Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

The New Franchises

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

About a month ago, Franklin Harris wrote an intriguing post on the subject of the new movie franchises:

Marvel Comics didn’t invent serialized storytelling, but it may have perfected it.

During the publisher’s formative years, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel “bullpen” created a unified world, in which characters from one comic book might pop up in another, if only for a cameo, with little or no fanfare. Just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by to say hello.

Fifty years later, the comics publisher-turned-Disney-owned entertainment juggernaut looks to revolutionize serialized storytelling in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Franklin goes on to describe the way a movie-TV Marvelverse is being built brick by brick. The movies are no longer movies in the traditional sense; they are stories told in a self-contained universe. And he goes on to argue that Star Wars is about to go down the same path, with the spate of new movies Disney has authorized.

I think it’s an interesting point. Spinoffs are nothing new, of course. Television has been a particular proving ground for spinoffs (Happy Days, All the Family, the X-files). Movies have done it before as well. But what Marvel is doing is something very different. It’s far more cohesive, far more thought out. They clearly started out from the beginning with this sort of multi-media multi-movie universe in mind, laying down the first Avengers movies as prequels toward 2012′s epic.

My only disagreement is that I think he has the order reversed. Star Wars got there first, at least as far as movies go.

Back in the 90′s and early 00′s, the LucasArts studio produced a series of absolutely incredible video games. Set in the Star Wars universe, these ranged from flight simulators that allowed you to refight the battles of the movies (X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, X-Wing Alliance) to first-person shooters that allowed you to be a Jedi in the New Republic (Dark Forces, Jedi Knight) to a first-person role-playing game set thousands of years earlier (Knight of the Old Republic). The video games not only reproduced the movies, they expanded the material there into a larger context. For example, X-Wing covered the rebellion’s desperate flight from Yavin to Hoth. X-Wing Alliance had the plot of Return of the Jedi as only a portion of the larger story of a smuggler family. And characters from the movies — Luke, Lando, C3PO — would pop in for the occasional cameo. This expanded universe included television as well. General Grievous — one of the villains of Revenge of the Sith — was actually introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon. In fact, in 2006, Neal Stephenson wrote that one of the problems with the prequels was that much of the narrative heft had been moved to the video games and cartoons leaving the movies as pure spectacle, the climax to a saga that had been set up on small screens.

Science fiction has spawned this sort of expanded universe for a long time, of course. Besides Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek had lots of novels, spin-offs, etc. But even there, we are now seeing more cohesion. Doctor Who, in particular, has incorporated K-9 and Company, Torchwood and the audio dramas. What Marvel has done is taken this to the next step: create an interlaced franchise of movies, TV shows and comics.

Star Wars is now following Marvel to this next step. But I suspect other franchises are going to as well. The Hobbit could have been made as one movie but has been expanded to three with enormous amounts of extra narrative added, so that Bilbo’s journey is just part of a bigger saga, complete with cameos from the first trilogy. And I suspect Peter Jackson is not done with Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world is especially ripe for a Marvel-esque multi-media approach since he created the world first and the stories second. The Tolkienverse is already fully formed. I suspect a few movies will come out of the Silmarillion in the mid-future. Or maybe a television series.

We really are moving into a different era of entertainment. The rise of the home theater has had a much more profound effect on television and movies than anyone could have foreseen. You’re now expected to watch every episode of a TV series and expected to break out your Iron Man DVD to see some foreshadowing you missed. Thirty years ago, Star Wars was unique in spreading a saga over three movies. Now many franchises are doing it. Twenty years ago, Babylon 5 was unique in telling a television story over a 5-year arc. Now almost every drama is doing it (although usually not as well). One of the most popular shows — Game of Thrones — is unspooling a ridiculously complicated story and HBO is banking millions on the idea that George Martin will give them an ending. Binge watching of TV series and movies is now the norm.

It’s no longer enough to just watch; these days you have to immerse.

The Force Will Be With Disney

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

So, I was busy yesterday when Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree over the news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Reaction has been strong, if mixed. Someone on FB said the news was dominated by two events: a huge disaster and Hurricane Sandy.

I’m not seeing it that way.

Regardless of what one thinks about the Disney Empire, they provide great entertainment. Their Pixar division has produced some of the finest movies of the last decade (WALL-E, The Incredibles, etc.) Miramax has pumped out numerous Oscar nominees. Their main division has produced solid entertainment in Narnia (first film at least), Pirates of the Caribbean (first film at least) and Tangled. They’ve turned Marvel into a relentless film mill which has pumped out films that are decent (Thor), good (Iron Man) and great (The Avengers). And for all the criticism John Carter got, it was a not a bad film by any means.

Really, the whole anti-Disney thing kind of puzzles me. Yes, they are relentless in protecting their copyright and making a ton of money with endless merchandising. I have a daughter who is into princesses, so my wallet is very familiar with them. But … is that really such an evil thing? America isn’t a hippy commune.

Sleeping on it, I’m more convinced that this could be a good thing. “Could” being the operative word. And the reason I think this could be a good thing is that the franchise is now out of Lucas’ hands.

I don’t mean to slam Lucas. He’s a visual genius who revolutionized film-making. I have a higher opinion of the prequel trilogy than most. And the expanded universe of Star Wars has been excellent, especially from their video game division, which has produced engrossing, well-made, entertaining games that advance the story (and, notably, are not ridiculous resource hogs).

