Category Archives: Commentary

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Why Does Rise of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Dip Into Racist Asian Stereotypes?

Nickelodeon‘s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series Rise of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has come under criticism for numerous reasons; changes to the dynamic of the Turtles, the stylized look of the series, and drastic difference in the Turtles’ depictions. I have no opinion, no really care about all of that. Beyond all of that, the thing that stood out to me about the brand new trailer is the use of the Fu Manchu/Yellow Peril stereotype in the character of Splinter.

In the first official teaser released Friday, we get a look at what we can expect from the series and a better idea of the characters. We also get a look at Splinter who with his “slanted/slit” eyes, buck teeth, and delivery of lines, is hard to not see a racist Asian stereotype. There’s even a top knot!

This ethnic stereotype (which has no place in a kids show let alone modern society) has its roots in “Yellow Peril,” Western imperialism, racism, and led to exclusionary laws enacted against immigrants here in the United States. In entertainment it’s common and popularized in characters such as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan both of which tread in stereotypical looks that persist to today. One scratches their head why the creators of this show thought it’s appropriate in 2018.

While there’s movements and individuals fighting for better representation of Asians in entertainment, to see a kids’ animated show perpetuate this hurtful imagery for a new generation is not only misguided it’s downright regressive and has no place on television let alone Nickelodeon which has had a history of excellent children’s programming.

You can watch the video below and see the problematic speech patterns at the 44 second mark and 53 second mark.

Why I’m Relieved Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Writing Captain America

Although it’s been widely rumored for months, Marvel only lately announced that the next writer of Captain America will be Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is excellent news for a couple reasons: first, because after Nick Spencer’s disastrous run where Captain America became a Nazi, the book and the character badly need not so much a “Fresh Start” as a bold new direction – and Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer who is not afraid of taking established characters in bold new directions, as readers of his continuing run on Black Panther can attest to. Second, more than almost any hero, Captain America is a character who is about political ideas, and as a top-flight political essayist, Coates is better suited than most comics writers to do just that.

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For Conscious Nerds: When the Television Revolution is Not Enough (or My Review/Love Letter to Black Panther)

WAKANDA FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This was the battle cry that has been heard around the world since Black Panther debuted in theaters and the world has not been the same since. This is what fans all over the globe have come to realize that we now see the “normalization” of the superhero genre, that all of us can be heroes, and it is not quite monochromatic as Hollywood would make us believe.

As nerds of color, much like our brothers and sisters, we have yet to see a hero that feels like they belong to us, until NOW.

In the past year, the rise of Black Lives Matter due to the rise of hate crimes, unjust police killings, and devaluation of black bodies has been felt everywhere, so as good art does, it starts to reflect what has happened in the world. This reality has been seen in docu-series such as Time: The Kalief Browder Story and Strong Island. Then, shows like Shots Fired and the recently released Netflix series Seven Seconds has further enforced why people of color feel like they are the target as their lives are constantly prescribed to their surroundings. This is where children of color, like other kids, had to find superheroes who they could identify with and for the longest time, most of us has had to find the altruistic values which echo who we are.

For me, it has been, Batman, who I saw on Superfriends, as I fancied myself smart and I wanted to be rich, maybe one day, but life made sure to let me know that I am not white, and I will never have the same privileges. This finding of heroes like me changed when my Dad introduced me to comics, which is when I found the world to not be so monochromatic, but a kaleidoscope of funk, as I found Power Man, Black Panther, Black Lightning, Turok The Dinosaur Hunter, and many more which are still part of my cherished pull boxes and of course, it became even more blessed when Milestone Comics came on the scene . As I grew older, there were variations on the Black superhero no television and in the movies, but none that any of us would love to dress up as, until Blade made a splash back in the 1990s. Since then, it has become quite monochromatic once again, with the sprinklings here and there, like Falcon or War Machine in The Avengers movies, but not one with them headlining.

Television has been more progressive in that sense, showing prominent storylines and featuring regular characters occupied by actors in shows like Arrow, Runaways, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Smallville, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That is why shows like Luke Cage and Black Lightning are so important, both shows very different than every other genre show from their respective studios, and each embodying the culture from which their character is from, from the music, the sights and their villains, as the days of making the black version of something, has for the most part come to a close and these characters silver screen portrayals showcase superheroes that feel and look like us.

This is why when it was first announced that Black Panther was going to have his own movie, I had my doubts since John Singleton and Wesley Snipes tried to travel this road back in the 1990s but when I heard they were getting Ryan Coogler, who directed one of my favorite movies Fruitvale Station, I had a feeling it was in good hands. The main thing I wanted to know is how they will bring Wakanda to life, so when the trailers started to hit the internet, as this rendering (below) is what felt the nation would look like, but the vision that Coogler ended up putting on the screen, exceeded my expectations

Which reminded of a book I read about Timbuktu and its king, Mansa Musa who was thought of be the richest man in the world. Then there is the look of the costumes:

Each costume pulled from tribes across the continent of Africa: Zulu, Masai, Himba, Mursi, Surma, Igbo, Basotho, Yoruba, Ndebeleh, and Touareg tribes. The filmmakers did not only stop there they infused the Wakandan language with two different mother tongues, Xhosa is a Nguni Bantu language with click consonants and one of the official languages of South Africa, which was the spoken Wakandan language but the written Wakandan language was Nsibidi which were used by the Igbo peoples, and all the actors made it sound cool. This leads me to the stars of the movie, primarily, the women, who are the strength of the movie.

The character of Nakia, as played by Lupita Nyongo, whose character became the villain known as Malice in the comics as her advances to T’Challa proved to be unsuccessful, but in the movie she still has his heart. Then there is Okoye, as acted by Danai Gurira, who proves to be T’Challa’s right hand which is equal to what she is in the comic books. The character of Ayo as played by Florence Kasumba made her presence known in Captain America: Civil War. Here she still caries gravitas but I am one of those disappointed comic book fans who had hoped her storyline form World of Wakanda would have carried over. The legendary Angela Bassett of course plays Ramonda who is T’Challa and Shuri’s mother in the movie. In the comic books she was a stepmother to T’Challa and T’Chaka’s third wife. Lastly, clearly the breakout star of the movie, Letitia Wright who plays Shuri is not only T’Challa’s sister, but she acts as Q to T’Challa’s James Bond. in the comics she eventually takes over the mantle of Black Panther.

