Andrew Bloom created The Andrew Blog in 2010 as a central location for all of his writing from across the web. Since that time, the site has grown more and more notable as a source for thoughtful takes on everything from film, television, and music, to sports, humor, and current events.
Solo has the scruffy confidence to be its own film. Of the ten Star Wars movies released so far, it’s the only one that doesn’t directly tie into the events of the main saga. That alone makes it interesting and laudable as the first real silver screen step of Star Wars ceasing to be a series and starting to be a “cinematic universe.”
Which isn’t to say that Solo is disconnected from its predecessors. The film reveals how Han and Chewbacca first became a duo. It features the first meeting of the title character and Lando Calrissian. It even shows how Han ended up with the Millennium Falcon. And that’s setting aside references to a “gangster on Tatooine,” hints of a growing rebellion, and familiar characters popping up in unexpected places. Make no mistake — Solo is undoubtedly interested in reminding its viewers where all these characters will end up in ten years’ time.
But it’s also good enough not to be about that. Solo is part-heist flick and part coming-of-age tale. It’s more interested in Han’s big adventure in this film and how he comes to be the sarcastic smuggler we meet in A New Hope than it is in how he fits into the broader Star Wars Universe, and that’s to the movie’s benefit.
The promise of these “Star Wars Stories” is that they can use the diverse, elaborate world that George Lucas and his collaborators crafted as a sandbox to spin all kinds of entertaining yarns, while not tethered to the concerns and machinations of the Skywalker family. Solo still anchors its story on familiar faces, but tells its own tale, and comes out the better for it.
Please, nobody tell Anakin that I mentioned sand.
The big problem with Solo, then, is that it has two modes: (a.) irreverent action/adventure flick filled with colorful characters and (b.) semi-serious interrogation of Who And What Han Solo Is™, and it’s much more entertaining and effective at the former than the latter.
The script, penned by Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, does a superb job at introducing the central figures, both new and old, and letting them bounce off one another in the confines of a rickety old ship and a mission that takes them to various rough-and-tumble locales. But Solo often falters when trying to use that setup to explore its title character’s true nature.
The film’s thesis on that front is a solid one — that Han is unavoidably rough around the edges and wants to be “bad,” but that deep down he’s good. That is, after all, his essential arc in the Original Trilogy, where a seemingly good-for-nothing smuggler is revealed to have a heart of gold and harbors sympathies for the cause of the Rebellion, or at least his friends.
Solo retraces that arc a bit, and weakens Han’s progression in the original films a little because of that. But the Kasdans get Han: the talk that’s bigger than his pay dirt, the cocksure improvisational confidence, and the innate goodness that peaks through his rough-hewn if charming exterior. The film just does a much better job of showing us those qualities through Han’s actions and his attitude than in having various other characters ham-fistedly comment on them and wax rhapsodic about who he’s been in the past and who he might become in the future.
"Now it's important to remember, Han, that as the protagonist in an origin film, people will try to give you life lessons and meaningful warnings at every opportunity."
The best parts of that effort work largely thanks to Alden Ehrenreich, who takes over the role originated by Harrison Ford in 1977’s A New Hope. Following in those iconic footsteps is a tall order, but Ehrenreich makes it work. He doesn’t stoop to doing an impression of Ford (short of a few conspicuous mannerisms), but still manages to capture the character’s rakish charm and overconfident, anything goes spirit. Yes, it’s a little hard to grok that this kid becomes 1970s-era Harrison Ford in ten years, but Ehrenreich absolutely works as Young Han, and the movie built around him wouldn’t work without that.
The other characters that populate the film are a bit more hit or miss, but still prove largely fun and entertaining. Woody Harrelson’s turn as reluctant mentor Tobias Beckett sees him filling the same, weathered good ol’ boy niche he’s long since scratched out for himself. Emilia Clarke does fine as Qi’Ra, a femme fatale who manages to be a little bit more than just Han’s love interest, but only a little. Donald Glover’s charisma carries the day as he inhabits Young Lando Calrissian, but occasionally his performance comes across like Glover doing his best impersonation of Billy Dee Williams in Empire rather than inhabiting a fully-formed character (though his chemistry with Ehrenreich mostly spackles over that).
