Tag Archives: Star Wars

Let’s Rank Star Wars Movies!

There’s a thing going around on the internet where people are ranking the Star Wars movies and, of course, other people complaining about people ranking the Star Wars movies. Now because I am who I am, I saw this and thought “Hey, that’d make a great rant essay!” since it’s an opportunity for an introspective look at the Star Wars movies (and definitely not an easy copout).

Of the ten movies to choose from (we’re omitting Clone Wars for obvious reasons), it’s pretty easy for me to put what I’d wager is tenth: Revenge of The Sith. Hold on, you say, Sith as the worst? In a world where Phantom Menace and Clones exist? Yes, strawman, yes. See, Sith is almost entirely reliant on us caring about Anakin’s arc, given that it’s about his fall and how that shapes the galaxy. The problem is that Sith doesn’t sell us on that, with Anakin’s big moment being the equivalent of the sitcom trope of a character walking in on two others in a compromising position and one saying “this isn’t what it looks like!” It’s frustrating, especially since the Clone Wars show would later go on to characterize Anakin in such a better way. Oh, there are some cool moments to be sure, but ultimately the movie is let down by its failure to execute a convincing fall from grace. Also, they completely sideline Padmé, which is terrible.

The other two prequels are in close contention with each other. Attack of The Clones is let down by a… not great love story, but one that’s buoyed by a cool third act, Obi-Wan’s detective story, and the amazing piece of music that is “Across The Stars.” I know The Phantom Menace is a bit of a mess, but it’s a lot of fun and Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul is one of the three best fights in Star Wars. Plus: Qui-Gon! For me, there’s a decent amount of positives for both movies.

Solo is another one that just doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s certainly a bunch of fun and works well enough (with some great supporting performances and easter eggs that make me happy), but ultimately I’m not sure if it’s really all that more than ‘fine.’ Though it doesn’t annoy me quite as much as Sith, it’s nothing to really write home about it. I think, for now, Solo gets ninth, Phantom Menace eighth, and Clones seventh because, yes, Across The Stars is that freaking good.

The next chunk is when ranking gets tougher. Rogue One scratches so many itches for me (ragtag multinational team! badass woman! AT-ATs!), I want to put it higher. Return of The Jedi has a phenomenal climax, affords Vader so much complexity, and has Ewoks, which also makes me like it so much. A New Hope started it all and The Force Awakens is such a celebration of that spirit of the Original Trilogy that it’s almost difficult to rank one without the other.

Here’s where some of Star Wars rankings get really hairy. We can’t rank them in a vacuum, what with them working together and also being inspired off of each other. I put Solo so low because it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the others. A New Hope is such an odd little movie (it takes a while before we meet our main character, Luke, and before that, it’s a lot of watching robots wander in the desert) but it somehow works so well it deserves recognition — plus it’s what started this whole thing. Perhaps now it’s time for ties: Rogue One and A New Hope are fifth and Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens are third. I know, Jedi over Hope is an unorthodox choice, but its handling of a climactic battle on three fronts is absolutely masterful. Also, I really like Ewoks, man.

Finally, we’re left with Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi. I used my make-it-a-tie lifeline last time so I can’t do so now, because that’d really be a disappointing copout (and this post is certainly not a copout, y’hear?). Both movies expand on and play with what’s been established by the prior movies, and both magnificently juggle very dark themes with radiant hope. Though I love The Last Jedi for so many things big and small (including the best Star Wars fight in the throne room and also porgs), I think I have to, cliche as it is, give the title to Empire. Its pacing is pitch-perfect, the romance between Han and Leia is excellent, Yoda lifting the X-Wing will never not be profoundly powerful, and Luke vs Vader is the second-best Star Wars fight. Plus: AT-ATs.

In sum, my ranking is:

1. The Empire Strikes Back

2. The Last Jedi

3. The Force Awakens

3. Return of The Jedi

5. A New Hope

5. Rogue One

7. Attack of The Clones

8. The Phantom Menace

9. Solo

10. Revenge of The Sith

Naturally, these are all my opinion and should be treated thusly. In addition, they are liable to change at any given time and I will not be held accountable for them.

