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Thursday, July 19, 2018

'Star Wars: The Clone Wars' is Coming Back

We prayed. We hoped. We tweeted. We wrote. We continued to support Star Wars: The Clone Wars after its untimely cancellation five years ago, and our dedication has been rewarded: The Clone Wars is finally coming back. The show's tenth anniversary panel at San Diego Comic-Con ended with a teaser for a revival series of 12 episodes coming to the upcoming streaming service Disney Direct.
The teaser begins with ominous footage (likely produced only for the teaser) of rows of clone trooper helmets, many of them familiar, paired with a voiceover from various clones. Using the same music from the second Force Awakens teaser, it transitions into a sweeping shot of what seems to be Fort Anaxes. Anakin, Rex, and Bad Batch leader Hunter watch as a huge Republic fleet collects overhead.

But the real emotion is saved for the end of the teaser. Rex summons Anakin and Obi-Wan to a surprise hologram meeting with a grown-up Ahsoka Tano and the Mandalorian leader Bo-Katan Kryze. "Hello Master," Ahsoka says. "It's been a while."
While it's unknown exactly which unfinished episode arcs will be included in the revival, it's certain that we'll get the Siege of Mandalore, the original plan for the series finale that involved Ahsoka, Bo-Katan, and Rex and his troops liberating Mandalore from Maul's rule. The footage of Fort Anaxes and Hunter also indicates that we'll see the Bad Batch arc, centered on the titular elite squad of clones.

Additionally, a teaser poster simply shows a clone helmet painted to look like Ahsoka. This originates from sketches of how Ahsoka's clones decorate their armor during the Siege of Mandalore. The image perfectly incapsulates two of the show's most beloved and unique elements: the clones and Ahsoka. 
Disney's streaming service isn't scheduled to drop until fall 2019, which means we still have a long way to go. At least we'll get a longer trailer with more footage from the episodes before then. (Maybe at Comic-Con next year?)

On a scale of "a lot" to "I'm actually drowning," how hard are you crying over this announcement? Which stories and characters would you like to see in the revival? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @sithobserver, and may the Force be with you all.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Keri Russell in Talks to Join 'Episode IX'

As expected, the Star Wars: Episode IX casting announcements have begun, before it starts production later this month: Variety is reporting that Keri Russell is in "early talks" to join the film. This is most likely connected to the report that the film was casting an actress in her 40s to play a new role codenamed "MARA." May the speculation commence.
For many, her casting (if finalized) would be a disappointment because Russell would be yet another white brunette woman to enter Star Wars. And it's just bad timing considering that today is another #SWRepMatters day on Twitter where fans discuss representation of minorities—this time, with a special focus on Native Americans. (There are some fantastic threads out there that you should really check out.)
However, between Felicity, Mission:  Impossible III, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and (most recently) The Americans, Russell has shown herself to be a versatile actress who can absolutely slay whatever empowered character JJ Abrams hands her. (Stunts wouldn't be too hard for her either.) Her talent is undeniable, and it would be interesting to see what she brings to Star Wars.

And again, this is only the start of the casting news. We can't forget that in addition to "MARA," IX was also looking at black actresses between the ages of 18 and 26 to play a new character codenamed "Caro." Russell's casting may have been announced first, but there's still a solid chance a young actress of color will join the film in the next few weeks.

What do you think of this news? What kind of character do you hope Russell plays? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @sithobserver, and may the Force be with you all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Lucasfilm Puts Standalone Movies on Hold

If you were wondering about the fallout from Solo's poor box office results...well, here it is. Collider has reported that Lucasfilm is putting their standalone A Star Wars Story movies on hold in favor of focusing on Episode IX (which will start filming very soon) and the next trilogy after that.
Though no future standalone movies were ever actually confirmed by Lucasfilm, THR reported last August that an Obi-Wan Kenobi film was in development with Stephen Daldry directing (recently corroborated by TMZ), and again reported last month that James Mangold would be helming a Boba Fett movie. Now those movies won't be happening for a while—if at all. 