And there’s plenty of other enjoyable, if seemingly disposable side characters, like Paul Bettany’s genteel but menacing villain, Dryden Vos, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a delightfully irrepressible droid revolutionary named L3-37. Even relative newcomer Joonas Suotamo brings a dose of character beyond the fur to Chewbacca, alongside Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt’s traditional Wookiee groans and growls.
When Solo deploys these characters well, it’s one hell of an amusing, action-filled romp. Seeing Han’s Oliver Twist-esque origins blossom into his up-and-down efforts to live on the fringes of both the law and the galaxy are thrilling and fun. The film transports the viewer to new, scrappier corners of the galaxy, packing the frame with wild new creatures and settings that help make Star Wars feel big and diverse once more.
"L3-37 is a free elf!"
And the bones of the film are solid. Han’s goals and wants are clear; his compatriots are well-if-quickly sketched, and the set pieces are nicely chaotic and spontaneous, as befits the way any plan involving Han Solo should shake out. The pacing is off here and there, and certain action sequences extend to the point of exhaustion (likely a casualty of the handoff between the 86’d boundary-pushing team of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller and steady hand Ron Howard). But the core mode of the film — where a band of well-traveled and wannabe outlaws does a job with various pitfalls and smart remarks — works like gangbusters.
Then, the final act hits, and the film stops being fun and starts being serious. There’s double-crosses on double-crosses, heavily sign-posted character-defining choices, and cliché, ponderous statements about who Han is supposed to be or shouldn’t be or might have been that one time we’re not really sure.
Solo, like its protagonist, has its heart in the right place in this regard. It’s laudable to try to turn this adventure into something revealing about one of the franchise’s biggest characters and not just an empty-calorie escapade. But the film can’t support the weight of that introspection (not to mention all of its clunky extrospection) and becomes bogged down when trying to unravel both its less-compelling plot threads and its character study in one big, convoluted finale.
But one thing is for sure. This movie is not about the Skywalkers. And despite an eyebrow-raising tease, it is not about the broader Star Wars Universe. It’s about Han Solo, and is, for the first time, a genuinely independent Star Wars story. For most of its run time, Solo is a standalone (if franchise-winking) adventure from the days when Han was still cutting his teeth as a smuggler and an outlaw. The film has its problems when it departs from that mode, but still shows the benefits, and the fun, of Star Wars movies that follow the lead of Solo himself, and aim to go it alone.
CAUTION: This Review Contains Major Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Throw away the past. The rap on 2015’s The Force Awakens, the film that revived Star Wars for a new generation, was that it was too derivative, too indebted to A New Hope, too bound to the blueprint that had launched the series. There was a sense that in its second outing, this new incarnation of Star Wars needed to break new ground, that having established this new setting, these new characters, and its new conflicts and mysteries, it was time to break from what had come before.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the The Last Jedi’s main characters share that sentiment. Kylo Ren states it explicitly. He pushes Rey to do the same while she labors under the emotional weight of mysterious parentage. And Luke Skywalker himself, the Jedi Master who won the day in those touchstone films that forever emblazoned Star Wars into the annals of our culture, has written off his own past triumphs, and with them, the Jedi as a whole, as a legacy of failure that needs to simply end.
But it cannot and should not. Where The Force Awakens (enjoyably) presented new heroes reliving the past, The Last Jedi features them remaking it. It’s a film devoted to embracing the power of that legacy, the good and the bad, without being beholden to it. Episode VIII is of a piece with its forebears, but also, in its own distinctive way, so full of life, character, feeling, and awe.
In that vein, the fear among the fandom was that, as the second installment in the new trilogy, The Last Jedi would be little more than a mirror image of The Empire Strikes Back. There’s certainly homages to Episode V in this latest installment. Like its forebear, The Last Jedi splits up its heroes, leaving one of them in training with an old Jedi master on a distant planet, while the rest are on the run from the bad guys, until they’re all reunited in a Millennium Falcon-fueled escape and rescue. There’s offers to rule the galaxy, and reveals of who the protagonist’s true parents are, and a less-than-savory character who seems like a friend only to sell the good guys out.
