My 2017 in Film


2017 was a strange, rough year for everybody. Like a lot of people, I’m looking back at my output in the last twelve months and finding that the impulse to blog was either weak or nonexistent. I was, at the very least, distracted by a heavier workload and by events in the world at large (I managed to put in some writing on some larger projects as well, but those remain unpublished). If it weren’t for serials and the Kamandi Challenge I wouldn’t have posted very much at all. The same lack of motivation also hit my movie-watching: I don’t think I watched any less than last year, but the quality of what I watched was much lower, with a lot of cheap thrills and junk food in the mix. I just wasn’t in the mood for movies that promised to be too heavy or challenging–I was getting enough of that from real life.


So while last year I watched enough new releases to compile a respectable Top 10 list, I don’t think I’m going to take that approach this year. (I won’t be writing a year in television column at all, but for the record I watched and recommend GLOW and American Vandal on Netflix.) Instead of highlighting and ranking individual films, I’m going to examine some common themes that emerged in my viewing. This includes both 2017 releases (of which I watched 21) and older films that I caught up with for the first time this year.

Friendly monsters
My love of monster movies has been no secret in this blog, so you might consider this an extension of my heavy kaiju viewing from 2016: I continued to watch entries in the Godzilla series, and of course I went through the (much shorter) Gamera series for my discussion with Zack Clopton. But filmmakers were, for once, on the same wavelength as me this year, and it was possible to draw out this theme even from new releases. Okay, King Kong is not exactly “friendly” in Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts), but as in most classic kaiju movies he does eventually get the audience’s sympathies on his side in this interesting mash-up of monster and Vietnam War movies. I happened to watch this a second time at home (whenever my wife and sister get together, Tom Hiddleston is sure to be on the viewing schedule) and I felt that it was even tighter on a repeat viewing; it left me eagerly awaiting a continuation of the “Monsterverse” that began with Gareth Edward’s Godzilla in 2014.


In another shake-up of the typical formula, Colossal (dir. Nacho Vigalando) put a magical-realist spin on the kaiju genre, with Anne Hathaway as a woman with a mysterious psychic connection to a giant monster appearing in South Korea. Again, it might be a stretch to call the Colossal beast a “friendly” monster, but as in the best fairy tales, what starts out as a source of fear helps lead the heroine to understand her own strength. To reveal any more about this one would be unfair–it works better unspooling at its own pace–but suffice it to say that there are worse monsters in this film than the big critter on the poster.

The really cuddly monsters could be found in releases like Monster Trucks and Okja, and even (thematically) in the otherwise imperfect Ferdinand: kids are the true fans and friends of monsters, and as with Gamera they sometimes end up protecting these fantastic companions just as much as the monsters protect them. With Okja, Bong Joon Ho continues his genre-bending critique of capitalism and imperialism, introducing a genetically-engineered “superpig” designed as an ideal, environmentally-friendly source of meat, if it weren’t for the creature’s friendship with the little girl (Seo-hyun Ahn) who raised him on her isolated family farm. Tilda Swinton is also memorable in a dual role, and I don’t care what anyone says: Jake Gyllenhaal is good in this.


In 2016, when I saw Kubo and the Two Strings, the preview for Monster Trucks (dir. Chris Wedge) preceded it, and the little boy sitting behind me said after every other preview, “I want to see Monster Trucks!” This led me to overestimate its box office potential by a wide margin, but I still found it a charming (if familiar) movie. Reportedly inspired by a Paramount executive’s three-year-old son (it shows), Monster Trucks asks the question, “what if monster trucks were literally trucks powered by monsters?” The adorable “Creech” (an oil-eating, amphibious blob halfway between a manatee and a squid) has become something of a mascot for the Dissolve Facebook group, but I’m equally charmed by the chemistry between leads Lucas Till and Jane Levy as the human teenagers who first befriend Creech and then help him return to his home deep underground. With its nefarious oil company baddies and truck-themed shenanigans, Monster Trucks could be described as “Splash + Pete’s Dragon + License to Drive.” Worth noting is its troubled production history: initial designs for Creech and his relatives were much too scary, leading to disastrous test screenings that sent terrified children running for the exits; if it weren’t for the expense of redesigning them, Monster Trucks might have had a shot at turning a profit.

The Day of the Dead
Somehow I ended up seeing three films centered on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration this year: Pixar’s latest, Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina), of course, was one of them, and one of my favorites of the year. (It was refreshing to see Pixar’s world-building applied to themes and characters that weren’t white office park dwellers, although plot-wise I might have liked it even better if I hadn’t seen any previous Pixar films: one might say this perfects the formula they’ve been working on for some time.) I also happened to see the other animated Day of the Dead feature, The Book of Life from 2014, which I enjoyed for its flights of fantasy: instead of the supernatural bureaucracy depicted in Coco, which (like all Pixar settings) is set up with rules to make the action that follows clear, The Book of Life has the logic of a dream or a fairy tale (although there are still rules, they are on the scale of balancing universal principles of light and darkness rather than the regulations of a post-mortem customs agency). This makes it sound like I’m putting down Coco in favor of The Book of Life, but I liked both: they just take different approaches (however, The Book of Life has banditos whose sombreros are spinning saw-blades: advantage Book). At the beginning of the year, following my interest in Mexican horror, I watched the 1960 classic Macario. Macario turned out to be less of a horror story than I expected, and more of a supernatural fable in the vein of Ingmar Bergman, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Troubled visionaries
Brigsby Bear (dir. Dave McCary) was a film I almost didn’t get to see this year: I don’t believe it screened in Wichita, but I heard so many raves about it I felt compelled to pick it up when a used Blu-ray turned up at my local CD Tradepost. I was fortunate to go into it without much foreknowledge of its plot, so I won’t say more than what I knew: in the words of the Blu-ray package copy, “James has grown up with the goofy kids’ show Brigsby Bear and the program has grown with him as well. One dramatic night, James’ insular world is upended. Upon learning the series has been cancelled, he adopts the old adage that the show must go on. By becoming Brigsby Bear‘s new creator, James finally builds meaningful connections his life has lacked.” The theme of an amateur filmmaker using his movie to work out his issues is similar to The Disaster Artist (a movie I enjoyed but didn’t love quite as much as some did), but it most reminded me of a movie I watched for the first time at the beginning of the year, Gentleman Broncos, and the two might make an interesting double feature. Like Brigsby Bear, Gentleman Broncos includes an amateur production of a science fiction epic, but in Broncos the film is a travesty that humiliates its creator, and in addition the quirkiness of the film feels contrived; Brigsby Bear‘s oddity flows directly out of the circumstances of its central character, James (Kyle Mooney, who came up with the story), and achieves a striking level of empathy. In it, creation becomes cathartic in itself, regardless of how others perceive the final product. Also, both films take place in Utah, so make of that what you will.

