A Common Sense 5-point Movie Rating System

Media products can be rated a thousand different ways. Every entertainment outlet has their own system, but most are some form of 5-point system, letter grades, or percentages out of 100.

Assigning a number to a media product is all well and good: everything can be numerated in some way. However, many rating systems are quite opaque as far as what these numbers mean. On some level, they reduce art to a single number that, if you think too hard about, is near meaningless.

A few years ago I created my own 5-point rating system for movies and television shows, and whenever I finish watching something, I can easily fit the product into a system that makes sense to me.

I thought I’d share it because maybe you, too, will find it helpful.

The 5-point system

The system goes from 0-5 in 0.5 increments, resulting in 11 steps. There’s also a 12th step, number 6, which is used in one special case. Let me list the ratings, plus a brief descriptor, before explaining what the steps mean.

0: Unrated

0.5: Dangerous Content

1.0: Offensive Content

1.5: Bad Plot, Bad Production

2: Bad Plot, Decent Production

2.5: Catch on TV

3: Watch Once

3.5: Watch a Second Time with a Friend

4: Own

4.5: Near Perfect

5: Live Your Life By

6: Watch for the Rest of Your Life

2.5, 3, and 3.5 Ratings

Let’s start at the middle of the scale, work our way up, then work our way down.

Movies and shows with a rating of 3 are only worth watching one time. These might be shows you watch because you want to see what the hype is all about, or you are somewhat interested in the premise. I would put a lot of superhero movies in this category: The Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight Rises.

Once I’ve seen these movies, I really have no desire to see them again. They provide a couple hours of entertainment but don’t stick with me.

Shows rated 3.5 are those that you’d watch a second time, primarily with another person. For example, I’ve seen most of the Twilight movies (I also read all the books). They aren’t great movies, by any means. They were worth watching once. However, if I had a friend who really wanted to see them, or was really passionate about them, I could stomach watching them a second time.

Watching them with somebody is the crucial distinction between 3 and 3.5. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see 3.5 movies again: they essentially function as 3 movies. But I would watch them again with somebody, not because I care about the movie or show all that much, but because I care about the friend and would want to participate in something that makes them happy.

2.5 movies and shows are those that you’d watch if you were flipping through the TV and happened to catch a rebroadcast of them. Maybe you’re home sick, or you’re in the hospital, or you have half an hour to kill at the hotel before meeting up with friends. These are movies or shows that you watch here and there, but don’t actively seek them out.

For example, I’ve watched a fair amount of Teen Titans Go on Cartoon Network over the years. The show has its funny moments, but I’m not drawn into the concept enough to actually seek out broadcasts of new episodes, and it’s certainly not a show I would buy.

A lot of action movies work best as 2.5 movies. Do you have any movies in your life that you’ve seen bits and pieces of on cable over the years, but you’ve never actually seen the beginning? A lot of 80s action movies fit this categorization for me.

4, 4.5, and 5 Ratings

Movies and shows with a rating of 4 are worth owning. You buy the DVDs or Blu-Rays, and you watch them over and over. They are shows that you’d like to see again whether by yourself or with another person.

Shows rated 5 are those that you live your life by. In other words, these are shows that inspire you, that change who you are on the inside. They are the shows that fill your head at night, the shows with universes you want to live in.

When it comes to anime, I own a lot of 5 rated shows: Cowboy Bebop, Death Note, Fullmetal Alchemist, The Legend of Korra, ThunderCats (2011), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012), and so on. For movies, the series that have changed me are Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix. I’ve very picky with what shows and movies I watch because ideally I only want to watch shows that I’d rate 5.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. That’s what the 4.5 rating is for. 4.5 shows are nearly perfect, you own them and rewatch them, and there are parts that influence your life. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (yes, even the third one!) fit this category for me, as do the Bourne movies. I can’t say these series are perfect, as they have some flaws, but these movies still inspire me.

0, 0.5, 1, 1.5, and 2 Ratings

So far, we’ve covered ratings for great movies and shows (4-5) and ratings for shows that are okay and watchable (2.5-3.5). The bottom 4 ratings (forgoing 0) are reserved for Bad shows.

A movie or show with a rating of 2 is one that you finish (or not) and have nothing really good to say about it. Generally these movies fail because of plot and lack of impact or emotional stakes. However, these movies are not necessarily technically bad.

For example, I rate the G.I.Joe reboot movies, and the Michael Bay Transformers movies, 2. They just aren’t good movies. Dull, forgettable, uninspired, insipid. They were, however, made competently: and lots of money went into the special effects. But all of those special effects can’t change the fact that the cores of these movies are forgettable.

1.5 movies and shows feature both bad plots and bad production. These are the kinds of movies that are painful to watch because there really is no redeeming quality to them. These are the type of shows that some people call “so bad they’re good,” or they are the kind of shows that people “hate-watch.” Frankly, I can’t stomach movies that are “so bad they’re good.” I understand the entertainment value only in a theoretical sense: actually trying to watch these movies is a mental chore that I cannot complete.

Movies and shows with a 1 rating are those that are worse than bad: they are offensive. Now, I’m not talking about movies with the occasional off-color joke, or a sitcom that uses racial humor a bit too much. An infrequent lapse of editorial judgment and discretion might knock a 3.5 movie down to a 3 or even 2.5 rating, but isn’t enough to doom a movie.

Rather, I’m talking about those movies and shows that are offensive throughout. The premise is offensive, and the movie or show makes you angry when you watch it. You could be offended for a variety of reasons: take your pick.

I have seen very few 1 rating shows over the years: these are the kind of shows I actively avoid. But sometimes I see one. I’m thinking of a movie like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US version). While many people believed that movie had something to say about violence against women, to me, the movie reveled in torture porn. All it did was point out that women experience sexual violence: no big headline there. The camera lingered on the violence for entertainment reasons, not for story reasons. And the turn in Lisbeth Salander to ruthless revenge wasn’t redeeming or cathartic; it was sad and misguided.

0.5 movies and shows, then, are those that go a bit beyond on the offensiveness scale. These are shows that are actually dangerous for people to watch because their messages are so toxic and vile that it makes you wonder why these shows got made in the first place. Not that everybody who sees such entertainment is going to turn into a deranged person. Rather, these are the kinds of shows that don’t do anything to better the lives of people who see them.

