Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

star warsStar Wars: The Force Awakens takes the franchise in a fresh new direction. With a dash of lens flare and more than a hint of genius, J.J. Abrams has managed to create a fascinating blend of new characters, exotic locales, and non-stop nostalgia that delivers a higher concentration of dopamine than scientists ever though possible. It’s enough to make you forget the prequels altogether.

I had high hopes for this film and I’m happy to confess that despite some questionable creative decisions and a few unexpected but really not that unexpected plot twists, Episode VII does not disappoint.

Ok I haven’t actually seen the movie yet, but I just couldn’t wait to review it anyway. Listen to the review below.

Star Wars Rebels: Season 2 Trailer Analysis

SPOILERS for Star Wars Rebels Season 2 as shown in the trailer!

I was not super impressed with the first season of Star Wars Rebels. The animation was a dip in quality from the far superior (and more expensive) Clone Wars series. The characters were much more cartoony than their more serious Clone, Jedi, and Sith counterparts. But I stuck with it believing that they had formed a solid creative team in Dave Filoni (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Clone Wars), Simon Kinberg (the X-Men films), and Greg Weissman (Gargoyles, Young Justice).

It is, after all, more Star Wars. Who could complain about that? Most television shows need a season or two before they really kick into gear and find their sweet spot. And as it turns out, it seems like Rebels was trying super hard to hold back and establish its main cast before letting loose with a ton of new characters and cameos for Season 2. Hopefully this will be a good new direction for the show. Personally I am sick of Lothal and will be glad if we can get out of there and start exploring new corners of the galaxy much like Clone Wars was prone to do.

I want to go through the trailer chronologically and point out some of the major new developments and speculate on what season 2 (and beyond) might hold for us.

The Voice of Emperor Palpatine

The new trailer opens with what appears to be Darth Vader receiving instructions from Palpatine. I’m excited to hear the always excellent Sam Witwer as the voice of the Sith Master. After the sad death of Ian Abercrombie toward the end of Clone Wars’ run, the character was jarringly replaced by Tim Curry. I’m very glad the Rebels team recruited Sam Witwer (voice of Darth Maul and Starkiller) because it seems like his Darth Sideous voice is a huge step up from Tim Curry.

I doubt we’ll see much of Palpatine on the show because again these rebels are still fairly minor in the overall scheme of things. The fact that they have a Jedi (make that two with the addition of Ahsoka) does elevate their threat level a bit but it still seems like they are not yet a major military concern to the emperor, more a nuisance than anything else. I wouldn’t expect this series to showcase Palpatine like they did every other week on Clone Wars.

Much More Darth Vader

rebelsDarth Vader made a little cameo or two in Season One but now it seems like he is going to be a much bigger player. The fact that they were able to get James Earl Jones, the original voice from the films, is pretty wonderful and unexpected. I would temper your expectations though. From a storytelling point-of-view, you really can’t use Vader very much.

We know Vader could pretty much kill any character on the show without breaking a sweat and if the rebels kept escaping him it would diminish the threat he poses. I predict he will pop up briefly in a few episodes but he will continue to be more of a behind-the-scenes character. If they do give him much to do, I doubt he will interact much with the main rebels. The show needs to maintain Vader’s status as an unstoppable and deadly villain, the top force-user in the galaxy. Expect him primarily in a cameo role.

Multiple Inquistors!

I don’t know why I never thought of it before but of course the Sith would have more than one inquisitor roaming the galaxy carrying out their bidding. I guess the whole idea of the Rule of Two made me think that other lightsaber-wielding subordinates would be too much of a threat to their masters. They could too easily become usurpers.

But we have seen Dooku training up Asajj Ventress and a tolerance with the wannabe General Grievous. Sideous himself decided to keep the reborn Darth Maul for his own insidious purposes. The fact that there are more Inquistors out there is a really good sign that Kanan and Ezra will have some mid-level threats to go up against that will allow for some balanced lightsaber battles.

Force Sensitive Children

I keep forgetting that Luke and Leia are not the only force-sensitive kids in the galaxy. In fact, children would naturally be great candidates for future inquisitors. It seems like we already went over this plotline in Clone Wars but we’ll just have to wait and see if they actually want to go there or if this line from the trailer is misleading us. Remember, last time we saw Vader with a bunch of force-sensitive children, it didn’t turn out so good.

Return of the Clones

Now they’re just messing with our emotions. They cancel Clone Wars. They make us believe we will never see our beloved Ahsoka and Rex again. They create a show with entirely new characters and then they pull this on us!

Yes, old Captain Rex is back and it looks like Gregor and Wolffe have survived as well. After the heartbreaking Order 66 arc in season 6 of Clone Wars, I’m really happy to see a few clones not only survive all the way until the events of Rebels but somehow manage to resist their programming and stand up to the Empire. Well, they are probably more in hiding than anything else but it looks like they might finally be ready to take on the Empire along with the crew of the Ghost and their favorite ex-Jedi.

Captain Rex of course is the most developed clone character from the first show. He was Anakin’s right-hand man. But look who else is with him. Wolffe is from Plo Koon’s squad, nicknamed the Wolfpack. He is the one-eyed clone who showed up in a couple different arcs. Notably he was one of the clones who tried to arrest Ahsoka when she was a fugitive.

The other clone with them is Gregor who you might remember as the commando from the Droid Arc that featured R2-D2 and the rather annoying Colonel Gascon. Gregor ended up sacrificing himself in an awesome one-man showdown that allowed the droids to complete their mission. I don’t think anyone thought Gregor was still alive so it’s pretty interesting that he avoided Order 66 and found his way to Rex.

I have a bad feeling that these clones are not going to survive their decision to help the rebels, but I’m excited that the writers have found a way to revisit some of these wonderful clone characters that often times were the best part of Clone Wars.

The Empire Strikes Back

Briefly in the trailer we see an AT-AT in action, which reminds me. The creators have said that they are going for an Empire Strikes Back tone, which is what everybody says when they want something to be awesome. In this case, they might actually be able to do it since the rebels are in a very similar place to how Luke and the gang were after they blew up the Death Star.

The Ghost crew has struck some minor but effective blows against the Empire and it makes total sense that Vader is going to respond with decisive action. I’m sure the Emperor is not going to tolerate a resurgent Jedi presence anywhere in his galaxy and I think that means people are going to die this season. Maybe even a main cast member. RIP Kanan Surely some side characters like the clones, a crewmember of the Ghost, a rebel ally, or possibly Ahsoka herself.

The thing to keep in mind is that this series is not open-ended. It’s heading toward some very dark days. All the Jedi except for Kenobi and Yoda presumably need to be extinguished by the time of A New Hope. Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka can’t really succeed at their mission beyond helping set up a viable rebel alliance. There is no room for non-dead Jedi in this time period unless they self-banish themselves to permanent exile on a crappy planet like Tatooine or Dagobah. This is the part of the story where the Sith are still large and in charge.

It makes sense that Kanan in this trailer still doesn’t want to fight. To join an organized rebellion as a Jedi means imminent torture and death.

Ezra’s Parents

Not sure why they felt the need to spoil this in the trailer. Ezra is one of the weak links of the series so far. His slingshot and tough street kid attitude is not as endearing as the writers hoped it would be. If anything, Ezra seems to be the entry point for younger kids to connect with the show.

Ezra’s parents are still alive. I assume he is going to want to rescue them and that other crew members are going to argue that it is too dangerous and that someone will say that they have to do it because Ezra is a good kid and he is part of their family now and that it totally makes sense to risk everyone’s life and the fate of the galaxy because they’re his parents, right? Not looking forward to this subplot, but oh well.

Ahsoka Has Questions

Questions that need answering. Yeah that feels like a direct quote from Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring right before he abandons Frodo to certain death by Ringwraith. The Grey Wizard discovered that Sauron was still alive and kicking. This makes me feel pretty sure that the many questions that Ahsoka has is really just one question: Where did my old master go and he didn’t turn into an evil Sith lord, did he?

There is really only one way this ends. Ahsoka figures out Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker. Then they fight each other. After that, I actually don’t know how it ends. Everything is better with Ahsoka so I think it would be much smarter to keep her alive assuming this series is going to keep having more seasons after this. But again, it would be kind of boring if every time Darth Vader shows up, Ahsoka simply duels him to a stalemate.

At this point I just have to believe these writers know what they are doing and how to milk this story for all its worth. Dave Filoni usually knows what to do in these situations. Intriguingly they broke one of ironclad rules of the Star Wars universe (well rules that apply to everyone except Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Favreau): no new lightsaber colors.

Actually Ahsoka sort of broke this rule with her barely green-yellowish lightsaber at the end of Clone Wars. Anyway she wields the color white now because she is neither Jedi or Sith. Get it? More impressively she has two of these weapons, which is pretty incredible especially considering how hard it is to find lightsabers these days. We’ll see how this rivalry/reunion/confrontation/fan-favorite-character-death between Ahsoka and Vader goes. It would also be nice to see how Vader feels about his old apprentice stirring up trouble from him after all these years, most notable because they actually ended on a really good note when she quit the Jedi. Is Darth Vader really so evil that he would hurt his little Snips?

Other Random Mentions

Hondo is also back, creating the perfect triumvirate of Clone Wars heroes along with Ahsoka and Rex. It’ll be interesting to go back and see exactly how their past together affects where they are now in Rebels.

Sabine evidently is being hunted by an old friend. Her sister? Her best friend? Anywho there is an imperial bounty on her head and that means she will have to resort to that age old Mandalorian custom, the one-on-one duel. Also I forget. Is she related to Pre Vizsla? Is she his daughter or niece or something?

Vader mentions that Ahsoka can lead them to other lost Jedi. I am going to speculate here and say that these lost Jedi have to be some of the Younglings from Clone Wars. Star Wars can be super dark sometimes but I can’t see them not bringing back at least two of the Younglings to make up for that horrific temple scene in Revenge of the Sith. They already had a relationship with Ahsoka so it is only natural that when Order 66 went down that she would go back and try to save her relatively helpless padawan friends.