After IX, the next trilogy will be conceived by The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson. Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will also be writing and producing a series of films. All of these films – as well as the animated series Star Wars Resistance and Jon Favreau's live-action TV series are expected to center on new characters in new eras and be separate from the Skywalker saga.

While this news is disappointing to some, it's not that bad for Star Wars in the long run. Kenobi could have been a really interesting and exciting film about a beloved character, and Boba Fett could have at least been a fun team-up movie with lots of familiar bounty hunters. But again, The Last Jedi was all about letting the past die and forgetting about old characters.
"No, no, you're still holding on! Let go!"
That's not to say that we should never have more nostalgic spinoffs or origin stories about familiar faces from the Original Trilogy and Prequels. But Star Wars should never just be about characters introduced 40 years ago in new stories that fill in the gaps between these movies. In terms of both space and time, the Star Wars universe is enormous, and if Johnson and Benioff and Weiss want to explore it, Lucasfilm should by all means concentrate on that.

Unfortunately, Star Wars News Net is reporting that Disney will go back to "proven veteran talent" for their filmmakers instead of younger and riskier choices like Gareth Edwards, Colin Trevorrow, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller—all of whom had serious falling outs with Lucasfilm. While the logic here makes sense to some extent, it's bad news for anyone hoping that Lucasfilm would eventually diversify in terms of the filmmakers they pick. 

After all, there are few female directors or directors of color who have the experience of Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, or the other Hollywood bigshots who run in Kathleen Kennedy's crowd, simply because they've had less opportunities. If Star Wars – one of the biggest franchises ever – is no longer even considering fresh and unique filmmakers (who also happen to not be old white guys), that's not helping the industry at all.

What do you think of this news? What would you have liked to see in Kenobi and Boba Fett standalones? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @sithobserver, and may the Force be with you all.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We Need to Talk About Val

WARNING: major spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story!

Solo has no shortage of characters who deserve thinkpieces. Qi'ra, Chewbacca, L3-37, and Enfys Nest each deliver new and unique perspectives of social inequality and imperialism in Star Wars. But first, we need to talk about one of the film's smaller characters: Thandie Newton's Val. 
Val is introduced as Beckett's deadly, no-nonsense partner and girlfriend (if not wife) who is uneasy about Han and Chewie joining their crew. During the Conveyex heist, she grapples onto the bridge to place charges. When the train approaches and she's pinned down by viper droids, she chooses to detonate the explosives, blowing herself up in the process.

Objectively, it makes little sense to introduce a cool character like this and then kill them off in such a dumb way. Val's abrupt suicide isn't even a sacrifice to save the man she loves; it's just to help them complete their mission and collect a paycheck. The entire cargo is lost anyway just a few moments later, so unlike the protagonists in Rogue One, her death is totally in vain.
The term "fridging" is used to describe when female characters are killed off just for the anguish of men. But Val's death seems almost worse than that; she doesn't know Han well enough for her loss to mean anything to him, and Beckett mourns her for only a couple of scenes before forgetting about her. 

It's also a huge disservice to Newton, who's been acting for almost 30 years but has been earning critical acclaim – including Emmy and Golden Globe nominations – for her performance on WestworldHer character Maeve shares Val's cynicism and take-charge attitude, but also has a deep emotional arc about rebellion, self-discovery, and love (each played brilliantly by Newton) that makes her one of the most compelling and empowered faces on TV right now. 
Poor writing and wasted talent like this should always be called out and criticized, but when it's someone like Val, it crosses the line to problematic content. Because Val is the first visible black woman with a "prominent" role in a Star Wars movie. Including her in the story is a big step for representation (albeit one that should have been taken decades ago), but killing her off almost negates that.

