Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Once again helmed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor/sorta, respectively, along with additions Pedro Pascal (as Maxwell Lord) and Kristen Wiig (as Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah), sequel Wonder Woman 1984 (stylized as WW84) has hit the big screens and small screens at the same time. Like many people who spent their Christmas apart from their family this year, and also have HBO Max, my Christmas morning involved watching WW84. As a Christmas present, it was like the gag candy that looks like coal and you get in your stocking, where for a moment you think that you’ve been punished before realizing it’s a sweet, except in reverse, where what seems like sugary fun at first turns out to be kind of a piece of coal. Wonder Woman 1984 is … pretty bad. And not in the way that the first one was considered “bad” by a lot of people who (understandably) lost the thread somewhere in that muddy finale or who just have a mental block that makes them hate the Wonder Woman character. This movie is a mess, with a few true gems in the narrative, but also with some troubling philosophical underpinnings. But what WW84 is, at its core, is something that Diana of Themyscira never would be: cowardly. 

It’s 1984, and Diana is working at the Smithsonian in her civilian identity, where she has access to artifacts recently recovered from a black market jewelry shop front that was revealed during a botched robbery that Diana foiled as Wonder Woman. She meets colleague Dr. Barbara Minerva, who establishes the value of everything save for one object: a citrine sculpture with an inscription that Diana translates to, essentially, “you get one wish.” She absently reminisces about Steve, and there’s magic little tinkly sounds and an air machine, and I can admit that I loved that bit. Barbara, for her part, wishes she could be more like Diana: effortlessly confident, eternally alluring, and tirelessly kind. Diana discovers that the wishing stone was actually en route to Maxwell Lord, a televised Ponzi schemer selling the idea of a socialistic communally owned oil reserve (I don’t get it either) when the FBI confiscated the artifacts, but she fails to stop him before he obtains and then acquires the power of the artifact. Steve comes back to life and although the two are happy to be reunited, the method of his resurrection reveals that the artifact operates on Monkey’s Paw rules (explicitly; it’s invoked, and it’s an admittedly nice touch that it’s Steve who calls it by name, as it would be a recent reference for him), and Lord’s using the granting of wishes to increase his personal power even as his body and society start to fall apart. Will Diana be able to stop him in blah blah blah?

If you’re completely removed from The Discourse or are Very Offline to the point that you’re in a bubble vis-a-vis politics, both contemporary and of the 1980s, then it might be possible for you to just turn your brain off and enjoy a nostalgic throwback about Wonder Woman fighting a Ponzi schemer in 1984. It’s certainly what the film wants you to do, and to that end, there are a lot of elements that are super fun.

Everything to do with Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah, is great from a performance standpoint. Wiig is once again playing a character similar to her previous role in Ghostbusters: a woman of high academic achievement who is nerdy, Hollywood Homely, and largely ignored/disdained by her peers to exaggerated comic effect (none of her male colleagues help her collect her dropped documents, only Diana does). Her own boss doesn’t even remember meeting her previously, which was funny in Office Space but just feels painful and awkward here, especially as it comes so early in the film that the tone hasn’t really been set yet (more on that in a moment). Her immediate interest in Diana is adorable, as she sees in the literally divine Amazon a reflection of what she wishes she could be, in more ways than one, and her friendship with Diana is fun and likable, before it inevitably goes sour. Wiig is having a lot of fun playing “frumpy” and excitable, and while that’s definitely within her wheelhouse, it’s also fun seeing her stretch those muscles playing some of Minerva’s more subdued moments. Unfortunately, the material she’s working with plays against her talents, especially once she’s turned into a clawing, snarling CGI abomination (seriously, the practical effects in The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1996 are better than how this looks). 