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Stable Boy

I’ve been thinking a bunch about Star Wars lately which, c’mon, what else is new. But with Disney’s D23 event taking place over last weekend and some sweet new trailers for The Mandalorian and The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars has been on my mind a little more, especially The Last Jedi.

Particularly how it ends.

Let’s recap.

The Resistance is defeated, the fleet reduced to the Millenium Falcon and those aboard. But they have hope: Luke Skywalker came out of hiding and stared down the First Order, becoming a symbol in the process. The First Order won, but the Resistance, as led by Leia aboard the Falcon, lives on.

But that’s not how the movie ends!

The Last Jedi ends on Canto Bight, with a group of enslaved children Rose and Finn had run into earlier. They’re in the stables we left them in, but now one of the kids is using improvised props to enact a rendition of Luke’s final stand. They are interrupted by their overseer, and they scatter. One of the kids ends up outside, where he reaches out and grabs a broom to start sweeping. He’s distracted by the night sky, and it’s on this kid looking out at space that the movie ends.

And it is such a beautiful ending to the story.

First, there’s the kid retelling the story of Luke Skywalker. Though the Resistance may have lost the Battle of Crait, the legend of Luke’s victory over Kylo Ren has reached even stable kids far away. We believe Leia when she says that the Resistance isn’t over, but seeing the urchin’s retelling is proof positive that the dream lives on. Even though the kid’s speaking in an unsubtitled alien language, we’re still able to understand what he’s talking about and what it means to him and the others. The tale of Luke Skywalker staring down impossible odds is important and relevant to them because even though they’re a galaxy away, it reminds them that, hey, maybe there’s hope yet for them even though they’re at the bottom of the rung. In a moment that certainly has some meta shades, we’re shown the power of stories. Luke’s actions on Crait have reverberated throughout the galaxy, the Jedi are still out there! By including this scene, The Last Jedi offers a coda that lets us know that our heroes’ actions were not in vain, that the stories and myths that someone like Rey believes in are certainly worthwhile.

Then one of the kids goes outside grabs a broom — calling it to his hand with the Force. The visuals here are important, we’re in a wide shot and there’s no cutaway to the kid reaching out to the Force or anything. Notably, in a movie series where just about every use of a Force power gets a close-up and attention, this time it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beat. Though it’s clear what happened on a second viewing, the ambiguity leaves one wondering if they’d imagined it. By cultivating the ambiguity, the movie offers a sense of wonder and mystery: did that kid use the Force? Can he use the Force?

There are four cutaways in the sequence, and each one is incredibly motivated. The first is of his feet as he sweeps and pauses. The shot focuses our attention on his work sweeping hay, and thus the importance of his stopping — right now this is important, watch. We go back to the wide as he looks up, then we cut back to his face as he stares at space. Next, we see what he’s looking at: stars in the night sky. One of them flickers and jumps to Hyperspace — bound for parts unknown. His hand tightens around his broom, the ring with the Rebel insignia bright on his finger. He’s with the Resistance, and when we cut back to a close-up on his face, the juxtaposition of the stories, Hyperspace jump, and Rebel ring making it easy to read his expression of one of determination to be a part of that story. Like Luke Skywalker watching the binary sunset on Tatooine so long ago, this kid also dreams of bigger things. That’s how The Last Jedi goes out, back on the wide shot of him staring at the sky, his broom raised not unlike a lightsaber as Jon William’s Force Theme swells.

Star Wars is in many ways the story of the Everyman, and with its final scene, The Last Jedi doubles down on the idea that anyone can be the hero, that anyone could be a Jedi. This is a story where you and I could be a hero, one maybe where this kid working in a stable could be too.

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Of The End

Reaching the end of a good story is always a bittersweet affair. There’s no doubt a sense of joy in the catharsis of resolution, that sense that the story has been completed and all is well. In a good story, its ending will pay off all that came before. But an ending means it’s over; the story and characters that you’ve spent several hours with are done. You don’t get to be a part of their lives and adventures anymore.

It’s certainly kinda weird: these characters are fictional, this world, no matter how similar to our own, is an artifice. Yet there’s such a want to spend more time there. I want to spend more time with the Pevensies in Narnia, I wanna join Luke Skywalker for more of his adventures, I’m really happy that Nathan and Elena got their happy ending, but man, I would love to have another story.

