Sunday, December 22, 2019

REVIEW: STAR WARS: EPISODE IX—THE RISE OF SKYWALKER




It took me two viewings of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to fully absorb it and to be able to put my thoughts down about it. A primary reason is that I had to get past my own initial expectations and get to a point where I could accept the movie on its own terms. Now that I have, I’ve come to the conclusion that, like its immediate predecessor, The Rise of Skywalker will go down as one of the most divisive, most controversial entries in the series. For me, it’s the least effective episode in the Sequel Trilogy. 

Which is not to say that I think it’s a bad movie, or that I didn’t like it. On the contrary, it’s quite enjoyable, especially the second time around. And I give it a lot of credit for trying to wrap up the Sequel Trilogy—the whole nine-part saga, really—in a satisfying manner. That may well be a fool’s errand, though, given how persnickety, hard-to-please, and, in some cases, downright hostile fans of the series can be when it goes in a direction with which they don’t agree. With 2015’s The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams (who also co-wrote the script with Star Wars all-time MVP Lawrence Kasdan) stuck close to what had come before and was accused of simply recycling the past. With 2017’s The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson tried to do something other than the same old thing, to deepen the narrative and challenge the audience perhaps a bit more than they’re used to—and as a result, was heavily criticized by some corners of fandom, charged with departing too much from what Star Wars is supposed to be, and what it’s supposed to be about. (I won’t even get into the truly sad individuals who had their knives out solely because of the more racially diverse cast in these new movies—particularly John Boyega’s Finn and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, along with the fact the main protagonist is—gasp!—a girl.)

All of which is to say that with The Rise of Skywalker, returning director Abrams (this time co-writing with Chris Terrio) faced an impossible task. He was never going to please everyone. Hell, even series creator George Lucas was unable to do that with pretty much ever Star Wars movie he produced after 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, which is still generally considered the high point of the whole franchise. And yet, with this new movie, it feels like Abrams was determined to win over both factions of fandom. The end result is something that too often chooses to play it safe, retreat to the familiar, and not make too many waves.

My goal is to avoid spoilers, so I can’t really go into details. It’s not a spoiler, however, to discuss the fact that the central antagonist this time around is none other than Emperor Palpatine, played once again by Ian McDiarmid, still alive after his dramatic death—I guess now we’d have to put quotation marks around that word—in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. But don’t expect a particularly satisfying explanation for how Palpatine survived, how he got away, what exactly he’s been doing over the intervening decades, or how he’s been doing it. The audience is given just the barest hint, and left to fill in the blanks for themselves.

(Incidentally, if you want a story that resurrects the Emperor in a well-constructed, logical, and fully-explained manner, read the 1991 comic-book mini-series Star Wars: Dark Empire, written by Tom Veitch and illustrated by Cam Kennedy. It’s not canonical—it couldn’t be, especially after this new movie—but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to experience. Think of it as being set in an alternate universe and just roll with it. End of plug.)

Palpatine takes over for—and reveals the truth behind—Supreme Leader Snoke, the evil Force-wielding head of the First Order who was introduced in The Force Awakens and killed by Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. And the Emperor reveals a lot more—which I won’t get into here, out of consideration for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. I will say this, however: if Palpatine’s return was the only major contrivance that audiences would have to buy into, I don’t think it would be too big a problem. But it comes as a key part of an additional major contrivance, and the two together just may be too much to embrace. I’m still on the fence about it myself.

On top of that, the film meanders a bit too much in certain spots, yet doesn’t take enough time to fully address the ramifications of certain key plot points. (To be fair, Return of the Jedi was guilty of this too.)

I also had some issues with how the Force was depicted in this movie. It reminded me of the most extreme uses of it in the Star Wars novels published during between 1991 and 2014, some of which showed Force users being able to do… well, just about anything. Not only did those moments never really work for me, George Lucas himself made it abundantly clear in the six films he oversaw that, as powerful as the Jedi and Sith are, in the end, they’re people, not gods.  