Now let us get to the men, let me start with Ulysses Klaue, who doesn’t resemble his character at all, as played by Andy Serkis. His arm cannon comes close what he has in the comics and feels like a nod. Then there is Agent Ross, as played by the brilliant Martin Freeman. In an average movie his character would have played the “white savior”, but as can be seen throughout the movie, he was the one needing saving. M’Baku silenced him in his court but he did end up using pilot skills to shoot down the plans carrying weapons. The character of T’Chaka, as played by John Kani and Attandwa Kani (yes they are father and son) although dead , looms large throughout the film, for a reason I will get to in a minute Then there is the character of N’Jobu as played by Sterling K Brown, brother of T’Chaka , probably replacing Siya in the comics, who held the title after T’Chaka. This version betrays Wakanda as he sees their seclusion as overprotective and his death drives Killmonger to his returning to Wakanda. The character of W’Kabi as played by Daniel Kaluya serves as T’Challa’s best friend and in charge of National Defense, much like in the comics. Zuri, played by Forrest Whittaker serves the same purpose in the comics but looks vastly different than he does in canon., and plays a huge part to the plot. M’Baku as played by Winston Duke is largely different from how he is portrayed in the comics, as most fans know his “Man-Ape”, which is racially insensitive and connected to ethnic slurs, but his portrayal here is probably one of the most balanced in the film.

Eric Killmonger as portrayed by Michael B. Jordan looks vastly different from his character in the comics but is probably the best villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever seen as the reasons why he is so good because he was complicated. His intentions were not of his own self-interests but to empower indigenous peoples around the world, in New York, Hong Kong, London, which incidentally are the same places Doctor Strange has sanctums. Therefore, I feel he really is an antagonist, one who likes to see better results but takes extreme measures to get there, which underscores the rise of oligarchs around the world, one where their extreme measures cause power shifts.

Lastly, there is T’Challa as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman whose nonverbal acting and poise made him the perfect actor to take on the mantle and undergoes the hero’s journey as he leaned on the end of T’Chaka about keeping their borders as he says in the end scene” the wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers”.

Now let’s get to the major themes, as the plotline is tied to one lie, one which T’Chaka, Zuri and N’Jobu are all tied to, one in which one of them dies, and this is the reason Killmonger comes to Wakanda to take the throne, shows that lies have long lasting effects. This film also talk of the differences between Africans and African Americans, as no line speaks volumes to difference in ideologies , when he said “bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped ship, because they knew death was better than bondage”, as the difference between Eric and T’Challa, is one watching black lives being diminished by the lack of access to power, money and technology like herein America while some parts of Africa have flourished better. This movie more than proves to the world that movies having most people of color can make money if it is good. The other thing about the movie is this is one the few MCU movies which are self-contained, as you don’t see another character, except for Bucky, in the final post-credits scene. Lastly, the reception the movie got before audiences even watched the movie was powerful, as either they cosplayed or dressed in African Dashikis or other African clothing, to express their love for the movie, as can be seen below:

The movie was simply fantastic, the best movie I have seen this year, and best movie to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one I will watch again. Until then I am booking my flight to Wakanda.

An Encomium to the Black Experience: Why I am excited to see Black Panther

Colonized, broken, subservient, destitute, poor and reliant on aid. These are the common motifs that typically come to mind  when some give an errant thought to the continent of Africa. There is a deep history, explaining aspects of these considerations, mostly colonial but they are not the whole picture. Africa has a rich legacy, a cultural tapestry that stretches back to the dawn of time, achievements that have been unsung or even suppressed. I have been doing a lot of reading lately, mostly on literature that have undertaken a bold and honest look at the history of humankind. I have been studying how the legacies of colonization persist in modern day vestiges of prejudice and systematic disenfranchisement. I have also been looking at how language and narrative can exhibit and perpetuate invented divisions. Two books come to mind here and I would love to suggest them to you, They are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harrari and Dialogical Self Theory by Hubert Hermans, and Agnieszka Hermans-Konopka.  

The former is an exquisite exploration of the journey of humankind, showing the many paths we have taken, niches we have settled in. It is exhaustive and holistic account of the different cultures that have been weaved, as well as how our tools, worldview, philosophy, most importantly how empire has shaped both the earth and ourselves. The latter takes a look at how language and narrative can either build bridges and understanding of the “other” or perpetuate divisions we have come to know. The book does an amazing job at explaining the source and drivers of threat perception upon the globalized stage. Critical to this is the examination and distinction between Monological and Dialogical communication. Monological being a top down and rigid form of discourse that limits the bandwidth of communication. Dialogical communications opens all possible channels, is inclusive and seeks to holistically deal with misperceptions, born from countering positions. 

Racism and prejudice are sterling examples of monological communication. Communication that serves to assuage a perceived grievance or rationalizations oriented towards a particular end, typically division, suppression dominance or protectionist impulse. Think here of the Trump White House’s worldview on immigration, or the attitude of noblesse oblige that continues to plunder African through the Charitable Humanitarian Complex” I count myself very fortunate to have lived in a country where my personal encounter with racism has never gone beyond the threshold of mere offence. My life has never been threatened, nor my personal or professional pursuits limited due to my race. Nevertheless I recognize that a system of suppression and oppression are firmly in place with various degrees of manifestation. As a black male in Canada, I cannot discount the full and complete legacy of  dispossession and disenfranchisement that continues to be the plight of my aboriginal brothers and sisters. Nor the strained relations between law enforcement and many people of colour as well as other vulnerable minorities. There is a system and it persists.

Black Panther, a story of the technologically superior and unconquered super power of Wakanda, is a welcome opportunity to buck the exaggerated and monological narrative surrounding Africa and perhaps other culture served the same treatment in history.

I do not know as much as I should about my deep ancestry, but my Grandmother has told my family she is descended from the Maroons. A group of West African slaves taken to the greater and lesser Antilles to fill the void left by the indigenous genocide that took place there. I am very proud to know that the Maroons were among some of the first slaves to revolt against their cruel masters in Jamaica. Knowing that I have that blood in my veins has been everything for me. For years I have pondered at the level of cultural and spiritual dispossession that European colonialism has dealt to my people, I have wondered about the cultural traditions I was torn from as a result and the Gods I have not had the opportunity to worship. My orientation towards Africa has always been a curious wonder, deep longing and pain that I do not know it as well as I should.  When I think about achievements like the Library of Alexandria, and the strength and monuments built by many on the continent I wonder about the real life Wakanda’s that have evaded modern western history’s record, narrative and respect.

Will there be some who are put off by this film? Of course, the symbol of the Black Panther and Black Panthers has always been controversial and weary by those determined to subvert and twist it for some of the reasons listed above, none of that will detract from the beauty and majesty of this re-presentation of black culture.

What I am most excited for is the generation of black boys and girls who will look to the big screen and see towering and talented heroes who look just like them. I look forward to those seeking reconnection and a homecoming, I look forward for the dialogical discourse that this film will no doubt launch. I look forward for the raising of a voice so often distorted or muted in the media.  I look forward to the day when parents no longer have to warn their children about walking at certain hours or wearing hoodies….they can wear capes….they can learn science. They can clothe themselves in vibranium, be bulletproof and achieve epic feats.