These stories are decidedly done. Uncharted 2 comes to a close and so too does Nate’s adventures in Nepal. Sure, the series counties in its sequels, but there won’t be more of Nathan Drake exploring the Himalayas with Elena and a chronically side-switching Chloe. That moment, that particular dynamic is unique to this story.

Maybe there are stories to be told. There are a couple years between Avengers and Age of Ultron, presumably filled with stories as the Avengers hunt after Hydra. But there’s not gonna be a big movie about that time, featuring the original six doing their thing. That time is past, those stories are told.

Now there is space for those stories to be told; consider the books, games, and comics of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. They filled the gaps between the movies, introduced new characters, and expanded the world to a ridiculous degree. But even the best books aren’t the same as getting to see and hear Luke, Han, and Leia traipse around the Death Star. Stories lose part of their jazz when translated into a different medium. Maybe it’s the change in budget or creative team; in any case, it’s just not quite the same. Could be good, really good, it just won’t really be the same.

Could the continued Avengers films have maintained the status quo and told more stories of the six saving the day together? Sure. But we’ve already heard that story – it’s the climax of the first movie. There’s little to be gained when retreading old ground, it’s far more interesting to push these characters in wholly new directions. A Thief’s End sees Nathan Drake going on yet another adventure, but this one isn’t after another mystic artifact or following an adventure of Francis Drake. There are the familiar thrills and witticisms — it wouldn’t be Uncharted without ‘em, but Nate’s on a different journey yet again. It’s not the same story as the one before.

It’s frustrating, sometimes. I love the third season of Chuck, and I wish the show could just stay there forever. But at the same time, I’m so glad the series has the chance to grow and for characters to change and so on. It’s one of my favorite shows perhaps because it had the space for that change and progression. I’m sure that had it stayed as its season three self for the entire time it would be tiring and lose what makes it so special. It’s precisely because it doesn’t last that it’s so special.

To all this, Avengers: Endgame is the, uh, end, of the MCU as we know it (give or take a Spider-Man movie coming out in a couple months). It’s quite the feat to resolve ten years of storytelling, but somehow the movie actually does. With that, it’s done. There’ll probably be another Avengers movie, but it ain’t gonna be one too familiar (for a whole variety of reasons), just as no sequel is quite like the original. The old ones can be revisited, yes, and replayed, reread, and rewatched; but they’re over, the story had to end.

Maybe that ephemerality is what makes stories so special. Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

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Star Wars Trailer

There’s a new Star Wars trailer, for Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and naturally, I am very excited. Because, y’know, Star Wars. There’s so much I dig about it (Rey’s fantastic new outfit, Poe and Finn on adventures, Leia!), and I’m fully aware that this is because it’s Star Wars and these movies will forever delight me no matter what. But here’s the thing, the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker is an essentially perfect example of how to tease a movie.

Right off the bat, we’re treated to a sequence of Rey in the desert, staring down an incoming starfighter. There’s essentially no plot to this sequence; we don’t know whose TIE it is (it looks somewhat like Kylo Ren’s TIE Silencer from The Last Jedi, but the cockpit is different), and we have no idea where or why Rey is where she is. But what’s clear is Rey’s come a long way from the scavenger on Jakku. This is her thing.

The next chunk of the trailer is checking in with the other characters and what they’re up to. We see Kylo Ren and his stormtroopers fighting their way through a forest against an indistinct enemy (is that a Knight of Ren?) while someone repairs Kylo’s helmet. Poe Dameron and Finn are off on some high-speed adventure alongside a long-suffering C-3PO. BB-8’s got a new droid buddy, and Lando is back in the Falcon’s cockpit. Also, Leia’s there as a comforting presence and a medal from the end of A New Hope is back too. That middle chunk of the trailer basically lets us know that all those characters we know and love are back and there’s adventure waiting in the wings. Yes, it’s the sort of thing that really does go without saying, but it’s undeniably cool to see them all — we care about these characters and want to see what happens to them in the next stage of their journey.

