Monday, November 23, 2015

Revisiting Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

Generally speaking, Revenge of the Sith tends to be the best received of the Prequel Trilogy. In surely unrelated news, Jar Jar Binks was seen, but not heard, in this film.

Taking place some three years after the events of Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith opens with Chancellor Palpaitne having been kidnapped and Obi-Wan and Anakin leading a desperate mission to rescue him from Count Dooku. Of course we the audience know this is quite the sham with Palpatine being Count Dooku's Sith Master.

The relationship between Anakin, now a full Jedi Knight, and Obi-Wan, his former teacher, is far healthier than it was in the previous movie. Gone are the hurtful put-downs from Obi-Wan as is Anakin's unwillingness to ever listen to Obi-Wan. As their fighter squadron closes in on the Separatist flagship, Anakin wants to go back to help the clones that are protecting them and coming under heavy fire but yields to Obi-Wan's reminder that they are doing their job so the two of them can do theirs. In the previous movie Anakin would probably have pouted and likely gone back anyways... However, even under orders from Obi-Wan or later Palpatine he is unwilling to abandon his former mentor when the mission might go smoother by doing so. It is nice to finally see the friendship that had been indicated in the first released Star Wars film.

However, Anakin possessed some darkness within him - with Obi-Wan unconscious and Dooku helpless (and hand-less) before him, Anakin gives in to Palpatine's urging him to finish him off (we can see Palpatine making a vacancy for the position of Sith Apprentice). However, despite performing this execution, he refuses to abandon Obi-Wan despite Palpatine urging him to do so.

Once they "land" half the Separatist ship on Coruscant, it is Anakin who meets with the politicians while Obi-Wan returns to the Jedi Council. While being able to see his secret wife Padme is the main benefit, one gets the impression Anakin rather likes this attention.

Anakin learns Padme is pregnant, though is currently concealing it. It is fortunate for her there is no paparazzi on Coruscant looking for "baby bumps". Any children they have will make continued concealment of their marriage likely to be impossible. While nothing forbids Padme from being married (though she does consider it unlikely the queen of Naboo will have her stay on as senator once she delivers), Anakin would be expelled from the Jedi Order. The tension increases with Anakin beginning to have prophetic dreams of her dying in childbirth. Anakin actually goes to Yoda for advice on this, telling him of premonitions he is having of someone close to him dying. Yoda advises he let go of the fear of loss and we begin to see how this indeed can be the weakness that brings Anakin to the Dark Side - what he would do to avoid losing the ones he loves.

Anakin soon finds himself a pawn between the Jedi and Palpatine, whose emergency powers continue to grow, greatly frustrating the Jedi. When Palpatine asks that Anakin become his personal representative on the Jedi Council, the Council begrudgingly agrees, but does not grant Anakin the rank of Jedi Master which would be appropriate for such an appointment. This triggers an outburst from Anakin who actually apologizes. But his frustration returns when he learns the Jedi want him to spy on Palpatine, a man Anakin greatly admires.

It is as this is transpiring that Palpatine truly begins to work on pulling Anakin into the Sith. He suggests that the secret of eternal life can be learned, but only with the Dark Side of the Force. He suggests there are secrets of the Force the Jedi do not pursue but that Anakin might under Palpatine's teachings. He does not go out and say "hey I'm a Sith Lord" but allows Anakin to determine it for himself. Wisely, Palpatine waits until Obi-Wan is off-planet pursuing General Grievous, now leader of the Separatists. Clearly Palpatine knows of Anakin's marriage and his dreams.

Anakin tries to do the right thing by telling Jedi Master Mace Windu of the Chancellor being a Sith Lord. Windu takes three Jedi to confront Palpatine but leaves Anakin behind. In one of the better scenes, Anakin wordlessly agonizes over whether to intervene or not, hearing the voice of Palpatine suggesting he is the only way to save Padme from death.

 The Jedi attempt to arrest Palpatine does not go well, with only Windu surviving Palpatine's initial lightsaber attack. It seems Palpatine is at the bring of defeat when Anakin arrives and decides he needs Palpatine alive, no matter what Windu says. Pity Windu was always mean to Anakin... Goodbye Mace as Anakin removes an arm and Palpatine shoots Force Lightning at him. And good bye Anakin, say hello to the newly dubbed Darth Vader, who pledges himself to the Sith.