All that said, the movie is filled with moments that are touching, funny, charming, heartbreaking, heartwarming, bittersweet, and inspirational. These moments are helped immeasurably by a truly wonderful cast.

The chemistry between Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is a joy to watch—we never got to see them function as a trio in the previous two films, and that is corrected here in a big way. 



I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ridley is one of the best performers to ever star in these movies, and she continues her splendid work here. 



Boyega is just so damn likable and believable in his role. And for this movie in particular, Isaac seems to channel Han Solo of the Original Trilogy, revealing little bits and pieces of his history and displaying new levels of mischievousness and charisma, and even a touch of the romantic. I’ll go so far as to say that as an on-screen team, Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac rival the camaraderie that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher displayed in spades in the Original Trilogy.

Speaking of Fisher, Abrams and company did a nice job incorporating unused footage of her to give General Leia Organa a substantial role in this final installment of the Skywalker Saga, and a send0ff that it is respectful, heartfelt, and appropriate to both the character and the actress who played her.


Adam Driver completes the character building he began in The Force Awakens, giving us a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo that just may change how you feel about him without asking you to forget about his past heinous actions. Driver is a powerful and compelling presence throughout the movie, and every one of his moments with Daisy Ridley sparkles.


Then there’s C-3PO, who gets his best role, with Anthony Daniels delivering his best performance, since The Empire Strikes Back (in which the golden droid was used, in my opinion, to perfection). After Empire, C-3PO was often portrayed as too childlike and too dainty for my tastes. I much prefer him to be more mature, with a bit of an edge, able to credibly stand up to someone like Han Solo and to be mildly critical of humans, but still a consummate coward, still a complete fussbudget, and a source of both comic relief and pathos. That’s pretty much the C-3PO I got in The Rise of Skywalker, and I loved it.      


I also have to say that Billy Dee Williams, returning as Lando Calrissian, seems to be having the absolute time of his life. There’s practically not one moment on screen where he isn’t smiling or laughing or experiencing pure joy. Williams has not lost one bit of the charm and the coolness that he exuded all those years ago. I only wish we got to spend even more time with him in this movie. (Wouldn’t it have been a blast if Lando had turned out to be the Master Codebreaker that Justin Theroux played in The Last Jedi, shown hanging out at the casino surrounded by beautiful women?)     


In terms of other familiar faces, Rose Tico shows up but is basically sidelined, and what appeared to be a budding romance between her and Finn apparently went nowhere. One gets the sense that J.J. Abrams didn’t really know what to do with her (she was, after all introduced in the movie he didn’t work on). Billie Lourd—Carrie Fisher’s daughter—is back in a small role as Lieutenant Connix. Domhnall Gleeson returns as the long-beleaguered General Hux, now having to contend not just with Kylo Ren but another top-ranking First Order officer, General Pryde, played by Richard E. Grant.

As for Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor, he gives it his all, as he’s always done. It’s a meaty role, an important one, and McDiarmid still inhabits it completely. He’s riveting, as effective as he’s ever been, and it’s a lot of fun watching him play this character again after so many years. I just wish the movie had not left so many questions about Palpatine and his shocking return unanswered.

The Rise of Skywalker may not end the first post-Lucas trilogy with as much daring and innovation as it could have, but it does bring a 42-year movie saga to an end in a way that does, overall, feel right and true. I’m glad I got to experience the whole thing from start to finish. And yet, with new Star Wars projects coming along like The Mandalorian, the recently announced Obi-Wan Kenobi mini-series, and all the stuff we don’t even know about yet, I’m pleased to know that there will be many more opportunities to visit that galaxy far, far, away.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2019.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

REMEMBERING STAN LEE (1922-2018)


The man lived to 95. His passing was going to come sooner rather than later.

And when it finally did come, it was not a complete surprise, especially after he lost his beloved wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, last year. I wish his last few years had been easier on him, what with a slew of legal hassles, health problems, and bizarre, disturbing, unproven, headline-making stories about elder abuse—and even sexual harassment. But there’s no denying that it was a full, impressive, remarkable life, full of thrilling accomplishments. 

