Andor: A Different Star Wars Story

The latest Star Wars TV show, Andor, just concluded its first season with the episode “Rix Road”, and on the whole the series left Star Wars fans divided. Some applauded how it took a different approach to Star Wars, which was more serious and grounded. Others dismissed the show because of its deliberately slow pace and lack of typical Star Wars action and tropes. Regardless, it is clear that Andor tells a different kind of a Star Wars story, which is an unusual risk for Lucasfilm and Disney, but the effort largely pays off.

Diego Luna reprises his role of the title character, Cassian Andor, who was introduced as a shady Rebel agent in the film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This series shows us his back story which takes place several years before the film, and  chronicles the events that turned him into a Rebel against the evil Galactic Empire.

Andor establishes immediately in the opening moments of the first episode “Kassa” that it is different from the typical Star Wars story by setting it in a brothel on a distant world. Andor visits the brothel in trying to search for his long-lost sister. Flashbacks in the early episodes show that Andor was part of a primitive tribe of humans on a backward planet and ran afoul of the Republic (the galactic government before the Empire) before being adopted by a visiting scavenger named Maarva (Fiona Shaw). This act of kindness separated him from his sister and his quest to find her as an adult gets him into trouble with local authorities. This in turn attracts the attention of the Empire, who has begun to tighten its grip on its subject worlds and systems.

Back on his adopted homeworld of Ferrix, Andor stays one step ahead of authorities. He is soon forced to flee Ferrix and work for a group of Rebels by taking on an off-world assignment to steal an imperial payroll on the planet Aldhani. Along the way, Andor meets many people who help change his outlook on life and see beyond his own selfish needs. At the same time, the audience sees through the people Andor interacts with, that life under the Empire is reaching a critical point as a legitimate opposition to the Empire rises.

These interactions between characters, many of whom never meet one another, are a true highlight for the show as is the acting from the many actors. Stellan Skarsgård gives a triumphant performance as Luthen, a morally compromised Rebel agent who recruits Andor and is all too willing to let others, including Andor, do his dirty work. In the best episode of the season, called “One Way Out”, Luthen gives a terrific speech about the choices we make and how they trap us. Andy Serkis appears in a few episodes as Kino, a floor manager in an imperial prison and supervises Andor, who was unjustly imprisoned there for hard labor. Andor encourages Kino to question their grim existence in the prison and to foment a prison break. The episode “One Way Out” where these two and other prisoners defy authorities and break out was one of the most thrilling and intense moments in Star Wars.

The series has about four story arcs that start off calmly and deliberately takes time to come to a conclusion. During the arcs, the series introduces fascinating characters, while developing other characters established earlier in the show. For instance, Andor follows a parallel journey of Syrill Karn (Kyle Soller), a low-level inspector who is obsessed with tracking down Andor. His actions do not endear him with the bureaucratic Empire, but he has a dogged determination to find his prey just like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables.

But a criticism about the show is that many sub plots and character arcs are introduced, but many of them are not concluded by the time of the final episode.

The many complaints from some Star Wars fans that Andor is too slow are a legitimate gripe. But the payoffs for the arcs are brilliant and intense, such as with “One Way Out”, “Rix Road” and “The Eye”. The tension was very gripping as Andor and his Rebel colleagues pulled off the heist on the depository in “The Eye” or when the prison break is about to happen. By the time the tension is broken by many action scenes, such as when Andor and Luthen escape Ferrix, or when Andor commandeers an imperial ship after the heist, well, these moments were so cathartic.  

It is true the show’s pace can be slow at times, but the pay off was well worth the patience it took to watch the episodes.

Perhaps the reason for the complaints about the show is that many times it does not feel like it takes place in the Star Wars universe and that is probably its greatest strength. None of the characters about the Force; for the most part we rarely see signs of the Empire in the early episodes; and the typical Star Wars blaster fights and space battles are rare.

Life in these worlds seems harsh and gritty as we see the Empire’s demoralizing effect on them. In fact, the pilot episode “Kassa” seemed like a cyberpunk show that took place in a seedy futuristic city. Occasionally, curse words are spoken, and it is quite clear during some scenes that characters had sex or relieved themselves. Characters deal with morally ambiguous situations, such as Mon Mothma’s (Genevieve O’Reilly) machinations to fund the growing rebellion in secret, or with Luthen allowing fellow Rebels to fall into imperial traps or being willing to kill Andor in order to protect the larger rebellion against the Empire.