"This deal is getting better all the time...well, for me anyway."
But The Last Jedi echoes the Original Trilogy as a whole in moving, thought-provoking ways. The film meditates (nigh-literally) on the most iconic image of the original Star Wars film — Luke gazing off at the horizon in search of adventure. It features the light side hero being lured into the throne room of the Big Bad in the hopes of redeeming the evildoer with the twinge of a conscience remaining, just like Return of the Jedi. From blue milk, to adorable forest-dwelling creatures, to wizened masters passing into their next lives while leaving their robes behind, The Last Jedi is not so much reinterpreting The Empire Strikes Back as it is ruminating on all of Star Wars at once.
And yet this movie is so much more than just a recapitulation of the films that set the standard for this series. It’s a celebration of them, a reflection on them, and an elaboration on them, that advances and subverts the ideas and themes they established as much as it reintroduces them.
It takes the trigger-happy flyboy, the Han Solo-esque rogue who, true to that lineage, shoots first and asks questions later, and tempers him with the knowledge that calm leadership is not cowardice and discretion can be the better part of valor. It takes the Big Bad of the new trilogy, the mysterious power behind the frontline villain who can shoot lightning and bark evil monologues, and kills him off suddenly halfway through the film rather than making him the final obstacle to be overcome.
And it takes the biggest mystery of this new trilogy — the question of who Rey’s parents are — that so many diehards and casual fans alike have been buzzing over, and delivers an inspired subversion rather than some easy fanservice. Rather than revealing that Rey is Luke’s long lost daughter or the Emperor’s scion or Kylo Ren’s forgotten twin, she is instead the product of a couple of nobodies who sold her for drinking money. That revelation is presented as a truth that deep down she always knew, but couldn’t accept. Because, like the audience, Rey assumed that in order to be a hero, in order to live a life that matters, you must come from somewhere, from someone.
But that is, despite the Skywalker-mad familial connections of everything that followed A New Hope, an idea antithetical to the very beginnings of Star Wars. Before George Lucas and his collaborators decided that Luke was the son of Darth Vader, he was simply the offspring of some other guy named Anakin Skywalker. Rather than the seed of legendary Jedi warrior, Luke was a nondescript moisture farmer on a backwater planet who was the last guy you’d expect to take down the Empire’s greatest weapon.
That’s part of what made his journey so powerful. He wasn’t The Chosen One in A New Hope. He was just a kid with unrealized potential who, with the right guidance and the right opportunity, had the gumption and resolve to save the day. The Last Jedi returns its chosen one to those roots, to providence shining down on the common and blue-blooded alike, and the idea that the savior of the galaxy can come from nothing.
It’s a reversion anchored by the way that same character from A New Hope is now dead set on rejecting his own longstanding anointment. Mark Hamill is a revelation in his reprisal of Luke Skywalker. Gone is the naive farm boy who whined about picking up power converters, and just as absent is the seasoned master who saved the world and redeemed his mortal enemy. In their place is haunted cynic, convinced that he’s caused as many problems as he’s ever solved, who’s shut himself off from The Force. There’s a caustic quality to Luke here, one that makes him gruff and dismissive of Rey, fatalistic about the Jedi, and unquestionably angry at himself.
Where there was a cornbread innocence to the Luke we met on Tatooine, The Last Jedi introduces his echo — a man who looks upon his accomplishments, the ones that have ascended into legend, as false fables of failure. And he thinks of the current blight sweeping the galaxy as the product of his own hubris and mistakes that he cannot elide or escape. He no longer sees a battle between the light and the dark, and instead sees a continuum between the two: the yin-yang like symbols that permeate his surroundings and the film as a whole, the balance that leads light to breed darkness and darkness to breed light.
Luke really ran away to escape the library's overdue book fees.
That sense of balance is at the heart of The Last Jedi. It comes between Rey and Kylo Ren, who feel a force-forged connection that lets each see the other as something beyond monolithic figures who stand against one another. It comes in Leia, who tries to find the equilibrium between striking the blows necessary to stay in the fight and not losing too many souls in the process. And it comes in DJ, the Lando-like figure who rejects the good guy/bad guy dichotomy and sees the current struggle between The Resistance and The First Order as merely the usual changing of the tides that he’s unwilling to be swept up in.
