The late 1960s/early 1970s were a tumultuous time for the “Big Two” comics publishers — with Jack Kirby having taken his creative genius back over to DC, then-Marvel head honcho Stan Lee quickly decided that putting his name on other peoples’ work was too much hassle for him to bother with, and so turned the reigns of the future billion-dollar business over to the youthful Roy Thomas, who had first come to the Smilin’ One’s attention for running the ahead-of-its-time Alter Ego fanzine. Thomas was eager to do any number of things at the self-described “House Of Ideas,” but rocking the boat wasn’t one of them. Having grown up on the Kirby/Ditko/Everett/Wood/Burgos/Heck/Trimpe/Lee brand of super-heroics, his primary concern, creatively speaking, was to keep on serving up more of the same to an eager public, and to that end, his first wave of hires came largely from the same fandom ranks that he had once lorded over himself — names like Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and others that would come to dominate Marvel credit boxes in the ’70s were all examples of “fan creators” whose literary and artistic tastes — and ambitions — were shaped by the groundbreaking innovators who had preceded them.
Meanwhile, over at DC, Kirby may have been busy churning out an impressive, even mind-boggling, array of iconic characters and worlds (many of which would be “borrowed” by one George Lucas as the building blocks of the franchise we’re here to talk about today), but the rest of the company’s let’s-not-call-it-a-bullpen was populated with the likes of Len Wein, Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman, even a 13-year-old named Jim Shooter who would later succeed Thomas as top dog at DC’s cross-town rival — and like Marvel’s “young turks,” these fresh-at-the-time faces were all “graduates” of comic book fandom, brought in when the seasoned pulp pros who made up the company’s earlier freelancer ranks, men like Gardner Fox and John Broome, were summarily fired by management for having the audacity to try to form a union and push for radical things like health insurance and retirement benefits.
It’s a situation that persists, as you’ve no doubt guessed, to this day, with skilled, “overpaid” veteran hands being replaced on books whenever they ask for a raise by 19-year-olds fresh out of mom and dad’s house who only a few weeks earlier passed their art portfolios or spec scripts across convention tables from their clammy, sweaty, trembling hands into the ever-eager paws of DC and Marvel editors always on the lookout for cheap, easily-exploited talent. The end result? A half-century of hopelessly derivative storytelling punctuated only occasionally by the arrival, and usually-quick departure, of visionary talents who really do want to expand the medium’s boundaries, only to find their work drowned under and endless sea of “updated” Spider-Man vs. Doctor Doom battles.
Comics, though, are only the most glaring and obvious example of what happens to entertainment media when former fans are put in charge : it’s happening in movies and TV, too, and there is perhaps no better witness for this particular prosecution than J.J. Abrams, who, having cut his teeth on prime-time fare such as Alias and Lost, was soon handed the keys to one of Hollywood’s most dependable cash cows, Star Trek, and, having proven his bank-ability there, found himself approached by Marvel’s semi-new corporate parent, Disney, to revive George Lucas’ Star Wars juggernaut when Lucas sold out for a reported $4 billion and headed off into the sunset.
A perhaps-intimidated Abrams said no at first, but when no other names leaped to the forefront, The Mouse came calling again — apparently with even more money in its bag — and the rest, of course, is history. Which brings us, finally, to episode VII of the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens.
Certainly there’s nothing on offer here that would offend long-time fans in the way that Lucas’ reviled prequel trilogy did, and while I found myself smiling more often than not as I watched the film, it only took all of about five minutes’ reflection afterwards for me to wonder if Abrams’ note-for-note fealty might not be its own kind of insidious trap — and one that bears a strong correlation to the situation at Marvel and DC I discussed just moments ago. There’s no doubt that studio edicts determined a lot of the content for Star Wars : The Force Awakens (I don’t think, for example, that it’s any coincidence that the first image we saw in the first trailer for the film was a highly-marketable robot that looks like a fucking soccer ball), but I don’t sense any real director-vs.-his bosses tension here, either. I’m sure that the film Abrams wanted to make is the one that got made (having veteran hand Lawrence Kasdan on board to co-write the script virtually guarantees smooth continuity anyway), it’s just that his vision for Star Wars is no different than what the bean counters want : a two-hour toy commercial peppered with just the right character arcs and plot beats to satisfy life-long fans and to silence (most, anyway) critics. By and large it works — but even under the full-throttle onslaught of fan-wank, some glaring weaknesses are obvious, so I might as well delve into those right now, with a commensurate “mild spoilers ahead” warning attached.
