You can grab a preview of my new YA fantasy, Ship of Smoke and Steel, as of today! The book releases January 22nd.
I liked this movie a lot. If you haven’t seen it, go do that. SPOILERS HERE.
Right? Okay. So leaving the theater, it occurred to me that the heroes actually had a ton of chances to stop Thanos’ plan, and the fact that they didn’t manage it is sort of astonishing. Just for fun, here’s a list of everyone who, by not being slightly smarter/more ruthless, bears direct responsibility for the death of half the universe:
- Loki could have left the Tesseract behind on Asgard to be destroyed. This is maybe half a point, since it’s not 100% clear this actually would have destroyed it. But later events imply that the stones are actually destructible, so maybe? (Side note: having the stones be indestructible would make waaaaaaay more sense.)
- Loki gives up the Tesseract to save Thor. As will become a theme, it’s not super clear where he had it or what would happen if he actually held out on Thanos, but everyone acts as though he’s actually giving Thanos something.
- Doctor Strange could have destroyed the Time gem immediately on hearing Thanos was doing stuff. They handwave that he’s sworn to defend it but you would think not giving Thanos unlimited power would take priority?
- Doctor Strange decides to bring the Time stone with, instead of leaving it somewhere slightly safer then hanging around his neck. If the spell really does prevent anyone from taking it, even when he dies, he could also have safeguarded it by dying?
- Iron Man decides to take the ship (and the Time stone) to Titan. Not taking it back to Earth is understandable, but you know what other option was available? Literally anywhere else in the universe. The one thing Thanos emphatically does not have throughout the movie is perfect knowledge of where the stones are, because he’s constantly asking people. So just like … go lose yourself somewhere? Space is big.
- Gamora goes along with the plan to go to Knowhere and … do something? It’s really not clear what the actual plan is since if Thor, Hulk, and Loki got curb-stomped by Thanos it’s pretty clear Starlord, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis aren’t going to be able to take him out. Maybe they thought they could get the stone first and run away, in which case you can add Starlord for not just turning the ship around and running away.
- Gamora for not killing herself once it was clear Thanos was there, or indeed earlier. That seems harsh but she did ask Starlord to kill her, so she was obviously aware this was a problem. She could also kill herself later, when Thanos has her in prison and apparently unsupervised.
- Gamora for giving up the location of the Soul stone to save Nebula. This one is particularly bad since she a) knows exactly how bad this is, and b) has no expectation that Thanos won’t be able to take the stone once she tells him.
- Starlord for ruining what was actually a perfectly functional plan to get the gauntlet away from Thanos that almost worked. He is just the worst.
- Scarlet Witch and Captain America in some combination for balking at Vision’s perfectly reasonable request to let him sacrifice himself for the good of the entire universe. Extra points because Cap never really answers Vision’s comparison of his WWII era sacrifice of himself to save America.
- Doctor Strange, again, for giving up the Time stone to save Iron Man. At this point he had some vision of the future to guide him, but it’s not clear what would have happened if he’d held out, similar to Loki above.
I think that’s it? Thanos was really pretty lucky that all the stones were in the hands of good people who would give them up when friends or loved ones were threatened, rather than like Magneto or Doctor Doom or somebody.
Also, note to Thanos: even with a slowly falling world birthrate, human numbers approximately doubled (from 3.8bn to 7.5bn) between 1972 and 2018. Assuming other civilized planets are similar, you’re going to be doing this again roughly every fifty years, forever. Probably more often actually, since the greater availability of resources will lead to faster growth rates. Read your Malthus, man.
Well, it’s that time again, where I have an apparently boundless appetite for talking about STAR WARS. Last time I was musing about the failures of Rogue One and talking about why Star Wars is more than the sum of its parts. This time, obviously, I’ve just seen The Last Jedi, and I figured I would wrap my opinions up in a blog post rather than on Twitter because it’s easier to warn for spoilers.
SO! Spoiler warning for The Last Jedi. And another kind of warning, too. I’ve seen a few arguments play out along the theme of “don’t crap all over people’s joy for liking something”, which is a sentiment I 100% agree with. Unfortunately, the line between “engaging something critically” and “crapping on it” can be somewhat difficult to walk, and where precisely it is varies from person to person. So, while I basically liked this move (spoiler alert!) I’m going to also talk about the parts of it I didn’t like. Please don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t like those parts! (And/or, just don’t read on.)
Right! So. Last Jedi. Where were we?
I think, basically, I liked the movie, because I like (most of) the characters and their relationships. That said, there were some issues that really distracted me and probably kept me from loving it. I have to try really hard to keep myself from going all Comic Book Guy and Worst. Empire. Ever. because I’m kind of a worldbuilding nerd first and foremost, and that’s where the failings are. So I’m going to try real hard to restrict my critique to things that actually matter, and not stupid stuff like “why do they use gravity bombs in space?”