Palpatine unleashes the Clone Troopers on the Jedi in surprise ambushes while Vader leads an assault on the Jedi temple. Very few of the off-world Jedi survive, though among them are Obi-Wan and Yoda. On Coruscant, Vader leads an assault on the Jedi Temple, with Anakin wiping out children studying to be Jedi.

Events quickly reach their climax with Obi-Wan and Yoda learning of what transpired and return to the Jedi Temple while everyone is paying attention to Palpatine declaring the First Galactic Empire. To thunderous applause.

While Yoda faces Palpatine, Obi-Wan hunts down Anakin. Padme knows where he is but won't tell Obi-Wan, who sneaks aboard Padme's ship while she goes to confront Anakin.

On the lava planet of Mustafar, Anakin is enraged that Padme would believe Obi-Wan's "lies" about him. In his anger he uses the Force to choke her. It is at this point that Obi-Wan intervenes.

Yoda's duel ends in a draw with him fleeing, aided by Senator Organa. Obi-Wan defeats Anakin but leaves him to burn to death beside the lava. Bad move.

Padme gives birth to the twins Luke and Leia and then dies. Emperor Palpatine rebuilds Vader into the armored enforcer we all know and love. And you know the rest.

Revenge of the Sith definitely feels like a movie of transition, of the passing of one age. While the prequels had been dominated by shiny new hardware, in this film we are seeing the well-lived-in universe we were used to in the classic trilogy.

Ewan McGregor starts to seriously channel the mannerisms of Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan he really feels like a younger version of the man in Episode IV.

Palpatine is still a joy to watch. All the planning he has been doing in the prequels pays off here, with the Jedi wiped out and him being absolute ruler of the galaxy. His only real setback is Darth Vader being crippled at Mustafar and needing to be rebuilt. And that unknown to him, Padme did live long enough to produce twins who will help bring down his Empire.

While the relationship of Anakin and Padme was painful to watch in Attack of the Clones and still too awkward here, it is far more palatable than it had been. Anakin's fall meets the definition of tragedy, when he performs hideous deeds to save his wife, but in so doing he loses her.

Greatest Moment(s): The final lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. Palpatine implementing Order 66 and wiping out the Jedi. Palpatine's relationship with Anakin and Vader. "So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause."

Cringeworthy Moment(s):  It's better than it had been, but the relationship between Anakin and Padme is still awkward. 

Puzzling Moment(s): Could Mace WIndu have finished off Palpatine had Anakin not intervened?

Image Credits
  • Jar Jar Mourning for Padme from Wookiepeida (originally from Revenge of the Sith Blu-Ray)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Revisiting Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Continuing our journey through the Star Wars movies, Attack of the Clones takes place a decade after its predecessor, The Phantom Menace. Anakin Skywalker is now training to be a Jedi, serving as Obi-Wan Kenobi's padawan.

As before, I'm assuming knowledge of the film and beyond points of discussion will be dispensing with a summary.

So, what is the movie about? We learn the Republic is dealing with a separatist movement, led by Count Dooku, a former Jedi Knight and once the late Qui-Gon Jinn's teacher. Given what we saw in The Phantom Menace it is not a huge surprise that systems are anxious to leave the Republic. With assassination plots against Padme Amidala, now senator from Naboo, Obi-Wan and Anakin are assigned to protect her. And Anakin is madly in love with her.

Let's look at the various plot threads. We'll begin with the separatist movement and the Clone Wars. Palpatine, still chancellor, clearly wants the separatist crisis. It militarizes the Republic, results in many Jedi dying, and gives him individually more power. And it really doesn't matter which side wins the war which emerges - in reality he is in charge of both sides. The shape of what he's up to is fairly clear in this movie and bears fruit in Revenge of the Sith. We see early in the film that the Republic has no real military beyond that of its individual members. In that it is like the very early United State or like the United Nations. There's a movement to create an Army of the Republic (it sounds so patriotic when written like that). But it is a controversial movement - senators like Padme Amidala and Bail Organa are against doing so. (Also, continuing an annoyance from the previous film, Senator Organa's name is never spoken in the entire movie.) As luck would have it, Obi-Wan stumbles across a clone army built at the behest of a dead Jedi Master. Just when the Republic needs it.