This year is the year of Star Wars. I think Rebels is going to do all it can to up the ante and reclaim some of the glory that got lost during the unfortunate cancellation of Clone Wars. If Season One was putting the pieces in place and proving that it didn’t need the Clone Wars cast to survive, here’s hoping that Season Two grows up a bit and earns its own deserved spot in the Star Wars pantheon.

What Makes A Great Villain?

darth

To listen to the audio version of this article, download Episode 13 of the Story Punch podcast. This article is a heavily expanded version of an older Story Punch article.

A hero is only as interesting as their primary villain. Why is that? I think it is because a good villain is the litmus test for any aspiring hero. If you stop to think about it, heroes are a reactionary force. It’s in their nature. They see evil and they step in to stop it. But it is always the villain that drives the plot forward. The villain comes up with their plan and the hero struggles to prevent it from happening. The villains acts, the hero reacts.

In many stories, the villain is the protagonist moving things forward while the hero is an antagonist trying to slow things down. But this creates a problem.

If you don’t have a compelling villain, you probably won’t have a compelling story. If you mess up this part, if there is no real threat, if all you have is an ineffective toothless villain, nothing the hero does will matter anyway.

This is perhaps the biggest problem we see in comic book movies today. The villains are blandly evil, predictably stupid, and never feel like a real threat. They are simply another hurdle to climb when they should be an impenetrable wall. They should be not just evil, but cruel. Not just menacing, but calculating. The villain should not simply oppose the hero, they should oppose everything the hero stands for by offering an alternative perspective on the world.

THEIR PLAN SHOULD ACTUALLY MAKE SENSE FROM A WARPED PERSPECTIVE

A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it. But not only that, they somehow represent different shades of evil. Not just one generic kind of evil, but a multifaceted complicated evil. If you’re too evil, you’re just a monster. But the best kind of villains are the ones that actually have a deeper moral purpose behind what they are doing.

They think what they are doing is reasonable, necessary, and justifiable. Their actions are logical, even if it is a rather twisted logic. But at some point, you should have to stop and think, wait what if the villain is right? What if this is the only way? Part of the hero’s journey should include a point where they actually wonder if the villain is right. Maybe their plan isn’t all bad and could even result in some good. Even though ultimately we might reject their methods, the villain should still make a really good point about the world and the way it works.

zodLet’s pick apart one example, General Zod from Man of Steel. Some parts of Zod’s character work pretty well, but other parts don’t at all. Zod has a mission to protect Krypton. It is his guiding force and under normal circumstances, we would agree. That’s a good mission. Protect your race. Save your people. But instead of keeping Zod in between good and evil, he immediatley falls into the villain camp right away. Unfortunately, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet of people in the process of rebuilding his own? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced?

He does everything “for his people” but he will kill all the humans in the process? It feels inconsistent. It’s a strange mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work. When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes on a rampage targeting innocent civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. It is warrior DNA? Is it is a psychotic break? I couldn’t tell you.

But let’s imagine a scenario where Zod was on the same team as Jor-El back on Krypton. They work together as colleagues and friends to try to save Krypton, but ultimately fail. Instead of Zod leading a military coup he watches his people be wiped out because he didn’t try hard enough. He showed too much restraint before. So the next time he has the chance he is doubly motivated. To do what he and Jor-El couldn’t the first time but this time by any means necessary. When I close my eyes I see a Zod who is a tragic figure, a man who has lost everything, and is trying to make up for his past failures.

His plan needs to make sense. It can’t be just convenient to destroy Earth in the process. There has to be a logical reason. The Kryptonians made a big deal over the fact that they did not possess a sense of morality and it gave them an evolutionary advantage. But that is dumb. Morality and caring for others is an advantage, one specifically shared by all mammals who raise their young. We are better off together.

I want to see a General Zod who sees the problems on earth and decides that they are the same things that led to the destruction on Krypton. Instead of having Zod bring genocide, he should bring a global dictatorship. An universal vision for peace and harmony. He doesn’t want to destroy everybody. He wants to rule them because he doesn’t think they are able to.

Humans would never agree with terraforming the planet for Krypton and wiping out us in the process. But they might go for world peace. A vaccine that can cure cancer. Renewable clean energy. They might even sell their planet to Zod for unlimited data and faster wifi. Who knows?

Of course a global dictatorship would not be easy or ethical. Superman would have plenty of reason to prevent Zod from forcing the whole world until his control. There is still a way to get lots of drama and turn Zod into a true villain. But destroying the human race right off the bat? It’s just not logical or sympathetic. It turns Zod into an angry genocidal psychopath.

That’s not a great villain. That’s a shortcut.

kobaOne of the best villains in recent memory is Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now here is a villain whose plan makes perfect sense. In fact, Caesar, the leader of the apes, is actually far too trusting of the humans and if it were up to him alone, his people might have been wiped out in a surprise attack.

Koba does not trust the humans. He firmly believes that Caesar is endangering the whole colony by working with the humans. But the thing is, Koba is right. The humans are pretty dangerous and untrustworthy. They have a stockpile of machine guns, tanks, rocket launcers, and they are ready to strike.

Yet Koba is still the villain. Why? Because of his methods. He tries to assassinate Caesar. He starts a war on the humans. He locks up any apes that disagree with him. And he executes anyone who stand in his way.

Even though war was a possibility, it was never inevitable. Koba took matters into his own hands and compromised the most sacred values of the apes. Apes do not kill other apes. That is what separates them from the rest of the animals. Those moral principles. And Koba violated them.

Was he right about the humans? Yes. Was he right about how he went about dealing with them? No. He became jealous of Caesar, he turned against him, and betrayed everything that the apes stand for. But he had really good logical reasons that in a twisted way makes really good sense. In some alternative universe where things were just a little bit different, Koba could have been right. His reasons were sound, but his methods were way off. He went too far.

A VILLAIN SHOULD BE MYSTERIOUS BUT NOT A MYSTERY

A villain should never be a total mystery, but we also don’t need to know everything about them. Darth Maul is a total mystery, but it’s too much mystery. He has that double-bladed lightsaber, facial tatoos, and a black trenchcoat, but who is he? We don’t know. But what does he want? To rule the universe? To scare little kids

The thing is, a mystery cannot also be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and a sense of their personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.

On the flipside, we don’t want to know too much. Nobody wants a prequel trilogy explaining how the villain became a villain.

Think about Koba. We know from the first Planet of the Apes movie that he was a lab animal who underwent some pretty gruesome experiments. But in the second movie, do they go ahead and explain his life history and how he was born a cute little chimp baby and how the humans beat that innocent out of him? Nope, the only information we get is when he points to his scars and says, “Human work.” He has seen a lot of cruelty from the humans but we don’t need to know what it is When it comes to villains, their backstory is best left to the imagination

On the blog Overthinking It, Ben Adams has a great article called The Banality of Evil Origin Stories. In it he talks about why most villain origin stories simply don’t work:

In the end, most of these stories are simply unconvincing. For an implacable and unabashedly evil evil villain, it almost impossible to create a origin story that both a) makes the audience empathize with the future villain and b) portrays a convincing transformation. In Episode III, Anakin jumps pretty much straight from “arrogant but still good Jedi” to “murdering children in cold blood.

And he’s totally right. In Episode III, Anakin goes from being a pretentious brat who is mad about not being on the Jedi Council to helping wipe out the Jedi in exchange for the power to bring people back to life. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t even get that power. Trying to make a great villain like Darth Vader sympathetic doesn’t work because you can’t explain that kind of evil in a satisfying way. Evil is elusive, unpredictable, hard to define.

Villains are evil but we don’t need to know exactly how they got that way. You can hint at it, suggest some possible factors that helped cause it, but you can never explain it.

fiskOne of the greatest villains of the modern superhero age is from the tv show Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a man trying to save Hell’s Kitchen by first tearing it down to the ground first. He doesn’t even think he is a villain. He thinks he is doing what is right. That he is the hero saving the city and that the only way to rebuild it is to start over. There is one episode that give us insight into Fisk’s past and it centers around a defining moment from his childhood. When Fisk was a boy, his rage got out of control and he brutally attacked someone close to him. It’s a shocking scene and it goes a long way to let us know how Fisk ended up how he is, but don’t mistake this short glimpse into his childhood for what it is not. It is not his full backstory. It one crucial turning point in his life. But it does not try to explain everything. The truth is we have no idea how Wilson Fisk went from a kid who committed a terrible crime to the head of a powerful criminal organization. We don’t know how he learned to throw a punch or how he can stand toe-to-toe with Daredevil. How did he get to the top and what did he do to get there? It’s a mystery. And we the audience don’t need to know all his secrets. He is menacing, his name is not to be spoken, and he might snap at any moment, and that is enough. If Daredevil were to explain exactly how he became the man he is, it would take away his claws. It would overly humanize him. Fisk is a terrible foe to reckon with and we will never know exactly how it happened.

But perhaps the best villain of the last decade is universally acknowledged to be Heath Ledger’s Joker. and there is a similar mystery surrounding the villain of The Dark Knight. While the 1989 Batman movie went out of its way to show the Joker murdering Batman’s parents and falling into a vat of chemicals that transformed him into maniacal clown, the modern Joker has conflicting backstories all revolving around his scars. They are gruesome accounts, making the line, “Why So Serious?” both memorable and morbid at the same time. But the point of them is that they keep Joker’s real history in the dark. Was Joker tortured as a child? Was he married once? Are these real or are they just the ravings of a lunatic? We’ll never know. We just know that the Joker cannot be reasoned with. He can’t be bought off. He cannot be tamed or rehabilitated. Whatever he once was, that is now gone. As Ben Adams points out, his backstory is contradictory because it is not necessary. It would actually hurt the character’s intrigue and appeal if we knew where he came from.

Villains should be fully fleshed out in their motivations and identities, but we don’t want to know all the details of how they came to be. Some things should remain forever a secret.