I’ve saved the 0 rating till now because it’s not really a rating: for me, 0 is equivalent to a non-rating. Shows that get 0 ratings are things like documentaries and the nightly news. It doesn’t make sense to rate them because you watch them for reasons other than entertainment.

The 6 Rating

I have one last rating, the 6. Originally when I created the 5 rating, I realized that I rate many shows and movies as 5: there’s just too much good stuff that’s inspired my life! However, if I had to select the cream of the crop, the absolute most influential show or movie, then I rate it a 6. There’s no 5.5: there’s a whole point difference between 5 and 6 to emphasize that a show rated a 6 is substantially better than anything rated 5.

I rate Avatar: The Last Airbender a 6. I fell in love with this show when I first saw it in 2009 and I’ve loved it ever since. If I could only watch one show or movie for the rest of my life, this would be it. This show is beyond perfect: it’s transcendent.

If you have a 6-rated show or movie, please share it with me! The 6 spot shouldn’t change frequently. 6-rated shows are those that are influential not only because of the plot, message, and so on, but it’s influential because of where you were at in your life when you first encountered the work. Many people have shows that they encountered at just the right time in their lives, shows that changed their destiny.

Avatar is that show for me.

That’s my rating system! It makes sense to me, and if it makes sense to you, all the better.


Review: Are the Star Wars Little Golden Books Appropriate for Kids?

As the world approached the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2015, Disney got a several month jump start on merchandising. Star Wars products started appearing everywhere, on everything. I was quite surprised to find that Star Wars had even taken over my local grocery store!

Next to the birthday cards was a little stand with Little Golden Books, that generations-old beloved children’s series. Among the 30 or so titles were Star Wars books! One for each movie!

The artwork in these books is great, but immediately a question arose in my mind: is Star Wars the best series to adapt for books largely targeted at preschoolers? All the films are there: even Revenge of the Sith, which is rated PG-13.

I love Star Wars, and I loved it as a child. But I wasn’t exposed to it until I was about 8 or 9 (and this was before the Prequel Trilogy came out).

After purchasing the books, and then reading them several times (they don’t take long), I’ve concluded that these adaptations are ultimately unsuccessful. The violence is toned down, so on that front, they are “safe” for kids. However, the Prequel Trilogy is so convoluted that I’m still not sure, after 15 years of puzzling over it, I understand all the plot points.

Boiling these complicated films down to 23-page stories for children is challenging. Let’s look at each book and see where the problems arise.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Cover of Star Wars The Phantom Menace Little Golden Book

The story opens with a shot of the Jedi flying to the Trade Federation command ship above Naboo. The classic words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” greet the reader. Followed by a massive block of text:

The peaceful planet of Naboo is under a blockage from the greedy Trade Federation! The Galactic Republic quickly sends Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to help. They are Jedi Knights, guardians of justice and masters of the Force—a power that connects all living things.

But when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan arrive, they are attacked by battle droids! The Jedi defend themselves with their lightsabers, but they are outnumbered and must flee the Trade Federation battleship.

Wow, already there’s a lot going on: and this is the first page! So many nouns are mentioned: could a child follow all of this? Most of the action is contained within the words, not the pictures. That entire second paragraph sounds pretty exciting. Too bad the only visual is a partial page illustration of Obi-Wan slicing one battle droid in half.

As the story progresses, it’s immediately clear what the problem is with these books: too many characters, not enough space to develop them. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Jar Jar Binks and Boss Noss. On pages 5-6, Queen Amidala and Viceroy Gunray. On pages 7-8, R2-D2, Darth Sidious, and Darth Maul.

On pages 9-10, we are introduced to five (!) new characters: Padmé, Anakin, Watto, C-3PO, and Shmi Skywalker It’s not until pages 11-12 that we get our first break in all the introductions: no new characters! Pages 11-12 cover the podracing sequence.

On page 13 we see Qui-Gon and Darth Maul duel for the first time, and then on page 14 it’s back to new characters. Yoda is mentioned by name, though two members of the Jedi Council are in the background, evaluating Anakin’s readiness for Jedi training.

We’re past the halfway point, and fortunately, no new characters are introduced the rest of the tale. But we’ve already had 15 named characters in as many pages: the book’s only 23 pages long!

As far as the adaptation goes, the book sticks close to the movie. We see Padmé reveal herself as Amidala to the Gungans. Then the Jedi battle Darth Maul and the Gungans fight the droid army. Anakin even gets two pages where he goes to space and destroys the droid control ship!

On pages 21-22, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan finish the duel with Darth Maul. The illustration is striking, but look at how much text is used to explain the action:

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan battle Darth Maul

In the palace, the Jedi fight Darth Maul together. But the Sith Lord is driven by the power of anger and hate. Darth Maul strikes Qui-Gon down with his double-sided lightsaber and knocks Obi-Wan into a deep pit. Just when it seems that Obi-Wan is defeated, the Jedi springs into action and destroys Darth Maul with one mighty blow!

Obi-Wan runs to his master’s side. With his last breath, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to train Anakin as a Jedi.

Now you see how the story avoids mentioning the stabbing of Qui-Gon and the slicing of Darth Maul in two.

The story ends with the main characters celebrating on Naboo. Boss Nass holds up that glowy sphere thing (no explanation of what that is, of course, just like in the movie).

The artwork in the book is fantastic: praise goes to illustrator Heather Martinez. But instead of telling a coherent story, adapter Courtney Carbone tried to fit all the major plot points in. While she did the best with what she had to work with, maybe the real problem is The Phantom Menace itself: maybe it can’t be simplified in a coherent way.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Little Golden Book

AotC opens with Padmé arriving on Coruscant, now a senator, no longer a queen. Her ship blows up, but she survives! No mention of her body double dying, however.

As in The Phantom Menace, the first few sentences of this book are incredibly dense:

The galaxy is divided. Many planets are leaving the Republic to join the Separatist movement.

I’m not sure if preschoolers understand what a Republic is, or what a Separatist movement entails. And if they’re already confused, tough cookies: the book will never explain it.

