Monthly Archives: December 2015

Just So We’re Clear, Rey Is The Best

Rey, of The Force Awakens, is one of those characters I really like. Not just one those who I think’s really cool (Captain Marvel, Han Solo, Aragorn), but the ones who, for me, go beyond that (Iron Man, Nathan Drake): Rey’s one of those characters who I don’t just really like, but the sort I wanna be.

So what is it about Rey’s that captured my imagination (and everyone else’s)? What makes her so special?

Obviously, spoilers for Force Awakens follow.

The role Rey plays in the story is not new, by no means. She follows the hero’s journey; one we saw done with Luke Skywalker in ’77, Harry Potter, and of course Emmet in The Lego Movie. It’s the monomyth, a nobody is actually quite special and is essential for saving the day. Finn’s arc within Force Awakens has a few of the same mythic beats, but it’s Rey’s that most closely follows it. And it’s not just men who get to be the heroes, we had Katniss and The Hunger Games a couple years ago, also a story about a young woman that embarks on her own hero’s journey. What is it then that sets Rey apart?

First off, it’s the obvious one: it’s Star Wars. This is arguably the biggest film franchise in the world, so the scale Rey’s featured in is massive. There’s six movies of continuity already in play, an issue that new characters like Harry or Katniss didn’t have to deal with when their books came out. There was a lot riding on this movie and, by extension Rey herself, but it also gives her a huge platform. That’s an opportunity few stories get.

Now, this is also a franchise famous for seldom having more than one woman, and in this one Rey the protagonist (and also not the only female character with lines — it might just barely squeak by on the Bechdel test, and yes, Rey is the only new female lead, but at least there are a few more women who speak in this one). Also, Rey gets to be a Jedi. Or at least one in training. Or at least a Jedi-to-be. It’s the seventh installment and we have, for the first time, a named female character turning on a lightsaber. That’s a big fricking deal.

Putting the Star Wars branding aside, is Rey still all that different? In The Hunger Games series, Katniss had her go at the hero’s journey and the resistance narrative too. Except, she is. Rey’s adventure isn’t gendered. While Katniss’ intertwined with her gender (see: dresses, pregnancy, men-wanting-to-protect/control-her, etc), Rey very much has an everyman story. No, there’s nothing wrong with a feminine story — look at Agent Carter!but it’s such a great change to see that everyman a woman. Rey’s gender is never mentioned. Sure, Finn does keep grabbing her hand in the beginning, but it takes all of five minutes for her to get him to stop — and establish her own independence in the same beat. But that’s not all: Rey’s not underestimated because of her gender. She’s frequently described as “the scavenger” (not “that girl”) and summarily dismissed as such. She’s just Rey the scavenger. It’s refreshing to see this, and even better that it’s something as mainstream (and awesome) as Star Wars

There are a bunch of other reasons I like Rey: snarky, excitable (ie: her and Finn celebrating their escape from Jakku), courageous, and occasionally downright gleeful. She’s a wonderful, winning character and I couldn’t be happier to have her as the new Star Wars protagonist. Then, of course, we come back to the whole Star Wars-ness of it. Deep beneath the spaceships, Force, and lightsabers is the narrative about being more than you thought you were; it’s the wish fulfillment of getting to go on a great adventure. And for Rey — and, personally, one of the many reasons I love her — this also means a search for belonging.

tl;dr: Rey’s awesome, go watch The Force Awakens (again)

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An Actual New Hope

One of my earliest memories involves, unsurprisingly, Star Wars. I, and another kid, were talking about Empire and how Luke loses his hand and gets a robot one. I’m sure in there was talk of Darth Vader being Luke’s father and all that. Now, I couldn’t have been that old; based on where we were I doubt I was more than four. Which shows just how inborn my Star Wars nerd is, but also, wait, I was four and talking about Empire? The darkest of the original Star Wars movies? We’re talking losing limbs and finding out your dad is the villain.

And yet, here I am, twenty-odd years later and decidedly not emotionally scarred. There’s no denying that Empire is dark, darker than I realized as a kid. But, this is Star Wars. Even though it’s a bleak ending, it’s still one with hope. When faced with the fact that Vader and his father are one and the same, Luke chooses to sacrifice himself instead of turning surrendering to his father. Han’s only mostly dead and Lando and Chewie have teamed up to find him. And, of course, Luke gets his hand back.

There’s a romantic optimism to Star Wars amidst its background of a cosmic Good and Bad. It’s Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, which is big, but it’s rife with hope. There’s no cynicism to Star Wars at its best: something can’t be ruined forever. No matter how far down they’re forced, good will be able to come of it. Luke’s father is Vader, but Vader can be redeemed. This isn’t something that would fly in the more recent slate of movies (besides the Marvel Cinematic Universe): whereas can the love between a father and a son be triumphant? Star Wars unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, which by today’s standards seems a little old fashioned.