Space opera
2017 was a great year for space adventures. Sequels to the Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn) and Thor (dir. Taika Waititi) series felt more like science fiction adventures than superhero slugfests. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, for its part, actually increased my appreciation for the first GotG, as it completes several arcs set up in the first movie; it’s the rare sequel that really feels like a resolution of unfinished business from the first film.) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (dir. Luc Besson) had some fantastic visuals and wild ideas (and an optimistic prelude set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that justified the price of admission, even if the rest of the film couldn’t live up to it). More pessimistic and existential, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve) takes place in a space opera universe, but on ground level, among the detritus left behind after humanity makes its push into the stars. From that angle, it makes sense that the most cosmic-minded character, the replicant-production mogul Wallace (Jared Leto), is presented as a terrifying monster with delusions of godhood (and while the Blade Runner universe has become quite distant from its roots in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the author’s skepticism of typical heroic narratives still comes through). Speaking of subverted expectations, the lastest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson), capped off the year with a visually striking and heartfelt journey that managed to call into question many long-held assumptions about the Jedi, the Force, and the narrative rhythms of the series. I loved the twists and turns the story in The Last Jedi took and found the moral complexity exhilarating; the sequence in a high-class casino, among the arms dealers and black marketeers who profit from the conflict no matter who wins, was a highlight. Writer-director Rian Johnson took risks and created something challenging and affecting, especially surprising for a franchise that has mostly played it safe since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm.

Musical fantasy
Musicals continued to be a source of escapism as well, although some ended up being better than others. As I mentioned in my round-up of this year’s reading, Star! turned out to be a dud, although the musical numbers are the only parts that redeem it. At the beginning of the year, last year’s La La Land made it to Wichita. I’ve been a fan of director Damien Chazelle’s earlier work, and I liked La La Land, but it would have benefited from a little more of the perfectionism Chazelle explored in Whiplash. As far as older musicals, I revisited The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I ended up liking much more than the first time I saw it, years ago) and explored its 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment (maligned and misunderstood at the time, but increasingly the object of its own cult; it’s the product of a different, more anxious moment in time, and its obsessions with celebrity and television were ahead of its time).


I ended up enjoying Madam Satan, the bizarre musical comedy from director Cecil B. DeMille (not noted for his intimate chamber pieces, although he handles the slamming-door farce very well); the musical elements are pretty dated and bound to the conventions of Broadway circa 1930, but the dazzling art deco visuals of its third act, a masquerade ball aboard a zeppelin (!), are still striking, and Kay Johnson is wonderful in the film as a jilted wife who adopts a femme fatale persona to win back her husband (no, it isn’t exactly woke).


Best of all was The Boy Friend, Ken Russell’s 1971 adapation of Sandy Wilson’s hit stage musical, a spoof of 1920s Noël Coward and Cole Porter shows. True to form, Russell adapts his sources by first turning them inside-out, with the film a stylized backstage musical that amplifies the cheapness of a threadbare production and contrasting it with the outsized dreams of the cast and crew. Among my favorite sequences of any film I’ve seen this year is an extended dream of a Greek pastoral filtered through a Jazz Age bacchanale, a frenzy of jitterbugging nymphs and satyrs poised halfway between Jean Cocteau and Max Fleischer. Every once in a while you encounter a film that feels like it was made just for you: for me, this is one of them.

Pure crap
As I indicated above, I watched a lot of stuff this year that’s hard to justify as anything more than comfort food, and some of it failed to even live up to that low ambition. In some cases, I found myself disappointed by choices I hoped would be more rewarding: this is the state almost all fans of genre fiction or films end up in at some point, the “victory of hope over experience” in the pursuit of thrills. Such was the case with A Werewolf in the Amazon, the fourth film in the collection of movies by Ivan Cardoso that I began in October; the first three films were varying levels of engaging, but Werewolf was just bad. Seeing something you don’t like is sometimes the price of expanding your horizons: they can’t all be winners.


I have a harder time explaining how I spent so much time delving into the filmography of Jerry Warren, the 1960s shlock auteur whose motto was “Never, ever try in any way to make anything worthwhile.” I’m not a big believer in “hate-watching” or even the concept of “so bad it’s good”–if something entertains or interests me, I’ll say so, whatever its flaws. The film that sent me down the Warren rabbit hole was 1966’s Wild World of Batwoman, a spoof on the TV superhero craze that attracted the unwelcome attention of DC Comics itself: beyond that loopy film (the only Warren joint I’ve seen that comes close to justifying comparisons to Edward D. Wood, Jr.), only one or two even rise to the level of being almost good. So why did I subject myself to them? Ironically, it’s Warren’s antagonistic attitude (according to those who worked with him, Warren claimed that audiences couldn’t recognize anything good anyway, so there was no point in trying, although that sounds at best like a preemptive excuse) that attracted my interest. Sitting down with a Jerry Warren film felt like pitting myself against an opponent, with extracting the entertainment value that Warren was determined to withhold from me as my goal; or like a wrestling heel, whose whole performance depended on my negative reaction, I suspected that Warren’s negativity was an act that I was determined to see through. Well, folks, it wasn’t an act, and for the most part he succeeded in creating products that had me scratching my head afterwards: the worst of them weren’t merely boring or incompetent–they weren’t anything, just footage edited together (in many cases “patch-ups” from Mexican or South American films to which he added his own connecting scenes) until it hit feature length. No point other than sucking dollars out of the pockets of teenagers at the drive-in who weren’t going to pay attention to the screen anyway.

The best of the year
It wasn’t all bad, however: one side effect of only seeing a few new releases this year is that I didn’t see very many that I really disliked. Most of the new films I saw this year were at least passable, and a few were downright great. Aside from films already mentioned, Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) deserves every bit of acclaim that has come its way. Get Out has already inspired thousands of words as a sharply-observed horror-satire, a “socially conscious thriller” that takes its charge from the real-life horrors daily visited upon Black America in ways large and small, from overt racism to the insidious microaggressions that add up over time. I have little to add other than to say it is one of the most vital films of the year (as well as another one that benefits from knowing little about the plot going in), but also one of the most entertaining.


Remake, Revisited


A couple of years ago, writing about the 2004 sci-fi adventure film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I commented on the use of repurposed footage of Sir Laurence Olivier, long dead, to represent the film’s villain, Doctor Totenkopf:

At least since 1997, when scenes of the late Fred Astaire from Easter Parade and Royal Wedding were digitally modified to show him dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner for a series of commercials, it’s been possible to change the context of an actor’s appearance using the same technology that can put Jude Law in an airplane when he’s actually on a sound stage. The Dirt Devil ads, although licensed by Astaire’s widow, were controversial, and raised questions that have still not been settled: who owns an actor’s image, and are there limits to the uses to which it can be put? More importantly, does legal ownership give someone the right to tinker with a classic film? The battle lines are not always clearly drawn, as colorizing enthusiast Ted Turner became the patron of a classic movie channel that is widely respected for its thoughtful presentation of all kinds of film, and George Lucas, who spoke out against colorization in the 1980s, has defended his right to modify his own Star Wars movies because they’re “his” films.