It’s there that The Last Jedi feels the most reflective, even political, in ways deeper than the four-color civics parable told by The Prequels. It asks who benefits from these conflicts, who profits from them, and whether the answer to the question of who’s on the right side and who’s on the wrong side can be so clear cut when Republics beget Empires, conquerors beget resistance fighters, and slaughterers beget saviors who beget yet more slaughterers. For all of the mythic good vs. evil that’s so much in the bones of Star Wars, this film steps back and dares to consider that conflict, that never ending cycle, as part of some larger, indifferent system rather than an epic journey toward salvation.
It also restores a sense of utter awe to the franchise. Writer-director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin create a host of thrilling, jaw-dropping sequences that rarely lose a sense of continuity. Instead, they allow even the more action-heavy sequence to progress organically and tell a story rather than simply providing raw but empty splendor. When Leia glides through space to return to her ship, or Rey and Kylo Ren fight hand-to-hand with the Red Guard (who actually get to do something for once), or the sound drops to underscore the magnitude of Admiral Holdo’s desperate sacrifice, or our heroes and villains meet in crimson-dusted splendor in the final frame, Johnson and Yeldin find new achievements in big spectacle filmmaking to match the thematic and emotional resonance of the rest of their film.
But that spectacle never detracts from the pure feeling injected into the movie. Episode VIII is not merely a political tract. It’s not a heap of pretty-but-hollow action. It’s not even a mere deconstruction and reconstruction of the films from whence it sprung. It’s a story populated by characters who care and hurt and feel.
"Time to practice for my ventriloquism lessons."
There is power in the moment when Rey and Kylo Ren’s hands touch across light years, not just as the meeting of lightness and the dark, but as a human connection between two struggling individuals on either side of the same crisis of self. There is meaning when Rose jams Finn out of the path of his suicide mission, not just for the thrill of the moment, but for Finn’s nobility in trying to do the opposite of running away, and for Rose’s reasons for saving him. And when Luke kisses Leia on the top of her head, it’s not just imbued with the impact of an on-screen goodbye that must stand-in for an off-screen one; it’s imbued with the poignancy of a film that builds the place they occupy in one another’s lives long before they’re face-to-face for the final time.
Because in a way, they both have to move on. Luke has to let go of his failures, cast off his guilt, to do as the (once again delightfully-impish) Yoda suggests, and let his pupils outgrow him. Leia has to watch more and more of her old allies fall in the name of the ideals they believe in. Rey has to move past her belief that her family is waiting for her, and embrace the new family who’s sustained her to this point. And even as he seeks the means to rule the galaxy, Ben Solo cannot let go of the masters who’ve failed him, of the feelings that rage inside him, and of the parents whom he cannot help but need, no matter how much he may want to.
But moving on doesn’t have to mean throwing things away. It can mean giving something back. It can mean sacrificing yourself, ending something, so that something else can be born anew in its place. It can mean preserving the tiniest spark of rebellion, the brave men and women (and cantankerous droids) with the power to start a conflagration to spread across the galaxy. It can mean doing great deeds, that may be bent and twisted and have consequences you never imagined five steps down the line, but may also inspire the next nobody on a nothing planet to gaze up at the sky and wonder what adventure may lie there.
The soon-to-be star of Star Wars Episode XVII.
The Last Jedi moves on from its predecessors without discarding them, and moves forward while leaving plenty of room for its successors, both immediate and imaginative. It moves on from the George Lucas originals, and even from its J.J. Abrams-helmed precursor. But it embraces the spirit of these works, and aims to recreate those feelings, that core, that sense of wonder, for a new generation.
In that, Star Wars itself is like The Force as Luke describes it. It does not belong to Lucas or Abrams or Johnson or even our continually-expanding overlords at The Disney Corporation. It belongs to all of them and none of them, and also to us. Like the Rebellion, Star Wars is as much an idea as it is a franchise. And just as Lucas himself reimagined the ideas of Kurosawa films and Flash Gordon serials, Johnson posits himself as doing the same, and instilling the hope that one day, kids will look to these bits of awe and wonder and be moved to look out past the horizon and tell their own stories just as he was.
