Hulk (2003)

Written by: James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman

Directed by Ang Lee

Hulk_movie.jpgTwo of the key motifs in Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation of The Hulk are Frankenstein, and the Star Warsian idea that anger is but a sub emotion of fear. Superficially, perhaps these ideas do not sound like much: Hulk is green, Frankenstein’s monster is green, “big deal.” However these motifs set up Hulk to be a superhero film like no other.

A common recipe for superhero films is giving their hero(es) sass, arrogance, a pinch of situational comedy and of course a healthy does of action scenes. The incredible thing about The Hulk is it succeeds as movie not by slightly retinkering this formula (à la Deadpool) but by discarding it entirely (granted, The Hulk predates the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe). This approach may explain why the film did not do well at the box office. Indeed, the scenes of pre-Hulk adult Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) are a little slow. Nonetheless, Hulk’s uniqueness is ultimately a rewarding experience. With Marvel movies now coming out at a one-after-another rate, its easy to become cynical about superhero movies and feel like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The Hulk, however, truly feels like a standalone idea for a story: one that simply happens to feature a mutated, superpowered individual.

The Hulk features five main characters, each with a unique motive and a different relationship to Bruce Banner, a young scientist who becomes the film’s titular hero/monster. The most unequivocal villain is Glenn Talbot (Josh Luas). His lack of complexity, however, is well juxtaposed with his ultimate pettiness as an adversary. He’s a Draco Malfoy-esque bully, and is ultimately subject to a comic-book-homage gag (director Ang Lee occasionally framed the scenes to resemble comic book panels). Yet another adversary is General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot), a character who can be heartless, but because he acts in the roles of soldier and protective father he comes across less as evil than as set his cold-ways, adding a level of mystery and tension whenever he speaks.

The third adversary, meanwhile, is its most compelling and confusing. Nick Nolte stars as a janitor whose behaviour at times mirrors the cold protectiveness of the General, at times is purely sinsiters, at times is radical and at times is purely affectionate. In so far as The Hulk is Frankenstein, Nolte is Victor. His character’s psychology is too allover the place ever to be fully coherent, but in the context of the film it works: perhaps because we are implicitly seeing him through the monster (Hulk)’s eyes, and not through his own.

The main cast is completed by Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). She is introduced as Bruce Banner’s still-friends-ex-love-interest. In most superhero films, the story would no doubt follow Bruce Banner’s attempt to achieve self-actualization and win her back. The Hulk, however, avoids this predictable path, for a subtler relationship of affection. Betty and Banner empathize with and act on behalf of one another throughout the movie, despite a constant spectre that their relationship could be further damaged by Banner’s angry side.

Through these five characters The Hulk sets up a series of compelling emotional clashes that I found far preferable to the dearth of action scenes the film omitted. Where the film does use action, it does so to advance its dramatic message. We see The Hulk in action just long enough to see what he can do: enough to show why the General dehumanizes him, and enough to see why pain inevitably claws at his and Betty’s understanding relationship. The film’s action-emotion balance is also, again, at the heart of its themes. Frankenstein is a story of two misfit characters, doctor and monster, who despite being individually sympathetic figures end up pitted against one another. The monster’s story is made specifically tragic because he is largely a victim ,not of his actions, but of how his appearance leads him to be perceived: a problem that ultimately pushes him in a more violent direction. This is the story of The Hulk a hero who unequivocally does not want to be one, as it seems his superpowers can only lead to him being perceived as a supervillains.

Meanwhile, the anger is fear motif, factors into this Frankenstein story. The emergence of Hulk is a cruel cycle, in which a character terrified of parts of himself, is made to feel vulnerable to the world, and as such, lets the angry part of his self come out and deeper cement his fear. This motif does come at some costs. When we first see Banner get angry it feels awkwardly sudden (up to this point he is a sad-eyed mild mannered character, who is never described as angry, only “emotionally removed”). This is not to say, the motif was not overall effective, however, the script and or direction should probably have been tinkered to either show Hulk’s anger earlier in the film, or to make it more clear that it’s a sudden consequence of his being mutated.

Thematically, in short, Lee’s Hulk in a good piece: it would translate well as a short story, stripped of all the (already limited) graphic action scenes it boasts. The film, however, is also strong visually, combing simple but colourful, Americana backdrops (in contrast to the generic urbanity of many superhero films), intentionally unrealistic animations of molecular biological reactions and of course the comic book panels (which, though sometimes an afterthought, do help nail home the film’s commitment to individual emphasizing character personality over chaotic action scenes). I realize some viewers and critics felt it lacked Hulk smashes, but I can’t help but feel such cravings got in the way of their appreciating the far stronger blow of Banner’s Frankensteinian pain.