I’m less offended by the use of Olivier’s image in Sky Captain than by Astaire in the Dirt Devil ads–or by the use of Audrey Hepburn’s image in Dove chocolate commercials just this year–of course: however pulpy it may be, Sky Captain is a work of art, not a commercial. But it is worth noting how far we have come, that such things are not only possible but routine. Connie Willis, in her 1995 novel Remake, depicted a future Hollywood dominated by digital effects, in which hardly any new movies were made, but instead older ones were remade by computer with digital copies of past stars (Back to the Future remade with River Phoenix, for example). We’re not quite to that point, but it hardly seems like science fiction, does it?

Some things have changed since I wrote those words: George Lucas, whom I referenced as the bad guy in ongoing debates about the legacy of his Star Wars films, sold Lucasfilm and his right to tinker with the franchise in 2012, and since then new owner Disney has begun a slate of new Star Wars films. The march of technological progress has also continued, and at the end of last year we saw a full-fledged digital recreation of actor Peter Cushing (dead since 1994) in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One, reprising Cushing’s role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original 1977 film. Although the filmmakers had their reasons to undertake this effort and appear to have not taken it lightly, I found it garish and disturbing; even a completely undetectable CGI job would raise questions.

Repurposed footage, as in Sky Captain, is one thing: in addition to the CGI Cushing, Rogue One also inserted unused footage of pilots in X-Wing cockpits from Star Wars‘ Death Star battle for its own climactic dogfight (again, Rogue One takes place immediately before A New Hope, so this was just one of many threads meant to connect the two stories). Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, but that didn’t bother me at all, and in fact I found it a clever touch (longtime readers will recall my love of stock footage and my general wonder at the magic of editing, though).

I should clarify that I’m not against computers, either: I love music created on synthesizers, and I enjoy computer-generated animation. I also respect that CGI has made practical filmmaking easier in many cases where the casual viewer wouldn’t even suspect that stray wires or other intrusions have been seamlessly erased.

But I think part of what I love about the art of film is its rearrangement of a tangible reality: I’ve written before about my love of animation for its ability to create a wholly new world through the illusion of movement, but even filmed live action involves quite a bit of assemblage–of cuts, of effects, of performances–in all but the most extreme cases of fly-on-the-wall documentary and avant-garde cinema. The end result is not exactly a mirror held up to the real world but a mosaic in which many facets of it are reflected, an arrangement of fragments that make up a whole picture.

In theory, the current digital toolbox is just an extension of all the image-making that has come before, but in reality it has its limits, and its frequent use as a cost-cutting measure is dispiriting. It’s all so literal: particularly in the case of Rogue One, there’s no real need to include Grand Moff Tarkin except for the desire to position this story right before Star Wars. In addition, it’s somewhat insulting in its implication that viewers wouldn’t accept a different actor in the role. I enjoyed Rogue One, I really did, but my enthusiasm flagged at the very end when it became clear just how closely it was meant to dovetail with the original Star Wars. I felt the same way at the end of Episode III, when George Lucas felt compelled to leave nothing unsaid, dumping information that was already (or would be, depending on the order in which one viewed the saga) revealed elegantly in the original trilogy. Both cases are typical, though, of a tendency to fill in any and all gaps in pop culture mythology, bowing to perceived demands from fans to reveal every detail, even when leaving something to viewers’ imaginations could have a greater impact.

The issue became more than academic in December with the sudden, tragic death of Carrie Fisher, who of course played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and who had returned to her iconic role in the new trilogy that began with 2015’s Episode VII. (As it happens, computer imagery had also been used for a brief appearance of “young Leia” at the end of Rogue One.) Reportedly, Fisher had already filmed her scenes for Episode VIII, but her death puts her role in the last film of the trilogy in doubt. Disney issued a statement to calm speculation last week, assuring fans that they had no plans to create a digital Leia for Episode IX. Is the difference simply that Cushing has been dead long enough that no one is likely to be outraged by his digital doppelganger? Is it “too soon” to do the same with Fisher? In fact, isn’t the cyber-Cushing atypical precisely because he’s been gone for so long? In recent years, digital imagery of this sort has largely been used to make up for the loss of a star during filming (most notably Paul Walker in Furious 7). It’s likely that Fisher, aware of the direction technology is headed, had explicit directions in her will regarding the use of her image, but it’s also true that Leia is a more significant character than Tarkin, and she was expected to carry both more scenes and more dramatic moments. There are still practical limitations on how seamlessly an actor can be recreated digitally.

The Star Wars films have always been showcases for the latest in special effects. If Cushing’s appearance in Rogue One was meant to be a test case for a new technology, it wasn’t reassuring, for either this audience member or (I imagine) living actors who now not only have to compete against each other, but against their predecessors.

R.I.P. Peter Cushing, 1913-1994

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

My 2015 in Film

This year I saw 17 new releases (US release in 2015), mostly action blockbusters and animated family films, with a few outliers. As always, I didn’t see nearly enough to offer a comprehensive ranking (as subjective as those things are to begin with), but I can at least point to some of my favorites. (Also, I’m terrible at ranking things, so this could easily change tomorrow, and in fact has already undergone changes since I started drafting this.)


5. The Duke of Burgundy
I loved a lot about this movie, the story of a troubled dominant-submissive lesbian relationship. Director Peter Strickland’s appropriation of a 1970s European soft porn aesthetic, all soft focus and chanteuse-style pop music, is right in my postmodern wheelhouse (one of the opening credits, after “Dress and Lingerie” is for “Perfume by Je suis Gizella“). And there is a surprising streak of dry humor amidst the angst-filled meditations on control and the rigid boundaries we set for ourselves and each other. However, too many of the visual and auditory flourishes were straight out of David Lynch, particularly a sequence that felt uncomfortably indebted to Mulholland Drive, crossing the line beyond “homage.” I still liked the movie, but it may have been a victim of my high expectations.


4. Crimson Peak
After Guillermo Del Toro’s previous film, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak was a welcome return to focus on human characters and their problems, while still featuring the director’s trademark grotesque monsters (this time the bloody ghosts that haunt the titular mansion). A gloriously gloomy gothic romance, it starred a perfectly cast Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as siblings with a dark secret, and Mia Wasikowska as the innocent caught in their web.