And that’s where the final sequence of the trailer comes into play. Rey, Finn, and Poe are adventuring somewhere together (the sequel trilogy’s power trio in the grand tradition of Star Wars trios). This gives us some vague idea of at least part of the movie: there’s something that needs to be done and it’ll be done by these three. Past that though, not much is clear. Cue the Death Star wreckage sitting in a sea. It’s a delightful what-the-heck moment that offers up many more questions than it answers. Why are the three looking for the Death Star? Or why did they find it? Who knows?

As if that wasn’t enough, the trailer ends with the very familiar cackle of Emperor Palpatine, adding another ingredient to the mystery stew.

The best thing is that even after the trailer had run its course, we don’t know anything about the plot! Is Kylo Ren still the villain? What’re Rey and company up to? How’s Lando figure into it? Rather than giving us a blow by blow of the story, the trailer instead focuses on invoking a specific mood; we know how the movie will feel instead of what’ll happen. It’s an epic adventure, the sort that Star Wars is known for, coupled with a bunch of mysteries that need to be uncovered. By throwing so many elements into the mix, especially ones with no easy explanation like the Death Star and Palpatine, the trailer effectively whets our appetites to find out what happens next.

In summary: It’s a really good trailer that I’m gonna be rewatching a lot because dude it’s so cool and Jedi Rey gives me life.

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Star Wars as an Anti-Capitalist Discourse

Oh you thought I was kidding? Here we go.

Star Wars takes a lot of cues from Westerns. Characters like Han Solo and places like Mos Eisley’s cantina make it pretty obvious. But it’s also apparent in where it takes place: the fringes of society. Be they remote planets desert or frozen, these stories take place away from economic and cultural hubs. Which, given that we follow the good guys, makes sense: implicit in the Star Wars movies is the idea that places of wealth and opulence are the breeding grounds of evil. In other words, the real villain in Star Wars is capitalism (and the Sith too but bear with me here).

Let’s look at where we spend time among the wealthy in the Original Trilogy. Outside of Imperial Battle Stations, the only place we visit that is remotely ‘first world’ is Cloud City, a gorgeous city whose wealth is built on Tibanna Gas mining. It’s beautiful in the way sci-fi modernity is. But its gleaming hallways belie a darker secret. It is when the Rebels come to Cloud City (the richest civilian place we’ve seen) that they are sold out. Han is tortured and frozen in carbonite, Luke is lured into a trap and told that the bastion of evil is his father. But Lando’s a good guy, you say. Well, he was. He’s Han’s friend, turned ‘respectable’ by the capitalistic influences of Cloud City. It’s when he’s compromised as such that he betrays his former friends, but he finds redemption when he leaves Cloud City and joins the Rebellion on the outskirts of the galaxy.

The Prequel Trilogy brings us closer to civilized space, with the planet of Naboo, an idyllic, peaceful planet. The villains in The Phantom Menace are the Trade Federation, an economically driven group who, in the wake of a tax dispute, blockade the planet and invade it. It is a financially-driven, militaristic, occupational force that the heroes strive against. When the Republic and the Confederacy go to war, the Trade Federation is joined in leadership of the latter by other corporate entities; such as the Banking Clan and Corporate Alliance. The war is marked by economic entities turning against the government; the villains in the story are capitalists fighting against economic control.

In addition, there’s Coruscant, the glittering capital of the Republic. Like Cloud City hopped up on steroids, it is a hub of wealth beyond compare. Here is the Senate, a governing body locked into inaction; a Jedi Temple stuck in orthodoxy unable to adapt to the changing times. Not much good comes from the rich capital.

It’s in The Last Jedi where the anti-capitalist bent of the films comes to a head. In an effort to undermine the villainous First Order, Rose and Finn go on a desperate mission to Canto Bight, a rich city most known for its casino. Finn quickly learns that the city’s wealth is built on the back of the military industrial complex. The rich folks wheeling and dealing are profiteering off a war the Resistance is fighting for survival. Though maybe not outright evil, they are decidedly not good people. The codebreaker who Rose and Finn ally themselves with ends up selling them out, simply because the First Order offered him more money. It’s money, and the unfettered pursuit of it, that tends to create villainy in Star Wars.