He was a great, skilled, highly imaginative and engaging writer, and, as far as I’m concerned, the best damn editor the comic-book industry ever had—and ever will have. Without a doubt, Stan Lee has left a legacy of creativity and wonder that will be around for many, many generations to come.

On the evening of his passing, November 12, 2018, I sat down for an hour-long conversation with my friend Zaki Hasan, who hosts the thoroughly entertaining and enlightening podcast, Nostalgia Theater, in which I discussed my personal and professional interactions with Stan before and during my years at Marvel Comics. Pretty much anything that I would have mentioned here on my blog was covered at length during my conversation with Zaki, so I strongly encourage you to check it out. Here it is—you can listen to it now, or you can download it and listen to it at your convenience: 
  

Zaki and I discussed my first interaction with Stan, which occurred in 1991 when I was a senior at Stony Brook University and the Comics Coordinator of the annual I-C0n science-fiction convention. Stan was my Comics Guest of Honor, and I worked with him extensively on the programming that involved him. I already wrote about that interaction—and the key role that Harlan Ellison played in making it happen—earlier this year, in my tribute to Harlan when he passed away.

Zaki and I also discussed at length the pivotal role that Stan played in kicking off what may be the most acclaimed comic-book project I’ve ever worked on: The Incredible Hulk Vs. Superman, a crossover project between Marvel and DC Comics that featured the stunning artwork of Steve Rude. It was during the early stages of this project that I really got to spend some quality—and creative—time with Stan, and I cherish those memories.

During the podcast, I briefly touched upon the fact that Stan would occasionally come back to New York to visit the Marvel offices. But I do have to add here just how accessible he was on those visits. He would also attend our annual holiday parties occasionally, and he even showed up for at least one of the company’s summer picnics. He never tired of posing for pictures with the staff, as you can see here in this photo from the Marvel picnic in 1994, where he indulged this eager young editorial lad. 


At that same picnic, Stan even participated in a softball game, in which, as I recall, he tore a gaping hole in one of his pant legs as he slid into either first base or home plate. He was even bleeding, but just brushed it off as no big deal. The man was around 71 years old at the time.

I couldn’t get enough photos of me with Stan—as you can see here, we had a nice little reunion a year or so later, at the Marvel holiday party.


Another thing we didn’t cover in the podcast: my path crossed Stan’s a few more times after I left Marvel. I interviewed him for Scholastic News in 2012, when the first Avengers movie was coming out, and again in 2014, for TIME For Kids, at the opening of Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. at Discovery Times Square attraction, in New York City. What made that interview particularly special was that my daughter, Maddie, then 11 years old, joined me on the assignment and got to ask Stan most of the questions. She still remembers that day very fondly, as do I. Stan didn’t remember me—I wouldn’t have expected him to—but it was a thrill for me to watch him engage with my daughter.  


I think it’s safe to say that without Stan, and the universe that he co-created with such brilliant collaborators as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, my life would be very different. I certainly would not have enjoyed nearly seven years at Marvel, living out a childhood dream by producing comic books for real—and actually getting paid for it! Not to mention making some of the best, dearest friends I’ll ever have—with whom I remain very close to this day.

I certainly would not have met my wife, to whom I was introduced by one of those aforementioned friends I made at Marvel.

I never got the chance to say all that to Stan, but I did get the chance to tell him how much he and his work meant to me.

Early on in my Marvel tenure, Stan visited the New York offices and I went up to him and reintroduced myself. It was the first time I’d seen him since the I-Con convention in 1991.

“I just want to say, working with you on that convention was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” I told him as I shook his hand.

“Well, thank you, that’s very nice of you to say,” Stan replied. “And I’m sorry that you’ve had such an uneventful life!”

Thanks, Stan. For everything.      


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2018.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

REMEMBERING HARLAN ELLISON


In no way can I claim that I had a close relationship with writer Harlan Ellison. Truth be told, we barely knew each other. Our paths crossed just a few times. As he was a giant in the field during those times, and I most certainly was not, I have no doubt whatsoever that I remember those encounters far, far better than he ever did, and that they were a hell of a lot more meaningful to me than they were to him.