3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I was as surprised as anyone to see the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series come roaring back after a thirty year absence from the screen, but director George Miller had clearly spent the time away thinking about the logistics and meaning of his future-primitive setting. Tom Hardy is fine as the title character, but it’s really Charlize Theron’s show as the bad-ass Furiosa. In addition to updating the setting in light of concerns about environmental collapse and climate change, Fury Road gives a fiercely feminist reading of the traditionally testosterone-filled “road warrior” genre (here’s what I thought immediately after seeing it).


2. Inside Out
A return to the daring conceptual heights of Ratatouille and Wall-E, Inside Out is simply the best Pixar film in years. Unsurprisingly, Inside Out was written and directed by Pete Docter, who also created Monsters, Inc.: there’s a similar fascination with factory-like spaces and a unique “backstage” interpretation of Pixar’s usual “secret life of ______” formula. Although the focus is on Joy, Sadness, and the other personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley’s head, the film benefits from the animation studio’s increasing confidence in creating expressive human characters that don’t resemble creepy dolls. I doubt it would work as well as it does if Riley and her parents didn’t hold up their end of the story in their scenes.


1. What We Do in the Shadows
I already talked up this one as the funniest movie I had seen all year when I saw it in October, and in the two months since I haven’t seen anything to topple it from my top spot. In addition to its humor, however, What We Do in the Shadows is as tightly-plotted as an Edgar Wright film while appearing as off-the-cuff as a Christopher Guest mockumentary or The Office. It also turns out to have some clever (and often poignant) observations about family, friendship, romance, and ambition (the last represented by Jackie van Beek, a “thrall” who hopes to ascend to vampirehood, a process that resembles an unpaid internship and virtual slavery to her vampire “master”).


Honorable Mention: Speaking of Edgar Wright, like many I was disappointed when Wright left Marvel’s Ant-Man, citing creative differences. But the movie we got, directed by Peyton Reed, still has Wright’s fingerprints all over it, from the fast cutting and clever narrative tricks to the visuals, which play with scale in a number of humorous and dramatic ways. In general I’ve enjoyed the free-standing Marvel movies more than the big team-ups: as exhilarating as it is as a comic book fan to see stories overlap and interact on screen just as they do in the comics, there’s a limit to how many characters and plot lines can comfortably fit in a feature film before I stop caring about any of them.

Surprisingly Good: Home did very well for itself at the box office and mostly got decent reviews. But unless you saw it you wouldn’t know how visually inventive it is and how its sense of humor is frequently a lot weirder than the clips of Jim Parsons as an overly-literal alien shown in the trailers suggested. (I’m willing to believe that the film’s stranger touches are drawn from the book it was based on, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, but I haven’t read it.) I also appreciated the film’s emotional stakes and the revelation that Inside Out wasn’t the only family movie this year to stress the importance of empathy and accepting that sadness and grief have their place as healthy emotions. Finally, props for the good use it made of Steve Martin, who should really be considered more often as a voice actor.


Best Reboot (non-Mad Max category): I was pretty high on Star Wars: The Force Awakens after I saw it, and even after cooling off there’s still a lot I like about it. Under the new management of corporate owner Disney and director J. J. Abrams, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, visually and aurally. The return to largely practical effects is appreciated, and the new characters and their stories have some compelling hooks. As a passing of the torch to the new generation, it’s much more successful than, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which did little to make me care about Jones’ son Mutt. In fact, I liked just about everything about The Force Awakens except the plot, which is just too much of a rehash of the original 1977 film (especially considering the Death Star had already been redone in 1983’s Return of the Jedi). Considering that The Force Awakens‘ planet-sized Starkiller follows Star Trek Into Darkness, which used the same ploy of “like the Enterprise, but bigger” for its bad guy’s ship, I’m glad Abrams will be stepping aside for the next installment of the Star Wars saga. After the much-maligned prequel trilogy, however, this was probably just what was needed to right the ship and get audiences excited again.

Most Forgettable: Fortunately, this year I haven’t seen any new releases that I really hated, so I don’t have a pick for “the worst.” However, at the bottom of my list is Jurassic World, which delivered the big dinosaur action it promised but was lackluster in all other respects, both derivative and lazy. I also didn’t get much out of Avengers: Age of Ultron (see my above comments about team-ups), but unlike Jurassic World it at least had compelling characters and the advancement of the ongoing Marvel plot going for it.

2015 was also another big year for catching up on movies from the past. In addition to the second summer of exploring serials in my Fates Worse Than Death series and my successful attempt to take in 31 horror films in October, I took advantage of repertory screenings, DVDs, TCM, Netflix, and YouTube to watch a variety of older films throughout the year.


First-time non-2015 movies that I liked were (in no particular order) El Hombre y el Monstruo (a Mexican riff on Jekyll and Hyde featuring a classical pianist who has sold his soul to the devil: whenever he plays a particular piece he transforms into a murderous wolfman), Polyester, The Man Who Laughed, The Thing, Repo Man, The Wicked Lady (1945), and the double feature Grindhouse (particularly Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half, but I appreciated the spirit of the whole project). I also caught up with a few movies from 2014 that I had missed the first time around, among them The Babadook, Under the Skin (a film I respected more than loved, but which isn’t looking for my approval anyway), and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live/Die/Repeat), which did something I wouldn’t have thought possible: delivered a military sci-fi movie that both held my interest and made me care about its characters.


Worst non-2015 movie: This is easy. After seeing Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead last year, I wasn’t exactly a fan: the movie was pretty hard for me to take, both extremely gory and nerve-wracking in its disregard for conventional plotting. Still, that’s one way to make a memorable horror movie, and although I didn’t love it I was willing to explore Fulci’s filmography further. Unfortunately, the next Fulci movie I watched was 1981’s Conquest, a dismal sword-and-sorcery picture that was clearly made in work-for-hire mode. It has some stylish character designs and graphic fight scenes, and the trailer puts enough cool moments together that I expected a passable Conan the Barbarian rip-off. Alas, those moments are doled out in an extremely stingy manner and the rest is filled with walking and talking scenes that have almost no energy, resulting in a dull, lifeless slog. (As far as Fulci goes, I also ended up seeing The House by the Cemetery recently, and while I didn’t care for it much, it was a lot better than Conquest.)

That’s about it for my look back at 2015. Happy New Year, and see you in 2016!


Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars


At the end of Universal’s 1936 serial Flash Gordon, Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov are bound for Earth by rocket ship after saving the planet from destruction by the invading planet Mongo and its ruthless Emperor, Ming (who was, to all appearances, burned to death in the “Tunnel of Terror,” leaving his daughter Aura and Prince Barin to rule over Mongo with a presumably gentler hand). As the 1938 sequel Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars begins, the people of Earth are still awaiting that rocket ship, which successfully lands in the first chapter. That makes Trip to Mars a direct continuation of the original serial, and in many ways it’s a sequel in all the modern senses of the word: it has most of the same cast as the first (although as Dale Arden, Jean Rogers has inexplicably let her hair return to its natural brunette during the trip from Mongo to Earth), and is in all ways bigger, with more ambitious effects, more locations, and greater length (fifteen chapters instead of thirteen). There are even some flashbacks to the 1936 serial spliced in to explain plot developments.