Related to this main threat is the plot to kill Padme. She survives an assassination attempt at the start of the film, though her double is not so lucky. That's what leads to Palpatine suggesting Obi-Wan be her protector - someone she knows. It seems clear he really wants her and Anakin together. We know Anakin is destined to become Darth Vader so Palpatine is going to exploit any chinks in Anakin's Jedi armor. Given that we see Anakin and Palpatine are on very friendly terms, it seems likely that Palpatine has heard many teenage proclamations of how beautiful Padme is.

However, it really isn't much of a surprise that Anakin would seek out friendship with Palpatine. Palpatine tells him everything he so desperately wants to here. How he is clearly destined to be the greatest and most powerful Jedi. This is in contrast with Anakin's relationship with Obi-Wan. And with everyone else actually. People have a tendency to belittle Anakin - from Obi-Wan's constant criticisms to Padme dismissing him as "just a Padawan" when they are on Naboo.

A major criticism of the film is the relationship between Padme and Anakin. Anakin is clearly in love with her - though in truth, it seems he is in love with the idea of being in love with her. That's not too surprising - Anakin is about 19 years old and has no experience with relationships - not that he is supposed to, given Jedi are supposed to avoid attachments. However, it seems the Jedi have done a poor job preparing him for that life - he has been obsessing about Padme and is worried about what became of his mother, especially since beginning to have nightmares about her (which are prophetic and come true). What is puzzling is what Padme sees in Anakin - most women I know would be at best a bit put off by his clear obsession. However, Padme is master of the mixed message - declaring they cannot be together while rolling around in the grass with him and wearing clothing that is definitely on the suggestive side. (And no, she's not "asking for it" - the interest is clearly mutual, though she is a little less obvious about it.)

The two of them wind up going from Cosuscant to Naboo to Tatooine, with the last destination in response to his prophetic dreams. On Tatooine Anakin meets his mother Shmi's husband (and his step-father), Cliegg Lars as well as Cliegg's son Owen and Owen's girlfriend Beru. Anakin chases after the sandpeople who have taken his mother. He finds her, but just in time for her to die after seeing him. Which triggers a homicidal rage, leading him to slaughter the sandpeople tribe, combatants and non-combatants alike. Given Palpatine's skill at manipulation, it seems unlikely that anything that happened here was an accident. He wants Anakin nudged to the Dark Side.

While all this was going on, Obi-Wan was tracking down Padme's attacker. At Kamino he meets the bounty hunter Jango Fett and his young clone son Boba Fett. And Jango is the template for a clone army being built for the Republic, though the man who ordered its construction is a now-deceased Jedi Master. With Jango connected to the assassination plot, Obi-Wan tries to bring him in. This leads to one of my favorite action sequences - two of them really. Obi-Wan tries to stop Jango and Boba from leaving on Slave 1, leading to a fight between Jango and Obi-Wan. This is the first time we see a non-Force using human stand up to a fully trained Jedi. It is a nasty brawl, with the two combatants even matches for each other. Jango and Boba get away but Obi-Wan places a tracer on the ship, allowing him to follow them to the Geonosis system. There the fight continues in space, Obi-Wan in his fighter against Jango Fett in Slave 1. Slave 1 is very heavily armed - among its arsenal are "seismic charges" which have a special effect that is fantastic to behold in the theater - a bright flash and silent shockwave shortly followed by a discordant shriek. Obi-Wan is forced to feign the destruction of his ship, allowing Slave 1 to land on Geonosis.

Obi-Wan sees Count Dooku meeting with separatist leaders and manages to get a message out to the Jeid but is captured by Count Dooku. Padme and Anakin try to rescue him but wind up getting caught and all three are to be executed in an arena on Geonosis. They hold off the beasts scheduled to execute them and as things begin looking dark, the Jedi cavalry arrive, followed shortly thereafter by the Clone Army, led by Yoda. The Grand Army has indeed been authorized, with Palpatine having been granted emergency powers after a motion by Jar Jar Binks, sitting in the Senate in place of Padme (oops...)

Anakin and Obi-Wan make an attempt to stop Dooku from escaping, only to be defeated by him with relative ease, leaving a badly wounded Obi-Wan and Anakin missing much of his right arm. Yoda battles him to a standstill, with Dooku only getting away when Yoda is distracted by a need to save Anakin and Obi-Wan from debris pulled down by Dooku. The battle between Yoda and Dooku has its detractors. Most people are good with its start, with Yoda effortlessly repelling objects hurled at him and lightning fired at him. When it came to the lightsaber duel which followed, there were a number unhappy with Yoda's hyperkinetic attack. The showing I saw in the theater absolutely loved it and I still enjoy the aged and short Jedi Master showing just how powerful he is.