The film’s length works both for and against it. When you’ve got a movie like this that’s premiering in people’s homes, it’s not like a theater in which the audience’s attention is captivated and captive; at home, there’s a lot more to distract you, and if you’re not drawn in by the opening, you’ve already lost a lot of people to their phones. As for how it works in its favor, I’m not opposed to a 2.5 hour movie (if anything, mine and Brandon’s recent discussion of Doctor Sleep proves that I thrive on them), and the film’s decompression allows for some of the film’s best elements to have sufficient breathing room. We get to see Diana reignite her love with Steve Trevor, who is brought back to life* via the magic of the film’s MacGuffin, and start to develop a friendship with Barbara that’s warm and kind. There’s an awful lot of complaining that this film is too light on thrills and that the length of time between action sequences is to the film’s detriment, but the same complaints were made about Spider-Man 2 when it was first released, and even after 15 years in which the prevalence of superhero media has done nothing but grow at an exponential rate, that’s still considered one of the most triumphant examples of the genre. It’s what doesn’t move the plot along that makes the film work when it does work; although this film has a different resolution than a big blue laser beam (and one that’s a novel choice, if nothing else), it still follows the rote and prescriptive stations of the plot outline for all of these movies.

The action sequences are also nothing to scoff at (most of the time). The opening scene on Themyscira is a fun contest, if a little Quidditch-y at points and hosting the film’s most questionable CGI choices, but there’s also really gorgeous location work that makes you just yearn for the beach; it really does look like Paradise. The mall sequence that brings us to the film’s 1984 “present” is really what sets the tone for what’s to come: it’s light, pastel, a little goofy, but warm and inviting and not too threatening. As Diana runs around stopping people from being injured during a robbery gone awry, she really seems like Wonder Woman, the real deal, the friend to all living things  who loves kids and Christmas and ice cream and justice, and it’s very clear that the movie’s operating on G.I. Joe/A-Team rules: nobody dies, they always parachute out or land in water instead, etc. There’s an extended roadway set piece that’s very impressive and makes inventive use of the lasso, and the best White House-based action since X2. The battle with Barbara in her Cheetah form is less fun, but the fact that the climactic sequence is not about beating Maxwell Lord into submission and is instead about saving his soul is a nice change of pace from the third act megafight that’s become the standard. Although the film is explicitly set mostly in midsummer (there are Independence Day fireworks over Washington at one point), that the film’s major conflict comes to a head when a greedy Dickensian man renounces his need to own the world gives the whole thing more of a Christmas vibe than the tacked-on snowy holiday set piece that ends the film proper. 

That having been said, there’s a lot going on here that’s … questionable. I couldn’t put it more eloquently than Walter Chaw does here, and I won’t try to, other than to say that all of the things that WW84 brings to the table pale in comparison to its gross narrative choices. And if you’re sitting there after having gone and read Chaw’s review and you’re thinking that he’s reading too much into it, then I’d direct you to a follow-up Tweet of his, which says, succinctly and simply, “The nature of bias is that yours is invisible to you.” It’s easy to hear the siren call to overlook the hard-to-face fact that this film has a supervillainess’s face-heel-turn be her self-defense against a sexual assailant. A woman is punished for wanting to be powerful, and instead of breaking through her defenses by lifting her up, Wonder Woman (who is friend to all living things and loves ice cream, remember), gives her one chance to recant without any encouragement or warmth, and then gives her the old toaster-in-the-bathtub treatment. Chaw wrote about the implications of the Bialyan anti-colonial sentiment expressed by an oil baron, but there’s so much being implied in the margins here that even he couldn’t get them all down. How about the fact that the wish stone is tied to the fall of multiple civilizations due to the chaos that it creates, including the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization, and that the Mayans are explicitly stated to have been unwilling to take the actions needed to save their society? Yeah, yikes. For recommended further reading, there’s also Roxana Hadadi’s discussion of the film’s Middle Eastern stereotypes here.

At the top, I mentioned that WW84 was cowardly, and where that shines through the most to me on a personal level is in the choice of place and time without the willingness to tackle the topics of the time. The POTUS in the film is nothing like Reagan, other than in the raging hard on for nukes, and the unwillingness to attack the tarnished late-blooming legacy of a president who was despised (even within his party and even in his time) and who turned a blind eye to the HIV/AIDS pandemic with callous disregard for human life (by the end of 1984, nearly 8000 people had contracted HIV, and nearly half of that number had died). Maxwell Lord is clearly supposed to echo the soon-to-be-former-President Donald Trump, with his facial bloat, unconvincing dye job, and all-consuming greed, but in a year dominated by politicized response to public health emergencies and dangerous alliances between pulpit and podium, history was lobbing a slowball straight over the plate, and WW84 not only didn’t make contact, it didn’t even swing. 