VILLAINS SHOULD EXIST WITHIN A LARGER MORAL UNIVERSE

Villains are evil, but evil can also be relative. The best villains are not unstoppable forces of destruction. That is too much like a force of nature. No one blames the hurricane for being a hurricane. Villains are evil but they exist within a much larger moral universe. And a good villain doesn’t have to be the most evil thing around. Because on some level, we actually do want to root for our villains to succeed sometimes. Villains are not just plot points and obstacles for the heroes to overcome. They are characters. They have their own motivations. And at least some of the time, we want to see them succeed.

The best way I can explain is this is through the concept of the anti-hero. Which is a pretty close analogy for what we are looking for in our villains.

Anti-heroes are interesting. Take for example the Wild West. Out there on the frontier there are no good guys. There are just shades of grey. You have bad guys and you have helpless victims. And then along comes the anti-hero. Think of Clint Eastwood in a green poncho. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these guys. But when your town is being overrun by bandits and oil barons, he is the best you’re going to get. Sometimes working with somebody bad is better than falling into the hands of somebody evil.

The same principle can apply to villains. Just like anti-heroes, a good villain is not necessarily a good person. But you can create sympathy for them if you can show the villain to the best worst option in a terrible situation. The villain is still bad, but at least they might be more cunning and more principled that the other scum around them.

cobblepotA great recent example of this is Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, from the television show Gotham. Cobblepot is a ruthless sadistic guy. He is horrible. He is brutal serial killer. He doesn’t mind killing just to get a pair of clean clothes. But we never fully turn against Cobblepot because he is at the bottom of the totem pole. All the other criminals in Gotham treat Cobblepot like dirt. He gets pushed around, underestimated, and routinely humiliated. He is still a bloodthirsty murderer, but somehow, I don’t know why, we still feel for him because of how badly he gets treated.

When a villain gets treated unfairly, when a villain is up against even worse criminals, when they have a determination and resolve in the face of adversity, it helps the audience stick with them and want to believe in them, even if they still have some major reservations about it. Anti-heroes make the best out of bad circumstances and so the audience is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is the same thing when it comes to villains. Remind us that this villain exists in a world with even worse people, unscrupulous traitors with no morals at all. Maybe the villain will only kill if it helps further their plan and they will let the hero go if they think it might help them out later. Maybe the hero and villain can work together to prevent an even bigger threat that goes against the villain’s interests. It might not be much a difference, but humanizing the villain just a little bit cann go a long way. The villain is still bad, but the criminal underworld out around them might be even worse.

To the extent that it is narratively possible, contextualize the villain. Make their evil plan just a bit more reasonable and less bloodthirsty than the other options out there. Give us a scenario when the smart thing is to work with the villain temporarily to prevent an even greater disaster.

Wow, I think I just turned evil for a second. Snap out of it.

VILLAIN SHOULD PROVIDE A REAL THREAT

Something about a villain should strike fear into people. There are far too many villains out there that don’t have this primal essence to them. They are just stock bad buys with no spine to them. But a real villain is in control. They command the room with their presence. I guess you would say they provide good management of their employees. Just as a good CEO inspires confidence, a good villain inspires fear. Fear that you will be punished. That everyone you love will be taken away from you. That you cannot escape their grasp if you betray them.

baneThere’s a great moment in the movie The Dark Knight Rises involving Bane, a brutal mercenary who has taken over Gotham City. Although he is highly intelligent like many of Batman’s villains, Bane possesses a sheer physicality to him that makes him quite a formidable foe. Bane moves fast and hits hard. He’s got a creepy mask. He is a scary guy. But my favorite Bane moment showcases one of his more villainous qualities: he is just plain intimidating. In the film John Daggett, a corrupt businessman who hired Bane is chewing him out for not delivering him control of Wayne Enterprises as promised. Daggett tells Bane, I’m in charge, to which Bane simply puts his hand on his shoulder with his palm open and says, Do you feel in charge? It’s such a simple move. He just puts his hand on his shoulder. And as he continues talking. But as he keeps talking, he slowly moves his hand against Daggetts’ face, then his neck, and by the end of their conversation Bane has got Dagget’s whole head. We hear the sounds as Bane kills Daggett offscreen. At the beginning of the conversation Daggett thought he was in control but by the end of the scene the truth has come out.

Bane is not just physically intimidating, he’s also psychologically intimidating. Just by putting his hand on you he is reminding you that yes he can do whatever he wants. And if he wanted to he could squeeze you like a soda can.

A villain who runs around punching people or showing off their karate skills is never as scary as a villain who looks you in the eye and reminds you how powerful they are. Usually the threat of violence is just as scary as actual violence. A great villains always manage to stay in control by reminding those around them of what they are capable of.

While a villain should be able to rule through intimidation alone, but it’s also good to show they mean business. They can rule from their shadows, but their handiwork should also come out into the light.

It’s not enough for Darth Vader to threaten to blow up your planet. He has to be willing to actually fire up the Death Star and prove his point sometimes. The villain should be menacing but also follow through with actionable behaviors.

But to be truly threatening, it’s not enough for them to simply do bad stuff. They should be very precise in what they do. The best villains are able to get inside the protagonist’s heads. To mess with them. They know things about the protagonist that the protagonist is only vaguely aware of. Great villains can read their enemies like a book. They know how to manipulate the hero and exploit their flaws. And this is the part that makes them scary. Not the fact that they can hurt you, but that they know how and where can hurt you the most. They know how to get what they want. To turn the hero against himself

VILLAINS ALSO HAVE A WEAK SPOT

But villains also have a weakness. Usually it is a moral one. They are greedy. They are too proud to admit their mistakes. They overstep their bounds. They get the upper hand but they press their advantage too far.

Villains have a fundamental flaw. They will always eventually lose because of their internal character. They don’t know how to win even when they have all the cards because something about them is broken inside.

Villains take something good about humanity and they twist it. Villains are fascinating because there is something clearly off about them. It is not just that they are evil and bad. There is something about them that is admirable.

They are often eloquent speakers. They have great leadership ability. They usually highly intelligent. Oftentimes they are visionaries, they are ahead of their time.

But whatever was once good about them has now become twisted beyond recognition. Every villain has the same basic problem. They wanted something good but they wanted it too badly and it corrupted their soul.

And that’s why the hero will always defeat them. Because the race does not belong to the strong, nor the wise, nor the powerful. Evil is quite tiring. Twisting everything around you is exhausting. But doing the right thing, doing good, becomes its own reward. When you chase after good, you become stronger. But by the time the villain figures that out, it’s always too little too late.

The Top Ten Villains of 2014

***There are MAJOR SPOILERS for many films and television shows ahead. Proceed at your own risk.***

Villains will always have a special place in the heart of fans. Face it, they make all the best stories possible. And yet despite their evil deeds, villains often compose a large percentage of our favorite characters. It is no accident things are this way. No matter how you slice it, the Joker is far more fascinating than Batman, Darth Vader is more intriguing than Luke Skywalker, and Loki is a lot more fun to be around than boring old Thor.

As 2014 winds down, it’s time to look back at the best villains from the past year. Who made an impact on the villain scene this year? We’ve seen some brand new baddies as well as some fresh interpretations of classic villains.

Candidates who unfortunately didn’t make the list include villains who had potential but aren’t quite fleshed out enough to make an impact. Think Ronan the Accuser, Shredder, or Bolivar Trask. One villain who could have ranked higher, LEGO Movie’s President Business, turns heel a little too quickly. Some of this year’s villains have done great work in the past, like Magneto or Smaug, but don’t appear on this list.

The criteria for top villain will be based on villainous actions that they did this year.

Additionally, to qualify as a villain, there must be a thoughtful intelligence behind their actions. A monster that acts on instinct is not a villain. Neither is a character that operates as just a plot device. Ultimately what a top villain requires is a strong internal motivation, a collection of evil deeds, and a delicious endgame.

Let’s look at the top 10 villains of 2014.

electro

10) Electro

The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s lackluster reception may indeed signal the end of Marc Webb’s rebooted Spider-verse. However buried behind the convoluted storylines is a terrifically campy performance by Jamie Foxx. Quibbles about the overstuffed sequel aside, Electro offers a memorable example of a victim-turned-villain. Overlooked, underappreciated, and always self-pitying, Max Dillon is the sort of tragic figure that blends in well to these big costumed morality plays.

Importantly Max has a pre-transformation connection to Spider-Man over whose heroics he fantasizes. In Max’s unstable mental condition, it makes sense that his obsessive tendencies would not pair well with the gift of unlimited electricity. There’s a memorable scene in Times Square in which Electro watches Spider-Man’s image overshadow him on the giant monitors in quick succession. In a flash, jealousy changes Electro from helpless victim to vengeful executioner. He may have started off as a freak accident but soon he decides that Spider-Man is the real source of all of problems. There always needs to be a good reason for the villain to turn against the hero and Electro nails it.

Perhaps Electro’s greatest tragedy is that the plot even denies him the chance to be the big villain in his own movie, replacing him with Green Goblin in the finale. Tough luck, Max.

the inquisitor

9) The Inquisitor

Coming in fairly low on the list is the main villain of Star Wars Rebels, due mainly to his rather limited screen time. However what we do see from the Inquisitor shows a lot of promise. In his first major debut the Inquisitor sizes up Kanan’s fighting style in an instant, identifying his master and revealing an impressive display of Jedi knowledge. This short moment shows us that this is no ordinary imperial goon. We’re dealing with a highly capable and fearsome agent of the Dark Side.

In one of the most exciting television moments of the year, the Inquisitor also introduces his spinning double-bladed lightsaber. Surprising for a show set after Order 66, we still get a decent amount of lightsaber combat via the Inquisitor and even see him pull off a lightsaber throw. It’s no accident that he reports directly to the top villain of all time, Darth Vader himself. Overall, it brings great pleasure to once again see a Star Wars villain ordering around imperial officers and fighting alongside a squad of stormtroopers. Meanwhile, the Inquisitor’s backstory and his training as a force user remain largely mysterious. Hopefully there is much more scheming, wrangling, and Jedi-hunting to come.

captain cold

8) Captain Cold

The Flash is a zany and welcome addition to superhero television, albeit one that hasn’t taken much time to build up its often one dimensional villains. It’s mostly okay given the excellent development of Barry Allen, his powers, and an impressive supporting cast. But there’s one villain so far that shows great potential after just a single measly episode. On a show chock full of dangerous metahumans, Leonard Snart is the one bad guy that has no powers but already he looks to be one of Barry’s greatest threats.