It’s worth noting that the practice of making sequels and series, what we now call film “franchises,” is nothing new, and wasn’t even new in 1938. Some of the long-running episodic serials like Hazards of Helen were closer to ongoing series than the closed narratives of the serials I’ve been examining here. Beginning in the silent era, popular characters such as Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, and Tarzan had proven that cinema audiences liked to catch up on the adventures of familiar characters just as much as book and magazine readers did. By the time Flash Gordon was taking his trip to Mars, the Andy Hardy series was already on its fifth installment, and it had only started the year before! Similarly, the Dead End Kids made six films for Warner Brothers between 1937 and ’39. The Blondie series, which would eventually run to twenty-eight films, also began in ’38.


No sooner have Flash (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) and company returned to heroes’ welcomes (SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! reads my new favorite newspaper headline) when Earth suffers an attack similar to that which opened the ’36 serial. Disasters and weather events threaten the planet, this time tied to mysterious beams of light emanating from the planet Mars. Suspecting the hand of their erstwhile foe Ming, Flash and his allies (joined by a reporter who stows away on the rocket ship) take off for Mongo. However, unlike Abbott and Costello, Flash does actually end up on Mars, as the deadly beam interferes with their ship and causes them to crash on the red planet.


In a twist that will surprise no one, Ming (Charles Middleton, in fine scenery-chewing form) is on Mars, having survived the flames of the Tunnel of Terror (it’s eventually explained that he can walk through flames without injury), and he is cooperating with the Martian Queen Azura, using the beam to draw “nitron” from Earth’s atmosphere, which Azura can use as an explosive in her war against the Clay Kingdom (and without which the Earth will die, suiting Ming’s purposes nicely). Ming’s goals are conquest and revenge upon the Earthlings who thwarted him before; his previous goal of marrying Dale Arden is never mentioned.


As the events of the serial take place on Mars, there are several new settings and exotic races for Flash and company to encounter and either overcome or win to his side. The Fire People live in a gnarled forest, dressed in caveman furs and worshipping idols; loyal to Ming, they imprison Flash the first chance they get, leading him to a reunion with his old ally Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), also a captive of the Fire People. The Martians themselves, Azura, and her palace are pure art deco space opera, equal parts Galactic Empire and Emerald City of Oz. In fact, the embrace of fantasy is even more committed here than in the first Flash Gordon serial: although there’s still a great deal of pseudoscientific rationalization with rays and “nitron” and “televisors” and so on, at some point the writers threw their hands in the air and said, “Fuck it, it’s magic.” The Glenda-like Azura is described as a “Queen of Magic,” with a white sapphire that allows her to teleport in a puff of smoke and lay curses on her enemies.


The victims of one of those curses, the Clay People, were once normal Martian men until they rebelled against Azura, and she transformed them into mud monsters, exiled to a remote cave. As the Clay King, British actor Montague Shaw delivers his lines through an immobile rubber mask, the equivalent of casting Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in Star Wars and having them play Jawas. The Clay People occupy the moral middle ground that Vultan and his Hawk Men occupied in the first serial: waging war against Azura and suspicious of spies, they at first capture Flash and his friends, holding Dale hostage until Flash can bring the Queen to them and force her to undo their curse. After winning their trust, however, Flash and company find the Clay People capable allies, and they’re eventually able to help them regain their human forms.


As far as the new additions to the cast go, reporter “Happy” Hapgood (Donald Kerr) is a typical sequel misstep: the “cool” character who comes along for the ride (in this case literally) to provide comic relief and deflate the stuffiness of the proceedings, but who doesn’t add as much as he detracts. Such characters are sometimes meant to be audience surrogates, seeing with fresh eyes the wonders that the heroes take for granted. In the case of Flash Gordon, however, that isn’t really necessary, as his essentially open nature is part of the character’s appeal; he may not be impressed by the likes of Ming, but he doesn’t really do “jaded,” either. Also, Hapgood’s one-liners, delivered with “make ’em laugh” intensity and frequency, just aren’t that funny. Fortunately, after the first couple of chapters he isn’t that prominent in the serial, providing Dale some company while she’s held hostage and providing the fight scenes an extra body when rough stuff is necessary, limiting his jokes to only one or two per chapter.


On the plus side, I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for the haughty, imperious women who often turn up in the serials: think of Princess Aura, or Queen Tika from The Phantom Empire. So it will be no surprise that I enjoyed Beatrice Roberts’ performance as Azura, her eyes flashing and lip curling with amusement at the primitive Earthmen opposing her, and delivering lines like “Thus do I banish all traitors!” Of course, Azura learns what stern stuff Flash is made of, although it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t fall in love with him. Like Tika, she’s ultimately a tragic figure who realizes too late that she’s cast her lot with the wrong side. (Another connection to Tika is the presence of mustache-twirling character actor Wheeler Oakman, who played the treacherous Lord Argo in Phantom Empire. Here Oakman plays Azura’s captain of the guard Tarnak, who willingly serves Ming until he realizes that the Emperor intends to follow up destroying Earth by doing the same to Mars after it has served his purposes.)


If anything, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars sets the template for Star Wars even more clearly than the 1936 serial: there are broad similarities, shared by many serials, such as the blend of exotic locations, flashy visuals (including cutting-edge effects and immersive production design), and fast-paced action, combined with the fairy-tale clash of good and evil. The stirring music (including a version of the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet) and remixing of ancient and medieval motifs with futuristic elements is also something that George Lucas would update for his space fantasy. But there are little moments, too, that stick out: the quirky music that accompanies the Clay People, for example, is echoed in the Jawas’ theme; the repeated back-and-forth as Flash and his allies return to Azura’s high-tech city for one reason or another–to destroy the “nitron lamp” that is slowly draining the Earth; to find an antidote for the “Incense of Forgetfulness”; to confront first Azura and then Ming–is one source for Luke Skywalker and the Rebels’ infiltration of the Death Star and their later raids on it (and its successor in Return of the Jedi). Flash even rescues Queen Azura from falling off a “light bridge” by swinging on a cable, a move borrowed from Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn and recreated by Mark Hammill with Carrie Fisher.


It all comes down to a final confrontation, and although Crabbe would return as Flash one more time in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, it appears that Ming is defeated, and Mars, like Mongo, is left in better hands. The four heroes return to Earth, and to my amusement the newspaper headline again reads SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! (I like to imagine an editor, knowing that he already struck gold once with that headline, saying to himself, “Why mess with perfection?”)