Some films we’re able to appreciate despite their flaws by recognizing that they are products of their times. Unfortunately, WW84 is the same, as its flawed technical achievements and interesting character moments take place in a narrative that’s circumscribed by peak white liberalism, blind to its own faults like a lot of capitalist products that aim to capture leftward social momentum and leverage it into profit. Maybe Wonder Woman is harder to get right than we thought when lighting was captured in a bottle in 2017. I don’t think it had to be this way, but unfortunately, this is what we got. 

*Some restrictions may apply.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Wonder Woman (2017)

I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me. I have not seen any other entries in the DC Universe other than the first two Christopher Nolan reboots of Batman. I’m not at all part of the superhero movie loving crowd, but in a world where the Dark Knight has at least twelve cinematic appearances, Superman has at least ten, and the Marvel Universe is dominated by male superheroes and small female roles in ensemble casts, it was about damn time we had a movie wholly dedicated to a female superhero. Also, in a world dominated by male directors, it was long overdue for a woman to helm a superhero film. It’s 2017 and Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a superhero film. Ever! It’s only fitting for that title to be Wonder Woman: an icon for women and young girls; a tough, no nonsense Amazon princess warrior; and arguably one of the best superheroes of all time. All this alone makes it a movie worth seeing and supporting; and it’s also fun, even for a superhero curmudgeon such as myself.

Wonder Woman starts with Diana’s childhood on the secret Island of the Amazons, Themyscira. Here we get a view of the culture of these women, why they exist, and how their island is eternally preserved and hidden by a veil of storm and fog. The training montages here are pretty cool, but a lot of what happens on the island (repetitive speeches about the gods and reiterations of what Diana is and is not allowed to do) just seems to drag. It’s cool to get a peak into the Amazon lifestyle, but only after so much of that do we finally get the inciting incident. A WWI era British Intelligence spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) manages to crash through the protective field around the island, followed by German troups. After a huge fight on the beach where we get some commentary about the destructive killing power of guns, Diana decides to leave with Trevor and save the world from war. After lots of fish out of water humor and wacky, “Oh my god, you can’t just carry a sword through turn of the century London!” hijinks, they assemble a team of misfits and go straight to the front lines.

For a tale that takes place with WWI as a backdrop, this film’s not that gritty. Thanks goodness for that, because it could have easily been another gray, dull action movie about the horrors of war. That’s not to say that the horrors of war aren’t present here, especially since World War I was a particularly savage example of carnage and loss of life. The main villains are still an evil general and his mad scientist lover/sidekick, who are developing a particularly lethal form of mustard gas. Despite this, there’s a tone of hope. We believe in our seriously scarred and flawed heroes. Diana is a source of justice and light in the darkness. War is still hell, but in the end we know Diana is going to succeed. There’s no way she can’t. She’s Wonder Woman. The movie really sells us on the idea that she can do anything, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

There’s been a lot of talk about the gender politics of Wonder Woman and what it means to finally have a female director on board for a blockbuster this big. The idea of Diana not being a piece of meat and eye candy has been floated around (oh, how our standards are so low). Other ideas I’ve seen have mentioned the design of the Amazonian armor and how it’s not run of the mill female boob armor. Both of those I have to sadly disagree with. Sure the armor isn’t Linda Carter bustier stuff, but there’s still the defined breast shapes, which has been discussed time and time again to be realistically useless except for the purpose of showing off boobs. You would think that an ancient race of warrior women would have figured that out. Also, there were many examples of Diana being presented to the audience as eye candy. In one particular scene she shows up to a gala in a stunning blue dress as Steve Trevor looks on with his jaw dropped. The real triumph as far as gender goes is that she’s allowed to be more than just eye candy. Not only is she presented as a desirable woman, she’s also given a story line with actual character development. The other refreshing thing about the way the film is written is that there’s no competition between women. She’s never given any lines implying how she’s not like the other girls or how the women outside her world are very weak, which was refreshing. Even on Themyscira, there’s a sense of camaraderie rather than oneupmanship. The other interesting catering-to-the-women-in-the-audience bit (though it’s debatable whether or not this is a win at all) is the reversal of the male gaze. Chris Pine is just there to be a handsome face and love interest, and there’s even a nude scene, albeit mostly implied, with a lot of double entendre. His character is not completely a cardboard cut-out, but compared to Diana it’s pretty darn close.