Throughout the films, lesser antagonists are driven by a want of money: Greedo wants the bounty on Han’s head, Watto refuses to sell anything for cheap, Unkar Plutt is miserly with his rations. Luke and Obi-Wan use Han’s love of money to get to the Death Star and rescue Princess Leia; but it’s when Han stops caring about the money that he really becomes a hero. Star Wars makes it pretty clear: the capitalists tend to be villainous, those who don’t emphasize making money are heroic.

By taking place primarily on the outskirts of society, with its interactions with society dominated by free enterprise tending to lead to misfortune, Star Wars takes a stance against unfettered capitalism. To be heroic in Star Wars is to do things for more than economic gain. To pursue money above all else, to be motivated by capitalism, well, that might not make you the Empire, but you’re certainly not a good guy.

Writer’s Note:

Well. That was fun to do again. It’s a lotta fun to dig into something I love as much as Star Wars and connect dots to create a meaning that may or may not be intended (though The Last Jedi railing against the military industrial complex is certainly deliberate). Is Star Wars itself anti-capitalist? Maybe a little. Will I do more of these oddly in-depth analysis? Maybe.

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The End of (Star) War(s)

After the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped up, Lucasfilm started letting other people play in the sandbox they’d created. And so the Expanded Universe came about: more stories set in the Star Wars universe continuing the adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy really kicked the EU into high gear, and an impressive series of novels, comics, and games were born, each crossing over and referencing each other. It’s a lotta fun, and I’ve read/played a lot of them.

In the EU, the Battle of Endor was only the beginning of the end. Various Moffs, Admirals, and Warlords rose up to fill the Emperor’s void. The Rebellion, now the New Republic, set about mopping up threats until a formal treaty was finally signed 15 years after Endor, properly ending the Galactic Civil War. But of course there were still adventures to be had. The Yuuhzahn Vong invaded six years later, the Dark Nest Crisis was a thing, and then there was another Civil War which is kinda where I checked out. Point is, the galaxy was almost always at war.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm and decided they would make new movies, they nuked all of the EU, primarily so they could start with a blank slate from which to start the then-upcoming Episode VII. On the one hand, I was really bummed because there went the Thrown trilogy, Wedge Antillies’ legendary reputation, and some really cool Clone Wars-era stories; but then that also got rid of some of the later books when things started getting really moody and stuff, so, y’know, not the worst call. Point is, The Force Awakens started a new idea of where Star Wars went post-Return of The Jedi.

And it’s different. There’s a villainous First Order but the New Republic isn’t fighting it. Rather, Leia’s started a Resistance to fight back. Which is odd. Why is there a Resistance when there’s a government that should be fighting that war? In essence: Where’s the New Republic’s fleet?

Turns out, the New Republic demilitarized after the Battle of Jakku. In the new canon, Jakku, one year after Endor, marked the final fight between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. The Alliance’s decisive victory led to Galactic Concordance and the war ended right there. That was it. No Grand Admiral Thrawn, no Black Fleet Crisis, no Rogue Squadron. And with the war over, they demilitarized. The First Order wasn’t perceived as a legitimate threat, so they didn’t take up arms again and then it was too late.

Let’s ignore the fact that this plot point should have been at least referenced in The Force Awakens and instead talk about demilitarization. Historically, when wars were over, countries would demilitarize, military budgets would go down and armies would shrink considerably. After World War II, however, the US did shrink its army, but its military/defense budget never returned to pre-war levels (and still hasn’t). Put simply, the US has constantly been at war since the 1940s, be it a Cold one or something against Terror. The idea of demilitarizing after a war, decommissioning ships, reducing war R&D, shuttering bases, is a foreign concept in American pop culture.

And yet, that’s what happens in the new Star Wars canon. With the Empire defeated, the New Republic put away its guns and played peace instead. Which sounds kinda weird, but that’s ‘cuz we (the US and people who consume US pop-culture [which, in recent years has come to encompass American politics as well as media]) are just not used to that idea. The implication’s pretty clear: When the war’s over, the good guys disarm.

Of course, as the First Order rises the New Republic is hesitant to re-arm and so it falls on Leia’s Resistance to serve as a paramilitary force to stop them. Things go sideways for the New Republic pretty quickly, mostly ‘cuz they underestimated the First Order. But that’s not the New Republic’s fault for being pacifist, it’s because the First Order’s martial and ruthless.