A career thief who doesn’t hesitate to kill when necessary, Snart’s true power resides in his keen mind. Even after his initial encounter with the Flash, he already knows how to get into Barry’s head. Snart deduces that the fastest man alive will do anything to save lives, even let the bad guy get away.

It doesn’t help of course that Snart carries a cold gun specifically designed to impair and even kill the Flash. Aside from his ruthlessness, Snart also exhibits the type of criminal intelligence that sees superheroes as an exciting obstacle to overcome rather than an immediate threat. The moment between Snart and the kid in the museum tells us exactly what type of villain this is: a villain with personality. And from the look of things, next time we encounter Captain Cold he won’t be returning alone.

winter soldier

7) The Winter Soldier

There were two reactions to the Winter Soldier’s reveal in Captain America: The Winter Solider, “Who is that guy?” and “Yeah I already knew from the comics/internet.” However the reappearance of a mostly unrecognizable Bucky Barnes was undergirded by some of the best action sequences in any Marvel movie to date. The fact is the Winter Soldier impresses with sheer physicality. Whether he is putting a hole in the chest of Nick Fury or easily intercepting Captain America’s shield throw, this is a force to be reckoned with. He is seemingly unstoppable.

His hidden identity makes him all the more fierce to Steve Rogers and his allies. After seeing Roger’s jaw-dropping exploits aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel at sea, the Winter Soldier’s ease in holding his own against Captain America seem all the more remarkable. If Bucky exhibits one major drawback, it’s that at the end of the day he is just a mere pawn in the hands of Hydra with no volition of his own. Hopefully this will be amended in future movies. Still, the Winter Soldier is exactly the kind of direct physical threat we want to see more of in our villains.

dr mann

6) Dr. Mann

He was the best of us, or so we are repeatedly told throughout the first half of Interstellar. In a surprise move hidden from trailers, posters, and even entertainment sites, the brilliant Dr. Mann makes a major appearance on an ice planet. And things are not what they seem.

With no faith in the dying human race and no courage to face death for himself, Dr. Mann belongs to an interesting variety of villain. He cares only for the greater good of the human race and believes he is pursuing the welfare of his species by rejecting personal attachment and resorting to murder. Despite all his extravagant reasoning, we know he is just a sophisticated version of the same evil we see all the time.

What makes Dr. Mann better than the common villain is that he is unbearably annoying. It’s one thing to leave an innocent man to suffocate to death halfway across the universe. It’s an entirely another thing to justify your crime with a whiny monologue about how you were lonely and the reminder that death will bring you memories of your children. Dr. Mann is a villain not only by his deeds, but by his irritating self-pity. There is nothing to like about him and sometimes that’s good.

agent ward

5) Agent Ward

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled through its first season but everything changed when Hydra dismantled Nick Fury’s entire agency. But what really sweetened the deal was when Agent Ward came out as a double agent. Ward has a personal history with each member of Coulson’s team. This is no random bad-guy-of-the-week but a former member of the main cast. After surviving life-threatening situations together and entertaining romantic notions with two members of the team, Ward had earned their trust, even despite his frigid manners and occasional hostility.

The best part of Ward’s reveal is that there is little lingering doubt inside him over his decision. He is simply carrying out his mission. From the very beginning, he was a double agent with no attachments. Nothing about his betrayal is personal to him. He’s just doing his job.

Ward has never been a great character, but his turn as a Hydra operative ironically redeems him. The truth that he has been working with the Clairvoyant all along and has contributed to the utter collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. hits Coulson and his team hard. However it also gives the ragtag group a unifying purpose. Ward’s betrayal also gives a boost to some of the underdeveloped characters like Skye who confronts him directly and Fitz, and Simmons whom he sends to the bottom of the ocean. However further glimpses into Ward’s backstory still create some sympathy for this otherwise amoral assassin and offer the possibility of redemption in the future. A good villain indeed.

malificent

4) Maleficent

No doubt the finest performer in an uneven but commercially successful blockbuster, Angelina Jolie’s sly portrayal of Maleficent outshines many of the lackluster elements around her. She skillfully inhabits this sympathetic queen who experiences betrayal, revenge, and finally redemption. Despite the happy resolution and twist ending, Maleficent still works as a great villain. Even before her sadistic mutilation at the hands of Stefan and her full descent into villainy, Malificent is already an efficient warrior-leader willing to defend her kingdom at all costs. And she is not an apologetic sort of person. As she grows in compassion for Aurora, she doesn’t grow any warmer toward her father contributing to a rather spectacular death at her hands.

Whether its commanding her army with savage ferocity from the skies or cursing a newborn princess, Maleficent is quite comfortable with shaping the world around her into something sinister. When her wings are cut off by the man she trusted, she embraces this darkness wholeheartedly. While the film sinks a bit under the special effects and revisionist details, its crystal clear that Maleficent’s evil is born from pain, war, and betrayal, not randomness. If the ending is not wholly satisfying, thankfully Malificent’s slow transformation back from evil witch into a very peculiar fairy godmother is both measured and sensible.

penguin

3) Penguin

Gotham, the strange story of a world before Batman, is really the story of two aspiring men and their struggle to make a mark on their city. Along with the cynical Harvey Bullock and a young Bruce Wayne, the reckless detective Jim Gordon works to bring order and balance to a city in turmoil. But never far away, the ambitious and ruthless Penguin also seeks to climb the highest rungs of the criminal underworld. Perhaps the most violent member on this list, the Penguin definitely carves out his own spot as an unhinged criminal mastermind making a name for himself.

From the outside Penguin seems like just another henchman, and a sniveling coward at that. But slowly and surely we see that he is both dangerous and crafty, willing to suffer patiently as he works toward his endgame. He works both sides, infiltrates powerful crime families, and brutally dispatches anyone who gets in his way. We see just enough of his master plan to realize that he is fairly brilliant in his own demented way.

By keeping Penguin on Gordon’s side and making him subject to the abuse of his bosses, the show somehow manages to make this waddling psychopath come across as somewhat likeable. Just barely though.

koba

2) Koba

Reprising his appearance from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s lieutenant Koba makes a daring introduction in Dawn leaping through the air to spear an attacking grizzly bear. This is one dangerous ape. Following the rule that bodily scars equal villainy, Koba is the rather rare villain whose motivations are mostly understandable and even quite justifiable up to a point.

It is Koba, not Caesar, who assesses the actual threat that the humans present, which includes shooting Ash, concealing guns behind their backs, and stockpiling weapons for an imminent assault. The humans are not trustworthy, something that Caesar is unwilling to recognize. Koba’s scars are all the proof he needs to make that judgment. And while his attempted assassination of Caesar and hasty declaration of war are morally wrong, everything else he has done up until then make pretty good sense.

Koba is a complicated villain, not because his goals are evil but because he ultimately appeals more to his animal nature instead of his moral and ethical duty as a sentient creature. It is clear that he relishes in the violence, indulging his taste for revenge against a species who operated on him like a lab experiment. Perhaps what makes Koba resonate so strongly with audiences is that his descent into evil very much resembles a human one.

deathstroke

1) Deathstroke

If Deathstroke is perhaps a little over the top in terms of his Mirakuru-fueled madness, he all but makes up for it with the sheer cruelty he inflicts upon Oliver Queen and everyone he holds dear. Presumed dead by Oliver, Slade Wilson suddenly reappears in Starling City with an unknown agenda. Very quickly he makes it known that his one purpose is to destroy Oliver’s whole world.

In possibly the finest villainous moment of the year, Slade takes an unexpected tour with Oliver’s family around the Queen mansion while Team Arrow struggles to mobilize against him. Yet even the combined efforts of Sara, Felicity, Roy, and Diggle are not enough to stop Slade who easily thwarts their sniper and escapes unharmed. He walks into Oliver’s house, befriends his mother, charms his sister, and makes a mockery of the Arrow’s whole operation. He knows all of Oliver’s secrets and relishes the chance to exact a long painful vendetta against the show’s endlessly tortured hero.

But what really sets Deathstroke apart is his method. He is not interested in killing Oliver but simply making his life a living hell. Slade kidnaps his sister with the goal of driving the two siblings apart using Ollie’s own secrets against him. And in an act of pure depravity, he forces Oliver to make the same unthinkable choice that Dr. Ivo forced on him back on the Island between the death of his sister or his mother. Without hesitation Deathstroke brutally impales Moira with his sword. Killing the hero’s unarmed mother in front of his eyes and leaving him to suffer must rank among the worst villainous acts of all time.

Top 15 Arcs of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

CLONESIn celebration of Star Wars: The Clone Wars coming to Netflix and its long awaited sixth season, it’s time to revisit the best arcs from this amazingly ambitious show.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars debuted in 2008 with an uneven and little seen movie. Set firmly between Episode 2 and 3, the ensuing series promised to show us Anakin and Obi-Wan’s adventures in the Clone Wars leading up to Anakin’s turn to the dark side.

Perhaps the greatest creative risk The Clone Wars took was the introduction of Anakin’s padawan. Over the course of five seasons, Asohka Tano’s gradual maturation from impatient sidekick to wisened warrior became the shows crowning achievement and most important legacy.

Peculiarly, episodes of The Clone Wars were loosely organized into largely standalone arcs. Often arranged in groups of two to four, episodes generally continue the story of either certain characters or battles interrupted by an occasional one-off episode not belonging to any wider arc. These plot lines are sometimes presented out of chronological order, creating an interesting puzzle for the viewer to sift through (I still can’t place the Senate episodes with Onocanda’s murder).