Wonder Woman is still guilty of the same sins as other superhero movies: cliché speeches about justice with nonsensical taglines (“It’s not about ‘deserve’; it’s about what you believe”), excessive slow motion (especially in the form of hair flips), and a cheesy fight sequence soundtrack. For true fans of the genre those aren’t necessarily problems, but more like charming quirks.  It manages to blend the darkness of war with the fun, superhero tone. A woman’s touch isn’t as immediately obvious to me as a lot of people believe, but where I see it I think it’s great. I’m glad the world finally has a female superhero movie, and that it’s living up to the hype and expectations.

-Alli Hobbs

Hell or High Water (2016)


three star

I’m going to preface this review by saying that Hell or High Water is far outside my comfort zone in terms of genre. A story about a world-weary lawman attempting to chase down & outwit a pair of haphazard bankrobbers just days before his retirement, the film resembles an awful lot of ultra-macho neo-Westerns I’m often told are great, but usually leave me bored silly. The problem is fairly deep-seated too. Even the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men, which I’m sure is fantastic, has put me to sleep every single time I’ve tried to watch it, including twice in the theater. So, I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.

Outside being a fairly standard bankrobbing thriller, Hell or High Water mostly stands out as a screenwriter’s playground. Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, recognizes the rigid restraints of the film’s simple narrative & throws most of his weight into the its quietly humorous dialogue. When Jeff Bridges’s perpetually exhausted Texas Ranger asks a recently robbed bank teller whether her assailants were black or white, she retorts, “Their skin or their souls?” It’s these kinds of colorful turns of phrase that make him mutter to himself, “God, I love West Texas.” I can’t echo that sentiment, but I do appreciate the film’s ability to capture that terrain’s slow, desolate atmosphere by bringing the more action-packed aspects of the plot down to an occasional halt in favor of some porch sittin’ & beer drinkin’, a perfect stage for showy exchanges of phrase. Sheridan understands the glass beer bottles, vastly empty roads, grunts, football, and poverty that make up a large part of that state & he uses that terrain to stage a somewhat believable modern version of a Cowboys vs. Indians Western. One of those Native Americans just happens to be a cop (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Gil Birmingham) trying to hold his aging white partner together for a final ride. His cowboy opponents are two in-over-their-heads brothers living out a revenge plot similar to Jeff Nichols’s (far superior) Shotgun Stories, except their target is a predatory banking institution instead of a rival family. The only question is if the calm, collected half of the criminal duo (played by an admirably restrained Chris Pine) can hold together his wildcard brother (a grimy Ben Foster, who plays the part like Guy Fieri reimagined as a methed-out murderer), long enough to escape the cops’ wrath. The evenly-distributed amusement of the proficient dialogue leaves a lot of grey area of which side to root for here (although, I guess you’d have to be a monster to root for the banks), so the fun of Hell or High Water is mostly in watching the pieces fall into place in an inevitably satisfying way, whatever the result.

I can’t say for sure if I would’ve enjoyed Hell or High Water more if it were staged in a different setting or if it didn’t feature gruff country songs with lines like, “I am lost in the dust of the chase my life brings” (an aspect of the film Nick Cave had some apparent involvement with, speaking of things I’m often told are great but I don’t really understand). My brain does usually shut all the way off when it comes to certain macho genres like Westerns or James Bond flicks or straightforward war movies, though, and I have to admit I didn’t have that problem here. This was far from my Film of the Year, but I was mostly on board with its Who’re the Real Thieves, Really? approach to predatory banking & its last legs lawman performance from Jeff Bridges (which brought me back to the novelty for Kurt Russell’s similar role in last year’s Bone Tomahawk). Like I said, though, it’s the film’s dialogue that really makes it distinct and I suspect that aspect is what’s going to have the moviegoing dads, uncles, and grandfathers of the world chuckling to themselves in delight. This movie was seemingly made with that specific crowd in mind & I’m not sure they’re going to appreciate its finer charms more than I was able to tap into myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Trek Beyond (2016)