So I was deeply saddened to hear about his passing on June 28, 2018, at the age of 84. I had actually been thinking about Harlan just a day or two before, wondering how he was doing, considering that he had been coping with major health problems over the last few years. Obviously, this was not the update that I was hoping for.     

I can’t remember the first time I became aware of Harlan Ellison and his work. I was definitely a pre-teen, and it was definitely either through the one episode of Star Trek that he wrote, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” considered by many—myself included—to be the very best installment of the franchise ever produced . . . 


. . . or the issue of The Incredible Hulk that he plotted (scripted by Roy Thomas), issue #140, which introduced the sub-atomic world of K’ai and its queen, the green-skinned Jarella, who would become a love interest for the Hulk and a pivotal character in the history of the series.


From there, I discovered my older brother’s copy of the fourth issue of Marvelmania, Marvel’s late 1960s/early-1970s fanzine, which featured an interview with Ellison. It was my first exposure to Harlan’s unique, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners outspokenness about pretty much everything and everyone. 


I was fascinated by him and his utter fearlessness when it came to expressing his opinions. That fascination led me to seek out more of his work—his novels, his short stories, his essays, and his movie reviews. 

I remember that it took me years to track down a copy of Starlog #33, from early 1980, which featured Ellison’s notorious, brutal, scorching takedown of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and when I finally got to read it, I was not disappointed. While I liked the film, I couldn’t really disagree with most of Harlan’s points about its shortcomings.


In my mid-teens—this would have been in the mid-1980s—I was lucky enough to be in a used bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, that just happened to have a copy of a book that I’d heard about for years but could never find: Six Science Fiction Plays, edited by Roger Elwood and published in 1976, which included Ellison’s original teleplay for “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which was significantly different from the episode that aired on television. 


Naturally, I bought the book immediately and dived into the script as soon as I got home. It was prefaced by an introduction by Harlan himself, and it was through that compelling, revealing, memorable piece that I learned of the long creative process that ultimately soured the relationship between Harlan and Gene Roddenberry. Ellison was furious about what had been done to his script by the Star Trek production team. In reading the teleplay, I discovered just how much the televised version departed from the work that Ellison had submitted. It had gone through numerous rewrites that involved Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana, Gene L. Coon, and Steven Carabatsos. I still prefer the filmed episode, but Harlan’s script is an absolute must-read. (As is the GORGEOUS graphic-novel adaptation published a few years ago by IDW.)   

It was also in my teens that I learned about Harlan’s sometimes petty, sometimes silly, sometimes ugly, and sometimes amusing public feuds with such high-profile science-fiction-related luminaries as Mark Hamill, William Shatner, and Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth.  

And as a faithful Hulk reader, I came to know how protective he was about his work, and how strongly he felt about being compensated for it. I remember being a bit bewildered when, in 1983, Marvel published an unusual apology to Harlan, the likes of which I had never seen before, on the letters page of The Incredible Hulk #289. It turned out that in issue #286, writer Bill Mantlo had plagiarized “Soldier From Tomorrow,” a story written by Harlan that was originally published in 1957 and adapted into Soldier,” a 1964 episode of The Outer LimitsAfter an understandably peeved Ellison called Marvel to complain—according to Jim Shooter, Marvels Editor in Chief at the time, Harlan could have demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages—the company appeased him by publishing a belated credit to him for the story in issue 289, along with the mea culpa. (Plus, as I found out years later when I was working at Marvel, Harlan was put on the companys lifetime comp list, and was regularly sent everything that Marvel published.)   


Clearly, this was a guy who was not to be messed with—as writer/director James Cameron would also find out when Harlan went after him over The Terminator.        

When my English teacher at Mark Twain Junior High School assigned each student in the class to write a report about a notable author, I chose Harlan Ellison. I wrote about his extensive catalog of fiction and nonfiction, his forays into television and comic books, his controversies, his conflicts, and the lengths to which he went to defend his work, his reputation, his integrity, and his principles. I wrote that if I could have a career as vast and as varied as his, I would be very pleased indeed.  