Maybe the problem isn’t with the book: maybe it’s with me. As I read those first couple sentences I realized that I still don’t fully understand what the central conflict of the Prequel Trilogy is. In TPM, some group called the Trade Federation was blocking trade to Naboo. Who is the Trade Federation? I still don’t know. Why did they not want to trade with Naboo? And why did they have their own army?

In AotC, the Separatists uses droids, and our pal Viceroy Gunray appears here and there. So did the Trade Federation become the Separatist movement? Why do the Separatists want to separate from the Republic? Is it because the Republic told them in TPM that they can’t blockade a planet?

And why does the Republic care if a few planets decide to leave: do they not have that freedom? After all, from the looks of the Senate chambers, it appears that there are thousands of systems in the Republic already.

I’m so confused.

Anyway, back to the story. Like TPM, AotC introduces a ton of named characters: 15 in this book as well. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Obi-Wan and Anakin. R2 is seen in the background, as is the assassin droid that tries to kill Padmé.

On pages 5-6 we meet the assassin, Zam Wesell—hey, I learned something! I never knew what that assassin’s name was.

Page 7 shows us the entirety of Padmé and Anakin’s love story on Naboo. Palpatine is mentioned, but never seen (the first book didn’t mention him at all).

On page 8 we are introduced to Jango and Boba Fett, and see the Kaminoans in the background, along with the clone troopers. Hey, we’re making some progress! At least that overweight alien diner cook Jax isn’t mentioned.

AotC is more action-focused than TPM, and perhaps that’s a reflection of the movie being more streamlined. Pages 9-10 show Obi-Wan and Jango battle, both on land and in space.

Pages 11-12 show Anakin’s showdown with the Sand People. I always thought that this was the point in the Prequel Trilogy that Anakin irrevocably turned to the Dark Side. I actually like that scene a lot; it’s powerful. The book, naturally, sanitizes it for young readers:

The young Jedi races into the desert to rescue his mother, but he is too late. He finds her just in time to say goodbye. Anakin feels rage and anger growing inside him—and that is not the way of the Jedi.

On pages 13-14 we’re introduced to more characters: Dooku, C-3PO, and the Geonosians. Mace Windu shows up on page 17.

Pages 13-22 are more tightly focused than TPM. For half the book we are on Geonosis: we see Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan get captured, then they escape the area. The Jedi descend to fight the droids. Then Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda fight Count Dooku. There are fewer new characters introduced, and this part might be the easiest for children to follow, as the plot is at least coherent, though the extreme violence of this part of the movie is missing.

Here’s how Jango Fett’s death is described:

Jango Fett tries to blast Mace, but the Jedi Master is much too powerful and strikes the bounty hunter down with one blow!

The accompanying visual is Jango on one page, shooting his blasters, and Mace on the other side, deflecting blaster shots with his lightsaber.

One part that I thought was funny was this panel:

Count Dooki fights Obi-Wan and Anakin with lightsabers.

Count Dooku has twin crimson lightsabers? I don’t remember that part of the movie! The only person in that fight with two sabers is Anakin after he picks up Obi-Wan’s. I’m sure it’s an honest mistake, but I think its humorous when children’s books have errors of fact like this. After all, how long does it take to copy edit a children’s book?

The book ends with Anakin’s marriage to Padmé on Naboo. His robot hand is not shown.

Overall, this book is slightly better than TPM due to its more focused plot. But it still introduces a bantha load of characters when it doesn’t have the space to develop more than a handful of them.

Let’s conclude this review by looking at the final book, based on the most violent film in the trilogy.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Little Golden Book cover

The story opens with a beautiful picture of the chaotic space battle over Coruscant. After the obligatory Star Wars beginning, little readers are once again greeted with a dense two-paragraph intro the introduces a ton of characters and political terms:

War rages between the Separatist army and the Galactic Republic. Evil General Grievous and his droid army have just captured Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galatic Senate! The brave Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker blast off in their starfighters to rescue him.

With the help of their astromech droid R2-D2, Anakin and Obi-Wan evade the Separatist vulture droids and land on General Grievous’s flagship.

On page 3, there’s an illustration of Anakin and Dooku clashing with sabers. The text summarizes Dooku’s defeat, beheading unmentioned:

Vwoosh! Dooku attacks with his crimson lightsaber. Obi-Wan is knocked aside, but Anakin defeats Dooku on his own.

This book makes some quick cuts to the plot of the movie. After Anakin lands Grievous’ ship on Coruscant and says hello to Padmé, the immediate next page introduces us to Yoda and Chewbacca fighting on Kashyyyk. The page after that shows Obi-Wan on Utapau riding the lizard thing. At least I learned something else from these books: that lizard is called a varactyl.

From there, Obi-Wan fights Grievous on page 9, and Palpatine reveals to Anakin on page 10 that he’s Darth Sidious.

The plot of pages 11-12 are hamstrung by LGB’s obvious need to censor the violence. On page 11, Mace Windu enters Sidious’ office and attacks him: Sidious stands opposite him on page 12. But then with no explanation, Sidious suddenly looks different on the bottom of page 12:

Anakin kneels before Sidious.

The Sith Lord sends Mace Windu crashing through a window! Anakin kneels before his new master.

Why does Sidiou look different? Who knows? No explanation is given for the preschool readers. Maybe the publishers think that little kids are too stupid to notice the character change.

From here, the story hews closely to the plot of the movie. Anakin attacks the Jedi temple. Order 66 is issued (though it’s not called that in the book). Sidious declares himself Emperor, and Obi-Wan and Anakin fight on Mustafar.

The Mustafar battle is interesting: four illustrations are provided of Anakin and Obi-Wan battling, just various lightsaber poses. Then two pages later we are introduced to Darth Vader in robotic suit. Here’s the explanation given for why Anakin now looks differently:

“I hate you!” Anakin cries.

Saddened that he had to destroy his friend, Obi-Wan leaves the planet with Padmé.

At least on the two-page spread when the Emperor greets the new robotic Vader readers are not subjected to Vader’s infamous “Noooooo!”

The book ends with the introduction of yet two more characters: Owen Lars and his wife (unnamed) holding a baby Luke while Obi-Wan smiles in the background.