A few months back, I wrote about the then-upcoming release of Star Trek Beyond and discussed my hopes for the film and the franchise in general. I wasn’t particularly excited after the first trailer, but the second trailer seemed a bit better, and the fact that Simon Pegg was one of the credited writers was certainly a point in the film’s favor, given his actual fondness for the franchise (in comparison to Roberto Orci, which I’ll get to in a minute). A generally favorable early critical response was also heartening, despite the general dearth of any significant marketing push for the film. I did see the same TV spots play before almost every YouTube video I watched in the past three weeks, but I can never tell if that’s marketed to me specifically as a Star Trek nerd scholar or indicative of a larger initiative. And, as a scholar, was I satisfied?

Yes? Mostly? This is definitely a fun movie, and a major improvement over the tone deaf Into Darkness, which was bad on a such a high number of levels that it’s difficult to nail down which one was most absurd. Was it the nonsensical nature of the motivation of the film’s antagonists? Was it the fact that their motivation might actually make sense when viewed through the lens of the particular madness of screenwriter and notable 9/11 truther Roberto Orci (there’s a decent article about this on BirthMoviesDeath, which is pretty great even though I have mixed feelings about Devin Faraci)? Was it the recasting of a character whose name is Indian and was previously portrayed by a person of color with Benedict Cumberbatch? It was probably that.

I went into greater detail about my feelings about both of the previous films in this reboot timeline in the previous article, so I won’t get into it here, but I will say that, although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real “classic style” Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.

The film opens 966 days into the Enterprise’s five year deep space exploration mission, and Kirk (Chris Pine) is beginning to feel the weight of both the mission and the impossibility of living up to his father’s legacy. When the ship docks at Starfleet’s newest starbase, Yorktown, a ship appears from a nearby nebula containing one alien astronaut, who says that her ship crashed on a mysterious planet within said nebula and asking for assistance. In true Federation fashion, Kirk and Krew jump at the chance to help out, but are immediately attacked as soon as they penetrate the nebula; the crew is forced to abandon ship, ending up scattered and/or captured by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba), who seeks a doomsday MacGuffin in order to exact violence against the concept of peaceful unity in general and the Federation in particular because of its idealization of these virtues. Along the way, Scotty (Pegg) meets a woman named Jaylah (Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella), who helps him reunite the crew and to plan a rescue and escape.

There’s a lot to love here. There are references peppered throughout to other parts of the franchise, and instead of feeling hamfisted or forced as in previous installments of the reboot series, they feel natural here. There are more overt connections, with the basic plot about a dangerous planet that acts as a graveyard for various interstellar travelers and their ships being somewhat reminiscent of the animated Star Trek series episode “The Time Trap,” as well as one of the proposed fates of a starship lost a century previous being that it was snatched by a giant green space hand, which happened to the original Enterprise in “Who Mourns for Adonis?” Kirk’s opening log even references the fact that there’s a lot of shacking up going on aboard the ship during its mission, which is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that NBC balked at Gene Roddenberry’s proposal that the coed Enterprise crew be composed of roughly half men and half women; the story goes that one exec stated that this would make it seem like there was an awful lot of “funny business” going on. Likewise, Roddenberry’s original script treatment was about a starship that bore the name Yorktown, not Enterprise, leading to the starbase in this film being named for the former. Those are pretty obscure references to pull out and use for the plot of this movie, and that’s pretty indicative of how much this film cares about the fandom. More obscure references, like discussion of the dissolution of the MACOs and the Xindi and Romulan Wars (all of which are references to Star Trek: Enterprise), the possibility of accidentally splicing two people together with transporters (transporter accidents are fairly common in the franchise, but this is probably a shout out to the Voyager episode “Tuvix” in particular), Kirk’s birthday melancholy and even some of the lines he uses in his toast (from Wrath of Khan), and the appearance of a Commodore Paris (the Parises being a family with a long history of Starfleet ervice, most notably Tom Paris of Voyager) are scattered throughout and are, frankly, quite welcome.