Val has been important to fans since she first appeared in the teaser trailer. Cosplayer Elicia Duncan created a Val costume to wear to the premiere based on the single still of her that had been released, and was rewarded when Newton herself took a photo with her. It's safe to say what drew Duncan to the character was that for the first time, she could see a woman in Star Wars whose skin color and hair were similar to her own. 
And even after audiences saw Solo and realized just how irrelevant Val is to the plot, her importance has not dwindled. Sandra Choute explained on Twitter that in Val, she recognizes the selflessness, confidence, and strength shared by herself and other black women. She acknowledges that Val was wasted, but she's still her favorite character. 
Indeed, Val is actually written and designed pretty well up until her death. She normalizes the idea of black women being fearless, professional, and formidable, but also compassionate at times. Her two outfits are a unisex mudtrooper disguise and a stylish-but-practical leather jacket with a fur scarf. Her afro highlights her blackness and provides important representation for what natural black hair looks like. 
Val's relationship with Beckett is healthy and progressive, too. He may be the leader of their crew, but he trusts her, values her skills, and works with her to reach a shared goal. And as Newton and Woody Harrelson explained in an interview, their characters subvert typical husband/wife gender norms; Beckett is the nurturing one who is quick to trust Han, while Val is skeptical and more interested in completing the job as efficiently as possible. 

Not to mention that their relationship is an interracial one—a fact that is treated as utterly normal. In fact, never does anyone treat Val differently because of the color of her skin, much less her gender. The way that she's able to confidently pose as a stormtrooper – a classic Star Wars disguise – with her face and hair visible, without any of the real Imperials doubting her or regarding her as an "other," is part of what makes her so impactful.
This is where we have to be really careful, because it's easy to say, "what's the problem?" They cast a talented, underrated actress in a role that visibly represents black women for the first time in Star Wars, demonstrates what a modern marriage looks like, and empowers women in general—so what do we have to complain about? 

The issue is that when you take a character like Val and kill her off in such a dumb way, you're diminishing the representation she initially provides. For impressionable little black girls who have so far failed to see people like them in Star Wars, you risk sending the message that their lives don't matter, that their heroic sacrifices will fail to make an impact on other characters or the plot, and then yet another white woman with brown hair will take center stage. 
Imagine if Val had a larger role in the story, if she had taken Beckett's place as Han's mentor. Her arc would have been about her gradually warming to Han (maybe even becoming something of a surrogate mother) but still ultimately deciding to betray him—the kind of story we so rarely see from a female character. It would still end with him lethally shooting her, but at least she'd get some solid character development first.

There could actually be a logistical reason for Val's early demise: we know Westworld Season 2 was filming around the same time as Solo's reshoots, and in an interview with Collider, Newton and Harrelson described how the Conveyex sequence was changed by the reshoots, meaning Val might have survived the original version of it. But that still makes it Lucasfilm's fault for screwing up the production of the movie and hinging all of their black female representation on one actress in the first place.
At the film's Cannes premiere, Newton wore a custom dress with imagery of all the black Star Wars characters that preceded Val
Fortunately, Val's part in the Star Wars canon is far from over. The cover for Beckett's one-shot comic coming in August confirms that (no surprise) she'll have a role in the story. With other comics, novels, games, prequels, spinoffs, and Forces of Destiny, there are many opportunities for her to return in the future, maybe even with Newton reprising the role herself. 

And Val is already setting a precedent for black women in Star Wars. Episode IX is reportedly casting a new charismatic and strong-willed female leader, with a preference for African American actresses (as well as, presumably, black women from other parts of the world). Though they could still end up copping out and casting a white actress instead (like what they did with the casting of Qi'ra), at least this kind of representation seems to be on Lucasfilm's mind. 

So there's still hope for more empowered black women in Star Wars' near future. And we can always tune into Westworld to see Newton in a kickass sci-fi lead role that actually utilizes her full talent and consistently does her character justice. But Val? She's pretty damn cool, too. Unlike the writers of Solo or the characters themselves, let's try not to forget about her anytime soon. 