The movie ends with a Nazi-style assembly of Clone Troopers on Coruscant while on Naboo, Anakin and Padme are secretly married.

So, how was it? Much of what I wrote above represents my opinion. On the whole, I think Attack of the Clones is better paced than The Phantom Menace. There's still a far share of politics but it is well connected to the action. 

Much of the film is centered around Anakin and his relationships - with Obi-Wan, with Padme, and with his mother. The latter too are relationships he is not supposed to have. Interestingly, I find his relationship with Obi-Wan seemed relatively smooth at the start of their first scene but rapidly diminished once Padme came into the picture. Overall, Anakin has a tough time of it - he feels massively unappreciated. He feels like he is being held back by those he has more raw power than. However, the ease at which Dooku defeats him nicely showcases the advantages of experience.

Is Anakin's angst appropriate? It does match my own memories of being 19. I was a lot more certain of things at 19 than I am at 44. I was wrong about a lot more stuff too, but hey, I had certainty. The relationship with Padme... That, I can say with all respect to the two actors, who have done a great job in other movies, was not pleasant to watch. It may have been intentional, but Anakin's love seems much too much on the creepy stalker side of the street. Again, he has no experience in such relationships, so it may be reasonable, but man it can be unpleasant to watch at times.

Palpatine, is a joy to watch. He is clearly building up his power but has arranged events to have the Senate begging him to take that power. It seems he was reading the Evil Overlord Handbook, though by Return of the Jedi he will seem to have forgotten much of it.

Greatest Moment(s): Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett, both on Kamino and over Geonosis. Yoda vs. Dooku. Christopher Lee's performance - such an awesome actor. 

Cringeworthy Moment(s):  "I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth."

Puzzling Moment(s): So Jango Fett was the template for the Republic's Clone Army. And he is part of the separatist plot as well?  I suppose he might have been the bait to bring the Jedi to Geonosis and start the war.

Guilty Pleasure: As a heterosexual male, the more grown-up Padme, who manages to get strategically ripped clothing...

Image Credits:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Revisiting Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

With the new Star Wars film about to come out I’ve been revisiting the previous Star Wars movies. I’m going to go through them in chronological order if for no other reason than that’s how I randomly decided to watch them. I’m also not really “reviewing” them as it’s probably safe for me to assume that everyone has seen all of them. I’m also not hiding knowledge of other films in the series when I examine a given film. I know Anakin becomes Darth Vader (sorry, spoiler…)

Putting things into context. There was quite a bit of excitement with the news that new Star Wars movies were being made. 1997 saw the Star Wars Special Editions released - unfortunately introducing the term “Han shot first” to the world. It was a big deal with Return of the Jedi featuring our first peek at the prequel by showing the previously unseen planet of Coruscant as part of the celebrations. Moving ahead to 1998 brought us the first teaser trailer for The Phantom Menace. At the time I had only been in Massachusetts for two years and been married that long as well. I was living in an apartment. I was using a dial-up ISP for my internet access, waiting several hours to download a postage-stamp sized trailer of The Phantom Menace. My gaming group was playing Last Unicorn Games’ Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG, though we did wind up transitioning to the Star Wars RPG shortly thereafter.

It is not an understatement to say The Phantom Menace generated a fair amount of fandom rage. When I first saw it I definitely enjoyed it, though I’d not go so far as to describe it as perfection. For me, the best of the Star Wars films remains The Empire Strikes Back. Revisiting it this week, I wondered how it held up. Is it an abomination that ruins one’s childhood? Is it simply a movie for little kids?

Thinking about the galaxy that The Phantom Menace brought us brings to mind the opening of the novelization for the original Star Wars:
ANOTHER galaxy, another time. 
The Old Republic was the Republic of legend, greater than distance or time. No need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that … it was the Republic. 
Once, under the wise rule of the Senate and the protection of the Jedi Knights, the Republic throve and grew. But as often happens when wealth and power pass beyond the admirable and attain the awesome, then appear those evil ones who have greed to match. 
So it was with the Republic at its height. Like the greatest of trees, able to withstand any external attack, the Republic rotted from within though the danger was not visible from outside. 
Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic.
I would have to say that is the galaxy The Phantom Menace brought to us. A Republic that has, from the outside, the appearance of strength. It has shiny spaceships. Spiffy costumes. Gleaming cities. But what is within is dysfunctional. One of the great criticisms of The Phantom Menace is that it dealt with the taxation of trade routes - not something that makes one jump up in an excitement. But going by the original Star Wars novelization we can see that was clearly always the intention. And it makes sense - one of the grievances of the rebelling British colonies in the American Revolution was that of taxation.