 

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Robot & Frank (2012)

Written by: Christopher D.  Ford, Directed by: Jake Schreier

Robot_and_frank_poster[1]The title of Robot and Frank sets a high bar. The film shares a name with the famous actor who plays its protagonist (Frank Langella) paired bluntly with the plain but inevitably provocative word “robot”. Real robots of course may not be very profound entities: they exist to mundanely reproduce the tasks of humans. Cinematically, however, including a robot amongst your cast is an ambitious undertaking. A character can’t simply be a robot. Robots are attention grabbing: we expect them to be interesting, to break with the conventionality we expect from human characters.

One of the reasons why Star Wars captured my (and no doubt others’) imagination, despite my general disinterest in action films is that it makes use of the right kind of robot. R2-D2 and C3-PO are fully articulate and come across as conscious while nonetheless clearly possessing a different quality of consciousness from their human companions. In existing on this slightly different plane  Star Wars’ droids (inspired by the bickering peasants from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress)  add a humorous quality to their films, even when they are not outright engaged in a gag.

Star Wars of course, is largely a kid friendly series. This means certain questions about what it actually means to be a droid: to actually exist in an overlapping, but distinct reality, go unanswered. Sure, its sort of implied that the droids aren’t really conscious, yet the main characters are affectionate towards them, presumably because it would be too disturbing for (especially, but not exclusively, young) viewers for them not to be.

Robot and Frank, meanwhile, is not so much a kid friendly movie. But rather than existing in a differential plane from Star Wars, it represents an adult continuation of its logic. The titular robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) implicitly provokes Frank and viewers to ask if it is conscious, while insistently denying that it is. Robot and Frank is a piece where no one character’s voice is reliable, adding depth to this dilemma.

When I call Robot and Frank ambitious I mean several things. For one, I acknowledge, oxymoronically, that it is quite a simple story. Creating a plot that feels profound, but can also be retold in a few sentences is an achievement in its own right. But unlike say, A Ghost Story, or other films of that ilk, Robot and Frank also embodies the characteristics of more conventionally ambitious films: it is set in an imagined near-future and brings together several plot lines. The plot lines are medium to high stakes, yet they manage  not to be over the top. In all, they form a story with the feel of a fable, but without the associated predictability.

When we are introduced to Frank, it is made clear that his is a story of an old man who has issues taking care of himself. I say issues because the real world is not so black and white. Is he “incapable” of taking care of himself? Is it fair to talk about his age? In the film’s opening scene we are introduced to Frank as he eats a bowl of cereal in his somewhat cluttered house and finds the milk has gone bad.  So Frank is not 100% on top of things: but he still clearly knows that things aren’t ok thus allowing the protectiveness of his two children (Liv Tyler and) particularly his son (James Marsden) to come across as condescending.

Robot and Frank presents us with such situations, leaving it up to viewers to determine exactly who is in the right and wrong. Frank is a morally ambiguous in addition to being ambiguous in his role as a source of perspective. This is what justifies the robot’s place in his story. Though for different reasons, the robot’s degree of morality and degree of self-awareness are also left open for interpretation.

I suppose this is why Robot and Frank feels, almost, like a fable. It’s about an unlikely “couple” who overcome their limitations and learn to be empathetic toward one another. And that’s about all the film offers in terms of a message. Its moral, I suppose, is
“be empathetic,” but since that is such a simple, unpretentious idea, Robot and Frank does not come across as preachy. What matters with Robot and Frank is not so much its message, but how it builds it via meditations on technology and change.

Robot and Frank manages to be a lot of things over the course of its simple narrative. It arguably offers critiques of modernity and hipster capitalism.  It is a tragic work, but barely, as it ends ringing with a restrained optimism: one that suggests reconciliation between generations and worldviews is possible. Robot and Frank can be appreciated for finding this artistically pleasing tonal balance, but I suppose its true importance is in the robot cannon. As I said, robots cannot simply be: they need to be robots for a reason: and in the case of this story, screenwriter Christopher Ford sure found a reason.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Written by: Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan Directed by: Ron Howard

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo is a film that was released with a lot of weight on its shoulders. For whatever reason, Disney has decided to bombard audiences with new Star Wars films for the past few years, and the last one polarized audiences (yes, reactionary white men in particular but alas their viewpoint is widespread). Solo, like Rogue One before it, is not part of a trilogy: it is a “Star Wars Story” film. Its being “extra” adds another layer of pressure, as viewers will not simply question its quality but whether it deserves to exist.