So what were the good bits? Rey is great in this movie, visibly more confident in the role and with some really good stuff to do. Her stuff with Luke is great, her stuff with Kylo Ren is wonderful. The scene with the two of them and Snoke in the throne room was by far my favorite part of the movie; the fight that follows against the Praetorian Guard is probably the best fight scene in all of Star Wars to date, threading the line between the awkward non-choreography of the original trilogy and the hyper-choreographed “endlessly hitting each other with glowsticks” of the prequels. (While also avoiding the “heroes effortlessly disposing of CGI mooks” from both the prequels and the Marvel universe.)
Finn and Rose both work for me as characters, but I was honestly left a little cold by their role in the plot. Some of that is logistical (see below) but some of it just that retrieving the codebreaker from one very particular planet felt like a video-game-y arbitrary obstacle. A fetch quest, essentially. It doesn’t help that a) BB8 essentially completes every mission for them (seriously they should literally just send BB8 out alone) and b) it turns out to be not only pointless but counterproductive. (Since they don’t disable the tracker, but do provide the information the First Order uses to blow away dozens of rebels transports full of people. This could arguably be blamed on Poe. Pro tip, Poe: compartmentalize information. If you have a secret plan to get away, maybe don’t talk about it over an open mic to Finn?) Finn’s arc, the progress from self-sacrifice to needing to look beyond that, mostly works, but it has some logistical problems. (Again, more later!)
Poe — dunno, I think I’m in the minority on Poe, but I’ve never been fond of him. His snarkiness has always felt kind of off to me, something that would be more at home in the Marvel universe with Tony Stark. I like his arc in this movie, though, his natural assumption that he should be the hero and at the center of all events thwarted over and over until he finally gets that not everyone is about his personal story. Dan Olson mentioned something I thought was a good point — the introduction of Holdo is basically a gag, and I think it does her kind of a disservice. Like they’re announcing the new commander, and Poe is getting ready to stand up, and then ha it’s Admiral Rando! Except it turns out she’s not just some rando nothing character, she’s important, but we’re already primed against her.
Kylo Ren — again, I might be in the minority, but I liked him a lot in the first movie and I loved him in this one. His arrogant insecurity makes him totally believable as both a villain who does awful things in an effort to be a badass and someone who’s genuinely conflicted about it. He, more than anyone else, is directly tied to the themes of the movie, and it’s great.
There’s more (Luke and Leia are both great, loved the moment with Yoda, etc) but you get the idea. Good characters, good relationships, strong themes!
So, why do I feel the urge to nitpick?
Well, I’ve thought about it a bit. There’s two basic issues that stand out to me. First, the movie sacrifices plot mechanics and logistics in favor of hitting its themes in ways that strain my suspension of disbelief, and second, the First Order completely sucks and fail as villains. The first one is probably more important, but the second one is more straightforward, so let’s take that first.
Kylo Ren is a fine villain. Whatever you think of his character, he’s at least initially intimidating — in The Force Awakens, his ability to stop a blaster bolt in mid-air is cool and new, his saber is weird and janky, he gets the information he needs from Poe. But the rest of the First Order, while they have the same blocky, brutalist design and color scheme as the old Empire, are completely undermined by being utter failures at everything they try to do. By the end of The Last Jedi they’ve become utterly toothless and comical, and it constantly undermines the tension of what are supposed to be exciting scenes.
So, I’m not saying we need to have the bad guys win in the end, and I’m not begrudging our heroes defeating stormtroopers with ease, not getting killed, etc, etc. That’s just normal dramatic logic, I’m fine with that. But what’s missing from these two movies so far is the scene where the bad guys get to do their thing, and establish that they are in fact a force to be reckoned with and not a clown patrol.
Think back to the originals. The opening scene of A New Hope is flat-out brilliant symbology, with the tiny rebel ship literally swallowed by the huge Star Destroyer. Then you have the hallway shootout, with the stormtroopers mowing down the rebels, and then in comes Vader, lifting and choking people. It’s enough to give you the general sense that the Empire basically knows what they’re doing; in turn, this means when our heroes triumph, it feels like a heroic victory against incredible odds instead of showboating against losers. Empire Strikes Back starts with Hoth, and once again we get the awesome might of Empire in action — Luke goes out, and does some damage with luck and the Force, but the rebels still get trashed and barely escape, the AT-ATs effortlessly brushing aside their defenses in spite of all their efforts. Same deal — if we want the heroes to be heroic, the bad guys have to be at least basically competent.
These are the scenes that are absent from the new movies. We start The Force Awakens with the First Order massacring a random village, which feels more like a war crime than a battle. After that there’s never a scene where they successfully accomplish their goals, aside from the unopposed initial firing of Starkiller base. They fail to catch the Falcon, fail to catch it again at Maz’s, fail to protect the base, and so on. (In A New Hope, remember, the Falcon gets captured by the Death Star, then their escape is deliberate!)
