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The Case for Mid-Budget Star Wars

Star Wars is at a crossroads. While The Rise of Skywalker’s worldwide box office will gross over a billion dollars, that’s a far cry from The Force Awakens’ two billion. ROS will end up below every Avengers film, both Jurassic World films, and even its predecessor The Last Jedi. Perhaps most shockingly, the finale to the Skywalker saga could well end up with a lower total gross than DC’s Joker. Uncertain, the future is.

Imagine it’s 2016, and someone says to you an R-rated psychodrama would make more money than Episode IX of Star Wars. How would you react? You’d probably tell them to lay off the death sticks. Yet as I type these words, Joker stands ahead. There is, for sure, a large confluence of factors that led to this upset. Both films are divisive, but controversy boosted Joker while deflating Star Wars. Critical reviews for ROS were tepid at best, while Joker has been nominated for eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. Regardless, it can’t be ignored that Joker has made its production budget of (at most) $70 million back at least fifteen times over. ROS, with a price tag of $275 million, has returned less than four times as much. A billion dollars is nothing to sniff at but as a return-on-investment that’s far from a home run.

2019 was the year the mid-budget film struck back. Joker leads the top of a wide pack, followed by It: Chapter Two, Us, John Wick: Chapter 3, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, and many more. Audiences flocked to smaller films and studios saw strong, sometimes enormous, returns on budgetary investments of less than $100 million—while tentpoles like Dumbo, Alita: Battle Angel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and X-Men: Dark Phoenix floundered.

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“I’m Where I Need to Be” – Captain Doza Learns a Hard Lesson

The finale of Star Wars Resistance is going to be upon us shortly. While the middle section of the show’s second season hasn’t been as meaty or meaningful as some of us were perhaps hoping, as we’ve moved toward the end the show has picked up momentum. More than anything, it has given us some memorable new characters, such as Venisa Doza, while still managing to find time to give older, established characters moments of depth and development. An understated but nonetheless important character who has grown quite a bit over the show’s run is who I’ll be highlighting today: Captain Doza himself. But first, let’s circle around on our main character Kaz Xiono for a bit of context.

In the episode “No Place Safe”, Kaz makes the decision to leave the Colossus. The station has found a safe haven on a distant planet, and they have formed an alliance with the local population to allow them to stay out of the First Order’s way, restoring something like their previous status quo on Castilon. With this lull in the fighting, Kaz has a moment to contemplate, and comes to realize that he isn’t content sitting and waiting for the war to end or for the First Order to find them again. With his friends out of danger for the moment, he makes the decision to go back to the fight, to rejoin the Resistance proper. He makes that decision because, in the end, he wants to help people, and now that the Colossus no longer needs his help, he is ready to move on and keep fighting the First Order elsewhere (even if it breaks the hearts of people like Neeku and Torra to see him go).

The episode winds up putting him back where he started when their haven is discovered and the Colossus is forced once again to flee, but the important thought that Kaz has of going where people need him and seeking only to help seems to resonate within Captain Doza. In the very next episode, “Rebuilding the Resistance”, Doza makes the unilateral call to not only allow the Resistance to bring its new recruits to his station, but even decides that they can stay permanently, making the Colossus into a mobile base for the Resistance and its pilots and officially abandoning his neutrality. Inspired by Kaz, and also by the examples of his wife and daughter, Doza is making a decision that he probably should have made long ago.

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They Are Just – Rose Tico and Dexter Jettster

“Poe Dameron is super cool. Finn’s super cool. Even though [Rose] is good at what she does, she’s not known. She’s not cool. She’s this nobody, this background player…”

Kelly Marie Tran

This was our introduction to Rose Tico: an interview with Entertainment Weekly, well before Kelly Marie Tran graced the big screen in The Last Jedi. From the beginning, Rose has been billed as someone overshadowed by the heroes surrounding her. If it’s not the Sequel Trio, it’s her own gallant sister Paige. The Forces of Destiny and Star Wars Adventures comics take it another step and emphasize this in-universe, as head mechanic Lazslo actively demeans her place in the Resistance. It’s a mindset that Rose herself internalizes. In Spark of the Resistance, she dismisses her own instincts because she’s not a Jedi like Rey or a great leader like Poe. She’s “just Rose” (emphasis mine).