I’m being a little harsh and nit-picky on these books, I realize. They are children’s books after all. But Star Wars, especially the Prequel Trilogy, is not appropriate for preschoolers, the 2-5 age bracket that the books are targeted at. It’s inappropriate not just because of the violence, but because of the complexity of the films as far as the politics go.

I wouldn’t say these books are without merit, though. I think the target audience is actually adults like myself. As summaries of the films go, they are accurate, and again, the artwork is amazing.

The Little Golden Book format doesn’t seem conducive to summarizing two-hour science fiction movies. A better take would be shorter stories, based on certain characters in the Star Wars universe, that are better suited to the reading and cognitive level of preschoolers.

Thankfully, such a series exists. LGB recently released their “I am” series of Star Wars books: I am a Droid, I am a Jedi, and I am a Pilot. And more are forthcoming this summer. I haven’t seen these books in the store yet, but based on Amazon reviews, it seems these books are a better match for their target audience.

For $5 each, the movie adaptation books are a fun bit of nostalgia for adult audiences. If I pick up the books based on the Original Trilogy, I suspect I’ll have more affinity for them based on my overall appreciation of that trilogy.

Has anybody else read any of the Star Wars Little Golden Books? What’s your assessment of their quality?


Post Conflict World Building: The Force Awakens vs. The Legend of Korra

When a major fantasy series reaches its conclusion, the viewer is often left with a feeling of optimism. The foes have been vanquished, evil is defeated, and our heroes finally have peace. But what happens when that fantasy series is so popular that viewers demand a sequel? How can the writers continue to build their world after the major conflict is resolved?

Star Wars fans have long been preoccupied with this question. After Return of the Jedi ended there was a slew of media products that continued the stories of Luke, Han, Leia, and the others. When Episode VII: The Force Awakens was announced, fans received some devastating, but also curious news: the Expanded Universe would have no bearing on the story of Episode VII. J.J. Abrams and crew were starting fresh, picking up the story 30 years after Jedi.

However, in throwing out the canonical mythology of Star Wars, Abrams’ team created a huge challenge: how do they make The Force Awakens exciting given that the Empire has been defeated? And how can they possibly top the tension and conflict felt in the Original Trilogy?

I’m of the opinion that The Force Awakens, for all of its strengths, made several missteps in its attempt to continue the Star Wars mythology in the wake of the Empire’s collapse.

But before I explain why, I want to examine the post-conflict world building present in the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel, The Legend of Korra. The creators of Korra faced a similar challenge to Abram’s team, and found a way to make Korra feel fresh, even though the central conflict of Airbender was long resolved.

The Fire Nation and the Hundred Year War

Avatar: The Last Airbender (TLA) is a fantasy martial arts show about a world made up of four people groups: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Each society is centered around one of the four elements. The Avatar’s job is to keep the world in balance. The intro explains it concisely.

However, before TLA begins, the world is thrown into chaos. The Fire Nation declares war on the world. They commit genocide and wipe out the Air Nomads. Then over the course of a hundred years, they wage war on the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom.

Aang, the Avatar, ran away from his duties and accidentally froze himself in ice. There he remained, hidden in the sea, for a hundred years, until two Water Tribe peasants freed him.

The central conflict of TLA is clear: the Fire Nation is on the verge of conquering the world, and the Avatar has to stop them.

In fact, at the end of Season 2 (of 3), the Fire Nation succeeds, finally conquering the Earth Kingdom, by far the largest people group. The situation is hopeless, but Aang and friends manage to defeat the Fire Lord and end the war.

The series ends with our heroes hopeful for the future. They know that the world must be rebuilt, and know it will take a lot of effort.

Korra picks up the story 70 years later

TLA was hugely successful for Nickelodeon, and it’s my favorite animated series of all time. The show is perfect in its execution, from the story to the visuals to the music to the voice acting to the characters.

When Nick announced in 2010 that Avatar was receiving a sequel, I was excited, though I had some trepidation. How could The Legend of Korra possibly live up to the scope of TLA? The original series was about saving the world, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher: a hundred year war, a missing avatar, the destruction of an entire people group, and the conquering of the biggest nation.

The short answer is: Korra could never create a conflict greater than TLA. The creators—Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko—knew this, and they didn’t try.

Korra takes place 70 years after TLA. Aang is dead, as are many of his friends. A new avatar, Korra, has been reborn. She’s now charged with keeping the world in balance.

Korra ran for four seasons, 52 episodes, almost as long as TLA’s run (61 episodes). Instead of having one central conflict, Korra instead has four smaller conflicts. These conflicts never begin to approach the scope of TLA, and that’s okay. By having more tightly focused conflicts, the creators showed us more of the world, and exposed the characters to new challenges that didn’t come up in TLA.

Stories, at their core, are about characters, and DiMartino and Konietzko created an ensemble cast of characters who felt like real people. Just because Korra didn’t have as big of a conflict as TLA didn’t mean the show was automatically lesser than TLA (side note, Korra is a lesser show than TLA, but that has more to do with pacing and story problems, as well as a botched production and release schedule).

The four conflicts in Korra show us new facets of the world and are interesting in their own right. Season 1 is about an anti-bender revolution that believes that the benders, the heroes of the Hundred Years War, are bad people. Season 2 is about a civil war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes about which tribe should control access to the Spirit World. Season 3 is about overthrowing the government and throwing the world into chaos. Season 4 is about the rise of a totalitarian Earth Empire.

The story of TLA also continued in the comics. We see the struggles of Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang as they annex land from the Earth Kingdom to make Republic City, a place where people of all nations can live. We see the creation of Toph’s metalbending school. Each new arc in the comics explores consequences of the fall of the Fire Nation.

The creators of TLA found meaningful ways to continue the story, world building, and characters in both a sequel TV series and comics. So far, the Avatar mythology hasn’t tried to top the central conflict of the first story, and that’s for the better.

With that background, let’s look at how The Force Awakens struggled in its execution, namely in trying to make a conflict bigger than the Original Trilogy in a way that didn’t make logical sense.

Star Wars’ post-Empire challenge

When Star Wars: A New Hope begins, the stakes are set incredibly high, and it’s very clear from the opening scene what they are. The Empire is a massive, all-powerful operation. The Rebels are a ragtag group of freedom fighters with dirty, substandard ships. Midway through the movie, the Empire demonstrates the height of their power: they can blow up entire planets.