For further reading, check out:
  • #SWRepMatters on Twitter, an ongoing movement in which fans appreciate the representation of minorities in Star Wars (on both sides of the camera) and advocate for more change.
  • Vogue's interview with Newton about the origins of her Cannes dress and how representation matters to her personally.
  • The Daily Dot's spot-on article about why Val's death was a mistake.
  • Nerdist's article about how Solo mistreated its women in general, and how Lucasfilm can prevent this from happening in the future. 
  • A post I wrote last November about Taris, a canonical Star Wars planet where black women are in charge, and the overall representation of women of color in Star Wars.
  • Syfy Wire's article about the history of black women in Star Wars, written on Star Wars Day last month.
  • "How 'Star Wars' forgot about black women" by Just Add Color in November 2016.
  • A sketch from Donald Glover's Saturday Night Live hosting gig last month that brilliantly used satire to point out the absence of black people in Star Wars.

What would you have liked to have seen from Val in Solo? Where do you hope we see her in the future? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @sithobserver, and may the Force be with you all.

Monday, May 28, 2018

'Solo: A Star Wars Story' Review and Analysis

*MAJOR SPOILER ALERT*

Solo: A Star Wars Story is not a game-changing movie. It doesn't change what we know about iconic characters or the Force itself. It doesn't brilliantly subvert fan expectations in the way that The Last Jedi did. And its best quality is that it doesn't try to be.

But at the same time, Solo is not a basic, superficial, purely-fun movie either. It shows us why the Empire is so terrible and gives us a new perspective of what they've done to the galaxy. Through L3-37 and Chewbacca, it delivers the kind of socially conscious storyline about racism (or at least its Star Wars equivalent) and slavery that Star Wars has never really done before.

That's not to say that Solo should be lauded for its progressiveness. Father-son duo Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan aren't bad writers necessarily, but the way they treat their female characters is more obviously problematic than any of the other Disney-era Star Wars movies. While Qi'ra gets to shine at the end of the movie and Enfys Nest is an instant icon, Val and L3-37 are both promising new female characters who get killed off pretty promptly. 

Maybe the weirdest thing about the movie is how explicitly it sets up sequels, even though none are confirmed (and are arguably bad ideas in the first place). Qi'ra, the most important figure in Han's life for most of the film, ends the film on a truly shocking note, while Han and Chewie's next adventure is heavily teased. But based on the film's lower-than-expected box office performance and the mixed critical response, those sequels might not happen. 
And you know what? That's not such a bad thing. Solo's male-centric narrative and relative lack of diversity (compared to The Force AwakensRogue One, and The Last Jedi) are mostly unrelated to its flaws or why audiences aren't as interested in it, but if Lucasfilm decides to create more films with female leads and diverse casts as a result of this, that's actually pretty great for Star Wars and Hollywood in general. 

But honestly, it doesn't matter that much if Solo isn't a great film, or even the lowest-grossing one of all time. Not every Star Wars film has to be a masterpiece and a record-breaking hit! When we have a movie coming out every year, that's just something we have to accept. And it's when we start setting these kind of expectations for every single Star Wars that the franchise is actually in trouble. 

The Characters

Han

Solo is about learning how Han Solo became the person we meet in A New Hope. Every character and every plot point is to teach him a lesson and further his development. But the "origin story" aspect of the movie doesn't go overboard; we never meet Han's parents or have some Batman-esque flashback to a childhood tragedy.
As it turns out, Han did it all for a girl. And while this doesn't make for a particularly strong character – just like Jyn Erso, whose sole motivation was her father – the difference is that Han's arc is about finding his place in a larger universe. His time spent working for the Empire teaches him what they're doing to the galaxy (on Mimban, he points out to his commanding officer that they're the evil invaders), and Enfys Nest introduces him to the beginnings of the Rebellion.
Of course, there's still about 10 years until he actually meets Luke and Leia and joins the Alliance. At the end of the movie, his next step is joining a new crew on Tatooine—one that we can assume is being put together by Jabba the Hutt. But Solo is about planting the seeds of the Rebel hero he'll become, and for what's meant to be the first installment in a series, that's just fine.