So don’t throw away the past. Remember it. Embrace it. It informs what we do and who we are and who we will one day become. But don’t be bound by it. Be inspired by it. As cheesy as that sounds, The Last Jedi makes good on all the inspiration that thirty years of Star Wars has provided, while finding new and exciting places to take the franchise forward. And just as Luke, Leia, Rey, Ben, and the rest of the conflicted figures who populate the film do, Johnson reaches out in the hopes of not just vindicating that legacy, but extending it to whatever, and whoever comes next, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Caution: This article contains major spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
One of the best things about storytelling is that it offers a chance to walk in another person’s shoes, to step outside of oneself and have experiences that are not possible in most people’s day-to-day lives. But films, television shows, and novels also offer fantasy; they offer escapism and the chance to live out an existence, in two-hour chunks, that is wilder and more fantastical than our own. Some of our culture’s most prominent stories present a particular, alluring version of that idea — the fantasy of the ordinary person discovering that they are, in fact, more special than they ever could have known.
When Luke Skywalker gazes out at the twin suns of Tatooine, the sight evokes his longing for adventure, the unshakable feeling that the universe has more in store for him than just the inner workings of a moisture farm. When we meet Harry Potter living under the thumb of the Dursleys, it’s to establish the lowliness of his position, the improbability that the boy who lives under the stairs could, in reality, be the chosen one. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 presents its own orphan protagonist in Peter Quill who, after a lifetime of hoping and wondering, discovers that he too is more powerful and unique than he had ever imagined.
So much of Guardians of the Galaxy’s story is achingly standard issue. This isn’t the first film to feature a collection of rogues and nobodies reluctantly coming together to save the world, and it won’t be the last. The tale of the dissolute young man who eventually learns to fight for something greater than himself is a well-worn one, and the motley crew of suspicious characters slowly becoming a family is a well-known cliché. In other words, when Guardians came out in 2014, it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.
And yet, it is a film full of such charm, such character, such inventiveness in ways beyond its story, that it becomes incredibly easy forgive the ways in which it obediently marches through the usual blockbuster narrative progression. The audience will tolerate, and even enjoy, all the hoary tropes in the universe if you can couch them in a world, an attitude, and a cast of characters worth spending time with.
To that end, director/co-writer James Gunn is content to make a film that doesn’t take itself, or these galaxy-spanning adventures, too seriously, much to the film’s benefit. That begins with movie’s much-ballyhooed soundtrack. While Guardians still employs some of the usual orchestral swell required for a studio tentpole film, it scores much of the proceedings to the dulcet tones of the sixties and seventies’ greatest hits. Gunn and composer Tyler Bates flip nicely between the piped-in tones of those classics and diegetic music emanating from Peter Quill’s walkman, one of the film’s holy artifacts.
Scoring action scenes to the likes of “Come and Get Your Love” or the trailerrific sounds of “Hooked on a Feeling” serves two purposes. First, it immediately gives Guardians a sonic identity distinct from its Marvel brethren, and it’s an appropriately goofy one. A grim, intergalactic prison typically prompts ominous chords and foreboding musical stings. Instead, Gunn and Bates deploy “The Piña Colada Song,” and it’s immediately clear that the film is as interested in riffing on the standard points of the reluctant rogue-turned-hero story as it is playing them straight.
"Look, I'm keeping it. The headphones bring out my eyes."
Second, it roots Star-Lord’s adolescent attitude in a particular time and place, one tied to a lingering pain and connection to his mother. The film underlines this a little heavily in places, but there’s still a nice subtext that part of Peter Quill’s immature bent stems from the fact that he lost someone close to him and had his world turned upside down at a young age. There are notions of arrested development and a veneration of a particular time in his life when things were happy and normal, that manifest themselves in the form his prized piece of eighties paraphernalia and the music that comes from it.