Now, in The Last Jedi, it felt like we were going to see a little bit of that, since we start out with the First Order chasing the rebels away from their base. But no — the first sequence is a ship bigger than even the Star Destroyers warping in, and Poe destroying it with a handful of fighters and bombers. By the time Snoke’s even bigger ship appears later on, it’s not intimidating at all, since apparently the damn things are useless. The best they accomplish is blowing up a few abandoned support ships.
Now, you can (maybe) come up with in-universe justifications for everything. The First Order is new and relatively incompetent, not the military machine of the old Empire, whatever. My point is that in the story we’re clearly supposed to think of them as intimidating, and they’re just not. Their leader is a joke, their ships are useless, and they can’t win even against mooks. It’s disappointing.
Okay, second nitpick. The strength of this movie is in characters and theme. I talked about the former, but the latter is great too, and it’s very clear. Whereas The Force Awakens was about a new generation trying to deal with having to live up to their legendary predecessors (much as the movie itself had to live up, this is not accidental) The Last Jedi is about the idea of whether being linked to the past is being bound to it. Rey finds Luke, in an effort to tie herself in to past glories — to become the apprentice of the great Skywalker, heir to the Jedi, etc, in the same way that Kylo thinks of himself as the heir to Vader and is descended from the Skywalker bloodline. But things don’t work out the way Rey wants — Luke won’t teach her, and the big reveal about her parents is that there is no reveal. She’s not the heir to anything. But that means she’s free; whereas the past wraps around Kylo like a chain. It’s why they can’t join up, in the throne room — they kill Snoke, and Rey is ready to leave the past behind, and Kylo can’t. It sets up their next confrontation, with Rey being the new, the unencumbered, and Kylo representing the old hatred and Skywalker family drama that has laid waste to the galaxy.
Whew! It’s great, I love it. (It’s partially why I think Finn’s arc didn’t work as well for me — it’s only tenuously tied to this theme.) The movie nails this part so perfectly, but it feels like they sacrificed something in the writing for it, because the rest of the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense.
(You can read the rest of this in Comic Book Guy voice if you want.)
Obviously it’s stupid to quibble about how fictional technology works. So when they tell us that the rebel cruiser can outrun the Star Destroyers in realspace, fine, I’ll go with it. But what’s less easy to suspend disbelief is why the First Order doesn’t, you know, try anything else to do something about it. They have TIE fighters, for example. Literally hundreds of them! Kylo Ren and a whopping two seemed to be able to do some serious damage, and Kylo already blew up the rebel hanger, so … maybe send ’em out? Isn’t that what they’re for?
Finn and Rose sneaking away from the cruiser with no real difficulty, and knowing that it will be there when they return, once again drains all the tension from the situation. The First Order has a huge fleet of super-scary ships, but it’s fine, nothing will happen until we run out of fuel. (Can they not like call in some other ships to get ahead of the rebels? Something!)
Similarly, the ease with which a single bomber manages to destroy the First Order dreadnaught raises serious questions about why you bother to have capital ships in the first place. The things are supposed to be tough — the fact that Death Star II was able to take them out in a single shot was a big deal! Now they explode like firecrackers. (The First Order vs. rebel casualty ratio is literally tens of thousands to one, not even counting however many people were on Starkiller Base!)
Similarly, Holdo’s lightspeed kamikaze run — a great visual and climactic moment — raises some kind of terrifying worldbuilding questions. If ships can decimate entire fleets that way, why don’t they do that more often? Why not ram the Death Star with a frigate? For that matter, why doesn’t the ruthless First Order use that move to take out the rebels?
Again, while these are nitpicks … they bug me. I don’t need like detailed technical-manual specifications for things, no one cares. But basic consistency with the rest of the movies — so that TIE fighters do the same things, and Star Destroyers are always Star Destroyers — make it easier to suspend my disbelief in a fantastical world.
I have less issues with the Force stuff, because the Force should be mysterious and weird. So Luke uses a new power — he’s had twenty years to figure that out. Doesn’t bother me. There is, though, a seriously philosophical question that bears examining, concerning the nature of training people to use the Force.
So, Luke blames himself for screwing up Kylo Ren’s training — he’s super powerful with the Force, and ends up falling to the Dark Side. Luke says he never should have trained Kylo, and refuses to train Rey. But … does this make any sense? The key question is what happens if a Force-sensitive person gets no training? Do they figure it out on their own? Or do they just not ever get any powers? Probably it matters how strong they are, which implies that people like Ben Solo and Rey are going to get something Force-related.