Chewbacca

We so often take Chewie for granted in these movies. He's the comic relief, the reliable sidekick to Han and now Rey, but he never gets his own agency. Solo doesn't exactly rectify that, but it does give him some more depth by addressing the way the Empire has enslaved Wookiees—a horrifying parallel to how dehumanization has been used to justify real-life genocide and slavery.
Maybe there's something wrong about Chewie's arc being about him choosing to stick with his new, arrogant human friend instead of continuing on his quest to free his people and return to his family. But at least Solo reminds us that Chewie is Han's best friend for a reason. He's the kind of bro that offers you a fuzzy shoulder to lean on when your no-good girlfriend ditches you for a half-robotic Sith Lord.
Qi'ra

Qi'ra may look exactly like the Star Wars women that have preceded her (which is a problem in and of itself), but it's her survival instincts that set herself apart from them. As a result of growing up on Corellia and being effectively abandoned by Han, her primary goal is always just to save her own neck, by any means necessary. She still seems to care about Han, but she'd rather seize control of Crimson Dawn than risk a happy life with him. 
Qi'ra is cunning, manipulative, and as we learn at the end of the movie, very dangerous. And it's a shame that it takes so long for her to get the spotlight, but when she does, the movie actually treats her pretty well. She is allowed to brutally murder the main villain and achieve revenge on the man whose creepy, inappropriate affection for her hints at a pattern of sexual harassment (and perhaps assault) between them. 
Most importantly, rather than "fridging" her by having her die tragically in Han's arms at the end, thus justifying his cynicism, Qi'ra is set up to be a complex female villain (which is always a cool thing to see in Star Wars) in a Solo sequel. Whether she exploits his love for her to manipulate him once again or straight-up beats his ass with more Teräs Käsi, Qi'ra will be one to watch. 

Beckett

From a certain point of view, Beckett is meant to be a darker version of Han's future: a cocky, arrogant gunslinger who has become too cynical to have any real friends. He seems to love his girlfriend (or wife?) Val, but when Han brings her up later, Beckett indicates that he never really trusted her, either. This is why his betrayal is surprising to exactly no one, including Han.
How did Beckett get to be like this? How many people betrayed him in his life? Who was his mentor? These aren't questions that necessarily need to be answered, but a Beckett comic in August might answer a few of them—and thankfully, Enfys Nest, Rio Durant, and Val will be along for the ride.

Lando

Was there ever a chance of Lando not stealing the show? No, of course not, because Donald Glover is a treasure and he perfectly captures Lando's charm and swagger. He's a scoundrel and a cheater at sabacc, but he has a character arc about...uh...learning to hate Han because he indirectly caused the death of the droid Lando loves, ruined his pristine ship, and then took it from him?
Okay, so maybe there isn't that much depth to Lando in this movie. But even if there are no Solo sequels, you could probably convince audiences to see a Lando spinoff with no one trying to steal Glover's thunder. Maybe it could be a prequel to Solo and L3 could return. Maybe it could actually have black directors and writers for once. Hell, why not give Glover one of those responsibilities, or both? That's not a bad idea at all. 