What I Watched: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “The Black Sapphire of Kalu” (Chapter Eight). I usually define “good” chapter titles as having a certain punch or flair, or capturing the tone of the serial especially well, and there are several chapter titles in Trip to Mars that meet that standard. I chose this one, however, because of its specificity, a somewhat rare quality in chapter titles.

Best Cliffhanger: Just as Flash Gordon found its titular hero robbed of his memory thanks to one of Princess Aura’s schemes, so here does Flash’s paramour Dale Arden experience the “Incense of Forgetfulness” in the Temple of Kalu at the end of Chapter Ten. Convinced that she is a servant of the forest people’s god, she stabs Flash in the back when he shows up to rescue her. (Flash recovers from his wound, but only by returning to Azura’s city are Flash and Zarkov able to find an antidote so Dale can recover her memory.)


Another Note About Costumes: In my review of Undersea Kingdom, I noted the prominence of Roman-style helmet crests and other kinds of cranial plumage in the costume design. Mars appears to have a similar taste for adornment based on the uniforms of Queen Azura’s soldiers (here, Flash, disguised as a member of Azura’s Death Squadron, pretends to hold Dr. Zarkov prisoner):


And just look at this fellow on the left:


Sample Dialogue: “I’d feel a lot better if I had a parachute instead of these Martian wings!” Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), just before bailing out of a “stratosled” (Chapter Four, “Ancient Enemies”)


Bonus Sample Dialogue: “I wonder what the wife’s going to say when I get home!” –“Happy” Hapgood (Chapter Fifteen, “An Eye For an Eye”)

What Others Have Said: “We tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive. They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.” —Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times

What’s Next: After the epic length (about five hours) of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, I’m going to take next week to focus on a special topic: serials cut down to feature length.


Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: The Elusive Hollywood Sci-Fi Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

It seems like it should be easy: “space cowboys” such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds are essentially Old West gunslingers dropped into the cockpit of a spaceship, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around: a robot on horseback or a space alien on a stagecoach? Despite the longstanding popularity of both Westerns and science fiction, the number of films that successfully bring the two genres together in this way is surprisingly small. To be sure, ghost stories, tall tales, and bloody violence are all established parts of Western lore, and some great movies have been made exploring these themes, but the “weird Western” typically explores the boundaries of fantasy and horror, myth and history, rather than science fiction. It turns out that it’s easier to move the Old West into outer space than vice versa.

Undoubtedly, the cinematic grandfather of all such hybrids is the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire (of which I have written more extensively elsewhere), in which singing cowboy Gene Autry runs up against members of a super-advanced underground civilization. In their book The Great Movie Serials, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut characterize The Phantom Empire as the beginning of a cycle of “zap-gun Western” serials. However, the other examples they cite, such as Tom Mix’s final film The Miracle Rider, involve super-science of purely human invention, and lack the sense of weird mystery and contact with alien forces that makes The Phantom Empire so distinctive.


Perhaps the reason there have been so few overt fusions of science fiction and the Western in film is that such a hybrid is redundant: once science fiction (especially in the pulpy, action-adventure mode that has dominated popular film-making) took over the Western’s role as the main arena for playing out America’s myths and fears, it borrowed wholesale many of the plots and character types associated with the older genre, effectively replacing it. Good guys (almost exclusively white in the early years of both genres) and bad guys (sometimes literally alien, sometimes white men whose greed had overcome them); a thirst for exploration and conquest, usually in the name of civilization but often identified with commercial interests; and a sense of isolation, of being separated from the routines and mores of the old world (including meditations on the softening, corrupting influences of civilized society), were all notable features of both the Western and early science fiction, to the point that “horse opera” could be updated to “space opera” without any misunderstanding on the part of audiences. The “edge of civilization” was constantly moving outward: Star Trek’s description of space as “the final frontier” is illustrative.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." A few episodes, such as "Spectre of the Gun," made it literal.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A few episodes, such as “Spectre of the Gun,” made it literal.

Besides the gunslinger, other characters, such as the alien other, the damsel in distress (or the hooker with a heart of gold in racier manifestations: neither genre had much use for well-developed female characters, as pioneering was considered man’s work), the white man “gone native,” the amoral company man, and the wise tribesman (often the last of his kind, given a tragic nobility once no longer a threat) were translated easily. Science fiction, arriving as it did in a period of both rapid dissemination of ideas and ready access to literature of the past, became a clearinghouse of genre storytelling, absorbing themes and tropes like a sponge. From this point of view, it’s only natural that Terry Gilliam could describe Darth Vader as “the cowboy with the black hat,” that Flash Gordon’s Princess Aura fits the mold of the femme fatale, and that Seven Samurai could be remade as both a Western and as a space adventure. Ultimately, callow, daydreaming farm boys are the same everywhere, whether from Texas or Tatooine.

In that case, the distinction between the two genres is one of iconography, and iconography flourishes in visual media: comic books and cartoons have always been friendly to the robot in a cowboy hat, as have the pop surrealism movement and the artists who contribute to sites like DeviantArt. When it comes to mixing and matching, Western and sci-fi are primary colors that can be laid on in broad strokes.


Both literary and cinematic science fiction have had to work to absorb Western motifs, however: all but the most fantastic stories attempt to rationalize the mixture of Old West and New Frontier, and here the difference between the two genres is a clear obstacle.* The Western is rooted in a specific time and place, and once that historical moment was over, the Western became a genre about the past (one reflecting contemporary attitudes, to be sure, but almost always focusing through the lens of history); science fiction, especially in the early Space Age, was about the future, and whether focused on the promise of exploration or the horror of nuclear war, it used speculation about the future to examine the current moment. In short, both forms stood in the present, but the Western looked into the past, either searching for some imperialistic original sin or retreating into comforting nostalgia, while science fiction looked into the future, projecting either our hopes or fears.


Given that difference in emphasis, science fiction has often chosen to visit the Old West by means of time travel or alternate history. The “steampunk” movement has produced a wide variety of literature, some of it great, but on film it has been too often a faddish visual template that can be applied to the same old pulp storytelling: the result has been ambitious failures like the film version of Wild Wild West or “high concept” dreck like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. (Complaints about the perceived hackiness of combining the two genres aren’t new: Wikipedia’s “Space Western” entry notes pulp-era efforts to stamp out lazy updates of Western plots in sci-fi garb, including one magazine’s ad campaign claiming “You’ll never see it in Galaxy.”)


Better are films that find ways to repurpose the trappings of the Western, like Westworld, in which the Western setting is a fiction within the fiction, or Serenity (the belated finale of television series Firefly), which makes explicit both the themes of colonization and post-civil war disillusionment that are a part of the Western. In both cases, the adoption of Western dress and lingo are made to seem not only organic to the setting but essential to the stories being told: both use science fiction to interrogate the Western, and by extension mythmaking in general.