Crucially, this affects the question of what the galaxy looks like without the Jedi, which is what Luke is initially advocating. Does it mean just no more Force-users? Or does it mean that no one is training ascetic warrior-monks, but anyone strong enough in the Force and super-angry still falls to the Dark Side, so there’s tons of unstoppable evil guys around and no one to fight them? We don’t know this but I feel like Luke probably should.
One last point on the down-side. There has always been this question of whether Snoke “was someone”, was a character coming back in disguise or something like that. The answer seems to be, no, probably not, since he gets summarily dispatched in this movie. While I like that answer (it fits the theme) it leaves him kind of underdeveloped. We really get no answers about what his deal is, how he got to Ren, whether he’s a Sith or just powerful with the Dark Side or what. Kind of disappointing. Maybe they’ll get to it later? Who knows.
Whew. Okay. Those are my thoughts, for those who wanted to read them. Like I said — basically a good movie, basically liked it, with some world-design stuff that rose above the level of nitpicks and actually impacted my enjoyment. But that’s just me! As always, these things are personal.
When does the next one come out? Like, next week? Right?
One difficulty in the writing business is I often am aware of new things way before they get announced. It can be frustrating! Now, however, next year at least is mostly locked down, so it’s time for an update.
First, the obvious. The Fall of the Readers, the fourth book in The Forbidden Library series, will be released on December 5th. The Infernal Battalion, the fifth book in The Shadow Campaigns series, will be released January 9th. (Both are up for pre-order!) These are both the final books in their respective series, which I must say is a little weird for me! Wrapping everything up has been fun, though, and I hope everyone likes the conclusions.
(Also, in case you missed it, the price of The Guns of Empire ebook is down to $7.99, so it’s a great time to pick that up!)
Obviously, that leaves me in need of new things to do, which I’ve been working to set up for the past year. Now I can tell everyone! First up is a YA trilogy with Tor Teen, tentatively titled Deepwalker. (That will almost certainly change. My titles always seem to change.) From Publishers Weekly: “The publisher said the series … is an epic fantasy about a teenage girl trained in ‘the art of combat magic’ who is ‘blackmailed into stealing a legendary ghost ship.'” I am writing this now, and it’s a blast. I can’t wait to share it with everyone. The first book should be out early in 2019.
Second, as of today I can talk about my new epic fantasy trilogy with Orbit Books. No title yet, for similar reasons. From the Orbit post: “Gyre and his sister Fiera were torn from each other when they were children. Twelve years later, they will meet again as enemies. Trained in the ways of the Order, Fiera believes the only way to keep the world safe is to eliminate all traces of the forbidden blood magic that almost destroyed civilization many centuries ago. But Gyre, a mercenary on the lawless frontier, seeks out the lost arts to break free of the Order’s domination and release mankind from the dead hand of the past. As the tensions across the country rise, not even the ties of blood will keep these two siblings from splitting the world apart.” This is next on my plate to write, and I’m super excited to get to it. It should come out a bit later in 2019.
For now, these are US deals only. UK stuff, hopefully, is in the works!
Other projects may also be on the horizon, but that’s all I can talk about for now. I hope everyone is looking forward to them, I know I am!
This is one of those good news/bad news situations. To get the bad news out of the way first, my US publisher, Ace/Roc, has decided not to do a MMPB (mass-market paperback) edition of The Guns of Empire. This means the hardcover will probably be the only physical edition.
The “why” is pretty simple: with sales overwhelmingly in ebook anyway, there’s just not enough sales potential for a paperback run. It’s not a decision I have any control over, and for those of you collecting the series in MMPB all I can do is apologize.
However, here’s the good news! The price of the ebook edition has dropped to $7.99, which is where it would be for a paperback. So if you’ve been waiting to pick this up, now’s the time.
For those in the UK, I don’t believe anything has changed — both hardcover and trade paperbacks of the UK editions are still available.
And, of course, we’re still on track for the hardcover release of The Infernal Battalion in January!
So, it’s the new year, and I think it’s finally been long enough that I can talk about Rogue One. I like to wait a while, first to give spoilers a chance to clear, but also because my thoughts tend to evolve over time, particularly for movies where I have an emotional attachment to the franchise. The short version goes like this: while Rogue One was by no means a bad movie (one of the strengths of the Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm monster is that its movies, while not always good, are usually competent rather than confusing disasters in the vein of Attack of the Clones or Suicide Squad) it’s also not a great one, and definitely not the movie I hoped it would be.
SPOILERS, obviously, from here on out!
So I have to say I was always excited about this movie. I was generally pleased with The Force Awakens, but left slightly cold by the way that it reused so much of the story of A New Hope. There was the chance that a new, non-sequential Star Wars movie could take chances and be different, give us something new and cool! And the trailers looked promising. I’m trying, therefore, to engage with the movie Rogue One actually is, rather than the movie I would like it to be.