For one thing, the intergalactic politics of The Force Awakens make no sens whatsoever. The one-time Rebels appear to have won the day, with the former Empire in retreat, but even so, a rump that apparently can’t get fighting out of its system known as the Resistance endures — presumably to “resist” both the very same government they’ve created, as well as the remnants of the fascist/Dark Side apparatus that have re-grouped as the First Order. Except then we find out that the new Republic in in league with the Resistance, and so appears to be supporting, if not even funding, its own opposition under the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” since neither group is particularly fond of the First Order. There’s reason for both to fear the FO, of course, given that they’ve perfected some new super-weapon that’s much larger and more powerful than the dreaded Death Star — but the movie is almost 3/4 over when we find that out, given that Abrams and company have taken some mighty side-steps from their supposedly “main” narrative that introduces new characters like Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in order to re-introduce familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Pricess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and, eventually, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Don’t get me wrong — I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy and want to know what happened to all these folks as much as anyone, but to sacrifice valuable screen-time that could be utilized to establish a new mythology just to put some purportedly- finishing touches on the old strikes me as a colossal missed opportunity.
Speaking of which — giving the great Max von Sydow a grand total of five minutes (more than enough time for an actor of his stature to create a memorable character) to make one appearance before getting killed definitely qualifies as just that, as does relegating the immensely talented Lupita Nyong’o to voice-over work for a CGI stand-in. We expect that sort of treatment for Andy Serkis (and he gets it as the First Order’s new Emperor Palpatine stand-in), but one of the most promising new talents of her generation surely deserves better.
As does Oscar Isaac, frankly, who admittedly struggles mightily as “the new Han Solo,” but should have been given a chance to actually develop his character a bit more before disappearing altogether until the film’s final act. And while Ridley and Boyega — especially Ridley — come up big in their roles and show themselves as being more than capable of carrying a film, Abrams’ hard lean on the nostalgia button insures that they’re given no opportunity to do so.
On the bad guy front, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a character hemmed in by his director’s overly-reverent take on the original trilogy, as well. Appearing at first to be a somewhat lackluster Darth Vader redux, his backstory is fleshed out all too quickly (and all too awkwardly, as the “infodump” conversation between his parents veers into “painfully stilted” territory), and his big confrontation with his father? Well, it plays out more or less exactly as you’d guess it would. It also doesn’t help that Driver himself lacks the acting chops to convincingly sell you on his character’s supposed “emotional conflict.”
And yet, for all that — not to mention the crass, overblown commercialization attendant with any Star Wars film that’s blown entirely out of all sense of proportion thanks to the franchise’s new corporate overlords — I still can’t bring myself to actively dislike The Force Awakens. The movie wrapped me with a warm, nostalgic glow for about two hours and, pathetic as it sounds (and no doubt is), I felt like a kid again for a little while — and living as we do in a time when there’s very real talk of us walling off our borders, deporting Mexicans en masse, forcing Muslims to carry special passes and forbidding them to enter the country, and invading one Middle Eastern nation after another for with the explicit aim of stealing their oil, anything that harkens back to a simpler, kinder, saner time is worth something.
But I could have gotten the exact same feeling watching any of the three original Star Wars films, and therein lies The Force Awakens‘ greatest failing : by being so deferential to the Lucas/Kirshner/Marquand trilogy, J.J. Abrams hasn’t given us much by way of a compelling reason to care about his new one.