Opening the film, we meet Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traveling to the blockaded Naboo as negotiators for the Republic. One criticism I will level at the film is it can be awful at indicating who specific characters are - it is well into the movie that we learn Qui-Gon’s name, not until the end that Yoda, though talked about, is explicitly identified, and Mace Windu is never names. Qui-Gon is a fascinating character, one I wish we had seen more of. As far as I can recall, he is the only major Jedi in all the films who never once mentions the Dark Side of the Force. He is very much a man of the moment, one who has absolute trust in the Force. There seem to be many places in the film where he could have sped things up - for example, one can think of a number of ways for him to have gotten the money needed to repair their ship - but he was convinced finding Anakin was the will of the Force. Qui-Gon is also very much a player character in your typical RPG, a person very intent on doing what he thinks is right, no matter what anyone else believes. He gives off a constant serenity - even as he prepares for the final duel against Darth Maul near the end of the film he is at peace.

Obi-Wan is far less confident and at peace than we would see him in later films. He greatly admires his master but is at the same time frustrated by his unorthodox ways. Unlike most master-apprentice relationships, it is the master who is the rebel and the apprentice who is more conservative. It is interesting to see him evolve - it is difficult to imagine the Obi-Wan of The Phantom Menace so confidently leveraging some shady contacts like he does in Attack of the Clones to track down Jango Fett.

Jar Jar. Yes, Jar Jar. I’ve seen fan theories that he was actually the evil mastermind of the prequels. It’s an amusing theory but I think he was exactly what he appeared to be - a good-natured, clumsy, not so bright Gungan. Like Obi-Wan, it is interesting to see how he changes in Attack of the Clones - though still not particularly bright, he is definitely more polished, with his manic mannerisms dialed down several orders of magnitude. While I’ll admit I got a chuckle from some of Jar Jar’s antics (“Monsters out there, leaking in here. Weesa all sinking and no power. Whena yousa thinking we are in trouble?”), I think it is fair to say it was overdone. I don’t think as much as most people seem to - I don’t really consider the Star Wars films to be human drama personified (“You stuck up, scruffy looking… nerf herder!”), but a little bit less on the Jar Jar front would have been nice.

Padme is a little difficult to get a handle on - I think it seems a little strange, not only for a queen to be democratically elected, but for one to be elected so young. I seem to recall some Lucas interviews suggesting the idea was to have idealistic leaders who are surrounded by more seasoned advisers. The dichotomy of Padme posing as a handmaiden vs. her role as Queen Amidala made for a nice twist - I know everyone else says they saw it coming a mile away; it took me a little while to figure it out.

The last of the major heroes is young Anakin Skywalker. He was originally supposed to be a few years older if my recollection is correct and I think that might have been the way to go. I can see the wisdom in him being a child - we see a boy who is truly compassionate - in all honesty, he is written to be a good match for Padme. They both want to help people, with Anakin coming from poverty and Padme coming from comfort.

Did our heroes tarry on Tatooine too long? I do think the time spent there was well spent - it allowed us to see Anakin on his homeworld. The podracing was neat to look at and did a nice job of showing us Anakin’s potential. The initial attack of Darth Maul made a nice ending to their time on Tatooine - and it was nice to see a red lightsaber. It’s nice for bad guys to be color-coded that way.

What about midi-chlorians? Honestly, the existence of them didn't bug me that much. It was clear the ability to use the Force had a genetic aspect to it, so there being some medical test for Force ability seems fine. Now the dialogue between Anakin and Qui-Gon about them... That was painful to listen to...

Visiting Coruscant showcased nicely just what was wrong with the Republic. You had Palpatine, ever the “practical” man perfectly using a crisis of his own making to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor and to take that role for himself. The Jedi seem very fallible, very much stuck in tradition and unable to adapt to surprises - denying the possibility of the Sith appearing, the possibility of Anakin being the Chosen One of their prophecies, of their ability to resolve the Naboo conflict. I would not call them corrupt - they still believe they are doing what is right, but they are so mired in tradition and so much a part of the government that one senses they are but a shadow of what they once were - a noble shadow, but a shadow nonetheless. The Senate seems about as friendly and cordial as the United States Senate has over the past several years.