Whether in Marvel’s Wakanda, or DC’s Vathlo Island (Krypton), Afrofuturism is a welcome balm for those seeking reconnection with their motherland, inspiration and an invitation to a deeper understanding of race relations.

If we can confront historical grievance and misunderstanding in an inclusive and dialogical way, without suppression, there is no limit to what we as a human species can achieve or heal. I am proud of this opportunity, and it moves me deeply. Wakanda Forever!

I wrote this after watching Kendrick Lamar‘s video All the Stars, featured on the Black Panther original soundtrack. It almost brought me to tears. Take a look, a beautiful tribute to African dress and culture.

Valiant Entertainment Has Been Sold. Will History Repeat Itself?

Valiant Entertainment has been fully acquired by DMG Entertainment, who sought to increase their former 57% stake into full ownership in order to expand into film, television and other media platforms.

“This is about taking it to the next level,” says Mintz, a former filmmaker-turned-entrepreneur. “I am not looking on expanding from a publishing standpoint but from a motion picture standpoint.”

Originally founded in 1989 Valiant became a successful comic book company by focusing on creating compelling characters with a focus on story telling, much like the relaunched company set out to do in 2012.

Why did Valiant require a relaunch?

In the mid 1990’s they were purchased by Acclaim Entertainment with intent to expand their reach in the video game market. You’ve never heard of Acclaim? That’s because the company went bankrupt in 2004, and cutting a long story short the Valiant characters were sold off. Eight years later Valiant Entertainment, with CEO Dinesh Shamdasani at the helm relaunched those same characters into one of the best shared superhero universes.

With DMG Entertainment purchasing Valiant, and three of the executives resigning (Dinesh Shamdasani, Gavin Cuneo, and Peter Cuneo via Newsarama, although Gavin and Dinesh are reported to be staying on as consultants), one has to wonder if the past is repeating itself if the company’s new focus is less on the comics than on expanding to new media, leading to a marked drop in the quality of the company’s comic book output.

Obviously only time will tell, but I’m remaining cautiously optimistic that, at least in the near term, the quality of the comics won’t dwindle – although I’m less than thrilled at Shamdasani leaving the company and characters he helped return to prominence, I’m less concerned about the repetition of history regarding Valiant’s comic book universe fading into the ether as DMG already owned a majority of the publisher and presumably could have taken these steps toward other media regardless of full ownership.

One still has to wonder why the creative shake up? Were there opposing opinions on the way the company should head creatively? Based on this tweet from Dinesh Shamasani, it’s possible, but it’s likely we’ll have to wait awhile before the full details emerge – if they ever do.dinesh tweet.PNG

(via The Hollywood Reporter)

5 Ways the Oscars Can Improve

Well, for the first time in several years, the Academy Awards nominations are out and not head-scratchingly out of touch. While Wonder Womana hit both critically and at the box office, was strangely completely shut out, most of the nominations actually reflect some of the best work this year, with Get Out and The Shape of Water (two of my personal favorites) receiving multiple nominations. We’ll have to wait to talk about Three Billboards another day, but tl;dr– it’s a good movie, but perhaps not as deserving as the multiple nominations it deserves.

I’m still mad that we’ll give an award to Gary Oldman wearing a fatsuit as Winston Churchill but not Andy Serkis wearing digital makeup as Caesar, but at least we’re seeing a diverse (and deserving!) group of nominees.

I was especially happy to see Get Out, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, and Mudbound get nominations. While in the Best Director category I’d rather replace Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson with… I dunno– Patty Jenkins, Rian Johnson, Denis Villanueve, Kathryn Bigelow, but that’s just personal taste. 

It’s so odd that it’s 2018 and this is the first time a woman has been nominated for cinematography. And while Rachel Morrison‘s work on Mudbound is definitely worthy of nomination, it’s supremely unfortunate she is competing against what may be Roger Deakins‘ best work ever — and that’s saying something for the prolific master with his 14th nomination.

So, all in all, Oscars? Not bad.


Let’s face it: the Oscars kind of suck. But in admitting this truth, we can recognize the ways the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences needs to adapt, improve, and revitalize their relevance.

The biggest problem with the Academy Awards is they don’t really award the best in the film industry. The voting is so political– and not political in terms of awarding diversity or political as in reflecting our actual politics. But Academy voters generally have seemed more focused on rewarding current less good films from those who were snubbed in the past that it then snubs those working on the bleeding edge of film today.  Hence, this is likely Deakins’ year– not only because of the masterwork that is BladeRunner2049, but also for all of his other works.

They took a giant step forward last year in awarding Best Picture to Moonlight and recognizing Barry Jenkins‘ excellent work in it. Despite that, there is still Hollywood’s diversity problem– and yes, this is a system-wide problem that is directly reflected in the Academy’s voting.

While on both of these complaints there is some improvement, but just because Guillermo Del Toro, Jordan Peele, and Greta Gerwig are nominated this year, let’s not kid ourselves that they’ve fixed the problem. This is, however, a giant step forward. But Greta Gerwig is only the fifth female director ever nominated. Jordan Peele is also only the fifth black director ever nominated. And Del Toro’s nomination is only the fifth time a Latino has been nominated– and three of those were for Alejandro Iñárritu.

Still? Progress.

Also, things have just changed with movies. We need to simultaneously bemoan the fact that fewer members of the public enjoy seeing groundbreaking cinema, while also recognizing the artistry that goes into making a Last Jedi or Logan or Wonder Woman.

Most of the Best Picture nominations have made less than $100 million. NONE of the top 10 grossing movies of 2017 are nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. While we should in no way conflate box office with artistic merit (C’mon– my favorite movie of 2017 was a complete flop) but it’s no wonder the public tunes out– because the Oscars celebrate what Hollywood likes in its movies, but not necessarily the rest of the country. In fact, of the top twenty best performing films of 2017, you only have two that received Best Picture / Best Director nominations — Dunkirk (16th) and Get Out (18th).

But let’s focus less on what is wrong and more on what we can do to make it right. Here are five simple ideas, including three new awards, that would revitalize the Oscars and make them more meaningful. And for each one I’ll look across dimensions to Earth-2, where these already exist, to give you some ideas of past winners and this year’s nominees.


Think of it like the award for “Best Makeup.” Instead of putting people in masks and prosthetics, modern movie makers are covering some of our best actors in tiny dots and green spandex to create digital characters just as real as any actor on screen. And every year they keep getting better. This award should go to the actor(s) creating the characters as well as the animators themselves, and should be for both traditional animated films as well as live-action films with digital characters. And because sometimes more than one actor is contributing to the amazing work here, films and their producers can nominate a single actor or multiple for consideration, as well as the VFX/animation teams responsible.