That also syncs up with the film’s other big theme — family. It’s here that Guardians is at its most heavy-handed, with images of Peter’s dying mother spliced in with those of the outstretched arms of his new comrades, followed closely by an appearance from his surrogate dad. Still, the film does a nice job of giving each of the Guardians a hole in their lives where family is supposed to go that makes each of them resistant but ultimately welcoming of the kinship that inevitably develops among them.
In addition to Peter’s complicated parental issues, there’s Gamora, whose awful adoptive father (Thanos, naturally) killed her real parents and taught her nothing but rivalry and brutality. There’s Drax, who lost his wife and daughter to antagonist du jour Ronan the Accuser and has vowed to avenge them. And then there’s Rocket and Groot, a pair of science experiments who, for Rocket at least, carry the traumas of having had a would-be parent tear him apart and stitch him back together. Each is understably still a bit adrift and reeling from these events by the time their paths cross.
Guardians, then, dutifully moves through the usual story beats involved in misfits coming together and creating a found family. The film provides plausible enough reasons why this self-interested pack of rogues would join forces, with each having a goal that requires the help of the others, despite some gritted teeth. The film glosses over some of the actual bonding, but offers enough of a “They hate each other”/”Hold on, they’re starting to like each other”/”No, they’re back to hating each other”/”No wait, they’ll risk their lives for one another!” progression to keep the viewer invested in the group’s collective journey.
And the field goal is good!
And of course, when the time is right, they do come together. They find their conscience in the face of a shouty evil zealot (Lee Pace, playing another declarative bruiser in a long line of generic, monologuing baddies) and his threats to use a doomsday weapon to kill millions of people. They make amends with the lawmen, strap into their spaceships, and dive into the explosive, third act brawl-for-all that is legally mandated for any and all superhero films.
But what sets Guardians apart in the midst of all this standard mythmaking and storytelling is that every time the film hits one of these stock beats and threatens to get overly dramatic or cheesy, it undercuts the moment with some well-placed humor. Each dramatic speech is followed by a silly line to liven the moment. Each major reveal is accompanied by a pratfall (no pun intended) to take the edge off. Every hokey exchange is followed by one of the film’s characters rolling their eyes before the audience gets the chance to. Humor quickly proves to be the trademark of this budding corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the way Guardians employs it to keep the audience laughing anytime that it might otherwise be sighing is the film’s not-so-secret weapon.
The film also benefits from the complete and utter charm of the Guardians themselves. Chris Pratt’s puppy dog-turned-human qualities are familiar to anyone who enjoys the superlative Parks and Recreation. Zoe Saldana brings resolve but pathos to Gamora in her third sci-fi blockbuster franchise. Dave Bautista offers a near-perfect dry comic wit as the uber-literal Drax, a surprise even to those lapsed pro wrestling fans who witnessed his heydey in the ring. And all joking aside, Bradley Cooper really is the hidden gem of the movie as Rocket Raccoon. He nails Rocket’s sarcastic comments and perpetually belligerent nature, while also capturing the tragic and anguished dimensions of the character.
Then, of course, there is Groot, who represents many of the best things about this movie. For one, the character is quietly (or tri-syllabically) the performative equal of his co-stars despite his vocal limitations. Vin Diesel may be in his seventh go-round of implausibly smashing cars together, but he has experience from his early role in The Iron Giant at taking grunts, groans, and halted speech patterns and turning them into the expressions of an endearing character, a talent on full display in Guardians.
Hang in there, buddy. You're about to be usurped via cuteness.
But Groot also represents the film’s visual acuity. The way the plant creature expands and contracts, unleashes unexpected beauty in the form of bioluminescent flowers, or offers a expectant, exuberant expression after whomping an entire room full of bad guys, shows how Guardians uses the tools in its aesthetic toolbox to convey character, not just thrills. It is a visually engaging movie, one where the robin’s egg blue of Yondu or the preternaturally clean yet colorful surroundings of the Nova Corps. make for a film that is as distinct in its palette and iconography as it is in its lightly-juvenile vibe.
That also contributes to the sense of place in the film. From the multicolored denizens of Xandar, to the hive of scum and villainy in the cranial confines of Knowhere, to the unique collection of miscreants among the Ravagers, almost from the word go, Guardians gives the viewer a sense of the ecosystem they’re stepping into. It’s a setting that stands apart from the rest of the M.C.U., offering a place where the Groots of the world are as unremarkable to the rest of the population as they are unusual.