So why didn’t I like it? It’s complicated, but I think it boils down to characters. Rogue One‘s characters are … sketches, I guess, is the way I’d describe them? They suggest character development and things that might be cool, but we don’t actually see any of it on screen, largely because there simply isn’t time. And that’s the first, most basic problem: there are too many main characters, and their complicated introduction and action set-pieces eat up so much running time that we get hardly any understanding of any of them.
Aside: As we go through them, I’m going to say things like “this character isn’t necessary”. It’s important to understand this to mean “not necessary to the story” rather than “not necessary to the plot“. Because this movie is basically competent, characters generally are given something to do, but throwing in an invented obstacle for them to overcome doesn’t actually justify their inclusion in the story.
This is important, so let’s take A New Hope as an example. All of our main characters are needed, not just for the mechanics of the plot (Obi-Wan and Luke have to get to Alderaan somehow) but for the story. They tend not to overlap one another — Luke is the naive farmboy-turned-hero, Obi-Wan the wise mentor, Han the scoundrel who learns friendship, and Leia the object of rescue who refreshingly turns out to be pretty competent. Two droids for comic relief, and on the imperial side we have Vader as the vicious, mysterious side of the Empire and Tarkin as the cold, bureaucratic side. We need these people — you could come up with an alternate route to Alderaan, but the story doesn’t work with Han Solo or someone like him. (He’s the foil for Luke, his arc provides the final closure to the Death Star battle, and so on.) The point is just because Bodhi Rook has to plug a thing into another thing to save the day doesn’t mean he’s necessary in a narrative sense.
So let’s talk about —
K-2SO: I’m actually fine with him, although I know some people objected. Star Wars has a long tradition of comic-relief droids, and K-2 hits the right balance for me — he’s similar to C3PO in that he’s a pessimist, but he’s morbid and his dark humor is different enough to be interesting. He also doesn’t require a ton of backstory or introduction. No problems here.
Bodhi Rook: As you may have gathered from above, the inclusion of this character in the final crew is kind of baffling to me. He starts off as a MacGuffin (the defecting pilot who brings the message) but then kind of tags along, for no obvious reason. He also has a really strange scene with some kind of mind-invading tentacle monster that serves no purpose. (Things that serve no purpose are kind of a theme.) I was pretty sure they were going to kill him off in the escape from Jedda, which would have made sense, but no. Anyway, he consumes some screentime and has to have a heroic moment at the end, with no character arc or payoff. (We never find out why he was willing to make the borderline-suicidal move of betraying the Empire, other then a general good feeling toward Galen and not being in favor of blowing up planets. Why this guy instead of literally millions of other guys?)
Saw Gerrera: In contrast, I thought for sure Saw would join the team. It would make sense — he’s the old, grizzled veteran, to contrast with young Jyn and Cassian, plus he and Jyn have history together, plus he’s in conflict with the rest of the Rebels. (Jyn’s speech scene makes waaaay more sense if the attack plan is suggested by Saw and then the rest of the rebels balk.) Instead he stands around for a while and then chooses death for no reason. (Seriously, you say “I’m done running” when you’re going to make a heroic last stand, not just get blown to bits by a shockwave.) That’s another slightly baffling choice — if he was going to die, the obvious move would be to have him sacrifice himself for Jyn, shove her out of the way of a falling rock and be trapped himself, “Fly you fools!”, etc.
A cynic might say the problem here is stunt casting: Forest Whitaker is in his fifties, a big-name actor, maybe not too enthused about Star Wars. So he comes in, gets into a fancy suit, shoots all his scenes in one location in a couple of days, with no action or anything particularly difficult. I have no idea if this is true or not, to be clear, but that’s what we ended up with.
Chirrut Îmwe & Baze Malbus: This is a tough one for which I am likely to get some pushback. But here’s the thing — I like these characters, they’re fun and potentially interesting (probably moreso than Cassian) but as written, they don’t really have a place in the story. To go back to the idea of narrative necessity, you could remove both of them completely and the movie would work just fine. Chirrut kinda-sorta acts as the mentor/Obi-Wan type, at least he seems like he should, but the movie doesn’t actually give him any of that to do — Jyn doesn’t have a conflict about whether she believes in the Force and doesn’t go to him for advice. He’s a mentor without a mentee. All they really do is shoot/fight stormtroopers, participate in the heroic ending, and die tragically.
In sum, someone please make the Chirrut & Baze movie, comic book, whatever, the story about them adventuring around and bickering about the Force, and I’d happily read/watch/buy it. But as far as Rogue One goes they don’t really add anything, and they take up a lot of running time between their introduction, their show-off fights, and later dialogue.
The need for all these characters to be introduced in random ways make the plot of the first half of the movie kind of a convoluted mess. We’ve got Jyn breaking out of jail, being dragooned to help the rebels, going to Jedda, picking up more characters, going to meet Saw and picking up more characters, so it’s a good 30-45 minutes before we even have our main crew together. Crucially, very little of this time is spent getting to know them, and a lot more on fights and running away from things. The first character beats really come on Edu, when Cassian has to decide whether or not to kill Galen, but we’ve had nothing to that point to let us know why he would go either way.