Yes, this is how we get Andy Serkis the Oscars he already deserves but will never receive. It was salt in a wound to see Serkis announcing the awards this year– you knew he wouldn’t be nominated. But it would also be a way to recognize animation and voice-over work in a film like Toy Story where animators are capturing actors’ facial performances to inform their animation. Likewise we should recognize excellent puppetry work and practical creature effects, or in combination with digital effects like this year’s Yoda cameo in The Last Jedi or Doug Jones’ performance as the creature in The Shape of Water.

And because these types of performances are most often used in big budget blockbusters, it’s a great way to get people involved in watching an awards show where they actually have seen some of the top films. Let’s start the Oscar campaign now for Gypsy Danger in Pacific Rim 2, shall we?

Past winners:
2017 – Guy Henry, Ingvild Deila, Alan Tudyk and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
2016 – Lupita Nyong’o and Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2015 – Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel and Guardians of the Galaxy
2014 – Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Doc Shaw, Judy Greer, Lee Ross and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

2018 nominees:
Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary and War for the Planet of the Apes
Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor and Coco
Mark Ruffalo, Taika Waititi and Thor: Ragnarok
Doug Jones and The Shape of Water
Liam Neeson and A Monster Calls


Sometimes no single actor is worthy of an award, but the rich alchemy of what a director brings together means everyone deserves some accolades. And because no one seems to be able to decide what is a leading and what is a supporting role anymore, this offers some flexibility, as well as the opportunity to reward multiple supporting actors for their fine work.

This would help the Oscars’ diversity problem, as there simply aren’t enough leading roles for people of color, but they very often inhabit secondary roles, but maybe not the ones who get Best Supporting Actor/Actress nods.

Also, given the star-studded casts of our blockbusters, this is also an opportunity to reward a film along the lines of The Fellowship of the Ring or a film like last year’s Moonlight  where three different actors play the same character and it’s next to impossible to choose which one is better than the others.

Past winners:
2017: Moonlight
2016: Spotlight
2015: Selma
2014: The Wolf of Wall St

2018 nominees:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Get Out

The Shape of Water
The Post


Think of it like the Grammy for “Best New Artist.” Since the Oscars so often neglect groundbreaking work from up-and-coming directors and screenwriters, let’s award some of the new blood in the same way a lot of film festivals do.

And rather than being too strict on the rules, broadly define the category as any sort of “Breakthrough” film. It could be a director known for independent work who finally saw some mainstream success (so this wasn’t technically their first film.) Or it might be their first film.

Oh, and to make it especially fun, it can be awarded to the writer OR director (or both), as well as the producers in the same way Best Picture rewards the entire film.

Past winners:
2017: Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
2016: Alfonso Gómez-Rejón and Jesse Andrew – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
2015: Ava DuVernay – Selma
2014: Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station

2018 nominees:
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Kumail Najiani and Emily Gordon – The Big Sick
David Leitch – Atomic Blonde
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Trey Edward Shults – It Comes at Night


Perhaps the biggest snubs every year are the animated features that don’t end up nominated for Best Picture. This is more a change of mindset than anything else, but it is ridiculous that in the history of the Academy Awards, only three animated films have ever been nominated for Best Picture.

While this was supposed to have been ameliorated by including a new category for Best Animated Feature (and the expansion of Best Picture nominees from 5 to as many as 10), it’s still incredibly hard for a movie to be recognized as the achievement it is. The same is true for documentaries, where no documentary film has ever been nominated.

Especially where in the last few years we had some of the best animated films we’ve had in a long time, it’s time for members of the Academy to start voting for animated films for Best Picture. It’s an even bigger hill to climb for anime — voters need to start recognizing films made by Japanese studios other than Ghibli, especially given the stellar quality of films like Your Name. 

Past inclusions:
2017: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, Zootopia
2016: Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep
2015: The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls
2014: Frozen

2018 inclusions:
Your Name


It’s unclear why the Academy chooses the number of Best Picture nominees it does. But considering their use of “IRV” or instant-runoff voting, films are ranked by the voters and then the winner is truly the consensus winner.

Considering that point, it’s completely odd that the Academy would choose to honor ten films, but not ten directors. When Selma is nominated for Best Picture, but Ava DuVernay is not (and Bennett Miller is? Two years later, does anyone remember Foxcatcher? Didn’t think so. . .Again, another example of the Academy trying to award mediocre work in exchange for snubbing Bennett’s previous excellent work on Capote and Moneyball) it raises some very serious eyebrows.

Why not celebrate ten directors? The same reason why you wouldn’t want a full slate of ten films for Best Picture. Which is no reason at all. So stop doing it.

Cast a wider net, celebrate more people and their contributions, and you’ll find diversity (and brilliance, and cutting-edge work) celebrated more often and the Academy honoring grey-haired white men only when they truly deserve it.

Best Director additions:
Denis Villanueve – BladeRunner 2049
Patty Jenkins – Wonder Woman
Kathryn Bigelow – Detroit
James Mangold – Logan
Edgar Wright – Baby Driver

Best Picture addition

Flashback Friday: Robinson’s Starman: The Unrepentant Collector

starman logo

As comic fans, we often share a similar, repetitive request when people we meet find out about our fandom: “What comics would you recommend?”. Whenever someone asks me this question I invariably respond with the standards–Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, March, and so on. Of course the conversation eventually steers towards superheroes, and I’ll spotlight Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and more of that great–yet gloomy–work.

But for those close friends of mine, those with refined eyes and a discerning taste, the superhero comic I always endorse is James Robinson’s Starman.  Brilliantly embellished by Tony Harris at first, and then suitably replaced by Peter Snejbjerg, this series succeeds on many levels: bringing heart to each character, big and small, hero and villain, person and place; it also adds intricacies for the intellect, with a story that unfolds in more and more complexity–never sacrificing clarity, though–and reveals itself as a Russian doll, full of more secrets with each new doll opened.

starman opal

But that doesn’t even touch on the best serving that Starman brings to the table: a heaping helping of pure geekery.  This is possibly most notable when considering the plot of the series as a whole: one that pays tribute to the decades of DC history and it’s most popular characters plus a few of its most unsung ones; one that uses time travel mixed with that continuity to tie together loose ends; one that jumps across worlds in the solar system the way Star Trek does; one that tries different narrative techniques with each new arc; and even one that uses history, architecture, art, and more to bring Opal City and its citizens to life.  This attention to detail betrays the obsessive nature of most geeks, myself included.

Now, comics have always been closely connected to geek culture, but Starman brings that connection to a new level, to a perfect degree of alignment with both geek culture and its bastard offspring–collecting culture.  After all, Jack Knight, the titular hero, is a pawn shop owner, highlighting for the reader a collector’s mindset that’s touched on in many places through this saga.  jack as collectorRobinson’s focus on collectors and their mindset happens most prominently in Jack Knight’s moments of narration, which sometimes seem like the stream of consciousness inhabiting a collector’s daydreams.