So, yes, Andor is more mature and adult oriented than the typical Star Wars story. It and its showrunners like Tony Gilroy must be commended for going in a different direction. That is because by trying to be a different Star Wars story, Andor has proven that Star Wars can be a rich and complex universe.

DC Films’ Pending Comeback

It has become a bit of a running joke and a sore point for fans of DC Comics that the films based on the popular comic books have not been as well received as those from Marvel Studios.

For years, the films of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have had a mixed reaction from critics and fans. The result was a perceived lack of quality or consistency, which was quite frustrating as the potential for the films and various DC characters was squandered. Two examples are Superman and Batman. After their joint film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice turned out to be disappointing it seemed as if DC Comics’ owners Warner Bros. (now Warner Bros. Discovery) gave up on the two characters, especially Superman, and focused on DC films not set in the DCEU.

Then there were extensive behind-the-scenes production problems, the most recent and glaring were the issues behind The Flash and its star Ezra Miller. Other properites were announced then abandoned. These issues in turn gave the perception that properties from the DCEU were inferior or at the very least were inconsistent as the film universe lacked direction.

This will all change thanks to the hiring of James Gunn and Peter Safran who will take over the newly formed DC Studios. The duo promise to bring a creatve and consistent approach to the DC films, TV shows, animation and other media. While the non-DCEU films and TV shows will continue to be made, such as sequels to Joker and The Batman, the two film executives will have a firm hand on the DCEU films and TV shows. Needless to repeat to fans that the two are well known for their work in previous DCEU films such as Aquaman, Shazam!, The Suicide Squad, and Peacemaker.

Also worth mentioning is that Warner Bros. Discovery has had a change of heart when it comes to Superman. Henry Cavill who originated the role with the first DCEU film Man of Steel, has already reappeared in the DCEU with a cameo in Black Adam, and will star in a new solo Superman film.

Meanwhile, Ben Affleck, who played Batman in the early DCEU films is also slated to return and in fact will appear as the Caped Crusader in The Flash, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and future DCEU films.

After the release of next year’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, it is not clear what exactly lies ahead for DCEU films. At this point, all we can speculate on are reports of another Wonder Woman film being developed, as well as sequels to Black Adam and The Flash. But keep in mind that David Zaslav, the president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery has committed to developing a 10-year plan for the DCEU films. With the proven and talented guidance of James Gunn and Peter Safran, DC Studios will be quite successful with the effort.

It is an exciting time for DC fans, as the future holds a lot of promise for the DCEU. Now, if only we can get some kind of confirmation of a Green Lantern film…

She-Hulk Smashes Her TV Show

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law just completed its season at Disney + with a literal smashing finale that went all out with comedy, guest stars, and unexpected meta moments as She-Hulk destroyed the fourth wall in her TV show.

Tatiana Maslany starred as both Los Angeles-based lawyer Jennifer Walters and her alter ego, the sensational She-Hulk. In the pilot episode, Jennifer is involved in a car accident with her cousin Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and his gamma-infused blood is mixed with hers, which turns her into She-Hulk. Unlike Banner, Jennifer is able to maintain her personality when she transforms into She-Hulk, and is able to continue her career as an attorney, who now represents superhumans in court.

The Disney + show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is supposed to be the first comedy series for the MCU as numerous guest stars and new characters popped into the show. Many of them were obcure Marvel Comics characters, others were more notable MCU personalities like the Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) and Emil Blonsky/Abomination (Tim Roth) and most recently Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox). Many of these guests are welcome, though with his many appearances in recent MCU projects, Wong is starting to overstay his welcome. Meanwhile, with his charm, Cox practically stole the episode he first appeared in, which was one of the best in the series.

It was alarming that the Daredevil-centric episode was one of the best because it was the second-to-last episode. Many episodes felt flat and too cute, and worst of all, a couple were not funny, which is deadly for a comedy. There was a feeling throughout most of the series that it was playing things too safe and holding back its punches. A good example was when She-Hulk breaks the fourth wall during episodes. For anyone who does not understand, breaking the fourth wall is a narrative technique where a character in a story directly addresses the audience and steps outside of the story to do so. We’ve seen this done in the Deadpool films and comics, though She-Hulk did this first in John Byrne’s The Sensational She-Hulk Marvel Comics series to great effect.

In the TV show, the fourth-wall breaking was sparingly done to add some wry commentary to what was going on. While the comments were humorous the show did not run with this technique until the final episode, which happened to be its the best. During the third act, a frustrated She-Hulk has had enough with a predictable slugfest that made little sense and actually left the series, broke out of the Disney + menu and entered the real world looking for Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios. Antics like this often occured in the comic books and should have happened more often in the TV show. These antics were not the only hysterical moments, but the opening credits for the episde was a hilarious recreation of the 1970s TV show The Incredible Hulk, but with Jennifer Walters and She-Hulk acting out scenes originated by Bill Bixby and Lou Ferigno. Things like that should have happened more often in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, which turned out to be a very light-hearted legal dramedy. To be honest, if the show was not set in the MCU and was just a regular legal comedy, most of us would not bother to watch it.

Another thing that was deadly at times for She-Hulk: Attorney at Law were its special effects. It had its moments, but many times, the CG was quite dodgy and rushed. There were reports about how overstretched special effects companies were with MCU properties and this show is evidence of that. It’s a shame because MCU films and TV shows have great special effects. But here with this show, it had to convince us that this ultra tall, green woman actually existed, but on too many occasions the show failed to trick us. It might have been better if they use more conventional tricks like makeup and tall body doubles instead. Let’s hope Marvel Studios goes back and patches up the effects in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law because it is sorely needed.

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Werewolf By Night Harkens Back To Classic Horror Films

The latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Werewolf by Night, was just released on Disney + in time for the Halloween season. Werewolf by Night is actually a rarity these days, a television film and only about an hour, at that. More interesting is that like many projects in the MCU’s Phase Four, it is not the typical superhero slugfest. In fact, the film does not make any kind of overt connection to the larger MCU, but it ends up enriching the MCU with its solidly supernatural motif.

Filmed largely in black and white, the film follows Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), a so-called monster hunter, who arrives at a spooky manor and participates in a ceremonial hunt of a captured monster held in a maze in the manor’s grounds. The prize for finding the monster is a mystical stone called the Bloodstone that was once wielded by Ulysses Bloodstone, who died recently. During the hunt, Jack teams up with fellow monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the estranged daughter of Ulysses Bloodstone. Jack is only interested in finding the monster, while Elsa wants the Bloodstone. During the hunt the two must deal with rival monster hunters and Jack’s hidden secrets.

Werewolf by Night, is surprisingly fun and spooky. It clearly harkens back to the old Universal classic horror films from the ’40s featuring Dracula, the Wolfwman and other famous monsters. But the film also has a grindhouse, 1970s feel with its graphic violence (muted by the black and white photography), it is probably the most violent MCU offering to date and is appropriate for this kind of project.

The film’s atmosphere is perfect for the story it tells and has the right amount of jump scares and thrills. The film could have benefited from a slightly longer length to flesh out the story and characters, but supposedly there was extra footage that was deleted because they were too comical and Marvel Studios is smarting over recent criticism that their projects are too comical. It would be a joy to see a followup to Werewolf by Night, as there is so much about Jack Russell and Elsa Bloodstone that we viewers are not aware of and there is a lot of potential with the those two. Also, it would be interesting to see how they fit in with the larger MCU, and the same goes for the third standout character in the film, Man-Thing. In addition to the Werewolf, the hulking, moss-covered monstrosity is perfectly comics accurate and imposing. The effects used to bring the creature to life were very impressive, in fact, it was clear most of the film’s budget was held back to benefit Man-Thing’s appearances. If anything, a Man-Thing spinoff film or series must be made.

As for the title character, he was obviously a person wearing monster makeup, but it was a refreshing throwback to the CG that has taken over. More importantly despite the low-tech approach to how he is presented, the monstrous Werewolf was very terrifying with his savage and animalistic fights.

