If there’s one movie that JJ Abram’s Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens is being compared to, it’s Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope, and for good reason. There’s simply no room for debate, Awakens is at best an homage to that installment in the franchise and at worst an overwrought remix. What with the parallels between character arcs, planet destroying space balls, and literally a new cantina band scene, it’s easy to see why so many comparisons have been made between the two films. But in the 24 hours after seeing Awakens I’ve been pondering more about its spirit (to be frank, it’s hard to find a genuine spirit in the film), and another movie keeps coming to my mind for reasons entirely unexpected: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.
Stay with me here.
Like Awakens, The Avengers had a tall order to fill: deliver a solid sci fi film experience using a universe that bordered on the sacred. A cast of characters was already established. A tone and myth arc were already in place. The hype was crazy. In fact, so much meta-discussion surrounded these two movies that they were more about their place in culture than they were about their actual stories. The Avengers would be the intersection for many beloved characters—and their franchises—to come together. Likewise Awakens would be a checkpoint where the old guard could pass the torch to the new. The movies were not just movies. They were milestones. They were precedents. They were bigger than the big screen. And to make them successful they would need a director and a script that could synthesize the many amazing elements into a worthwhile movie of its own. And, fascinatingly to me, this meta-discussion would become intertwined with how we experienced the film itself.
Recall for a moment what made The Avengers great. It wasn’t the need to neutralize some magical Tesseract from an evil space alien; it was seeing how all of these heroes could wind up in the same place, in the same film, and more importantly if and how they could survive each other’s presence. The banter, tension, backstabbing, and gamesmanship among the superheros was ultimately what made the film so successful—and so human. The meta-question of could the Captain America© franchise meld with Iron Man©, The Incredible Hulk©, Black Widow© etc. manifested itself with the in-story question of could Captain America cooperate with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow etc. (or at least long enough to save the universe). It made sense: the question all of us had going into the movie was exactly what we saw answered. It was a natural plot for Marvel’s larger than life moment, and Joss Whedon was nothing short of genius for realizing the internal plot should parallel its external place in the Marvel universe.
So what was the meta-question all of us had going into Awakens? It’s easy: Will Episodes 7, 8, and 9 be a worthy successor trilogy to Episodes 4, 5, and 6?
Two key factors fed into this curiosity: first, Episodes 1, 2, and 3 clearly didn’t make the cut of worthiness. Like watching a Wipeout marathon, we’re eager to see if this new challenger in 2015 would make it to the finish line or be knocked to a watery grave by a swinging rubber tube (or another quasi-racist Gungan, as it were). But secondly, and more importantly, the question of worthiness and succession is one that JJ Abrams implanted in us himself. He made no effort to hide the fact that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill would be in the new films. (Episodes 1, 2, and 3 had no significant crossover actors). This would not be a standalone trilogy with only passing connections to 4, 5, and 6. This would be a trilogy that demanded a seat at the canon.
But it was here where Abrams did not live up to the genius of Whedon. Instead of incorporating the existential conflict of old vs. new, or meta-question as I’m terming it, into the film’s script, he avoided calling it to the stand: Awakens would not be compared to A New Hope because Awakens IS A New Hope.
Think about it, like subconscious thoughts bubbling up in our dreams, hints of the existential conflict of old vs. new are present in the screenplay. Rey’s introductory scene scavenging through the remains of a Star Destroyer followed soon thereafter by her resting in the shade of a dilapidated AT-AT. The “First Order” destroys the “Old Republic.” And later at the Resistance base, the new, roly poly BB8 takes the role and responsibility of an explicitly-stated depressed R2-D2 (more on this in a second). We know—and feel— that we’re watching a movie about old vs new, however, the conflict stops at the superficial.
In my estimation, Abrams included no meaningful conflict between the young and the old in his script. Don’t believe me? Think about how beautiful it would have been if Han Solo had struggled with the fact that his career as smuggler was at an end and that if he wanted to leave a legacy, he would have to take on the wizened role of mentor and help the two whipper snappers trying to hijack his Falcon? Or what if Leia had felt betrayed when she discovered Han had just been gallivanting with a beautiful younger lady (with freaking buns in her hair!) just as he had done a long, long time ago? These were the type of human moments that made The Avengers so damn enjoyable. Instead, the only conflict of generations I found significant in Awakens was Kylo Ren’s struggle with his Darth Vader idolization. Although clunky, his violent outbursts over his own incompetence convinced me he really did feel the burden of not living up to the standard of evil his grandfather had set before him. Unfortunately, with Darth Vader dead, the conflict was essentially moot.
Which became the running theme of the movie for me, the only conflict worth showcasing was the tired dichotomy of light versus dark. Old versus young was ignored glossed over because Abrams decided that old and young were one and the same. Kylo IS the new up and coming sith Lord. Rey IS the new hero from a sandy planet. Fin IS the new bad boy side kick. And the tranche of space-map that BB-8 had would fit in perfectly with R2-D2’s established space atlas because...well...for absolutely no reason other than it had to. The new characters did not have to earn these spots from the predecessors or find where they fit into their pre-existing world: they simply were included into the fold without struggle. And not surprisingly, Disney/Abrams expect us to embrace this new Star Wars trilogy without any question as well.