Returning to Naboo gave us an epic four-way battle. Probably one or two too many things going on, to be honest. I will say however I greatly enjoyed the lightsaber duel at the end in Naboo's non-OSHA Compliant Jedi Dueling Cavern. When I saw the film in the theater there was cheering when Obi-Wan split Darth Maul's double-blade in two.

In the final analysis, The Phantom Menace is a movie I enjoy watching - I don't think I really dislike any of the Star Wars films. There's a lot that could have been done better - like I mentioned, I could have done with dialing down Jar Jar a little bit and I really think the directing could have been a bit tighter when it came to dialogue. And yes, oh my God, some of the racial caricatures I could have done without. It is, in my opinion, the weakest of the Star Wars films, If I were forced to rank the Star Wars films I'd probably rank them as:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Revenge of the Sith
  4. Attack of the Clones
  5. Return of the Jedi
  6. The Phantom Menace

Greatest Moments: The subtle interaction between Qui-Gon and Anakin's mother Shmi, the final lightsaber duel

Cringeworthy Moments:  The delivery of "Master, sir, I heard Yoda talking about midi-chlorians. I've been wondering...what are midi-chlorians?", the Neimoidian accents, poop humor

Puzzling Moments:  How did Darth Maul trace our heroes to Tatooine?

Image Credits:

Friday, November 13, 2015

Gaming in the New Star Wars Canon

In 2014, Lucasfilm revised its determination of what made up the Star Wars canon. Effectively, all the material released prior to that point with the exception of the six Star Wars films and the Clone Wars animated series were classified as Legends and no longer a part of the canon. Out the door went novels, comic books, and RPGs.

Not Admiral Ackbar
There was quite the fan outcry - which is not all that shocking given the investment - mental or financial - that many fans had put into the Legends material. Officially, the Legends material is available to be mined for ideas. An example of this appeared in this week's Star Wars Rebels, with several of the characters traveling to Shantipole where a Mon Calamari engineer was developing the B-Wing Fighter prototype. In the old D6 RPG, the adventure Strikeforce: Shantipole also dealt with the development of the B-Wing Fighter. By Admiral Ackbar, whereas by a different Mon Calamari on Rebels and Shantipole was a research station in an asteroid field instead of a dangerous planet. However, the inspiration is clear.  Similarly, Nar Shaddaa from Dark Empire has appeared in Marvel's new Star Wars series.

I suspect the clean slate was truly necessary to produce The Force Awakens. Yes, they could have leapfrogged the events of the Expanded Universe but I suspect they still would have been rather restricted in terms of the stories they could tell.

Regardless of if good or bad, what does it mean for gamers in the Star Wars universe? Essentially nothing. As far as I know, Disney will not send a squad of stormtroopers if you decide to feature Grand Admiral Thrawn or other Legends characters or situations. I myself reused the Minos Cluster from the old West End Games Tramp Freighters. There is always the risk of getting contradicted by later "official" events. For example, I nearly featured an adventure about obtaining the prototype B-Wing - a remaking of Strikeforce: Shantipole.

I've a hunch the period between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens will prove especially useful in Star Wars games, though we'll see more next month when the new movie finally comes out.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Comic Game Changers

I've enjoyed reading comic books since the mid-1980's. I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman Overture, a series which featured Gaiman returning to his most famous creation to tell the story of what transpired before the events of Sandman #1. It reminded me of how much Sandman shook up the market and made me think about some of the comics that had a big impact on me, that made me say "whoa" and reconsider what was possible. I'll focus on both comics and stories.

Daredevil: Born Again - I caught pieces of this when they first came out in 1985 and 1986 but didn't get the full story until it was collected in the late 80's, one of the first collections I acquired. It was an amazing story of a superhero who had everything stripped from him. Who had to figure out who he was again, not in the space of one issue but over several months of story. Whole issues would pass without Matt Murdock appearing as Daredevil to the point when he finally suited up again it was a major event.

Marvel's Mutant Massacre - Coming out in the summer of 1986, this was the first "mutant crossover" I followed. I remember the great tease as to whether or not the X-Men and X-Factor (consisting of the original five X-Men) would meet each other, with much mistrust between the groups. I miss those days of just three mutant comics coming from Marvel...

