Rogue One, Andor, and the Storytelling Power of Real Physics

One thing that distanced Star Wars from other science fiction of its era was the aesthetic choice to make its universe feel truly lived-in, where many elements that would otherwise be fascinating and futuristic were shown full of dirt and dents, and treated as ordinary and utilitarian. We’re supposed to get the sense that the characters experience these things every day, and are not dazzled by ray guns, vehicles that defy gravity, or space travel. Most of the time, those are just set dressing, parts of the landscape, and not the focus of the story. And for that reason, painstaking attention was paid to the details of every set, prop, and matte painting to make sure everything looked believable, approaching the process more like a recreation of a historical period than a display of fantastical elements. This has had a surprising consequence: as I’ve observed several times, when you account for the technologies that exist in-universe, Star Wars tends to have better physics in its visual effects than other franchises with more science-abiding reputations.

When depicting an armed revolution against a tyrannical regime in this setting, making sure the non-fantastical elements still follow the laws of physics makes everything much more grounded, and the stakes more realistically felt. And in order to tell a story of hope in the face of insurmountable odds, where the enemy’s goal is to convince an entire galaxy that any attempt at resistance will only bring doom and overwhelming loss, being able to convey the full magnitude of the threat becomes essential. Directed by Gareth Edwards, known for his ability to imbue his films with a clear sense of scale, Rogue One was a magnificent achievement in this regard. Every time I have advocated for taking the physical implications and consequences of some plot device or visual element into account, and explained how it can actually enhance the storytelling, this is exactly what I’ve meant. Rogue One exceeded all my expectations, and they were already high.

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Andor is a Blue Sky

When you look into the hole in your heart, what do you see? A loneliness, empty black, endless as the sea of space stretching infinite. There is no escape from the world, the real world, the one crumbling and burning and flooding and filled with sadness. Or maybe there is—too-sweet coffee from the chain down the road (don’t think about the labor conditions of the growers); the vivid sky as the sun sets over the sea (don’t think about how the smoke adds to the beauty); a silly little show about space once a week, while it lasts (don’t think about how the industry is being eaten alive by conglomerates).

Cynicism. Optimism. Realism. Where do you fall? Where do I fall? Where, in the end, does Andor fall? Not just the show, but the man himself. When he looks into the hole in his heart, what does he see?

When he looks into the sky, is it blue?

Easy answer: no, it is not. Mostly it is grey, or entirely stolen away by architecture and brutality. Andor is a show about fascism, and revolution. We are shown oppression, real and fictional and fictional but far too real. Tony Gilroy takes us like a puppy and rubs our face in the dirt, asking us, Do you understand what is happening now? and it is done with such brutal beauty that it’s hard to believe this is actually Star Wars.

The Mandalorian (deep grey clouds) once promised a grittier, more grounded Star Wars. Strong shadows, dark moons, bounty hunters with snappy lines. Sharp, silver armor, untainted by the childhood colors of Boba Fetts in the toybox. Silver like the knights of old, the men of mud and blood and smoke. The Mandalorian was to be a man, a real man, unlike—uh, the rest of the men of Star Wars, I guess. We watched the unravelling of the myth in real time, as Din Djarin stumbled through his first day as a protagonist like some kind of Star Wars Sailor Moon, and wound up a dad. This was no underworld, but the upper world of goofy puppets, vivid blue shrimp, kids’ cartoon shows, and surprising love.

What would Mando see in his heart, if he looked? We will never know; the show doesn’t care to consider it. Din is a prop piece in his own world, a puppet for big men playing little boys in a universe far removed from his. Those strings, invisible, infinite. He is a fake man. A simulacrum of a noble warrior. We know this to be true. Must stories, then, mean something?

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What Star Wars Comics Can Learn From the Massive-Verse

In small-town Lockport, Illinois, a writer, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, finds a black hole which connects him to the very heart of Existence itself. His partner in the journey to the center of Existence? A giant mech, bonded to him forever. In San Francisco, a mega-corporation has taken control of the policing of a city – fought only by an Afghanistan War veteran whose control of electricity connects her with the energy of her fallen squadron. Add to this ancient cults who rip cities from their home dimensions; a hacktivist; a serial killer; a teenager with the power of the sun who must battle the precursor to Satan himself; and a Chicago-based superhero union.

In Image Comics’ new imprint, the Massive-Verse, all of these stories take place in the same world. Created by Kyle Higgins, the Massive-Verse is a sprawling universe where authors are invited to create their own stories, within this world but genuinely unconstrained by what others are doing. While a lot of creators may claim you don’t need to read/watch/consume the entirety of their “universe” to understand what’s going on, the Massive-Verse is one instance where that may actually be true. There is generally only one time where the Massive-Verse requires a little extra reading outside of your favorite title: the annual Supermassive one-shot. This one-off story shakes up the entire Massive-Verse, without requiring much more than the six-dollar entry fee. Supermassive functions as a sort of micro-event: the story is separate from the main series, but features many of the main characters from those series. The events of Supermassive usually have a pretty big effect on the characters, even if their scale is smaller than traditional “events” like Secret War or Crisis on Infinite Earths. But Supermassive has similar goals as most of those events: to leave an indelible effect on its characters, an effect that won’t go away quickly and alters the course of their lives and how they interact with the world. 