The Rebels have a brief victory in the destruction of the Death Star, but in The Empire Strikes Back their base gets destroyed, and in Return of the Jedi the Empire has already rebuilt their planet-killing machine.

By the end of the movie, all the conflicts are resolved: the Emperor is killed, Darth Vader is redeemed, and the second Death Star is destroyed. Similarly to TLA, the viewer is treated to an optimistic few minutes of denouement. Leia and Han fall in love, Luke mourns his father and sees the ghosts of his trainers, and the galaxy celebrates the fall of the Empire.

The viewer feels good: all the conflicts are resolved, right?

Well, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thought to realize that ROTJ doesn’t definitively end the conflict. Sure, the Emperor is dead and the Death Star is gone, but the Empire is huge. There are millions of soldiers spread across the galaxy, and countless Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters. And as anybody knows from history, toppling a dictator isn’t the end of any country’s struggles. All it does is create a power vacuum.

The Expanded Universe understood this. The first EU novels I read were Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, which concern Grand Admiral Thrawn, who attempts to pull together the last vestiges of the Empire to resist the New Republic. When I read those novels, the storyline of the EU instantly made sense: the Rebel’s actions at the end of ROTJ did not fully defeat the Empire. It would take years to recover from a generation of tyranny.

The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after ROTJ. Just as the Legend of Korra couldn’t replicate the magnitude of the conflict in TLA, there’s no way that the new Star Wars trilogy could replicate the magnitude of conflict in the Original Trilogy.

But that didn’t stop Abrams and team from trying.

The Force Awaken’s missteps

Star Wars is a series where you have to suspend your disbelief in many ways. It’s not science fiction: the way spaceships jet in and out of hyperspace like it’s no big deal wouldn’t actually work.

So it might be reading into it a bit too much, but researchers have calculated what the cost of building two Death Stars would be, and the amount is staggering. One estimate is $419 quintillion (billion billion). I’m not exactly sure how big the galaxy of Star Wars is, but even if there were thousands of systems containing intelligent life paying taxes to the Empire, this is an awfully large sum of money.

And the Rebels blew up both projects! The result should be a galaxy-wide economic depression, one that would take generations to recover from.

Considering that, how did the First Order manage to rise up in the first place? Sure, there would’ve been a power vacuum after the defeat of the Emperor. It’s reasonable to conclude, as the Hand of Thrawn series did, that splinter groups would arise.

The First Order, though, isn’t made up of the leftover parts of the Empire. Their ships are new, the stormtrooper armor is new, and somehow they found the resources to create an even more powerful weapon than the Death Star, one that can destroy not one planet at a time, but multiple planets and/or moons! And it also destroys suns in the process.

Our hero Finn says that he’s been raised since birth to be a stormtrooper. He looks about 20 in the film, so considering that The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Jedi, that means that the First Order must have arisen very near the beginning. How else would they be so organized that they are already raising babies to be stormtroopers?

For all the flaws that the Prequel Trilogy had, one thing they did well was show how Palpatine slowly, over the course of a decade, set all the pieces in place for the rise of his Empire. We see in Attack of the Clones that Palpatine was already planning the creation of the first Death Star, something that wouldn’t be complete until some 25 years later.

The First Order, then, would’ve had considerably less capital to work with than Palpatine did, given that the galaxy would likely be in an economic depression (not to mention the political chaos caused by the formation of the New Republic). And yet somehow the First Order was able to achieve dominance faster, and to a greater extent, than the Empire before it.

Abrams and crew, by the end of The Force Awakens, have somehow created a threat greater than the Empire ever was, but in a way that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

How the Force Awakens should’ve approached world building

The EU was on the right track with the understanding that the Empire wouldn’t completely collapse overnight. Others would attempt to fill the power vacuum, using the remnants of the Empire’s force.

And the New Republic, while its goals were certainly noble, would have a difficult time actually establishing a galaxy-wide government. How exactly could one government somehow maintain control of so many disparate systems? In The Phantom Menace, we saw that the Old Republic couldn’t even handle a simple trade dispute on a backwoods planet.

The Force Awakens should’ve began with both the fledgling New Republic and the resistant First Order each vying for power. And there would be no “Resistance” separate from the New Republic. Why would the New Republic be financing a secret organization that shares their same goals for peace in the galaxy? Why exactly didn’t the New Republic have an army, considering that many people would remember how well it worked out for the Old Republic when they didn’t have an army?

The Prequel Trilogy was criticized, rightfully so, for having far too much politics, far too much talking and legislating. Those criticisms have been well-voiced the past 15 years.

The Force Awakens, however, shows us absolutely nothing about how the New Republic functions. The viewer is treated to about 10 seconds of footage about the New Republic. We see a new planet and a new city that we know nothing about. We see dozens of people standing on a balcony, presumably the leaders of the New Republic? And then there’s a flash of light as the planets are vaporized by Starkiller Base.

It’s like Abrams wanted to reset the Star Wars universe as quickly as possible, to return us to the classic conflict of the Underdogs vs. a repressive Empire. The Legend or Korra recognized that it couldn’t top a Hundred Years War, so it didn’t even try. The Force Awakens did try, and hurt itself in the process.

The Force Awakens actually succeeded the most at world building in the first few minutes that we meet Rey. We see her scavenging through a deserted Star Destroyer and selling the parts. As she speeds into town, we see several downed Star Destroyers, the artifacts of a war a generation removed. Rey even lives in a broken down AT-AT!

Downed Star Destroyer in The Force Awakens

Those first few minutes with Rey are my favorite part of the movie. They provide a glimpse of how far the galaxy has to go in healing itself from the Empire. And isn’t that how military conflicts in real life resolve, after decades and decades of rebuilding? After all, the Great Wall of China was designed to protect the country against invaders. Post-World War II Germany was segregated into Eastern and Western sections for two generations. Many countries in Asia still have landmines buried from the result of wars long past.

And many nations around the world, including the United States, are still using military equipment that’s several generations old! The First Order shouldn’t be outfitted with shiny new black Star Destroyers. They should be using equipment from the Empire days that’s visibly degraded. You know how Han’s Millennium Falcon is always breaking down? Why aren’t the TIE Fighters doing the same thing?