But it’s also a place where the individuals within those somewhat conveniently found families will make sacrifices for one another. For all the triteness of Guardians’s themes, it nails the big moments when it really needs to, particularly in the third act where many bits set up earlier in the film pay off. From the group reluctantly resolving to fight Ronan, to Groot’s game-changing vocal variation and the gesture that follows, to the big, inevitable confrontation with the movie’s villain, Gunn finds a way to move the story along, but do so in a way that’s true to the rough-around-the-edges characters he’s crafted for the screen.
And if all of that should devolve into a dance contest that warrants genuine befuddlement in the midst of globe-threatening annihilation? All the better! That is the shine of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that is content to tell a familiar story, but which adds such endearing texture, presents such charming characters, and freely belies the self-seriousness of its genre, that one cannot help but enjoy the star-blazing ride of it all.
Adam Gopnik recently wrote about “Lessons for the Supreme Court from the Jedi Council.” In that article, he puts forward the idea that just as the denizens of the Star Wars universe “seem to have an undue cultural investment in the wisdom of the Jedi Council, even in the face of its ineptitude,” so to do Americans unduly venerate a Supreme Court whose inner workings appear “more like the manufacture of after-the-fact rationales designed to give the appearance of footnoted legalism to what are, in truth, the same ideological passions that have the rest of the country in their grip.” Gopnik disclaims the concept of textual interpretation, maintaining that our nation’s highest judicial body resembles its intergalactic counterpart in how it “seems to be functioning on guesswork and mutual hypnosis more than actual expertise.” Accordingly, he concludes that neither the Jedi Council nor the Supreme Court should be afforded nearly so much deference or respect.
The question becomes whether these two august bodies are enough alike to justify such a comparison or conclusion. There are certainly similarities between the two. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council decides, after much deliberation, that Anakin Skywalker should not be trained in the ways of The Force. But Qui Gon Jin (and later Obi Wan Kenobi in his stead) defy that order and decide to teach the boy anyway. In the real world, after the Supreme Court held that same-sex marriage was a right under the Constitution, Texas’s Attorney General soon thereafter announced that despite that decision, under his interpretation Texas officials did not have to abide by the ruling. In both the Star Wars universe and our own, prominent officials have taken Gopnik’s advice to heart and feel free to ignore the high court’s decisions.
What’s more, much of the Star Wars prequels’ production took place during the George W. Bush administration, which led to some inevitable parallels between political climates of the Republic and the United States at the time. The Jedi Council’s concerns about then-Chancellor Palpatine invoking various emergency powers during a time of war cannot help but feel like a commentary on the legal challenges the Bush Administration faced when invoking the theory of the unitary executive in its use of executive orders and similar measures. While, as a general matter, the Star Wars films are only loosely political at best, the prequels do feel as though they were intended to comment on current events in some small way.
But there’s another, broader way in which the Jedi Council and The Supreme Court resemble one another — they’re both surprisingly unified bodies. Though Yoda and a couple of select cronies seem to be effectively running The Jedi Council on their own, on the few occasions we see the whole council deliberating, there’s rarely much dissension in the ranks. For the most part, despite scattered agitators like Qui Gon Jin and Anakin Skywalker, this association of Jedi Masters speaks with a single voice.
"Could you maybe sing us a few bars of 'The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow?'"
While the Supreme Court is not quite so perfectly aligned, over the last two decades, the number of unanimous decisions from the Court has far outstripped the number of 5-4 decisions. To that point, a 2014 New York Times analysis found that even Justice Scalia–the jurist whom Gopnik paints as a symbol of a hopeless ideological divide–voted with liberal Justice Kagan 74% of the time. Even Justices Thomas and Ginsburg–the two members of the court whom the Times’s analysis found disagreed the most–still voted the same way two-thirds of the time.