* Even excursions into outright fantasy don’t always pass the laugh test: I invite you to consider the short-lived 1987 cartoon series BraveStarr:

I’ve also just become aware of a 1999 film called Aliens in the Wild, Wild West that doesn’t look too promising; although I haven’t seen it, an imdb reviewer calls it “one of the top ten worst movies I have ever seen.” Tellingly, like The Phantom Empire and like BraveStarr and similar cartoons, Aliens in the Wild, Wild West appears to have been made primarily for children.



Next week, I’ll look at a recent example of the genre, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens.


Fates Worse Than Death: Exploring the Motion Picture Serials

Several years ago I was sitting in Century II Concert Hall before a Wichita Symphony pops concert; the day’s program was to include film music excerpts (some accompanying silent film clips), including selections from John Williams’ Star Wars score.  I don’t remember quite how the conversation started, but an older lady sitting next to me was blunt in her assessment: “People don’t realize it now,” she told me, “but Star Wars was a comedy.  The first time I saw it, I just laughed, because I had seen it all before.  Luke Skywalker swinging across the chasm on a rope? That’s Douglas Fairbanks.”


I already knew that in a general way before this conversation, of course: not only had George Lucas acknowledged the inspiration he had taken from the adventure and science fiction movies of his youth, Star Wars’ debt to the weekly serials was a big point of discussion among fans and critics of the Star Wars saga.  Between 1913 and 1956, serials, or “chapter plays,” were a unique genre of motion picture: episodic, with a week-to-week continuity and boldly drawn, easy to follow stories that kept audiences coming back for more.  The serials developed in parallel with pulp magazines and comic books and shared many of the same story-telling conventions (and specific characters).  They were best known for the “cliffhangers” that ended each chapter with a character in peril, waiting until the beginning of the next chapter to show their escape.

Although the serials of the silent era were produced with an adult audience in mind, from the mid-‘30s onward, sound serials were increasingly geared to children.  Almost all were livened up with spectacular stunts: fist- and gunfights, chases, natural and man-made disasters.  Whether the story took place in the Old West, outer space, or the jungle, whether it was an adaptation of a classic novel or a story of (purportedly) true crime, the storytelling mode was the same, emphasizing action, adventure, and suspense.


Serials of the sound era generally included between ten and fifteen chapters (by contrast, one silent serial, The Hazards of Helen, boasted over one hundred; it appears to have been an open-ended “continuing adventure” rather than a single narrative, however).  The first episode introduced the characters and set up future conflict (ending on a good cliffhanger to get the audience hooked!); episodes were around twenty minutes in length (with exceptions: sometimes the first episode would be a little longer, like the pilot of a television show).  Serial chapters were shown in conjunction with full-length features (along with newsreels, cartoons and other “shorts”), part of a weekly moviegoing experience that had little to do with the specific film being shown.

Although I tend to see Star Wars as more homage than parody, there’s no denying that it draws heavily on the language of the serials that were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, before their thunder was stolen by television. Indeed, watching the 1977 original today with an awareness of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, it’s easy to see just how much the characters and situations were based on very specific models: how, in Terry Gilliam’s words, Darth Vader is just “the cowboy with the black hat”—the “spearhead villain” in the terminology of the serials.

I had seen clips from the original serials, sometimes in conjunction with material from Star Wars (or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s other homage to the format).  As I mentioned in a previous essay, the pop culture of my childhood was marked by a major resurgence of the characters and formats popular in the 1930s and ‘40s: not just the movies, but also the comics, pulp magazines, and radio shows of the Depression and war years.  During the 1970s and 1980s, there were new movies, comics, and television shows based on characters such as Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and many others.  Some were revived in response to the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones; others had been brought back as part of the “adult fantasy” wave that had also swept J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons to cultural prominence in the early 1970s, and of which Star Wars was partially a product.  And some had never really gone away.

Still, it was rare for serials to be shown in their entirety on television when I was a kid: there had been a serial revival in the mid-1960s, coinciding with the popularity of the Batman TV series, but that was before I was born.  Many of the serials had been “featurized”—edited down to hundred-minute movies—for television broadcast, so I might have seen some without even realizing it, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to get the full, multi-chapter experience.  As much as I love the pulpy aesthetic of old movie posters and the juicy, crackling dialogue of the old-time villains, the serials themselves were something of a blind spot for me.

The goal of this series is to explore some of the classic serials, not necessarily as they were originally seen, but at least uncut and at full length.  Of the hundreds of serials that were made, not all have survived, but many are available on DVD and a large number can be seen on YouTube.  Without trying to be comprehensive, I will have plenty of material to examine.


In reading about the history of the serials, many names pop up frequently: the serials had their own stars, such as leading men Buster Crabbe, Tom Tyler, and Kirk Alyn; and leading ladies Pearl White (“Pauline” of The Perils of Pauline, the archetypal silent serial) and Linda Stirling.  (Stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff also made appearances in serials, as did future star John Wayne and television’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore.)  Behind-the-scenes personnel made long careers out of the serials, such as stuntmen Tom Steele and Yakima Canutt, and directors Spencer G. Bennet and the team of William Witney and John English.  One also sees the name Sam Katzman frequently: the corner-cutting producer who, despite the tight budgets with which serials were typically made, was said to have never lost money on a production.

Finally, the name of Republic Pictures is nearly synonymous with the serial.  While other studios made serials as part of their output, Republic specialized in them, and one can hardly discuss the subject without acknowledging them.  After forming through the merger of Mascot (an established producer of serials) with Consolidated Film Laboratories and Monogram in 1933, Republic made sixty-six serials over the next two decades, almost to the end of the serial era.  Republic, along with Columbia, Universal, and a number of smaller studios, brought superheroes like Captain Marvel and the Phantom to the screen for the first time, and eventually created some of their own, such as Rocket Man.  In examining the serials, I intend to examine both the source material from which these characters were drawn and the serials’ lasting influence on the TV shows and movies that followed.

So much for the preliminaries.  I’ve decided to start with one of the most successful serials of all time: in two weeks, I’ll examine Universal’s 1936 production of Flash GordonI hope you’ll join me.



The Force in Four Colors: Revisiting Marvel’s Star Wars

Recent news that the license to publish Star Wars comics would shift from Dark Horse to Marvel in 2015 probably didn’t come as a surprise to anyone: now that both Lucasfilm and Marvel are under the umbrella of Disney, it was only a matter of time before corporate synergy asserted itself.  Already, Disney-owned properties such as the Muppets, Darkwing Duck, and the Pixar characters have been withdrawn from licensee Kaboom! (not all of them to reappear at Marvel, at least so far).  It’s too bad: Kaboom! publishes some of the best comics for children around, and their books were clearly being written and drawn by creators with knowledge of and affection for the characters.  Still, it makes business sense for Disney to consolidate its holdings, now that it has film, animation, and comic book outlets at its disposal.  I don’t blame them at all; I’m sure it was part of their plan in acquiring those companies in the first place.