To make collecting even more important, Robinson even creates a story arc about a demon that lives in a Hawaiian shirt, one of the world’s most dangerously collectible items.  And, as a geek and collector myself, perhaps that’s why I can’t sell these comics, why I continue to reread them, even when I’ve purged most of my superhero comics over the last few years to make extra space and money (being a teacher and a self-publisher doesn’t really earn me the big bucks).


My geek and collecting origin probably shares many similarities with many of you, dear readers.  Before I even got into comics, I was a nerd.  *Note* I tend to separate geeks and nerds this way: nerds are in love with academic knowledge whereas a geek is in love, actually obsessed, with a certain subculture that isn’t as valued.*  Comics are seeing increased value, yes, because of their success on the big screen, but most Americans value STEM byproducts more than artistic showcases.  I realize this distinction is mainly something I’ve created, not found in a dictionary, but it’s helped me view the world with greater perception, something that typically is a hallmark of both nerds and geeks (well, except for in the one area we tend to lack perception, leading to that other hallmark of these special clans: poorer social skills, less social awareness and limited social perception).

To give birth to a nerd, my parents dropped workbooks full of math and reading practice in my room every summer that I was in elementary school; to make those summers even more fun, they’d sign me up for enrichment summer school courses.  During the school year, my mom even volunteered herself (and me!) for the school’s before-school book club, a memory that remains dear to me.  I can’t remember if I fought against this book club at first, but if you’re a gambler, the odds would favor placing a bet on “No–young CJ immediately embraced this opportunity”.

This love of words was fostered by my older brother into a love of certain geeky genres, ones that paved the way for my later geeky travels into comics: I had discovered fantasy and it’s inextricable cousin, science-fiction.  My older brother had voraciously consumed the Redwall series (almost like he was eaten one of the many mouth-watering feasts described in each tome), leading me to test those waters.  I was soon diving in, and not just with other Redwall books.  mapmossflowerIn elementary school–after exploring Mossflower, Salamandastron and other unknown lands until they were known–I ported to another series, as a third grader easing myself into The Lord of the Rings with The Hobbit; I wouldn’t finish The Lord of the Rings until I was in fifth grade after two years of off-and-on reading.


But I didn’t lose myself in fantasy only: I loved Star Wars, even reading books set in the universe that have since been jettisoned from the Star Wars canon.  That doesn’t say much uniquely about me, of course, but it led me to other science fiction stories that were more my speed at the time, like the My Teacher is an Alien series (don’t ask me why I, a self-professed nerd, loved a book that played to most children’s judgement of and disgust towards teachers; I must have just been so sucked into another world that I didn’t think about the intended audience of that series or its satirical implications towards education).


In the midst of this geeky perfect storm, my parents did the one thing that would thrust me deeper into the ocean of geeks, a move that would end up washing me onto the shore of comic collecting–bear with me, we’re slowly getting back to Starman.  Toward the end of elementary school, they gave me a box set of 25 X-Men comics, a move that sparked my lifelong love of comics, and a move that possibly burned down other potential interests, along with a move that possibly postponed my first girlfriend.

Soon I was having my parents chauffeur me to comic stores (one time, I convinced them to take my step-brother and me to a store that was about an hour away, since its collection was more thorough than a nearby store.  My parents regretted agreeing to this the moment our car sputtered to a stop.  Luckily–for me anyway–another family member drove out to pick us up and finish the journey, my dad and step-mom waiting at the car for AAA or some other highway help).   About once a month–or twice if I was really lucky–I’d walk by racks of comics, pointer finger pilfering through bagged and boarded back issues, calculations running in my head about what the best deals were, what stories I needed to have told to me and what stories I could live without.

I even started forming lists, the most valuable tool in a collector’s arsenal.  Sometimes my lists were comprehensive: a notebook contained every issue title and number that I owned, separated by the boxes they were stored in.  Sometimes they were looser, more directed by others: at the back of many trade paperbacks, publishing companies had lists of the most important storylines to collect.  In the back of Spider-Man: The Alien Costume Saga, I checked the books I had (actually marking the book, something I shortly stopped doing as a collector, only starting again to annotate texts I read for college or to teach to my high school students–but I still never started annotating graphic novels again, just traditional texts).  When I was done checking those books I owned, I stared at the ones I didn’t, as if that alone would put them in my possession.

blueberry cover

It took me about a decade to reach the summit of my comic collecting, a weekly Wednesday trip to the comic shop when I was in college (by this point, I’d already read Starman, and Jack’s unrepentant passion towards pawnbroking had spread to me, costing me far too much money, but it’s an experience I wouldn’t change).  I even bought what could be called a Comic Collector’s Bible, the Sling and Arrows Comic Guide.   That brought a whole new level to my comic collecting: the global world of comics, little explored by me before except with Lone Wolf and Cub, became my new obsession.

I discovered Blueberry for the first time, collecting the long out-of-print 80s translations, so valuable because they let Moebius’s artwork shine in its colorful glory, unlike other more recent, black-and-white reprintings.


The-adventures-of-Tintin-tintin collection of book covers

And after that, I traveled with Tintin, gloried with the Gauls in Asterix, and many more (yeah–these aren’t really underground global comics, but they seemed that way to my limited experience).  If you still want to look down on me with the same snobbish collector’s smirk I give others–a smirk in all our toolbelts, I’m sure–feel free).

jack knight logo starman alternate

So, why did a mere comic help condone my collector behavior so much that it multiplied it tenfold?  Why was it the first comic to pop into my head when I decided I wanted to write a Flashback Friday?  And why do I have some anxiety about my copies of the comic, currently lent to a friend, an anxiety that will only be alleviated when I have all volumes of Starman returned to me?  Well, the answer to the last question has something to do with the quality of the comic, but it probably has more to do with the collector’s mindset and anxiety I have, one that wants to control the world through items, through comics in my possession.  The answers to the other two questions, though, all have to do with the quality of the comic, a quality that hasn’t reduced on any re-reading.

Part of Starman’s impact on me stems from Robinson’s love of DC’s continuity: at that point, I’d never done a deep dive into DC comics, staying in the shallow end of the pool, populated by Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, and the other A-listers.  I’d never before cared about the Shade, Solomon Grundy, the Sandman (although I liked Neil Gaimain’s Morpheus), and–most central to my argument–I didn’t care about the original Starman.  If anything, I just thought he was goofy, but other than the few times I’d thought that, I just didn’t think about Starman at all.

the shade

This changed because Robinson’s love of continuity–in addition to helping him create a more complex, intertwined plot and set of secrets–made me care about all of these characters, and not just the “current” incarnation.  I loved the Shade who was cultured, who had a relationship with Hope O’Dare, who had a moral code all his own that didn’t always make him a superhero.  But that code didn’t always make him a supervillain either.  And this ambiguity made me even more curious about his earlier appearances, ones that showed only the typical, one-dimensional bad guy.  Perhaps knowing that would be most reader’s reactions, Robinson made that mystery a slow-burning, central plot point, one that would blow up in the magnificent The Grand Guignol storyline.

sandman starman crossoverI’m saying that every single connection to larger DC continuity shines.  As much as I love Captain Marvel, the story arc involving him doesn’t seem to further much of the plot or reveal much in terms of character.  But that misfire is worth it for the all the dead on shots taken throughout the rest of the series, especially Jack’s adventure with the original Sandman (and if you haven’t read Sandman Mystery Theatre, check that out after Starman!)