That’s not to say The Supreme Court is one big happy Wookiee family. There are deeper analytical dives that suggest not all unanimous decisions are created equal and that the Court could still be considered divided despite these statistics, particularly on more ideologically charged cases. But the Court is not, as Gopnik assumes, comprised of the legal equivalent of the Jedi and the Sith — a pair of warring camps who can never reach consensus. It’s a group of people who are in agreement as much more often than they are at odds.
Upon some reflection, Gopnik might alter his comparison further. He could compare the Supreme Court not to the Jedi Council, but to man who invented it — George Lucas. Gopnik’s skeptical account of the justices seems to align with many (but not all) fans’ opinions about the father of Star Wars himself. The general consensus paints Lucas as a man who bent and twisted venerated ideas out of shape, in service of a product riddled with poorly-justified breaks from the past and gaps in logic, with no regard for whether the results worked or fit with what had come before. It’s not hard to imagine critics of the Court on both sides of the aisle viewing recent high-profile decisions in the same light.
That said, Gopnik isn’t wrong to point out that despite that, many Americans view the Supreme Court Justices as akin to Jedi–individuals who possess recondite knowledge and impressive abilities that lift them above us mere mortals. And he’s right to note that while each of the Justices is fiercely intelligent and accomplished, they are also still human beings and thus just as susceptible to ideological biases and other external influences as we less-adept rabble.
"Alright, keep the grumps on the ends."
Regardless, there’s little reason to ascribe to them either the best or worst qualities of their galaxy-hopping counterparts. No, the Supreme Court Justices are not sitting in some Jedi temple, divining the undisputed truths of the universe. They are, instead, accomplished scholars attempting to discern the right answer to incredibly complex, often politically-charged questions as best they can, with the admitted failings of their human faculties still in play.
Whatever the ideological divide on the Court, and whatever Gopnik thinks of Scalia’s judicial philosophy, the late Justice believed in the merits of this process. He even recommended Justice Kagan, a legal thinker whose views differed sharply from his own, when an opening on the Court emerged. As David Axelrod put it, Scalia told the Obama administration that even if he “could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.”
That is, perhaps, a better lesson Court-watchers can take from the galaxy far far away. George Lucas spends a great deal of time and effort in the Star Wars prequels focusing on the prophecy of a chosen one who will bring balance to the force. Over the course of those films, that “balance” takes a rather deadly turn. But other works set in the Star Wars universe have examined the concept of balance in more creative ways, eventually positing a middle ground as the best approach to the The Force. Perhaps that same philosophy can help make the Supreme Court more seem more comprehensible and worthy of our admiration.
It’s easy to divide the world into binary states of good and evil: the light side vs. the dark side, good guys vs. bad guys, high-minded interpretation vs. mudslinging partisan politics. But our world, and our courts, are more complicated than that. From Lincoln’s team of rivals to the checks and balances that persist in the American form of government, our system is founded on the notion that people with different ideas and opposing viewpoints can come together to navigate that web of complexity and find, if not the truth, then perhaps, at least, the best way forward.
For both the law and saucy cravats.
To that end, the Supreme Court is not comprised of demigods who can commune with The Force to discern the perfect way to apply various legal principles, nor is it made up of hapless figureheads, liable to have the wool pulled over their eyes by some conniving Sith Lord. It consists, instead, of some of our country’s brightest minds, trying their best to strike that balance through debate, disagreement, and sometimes even detente. The effort is a noble one.
It’s often said that when it comes to three branches of government, the President has the power of the military; Congress has the power of the purse, but The Supreme Court only has the power of its words. John Marshall could not wield a lightsaber in response to President Andrew Jackson’s declaration that the Supreme Court Justice “ha[d] made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Instead, Marshall had only the force of his arguments and the hope that his colleagues, and the people, would accept them.
Through these principles, our nation created a body that has, at times, grievously erred, but which has also upheld our most cherished rights, served as a guardrail for our most fundamental liberties, and endured for more than two centuries. Its champions accomplished all of this using only the pen–an elegant weapon for a more civilized age–and the very public trust in their efforts that Gopnik maligns. While those efforts may lack the supernatural allure of The Force, and while they are by no means above critique, they are worthy of our respect, both for that process and for the individuals who carry it out, be they of The Council or the counsel.