That believability goes a long way when a stranger with bulletproof skin comes to town. Not only does it serve to ground the series, it serves as character motivation for Luke Cage himself. I believe that Luke Cage wants to defend Harlem because I want him to defend Harlem because I can believe the Harlem the show presents is an actual human being’s actual home.

Those characters who call Harlem their home play just as big a role in instilling the show with a sense of life.

Luke Cage may be the most intellectual superhero story committed to film. Sure there are plenty of superhero adventuress that boast smart writing and cerebral themes, but Luke Cage boasts smart characters. Not quippy or clever, mind you. The characters that inhabit Luke Cage’s Harlem are intelligent. You gain insight into who they are based on the books they’re reading and their opinions of them. Conflicts in Luke Cage are just as likely to take the form of discourse as fisticuffs.

It’s an exciting development for superhero storytelling. We’ve seen smart heroes before. Peter Parker is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Reed Richards is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Luke Cage and his opponents and associates are smart. We know they’re smart because they engage in intelligent conversation and express and discuss thoughtful opinions about the world around them.

The prospect of discussing a piece in The Atlantic with Luke Cage is just as daunting as the prospect of arm wrestling him.

Like the show’s depiction of Harlem, the intelligence of its characters breathes life into the fictionalized world of Luke Cage. Its characters are aware of the world around them. They read about the world around them and they talk about the world around them because they have a stake in the world around them, which ultimately makes the audience believe in the world around them.

I love Daredevil and I love Jessica Jones, but after watching Luke Cage get shit done in Harlem, it’ll be hard to go back to the relentlessly bleak matte painting of a gutter that is Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen.