There’s a fine line between creating something fans [of a genre or series of stories] like, and pandering to those fans. And for each fan’s enjoyment, “your mileage may vary”, of course…
1. Putting personal limits on geek culture
Geek culture being so large and varied, there’s some stuff people rave about which I just can’t get into. The likes of Doctor Who, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja (or Hero) Turtles isn’t for me; neither are certain juvenile books and shows which were produced when I wasn’t quite so juvenile any more (say Harry Potter, Pokemon and Power Rangers). I pick up the vague gist of what they’re about through cultural osmosis, and from what I learn I’m happy to keep ignoring them.
There’s some stuff I try to like, but then it escapes me after a bit. I enjoyed Iron Man, Captain America and Thor (all origin stories, but the variety helped a lot), but the way Marvel comic universe films started to tie together it became clear that I was expected to watch each and every single one to appreciate the full, gigantic tapestry they were hoping to weave. The trouble is, the more I watched, the less compelling I found it. I think it was somewhere around the second Avengers ensemble film (or maybe the second X-Men sort-of-prequel) that I decided I should stop. After Deadpool, I realised that they’d actually made a Marvel comic film for people who were getting a bit jaded with Marvel comic films. There was nowhere left to go after that (I was happy to ignore Doctor Strange).
I’ll probably stick with the Guardians Of The Galaxy series (and simply let any references to the bigger Marvel universe pass me by) because I’m a sucker for spaceships and laser beams. The style is still the same one-note, light-touch, glibness I’ve come to expect from Marvel films, but as far as I’m concerned it beats the dour DC Comics films (it took a conversation with a work colleague to help me tell the difference between Marvel and DC). When the protagonist is a man dressed as a bat who walks around after dark beating up clowns, the 1960s TV show worked better for me than the 21st century incarnations (whose sincerest fans seem to regard it as having the same level of profundity as The Seventh Seal).
2. Origin stories, prequels, sequels, and reboots
The early Marvel films I enjoyed were origin stories, and as I said I appreciated the variety of genres they brushed upon (even if the style was similar): techno-thriller, war adventure, fantasy.
Origin stories and sequels have had mixed results.
In geek literature, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was originally published in the 1950s and revisited in the 1980s. He ended by going into the life of the original protagonist Hari Seldon, who sets up the ‘Foundation’ organisation which safeguards science, knowledge and culture from the far-future galactic dark age. I didn’t mind it, since I started reading Asimov’s stories around the same time as he finished (he died in 1992), but I could see there was a huge gulf between the series of short stories in the 1950s which explained everything succinctly, and the later 1980s prequel novels which – if I’m brutally honest – aren’t necessary to enjoy the universe he’d created.
Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama work as stand-alone stories, and I can take or leave the sequels. Sometimes a novel establishes a world so well that sequels are inevitable. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea stories and Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic dystopias beginning with Oryx And Crake work well for me. (Despite Atwood’s assertions to the contrary, I’m happy to consider Oryx and Crake science fiction; I consider the genetically-synthesised critters to be ‘monsters’ which form one of her requirements for a science fiction story.)
On the other hand, Iain M Banks’ Culture novels all work as stand-alone stories, and it’s very rarely that they refer to any of the others. So, not every story needs an origin or prequel; nor are sequels guaranteed to work for every reader.
On TV in the 1980s, the A-Team summarised its origin story in the opening narration, which allowed each stand-alone episode to proceed without further ado. The 2010 film was essentially a reboot, with the same characters coming out of Gulf War II instead of Viet Nam. For me, it’s a guilty pleasure to watch, but I think the scriptwriters made a mistake to tell a new origin story; that’s something that could be accomplished before the opening credits roll. I felt like I’d been deprived of the A-Team doing ‘A-Team stuff’.
James Bond films never needed an origin story. A five-minute action sequence told any newcomer to the franchise what he was about before the theme song began. It was only in Casino Royale that the producers felt the need to flesh him out and frankly, I didn’t give a shit. Bond isn’t that deep, and treating him as such – stripping him of his sense of humour – only weakens the franchise for me.
Bond’s 1980s successor Indiana Jones worked along similar lines: a quick action scene to let you know what to expect, and then the story proper can begin. The Last Crusade delved a little into his origins, followed by a (juvenile) TV series in the 1990s which, as I recall, wasn’t bad by any means. Each film was completely different in style and tone so I didn’t mind the fact that Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was based on 1950s pulp science fiction. I got what it was about, and happy to see the ‘nuking the fridge’ moment in the same context as ‘jumping out of a plane in a life raft’ in Temple Of Doom; aliens and UFOs in the same vein as biblical artefacts or magic stones which can cure drought and famine. I was utterly baffled by the hostility it received.
Likewise, I couldn’t understand the hostility towards the 2016 Ghostbusters film. It was far superior to Ghostbusters II, and – for me – just as good in its own way as the original 1984 film (in certain regards – like giving its characters a distinct role – I’d say it surpasses the original).
So I’ve long been used to the fact that my opinions diverge from popular (or populist) opinion. There are some things which would appear to be incredibly popular, but I jut can’t get into them. And there are others which I enjoy, which get shouted down by hysterical, baying mobs.
3. Wars make one not great
When it comes to Star Wars, I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge that it’s juvenile entertainment and should be treated as such. In the vast cornucopia of geeky diversions, it’s the one I grew up with and enjoyed the most. As an adult, I never expected new films to be exactly like the old ones and I would have been disappointed if they were.