In this article I will posit that Supermassive, and the Massive-Verse in general, have convinced me that there’s a better way to write events. Even more: they’ve convinced me to argue against something that I wrote myself, six years ago on this very website. In my original article, I argued that events should be moved out of the main series and into event titles, whereas here I will argue that events should be limited to a single ongoing series or confined to a one-shot. I also argued that mainline titles should be used to seed future events and deal with the fallout of previous events, which I have now come to see as a hijacking of the ongoing titles in order to serve event titles almost exclusively. The Hidden Empire event may, in fact, have been a case of “be careful what you wish for”, as I got everything I wanted, yet found it lacking. Here are some ways I think that Marvel can continue to refine their events, with a little help from Image Comics and the Massive-Verse.

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Clearing the Air: Why the Battle of Coruscant May Not Have Gone the Way You Think

It is commonly believed that the Revenge of the Sith novelization is a better telling of that story than the very movie it was meant to adapt. It has richer dialogue, the motivations of every character are beautifully displayed, and the overall plan to seduce Anakin to the dark side and take over democracy and the galaxy itself is made extremely clear. All of it told in the masterful writing of Matthew Stover, which makes it not only one of the best Star Wars novels produced, but also a great novel in its own right. And given that I start this post with so much praise for this book, it may come as no surprise that it also treats physics in a better and more consistent way than the film.

The spectacular opening of the movie puts us in the middle of an unprecedented engagement, with hundreds of capital ships in combat and many more starfighters threading the space between them. The visual look is also unlike in any previous Star Wars installment, with the light of the sun coming very low and filtered through the planet’s atmosphere, making it feel like the battle is fought at dusk or dawn, and with fire and smoke surrounding many of the cruisers. Such a distinct style was achieved by setting the scene in a unique environment, as John Knoll explains in the DVD audio commentary:

“One of the things that makes this space battle different than the other Star Wars pictures is that…we’re saying this is not in space exactly. We’re in the upper atmosphere of Coruscant, which gives us excuses to do things like drag. You’ll see there’s smoky trails behind burning ships. There’s bits of atmosphere hanging smoke.”

So this “space battle” is really an aerial battle, and contains many elements that would go against physics in a deep space setting.[1]Not long after, The Clone Wars seemed to point at this and say “That’s the Star Wars visual look for explosions in space from now on, deal with it”, but that’s a whole other … Continue reading But given the visual spectacle it was meant to be, and the many factors in play that a novel is not beholden to, it is likely for such a movie to present some internal contradictions. Since physics is my field of expertise, in this piece I will discuss one such inconsistency that is hard to explain away as compared to the novel, which has far fewer limitations in depicting how those events might have actually taken place. While fans tend to see the live-action version of a story as taking absolute precedence over any other interpretation, I would postulate that this is not always the case.

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1 Not long after, The Clone Wars seemed to point at this and say “That’s the Star Wars visual look for explosions in space from now on, deal with it”, but that’s a whole other story.

What Will Star Wars Mean to the Next Generation? 

For a franchise that began almost fifty years ago when the Baby Boomers were barely adults, Star Wars remains incredibly popular. Now, as a fan who has recently become a father of two children, I have been taking some time to ponder the question of what I hope Star Wars will mean to them. While my children are still quite young—two and a half years and ten months—I’ve already enjoyed the opportunity to introduce them to some Star Wars characters via children’s books, cartoons, and kid-friendly clips from the films.

It’s an interesting balance though, because while I love Star Wars, I don’t want to force my kids into a hobby they aren’t interested in, and because I want to be careful about what exactly they absorb from Star Wars. Besides scary images or intense themes, there are moral questions that the series raises. For example, there are fair concerns one can raise about representation (or lack thereof) in the broader Star Wars universe. Additionally, I recall a pacifist mentor of mine who deliberately kept his preteen children from watching Star Wars because it arguably portrays violence as a solution perpetrated by the good side and bad side alike. As a pacifist myself, I once wrote an ETE piece specifically reflecting on the question of violence in Star Wars, but it’s become a bit less of a hypothetical question now that I have to warn my son not to swing his toy lightsaber at me, nor to pretend to point blasters at people. 

But even aside from these specific questions, I think it is important to be thoughtful about any movie series that is likely to be watched ad nauseam by children, for the simple reason that these films may become some of their foundational blocks of understanding. Philosopher and theologian James K. A. Smith argues that more so than our specific ideological or moral beliefs, it is the activities that we love and the habits that we practice which shape us at a foundational level. He argues that when it comes to our inner identity, it’s not so much a case of “We are what we think”, but instead “we are what we love”. 

So if I raise my kids to love Star Wars, how am I hoping it will shape them? What are the core values that I hope it communicates to them? I have three in particular. 

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