Of course, references do not a great Star Trek film make. There are some things that don’t quite work, and given that the film runs just shy of 2 hours and that there has been some discussion of what was cut (mostly backstory for Krall and Jaylah, but smaller moments like Sulu kissing his husband as well), there are some things that don’t quite read as well on screen as they likely did on the page and/or before the film was edited down. I’m also never going to be completely on board with the use of high speed land-based chases in Star Trek; I know that Justin Lin comes from the Fast/Furious franchise so that’s really his wheelhouse, and as a result these sequences at least work better than previous attempts (I’m looking at you, Nemesis). And I know that it’s nitpicky to point this out, but there’s a lot of Hollywood science going on in this movie. First of all, nebulae are not composed of giant rocks; they’re made up of mostly dust and ionized gases. The film presents the nebula surrounding the mystery planet as being more like the Hollywood imagining of what an asteroid belt looks like, with city-sized rocks knocking into each other; real asteroid belts are mostly empty space with some rock throughout (in space, such a small area with such large pieces of debris would mean that the rocks the Enterprise works so carefully to navigate would pulverize each other into dust within a very short time, relatively speaking).

But, this is still a good movie. There is a classic Star Trek idea here, in that Krall hates the idea that the galaxy is uniting under a banner of peace instead of strength/valor and will do terrible things to demonstrate his devotion to his anti-Federation ideals, as well as the fact that he is opposed and ultimately defeated by the strong bonds that the crew of the Enterprise have and their devotion to the ideals of unity and exploration. It’s not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it, but the fact that this film actually bothers to have this idea means that this movie is actually Star Trek, and not just JJ Abrams’s Star Wars demo reel wrapped in Star Trek’s clothes. The new additions to the cast are very engaging as are the old standards, and there’s a lot of story here that makes it well worth investing in a visit to the theatre. The end of the film legitimately left me with damp cheeks (for those of you who have already seen it, I’m talking about the photo that nuSpock finds in Spock Prime’s possessions), and I can’t wait to see it again. It’s not a five-star movie, but it has my seal of approval.

Final thought, though: The Franklin is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Four; on Star Trek: Enterprise, the NX-01 Enterprise is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Five, even though the Franklin seems to have come later in the timeline given that her captain’s service record includes participating in the Xindi conflict, which followed shortly after Enterprise’s first few years of service. I’m not saying that this can’t work (the Franklin could actually be older than the Enterprise but Captain Edison took command of her later, like how OG Kirk took over command of the Enterprise from Christopher Pike, took command when Robert April was promoted to Commodore). I’m honestly just pointing this out because if I don’t mention it, someone will call me out on it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Star Trek Beyond, and Beyond


Okay, folks, let’s talk about Star Trek.

When I was a kid, I was really into fantasy books. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, The NeverEnding Story, and the Oz books (Tik Tok of Oz was my favorite) and I read them over  and over again. Then, the summer after I turned nine (1996, if you care), I spent the days with a trio of home schooled boys and their mother, who ran a de facto home daycare out of her home. Our days were pretty structured, with outdoor time and reading time, and we would watch a movie every day after lunch; frequently, this consisted of watching various Star Trek films, usually Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, or The Undiscovered Country (I had actually seen The Voyage Home many times before, as it was one of the few VHS tapes we owned, but had never connected it to a larger franchise, thinking of it only as “the whale movie”).

An obsession took root and hollowed me out. When the local NBC affiliate started syndicating reruns of The Next Generation in the afternoons, I suddenly had direct access to the franchise every day. My family didn’t have a lot of money, but they did their best to help buy action figures of the characters; the ones I didn’t have I made out of Happy Meal toys by painting Starfleet uniforms on them. I built a custom bridge playset out of  discarded scraps from my father’s woodworking and created new worlds for my favorite characters to explore. We didn’t have UPN, so my aunt who lived in Raleigh would record episodes of Voyager on tapes and mail them to me, and I watched those same twelve episodes until I could recite them by heart. I lived, ate, and breathed Star Trek for the better part of a decade, much to my father’s chagrin, with only occasional bouts of superhero interest. Later that year, I was taken to my first convention (with guest George Takei!) at the now-defunct Baton Rouge Hall Convention Center, where I was one trivia question away from winning an original script from the filming of classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Knowing that the captain of the Reliant was Captain Terrell was not enough; knowing that McCoy’s daughter was named Joanna was not enough. Can you imagine how much smaller my student debt would be now if I had a Takei-signed copy of a “Mirror, Mirror” script? My developing brain learned a new lesson that day: every bit of information about Star Trek must be absorbed and stored, for the rest of forever, in case it came in handy again.