Rogue One had the advantage of being about heroes whose identity and significance was unknown to most viewers at the time of the film’s release. Solo, by contrast, is about a well established Star Wars hero. As such it risks a mediocrity innate to many prequels: when you know a character’s fate, its hard for a script about them to bear much tension. Early into Solo, I feared the film would fall into this category, especially as I knew A.O. Scott softly-derided the movie as a “filmed Wikipedia article”. As I watched Han fight Chewbacca, for instance, I wanted to be a bit more compelled than I was, but felt the scene’s value was limited by my familiarity with both of these “adversaries.”

Solo, however, manages to work by being the mirror image of Rogue One. While the 2016 film connects unknowns to the main saga, Solo takes a familiar character and tells his story by linking him to figures otherwise independent of the main Star Wars series. Rest assured, however, the necessary links (Chewie, the millennium falcon, Lando, Jabba (sort of) ) to the character of old are there (I’ll throw in that I was disappointed not to see Greedo).

Solo is justified as a piece, not just because of Han’s individual significance to Star Wars, but also because his type of story is one the series has not previously covered. We’ve seen tales of white knights, and white knights-turned-supervillains, but not yet a tale of morally-middle-of-the-road figures. Solo’s story holds onto lots of the aesthetic charm of the Star Wars universe but, for once, it is not a fight between the light-dark binary, and for once, does not rely on the mysterious “force.”

Solo’s unique persona is shaped by the fact that he lives outside of the mythical realms of good and evil. In fact, is is almost as if he lives in a world that anti-heroes have all to themselves. This is a bizarre universe made up of compassionate people who also express quick willingness to kill those who stand in their way. Granted, these threats are not always acted upon, so perhaps are not meant to be taken literally: but they’re certainly not empty. The unpredictably of anti-hero society allows for surprise and confusion. There’s something very touching about seeing two outlaws (not previously revealed to be in a relationship) kiss and there’s something bizarre (an under-explained logic if you will) about a group of armed thieves with a ship refering to another group of thieves as dangerous “pirates.”

Solo, himself, is not an evil character, but he has shades of selfishness and arrogance that can lead him to be problematically self-serving. This too, at times, feels like a problem for the film. Wanting to make their protagonist likeable, the filmmakers imagined Solo not as the outright bad-boy outlaw he was in his first films but as more of a Luke Skywalker with just a pinch more of arrogant flavouring. This makes for an interesting character, but also left me wondering how he could plausibly develop into the Han Solo we know. Luckily, the film ultimately, though not implicitly, answers this question. Han’s story is made up of a series of traumas that could believably come to harden him, even as (and perhaps because), unlike Luke or Anakin he cannot simply break down and cry.

Perhaps one thing for viewers to ponder is whether Solo’s tale resembles Luke’s, or whether it is an entirely different kind of story. Indeed, both Luke in The Last Jedi and Han in Solo have been described as inconsistent with their characters’ original personas. While I disagree with this view (particularly when it comes to Luke), I can’t help but acknowledge that recent developments in the series have indeed shed light on Luke and Han’s similarities. One idea that struck in Solo is that its hero too has paternal issues: less intense and less literal than Luke’s, but they’re there nonetheless.

Action wise, perhaps some of the scenes in Solo are a bit drawn out. Nonetheless, there’s still that Star Wars charm to them. There aren’t lightsabers, but blaster bullets are still infinitely more beautiful to watch than the mundane ammo of other action movies. There’s also a wonderfully shot action scene in which a train snakes around a snowy mountain. One need not like action to appreciate Solo, however, as the film is rich with characters. It introduces, however sparingly, good additions to the Star Wars alien and droid imaginaries (Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge); Woody Harrelson as a thief whose persona I would argue mirrors that of his cop character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbings Missouri; and Donald Glover as Lando, a character who oddly enough seems relatively docile immersed in a world of anti-heroes. The cast is completed by Qu’ira (Emilia Clarke), Solo’s love interest whose exact nature (whatever that means) remains mysterious.

In short, I cannot understand why Solo has flopped at the box office. It tells the tale of an established hero; creatively fills in gaps; balances action and character development and even features a great final cameo. Literally speaking the force is not with this one, but who needs the force when you’ve got the self-proclaimed greatest pilot in the galaxy at your helm.