L3-37

L3 might be Solo's best new character. She's the first female droid, and while the film does make Lando attracted to her because of that (because God forbid a major female character not be a love interest), what really drives her is her dedication to the equal rights of droids. And it's a silly idea, but it's a whole lot more interesting than just "comic relief droid."
But what the film does to her goes beyond typical "fridging." Killing her off during her best moment – the slave revolt she leads on Kessel – just to give Lando an emotional beat is bad enough. But downloading her onto the Falcon as its new navicomputer, despite the fact that the ship has never had an intelligence of its own in the past? That's just awful.
Think about it: you're taking a droid who repeatedly demonstrates through actions and dialogue how she wants her kind to be free, how she doesn't serve a master, and then you strip away her voice and sentence her to a live of servitude to whoever's piloting the Falcon. The fact that the film doesn't even recognize the disgusting irony of this makes its treatment of L3 the worst out of all its characters (which is saying a lot!).

Val

We're used to our Star Wars women being young, white, and learning to find their place in the galaxy. Val is none of these; when we meet her, she's already committed to Beckett and their crew. Whether she's charging into battle on Mimban, expertly shooting down the Cloud-Riders and viper droids, or deciding to blow herself up to finish the mission, Val exudes fearlessness and confidence in everything she does.
There's a long discussion that should (and will!) be had about what it means to kill off Star Wars' first visible black woman, but the short story is that it's a total disservice to Thandie Newton, a problematic message to send to audiences, and just nonsensical in terms of basic writing. But at least when Star Wars has such a nonlinear storytelling style, there's plenty of opportunity to see more of her in the future. 

Dryden Vos

Dryden is not a totally old or basic kind of Star Wars villain. His materialism in comparison to Jabba the Hutt is evident in his choice of a huge pleasure yacht – complete with a club and a collection of precious treasure – instead of a seedy den. He is dangerous, and at least a little scary, but mostly he's used to further Qi'ra's character development. And you know what? That's just fine. 
Enfys Nest

It would have been perfectly acceptable if Enfys Nest had just been a ruthless armored female villain with an awesome, distinctive musical theme. Really, it would have been great, and she would have easily been a fan favorite. But instead, Enfys is revealed to be a (biracial) freedom fighter, a victim of Crimson Dawn's colonialism who leads a gang of other oppressed people. The Cloud-Riders aren't evil pirates, they're the beginnings of the Rebellion.
Even more than that, Enfys mentions that her mother wore the mask before her. So "Enfys Nest" isn't just one person but a legendary, archetypal, heroic figure, passed from one generation to the next. That sounds like a pretty cool idea for a superhero-style Star Wars spinoff movie. (At the very least, we know she's signed on for Solo sequels, too.)

Darth Maul

To the movie's credit, it fully recognizes Maul's (canonical!) storyline on The Clone Wars and Rebels by letting Sam Witwer voice him again, giving him robotic legs, referencing his homeworld of Dathomir (where Qi'ra's supposed to meet him), and even giving him the same double-bladed lightsaber he uses on Rebels. His involvement with Crimson Dawn isn't even that surprising since he already formed a Shadow Collective of crime syndicates.
But those series also gave Maul a conclusive arc that ultimately paints him as a deeply troubled yet strangely sympathetic figure. Maybe the Kasdans are familiar with that and are capable of telling a story that could still expand more about him, but since the majority of audiences have no clue about his canonical revival and later death (at the hands of old Ben Kenobi, no less), it honestly doesn't seem worth it.

Other notes
  • When Beckett brings Han and Chewie onto their crew, Val suggests a more experienced hunter: Bossk, everyone’s favorite cannibalistic lizard. So Val and Beckett know Bossk! They’re buddies! That’s so cool! We definitely need a story of the three of them on a mission. (Honestly, Val and Bossk on their own would work as a story, too.)
  • Another cool name drop: Lando recognizes Beckett as the guy who killed Aurra Sing, Boba Fett’s one-time mother figure and a truly despicable (though badass) assassin who appeared in The Phantom Menace and The Clone Wars. It's sad that this fan-favorite character is killed off-screen, but it's also a safe bet that her final encounter with Beckett is told in a future comic.
What did you think of Solo: A Star Wars Story? Where do you hope these characters go next? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @sithobserver, and may the Force be with you all.