Out of these somewhat self-contained story arcs emerge some of the better Star Wars tales in the entire franchise. A potent mixture of inventive characters, detailed worlds, and an ever deepening mythology all work together to flesh out a vivid picture of the last years of the Jedi Order. For those disappointed by the prequel trilogy, this show breathes new life into the series and offers a surprisingly authentic Star Wars experience.

Here are my picks for the top 15 story arcs of The Clone Wars. Spoilers for the first five seasons abound!
 
Malevolence Trilogy

15) The Malevolence Trilogy

1.02 – Rising Malevolence
1.03 – Shadow of Malevolence
1.04 – Destroy Malevolence

Ah, the arc that proved that The Clone Wars had a right to exist. I would rank this arc higher but it feels like the best place to start in discussing this show’s unique approach to storytelling. Although Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka (and perhaps Captain Rex) are the apparent main characters of this series, the show doesn’t mind ignoring them for large stretches or pushing them to the background of individual episodes. As war rages across the galaxy, The Clone Wars makes an effort to zoom in and highlight different little pockets of action and continually introduce new and unexpected characters.

The Malevolence Trilogy reveals the Separatist’s incredibly massive and destructive new battleship. Although not quite on par with the Death Star, the Malevolence is so huge it takes a whole episode just to finish blowing it up. Beginning with Plo Koon and his stranded clone soldiers, the storyline moves on to display Anakin’s tactical ingenuity and his un-Jedi-like attachment to Padmé.

If you were unsure of this show before, the Malevolence trilogy proved that this show could handle a multi-part storyline, balancing multiple main characters and villains, all while giving a strong emotional punchline to each episode. This arc holds up among the one of the best even after five full seasons of fine storytelling.

Obi-Wan Undercover

14) Obi-Wan Undercover

4.15 – Deception
4.16 – Friends and Enemies
4.17 – The Box
4.18 – Crisis on Naboo

Obi-Wan fakes his own death and disguises himself as the notorious bounty hunter Rako Hardeen. Initially I wasn’t excited about this premise and only upon repeat viewings was I able to appreciate the creativity the Clone Wars team put into this arc. The first episode shows us Anakin and Ahsoka’s reaction to their beloved master’s death. Anakin’s grief immediately dissolves into anger and his inability to control himself almost compromises Obi-Wan’s cover. It’s an apt reminder of his imminent descent toward the Dark Side. In one of my favorite moments, Ahsoka guards Anakin’s unconscious body with twin lightsabers drawn. The bounty hunters wisely back down. Here Ahsoka proves she is clearly powerful in her own right.

Another gem in this arc is the return of everybody’s favorite wide-brimmed bounty hunter, Cad Bane. He puts ROTJ Boba Fett to shame. The stand out episode of this arc has to be The Box, a devious test designed for the sole purpose of outing Jedi spies. Count Dooku’s brilliant introduction of each bounty hunter is superb. Unfortunately Moralo Eval, architect and mastermind of the whole assassination plot, is more grating than scary.

The final episode has a great twist that sheds an important light on Darth Sidious’ wooing of Anakin to the Dark Side. By subtly arranging for Anakin to face off against Count Dooku, Sidious is both testing his current apprentice Dooku and holding tryouts in case a new one should prove worthy. While Anakin fails to finish off the current Sith Lord, how fascinating to see his future master at work pulling the strings.

13) Domino Squad

3.01 – Clone Cadets
1.05 – Rookies
3.02 – ARC Troopers

For a show about warring clones, there are relatively few clone-centric episodes. The Domino Squad trilogy gives us a break from the heavily Jedi dominated episodes and shows us the life of the everyday clone soldier. In any other cartoon these clones would be undifferentiated masses but in this arc we really see the the distinct personalities of Fives, Hevy, Echo, Droidbait, and Cutup. In retrospect, it makes their deaths in Rookies all the more tragic knowing their history together.

Rookies is often mentioned as the definitive clone episode, but personally I fancy ARC Troopers in which the clones battle for the closest thing they have to a home. Although the Jedi and Sith steal some of the clones’ thunder, it’s satisfying to see Echo and Fives promoted to the prestigious rank of ARC trooper. The fact that this later leads to them join the rescue attempt of master Even Piell from the Citadel is a nice touch.

However the breakout character of this arc is the crippled clone with a heart of gold, 99. Acting as an unofficial mentor to the squad, his death is one of the saddest on the entire show. There’s probably no other clone who so perfectly epitomizes the selfless valor of the clone army.

12) The Younglings

5.6 – The Gathering
5.7 – A Test of Strength
5.8 – Bound for Rescue
5.9 – A Necessary Bond

In contrast to some of the darker arcs of season 5, the Younglings arc took a playful turn. Exploring the adventures of a group of Jedi initiates hoping to become padawans, one of the  highlights of this arc is its explanation of how Jedi are able to create their lightsabers. However what really makes this arc work is the characters.

Each youngling has their own strengths and weaknesses and thankfully none of them are annoying. Gungi the kid Wookie, in particular, is just delightful. Throughout these episodes Ahsoka takes on a mentoring role, expanding her character even further and demonstrating just how much she has matured over these short few years. David Tennant’s excellent turn as the sagely droid Huyang is another standout role. As always, the endearing Hondo proves to be a worthy adversary as well as a useful ally. A surprise cameo from Slave I is also well received.

It may not be the most probing story in the show’s history, but Younglings is a nice side adventure that takes us to some unexpected places and features the same quality of characters that makes the rest of the Star Wars universe so entertaining. While there’s plenty of fun to be had, it’s also a sobering reality that these younglings face uncertain days ahead as the Sith draw closer to victory.

11) Young Boba Fett

2.20 “Death Trap”
2.21 “R2 Come Home”
2.22 “Lethal Trackdown”

Boba Fett is a character who has never really got his due. Unceremonious killed off in the Original Trilogy and reduced to whiny brat in the Prequels, he finally gets a chance to shine in this fun little arc. Hunting down Mace Windu, Boba really shines as an aspiring bounty hunter with a lot to learn placed under the harsh tutelage of Aurra Sing.

However lest we forget, Boba and his bounty hunter allies are really just the background threat. The true focus of this arc are the Republic personnel hunting them down after the initial bombing. In the second episode, R2D2 craftily outmaneuvers the bounty hunters coming to the aide of the wounded Anakin and Mace Windu. The third episode delves deeper into the relationship between Ahsoka and her paternal guide, Plo Koon.

Without revealing too much about how Boba Fett became the feared bounty hunter, this arc manages to both develop him as an unexpected foe as well as build in some nice character moments among the main cast. It sure doesn’t hurt that animation is starting to hit its stride as evidenced by the massive explosions and ship wreckage.

10) The Nightsisters Trilogy

3.12 – Nightsisters
3.13 – Monster
3.14 – Witches of the Mist

The Nightsisters trilogy is the storyline that divides the entire show into two halves: before and after. Before Nightsisters, the show played it relatively safe with self-contained arcs and standard good vs. evil story plots. Afterwards, everything changes. The events on Dathomir really mess with the status quo, setting things into motion that will pay off much later in the series.

Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the transformation of Ventress from a one-note villain to a nuanced anti-hero with an unlucky backstory. Count Dooku’s betrayal of his apprentice triggers a wave of tremors that will affect millions across the galaxy, beginning with two unsuspecting brothers: Savage and Feral Oppress.

This trilogy isn’t afraid to introduce unfamiliar elements to Star Wars, including the strange witchcraft of Mother Talzin. It’s all very weird but it leads to greater things like the Nightsisters’ covert assault on Dooku and a fascinating look at how the Sith train their apprentices. This was the arc that really proved that the Clone Wars was willing to take big risks, and as evidenced by the latter two seasons, I think we can agree it was the right decision.

9) Holocron Heist

2.01 – Holocron Heist
2.02 – Cargo of Doom
2.03 – Children of the Force

We all expect the powerful Sith to thwart Jedi, but what we don’t expect is for mere mortals to pose a threat. The Holocron arc demonstrated who exactly might beat a Jedi: bounty hunter Cad Bane. We see over these episodes his ruthless infiltration of the temple, his vicious manipulation of Anakin, and his subsequent kidnapping of force sensitive children. It’s a brutal reminder that the Jedi aren’t the only skilled warriors in the galaxy.

Of course, behind it all is the puppet master Darth Sidious, again advancing his plot to exterminate the Jedi, this time by targeting their future younglings. It’s a chilling reminder that this “kid show” is absolutely willing to grapple with mature themes when needed. Knowing the future of the Jedi Order, by the end you almost wish that nobody ends up with the Holocron.

This arc keeps up a brisk pace and features a diverse slice of planets as well as battle environments ranging from zero gravity to a collapsing station on Mustafar. It’s pure fun watching the Jedi traverse the galaxy in pursuit of an enemy equal to them in every way. You can definitely feel the Clone Wars team going all out to create a genuine Star Wars experience here.

8) Slaves of Kadavo

4.11 – Kidnapped
4.12 – Slaves of the Republic
4.13 – Escape from Kadavo-

Adapted from the comic book, the Kadavo slave arc is a brutal look at the evil Anakin suffered in childhood. The Zygerrians are a fresh new enemy and provide an interesting counterpoint to all those episodes that argue that the Separatists aren’t so bad after all. The first episode is a tense race against the clock despite the fact that town is empty. It’s worth it to see the solid droid battles and Obi-Wan stalling for time.

Of course the real meat of the arc happens when the team arrive on Kadavo. The unsettling Zygerrian Queen, ridiculous cover identities, a failed escape attempt, and the brutal execution of Togrutan slaves give us plenty to chew on in this arc. Keeping noble Jedi prisoner by coercing them into protecting the innocent is something bad guys should do more often.

It’s not often that this show traps its four main characters in hostile enemy territory with no way out. The results speak for themselves. Did I mention the Zygerrians have electric whips?