Deadpool 2

Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by: David Leitch

Deadpool_2_poster     When I first saw Deadpool it struck me as one of the biggest compromises I’d ever seen: it broke enough rules to call itself experimental, while still meeting all expectations as a big-budget, crowd-pleasing action movie. I was pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll say that much.

I nonetheless did not think Deadpool 2 could be a good idea. Deadpool was interesting as a standalone work, but nothing it featured (fourth wall breaking, referentialism, self-deprecation, and excessive violence on the part of its protagonist) would be interesting when employed a second time around. My thoughts were all but confirmed in the film’s opening scenes in which Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) narrates his killings with Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blaring in the background.

Then a plot twist happened. I won’t say what it is, and for your sake you probably shouldn’t search it (don’t spoil the future moment). What I will say is that twist changed my impression of what I was watching for the better.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi succeeded because its writers asked the question “what kind of story should a sequel be?” and got the answer right. Rather than simply revisiting the gags and powers of its characters, it used them as an infrastructural base for telling a new kind of story: one that questions the nature of the Star Wars universe rather than simply continuing it. While I wouldn’t say Deadpool 2 challenges the nature of its predecessor, it also manages to be a significantly different kind of story, that nonetheless, uses the original film as a springboard for its success. Deadpool, as introduced in the original film, is an anti-hero. His motives rarely seem as pure as they should be, as he seems more driven by the prospect of annihilating his enemies than by the ideal of fighting for justice. Deadpool 2 gives us a character with those same traits, but one who has matured enough so that he is also ideal driven. Then the plot twist happens, temporarily shattering Deadpool’s sense of purpose. The result of this trauma is not Deadpool regressing back entirely to who he was at his worst. The shock does, however stimulate various elements of his persona including his hot-headedness and immaturity. In essence, Deadpool is a character created to entertain with his punches and foul mouth, yet he manages to come off as thoughtfully developed.

Deadpool 2 is also bolstered by its supporting cast. Josh Brolin plays an antagonist who is not stunningly original, but is made compelling via the emotional weight laid-bare on his rugged face. Karon Soni, whose character, Dopinder, appears in taxi-cab gags in the first movie, returns as a quasi-side kick in this film. Dopinder is not Deadpool’s only sidekick, however. At one point in fact, Deadpool recruits a whole team of them. While these characters come across as parodies of superheroes, many are in fact (loose) adaptations of Marvel comic characters.

Most prominent among the film’s side characters, however, is Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), an anti-hero in, ironically, a film about an anti-hero. Russel is a mistreated orphan with super powers, and his appearance essentially makes Deadpool Hunt for the Wilderpeople with a big budget. This superficial textual similarity, however, contributes to Deadpool’s originality and effectiveness as a piece of story telling. Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of an orphan bonding with a curmudgeon over a prolonged period while they are chased by a comically, pathetic antagonist. Deadpool 2 challenges Deadpool and Russell to develop similar bonds, but in a very different context: one that is higher-stakes, much faster-paced.

Deadpool 2 is full of silly references, but as superhero films go, it manages to be thematically deep. This depth goes beyond the story of Deadpool and Russell. A prolonged portion of the film is set in a prison, a horrible place in which people’s pain is ignored and inter-inmate bullying goes unchecked. For a moment, it seems, the tough-on-crime logic of super hero movies is paused to critique the school-to-prison pipeline and prisons in general.

Of course, Deadpool 2 would not be a Deadpool movie if it was fully idealistic, and it ultimately maintains its protagonist’s commitment to gore. Even the relatively pacifistic Colossus (Stefan Kapičić (who repeatedly tries to teach Deadpool that killing is not the X-Man way) is implicated in the film’s violent ethos, at one point electrocuting a character in an unmentionable place. Whether this is a shortcoming or not is hard to say. Deadpool 2 ultimately comes across as a pretty strong superhero movie. Whether it could have been more, and whether it needed to be, is a question too abstract to answer.

Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler: Written by: Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Black_Panther_film_posterThe one subset of action movies I’ve reliably enjoyed over the years has been Star Wars films. There’s probably more than one reason for this. Part of it may just be how much it’s drilled in to our heads that we’re supposed to love Star Wars. That may explain in part why I was able to enjoy the later fight scenes in Black Panther that bear some aesthetic resemblance to the final battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaces.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that Star Wars, unlike most superhero media, tries to make its characters appealing beyond their tendency to fight. While this trait is most apparent in R2, C3-PO and Yoda, it extends to the franchise’s humans too.