Star Wars is, of course, about wars (in the stars!). But for all its martial posturing, its, courtesy of the new canon, also a world where that war ends and is followed by demilitarization (and peace!). It’s such an odd notion, one that borders on fantasy, but then again, Star Wars is supposed to be a fantasy, isn’t it?

N.B.: This has been Josh thinking far too much about Star Wars. Tune in next time to hear Josh analyze the Star Wars saga as an anti-capitalist text. And the time after that to see my analysis of the Star Wars movies being anti-war. Finally, I’d like to apologize to John Horgan for borrowing his book’s title for this blog post.

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Reframing a Narrative

So it’s been some time (a week-ish) since Black Panther came out and the mental nerding out has sufficiently subsided that I can have some actual Rational Thoughts about the movie beyond “wow it’s so cool and Okoye is everything.” And, go figure, it’s coming down to a lotta thoughts about representation.

And how representation is happening.

But first, a detour to Star Wars. My favorite movie series seems to have enacted a moratorium on white guys as new protagonists. Which is dope, and means that we now have folks like Daisy Ridley and Diego Luna being main characters in Star Wars. And John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Donny Yen, Riz Amed, and, look, I could go on. But you get the point.

Now, Star Wars is fundamentally a fantasy (a space fantasy) that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and so its world is decidedly removed from reality, albeit one inspired by a mishmash of Western and Japanese myths with a healthy helping of 1970s haircuts. You’ve got samurai-monk Jedi Knights running around alongside fighter pilots fresh outta World War II. Part of the fun of seeing women and people of color get the spotlight in Star Wars is seeing them in these archetypes; a woman gets to be the Jedi Knight and a Latino’s the hotshot pilot! Star Wars is the story of the everyman, and opening the series up to diversity means that we get to change the image of said everyman. Also, it means there’s room for folk who look like me in the world, and that’s really cool.

Black Panther is also a fantasy, but it’s one set on Earth (this Earth). Wakanda may be a fictional nation, but its culture is one that draws on real-life African countries. Which makes sense: if you’re gonna have a high-tech futuristic nation set in Africa, you darn well oughta get inspiration from real-life African countries.

And the movie is so much better for it.

By thrusting African aesthetics into the forefront, Black Panther is making a statement about what’s cool. Ndebele Neck Rings aren’t just something you’ll see inside the pages of National Geographic, within the context of the film they’re a fashion accessory that’s part of the Dora Milaje’s uniform. Basotho Blankets look great in general, but in the movie they’re warrior gear that can generate a forcefield. These bits of tradition can be infused with a helping of sci-fi, these looks can be cool and not just as seen on the Discovery Channel.

Narratives are important; they inform how we see the world and help us process things. For centuries now, the narrative surrounding Africa has been one of a poor and primitive continent, one on the receiving end of a “white man’s burden” whether through colonial subjugation or questioning if they know it’s Christmas. It’s a woefully outdated, untrue narrative (and a harmful one that I feel dirty just typing out), but it’s hard to undo a story so firmly ingrained in the popular consciousness.

Black Panther doesn’t just show black characters as kickass heroes, it presents a sci-fi image of an Africa untouched by colonialism that’s flourishing, replete with its tribal trappings. Zulu headdresses and Mursi Lip Plates  aren’t seen as primitive or savage, they’re regal, majestic, and epic.

I’ve written about Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk before, where she stresses the importance of different narratives, about how stories in fiction can be validating. When the only stories we get about Africa (be they through fiction, news, or leaked presidential minutes) focus on it as a war-torn and underdeveloped continent, we start to form certain assumptions about the people who live there and their culture. Black Panther tells us, no matter how subliminally, that these people are as sophisticated as folks anywhere else, that their traditional clothes are rich beyond serving as something for you to gawk at.

Look, one story alone can’t wholly change a centuries-old narrative. But the representation in Black Panther is certainly a step in the right direction. I want to see more colorful science fiction (and stories in general), ones that don’t just pay lip service to non-western cultures but dig into them for both inspiration and representation. I hope there’s more. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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