7) Battle for Ryloth

3.03 – Supply Lines
1.19 – Storm Over Ryloth
1.20 – Innocents of Ryloth
1.21 – Liberty on Ryloth

The Ryloth arc answers the question of what occupation is like for the various planets caught up in the Clone Wars. This arc begins with a prequel episode Supply Lines that shows the Republic losing its grip on the planet while the remaining three episodes deal with their attempt to take it back.

Each episode in this arc has a different main character: Jar Jar Binks, Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, and Mace Windu. It’s highly creative way to showcase the different aspects of battle including from political negotiations off-planet, a blockade in orbit, an underground militia, and heavily fortified occupied cities.

Of course along the way many clones, droids, Jedi and even innocents meet their fate. Ahsoka loses her entire squadron in a fatal miscalculation. Master Ima-Gun-Di makes his last stand to save the Twi’lek rebels. An entire Twi’lek village is carpet bombed in front of our eyes. The cost of war is stunningly real.

6) Stranded on Maridun

1.13 – Jedi Crash
1.14 – Defenders of the Peace

Who said arcs have to be three or four episodes long? The Maridun episodes are one of my favorite arcs in the whole series and for good reason. The first episode opens with an immense space battle that results in Anakin being totally incapacitated. It is followed immediately by a gritty crash landing. As Aayla Secura and Ahsoka search for help, the Twi’lek master teaches the worried padawan about letting go of attachments.

Featuring some excellent adventure music, the grassy plains and giant trees of Maridun create a wonderful world shielded from the violence of the Clone Wars. Things heat up in the second episode with the arrival of the villainous General Lok Durd (played by the estimable George Takei) who plans to sacrifice the entire Lurmen village as his test subjects.

If not very likeable, the Lurmen are at least different enough from the other species to stand out a bit. Curling up into balls to roll and lassoing their enemies, the Lurmen are quite unique. It may be a simple set up, but this arc epitomizes the best of what Star Wars has to offer: action, stakes, and inspiring lessons about the Force.

5) Bounty Hunter Ventress

4.19 – Massacre
4.20 – Bounty

These two loosely connected episodes are bound together by the ever evolving character of Ventress. Seeing what happens to her after the events of the Nightsister trilogy is a real treat and not something that most shows would even offer us. Leaving the Jedi far behind, the first episode pits evil against evil. A savage assault by General Grievious turns into a frenetic battle between droids and zombies. It’s a bloody end for the Nightsister clan.

The second episode brings us to the aftermath as Ventress attempts to rebuild her life after losing her biological family. Her particular set of skills leads her to partner with a ragtag group of bounty hunters including Boba Fett clad in some unfamiliar armor. This results in an insane mission involving protecting a subterranean train under attack from ninjas.

It’s wild fun and totally tangential to the rest of the show but placing Ventress at the center of a few episodes really makes for an interesting ride. The Ventress story is the gift that keeps on giving as her character continues to pull her weight in future episodes. Dooku should have cut her out sooner.

4) Trandoshan Hunters

3.21 – Padawan Lost
3.22 – Wookiee Hunt

This short two-part arc is where I first was taken aback by sheer beauty of the Clone Wars’ animation team. The jungle planet where the padawans are held hostage is absolutely amazing in detail and lighting. Separating Ahsoka from her master and putting her in the crosshairs of the animalistic Trandoshans makes for great drama. When Kalifa dies in Ahsoka’s arms, the despair and hopelessness of the situation is suffocating.

The second episode surprises with the always illustrious Chewbacca to aide Ahsoka in her escape. As she unites the leaderless padawans, it really shows how Anakin’s padawan is leaps and bounds above the average Jedi apprentice and what a huge loss the Jedi Order suffers at her ultimate departure. Thoroughly vile, the Trandoshans are quite sinister as villains. When the Wookies descend on them, they receive no mercy. It’s a powerful arc and one that I will rewatch many times before the end.

3) Second Battle of Geonosis

2.05 – Landing at Point Rain
2.06 – Weapons Factory
2.07 – Legacy of Terror
2.08 – Brain Invaders

Harkening back to Episode II and the dusty planet where the Clone Wars all began, the Geonosis arc is terrific stuff. For the first time the Republic is fighting not only droids but a sentient alien species. The winged enemies are especially vicious with their energy weapons and the way they carry off poor clone soldiers to their death. The opening episode Landing at Point Rain is surely the best battle episode in the entire 100+ episode run. The showrunners wanted to recreate a Star Wars version of D-Day and they succeeded in an incrediblely relentless powerhouse of an episode.

The latter episodes, while not as ambitious, don’t fail to disappoint introducing Barriss Offee as the diligent and dutiful counterpoint to Ahsoka’s reckless confidence. Once Geonosis is taken, the Republic must deal with the disturbing rise of the Geonosian queen whose corrupting influence follows Ahsoka and Barriss into space.

This is a varied arc with stirring action and significant character growth moments for Ahsoka in particular. Whenever I introduce people to this show, this four part Geonosis arc is always where I begin.

2) Darth Maul Returns

4.21 – Monster
4.22 – Revenge
5.1 – Revival
5.14 – Eminence
5.15 – Shades of Reason
5.16 – The Lawless

Whether or not it’s fair to lump these six episodes together into one arc, I’m doing it anyway. The unexpected return of Darth Maul puts every major character of this show into overdrive. Maul’s second coming has huge ramifications for Obi-Wan, Ventress, Savage Oppress, Dutchess Satine, Pre Viszla, Hondo, Darth Sidious, and the entire criminal underworld. With top notch animation, voice acting, and storytelling, this is the arc that people will point to as the high point of the entire series.

The reinvented Maul is no ordinary foe. As a former Sith, he is trained not just in combat but political scheming and empire building. Through a patient but deliberate acquisition of power and resources, Maul uses the distraction of the Clone Wars to extend his absolute will across the underworld. We really get a sense that this is his gamble to become the most powerful being in the entire galaxy.

Smartly tying Darth Maul into the Death Watch storyline, this arc really ends with an explosive conclusion that we never would have suspected at back in the first Mandalore arc. The fact that so many characters either meet their fate or have their world rocked on account of Maul show just how significant his ugly resurgence truly is.

1) Darkness on Umbara

4.07 – Darkness On Umbara
4.08 – The General
4.09 – Plan of Dissent
4.10 – Carnage of Krell

At last we arrive at the crowning achievement in an already impressive list of story lines. The Umbara arc features none of the Jedi we know and love and instead focuses solely on a contingent of beleaguered clones on a strange planet veiled in darkness. The battles in these episodes rival any other in the show’s history and the fact that the clones fight devoid of any Jedi support only raises the stakes.

General Krell provides a new kind of antagonist for this series: a Jedi general who sees clones as disposable ammunition. Antithetical to the nurturing mentoring of Yoda or Plo Koon, this Jedi values victory above lives lost. Trapped between the impossible choice of going to a likely death or disobeying orders, the clones’ bravery and resolve holds true despite the darkness swirling around them.

You can’t help but sympathize with the tragedy of the clones’ situation, fighting a technologically superior enemy on the battlefield while simultaneously dealing with an unfair and punishing commander back at home. It’s the worst of both worlds and the resolution magnifies the absolute horror of this cruel war that is secretly being waged by the despotic Sith. These clones are unlucky pawns but over the course of these four episodes they become the heroes they were born to be.

Although Star Wars: The Clone Wars is coming to end next month with the final 13 episodes of Season Six, you can bet that there are plenty more Star Wars tales to be told in the upcoming Star Wars Rebels.

What Makes A Great Hero? – Flawed Saviors

20130825-160914.jpg

A few weeks ago we took a look at what makes a great villain. That seemed to be a fruitful discussion and since I’m still slightly traumatized from my bad movie series, why not look a what makes a great hero?

While it’s usually the villain that steals the limelight, great stories require a great hero. Not necessarily an unbeatable incredible awesome hero, but some kind of relatable figure with generous amounts of goodwill and personality. Unlike the villain, the hero is person in the story that the audience is supposed to sympathize and agree with. The hero is our window to the world of the story. You are supposed to like them. On some level, you actually wouldn’t mind being them.

However nobody likes always successful, always happy, always perfect people. They are annoying. They bug us with their immaculately cleaned toilets and wrinkle-free clothing. And we know that deep down nobody can be thatperfect. They might hide their flaws with precise, but we know they’re there somewhere.

Thus when it comes to a hero of a story, we want someone flawed. Deeply flawed. We want them to have struggles (because we have struggles and so they should too). Ultimately we want them to succeed but we think it should be a constant challenge. Life is full of constant challenges so naturally we expect the same for a hero. And oddly enough, through seeing them overcome constant challenges we grow to like them even more.

A good hero must have a personal obstacle, some overarching problem that humanizes them and creates sympathy for the character inside the audience. There are really only three main sources of the hero’s obstacle that I can think of:

  • a personal vice
  • alienation
  • unwillingness to be a hero
  •  
    Vice is a moral problem. Alienation is a circumstantial problem. Unwillingness is an internal problem. Usually a hero majors in one of these obstacles. Effectively these different problems humanize the hero and lets us in to their personal journey via the universal experiences of trial and temptation.

    From these three kinds of obstacles emerge three hero archetypes:

  • The Cocky Hero has some kind of vice that prevents them from being wholly ethical or socially acceptable.
  • The Solitary Hero is alienated from those around them for reasons beyond their control
  • The Unwilling Hero does not want to be a hero and is defined by their personal struggle to take up a hero’s mantle.
  •  
    A good hero should fall into one of these categories and really own it. I suppose you could have a cocky solitary unwilling hero, but I doubt they would still qualify as a hero and end up being more an anti-hero. A hero might have multiple issues yet should always focus on one tangible problem at a time. After all, in our own lives we find it hard to tackle more than one major problem at a time.

    Let’s look at some examples.

    The Cocky Hero

    The Cocky Hero carries around an easily detectable flaw. Like in real life, most of the time this flaw cannot be completely erased but only minimized and ultimately compensated for by other virtues. Even though they have good intentions, they are often willing to do ignoble things along the way. The audience may root for them to succeed yet at the same time consider themselves morally above them. A major challenge for the Cocky Hero is too overcome their personal flaws in order to complete their sacred heroic task.