Black Panther doesn’t really have droid equivalents. All of its characters are intelligent, fully capable fighters. The partial exceptions to this logic are Everett Ross; (Martin Freeman) a CIA agents, whose loveable loser affect is simply an illusion of his being overwhelmed by Wakandan society; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther (aka T’Challa)’s little sister whose competence comes across as comically exaggerated (she’s a 16 year-old who seemingly singlehandedly invents every high-tech gadget in Wakanda). Nevertheless, Black Panther shares Star Wars’ ability to make you care about its characters beyond their ability to pull a punch.

The result for both films is that even non-action fans can be made to love their action scenes. Why? Because viewers can really appreciate the tension: revelling in a conflict between strong-willed characters while wanting neither to die. This is the feeling I get when watching Rey fight Kylo Ren, and the feeling I get when watching T’Challa face Killmonger.

So for those with no idea, what is this Star Wars of Marvel movies all about? It’s the story of T’Challah (Chadwick Boseman) as he ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African country. The film follows loosely from events in Captain America: Civil War, giving its beginning a bit of a chaotic feel. Rest assured, however, one need not remember the original film (or have any appreciation of the many facets of the Marvel universe) to enjoy Black Panther. Wakanda is believed by the outside world to exist in dire poverty, but that’s because it is highly secretive about its voluminous access to an all-purpose metal known as vibranium, which in fact makes Wakanda a global technology leader.

Wakanda, however, also maintains a form of government that many of might view as dated. It is ruled by what appears to be a hereditary, male-centric monarchy. The line of royal descent can be interrupted, but only if the heir to the throne/monarch is challenged to participate in combat on a waterfall’s edge. The first depiction of one of these fights is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.

The film’s plot is ultimately driven by fights over vibranium access. T’Challah, along with his lead guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Wakandan spy/his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leave Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer who has irked a desire for vengeance from Wakandan guard/rhino trainer W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). The pursuit of Klaue, however, brings Wakanda face to face with Killmonger. The latter villain is more dangerous than Klaue both because of his raw strength and because he actually has convictions (for what it’s worth, Serkis describes Klaue as being motivated by a desire to expose Wakandan hypocrisy, however this is a level of nuance that doesn’t really make it into the story).

Black Panther is in some ways a political movie, a narrative that has broken into the world of social media. Some have argued that its problem is that its heroes, the Wakandan rulers, collaborate with the CIA, unlike Killmonger who as an anti-colonialist is the true hero. This critique in its simplest form is exaggerated. Firstly, the CIA character largely comes across as a feeble tool. Only his fleeting appearance at a UN meeting at the end of the film can be said to legitimize his political work (one could also argue the film creates a problematic good-white, bad-white dichotomy between South African Klaue and American Ross, but that’s a stretch). Secondly, the film makes it pretty plain that one is supposed to sympathize with Killmonger, and even more so with his ideals, regardless of the fact that he fills the antagonist niche. Marvel has already given us a likeable villain in Loki.  Killmonger can easily be understood as a reapplication of this concept, albeit in a more serious context. Thirdly, the film is not as political as some descriptions make it out to be. Both Killmonger and T’Challah have inherited their politics via a game of broken telephone with older generations. Therefore, their ideologies are not fully coherent, meaning their political battles aren’t so much clashes of ideas, but heartbreaking wars between two idealistic human psyches.

In so far as Black Panther is political, however, it raises some interesting issues. One way to describe its political clash is as being between identitarian leftists (Wakanda) who fight for their ability to express their distinct way of being as a people, and universalist leftists (Killmonger, to an extent), who see liberation as coming through global collaboration against colonialism. The film also evokes a similar idea to Ta-Nehaisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power (I refer to the title/broad idea of the book, I haven’t actually read it). Coates’ book speaks to the idea that even having a black president couldn’t end racism in America. Coogler’s film takes that idea to the next level by positing that even in a world with a black superpower, global black oppression may not be brought to an end.

Finally, there’s another political question that may not be appropriate to ask, since Coogler and Cole may simply not even have considered it in creating the film. Every Wakandan we see knows the royal family personally. This begs the question of whether Wakanda is in fact a wealthy country, or whether it is yet another case a third world state with a very comfortable, and perhaps blissfully ignorant, ruling class. While I believe Black Panther is supposed to be viewed with the assumption that T’Challah and his comrades are well-meaning in their approach to governance and social-justice, it is certainly possible that Wakanda’s idealistic shortcomings are the result of it being a feudalist and/or capitalist society.