Star Brand - Around the same time as Born Again and the Mutant Massacre came out Star Brand. This was my chance to get in at the ground floor of a superhero universe. Marvel's New Universe was not successful but it had ideas which I believe found their way to shows like Heroes, dealing with what super-beings in our world would be like. Once everyone had stopped reading, the New Universe stories got awesome after some early missteps - Ken Connell, possessor of the Star Brand, tried to get rid of his power and destroyed Pittsburgh. Oops. Interestingly, Star Brand and other New Universe characters have finally found their way to the Avengers.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - I was fascinated by this take on the character I was first exposed to through the Adam West series. One which I properly adopted disdain for as a teenager and have since gown to appreciate. I've not enjoyed Frank Miller's later work but his work here and on Daredevil were him at the top of his game. An aging Bruce Wayne, forced out of retirement by compulsions he can no longer ignore.

Watchmen - What if real people tried to be superheroes? How screwed up would they be? Alan Moore knew and shared. I notice so many of these books I feature came out in 1986. I think that was a great year for comics.

Sandman - I met the Lord of Dreams while an undergrad at UConn in the early 90's. Though it featured some crossover in the early issues with the main DC Universe, it was very much its own thing. To this day I find it hard to describe simply and I often fall short. The master of dreams returns to his kingdom after a long imprisonment doesn't do it justice. But being a tale about stories. About Dream, master of stories and fantasies, a moody, dedicated character. Contrasted by Death, his sister, a perky bubbly goth girl... About Dream defeating the forces of Hell with hope and the power of dreams of heaven.

Valiant Comics - Though I discovered Image Comics first, I loved the original Valiant Universe. It felt like Marvel's New Universe done right - not surprising, given how Jim Shooter was a major player at the genesis of both. Of course Valiant was also at the center of the 1990's comic boom and crash.

Maus - I'm listing this after Valiant primarily as a function of when I discovered it. A comic book tackling the Holocaust with Jews as mice and Germans as cats.

Ultimate Spider-Man - There had been previous attempts to revisit the origin of Spider-Man but this is the one that got it perfectly. Stretching out the story of Amazing Fantasy #15 to several issues without feeling like it was dragging, Ultimate Spider-Man was an incredibly well done modern take on Spider-Man. I don't think the other Ultimate Marvel titles have aged nearly as well as this one. And Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man was a fantastic story, one I'm glad is continuing.

Alias - Jessica Jones, washed out former superhero sidekick. Heavily drinking, prone to make bad decisions and use naughty language. I can't wait for the Netflix series.

The Walking Dead - Ongoing zombie series! No complaints.

DMZ - A new Civil War. An excellently timed series, reflective of the modern America but pushing those partisan divisions to the extreme and leaving us with a New York City that has become a no-man's land, our own Fallujah.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - There had been (and have been) tons of licensed Star Wars comics. But I don't think there was one just as fun as this series was. A mediocre padawan with a truly good heart. It was like watching the adventures of a
D&D character who rolled up some mediocre stats but became the hero of the party.

I'm sure I'm missing some if not many and I'm deliberately stopping ten years ago.

Image Sources/Attributions

"Daredevil Born Again" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

"Star Brand 1" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

"Sandmanadsmall" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

"Knights of the Old Republic Issue 1" by "Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic #1". Grand Comics Database Project. Retrieved 2008-09-25.. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Star Wars: Dark Empire

"And now, my young apprentice... Your father is dead. Have you come to join me? Will you take the place that rightfully belongs to you–at my side."
- Emperor Palpatine

I first saw an advertisement for Star Wars: Dark Empire in a book previewing upcoming Marvel comics, either in 1989 or 1990. Marvel had  produced a Star Wars comic until 1986 and kept their Ewoks and Droids comics going until around 1987. And then nothing. So I was greatly looking forward to Marvel's Dark Empire. As it turned out, Marvel wound up not releasing Dark Empire and Dark Horse Comics gained the license to Star Wars. For the most part, they did some great stuff with it (along with a few misses). When Marvel and Lucasfilm both under the Disney corporate umbrella it was no surprise that the license went back to Marvel after over two decades at Dark Horse. Overall I think Marvel has done a good job with the license - the Darth Vader comic especially has been fantastic.

What about Dark Empire itself? At the time, starved for new Star Wars, I thought it was great. It was released around the time the lean years  of Star Wars materials were ending.