But I also think Lucas’ success produced some problems that manifested in the prequel trilogy. As I argued before, there were great movies buried within those pretty good movies. The thing that made them almost great movies was Lucas’ vision. But the thing that kept them from being great movies was Lucas himself. His flaws — a tin ear for dialogue, a tendency to overcomplicate plots, a push for the cute, an inability to direct actors — were on display and I think his success and his stature prevented anyone from gainsaying him, from saying, “George, come on … let’s cast Annakin as a teenager, not a kid.” And the expanded universe of video games and books actually hurt the films because much of plot — Annakin’s fall from grace, in particular — had taken place off screen.

Disney now has the ability to get anyone they want to work on Stars Wars VII. There are directors out there — great directors — who would pay them for the privilege. They can, if they want, get Peter Jackson to write and direct, Kevin Smith to script doctor and the entire cast of Harry Potter to act. And by keeping Lucas on as a “creative consultant”, they can be sure that he brings a bit of vision to the project. If Disney works this right — finds a great crew and gives them the freedom to create a great film — we could be dazzled.

Ah, but that’s the rub … if. I could just as easily see the studio thinking they have to get something out that’s generic and endlessly marketable to start paying off their $4 billion investment.

We’ll see. I am often too optimistic about these things. But the Star Wars universe is very rich and deep. It’s still possible for great film-makers to make great films in it. Hopefully they now have a chance. That chance did not exist 24 hours ago.

Machete Order

Monday, February 27th, 2012

I think I’ve made my feeling about the Star War prequels pretty clear. In short, I think they are very good, but flawed. And those flaws drive people in my age demographic bonkers. The hatred spewed at them is way out of proportion to their actual quality. And it is noteworthy that younger and older viewers see the prequels as about on par with the original trilogy. In the end, the original trilogy is elevated in the minds of Gen-Xers because we saw it as children. Nothing could live up to that.

One question I’ve wondered about is what order to show the films to my daughter in. This article as a great suggestion, advocating showing them in the sequence of IV-V-I-II-III-VI. That preserves the big shock of Vader’s identity while keeping things coherent. It’s a fantastic idea and I intend to follow it.

The alternative is hoving off Episode I entirely (“Machete Order”). And I agree with a lot of what he says. It does do away with a lot of the problems of the trilogy and gets back to what I said in my past post: the original trilogy would have worked better had it started Anakin as a troubled teenager rather than an innocent child.

Attack of the Phantom Sith

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars prequel trilogy while working this week. That I own them on DVD tells you I have a better opinion of them than most people my age. I do think the hatred of the movies is, in some sense, a Gen-X thing. They failed to live up to expectations. I’ve noticed older viewers and younger ones tend to think they’re almost as good as the original trilogy.

I think the thing that frustrates most people — and frustrates me on occasion — is that you occasionally glimpse the great movies buried within just good movies. The prequels were not very far away from being outstanding. The direction — at least the visual direction — is great. The F/X are spectacular and, more importantly, imaginative. John Williams music is up to par. If the movies had just done a few things differently, they might have been great. Specifically:

  • Simplify the narrative. Complex political strife does not work well in the Star Wars universe. Having the droid army simply be the Sith enemy would have made things simpler. Only at the end would it have been revealed that Palpatine was playing both sides.
  • Keep Darth Sidious in the shadows until the last. Darth Maul would have been a better villain if he, and not Sidious, had appeared to be the main villian in Movie 1. And just think how devastating it would have been if Annakin had discovered the truth at the end of Movie 3. The omniscient audience is not always a good thing.
  • Recast and rework Annakin. Having him as a kid in movie 1 was a mistake. Having both Annakin and Padme as teenagers would have started romantic tension right from the first second. By movie 2, they could have been in love but unwilling to act. Having them “fall in love”, if you can call it that, was a big problem. Think about the romantic tension in Empire. It’s clear that almost all of the romantic stuff happened off screen. So it works.

    Accelerating Annakin’s descent into villainy would have done well too. Cast as a teenager in movie 1, he could have shown the ruthlessness and impatience that makes him fall. Movie 2 could have seen him growing more disgusted with Jedi restraint and more convinced that only a firm hand can destroy the Sith, culminating in hims executing a defenseless Dooku on Palpatine’s orders. By movie 3, he would be spinning out of control, unable to harness his own power, paranoid to the point where when Palpatine says, “kill the Jedi”, he does so without thinking.

    Casting someone other than Hayden would have been a good idea as well, although I’m not convinced that was a Hayden-sucks-as-an-actor problem and not a Lucas-can’t-direct-actors problem. His spell as the evil Annakin at the end of Movie 3 was quite good.

    What’s amazing, watching the movies, is how well parts of it work. Obi Wan works. The fights work. Yoda works. What drags things to a screaming halt is the forced arc of Annakin.

  • The problem with Jar-Jar and the Gungans was that they were comic relief. Any movie that has a comic relief character has problems. Humor should flow naturally out of all the characters. It works better. It lightens them up and makes them human. In fact, the biggest problem with the movies, I think, is the lack of humor in certain characters. Moving Jar-Jar from comic relief to “Chewbacca substitute” would have vastly improved Movie 1.
  • Notice I haven’t suggested any radical changes. Just tweaks. Simplify, accelerate, amplify. Star Wars does well with clean story telling. It’s a pity Lucas forgot that. Because instead of three good movies we could have had three great movies.