The Force Awakens should’ve opened with a scrappy New Republic, struggling to keep everything hanging together. And the aggressors should’ve been the remnants of the Empire, jury rigging whatever equipment they could find just to keep their army functioning.

The citizens of the New Republic should be frustrated with the lack of progress that the galaxy’s made in recovering from the Empire. And the First Order should step in to show them a clear alternative, a group of people who believes they can return the galaxy to the glory days of the Empire.

There’s a scene right before the Starkiller Base fires when General Hux, dressed in black, gives a stirring speech about the majesty of power to crowds of assembled troops. Abrams was clearly drawing off Nazi imagery, and I think the Nazis provide a useful, albeit clichéd, lens for understanding the First Order. That’s fine, but Abrams misstepped by paralleling the Nazis at the height of their power: he should’ve paralleled the Nazis during their rise to power.

In the 1930s, Hitler arose to speak to the needs and desires of the German people. He promised a return to glory. He spoke to people who were fed up with the economic depression they were experiencing, caused in part by crippling debt from World War I.

I don’t think Starkiller Base was the correct plot device in the Force Awakens. It should’ve been something much smaller scale—after all, how can the Star Wars team possibly top this conflict by Episode IX? It would’ve been wise, though, if the First Order, by the end of the movie, managed to destroy, or at least significantly damage, the fragile New Republic.

Then, in Episode VIII, we’d see a shift in power. The New Republic and the First Order are no longer co-equals. The First Order clearly has the advantage, and the collapsing New Republic becomes the seed of the new Resistance.

The Force Awakens has already succeeded in introducing several new lovable, human, relatable characters. The Legend of Korra proved that if you have strong characters and strong relationships, you can still have a successful story, even if the scope of the conflict doesn’t match the level of the previous series.

If only the Force Awakens had shown similar discretion.


Lost Star Wars comics: The Return of Fett; with author’s commentary!

I was digging through some old papers last week and came across this gem from yester-decade: my Star Wars comic!

The comic was my attempt at answering that age-old question: What happened to Boba Fett after he fell in the sarlacc pit?

The comic is undated, but it had to be pre-Star Wars: Episode 2, so before 2002. The reason I know this is that I, like many others, often wondered what Boba Fett looked like under his helmet (revealed in this comic!), and Episode 2 answered that question. I was in 10th grade when Episode 2 came out, but I’m guessing I did this comic in 8th or 9th grade.

The comic was planned to be a trilogy, but as you’ll see soon, I never finished issue 2. I have no idea how the story was supposed to end.

I’m posting the comic here for your viewing pleasure. Hopefully it adds a bit of levity to your day!

Part 1: The Return of Fett

Boba Fett comic


As you can see, I had high hopes for this comic! It’s both a Special Edition cover, and an issue 0!

Boba Fett comic

What an action-packed opening! Fett is being slowly digested by the sarlacc, but with the help of his blaster and jet pack he escapes! He’s obviously been in here for awhile, having lost his foot and finger. Why he didn’t try to escape earlier before losing his foot, I don’t know.

Boba Fett comic


Under the hot Tatooine sun, Boba Fett begins his march back to civilization. I was really proud of the alternating footprint/bloodprint in the sand. In panel 2, there’s the big reveal of Fett’s identity. As you can see, I was a bit influenced by Cloud‘s design from Final Fantasy VII.

Who’s that attacking in panel 4?

Boba Fett comic

Oh no, the sand people! It’s a little hard to tell in panel 3, but a robotic hand grabs the head of the staff, then gives Boba Fett a hand! Take that!

Boba Fett comic

In panels 1-3, we see the mysterious stranger give Boba Fett a ride to Jabba’s palace. This robot guy is never seen again. I just as curious as you are about who this person is, why s/he helped Boba Fett, and what the relevance is to the overall plot. As it stands, it’s simply a deus ex machina.

In panel 3, the windshield is missing. Maybe Boba Fett kicked it out with his bloody stump.

The transition between panels 4 and 5 is pretty abrupt. Apparently they just let Boba Fett right into the palace and showed him to the shipyard.

When I was a kid, I really didn’t know how to draw complicated machinery. One technique I used over and over again was making a “maze” on the surface of a machine, as seen on Slave 1, and later in this comic as well.

Oh, and apparently Boba Fett’s foot is back in panel 5. I guess Luke Skywalker has a robotic hand, so maybe the people at Jabba’s palace fixed up Boba Fett. Considering his bombastic entrance, though, I chalk up the additional foot as “artistic license.”

Boba Fett comic

Boba Fett’s reaction in panel 2 is a little obtuse. He just shot somebody and he’s flying off in his ship, and now he’s mad that somebody is shooting at him? What a hypocrite!

Okay, let’s address the elephant in panel 3: how is Jabba back to life? I was a pretty big Star Wars fan as a kid: I should’ve known better not to make such a continuity error like that!

Oh well, let’s press on to the great negotiation between Jabba and Fett! This is probably my favorite part of the comic, how big of a pushover Jabba is when it comes to negotiating.

Boba Fett comic

The big space battle! Han Solo and Chewie are flying around the galaxy, not sure where in the continuity this is, and the rebels are fighting the Empire. I really had fun drawing all the different mini-battles on this page. TIE Fighters crash into each other on the bottom, the X-Wing is on fire, and I think another X-Wing blew up in the lower left.

That TIE Fighter design in the middle left is borrowed from a Star Wars comic, perhaps Shadows of the Empire. That’s where I learned to draw the laser blasts as trapezoids to make them look like they are flying at the viewer. I guess I had so much fun with that design I decided to do it half a dozen times.

Boba Fett comic

Boba Fett shows up and decides this is his chance to catch Han Solo again. But in panel 4, it’s revealed that the Empire is trying to get Solo, too, and no longer wants any help from Fett (despite how it looks, that’s supposed to be a TIE pilot, not a squid-head).

Failing to heed their warnings, the Empire fires on Fett’s Slave 1, causing him to crash into the Millennium Falcon. The two ships spiral down to the planet of Gall, which I borrowed fromShadows of the Empire for the Nintendo 64.

