The internet has granted us a new set of critics lately (all accused of being alt right at least once) who have criticised things like the Disney Star Wars sequel trilogy, Disney live action remakes, Disney’s Marvel Phase 4 products and so on. Mauler, TheCriticalDrinker, Dave Cullen and E;R have completely torn apart disasters like Game of Thrones season 8, new Star Treks shows like Picard or Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Prominent criticisms are the increasing focus on identity politics and woke culture, but also the destruction of the previous instalments; how Luke’s character got assassinated in The Last Jedi or how Loki turned the infinity stones into paperweights.
Modern films (or should I say filmmakers) indeed do seem to think that telling the audience that everything they loved and felt inspired by when they were younger was a lie constitutes clever writing. Happy endings are ruined for the sake of it, icons destroyed and expectations subverted. People seem tired off it. Tired of a cynical rejection of past greatness.
But usually, as a story expands, and sequels, prequels or midquels are released, happy endings have always tended to become less and less definitive, less purely ever after like, and characters usually become more nuanced.
A story tends to start in the smallest place. Or perhaps more accurately, the most limited perspective place. We start with a character who doesn’t know everything yet. Even if they’re not a fish out of water type character and they’re familiar with the world and the basic conflict, they’ll deal with some mystery, some shocking reveals and develop new insights and we will do the same through them. As the character acquires more knowledge about himself, his family and his enemies, so do we. Sometimes that involves adjusting one’s perspective
Exceptional franchises are built around instalments that don’t simply repeat the first film slightly differently (Ghostbuster 2, Men in Black 2, Die Hard 2), while also building on the past stories instead of deviating too far from the original (Highlander 2, Batman and Robin).
Terminator 2 Judgement Day expanded on John’s message to Sarah about the future not being set from the first film and showed that the loop the character had been in could be broken.
In the same vein, Captain Kirk no longer got to be the womanising and ass-kicking could cowboy by the time he appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. There he had to confront getting older.
Obi-Wan Kenobi, or as Luke always called him; Ben, was revealed to have told a half-truth regarding Luke’s father. The wise mentor Luke knew, was who he had managed to become after many mistakes, including mistakes he made in training Anakin. Mistakes he clearly tried to avoid with Luke. He largely trained Luke the way Qui-Gon would have trained Anakin. In the Prequel trilogy he is different in each film. Grows in each instalment. Now we’ll get a film series between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. I have to admit that I have rarely been this excited for a new piece of media. Not since I was a teenager.
This series will expand on Obi-Wan’s appearance in Star Wars Rebels and fill in the gaps. Interestingly enough, not just Yoda, but Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker and fan favourite (formerly hated) Ashoka Tano, knew Obi-Wan a lot better than Luke, who kept calling him Ben. At least till Luke finally met Obi-Wan’s ghost again in Return of the Jedi after learning the truth about his father, when he finally called him Obi-Wan in a moment of realisation. He finally saw Obi-Wan as he really was.
Newt in the Fantastic Beast series gets to know Dumbledore better than Harry did throughout most of the books or films. Harry learned that his father actually had been the one to bully Snape. I liked this realism even when younger. The heroes we like when we’re young, grow older as we do as well. Their childlike perspective becomes more refined. The world they grew up in becomes smaller as the world they step into becomes bigger.
Though I will say that the later Harry Potter books (not so much the films) diluted the hopeful fantasy element a bit too much, something which is less problematic in the films; Hedwig’s death was more noble, Harry’s defeat of Voldemort more earned and everything surrounding his attempted sacrifice more mystical instead of convoluted.
Learning someone’s flaws and struggles makes you appreciate their virtues. It makes you appreciate them more as complex people.
The same thing is true on a thematic level. That the line between good and evil is sometimes difficult to make out or misrepresented by society, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or isn’t important.
A more nuanced view on mentors, heroes and parents, that they weren’t born perfect and made mistakes and that virtue didn’t come easy to them, is a mature and realistic perspective. It blurs the line between mentor and apprentice, which will become less strong as the apprentice grows. The closer you are to becoming like your icons, the more imperfections you will notice.
Even children blessed with great parents who are patient, calm, in control, wise and loving, will eventually discover that their parents have or at least had their own insecurities, imperfections and vices. This doesn’t undo or diminish the positive impression they left, it shows they were never the less people and that wisdom isn’t something you’re born with nor that it makes you immune to struggles. Live isn’t pure black and white, but it isn’t all one mass of identical grey either.
Franchises that gradually develop characters and show them mature, having them get wiser or perhaps more bitter, are franchises that depict real characters and characters that get more layers.
But such a subtle maturation of storytelling seems to be an art many modern filmmakers don’t grasp. You can reveal that heroes have a flawed past or have them make mistakes without ruining their essential heroic traits.
Children idolise their parents, teenagers hate them, adults have a balanced appreciation. Modern filmmakers tend to be stuck in the teenage phase.
The new characters like Rey, the young blood, are perfect, cool, instantly liked and get everything handed to them. They don’t need to learn from older mentors, they get to lecture them. While seemingly preaching nihilism or moral greyness, the Last Jedi quickly fell into a typical good against evil fight and Kyle Ren’s redemption in the Rise of Skywalker was a poor man’s version of Vader’s.
Complex villains, anti-villains and anti-heroes were better handled in the two cartoon shows Star Wars the Clone Wars and the aforementioned Star Wars Rebels, with characters like Maul and Bo-Katan adding fresh layers of ambiguity. These shows both did a better job portraying the complexities of war and politics. The Star Wars Prequels used to be criticised for their ‘boring politics’ yet these added a lot to the lore and helped to explain how Palpatine came to power through a gradual self-coup based on fear and propaganda. This has become more relevant than ever.
In fact, the Star Wars Prequels showed that the Jedi fell in part due to their own narrowmindedness and pragmatism. While warning against fear leading to the Dark side, they led themselves be led by fear in how they tried to preserve order and democracy in the republic.
Yet the Jedi did try to be loyal in their duties to the republic. They were in fact very different from the Sith. The ideals they stood for weren’t necessarily false because the Jedi who fought for them were flawed. Whether critical members like Qui-Gon or independents like Ashoka were right, or whether Obi-Wan and Yoda (who never disavowed their basic orthodoxy) were correct, is something on which fans have legitimately differed. We see that it isn’t easy to be a saint in paradise. The heroes of the past weren’t flawless but neither are we. Live is difficult.
The difference between nuance and relativism and seeing flaws in the past instead of rejecting it entirely, appear to have been lost along with things like growth, virtue, complexity, the value of struggle and suffering and also gratitude. It seems like people like Kathleen Kennedy, Ryan Johnson, J. J. Abrahams and Bryke, live up to the worst stereotypes regarding millennials, without even being millennials.