That brings us to our heroes, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. Jyn is, theoretically, the protagonist, which means that her actions should drive the plot, and her character arc should define the overall story. But it’s just not there — I don’t even know what her character arc is supposed to be! To … become a rebel? Except she was already a rebel before Saw ditched her. To learn something about her father, or alter their relationship, or something? But they never meet. To struggle with Cassian about idealism vs. realpolitik in the Rebellion? She’s already pretty cynical, and in any event that never actually happens. She doesn’t even have much personal hatred for Krennic, since she doesn’t seem to recognize him and vice versa.
As set up, Cassian is in the real protagonist’s spot in the story. He’s the one who gets the mission to get the Death Star plans, and he gets set up with the moral conflict of rescuing vs. killing Galen. We see him casually murder an informant early on, setting up that he’s grown jaded and cynical in the Rebellion. All the ingredients are there for a character arc, but it never actually happens, and the focus stays relentlessly on Jyn.
Jyn, meanwhile, has nothing about her character that doesn’t relate to her being Galen’s daughter. Does she have any particular skills? Hobbies? Relationships? We get almost literally nothing. It’s kind of a shock when Saw reveals that he raised Jyn and trained her as a rebel until she was sixteen — why isn’t that scene in the movie? It might give their reunion and his death a little weight! Instead, she’s Galen’s daughter so Saw will like her, then she’s got to rescue Dad, then she’s got to do what Dad wanted, then she dies.
This is, ultimately, where the movie falls down. You can debate whether it’s okay to end the movie with everyone dying or not, but for me what it comes down to is that a tragic ending, in order to actually have tragedy, needs well-developed characters. I might have cared more about Jyn and Cassian being blown up if we’d gotten to know them a little better; instead I cared more about Chirrut and Baze, possibly because their actors have more charisma. (It’s also a weird choice to give everyone tragic death scenes and then have the superlaser take out half the planet, since it makes all the earlier tragedy meaningless.)
It’s hard for me not to imagine what might have been. One approach would be to just drop everyone except for Jyn, Cassian, and K-2SO. Figure out an arc for Jyn and for their relationship — an obvious candidate would be idealistic Jyn vs. cynical Cassian, with him secretly ordered to kill Galen, and eventually coming to remember his idealistic roots due to her steadfast heroism. But give it some time to breathe, to have some witty dialogue between the two of them, to find out who they are.
Another approach would be to keep the ensemble cast but cut out all the backstory and introductions, leaving more time for character development. Keep the plot very straightforward — a team of Rebels is assigned to get the Death Star plans. Jyn, Galen’s daughter, is put on the team, who are at first distrustful of her as a novice, but she eventually wins them over. They have to sneak around Imperial bunkers, fight guys, etc, and the team members each have some kind of purpose and unique character. I’m thinking of this modeled on Aliens, for example — most of the marines have personalities and character, but we don’t get complex backstory, we just see their camaraderie and how they react to the newcomer. (It’s really strange when Cassian on Yavin says, “Hey I’m going to help and I brought my friends!” And we get a shot of a bunch of rebels we’ve never seen before, who are clearly cannon fodder. Are we supposed to feel something? But if we’d actually seen a crew of guys earlier in the movie, and then they all show up to help, it works!)
There’s other things you can quibble about here — gender issues, for starters. (Main female character is accessory to her father, near-total lack of women extras. There’s a TV Trope called Men Are The Expendable Gender that’s always been a pet peeve for me, where we can have main characters be women and kick ass, because they only get hurt if its plot-appropriate, but the horde of expendable extras have to be men because they die in droves.) But for me personally, it’s these character issues that are at the center of it left me feeling “meh” when I left the theater. As Star Wars movies go, I have to put this one below the originals and Force Awakens. (It’s sure as hell better than Revenge of the Sith, but that’s a low bar.) And it’s a shame, because I really wanted to like it.
(I really wish Disney/Lucasfilm would get away from having everything be tied super-tightly to the original trilogy. Just give us like … the adventures of an imperial pilot escaping after being shot down in a random battle, and the rebels he befriends. Or anything that’s not literally tied to the original trilogy plot. Sadly, since the next stand-alone is Han Solo, this seems unlikely…)
A few weeks back on Twitter, I had a small rant about origin stories in superhero movies, specifically how I generally dislike them. The specific target of the rant was the origin stories in movies that have been remade frequently, so that the beats of the origin story become like the Stations of the Cross — nerdy Peter Parker, radioactive spider, Uncle Ben shot, great power = great responsibility, etc. (Someday I want a version where the Waynes make it out alive. I’m sure there’s a comic.) However, today I saw Doctor Strange and thought a little bit more about the origin story thing. Since I have nothing better to so (lies, I am horribly procrastinating) I thought I’d write something down.