Boba Fett comic

A cliffhanger ending! Boba Fett and Han Solo, each falling toward Gall in their burning ships. Will they survive? Will Boba Fett catch Solo a second time, or will Han Solo escape? Find out in Part 2 of the Boba Fett Trilogy!

Part 2: Double Bounty

Boba Fett comic

After the success of Part 1, I immediately started on Part 2. This cover isn’t as good as the first. An iconic stormtrooper pose, to be sure, but he’s kind of leaning to the side and isn’t centered very well on the cover.

Boba Fett comic

In the last episode, Boba Fett and Han Solo got into a space entanglement and ended up crashing into each other. Falling quickly toward the surface of Gall, Boba Fett ejects from the Slave 1 just in time (his landing in panel 5 could be a little more graceful).

Remember, Boba Fett is trying to recollect the bounty on Han Solo for the (resurrected?) Jabba the Hutt.

In panel 8, apparently Boba Fett has a camera. He assumes that Han Solo is about to die, so he snaps some pictures of the flaming Millennium Falcon. His intention was to turn these photos into Jabba as proof that Han Solo was eliminated, allowing him to collect on the bounty.

Boba Fett comic

The unfinished final page. Boba Fett needs a new ship, so he plans on stealing one from the Empire. He blasts his way past a couple stormtroopers, and that’s it!

I do remember vaguely the plot of this issue. Boba Fett was going to find a ship, and then inadvertently come across Han Solo, who miraculously survived the crash. The Imperials clearly were looking for Han Solo, so Boba Fett was going to capture Han Solo again, turn him into the Empire, collect on a bounty the Empire had out for Solo (?), then go to Jabba with the pictures and collect the bounty on Solo again, tricking Jabba into thinking Han Solo was dead while giving the live Solo to the Empire (the “double bounty” spoken of on the cover).

And as for part 3, I’ll let you fill in the conclusion. Your guess is as good as mine.


Retro Review: Carrie (1976): Were Carrie’s Actions Justified?

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for many years, but it was only recently that I read his first novel, Carrie (1974). Despite being his first published novel, I actually thought it aged very well, and is even better than some of his more recent stuff. King has a tendency to write bloated novels: he gets so absorbed in the minutia of his characters’ lives that he forgets about the overall plot arc, and usually ends his novels in some quick and cheating way.

Carrie, though, was short, sweet, and to the point. The premise of the novel made a perfectly fine horror movie, albeit some small changes to the story.

With the release of the new Carrie, I thought it time to watch the original myself. In this review, I don’t want to focus on the merits of the movie: that ground has been tread before. Instead, I want to focus on one specific question: were Carrie’s actions at the prom justified?

(Full spoilers below)

Retribution on the bullies

For those of you who haven’t seen or read Carrie, but are continuing to read despite knowing there are spoilers–here’s what we’re talking about. Carrie is a quiet, shy high school senior who has her first period while in the gym locker room. Carrie freaks out because, astoundingly, she has never heard of a period before. The other girls make fun of her, throwing tampons at her, yelling “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie bullied in the shower.

Carrie’s gym teacher stands up for her and punishes the girls. The focus of the story, though, is prom night. The girls want revenge on Carrie, so they set her up with a prom date and rig the voting so that she gets crowned prom queen.

Carrie's asked out by Tommy Ross

Carrie’s asked out by Tommy Ross.

Unbeknownst to Carrie, some of the kids slaughtered a pig, collected its blood, and stored the blood in a bucket above the prom stage. As Carrie is crowned queen, amidst applause and cheers from her entire school, the bucket of blood is dumped on her.

Ever since Carrie was first humiliated in the shower, she has developed telekinetic powers. Upset that she was so publicly humiliated on her senior prom, she exacts revenge on her classmates. She closes the gym doors telekinetically, electrocutes a couple students, which then starts a fire. She escapes the gym and keeps the doors closed while her classmates burn up inside.

Carrie closes the gym doors.

A white-eyed Carrie closes the gym doors.

After leaving the school, Carrie kills two more students who try to run her over. This is where the rampage ends in the movie, but in the book, Carrie takes it several steps farther. She wanders around, blowing up gas stations. She also breaks all the fire hydrants, releasing all the stored water into the streets, so that the fire trucks don’t have any water to use. The book mentions that over 400 people died during her rampage, including half her high school class.

Neither the book nor the movie make any suggestion that the bullying of Carrie is justified. She is innocent in that regard and has done nothing to earn the ridicule, other than being a quiet, slightly distant girl. There are a few in every school.

I return, then, to the central question: was Carrie, an innocent victim of bullying, justified in killing hundreds of people?

The sin of bullying: Treating people as objects

On the surface, it appears the answer is, “no.” While bullying is bad, the crime doesn’t fit Carrie’s retribution. Even if we found a way to justify Carrie’s punishment of those few students directly involved in the incident, do the hundreds of other people, who merely laughed at her, deserve death?

The nature of punishment, though, depends upon our foundation for justice. Who determines right and wrong, and who determines punishment? Before discussing Carrie’s actions, it’s important to understand why bullying is a sin.

Bullying can take many forms: physical, verbal, sexual, mental. A person can be bullied by an individual or a group, in private or in public, by a peer, by a superior, or even by somebody with less status, as in the case when students bully a teacher, for instance. Bullying is multifaceted, and the permutations of how the bullying happens can be thousands. But what is the essence of bullying? What is it really about?

Bullying appears to be about power, about one person having power–and using that power–over another. While there is an element of power to bullying, I don’t think power is the root. Power might be the root of war, assault, domestic violence, but bullying is a bit different. Bullying is more about pride. The bully thinks s/he is superior to the victim, and the bully objectivizes the victim by treating them as an object of humor. The bully takes pride in himself, and uses the victim for his own satisfaction. The bully dehumanizes the victim.

In a way, bullying is akin to idolatry. The bully puts herself in a position of dominance, one she actually does not possess, and she recreates the victim, turning the victim from a person into an object, an object to be used, enjoyed, and discarded. It’s similar to how an idolator fashions a god out of stone: the idolator does not possess this power to refashion and recreate objects in their own image, yet the idolator attempts the immoral recreation anyway.