Fast forward a few years, and I’m a freshman at Stony Brook University, where the annual I-Con science-fiction convention was held. It was Spring 1988, and Harlan was one of the main guests at that year’s con. Of course, I attended his talk, and it was a bit of a thrill to see the man in person for the first time. He read an excerpt from one of his short stories—and at one point, after a particularly strong passage, he stopped himself cold, broke into a gleeful smile, and said excitedly to the audience, “God, I love what I write!” He then talked about a movie (or was it a TV series?) that he was developing, called Cutter’s World (it never got produced). Soon after, during the Q-and-A section, someone in the audience asked if he was going to be writing for the then-new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, since he had written for the original.   

“Don’t ask me about Star Trek, man,” Harlan said grumpily. He then went on to accuse the producers of ST: TNG of mistreating their writers, and of blatantly violating Writers’ Guild of America rules—both of which turned out to be true. As I recall, I had kind of been hoping Harlan could be coaxed into doing a script for the new show, and it was during that talk that I learned that his negative feelings about Roddenberry and his creation had not abated at all. Oh well.

Fast forward three years. I’m now a senior at Stony Brook, and I’m serving as Comics Coordinator for I-Con X, scheduled for April 19-21, 1991. Harlan was coming back to the con for the first time since ’88, so that was a big deal. On my end, I wanted Stan Lee to be my Comics Guest of Honor, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. The head of the convention, a fellow by the name of Ralph Schiano, said Harlan could probably connect me with Stan. So Ralph called Harlan at his home in California, and put me on the phone with him.

I was terrified. I froze. At that point, I was well aware of Harlan and his infamous reputation. I had seen his crankiness live and in person. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and piss him off and become one of his many “victims. Reluctantly, I took the phone and, with hesitation, I introduced myself and explained my desire to reach Stan and offer him the GOH spot.

He could not have been nicer.

“Okay,” he said, talking to me as if he’d known me for years. “I’m going to give you his private number at home. Don’t you dare tell him where you got it from!”

“Okay,” I said with a chuckle. “I promise!” I was very grateful that he was willing to trust a complete stranger with this privileged information.

Long story short: Thanks to Harlan, I reached Stan directly, and he attended the con as my Comics Guest of Honor.


But I also wanted to do something even more special that weekend. Since Harlan was going to be at the con, along with legendary DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, and they were longtime friends with Stan, I wanted to put all three together for a special panel where they would just reminisce, goof around, shoot the shit, etc. I organized the panel and scheduled it for Saturday night, in the primetime spot—Harlan and Julie were more than happy to do it.

The first night of the convention, Friday, I attended the party that had been organized for all the guests. Harlan showed up, and I walked over to him to introduce myself in person—we hadn’t met face to face until that moment.

“Mr. Ellison,” I said, putting out my hand to shake his, “I’m Glenn Greenberg. You helped me get in touch with Stan Lee and I organized the panel you’re doing with him tomorrow night.”

“Oh, so you’re the asshole,” he replied. I can’t remember whether he shook my hand, but I was taken aback. “What was that about?” I wondered. I realized later on that he was probably just kidding around, just being “Harlan Ellison.” But at the time, I was just a 21-year-old college kid, I didn’t see it coming, and I didn’t know what to make of it.

Nevertheless, I introduced Harlan to one of my other comics guests, artist Gene Colan, who had drawn a Batman story that Harlan had written a few years before, which was published in Detective Comics #567. Harlan was genuinely enthused—he had never met Colan before.


The Stan-Harlan-Julie panel the following night ended up being the major highlight of the whole convention, certainly the best-attended event of the weekend. Standing room only. It was wonderful. Julie was a bit subdued, but Stan and Harlan were hilarious, taking good-natured potshots at each other.

“When I was on the Star Trek set, I hung around mostly with the production crew people, the guys who worked behind the scenes,” Harlan told the audience, suggesting that he couldn’t be bothered with prima donna, egomaniacal actors.