Director Michael Giacchino creates a moody and dark atmosphere filled with shadows and a sense of dread, which is what made the old Universal horror films so beloved. His directorial debut is quite impressive given that he is best known for his distinct film scores (by the way, he also scored this film and his work was brilliant as always). Given the way he was able to bring out the scares and deliver a solid horror film, he should be seriously considered to direct the Blade film, given that Marvel Studios is now scrambling to find a director for that project. Werewolf by Night demonstrates that Giacchino has the skills to give us a great vampire film.

Unlike some misfires in Phase Four of the MCU, Werewolf by Night is a textbook example of doing something different that engages the viewers and unveals spooky new corners of the growing MCU.

José Soto

Still Flying: Firefly 20 Years Later

“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty” – Mal Reynolds

The TV junkyard is littered with dozens if not hundreds of gems that are shows that were killed off too early by dim-witted TV executives. Everyone’s got a favorite show that they loved but apparently no one else did, hence the quick cancellation. Firefly is a prime example. But unlike many of these forgotten gems, Firefly continues to shine 20 years after its debut on television.

Created by Joss Whedon, the man behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and of course, the first two Avengers films, Firefly premiered in the 2002 fall schedule on Fox and was quickly canceled after only fourteen episodes were filmed (fifteen if you count the original pilot episode “Serenity” as a two-part show). In fact, not even all the episodes were aired. But the show found a new life after cancellation in the world of home media. Word of mouth quickly spread and a cult following not seen since Star Trek blossomed.

For the uninitiated the show is basically a science fiction western taking place in 2517, showcasing a group of renegades and smugglers who eke out an existence on board a Firefly-class space freighter called the Serenity. This is the back story; humanity has used up Earth’s resources sometime in the future. Eventually, people abandoned Earth, traveled to another solar system and terraformed dozens of planets and moons to make them habitable. Now the original terraformed planets are the Core Planets and have the latest in technology and resources and are considered the center of the universe or ‘verse as said in the show. The outer planets in the system are known as the Border Planets or Outer Planets and don’t have access to the latest technologies. The people living there are left to fend for themselves with basic tools. In these backwater worlds, the highest level of technology is on the level of the nineteenth century with horses being the common mode of transport. This is why the show has that dusty and rustic Western look.  Basically, the show is set in an interplanetary society of haves and have nots.

In the pilot’s opening scenes, viewers witnessed a brutal battle in the civil war between the Alliance (the main governing body of the Core Planets) and the Independents, which was comprised of the Outer Planets. The Alliance won the aforementioned Battle of Serenity Valley and the war. During that battle the show introduced one of the soldiers who fought for the Independents, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). According to interviews, Whedon stated that this was an allegory to the American Civil War with the main characters standing in for former Confederate soldiers.

Several years later and now a jaded cynic, Mal owns a beat-up freighter ship that he uses for smuggling operations. His crew is comprised of loyal first mate Zoë Alleyne (Gina Torres), another Independent war veteran; carefree pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), who is married to Zoë and loves Hawaiian shirts, dinosaur figures and his wife; Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), the whimsical ship’s mechanic and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) a greedy and not-too-bright muscle man. The rest of the cast are the passengers on board the ship for various reasons. Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) is a beautiful and cultured prostitute who rents a small shuttle on board and is attracted to Mal and vice versa. Their unrequited romantic tension was a major sub-plot. Reverend Book (Ron Glass) is a spiritual wanderer with a mysterious past with hinted ties to the Alliance. The final two passengers provided much of Firefly’s conflict; Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau), two sibling fugitives on the run. River was a gifted student who was forced to undergo deadly experiments by the Alliance and became a deadly psychic killing machine masked under the guise of a gentle and mildly mentally challenged teenage girl. Her brother Simon, a successful rich doctor, risked everything (including his wealth) to free her from the Alliance. In the pilot, Mal decided to allow them to remain on board, provided Simon took a job as the ship’s medic, and kept an eye on her. 

Throughout the series, they faced dangers in the form of cannibalistic savages called Reavers, other smugglers, criminals, the unscrupulous upper class and the Alliance itself. The stories were usually about capers and the mishaps they would get into. They were well written with witty dialogue that had an interesting touch; the characters would often speak Mandarin. Whedon surmised that in the future both western and American culture will blend with Asian cultures and great pains are taken to show this in the series. Signs and view screens show Asian and English script, while many crowd scenes had a multicultural ambiance with people wearing outfits influenced by various cultures.

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