“I can’t save them all. I’m just one person. I can’t even save one of them.”

Dexter Jettster (emphasis mine)

This was an unexpected glimpse at Obi-Wan Kenobi’s friend: a heartfelt journal entry as he takes on a Crimson Dawn labor camp. From the beginning, Dexter Jettster has always exuded confidence. The script for Attack of the Clones describes him as “not someone to tangle with”, and between gun-running on Ord Sigatt and brawling on Ord Mantell, his underworld background in Legends only increased this reputation. In the new canon, The Smuggler’s Guide starts with this similar tone of confidence only to come to a shuddering halt with Dex’s doubts.

In a franchise where many of our leads spend time believing themselves to be something more than life has planned, Rose and Dex seem to believe that they aren’t enough. It’s a galaxy full of cruel empires and powerful crime syndicates, and Dex is just one person, and Rose is just Rose. They are, as Tran continued in her interview, “just like everyone else” (emphasis mine). And grim though this perspective might be, there’s a grounding and a gentle inspiration in characters like these.

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Heisenberg’s Principle for Peace and Justice: Why the Jedi Never Seem Very Good at their Job

The first thing we ever learn about the Jedi is that they were the “guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” Until I read Claudia Gray’s Master & Apprentice, it never occurred to me that this definition contains a contradiction. Peace and justice together are the defining conditions of the ideal polity. It’s an idealistic platitude too familiar to invite closer examination. That’s why it feels so revelatory when Gray shows us that in practice, Jedi often found that peace and justice were tragically at odds.

Master & Apprentice takes place eight years before The Phantom Menace, and reprises much of that film’s premise. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are sent to negotiate a deal between a planet’s willful teenage queen and a powerful, malicious corporation. Their lives are threatened by mysterious assassins, and they turn to a slave for aid. That overt similarity between the two stories allows Gray to take a second crack at a thematic question raised tangentially by TPM: is it right for the Jedi to ignore injustice in pursuit of the greater good?

In TPM, Qui-Gon doesn’t find this question very difficult to answer. He frees Anakin to gain a powerful Jedi, not to end the injustice of his slavery. He makes a half-hearted effort to win Shmi’s freedom too, but doesn’t press the issue. The question of freeing any other slaves never even comes up. They didn’t come to Tatooine to free slaves. The people of Naboo are counting on them; they can’t afford to get distracted by every injustice that crosses their path.

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What Jedi: Fallen Order Could Have Learned From The Rise of Skywalker

Early on in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey does something I’ve wanted to see in a Star Wars film for ages. For at least the seventh time in nine episodes, our heroes are confronted not by a villain, but by a wild animal. We’re not privy to its exact emotional state, but context suggests it’s protecting its territory, or traumatized, or just plain hungry. It’s also, to one degree or another, scary-looking: this isn’t just an animal, we’re expected to understand, it’s a monster.

And in six of the nine episodes, the heroes fight the monster, either killing it or distracting it or driving it off. This type of scene is just one of those things Star Wars does—like Threepio telling you the odds or someone having a bad feeling about this, a monster fight is how the screenplay lets you know this is a Star Wars movie. Old adventure serials loved that shit: the dianoga and the wampa and the rancor were George Lucas emulating the spirit of a guy in a lizard costume wrestling with Flash Gordon, and while few would call those scenes the films’ best material, they’ve never demanded any deeper consideration than that.1

But then, in this episode, the hero has a different idea. She passes her already-ignited lightsaber to Finn, walks slowly to the big snake-worm-thing, and uses the Force to heal a wound in its side. Not just the Force, but the Force of her own life—instead of killing an injured creature, the quick and easy path, she gives a little of herself to it, and in so doing saves all involved.

This is who Rey is, who she’s always been. To my mind it’s why she can get angry in a fight, more visibly angry than Luke ever got, and never let it consume her. Empathy isn’t something she has to stop and center herself to achieve, or have rubbed in her face by her father’s robot arm, it’s her baseline. Like so much in Rise, I go back and forth on whether the filmmakers intended this reading or just stumbled onto it while setting up some things that happen later in the movie, but hell if it doesn’t work. And what made it especially satisfying for me personally was its timely, if coincidental, refutation of Jedi: Fallen Order.

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  1. Not that that stops us. []