Black Panther has a lot going for it including a diverse visual pallet, gripping tension, and a good range of characters (I’ve neglected to mention appearances by Angela Basset, Sterling K. Brown and Forest Whitaker). Perhaps most importantly, the film features not just one, but two compelling villains (a quality lacking in films such as Thor: Ragnorak). While Killmonger particularly stands out, Klaue is no place filler either: there is something unique to his giggly-murderousness. If you are a Marvel fan, I think its safe to say that Black Panther lives up to the hype. If you’re not, this Marvel-meets-Star-War-meets-Afro-futurism-oeuvre may pleasantly surprise you.

Star Wars Ep VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

Written and Directed by: Rian Johnson

800px-Star_Wars_The_Last_JediThe Last Jedi starts like all other Star Wars films: with a text crawl and the theme music. Then it gets chaotic, as intergalactic vessels commanded by various rebels and imperial figures take each other on. These early moments of the film concerned me. Was I was about to watch an ambitious but generic action movie: a tale of soldiers more so than characters?

Luckily, and unsurprisingly, my first impression proved wrong..Writer/director Rian Johnson made sure the film’s chaotic density of characters was no accident or shortcoming. While the original Star Wars trilogy featured an intentionally simple story that followed a classical hero arc, Johnson’s film emphasizes that rebellions are not defined by singular heroes. Some heroes are successful but boring. Other heroes are plucky and endearing yet accomplish little. While it is indeed possible that not all of the chaos of Episode VIII is attributable to Johnson’s vision (that the film could have ended several times before it did suggested Johnson may have been under pressure to cover a set amount of content to set the stage for Episode IX), for the most part it is justified, and constitutes an effective reimagining of the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars has done well as a franchise by telling epic tales that prioritize character development over action. While I enjoyed Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a little bit of it felt like a step away from that tradition. Its protagonists: Finn, Rey and Poe seemed the less compelling heirs apparent to Luke, Han and Leia (in no particular order). South Park noticed this and parodied it in their 20th season, arguing that the appeal of episode VII was shallow: fans liked it because it repeated the formula of the original trilogy (South Park then went on in its hyperbolic fashion to connect this nostalgia to “Make America Great Again sentiments).

Johnson handled this problem by writing a script with a meta-narrative of sorts. Having (presumably seen) Episode VII, audiences enter The Last Jedi expecting a work that draws on The Empire Strikes Back. In some ways this is true: a veteran jedi (Mark Hamill) trains a youngster (Daisy Ridley) on a desolate planet, a (less-redeemable-than-Lando) double crosser plays a role (sadly, Billy Dee Williams does not), a character’s familial status is devastatingly brought to light, a Boba Fett-type somehow factors in, and there’s a little romance to boot. Johnson, however, lulls viewers with the comfort of familiarity, then rudely, and beautiful awakens them with deviations from their expectations. While it is hard to explain this approach further without spoiling the movie, one example is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). This character is introduced in Episode VII as the de-facto Grand Moff Tarkin equivalent: a cold villain, who is purely a military figure. Because Tarkin lacked the mythical aura of Vader and Sidius, he, unsurprisingly, was quickly written out of the original trilogy. Hux, however, stays around. Hux also differs from Tarkin in that he is a young man. The same point can be made (to a lesser, more ambiguous extent) about Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in comparison to Darth Vader. The Last Jedi further entrenches Ren and Hux as a villainous duo that is unlike what the original trilogy gave us. As grizzled veterans, Tarkin and Vader come across as pillars of evil. As mere boys by comparison, Ren and Hux lack that kind of fortitude: but the juxtaposition of their youth and power makes them, in a way, more disturbing than their predecessors.

The Last Jedi is not faultless. Its swarm of characters and highly inter-textual qualities render it unwatchable for those who have not kept up well with the series. It should also be said that this new trilogy has taken away one element of charm of the old series: namely that it could easily be interpreted as the story, not of its human protagonists, but of R2-D2. While the writers of the new trilogy have clearly not forgotten R2 and C3P0, their appearances in this film, as they were in episode VII, are little more than cameos.

That said, veteran fans of the series should find plenty to enjoy in The Last Jedi It is a reminder of just how many characters they are invested in, and how many they can come to be invested in. From Luke’s newfound wry wit, to the various odes to and splits from the series’ past, The Last Jedi is an impressive script and a fitting addition to the Star Wars universe.