The news has stirred up memories of the often-wacky Marvel Star Wars line that ran from 1977 to 1986, and there have been a lot of jokes at Marvel’s expense.  Heck, I’ve sprinkled Twitter and WordPress with my share of comments about the Zeltrons, a race of pink-skinned empaths whose sexual openness was often a source of comic relief (and pinup-worthy cheesecake) in the series.  No one would deny that Marvel’s version of George Lucas’ science fantasy epic is more remembered for six-foot tall green rabbits, horny pink-skinned aliens, and a seriously off-model Jabba the Hutt than for its merits, especially in comparison to the more straight-faced Dark Horse run.


Although some of Marvel’s contributions to the Star Wars canon have been picked up and used by others (including the Zeltrons, actually), its run was compromised by its publication alongside and in between the release of the original trilogy’s films.  Before Star Wars (sorry, A New Hope) was released, Marvel was already publishing its six-issue adaptation, including scenes that were cut from the final film: most notably Luke’s conversation with Biggs on Tatooine and Han Solo’s confrontation with a very different-looking Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley.  The yellow-skinned, humanoid version of Jabba would appear a couple of times in the comics, until he officially disappeared from existence, replaced by the slug-like Jabba of Return of the Jedi.


To be fair, it can’t have been easy for the writers (including Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, and Mary Jo Duffy, among others) to spin stories out of a saga that wasn’t completed yet: the challenge was to give readers more of what they loved in the movies without deviating too far from formula or accidentally contradicting or giving away plot twists planned for the sequels (plot twists that were generally secret–Marvel’s editors wouldn’t always know they had crossed the line until it was too late).  Particularly between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, writers were tasked with providing the illusion of change so familiar to readers of superhero comics: Han Solo could not be freed from his carbonite imprisonment, although many issues were dedicated to attempts to rescue him; Darth Vader was off the table, so there could be no answer to the question: was he Luke’s father?

Some of the weirdness in Marvel’s version was also due to the relationship between licensor and licensee at the time.  In those days there was simply not the expectation that film and comics be a seamless continuity: comics were exercises in brand extension, ancillary revenue streams, not sacred texts.  To a large degree, the comics’ writers and artists treated the Star Wars universe as just another sci-fi/fantasy playground to be filled with weird landscapes and monsters (one story arc was repurposed from unused John Carter, Warlord of Mars artwork).  Remember, this was from the same decade as Jack Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Whitman’s adaptation and continuation of The Black Hole.  Making up and adding material was thought of as giving good value to the reader.  Star Wars and its Expanded Universe would be a major influence in shaping fans’ expectations of continuity across all media, but that tighter approach didn’t emerge overnight.

Still, before I was a Marvel kid I was a Star Wars kid, and the latter was a big reason for the former.  I remember vividly the discovery that piqued my interest: in the box of comics I shared with my sister (about which I’ve written previously), I discovered a copy of Star Wars number 18, missing its cover.  This was the first issue of a major story arc in the early days of the series, the “Wheel” saga, named after a huge space station-bound casino that is the setting of the action.  I didn’t know that at the time (1982 or ’83, I would guess), and it would be a few years before I was able to read the “Wheel” arc in its entirety.  What captivated me was the idea that the characters I knew from the movies were having entirely separate adventures in these comics.  I tended to accept anything official-looking as gospel, so I had no trouble accepting the legitimacy of Marvel’s version (although Carmine Infantino’s square-jawed rendition of Luke Skywalker looked more like He-Man than Mark Hamill).


For the first time, I became a regular comic buyer, actively looking for new issues on the stands and seeking out back issues to fill in my collection.  Jumping into the series, there were many unfamiliar characters and references to previous adventures from the comics.  I had a lot of catching up to do.  I didn’t live anywhere near a dedicated comic book store, so I relied on trading with friends and mail order: the biggest comic book purchase of my childhood, in fact, was an order for all the Star Wars issues that were available from one of Mile High Comics’ summer sales. Mile High’s yellow two-page ads were once a common sight, and the summer sales were the best, unloading comics for 25 or 50 cents apiece.  It helped that, aside from the first few issues, Star Wars had never been terribly sought-after or valuable, and at most they were only a few years old.  The day the box arrived in the mail with forty issues or so—far from a complete run, but more than I had ever read at once and including many gems—I holed up in my room and immersed myself in “a galaxy far, far away.”  It would be the first of many long afternoons delving into another world through comics.

One of the things I liked about the comics, and which still holds up today, was the focus they were able to bring to individual characters.  Many issues were solo adventures, or featured groups of only two or three characters working together in ways that the epic scope of the films didn’t always have time for.  In the comics you could observe Princess Leia as a diplomat waging high-stakes games of cat-and-mouse with Darth Vader and the Empire (in “The Third Law”); Luke Skywalker’s role in the Rebellion’s space fleet could receive more attention; Han Solo, and later Lando Calrissian, could be shown in their element as smugglers, gamblers, and “scoundrels” (in flashback, of course).  In essence, the Star Wars universe could support stories of action-adventure, espionage, horror, romance, and even comedy, much as the Expanded Universe still does today.  It made sense: the movies were themselves indebted to many different genres, including the science fiction serials of the 1930s and ’40s; Westerns; World War II aerial dogfights; and the samurai films of Kurosawa.  It was only natural for the comic book adaptations to continue in that spirit and flesh out elements that could only be implied on film.  Not all of the stories worked, and not all of the original characters fit into the Star Wars aesthetic, but I still remember them fondly, from the “Wheel” saga to the the twisty, long-running story of Shira Brie, to the many, many attempts to rescue Han Solo.


After Return of the Jedi, the Marvel series continued without much apparent purpose, introducing its own villains (the Nagai) and tying up threads from the comics.  The writing was on the wall.  I was a faithful reader until the end, but I couldn’t disagree with the decision to cancel the series after 107 issues: it had become a shadow of its former self, and by that time I had gotten hooked on Marvel’s superhero offerings.

I didn’t spend much time reading the Dark Horse series–I guess I was still a Marvel kid at heart–but from what I could see the quality was good, and they made a lot of smart decisions.  Unlike the Marvel series’ focus on the main characters of the film trilogy (understandable, but ultimately limiting), Dark Horse was able to flesh out the Old Republic and other settings within the Star Wars universe.  They even obtained the rights to the Marvel run and released it in a handsome series of trade paperbacks, a fitting tribute to an imperfect but often richly entertaining saga, and a challenge to the assumption that everyone involved would rather forget it existed.  With the distance of time, new and old readers alike can approach these adaptations, see that there was more to it than green rabbits, and make up their own minds.

(Images from Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Wiki)