The students at Carrie’s school think they are superior to her. They know something about a woman’s anatomy that she does not, and they use their knowledge and supposed dominance to recreate Carrie into an object of laughter and scorn.

In the second instance of bullying, the students are mad at Carrie for getting them in trouble. They cover her in pig’s blood, making her humiliation complete. What’s so devastating about this second instance of bullying is how fast Carrie fell: she was on top of the world, suspicious but appreciative to be going to prom, to be asked out by a cute guy, to be crowned prom queen: none of these things she expected. She’s never felt this good about herself in her life, and moments later, feels the worst she’s ever felt.

Carrie's school cheers

The masses cheer for Carrie the prom queen.

That immediate change from an object of admiration to an object of ridicule made something in her snap.

Carrie the prom queen.

Carrie’s perch at the top of the high school social order was short-lived.

The hand of the Lord

In Christian and Jewish theology, any sin is deserving of punishment. The Old Testament emphasizes justice for the downtrodden, and the New Testament confirms that any sin is punishable by death. Maybe not immediately: people are given second chances. But every sin earns a penalty, and that penalty must be paid before a person’s life expires. Because people cannot pay the penalty themselves–the debt is too high–Jesus steps in to cover the penalty. All He asks is for acceptance and obedience in return.

By this theology, then, the students at Carrie’s school, from the student who slaughtered the pig and set up the blood down to the masses who merely laughed at her, all deserve punishment.

The Old Testament is filled with examples of the Lord using rival nations to punish Israel for her sin. Israel is invaded over and over again. The Lord uses the armies of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Canaan, and more to punish the Israelites for their sin.

When Carrie tells her mother about her powers, Mama says the powers are from Satan. Carrie disagrees, saying the powers are her own. It’s certainly possible that in this worldview, the students are deserving of some kind of punishment, and the Lord is using Carrie to carry out that punishment.

Carrie covered in blood

A shocked and humiliated Carrie, covered in pig’s blood.

It should be noted that Stephen King is a Christian. While he says he’s not interested in “organized” religion, he does include a lot of Christian themes in his writings. I once heard somebody say that horror stories are modern day morality plays: the immoral masses (kids who drink, fornicate, bully, rob, rape, or commit any number of other sins) are killed off one by one by whatever monster is the star of that film. Usually the only people to survive horror stories are the “righteous,” those teens or adults who have a strong moral compass and don’t comprise like other characters.

Carrie in the burning gym

Carrie calmly walks through the burning gym.

In this worldview, then, Carrie’s actions may be justified, even if they seem harsh at first glance. Carrie’s story is a justice fantasy for anybody who’s ever been bullied: the bullies, from the greatest to the least, get the punishment they deserve. But our analysis doesn’t end here: we still must discuss the overt religious themes present in Carrie, most notably in her religious mother.

Mama: the religious “fanatic”

Carrie’s mother, called by Carrie “Mama,” is what many people term a “religious fanatic.” She prays a lot, quotes Scripture, preaches fire and brimstone, and evangelizes door to door. All of the reviews refer to Mama as a fanatic.

But what exactly does this mean? Just because somebody is devoted to their religion doesn’t necessarily make them a fanatic. Just because somebody spends a lot of time thinking about spiritual matters doesn’t make them a fanatic either. This term is meant as a diminishing term: it’s something reviewers use to look down upon Mama. Mama is the bad guy, the ultimate bad guy, even more so than Carrie’s bullies. Mama is not a character we are supposed to relate to.

What exactly is it about Mama, then, that makes her so hated? It’s not so much that she’s a devoted Christian: Carrie is also a devoted Christian, but nobody terms her a religious fanatic. Mama’s religion, though, seems to get in the way of common sense. Mama says that Carrie’s period is punishment for sin, the sin visited upon all women by Eve’s original sin, intercourse (in Mama’s theology: she quotes from some book that’s not in the Bible to back up this theology).

Carrie and Mama pray.

Mama prays with Carrie.

Mama also seems abusive to Carrie: Carrie receives not only verbal abuse from Mama, but is frequently locked in the “prayer closet” until she repents of her sins.

Carrie's prayer closet

Mama drags Carrie into the prayer closet.

While Mama’s sins against Carrie appear unforgivable, everybody has sin. At some point every family member sins against another. What’s most troubling about Mama, then, is not that she spends a lot of time thinking about God, teaching (her) Christian principles to Carrie, or even that she sins against Carrie from time to time. Mama’s sin is this: she’s missed the boat completely when it comes to Christianity.

Christianity is about forgiveness. Christianity acknowledges that sin is real, and certainly nobody is justified in their sin: all need repentance. But Mama does not know the word forgiveness. She only acknowledges sin, then seeks punishment. True Christianity is about acknowledging sin, acknowledging the punishment that we all deserve, and then acknowledging that Jesus took that punishment for us.

Mama seems only to have read the Old Testament, not the New Testament.

Carrie still believes in Mama

When Carrie returns from the prom, she washes the pig’s blood off then finds Mama. She cries before Mama, saying, “You were right: the people did laugh at me, just like you said they would.” At first, it appears that Mama is sympathetic to Carrie: she even hugs her daughter briefly. But then she lets go, and starts in with her theology again. Carrie requests over and over for Mama to hold her, to comfort her. And Mama does, but only until she can grab a knife and literally stab Carrie in the back.

Mama stabs Carrie in the back.

Carrie’s life is now in danger. She attacks Mama, defending herself and ultimately killing Mama. Carrie’s house implodes, and Carrie seeks refuge in the prayer closet, dragging Mama in with her. Carrie presumably kills herself, perhaps in recognition that she, too, is now a sinner deserving of death.

Carrie realizes that she’s become her mother. Mama could only see sin and punishment, not forgiveness. When Carrie snapped, she could only see the sin of her classmates. She knew they deserved some sort of punishment, but she took it too far. She also forgot about forgiveness. At the end, she decided the wipe the earth of her and her mother.

Bullying is a sin. That much we know. And all sin has some consequence, deserves some punishment. That we also know. But Carrie’s punishment went too far. Not because death was inappropriate for the crime, but because there was always a better option, a more difficult option, but a better option: forgiveness.

Movie rating:

4/5 (movie is worth owning and seeing again)