    James Bond

    Obstacle: detachment

    007 is the classic Cocky Hero. He’s arrogant, unconcerned with what his superiors’ think of him, and good at his job. He is Britain’s best spy and he always finishes his mission. But he has a vice: he’s emotionally detached. Bond uses women like toys and although its presented as hyper-masculine spy mojo, few people would really want to live a life of empty one night stands and total interpersonal detachment. Despite his prowess with a gun, Bond is made partially inhuman by his inability to connect deeply with or commit to women.

    James T. Kirk

    Obstacle: risk-taking

    In 2009 J.J. Abrams introduced us to a total revamp of the iconic Captain Kirk. Like Bond, he sleeps around with women but his deeper character flaw is risk-taking. Kirk trusts his gut over sound logic, doesn’t care about Starfleet regulation, and leaps headfirst into situations that put himself and his crew in grave danger. Although we admire his confidence and resourcefulness, his unnecessary brashness proves him to be seriously flawed human being along with the rest of us.

    Korra

    Obstacle: impatience

    The Legend of Korra is an amazing television show anchored by its chipper teenage Avatar-in-training. She is strong-willed and eager to use her powers on behalf of others. It is clear that Korra is both courageous and compassionate. Yet she is held back by a singular character flaw: impatience. Korra tends to rush into battle before she’s fully ready or even knows what she’s getting into. Instead of remaining diligent and devoted to learning air-bending, she takes on life-threatening challenges before she is ready.

    Tony Stark

    Obstacle: self-reliance

    Tony Stark is highly intelligent, charismatic, and surprisingly ethical in his use of his Iron Man suit. Frequently he is willing to lay his life down for others, the mark of a true hero. However in public he makes clear that of unique intelligence and prides himself above all. Underneath all that hubris, his real issue is self-reliance. Tony believes only he can handle the world’s threats and takes offense at anyone who tries to help him. In other words, he doesn’t play well with others.

    This brand of hero must work on overcoming their vice. If they refuse to change, they become a sort of self-parody eventually. Bond must get out of his hotel bed and get back to work. Kirk must take more measured risks. Korra must learn to have more patience. Tony must compromise and work alongside others.

    Since the Cocky Hero tends to be the most immoral or unsympathetic of the archetypes, it helps if they are really good at other things like saving innocent civilians or water-bending or hand-to-hand combat. Even if we don’t admire their personality at least we can admire their skill and the dedication required to learn that skill. If the hero has to be a jerk, at least let them do important heroic things (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).

    The Solitary Hero

    The Solitary Hero’s obstacle does not come from a personal vice like the Cocky Hero but rather from an external reality that divides them from the people they love. This alienating force is something the Solitary Hero must live with against their will with little hope of having it removed. They may never get to live a normal life so they must make the best of what they have.

    When this hero archetype is called to action, they usually arrive with a strong level of intensity that others heroes tend to lack. Because they are already isolated from those closest to them, they have less to lose. Often their heroic acts grant them the solace and purpose they were looking for all along.

    Logan

    Obstacle: attachment

    The Wolverine is a tragic figure, able to completely heal from any wound yet unable to form lasting attachments with those around him. His long lifespan not only causes him to outlive everyone he love/s but also forces him to carry around the memories of violence and war from his past. It is no accident that Logan is often found in the wilderness apart from the rest of the X-Men and that he is such a volatile force to reckon with.

    The Hulk

    Obstacle: self-control

    Bruce Banner’s isolation does not stem from attachment but from self-control. Unable to control his transformations and the brutal rage of his alter ego, he must separate himself from others for their own safety. Even after learning to master his emotions, Banner can never really be sure if he can fully tame the mighty Hulk inside of him. When the beast explodes, Banner is helpless to protect people from himself.

    Batman

    Obstacle: identity

    After surviving a traumatic childhood, adult Bruce Wayne rejects his billionaire identity and dons the Batsuit. Effectively Bruce dies and Batman is born. Batman is the real Bruce while Bruce becomes his true mask. This personality split makes it impossible for Bruce to live a normal life or maintain authentic relationships. Fighting crime ultimately consumes Bruce’s entire identity.

    Superman

    Obstacle: belonging

    The last known survivor of his planet, Kal-El is a man apart. Despite being near indestructible and having the power of flight, Superman can never fully belong with the humans he protects. He is alien. He is an orphan. These truths separate him from the rest of us and make his full integration into society nearly impossible.

    Since they are effectively on their own, Solitary Heroes are usually quite capable of handling things by themselves. Logan has adamantium claws. Hulk is an unstoppable juggernaut. Batman is a stealthy ninja. Superman can bend steel. Although they are clothed with immense power, these heroes still lack one of the most basic of human needs: deep loving connections to other people.

    Balancing their need for social connection against their need to use their unique station in life for the greater good, Solitary Heroes are them most tragic of the bunch. Their happiness will always be limited by a constant external reminder that they are, to some degree, all alone.

    The Unwilling Hero

    Unwilling Heroes are distinguished by the fact that they don’t want to be heroes or at the very least are not ready to do what it takes to become one. Their reluctance keeps them from fulfilling the heroic task required of them. Since we as the audience have all sorts of things we don’t want to do, we can easily relate to a hero who suffers from the same dilemma.

    Ideally the Unwilling Hero should still have some admirable qualities about them. They may not want to be a hero, but they should be worthy in other ways. If they are both unwilling and unlikeable, that’s a problem. They just need some time but the seeds of heroism should already have started to sprout and manifest themselves in smaller ways.

    Neo

    Obstacle: confidence

    Despite gaining the faith and trust of Morpheus, Neo doesn’t feel like a hero. He doesn’t see any evidence that he is the One that was prophesied. The Oracle doesn’t give him much reassurance either. He has no confidence in himself yet through his devotion to Morpheus and timely courage, he finally proves himself the hero he never thought he was.

    Frodo Baggins

    Obstacle: physical strength

    As the only volunteer to carry the One Ring into Mordor, Frodo becomes the de facto guardian of Middle Earth. However he is hobbit, small in size and inexperienced in combat. He is physically too weak to even make the arduous journey. But as the Fellowship crumbles, his moral resolve allows him to push through his physical limitations toward his destination.

    Katniss Everdeen

    Obstacle: power

    Katniss is at the mercy of a corrupt regime, forced to fight for her life. She has no control over her situation and yet refuses to kill other tributes except in the case of self-defense. She is powerless to change her situation. By choosing to maintain an ethical stand in spite of her lethal environment, Katniss manages to emerge the deadly Hunger Games as a national hero and a symbol of a mounting resistance.

    Luke Skywalker

    Obstacle: training

    Luke is not interested in joining Obi-Wan and taking up his father’s lightsaber. After his family’s murder, he finally does decide to join him but he is over eager to enter the fight. Obi-Wan reminds Luke that he is no Jedi. Impatient to complete his training, Luke is not prepared to fully learn the ways of the Force and thus stands no chance against Darth Vader. It takes him two whole movies before he is finally ready to be the hero that he needs to be.

    Just because Unwilling Heroes are unwilling does not mean that they can put off their responsibility forever. Even if the situation is beyond their control they do not stand around and do nothing. Perhaps they try to find another way to solve their problem, like Luke becoming a pilot instead of a Jedi or Neo entering the Matrix for a quick rescue. Despite their aversion to being heroes eventually their circumstances, experience, and inner qualities collude to transform them into great heroes.

    Flawed Saviors

    Heroes of all kinds must be relatable and giving them an obvious flaw is the fastest and best way to do that. However they also have to be likable. If a hero has too many flaws, they become unpleasant. If a hero’s flaws are too cliche, they become bland. Ultimately a good hero needs to have a consistent personality that is also balanced by their unique flaws and limitations as well as personal growth.

    We should like heroes and admire them on one level, but yet also be aware of their flaws. We should see them as equal to us in human failing and weakness. In some cases, we might even see ourselves as morally superior. Hey if I treat people better than Bond or Batman, that makes me feel pretty good, right?

    But lest we forget, a hero must not exist as a theoretical possibility or live in the realm of good intentions. They must vanquish evil and save other humans. At the very least they must actively care about others and work toward their wellbeing.

    A hero absolutely cannot be idle, even if they are wrongheaded and misguided at times. What they do defines them. Not a cape or a reputation or an idea, but their actual behavior. Their actual deeds. We will forgive a multitude of crimes and misdemeanors for a hero who is simply willing to act.

    In part two, we’ll look at the other half of a great hero: great character motivation.

    Evaluating the Importance of Influence Characters

    influence characters 3

    Everyone intuitively gets that a story has a main character, but what often gets overlooked is a special little story element known as the Influence Character. In contrast to the Main Character, the Influence Character is not the lens through which the audience experiences the story. Instead, the Influence Character challenges and prods the Main Character to consider another path, thereby also forcing the audience to rethink their point of view. The tension between these two characters creates much of story’s overall dramatic tension.

    In Dramatica theory (an overly complicated but sometimes useful narrative framework) this secondary character, the Influence Character, provides an opposing alternative worldview from that of the main character. Through the interactions between the Main character and the Influence character, the story is allowed to develop and exercise its major themes. It is the influence character who forces the main character to grow and even change course, creating the gut-punching drama needed for a great story.

    One familiar example given in the book is Star Wars.

    Star Wars: The Story of Two Methods

    The overall story of Star Wars is the rebels trying to topple the evil Empire. The main character story is Luke’s personal journey to become a Jedi and fight the empire. The influence character is Obi-Wan Kenobi, a wisened Jedi, who pushes Luke to learn the ways of the force.

    Luke wants to do something with his life: get off dust-covered Tatooine bowl and join the Rebel Alliance. He is young and headstrong, wanting to become a Jedi quickly so he can fight. Kenobi is a retired Jedi, wanting Luke to complete his training but also wanting Luke to slow down and invest the years of quiet meditation and self-restraint it takes to become a Jedi. Although they both have the same goal (stopping Vader and overthrowing the Empire) their relationship exhibits two possible means of getting there: brash enthusiasm or slow deliberate preparation. Over the course of the movie, Kenobi tempers Luke’s eagerness through his constant reminders that defeating Vader will require acquiring the patience and persistence needed to wield the Force.