I’m one of the minority of my generation who’s happy to say I enjoyed the prequel trilogy. There’s no faulting the artistry or imagery; and I was happy to take them as juvenile political dramas instead of the broad, Jungian fairytales of the older trilogy. Sure, they’re not without their faults and George Lucas’ sense of whimsy can be an acquired taste, but the same criticisms apply to the 1977-1983 films once you drop the nostalgia.
I simply like the universe as a playground for storytellers. I think The Clone Wars animated film and TV show are far cleverer than most people might suspect. The follow-up Rebels series is more obviously juvenile and for all its derring-do, more of a guilty pleasure – it’s more concerned with short-form storytelling and doesn’t have the same depth. I like how it establishes the Star Wars rebellion by connecting disparate cells together, providing support and information when possible. It also shows how Imperial strategy shifts to deal with it – from local civilian governors to a more amped-up military response. (In turn producing moles and defectors who didn’t sign up for that sort of thing.)
Both shows also recapture something missing from the ‘Expanded Universe’ of games, comics and books. I get the impression that for many fans in the 1990s, Star Wars grew up as they did, with the Dark Horse comics attempting darker, grittier themes and storylines (unlike the more lighthearted stories produced by Marvel in the early 1980s). The trouble is, Star Wars has always been conceived of as something for children or “young people”. So when the older fans were presented with a more juvenile film in The Phantom Menace, they couldn’t accept it.
I tend to regard all the old Expanded Universe (‘Legends’) content as professional fan fiction, (even the better stuff) and much prefer the more organised and thoughtful approach currently taken by the Lucasfilm Story Group (certain ‘Legends’ material is being reincorporated into the new stories).
4. I’m a Rogue fan
More than anything in an era of cinematic reboots and sequels I appreciate originality. If I want depth or thoughtfulness, I can look instead to films like Trumbo or Spotlight (for example). But when it comes to popcorn-chomping entertainment, I need something original – an element woefully missing from The Force Awakens (for which I’ll lay the blame on director JJ Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan).
I didn’t like the ‘prequel-phobia’ that was apparent in the press and publicity for the film. I felt it spent far too much of its screentime pandering to ‘fans’. Too many callbacks; too many winks to the audience. Giving people what you think they want instead of daring to be different is creative cowardice.
I think it missed a number of chances to be interesting and add depth to the Star Wars universe, instead of skating on the surface of it. What if it opened in the ruins of the planet-city of Coruscant instead of another desert world? What if the good guys had the white-armoured troopers and big space ships and all the clout? What if Han Solo didn’t hijack the story?
I found Rogue One a far more satisfying experience. It took familiar things and remixed them in a new way (much like the original 1977 Star Wars). It took a perceived plot hole (an easily-destroyed space station) and managed to add some character motivation to it (the space station’s construction was sabotaged by a grieving man as revenge). It added more to concepts like ‘The Force’ (a holy city with holy people living in ruins of the past). It added variety to the good guys (politicians and spies and soldiers, oh my), so they’re not all morally perfect. It managed to portray the bad guys as suffering from office politics (the antagonist is having a very bad day at work).
Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One score worked better for me than John Williams’ Force Awakens. While Williams’ last score might have been more technically accomplished, it didn’t feel much like Star Wars to me- whereas Giacchino’s did (even without the sly hints and callbacks to earlier themes); the Rogue One soundtrack fits in very nicely between the opulent prequel music and the Korngold-inspired adventure themes of the original film.
All well and good so far, but it also managed to include fannish nods to the prequels, Clone Wars and Rebels that didn’t detract from the film. They’re there to be noticed, but if you don’t it doesn’t matter. The fact that Forest Whitaker’s character appeared in animated form doesn’t matter in the film; the only history that matters is entirely on-screen. Similarly, the rebel fleet includes ships from the Rebels show. But it’s not like a big thing is made out of this; they’re just background decoration.
The computer-generated versions of the late Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher don’t look so jarring on repeat viewings. I simply took it as the latest step of resurrecting dead actors that’s been done to various effects and degrees from Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, to Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, to Paul Walker in Fast And Furious 7.
As much as I like spotting callbacks to other films and shows, the new films being made have to work just as well without them (unlike, say, the Marvel films). There was only one moment that smacked of fannishness (the heroes literally bump into two incidental characters from Luke Skywalker’s visit to the cantina) and the camera lingers a little too long – for a fleeting moment, the Star Wars universe feels smaller than it should.
Rogue One has turned out to be rather popular and it’s hard to find bad words about it. But having found myself holding a minority opinion before (on probably far too many things), I can respect those who say they just couldn’t get into it.
It’s perhaps an unfortunate aspect of modern social media that many people squirrel themselves away in little bubbles of opinion and can’t tolerate divergent views (as I found after reviewing The Force Awakens). Mind you, the first time I encountered this was in summer 1999 when I was punched in the face by someone I’d met less than an hour previously, after I said why The Phantom Menace was definitely a Star Wars film. (He apologised when I went all silent and starey and angryface.)
Things like that kinda colour my view of ‘fans’. Some fans feel entitled to a film that reflects whatever ideas they have in their heads. Other fans are happy to enjoy what they’re presented with (critically or not).
I’m uncomfortable being in a mob. I’d rather hang out with other rogue fans instead.