So maybe this is one of the big places the prequels went wrong. They seemed to teeter a little too far into the realm of tragedy (which, it being Anakin’s fall, it is) without that earnest hope that made The Original Trilogy so great. That galaxy far, far away is one to escape to, one where a backwater farmboy, fumbling smuggler, and planetless princess can save the galaxy. Maybe the prequels got so caught up in their tragedy they forgot about the escapist nature of these movies, where it’s okay for the underdog to be the hero plain and simple. Obi-Wan, for example, is a Jedi, respected albeit inexperienced and not a crazy old wizard. The closest we really got were Jar Jar and Anakin in The Phantom Menace, but neither had an arc worth investing in. As a kid (and an adult), I wanted to be Qui-Gon because he was cool, but that’s about it. But Luke got to be the nobody-turned-Jedi and Han was the selfish-jerk-turned-war-hero. There was a change there — an optimistic one — that the prequels lacked.

The Force Awakens comes a solid decade after the last Star Wars movie. It’s also directed by someone who grew up with the movies and knows, as an outsider, why he liked them so (and they stuck with him). And the movie delivers. Despite containing perhaps the most tragic moment in the entire film franchise (and one that actually works courtesy of deft writing and acting), it remains rife with hope. There’s the declaration that unconditional love beats out hate, even when it seems like hate has won.

There’s an unquenchable joy to The Force Awakens that gives the originals a solid run for their money. Like in the old ones, we want to be a part of this world because there’s adventure here, and even when the adventure goes tragic, there’s hope. Star Wars is fun again.

And also, Rey is the friggin’ best.

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Thoughts On The Holy Trilogy

Doing something different this week. In advent of The Force Awakens, the club I run at NYU is marathoning the Original Trilogy. In lieu of an essay, what follows is something of a live blog.

Star Wars

(A New Hope)

  • It’s remarkable how much of the first few minutes are told visually. The first proper dialogue isn’t until Vader interrogates Antilles. Once we get to Tatooine, we’re back to relying on the visuals for Artoo’s run in with the Jawas. The lack of explaining goes a long way to making the world feel lived in and, well, real. This way, by the time we get to Luke, we’re already immersed in this very foreign world.
  • Binary sunset. Freaking iconic.
  • I always forget how downright weird Star Wars is. We’ve got spaceships and robots but an ‘old wizard’ (as Owen calls Ben) and tribal people riding animals. There’s such a delightful mix of past and future that makes it feels very timeless.
  • Ben’s discussion with Luke is very much an exposition dump. But it works because by the time we get to it we wanna know what’s going on with Artoo and Threepio and we’re also very much in Luke’s position in wondering who is he and what’s going on. Also, the exposition isn’t so much on how the world works but on the romance of Luke’s adventure-to-come.
  • Once Leia joins the group she refuses to take crap from anyone.
  • There’s a wonderful mundanity to some of the world; like Stormtroopers discussing speeder models while Ben shuts off the tractor beam.
  • There’s a strong focus on an emotional arc (rather than a character one). It’s about the thrills and the adventure, not so much about an in-depth character analysis.

The Empire Strikes Back

  • The opening of Empire really highlights the serial inspiration. IV, V, and VI all open with a misadventure of sorts (Artoo and Threepio on the Tantive IV, Luke and the Wampa, Jabba’s Palace) that isn’t unlike a cold open. Helps give the movies the feeling that things have been going on before the start (and will keep going after). The world’s lived in.
  • These movies are ridiculous: we’ve got a muppet fighting with a robot over a lamp. But they commit to it and that sells it. We take Yoda seriously despite how silly he could be because Empire isn’t winking at the audience. It’s played straight and it works so well.
  • Threepio interrupting Leia and Han will never not be funny.
  • There is a major gender imbalance in these movies, but Leia really holds her own among everyone else. She’s a strong character.
  • Unlike A New Hope, Empire focuses far more on character. We’ve got the relationship between Han and Leia and Luke’s own quest to become a Jedi. There’s no less derring-do and adventure than the first movie, but there’s a stronger focus on the character’s own internal emotional arcs.