    The Influence Character model works pretty well with Star Wars, but does it hold up with other stories? I can’t really say. And speaking of Star Wars, the Luke-Kenobi relationship is only a small fraction of the great drama of the movie. Is Kenobi really that unique and special of an influence character? That’s a tough question to answer.

    What other movies out there can help us test this concept of the influence character? Any movie that has two central characters who are at odds with one another but forced to work together is a probably a good candidate. Some examples that come to mind are Toy Story (Woody and Buzz), Star Trek 2009 (Kirk and Spock), and The Matrix (Neo and Morpheus).

    Toy Story: The Story of Two Attitudes

    Woody, our main character, wants to be Andy’s favorite toy believing himself both special and the de facto leader of the rest of the toys. The arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a naive but loyal space ranger, upsets Woody’s world. Woody believes that Andy has a special connection to his cowboy and is happiest when playing with him. Buzz innocuously replaces Woody as Andy’s favorite, simply letting Andy make his own decisions and playing along.

    In his jealousy Woody does the unthinkable, pushing Buzz out the window and accidentally stranding himself as well. For the rest of the film Woody and Buzz learn that they share the same goal of making Andy happy and fulfilling their duty as faithful toys. In their adventures outside the house the two learn from each other and eventually forge a deep friendship and mutual respect in spite of their different approaches. Ultimately Woody changes through the influence of Buzz and decides to focus on being the best possible toy for Andy even if that means he is no longer the favorite.

    This works well with the influence character theory. Woody and Buzz, who both share the mission of making their owner Andy happy, disagree on the method and yet manage to become friends and learn from one another in the process.

    Star Trek (2009): The Story of Two Approaches

    The central relationship of Star Trek is eerily similar to Toy Story. Kirk is an arrogant emotion-driven cadet while Spock is a calculating logic-driven commander. Both are the best Starfleet has to offer but their vastly different approaches lead them to butt heads almost immediately. When a decisive crisis befalls them, the pair spar openly. The human goes with his gut, the Vulcan sticks to his rational assessment. Officially in charge, Spock ejects Kirk from the Enterprise leaving Kirk to find his way back to ship. This is great drama, two beloved fan-favorite colleagues forced into a situation where they cannot get along.

    When Kirk finally gets back on the ship, he manages to tap into Spock’s inner emotional turmoil thus proving that underneath the Vulcan’s stoic demeanor lies the same primal instincts that make Kirk such an effective captain. Ultimately Spock rejects this approach but gains a new appreciation for Kirk’s innate leadership and decides to defer to his moral authority. This relationship is expanded further in Star Trek Into Darkness.

    In this story, the Nero threat and destruction of planet Vulcan are all just background stuff, an excuse to test the bonds between these two dissimilar characters who play off each other so well but just don’t know it yet.

    The Matrix: The Story of Two Worldviews

    Neo, our Main Character, has his life changed forever when he meets a mysterious man named Morpheus. Under his influence, Neo decides to leave the Matrix and discovers a new reality he could never have imagined. However Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One (an anagram for Neo) while Neo is certain that he is just an ordinary guy, not at all what Morpheus is looking for. Morpheus is defined by his faith in the One. In contrast, Neo is defined by personal experience and the self-knowledge that he is really quite ordinary. Their two incompatible worldviews form the central dramatic relationship of the movie.

    This all comes to a climax when Neo, still not believing himself the One, goes back into the Matrix to rescue Morpheus from certain death, thus becoming the One he never thought he would be.

    Those three examples fit the bill nicely, but I’m concerned that the Influence Character is not easily producible. What about movies that aren’t focused on two buddy characters? One examples that come to mind are The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

    The Hobbit: The Story of Two Influence Characters

    Clearly the Main Character in this story is Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit. But who is the Influence Character? The two obvious ones are Gandalf and Thorin, but both seem to represent opposite views and have quite a different relationship with the young hobbit. For the first hour of the movie, Bilbo’s struggle is that he does not belong out in the wild on adventures and such. He firmly believes himself a homebody. Through Gandalf’s influence and prodding, finally Bilbo takes a chance by signing the contract and joining the company of dwarves.

    For the first section of the movie, the influence character is clearly Gandalf. The playful relationship between hobbit and wizard is really all about convincing Bilbo to leave home behind and go on the adventure. It is Gandalf who brings down the domestic destruction upon the hobbit hole, inviting ravenous dwarves in to pillage the pantry and scuff up his home. However once Bilbo accepts Gandalf’s charge the Influence Character almost immediately switches to Thorin, the friction between Bilbo and Gandalf having been resolved.

    Thorin interestingly now plays on Bilbo’s hesitation at joining in the first place. Bilbo never wanted to leave home, took a concerted risk in coming, and now must deal with Thorin’s constant reminders of his inadequate preparation for the quest at hand. This new Influence Character seems to confirms Bilbo’s greatest fears: he never should have come. The rest of the movie deals with the relationship between hobbit and dwarf-king as they work to resolve their irreconcilable attitudes on Bilbo’s place in the company.

    An Unexpected Journey seems to employ two different Influence Characters, Gandalf and Thorin, at different times to great effect. (Notice how at the end of the movie Gandalf and Bilbo’s relationship remains unchanged since leaving the shire. Perhaps it’s best to never have two Influence Characters both active at once.)

    Traditional Approach vs. Non-Traditional Approach

    Many stories will have clear and straightforward Influence Characters as in the movies we discussed above. They fit the bill perfectly, and the relationship between the Main Character and the Influence Character becomes the central emotional axis of the entire story. Some examples of traditional influence characters in movies:

    Skyfall: M influences Bond to serve his country

    Oblivion: Victoria influences Jack Harper to stay home

    Revenge of the Sith: Obi-Wan influences Anakin to resist the dark side

    Inception: Ariadne influences Cobb to confront his inner demons

    The Amazing Spider-Man: Captain Stacy influences Peter to weigh the illegal actions of Spider-Man

    The Dark Knight Rises: Bane influences Bruce to give up hope for Gotham

    The Dark Knight: The Joker influences Batman to reject his ethical restraints

    Avatar: Neytiri influences Jake to fully embrace Navi’i culture

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Clementine influences Joel by erasing her memories of their relationship.

    The Sixth Sense: Cole influences Dr. Malcolm to believe in ghosts.

    Back to the Future: Doc Brown influences Marty to fix the timeline.

    Those are traditional examples of the Influence Character at work. But what about movies that don’t work quite as well?

    Iron Man 3: Is it Harley or Pepper or the Mandarin, I don’t know. The best candidate is probably the Mandarin but it’s a little unclear since their interactions are limited. More likely is that the functions of the influence character are split up between those three characters each representing an opposite worldview from Tony in different areas. The Mandarin influences Tony’s approach to military stuff, Pepper influences his approach to relationships, and the kid Harley influences his approach to dealing with his psychological wounds.

    Contagion: The real main character of Contagion is the disease itself. It evolves throughout the film following a typical character arc. The epidemiologists influence the disease by searching for a cure.

    Pacific Rim: Pentecost influences Raleigh to fight dispassionately, Mako influences Raleigh to fight passionately. Two influence characters who both influence Raleigh to fight.

    Jurassic Park: The rampaging dinosaurs influence the humans by exposing their hubris.

    The Avengers: Nick Fury influences the Avengers to assemble.

    Lincoln: No idea who the influence character is, perhaps Mary Todd or even the entrenched idea of slavery itself.

    Man of Steel: Jor-El influences Kal-El to inspire humanity, Pa Kent influences Clark to conceal his identity, General Zod influences Kal-El to reveal himself. Lois and Martha Kent do stuff too. That’s a lot of Influence Characters and perhaps one explanation for its poor critical reception.

    So What Did We Learn?

    Some movies fit the model perfectly. Other movies are a bit harder to cram into the model. However even the ones that fit quite well also have a lot of other things going on in the movie: tertiary characters, subplots, external forces that come from outside the Influence Character relationships, and more.

    I don’t think the Influence Character is absolutely necessary for every story. Obviously you could create a working story without one single character who represents a diametrically opposite view from the main character. However when it works, it does seem to work pretty well. Movies that mishandle the resolution of the Influence Character relationship tend to suffer as a result (e.g. Bane in the Dark Knight Rises or Superman’s dads in Man of Steel).

    A lot of stories have what appear to be multiple Influence Characters broken up to represent different aspects of the Main Character’s worldview. That appears to be okay as long as you follow through correctly, but it seems much more difficult to pull off.

    Some other observations that we didn’t have time for but deserve to be mentioned:

    • Many superhero movies tend to fall into the trap of relying only on the villain for the influence character when they could be exploring the interesting counter-perspectives of other characters.
    • Romantic movies usually feature the two lovers who serve as Main and Influence Characters respectively.
    • Buddy films about two unlikely partners or friends are the same way.
    • Stories that tend to happen in the mind of one person or that are about a person wrestling with their own opinions could potentially have the same person be both main character and influence character ala Fight Club.
    • This is just a jumping in point to the the concept of the Influence Character. I’m sure some of the Dramatica people and other narrative experts have much better things to say.

    Bottom line: The Influence Character is a useful tool in telling stories but not a hard and fast rule that every story must obey. You would be wise to implement a well-defined Influence Character (or some other outside force) that provides a strong counter-perspective for the main character in your story. If you are going to have multiple Influence Characters, make sure they have a clear analog in a different aspect of the Main Character’s worldview (as in Iron Man 3).

    Now’s it your turn to help me in the comments:

    • What other Influence Characters do you recognize from film, tv, or books?
    • Are there any movies that have NO Influence Character whatsoever?
    • How would you explain the Influence Character(s) of a complicated multi-part narrative like The Lord of the Rings?