This December can boast the release of a pair of films from two very different franchises. The first is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the inescapable cinematic behemoth set to capitalize on the new, Disney-fueled era of Star Wars. It’s primed to tell the next chapter of the new trilogy that began with 2015’s The Force Awakens. The second is The Disaster Artist, a movie, based on a book, based on the making of another movie. That other movie is The Room, a transcendently bad, gloriously inept film that is the modern challenger for the title of “The Worst Movie of All Time.”
And on the surface, Star Wars and The Room have nothing in common. One is set in a distant galaxy, and the other is set in San Francisco (and not even the futuristic sci-fi version of the city from Star Trek). One features magical warrior monks doing battle with laser swords, and the other features (comparatively) average people, mostly tossing footballs at one another. Star Wars shows off imaginative new technologies on a cinematic scale, and The Room includes someone secretly recording their fiancée with a Nixon-era tape recorder.
But look past those surface-level differences, draw down to the core elements of each franchise’s installments, and you’ll discover something shocking — Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is just The Room in space. Search your feelings; you know it to be true.
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The continued struggle of The Walking Dead is remarkably consistent. The show’s unhurried pace often gives it time to delve deeply into the theme of the week and really chew on it rather than just gulping it down and moving on like the eponymous, ravenous zombies who populate the series. Sure, some episodes are little more than epic climaxes or piece-moving adventures, but for the most part, even the worst episodes of the show have something they’re trying to say and some idea they’re trying to dig into.
But the show is almost impressively bad at crafting the sort of dialogue for its characters that can ground those examinations in something that feels like real human experience and interactions.
In the wake of disquieting fan revolts over superhero films, video games, science fiction awards, and genre works of all stripes, there’s been an ensuing debate over who “owns” art. Whether you’re talking about a particular release, a broader genre, or even an entire industry, there’s an ongoing discussion to the tune of “who does this belong to?”
And the responses are legion. Is it the creative individuals behind these works? Their most ardent fans? The would-be arbiters of taste? The studios and publishers who fund them? Is it the dye-in-the-wool traditionalists or the boundary-pushing innovators? Who among these gets to decide what’s acceptable and what isn’t, let alone what’s good, great, or even art in the first place? These are questions at the heart of Ed Wood, the 1994 film from director Tim Burton.
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Episodes like these make me thank Heaven that The Walking Dead didn’t start airing on network television in the era of twenty-two episode seasons. With scores of characters, multiple locales, and plenty of plotlines, the show should be plenty capable of finding enough plot and incident to fill an eight-episode half season with minimal wheel-spinning. Sure, not every episode can advance a major season arc, but there’s still tons of space for character development, illuminating vignettes, or details that make it more meaningful when those major arcs do finally come to a head.
Instead, it feels like every half season has at least one episode like “The King, The Widow and Rick” which cannot, even charitably, be called a table-setting episode. At best, it’s an episode devoted to tying up loose ends. It throws out a few miscellaneous plots here and there, but those storylines don’t move the ball in terms of the overarching story of the series; they don’t really tell us anything new about the characters, and they don’t add much, if anything, to the show as a whole.
“A war of all against all.” That’s how philosopher Thomas Hobbes pithily explained the “state of nature,” his theoretical account of what it was like when human beings lived without government, without order, and without rule. He imagined a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short” and posited that we all needed a Leviathan, the personification of the force and power of the government, to avoid that unenviable existence. On Hobbes’ account, people needed to give up certain freedoms and turn things over to the Leviathan to ensure compliance with the order of the day, as the price to avoid that endless, indiscriminate war.
In Negan’s mind, he is that Leviathan. The last time The Walking Dead interrogated Negan’s moral philosophy, it left it ambiguous how the leader of The Saviors viewed himself. It was nebulous whether Negan really believed that his brutal ways were for the greater good, or whether he was just spinning propaganda to justify the comparatively lavish and carefree lifestyle he could enjoy while others toiled.
“The Big Scary U” is much less ambiguous. There is a certain sense that Negan may be deluding himself, offering rationalizations and eliding the darker or more self-serving side of the choices he’s made. But it nevertheless becomes clear that, on the surface at least, he is a true believer, someone who thinks that he’s doing what needs to be done to avoid a worse fate for everyone.
It’s impossible to process Justice League without considering Batman v. Superman, the film’s literal predecessor, and The Avengers, its spiritual one. The DCEU’s latest team-up movie is so much in conversation with these two prior films, so much reacting and responding to them, that it almost doesn’t make sense without them.
Imposter syndrome. Fake it till you make it. False confidence. There are dozens of phrases in hundreds of permutations that each stand for the proposition that if we can just project enough strength, if we can put the right mask on over our doubts and insecurities, then we will become who and what we hope to be. It’s the idea that inspiration can be built up from within, and eventually flow out to those we seek to lead or impress or merely comfort.
But what if you have imposter syndrome because you are, in fact, an imposter? What if you fake it with all your might, but the odds are too stacked against you for you to make anything? What if your false confidence just gets your friends and allies killed.
For a while, it felt like The Walking Dead had found a nice, consistent rhythm in its storytelling. Since about Season 4, each season would include a handful of episodes that featured everyone in the cast, but most would be smaller, more standalone affairs that focused on a narrower subset of characters. These episodes would tell individual stories and focus on small facets of bigger events that deepen our understanding of the personalities and problems at play. It gave the show a certain decompressed feeling that raised accusations of “boring,” but which also provided The Walking Dead with the space to flesh out its characters and make those stretches between the big set pieces feel less like wheel-spinning and more like an effort, however variable in its success, to make those grand finales matter.
But Season 8 has seemingly abandoned that tack. While not everyone has showed up in every episode thus far, each installment this season has felt like an immediate sequel to the prior one. The siege that began in the premiere continued in last week’s episode. And this week’s episode, “Monsters,” follows directly from there, depicting the same moral conflicts and the same lingering issues that Rick, Daryl, Carol, Ezekiel, Morgan, Jesus, Tara, and Aaron faced in the prior episode. We’re getting one giant story here, rather than a collection of related, but distinct plots that become part of a larger mosaic.
Some of the best aspects of the original Star Wars movie were its characters, its humor, and its surfeit of enjoyable, individual moments. The film’s special effects were innovative, and its famed myth arc was substantial, but the hero’s journey and all that technical splendor might have fallen apart if we hadn’t felt the warm, jostling connection between Luke, Leia, and Han, or laughed at their antics, or been able to so enjoy their interactions even apart from the larger story. Thor: Ragnarok, while not nearly as good as A New Hope, can rely on the same saving grace.
You are never going to fully get away from the “Is it right to kill?” question when you’re telling a zombie apocalypse story. One of the core aspects of the genre is forcing people to make life and death decisions in extreme situations. That’s part of what makes zombie movies and shows both thrilling and thought-provoking; they put the audience in the shoes of the characters and let us wonder whether we’d be saints or slayers when the rules of civilization no longer apply and mortal peril lurks around every corner.
But my god, The Walking Dead has been exploring these issues for seven-going-on-eight seasons at this point, and while it hasn’t dug into every possible permutation of them, it’s come close. There’s some benefit to putting new characters into those scenarios and having them vacillate between mercy and lethal pragmatism while trying to figure out the right way to live in this harsh environment. But you can only lean into this sort of “That’s not who we are” back-and-forth for so long on a television show before it starts to become rote.