Return of The Jedi

  • The misadventure cold open is most pronounced in Jedi where it’s in some ways its own episode. It’s a crazily convoluted way to get Han back in the picture, but it also serves to reestablish the relationships of the central characters. And it’s a whole lotta fun.
  • Leia getting to kill Jabba is a great moment.
  • Luke’s conflict is so much better than Anakin’s in Revenge of The Sith. Rather than the choice being a very clear Light Side or Dark Side, Luke has to choose between his father and becoming a Jedi. Neither choice is inherently wrong, but the interesting part comes in what each decision reflects: saving Vader is selfless, whereas becoming a Jedi is more self-centered. Luke’s arc in this movie is being willing to give up himself and his conflict along the way is really well done.
  • I know I shouldn’t but I do kinda really like the Ewoks. I think part of the reason is because they’re so reflective of the heart of the movies. There’s this uncynical hope to them that, even if they are people-eaters, fits into the movie well enough.
  • Fittingly, Luke’s brush with the Dark Side (when he attacks The Emperor) comes at the lowest point of the battle; the Ewoks are losing, the Rebel Fleet is being torn apart, and then Luke gives in to his anger. The protagonist’s inner arc is reflected in the larger conflict as a whole.
  • The music, man, the music. During Lando and team’s run on the Death Star it’s not this super-serious musical cue of epic-ness, rather it’s this romantic adventure theme. Star Wars doesn’t get weighed down with itself, it isn’t afraid to be a lot of fun.

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What Makes A Superhero Story?

Spike Lee was a guest on The Nightly Show the other day and one of the things they discussed briefly was people of color as superheroes. Lee offered up Bruce Lee as an example of an Asian superhero. Which raises an interesting question, what exactly is it that makes a superhero narrative?

Could be the narrative type. The typical superhero plot follows an outsider/everyman (so, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Clark Kent) who has some special abilities (spider-stuff, money and brains, Krpton-ness) that is called on to use these abilities to do some heroing (save New York, save New York, save New York Metropolis). That narrative works well when you apply it to your typical Kung Fu movie. Jackie Chan’s Keung in Rumble In The Bronx is an outsider/everyman (dude from Hong Kong in New York for his uncle’s wedding) who has some special ability (Kung Fu) which he uses to do some heroing (save a small part of New York). So, sure, Kung Fu movies play into this superhero narrative.

But then, so does, say, Die Hard. It’s about an outsider/everyman (a New York cop in Los Angeles) who has some special abilities (not-giving-up and super-cop skills) and is called on to do some heroing (defeat Hans Gruber).  And Hot Rod in which an outsider/everyman (Rod Kimble, stuntman)  who has some special abilities (again, stuntman) is called on to do some heroing (do a stunt to save his step-father so he can beat him). It’s in Star Wars, it’s in Chuck. It’s, in some ways, the Hero’s Journey distilled. The obvious issue here is that it’s too broad a definition. Let’s try again.

Maybe the hero can’t do any vague heroing, but has to save the world. Superman saves Metropolis, but he also stops Lex or Zod from going on to rule more. But then, Spider-Man doesn’t protect much more than New York (if that) and Daredevil’s range of protection is a single neighborhood in Manhattan. But no one would argue that those aren’t superhero movies.

Does it have to be a villain, then? Most superhero movies have a villain who’s a dark mirror of the hero: Zod is evil Superman, Ivan Vanko is evil Tony Stark, Joker is evil/crazy Batman, Red Skull is racist/facist/Nazi Captain America. This framework rules out movies like Hot Rod (no evil stuntman) and Die Hard (no evil super-cop) and, conveniently, brings the Kung-Fu flick back in. What’s a good martial arts film without an evil martial artist for the hero to fight? But we also lose out on any Superman movies with Lex Luthor or Guardians of the Galaxy, where that foil isn’t quite at play. Many of the X-Men movies are also very much without the evil inverse of the hero beyond the Magneto/Professor X dynamic.

Maybe Spike Lee was referring to Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, where he played the hero’s sidekick, Kato. That lets us define the superhero movie as one about people who wear masks (or disguises) to fight crime. Even though in the Marvel movies, Iron Man and Captain America aren’t secret identities, they do still wear outfits to save the world. But it breaks down with Guardians or Thor where there isn’t too much in the way of special outfits, least not more than Aragorn and Han Solo have special outfits.

If we are willing to throw Kung Fu films out the window, because at this point the interest is to just find an encompassing description of just superhero films rather than one that overlaps the two neatly, we can use the trusted it’s-based-on-a-comic thing. That gives us all of the DC and Marvel movies — good, but then we have to include Kingsman and 300 while throwing out The Incredibles. We can’t say superpowers, because then if Bruce Wayne gets to be a superhero, doesn’t Gorden Gekko get to too? Y’know, I’m almost beginning to think that the term ‘superhero story’ really doesn’t work all that well as a means for describing a movie.

Doesn’t mean don’t need an Asian superhero though (c’mon Marvel, make Iron Fist Asian!).

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