Similar to how Robinson’s Shade pushed me into past versions of the character, Robinson’s relatable, atypical portrayal of Jack as a reluctant superhero who had a punkish attitude, made me care even more about Jack–and through extension, his dad, the original Starman.  But, before I elaborate on his dad, there’s one more point about Jack that bears mentioning in more depth.

As described earlier, part of the appeal of Jack is the running stream of collector’s consciousness he displays the whole series.

This is perhaps seen most prominently, because of contrast with the other characters’ also offering narration, in “Sins of the Past”.  mikaalIn this arc, Robinson starts each chapter by returning to the beginning events of that arc but with a new narrator, building characters and conflict to a level that creates more sympathy and suspense.

o dare starman chapter

This is a big reason I fell in love with Jack as a character (and the others), but he’s not a one-note character, only about collecting.  In fact, Jack experiences tremendous growth in the series, like his resolve to never take another life after he’s haunted by a murder–done in self-defense–haunted by his own conscience and by the consequences thrust on him by those close to the person he killed.  Other than that character growth, Jack experiences a realistic romance full of ups and downs, one that is part of the realistic closure mentioned earlier.  starman75a with babyFinally, one of the biggest ways Jack grows is in his relationship with his dad, one that started off with distant antagonism and ends with close compassion.

And speaking of the original Starman, the more Robinson peppered in past exploits of Ted Knight, the original Starman, the more I researched his past appearances.  And that led to another mystery: the one featuring Ted’s retirement and  the Starman right after Ted, an unknown Starman only revealed in the final volume of the series–if the reveal of Shade’s secret in The Grand Guignol was earth-shattering, the reveal of this Starman’s identity was out of this world, much like the previous journey to help the space-borne Starman!

1144714-gavynThis last revelation, though, was made even more impactful  because of the time-traveling element that allowed Jack to peer behind the scenes–Robinson always excelled at making Jack and characterization the central element, even more important than the intricate plot.  Jack got some answers, but he also found some closure on another note, seemingly unrelated, just like we did as readers.  And I dare you to name many superhero stories that actually end with closure instead of a return to the status quo, a return that prevents true character growth and thematic completion.

Not only were these plot points so intricate as to be worthy of rereading–justifying the need to collect Starman a little more, so we don’t have to get it at the library or pirate it–the style they were told in was revolutionary for superhero comics of the time.   Most of my focus this whole essay has been on Robinson’s strong writing (and I’ll be the first to admit that he doesn’t always equal this caliber; Justice League: Cry for Justice, I’m looking at you).  But focusing so much on Robinson’s writing is truly a disservice to the strong artists in this series, one I’ll try to rectify, but I might not be able to, since–as a writer–I’m better equipped to talk about other writers.  Still I’ll give it a try…

Having such a dense, fully outlined, years-long plot is often standard in today’s comics, but a 70ish issue superhero story in Robinson’s time was almost unheard of. And Robinson–accompanied ably by Harris and Snejbjerg–brought a mature sense of storytelling rarely seen in superhero comics, then and now.

Anyone familiar with Harris’s work will see that he brings more of the same, but different enough to keep our interest (the fine balance every artist walks to gain and keep audience approval).

tony harris starmanHis trademark tableus, sometimes reminiscent of J.H. Williams III, are still there, offering variety past the only-linear, strongly similar to storyboards-style dominant in so many comics.

tony harris starman tableau

But when he needs to get traditional, he can–shining more, though, because of the strong shading, level of detail, and color pallette that typifies his work.  starman_blimp

As much as I love Snejbjerg, it’s a shame Harris couldn’t finish the series, although he stays on for covers, offering some more creative consistency, a creative consistency often lacking in most modern, factory-model comics (and I love DC and Marvel, so I’m not trying to say that approach is bad: it just limits singularity of vision).


Snejbjerg took over from Harris about halfway through the series, offering a distinctly different artistic voice that would seem to clash with Harris’s.   starman75 supermanSnejbjerg has more linear storytelling, sometimes adapting the storyboard approach, but he still maintains some tableaus (albeit in his own style) to offer variety and some consistency with Harris.  snejbjerg black and whiteMoreover, he elevates the more traditional linear storytelling with a crisp line–more reminiscent of the European clean, clear line approach (ligne claire) than the hyper kinetic, overly detailed art done by Marvel and DC.  This clean line makes the story feel more mythic, which is what a superhero story should feel like (even though Starman is also grounded in reality through its complex characters).  It’s no surprise that Snejbjerg has worked on other mythic masterpieces, like Vertigo’s Lucifer and The Unwritten.   Another byproduct of this mythic, clean line is that it makes the characters more relatable, something that is consistent with Harris’s approach and Robinson’s vision.

I could keep going on, but you’re starting to get the picture.  It’s not like I have a magnum opus critique for Starman; Robinson plotted out a magnum opus, and that’s good enough for me.  But–like any collector–if you feel the need to dig into more nooks and crannies, looking for that hidden treasure of a tidbit that will make you appreciate this work on an even deeper level, there are plenty of places you can go to.  Tell them Jack sent you.

jack the collector


CJ Standal is the writer of Rebirth of the Gangster, a neo-noir masterpiece.  Follow him on Twitter: cj_standal or like him on Facebook or visit the site of CJ Standal Productions.

Why I Won’t Miss Marvel’s Iceman Comic

I have had such a love/hate relationship with Sina Grace‘s Iceman run over its nine issues, but issue nine tipped the scales from “Hey, this is a fun book. I’m feeling it” to “Daken is hot, and it’s nice to see Northstar and his husband, but wow, this is bad.” After spending the five issues having Bobby summon up his courage to come out as gay to his parents via letter, Grace and new series artist Robert Gill have had him let down his hair and relax in the four issues of the “Legacy” era. While having a reunion with his old Champions teammates, Bobby met a cute boy named Judah Miller in L.A. and was thinking about leaving the X-Men and moving to Southern California. This was really a big step for him as a character, and it seemed like Iceman was starting to explore his sexuality more for the first time since he came out in November 2015’s Uncanny X-Men #600.