SPOILER WARNING for Doctor Strange and some other popular superhero movies everyone has already seen!
So, Doctor Strange is, on the balance, not a very good movie, for a variety of reasons. (As you’ll see, I think a chunk of that can be blamed on the way the origin story is handled, but there are other problems.) The way it unfolds looks like this: we see Kaecilius (I will never learn how to spell that) break into a library and steal a page from a book, and also behead a guy so we know he’s the bad guy. The Ancient One chases him and fails to catch him. Then we cut to Dr. Stephen Strange, establish that he’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and kind of a dick. He has a car accident, in which his hands are badly damaged. He tries to get doctors to fix them, but nobody can. Eventually, he finds a guy who tells him about a magical healer, and he goes to Nepal to find her. It turns out to be the Ancient One, who demonstrates magic for him and eventually agrees to teach him stuff.
Dr. Strange learns a bunch of magic, some karate, and gets some backstory explained and some Chekhov’s Guns set up. Then Kaecilius (I’ve just got it in my copy/paste now) shows up, attacks the Ancient One and her people, and generally wrecks everything. The Ancient One dies, Dr. Strange has to fight the bad guys, and then he resolves the plot with a bizarre trick pulled out of nowhere. (Then there’s a stinger tying it to the Infinity Gauntlet saga because it’s the Marvel universe and of course there is.)
I think two things that seem contradictory at first are in fact both true:
1) The origin story stuff is the best part of the movie.
2) The origin story makes the movie’s structure fail utterly.
The first one is self-evidently true. Origin stories are often the best parts of superhero movies. As was pointed out in the Twitter discussion, they capture the purest part of the superhero fantasy — the time when an ordinary person discovers they have awesome powers and how cool that is. All but the broodingest of superhero movies have a scene where the hero plays a prank, flies around for fun, or generally just revels in the use of his new powers; even Batman typically has a scene or two where he clobbers some muggers and looks like an omnipotent badass, which probably counts as fun if you’re Batman. Doctor Strange is no different — there’s psychedelic journeys, Strange stealing books from the library with portal magic, and playing around with time magic. It’s also the part of the movie where there’s a lot of good humor and character-building moments.
In contrast, the whole second half of the movie, after Kaecilius attacks, is awkward and rushed. Literally hours pass in-world between “oh no here they come!” and the potential apocalypse; the only time Strange stops running is to have his stab wounds stitched. There’s a good moment at the death of the Ancient One, but otherwise it’s straight from one set-piece to the next, with very thin connective tissue. There is, essentially, no plot. Kaecilius wants to summon the Dark God, which means destroying three sanctuaries. So he attacks the sanctuaries, and keeps attacking them until he succeeds, but then Strange undoes his success. Roll credits!
Why is it awkward? Because the plot has no room to breathe. The action set-pieces, which are admittedly pretty spectacular, take up a lot of running time, and there’s only enough left over to tell the very barest bones of the story. The audience has no investment in stopping Kaecilius other than that he’s going to destroy the world — Strange doesn’t know him, and the other characters who have never demonstrate a personal connection. At one point, Kaecilius tells strange that the Dark God isn’t so bad, and he really just makes everyone live forever, and Strange actually has no way to refute this, because he has no idea what’s going on. All he ends up going on is that Kaecilius and his friends murder people, and the Ancient One kinda-sorta tries not to. We as the audience have the same problem!
The squished structure exists, of course, because the origin story takes up half the runtime. Like all the worst origin-story offenders, it’s essentially two movies running back to back. First there’s the story of a guy who become a superhero sorcerer, and then there’s a story about that sorcerer having to fight some unrelated bad guy. A few bits and pieces carry over, but they’re mostly unconnected. (There’s what I can only describe as a half-hearted swipe at a love interest.) This is always going to be a problem for a movie with this structure.
This is more or less where I was at re: origin stories before. But the failings of this movie got me thinking about the examples of origin stories that do work, because the problem, as I said, is that the origin story is often the best part of the movie. So what are your options?
First, you can leave out the origin story. This feels controversial, which is weird. Most movies don’t have long sequences at the beginning explaining the origins of the characters! This is why we have exposition and flashbacks, which (if used deftly) can get the job done without wasting time. The first Blade movie is a good example. The movie starts with Blade already being a badass vampire-murderer. We get a little flashback about how he got there, but that’s it! The Ed Norton Hulk explains everything we need to know about how Hulk came to be in the opening credits with a wordless animation. This is particularly useful for heroes like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc., where everyone in the entire universe already knows the origin story.