I'm hoping I can safely avoid spoiler warnings cor a comic over twenty years old, but suffice it to say I'll be giving some plot details... Let's give ourselves a little gap.

Dark Empire took place about six years after Return of the Jedi. The Empire had regained much of its power and driven the New Republic off of Coruscant. And then proceeded to fight over leadership of the Empire. However, this is soon to be rendered moot as Palpatine has returned, armed with a new superweapon, the World Devastators. While the Death Stars destroyed planets, the World Devastators tore them apart and used the parts to build new World Devastators. Self-sustaining planetary destruction.

Luke Skywalker has sensed the return of Palpatine and allows himself to be taken by Imperial forces so he can be brought before him. He learns that Palpatine is effectively immortal, as when a body dies his consciousness goes to a specially prepared clone. Supplemental text (which is no longer published with reprints) indicated this is why Palpatine was so ready for Luke to strike him down in Return of the Jedi - even his own death would not be permanent. Finding himself trapped with no way to defeat the Emperor, Luke agreed to give into the Dark Side of the Force and pledged himself to the Emperor, hoping to learn the secrets of the Dark Side from within and find a way to defeat the Emperor. Han, Leia, and Chewbacca end up pursuing Luke in an attempt to bring him back from the Dark Side of the Force.

The artwork of Dark Empire was memorable - it was a drawn in dark, harsh lines and featured gorgeously painted covers. It introduced parts of the expanded universe like the Smuggler's Moon of Nar Shadda which has survived into the new Star Wars continuity. It featured the second return of Boba Fett - he also appeared in one of the post-Return of the Jedi Marvel comics.

Probably the biggest points of contention with this story are the return of Palpatine and Luke going over to the Dark Side. On the first point, one can hardly blame author Tom Veitch for not knowing that Anakin Skywalker was supposed to bring balance to the Force. I've seen arguments that Dark Empire makes his sacrifice meaningless. I see their point, though without this sacrifice its uncertain the Rebel Alliance would have triumphed in Return of the Jedi and Luke would surely have been killed. The idea of Palpatine making use of rapidly aging clone bodies seemed a reasonable one, especially given we knew nothing of the Clone Wars at the time the comic was published.

Luke going over to the Dark Side seems a bit tougher to swallow. It is noteworthy that as I write this there is some speculation that Luke does just this in Star Wars - The Force Awakens. I tend to doubt this is the case, but the scenario Veitch shows in Dark Empire does seem plausible - Luke feels trapped, needing to defeat the Emperor. Moreover, Palpatine ensnares Luke with his own confidence that he won't be held sway by the Dark Side - not "really". And it's reasonable that Luke might be overconfident - he defeated the Emperor once before after all, albeit with his father's help. 
Though in the Legends continuity, Dark Empire does present an interesting look at the dawn of what became known as the "Expanded Universe". Even within the EU, there was some debate as to just how "canon" the story was - a later story had Mara Jade commenting that she wasn't convinced that clone of the Emperor was truly Palpatine. Regardless, the story and art make for an enjoyable experience. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Oota Goota?

"Han shot first!"

There's a considerable amount of fandom rage about the changes George Lucas made to the special editions of the Star Wars trilogy. None more than the cantina scene. In the original Greedo finds Han Solo, threatens him, and then gets shot. In the special edition Han and Greedo shoot their guns at each other. With Greedo somehow missing at point-blank range.

I'm probably among the youngest people to have seen the original Star Wars when it first came out in the theaters. Back when there was no "Episode IV". I don't believe the pre-Empire Strikes Back re-release had the Episode IV yet. While the Special Edition changes were the biggest, Lucas was always making tweaks. References to Biggs were changed to Wedge. C-3PO provided an explanation as to the power supplying the tractor beam. Little changes. Wookiepedia has a list of them.

It is the change 1997 change to the stand-off between Han and Greedo that generates the most anger. I think there is something to this - it is worth noting that saying "Han shot first" is not quite accurate. In the original he was the only shooter. Greedo was clearly going to shoot him and in a move that would make Malcolm Reynolds happy, Han shot Greedo before things could even get to the point Han was in any danger. We learn that Han Solo is a tough character, able to survive in a den of scum and villainy. In the Special Edition Han Solo is simply lucky that Greedo managed to miss from across the table. Han Solo has gone from a tough smuggler who had things under control to  a lucky one.