But that didn’t happen. In Iceman #9, Gill continued to bring the beefcake, and it looked like he and Sina Grace were turning in yet another fun issue with Bobby introducing Judah to his X-Men family and a fight against the mutant-phobic (And probably homophobic) Purifiers while setting up Daken and his edgelord acolyte Amp as the main villain. A throwaway line about the gay former X-Force/X-Factor member Rictor breaking up with his longtime partner Shatterstar should have foreshadowed that events were going to take a turn for the sinister. This is when Daken stabs Judah and makes a joke about fridges, and the plot reason is basically to make Iceman angry and use more of his potential powers.

It’s the “bury your gays” trope in a comic that up to this point has seemed to be about finding your own unique identity even when people hate and criticize you like Bobby’s parents about his life as an X-Man and a gay man.

This trope is even more disappointing coming from Sina Grace, who is a gay man himself, and has written insightful graphic memoirs like Self-Obsessed Nothing Lasts Forever , and even Not My Bag is a humorous, relatable look at balancing an artistic career with a dead end retail job.

Instead of mining the potential of Iceman moving three time zones away from the X-Men and beginning his first romantic relationship with a man, Grace and Gill go for cheap drama and stale story elements. They don’t make an attempt to add Judah Miller to the great stable of “civilian” X-Men supporting characters, like Moira MacTaggert or Stevie Hunter, and just kill him off to further Iceman’s story and make Daken a “more evil” villain.

Also, changing Daken from a seductive manipulator who kisses Judah right in front of Bobby into a remorseless killer makes him much less interesting character. Sure, his powers might have an upgrade, and he might have a new look thanks to the Apocalypse death seed inside him, but the whole sexy bad boy thing goes away. After Daken kisses Judah, there’s a great opportunity for Bobby and Judah to have a talk about their difference in sexual experience, but I guess that’s too mature for a Marvel comic and takes time away from edgy jokes, fight scenes, and mind control drama.

In a very later seasons of The Walking Dead way, killing off Judah does up the stakes of Iceman and finally gives the book a real Big Bad after going more of a villain/antagonist of the week route ranging from Purifiers to Juggernaut and weirdly and slightly more sympathetically, a woman trying to make it in Hollywood by jerry-rigging her own Sentinels. However, Sina Grace falls into the trap of writing gay men as wholesome Modern Family/Will and Grace types, who enjoy fashion and brunching and bisexual men (Really man because Daken is the only bi character in Iceman.) as sexually predatory and villains.

We’re good for fun sexy times and intense flirtation, but definitely aren’t someone to bring home to the X-Men or parents.

I’m not saying that Grace really thinks bisexual men are sociopaths, but it’s a little sad that gay characters, like Bobby, and to a lesser extent after this issue, Judah, can be fully fleshed out human beings with desires, interests, and neuroses while a bisexual character gets coded as the bad guy, who, oops, makes funnier jokes than the good guys. Daken going completely off the rails without having a solid villain motivation beyond his “edgy” bisexual coding is a regressive, boring throwback to the queer coding of Disney villains and using society’s implicit biphobia to make them seem both evil and seductive. It’s up there with connecting Deadpool’s pansexuality to mental illness.

Daken doesn’t have to be a cuddly, Drag Race watching superhero with a strict, no kill policy, but he has to have a stronger character motivation beyond adolescent nihilism or “for the evils”. For example, Steve Orlando wrote the gay anti-hero Midnighter as a murderer, but he killed those who exploited others like he was exploited by the men who experimented on him and implanted his brain with technology to see the outcome of every fight. This is much more fascinating than depraved bisexual serial killer.

Throughout its run, Iceman has suffered from inconsistency in quality from the constantly changing artists to the heavy decompression and sometimes after school special tone of Bobby coming out to parents his in the first storyline. Up to this point, the “Legacy” storyline hasn’t been bad thanks to some fun guest stars like the younger Iceman, Champions, and Northstar and Kyle in Iceman #9, but then Sina Grace decided to sacrifice character growth for hackneyed plot “twists”.

Instead of doing something revolutionary with a rare opportunity to have a gay male character headline his own Marvel book, he falls back on the same old story patterns of mind controlled, queer coded villains and a dead, barely fleshed out love interest to make the light hearted hero darker and more vengeful.

It’s nice to have a mainstream comic book featuring a queer male character as a headliner, but we as readers deserve more than Will and Grace meets Women in Refrigerators, which is why I’ll be missing Iceman less than I probably should. His solo title had an excellent opportunity to zero in on Bobby’s relationships and growth, but now he’ll probably be back as the X-Men’s resident dad jokester and source of untapped potential without even getting to take a shot and see what his life would be outside that world.

The Comics Are All Right: The Truth is Out There, We’re Going to Find It

Call this a manifesto, a vision, but this to me is to get my thoughts about where I’m taking my writing and particularly this column. Launched two years ago, the concept of “The Comics Are All Right” was to give a data driven take on the comic industry. Much is written out there but much of it is opinion or shallow deep claims. Very little analyzes what’s underneath, really crunches the numbers without agenda, or takes a different perspective on things. That’s where this comes in.

There’s much been written and buzzed about lately about how the comic book industry is full of doom and gloom, a broken system that needs to be torn down before being corrected. So many digital pages have been spent blaming certain publishers without much context or deep dive into the what or the why of it all. The industry as a whole is presented as an over simplified problem with blame focused squarely on the main comic distributor Diamond Comics, and as a conspiracy by the big two, Marvel and DC Comics, to squeeze out smaller publishers making it difficult for them to publish or they’re to blame for all of the woes.

The reality is further from the truth.

The reality is, it’s complicated.

The comic industry has issues, don’t get me wrong. From publishers and creators through distribution to stores and fans, everything can be improved, but that will always be the case as marketing, business, technology, and more evolve.

I’m about data and coming up with solutions. I’m returning to this weekly column looking at the reality of the comic market both good and bad, and offering actionable solutions, not just griping. Any claims will be backed up with facts.

You won’t fine claims like “Marvel is sinking in sales and destroying the industry” without a hard look at the numbers not just this year, but decades past, and more importantly how that compares with other publishers or even other years. When we discuss the sales of each month we’re going to go beyond the percent of the market. We’re going to challenge the “wisdom” that pervades the industry.

And most importantly, there’s no agenda here.

I don’t have it out for any publisher, I want them all to succeed. But, we’re not going to pull punches and most importantly, we’re going to let the data take us to wherever it does. This may back up beliefs from the chattering class. It may contradict that. But, what we’re going to absolutely be doing is providing the hard numbers and data to back up any claims we make.

This’ll be interesting and I’ve been gathering the data to set us upon our journey in the next column for some months now and have no idea what I’ll find. What I know is, it’ll be based in reality, not opinion, and it’ll actually ask the tough questions and speak the truth about where the industry has been and where it’s going.