Second, you can make the origin story the entire movie. This is actually a surprisingly natural choice, since the origin story typically has an arc all its own — from skepticism to excitement to a sobering realization of danger, from weakness to strength, from fear to courage, etc. All you really need to do is make the completion of the origin story (the point where the hero steps out on his own) basically the end of the movie, so that the objective of the movie is the completion of the origin story. This is so straightforward many non-superhero movies do it as a matter of course; think The Karate Kid and similar. The Matrix arguably follows roughly this trajectory too.
Why don’t the superhero movies do this? The main reason, I think, is lack of patience and fear of audience disappointment. In this format, the first movie doesn’t have the hero saving the universe or generally running around under his own steam; the end of the movie is “graduation”. In Doctor Strange it would mean that the story of Strange learning awesome powers and becoming a wizard would be the whole movie. Perhaps he clashes with the other students, learns to befriend them except for the villainous one who cheats, and ultimately is tripped of the Ancient One’s protection at a critical moment and has to step up. (If this formula sounds familiar, it’s basically Harry Potter.) But … then we wouldn’t have the clash with Kaecilius and Dormamu?
I’m a little baffled in this case, actually, because who cares about Dormamu? Comic book fans, but they’re not going to skip the movie anyway. But in some better-known cases it makes sense — if you’re rebooting Spiderman, you can’t not have the Green Goblin, or Superman without Lex Luthor. I think it’s an adaptational problem — the movies are handicapped, in some ways, by their source material. They have to do the origin story, which comes from one text, but also the most popular villain, which comes from a different text. If you don’t, then you risk not even getting a second movie!
Sometimes, therefore, they attempt the third solution, which is to tie the origin story and the rest of the plot together. You still do them both, but have enough common elements that they feel like a single movie instead of two separate ones. This is the most common thing superhero movies actually attempt, because it means they can have their origin story cake and eat it too, but it’s the hardest to do from a writing perspective. As noted above, the origin and whatever popular villain/threat you’re using generally come from very different parts of the source material, and attempting to just mash them together can go really wrong. At worst, it ends up relying on staggering coincidences. (The guy who hates the hero in his ordinary identity just happens to get superpowers and come back for revenge! Note that in Dr. Strange, Strange arrives at the Ancient One’s school, by chance, just a few weeks before Kaecilius attacks and destroys it, after months of recovery and medical work. Good thing he didn’t wait longer!)
There’s a few successful examples here though. Batman Begins works, probably because it takes a ton of liberties with the source material to hammer the origin story and rest of the plot into a single piece. (Arguably it belongs in the former category!) It’s worth noting that they took a huge risk not including the Joker in Batman’s first outing, since he’s the only villain most of the non-comic-book-fan audience would have heard of. (It paid off, obviously, since they got to essentially give the Joker his own movie.) The first Iron Man movie also more or less makes this work, with the whole movie being a single arc of Tony’s progression from self-centered jerk to hero. But it’s also possible to try this and fail horribly — Man of Steel comes to mind, and some of the Spiderman outings.
So that’s my more nuanced take on origin stories: they’re fun, but you really, really can’t take the “origin story for an hour, then cut to a different story for an hour!” approach and expect the resulting movie to hang together. If you can’t lose the origin story, it’s much better to stretch the origin story to the full movie (and risk the audience not staying around for the next part) or blend the origin story with the rest of the plot (and seriously stray from the canon, plus the risk of doing it badly). Doctor Strange just does neither, which is one of several reasons why it’s pretty bad in spite of being pretty and well-acted.
This weekend I gave a presentation about how research can help writers of all stripes. Putting the text online if anybody wants it!
Word Document — Presentation – Research and Detail
A thing I can finally talk about! The short version is this: The Guns of Empire will be published in the UK by Head of Zeus on August 9th, probably only as an ebook but with other editions possibly to follow. (More on that when I know it.)
The slightly longer version: Astute readers may have noted the lack of one of Steve Stone’s wonderful UK covers for The Guns of Empire on Goodreads, etc. My original contract with Del Rey UK was for three books, and I learned earlier this year that they would not be picking up books four and five. (Also that Michael Rowley, my excellent editor there, would be leaving for new ventures.)
Needless to say, this was a bit disappointing, but my main worry was that it would mean there was no way for UK fans who had been following the series to get book four. My agent and I started looking at various options, including just throwing it up on Amazon ourselves if we had to. (In which case you’d probably have been treated to my excellent stick figures on the cover!)
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Nicolas Cheetham at Head of Zeus, who’d been one of the initial bidders on The Thousand Names, was excited to pick up where Del Rey UK had left off. Importantly, they agreed to bring the book out in a simultaneous release with the US; I’d been having nightmares about having to tell UK fans they were going to have to wait another six months. So, many thanks to Nicolas and Head of Zeus, and I can finally reassure everyone in the UK that they won’t have any delay in getting their Shadow Campaigns fix.