“Those are the only people who let you hang around with them—the stars of the show didn’t want to have anything to do with you!” Stan replied, causing the audience—and Harlan himself—to howl with laughter.

I stood off to the side, arms folded across my chest, smiling with pride and satisfaction the way Brian Epstein did when the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The following day, Sunday, as the convention was winding down, I was with a friend of mine, an optometrist by trade but also the host of a long-running science-fiction radio show. My friend—out of respect for his privacy, I’ll refer to him here as “Doc”—had invited Harlan to be a guest on the show in previous years, but Harlan always declined. (He finally broke down and did the show in 1999.)

Doc and I were standing near Harlan, who commented that he was having trouble with his eyeglasses—one of the temples had become excessively loose. Doc offered to fix it, since he had an eyeglass repair kit with him. It turned out that the screw in the temple had become almost completely stripped, so when Doc tried to tighten it, the temple popped off the frame and could not be put back on. Doc was mortified. He went back to Harlan with the eyeglasses now unwearable, and was profusely apologetic as he tried to explain what happened.

Harlan cut him off—but not rudely at all. He quite obviously wanted to put Doc at ease. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve had these glasses for years. I’ll take care of it when I get home.” But Doc kept going, trying to give the details of why the temple came off.

“Really, it’s okay,” Harlan said gently. “You tried to help me, that’s what matters. I really appreciate you trying.” But Doc kept going.

“It’s okay,” Harlan said, a little more impatiently. But Doc kept going, talking right over Harlan and determined to explain the whole thing whether Harlan wanted to hear it or not.

Finally, Harlan said, “Do you still live with your parents?”

“Yes,” Doc answered plainly.

“And how old are you?” Harlan asked.

“He’s thirty-five years old,” I chimed in—which was not even remotely true.

“You’ve got to get your act together,” Harlan told Doc. “You’re thirty-five years old, you’re still living with your parents—”

“I’m not thirty-five, I’m twenty-six!” Doc replied defensively.

Harlan immediately looked over at me and saw the mischievous smile on my face. He broke into a wide grin and pointed at me as if to say, “You rascally little bastard, you!” He laughed, put up his hand for me to give him a high-five, and I obliged happily.

I had just had a genuine moment with Harlan Ellison. I’d made him laugh. He gave me a high five. Yeah, that was a memory I was going to cherish. It more than made up for him calling me an asshole a couple of days earlier. 

Fast forward again, another three years. It’s Spring 1994 and I’m back at I-Con, this time as a guest, since I was now on the editorial staff and a budding writer at Marvel Comics. Harlan was back too, and I saw him at a special gathering for all the professionals in attendance. I walked over to him and reintroduced myself. “I’m the guy who put together the panel you did here with Stan and Julie in 1991.”

At that, a warm, delighted smile crossed Harlan’s face. “Oh, I loved that,” he told me. He remembered!

Now I was delighted. We chatted for a few moments, he congratulated me on having become a Marvel staffer, and we went our separate ways.

The next day, our paths crossed again. And as fate would have it, I was once again with Doc.

Doc boasted proudly to Harlan that he had recently read one of Harlan’s short stories aloud on his radio show. Despite knowing full well how protective Ellison was about his work, and how important it was to him that he be paid for its use, Doc thought Ellison would actually be flattered. Instead, Harlan scowled and told Doc, without a hint of humor, that his work was copyrighted and could not be read on the air without payment being made. Doc insisted that it was a nonprofit endeavor, but Harlan was not satisfied. He wanted to be paid.

“How much?” Doc asked nervously.

“How much do you have in your wallet?” Harlan replied.

Doc took out his wallet and checked. “Five dollars,” he said.

“I’ll take it,” Harlan told him. And he did.

“You had to open your big mouth,” I said to Doc, shaking my head with a bemused grin. We watched as Harlan walked off, pocketing the money.

It was the last time I ever saw him. 



UPDATE: Doc corrected me on some of the chronology of the events described above, so this post has been revised for the sake of accuracy. 


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2018.