I’ll be back next week with the first real entry for this column with a beginning dive into the year that was.


The Last Jedi Bids Farewell to The Hero’s Journey

*Warning: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If you have not seen the movie, proceed at your own risk*

When I was 10th grade, I had an excellent English teacher who really supported me writing about pop culture critically, and she was even my advisor for my 12th grade capstone where I wrote about the evolution of action heroes from Achilles from the Iliad to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This all started when she showed the 1988 Bill Moyers PBS documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth that laid out the idea of the Hero’s Journey and used the original Star Wars trilogy as a metaphor it. I thought this was super cool because I was a big Star Wars geek complete with my own homebrew Revenge of the Sith RPG and would spend time free time between classes editing Wookieepedia in the computer lab. And one thing that drew people to the original Star Wars films (And not the prequels so much) was its archetypes and dependable structure of good versus evil, plucky underdog heroes, and musical leitmotifs. Plus Han Solo is still the epitome of cool. (RIP)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens continued that theme by keeping similar elements from the original trilogy like a plucky underdog (Female this time) hero from a desolate desert planet, a masked/red laser sword wielding antagonist with loads of daddy/mentor issues and the possible hope of redemption, and of course, a big space station blowing up at the end. And with its thinly drawn characters, Rogue One was only emotionally resonant or exciting when reliant on nostalgia for previous movies like the Darth Vader scene. However, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, replaces the Hero with a Thousand Faces with cynical asshole Luke Skywalker and a battle between good and evil with a tale of war profiteering, Pyrrhic victories, and yes, a casino heist. Also, Snoke is a joke, and Rey‘s parentage doesn’t matter.

In an early, not-really-a-training-montage scene, Luke calls Rey, “Rey from nowhere”, and later on in the big not-really-a-reveal, Kylo Ren tells Rey that her parents were just scavengers that sold her for extra drink money. (This second one could be a lie.) The other three leads have almost equally as humble roots as Rey. Finn was a Stormtrooper janitor, bright new cast member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) had a maintenance job on a Resistance bomber, and the most conventionally heroic Poe Dameron gets a demotion after losing almost the entire Resistance bombing fleet to destroy one First Order flagship. They aren’t Jedi apprentices, royalty, or the scions of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Anakin Skywalker, but regular people who have lived the legends and legacy of Star Wars and geek out about Luke Skywalker or Han Solo much like the fans of the movies. In fairy tales and myths, often ordinary people ended up being secret princes, but with the exception of Rey’s Force abilities, this doesn’t really happen in The Last Jedi.

In probably its most controversial move, The Last Jedi also deconstructs and humanizes the larger than life Ur-hero Luke Skywalker, and Mark Hamill is up for the task. The quirkiness of the planet Ahch-To with its Porgs and sassy alien nuns is a definite callback to Dagobah, but Luke is no great motivator like Yoda was in Empire Strikes Back and spurns Rey for most of this segment of the film beginning by tossing his old lightsaber into the sea. He avoids training her for most of the film, and when he does train Rey, he berates her and compares her raw power to Kylo Ren. The big twist with his character is that in a moment of weakness he ignited his lightsaber, thought about killing Kylo, and Kylo saw this moment and truly fell to the Dark Side. It’s cool to see this flashback from both Luke and Kylo Ren’s POV and shows both characters’ weaknesses as Kylo spends most of the film trying to destroy all the structures of power, both good and evil, and trying to bond with Rey along the way. However, Rian Johnson doesn’t cop out and redeem him just yet and continues to portray him as very powerful, yet childish man who decides to renege on an easy victory for the First Order so he can settle his grudge with Luke and the Jedi order.

As well as Luke, Rian Johnson deconstructs the scoundrel with a heart of gold (and by extension, the late Han Solo.) through the character of DJ, an enigmatic smuggler played by Benicio del Toro. Johnson and del Toro play up the heart of gold aspects for most of his storyline by having him forge an unlikely friendship with BB-8 and rescue Finn and Rose when they fail badly at finding someone to hack First Order security. The biggest heartstring pulled is when DJ takes Rose’s dead sister’s necklace presumably for collateral, but actually because the metal it’s made of is a great conductor. However, this is all for naught as DJ got a better deal from Captain Phasma and the First Order, and Finn and Rose are captured and sentenced to death. Sometimes, scoundrels are just scoundrels, and the highest bidder wins the day. (Unless they get a last minute save from BB-8 in an AT-ST walker.) DJ gets some of the smartest lines of the movies like, “It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.” DJ isn’t a great guy, but this is some good advice. In the real world, there are no good guys and bad guys; even the most decent people have flaws. This is basically the takeaway from The Last Jedi too.

Throughout The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson doesn’t just find the cracks in character archetypes. It examines and tries to correct the weaknesses in Star Wars plots and makes them more relevant to the real world than quests and space battles. The previous Star Wars films have super been into one warrior’s heroism saving the day for everyone whether that’s Anakin blowing up the Trade Federation ship in Phantom Menace, Luke destroying the Death Star in A New Hope, or Han, Finn, and Chewbacca blowing up the shield generator for Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens. However, the big opening setpiece where Poe goes mano a mano with a Dreadnaught ends in heavy losses, and his plan to break into a Star Destroyer and destroy their hyperspace tracker fails too. Rian Johnson is establishing a new Star Wars status quo where the big picture of the rebellion is more important than individual heroics even though that can come in handy like Luke’s astral form inspiring a little boy on a First Order occupied planet to pick up a broom and fight back against his masters in the final shot of the film. Sacrifices will be made, like the brave strategist Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), flying at light speed into the First Order fleet, but they are for the survival of the rebellion and of hope.

Rian Johnson uses the Star Wars storytelling devices of space battles, heroic last stands, and lightsaber duels while also poking holes in these things. This is wisdom tempered with a pinch of callbacks to earlier films (See the Yoda cameo.) and a lot of real world relevance. The Last Jedi breaks the mold of a kind of Manichean fairy tale battle between good and evil and instead critiques power structures whether that is the presumably good Jedi Order (Some of Luke’s best lines are throwing shade on their actions during the prequels.) or the evil First Order.

In both Johnson’s approach to Star Wars things like The Force and in his characterization and storytelling in The Last Jedi, he chooses balance and thoughtfulness over nostalgia and a slavish adherence to aging archetypes like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And I think Campbell himself would be okay with this as he said in The Power of Myth, “The virtues of the past are the vices of today. And many of what were thought to be the vices of the past are the necessities of today.”

To remain vibrant, stories and myths have to evolve and reflect the society in which they were created, and The Last Jedi does this through the diversity of their main cast and their focus on regular people striking a force for good instead of some Chosen One with a hallowed destiny and blah blah blah midichlorians stuff.

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