After the premiere of Battlestar Galactica, I had to take some time away from Star Trek. BSG was just so unlike it (or anything else) and so steeped in the contemporary political landscape that, to my cynical teenage self, Star Trek seemed immature in comparison. It didn’t help that the last TV series, the prequel Enterprise, had been reprehensibly awful for nearly all of its run; Star Trek was a dead franchise. There’s a reason that I wrote my master’s thesis on Battlestar and not Voyager. And so, with the last two feature films with the cast of NextGen being colossal failures (Insurrection received mixed reviews initially, but 2002’s Nemesis was the lowest grossing ST feature of all time), the well was capped in 2005, with the airing of the series finale of Enterprise. For the first time since 1987, there was no new Star Trek.

I’ve touched on this briefly in a few other things I’ve written here (and on my personal blog, and on bathroom walls, and interjected verbally into conversation without invitation), but Star Trek is an optimistic, progressive vision of humanity at its very core. From 1966, when the original pilot for the classic series saw a woman as second-in-command of the ship (an idea that NBC executives immediately rejected) and the series proper showed POC and women in positions of authority and respect, the show has tested the boundaries of social stigmas by pushing against them. The original series saw the first scripted interracial kiss on television in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” and, despite being a Cold War product, saw a passionately patriotic Russian crewman take his place on the bridge alongside characters representing various ethnicities and backgrounds. The show was not without flaw in this arena; on the one hand, instead of casting a real Indian woman as Lieutenant Rhada in “That Which Survives” and “Requiem for Methuselah,” it appears that they cast a white actress and put her in brownface and a bindi. On the other hand, given the era in which the series was being broadcast, it’s commendable that some effort was made at all. Another example is Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban, who was cast as Indian Khan Noonien Singh; although this is problematic in that it it endorses the idea that POC of different ethnic backgrounds are interchangeable, it was groundbreaking and progressive for its day, and that humanism and progressivism is Star Trek’s best quality. No other media franchise has done so much for the cause of representation. In her autobiography Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols called the series “a vehicle for [progressive] ideals about equality, freedom, and personal accountability,” for “audiences to enjoy, cherish, and incorporate into their own hopes fot the future and humanity.”

What I’m getting at here is that I’ve spent large portions of my life thinking about the world of this franchise, its implications, its role in society, it’s fictional society’s role in the text, etc., for better or worse. I’m not a Star Trek fan, I’m a Star Trek academic, with all the intense scholarship and rigorous thought that such a term implies. I’ve spent time pondering the role of the capitalism-free Federation in the larger galactic economy, what it’s like to serve aboard a starship as a civilian scientist, and whether or not it makes any sense that Sisko’s father could really run a Creole restaurant in the French Quarter (represent!) given that no one uses money. I’m a proponent of considering Galaxy Quest the tenth Star Trek film in order to maintain the integrity of the odd/even law of quality. If you want my quick rundown: the original series is Star Trek at its purest, NextGen is Star Trek at its best, DS9 is Star Trek at its smartest, Voyager is the Star Trek with the most squandered potential, and Enterprise is Star Trek at its most tired. Wrath of Khan is undoubtedly one of the most literary science fiction films ever made and is a personal favorite. My favorite author in the extended universe is Peter David, and his New Frontier series is a delight for a long term fan; I also highly recommend Greg Cox’s Rise and Fall of Khan books and anything by Diane Duane. The best fanseries is Star Trek Continues, although Renegades is laudable for its concept even if its goals are a little lofty, and Of Gods and Men gives me the warm and fuzzies. Are we all on board now? Are my credentials well established? Ok.

I considered watching and reviewing all of the Star Trek films that came before in the leadup to Star Trek Beyond, which will premier this summer. I ultimately decided not to do so, not simply because there are so many and the time between now and then is so short, but because the last thing(s) the internet needs are more reviews of the Star Trek movies. If you took all of the reviews of the films that that have ever been written, then printed them out at size ten font on a strip of ticker tape paper, the text would go all the way to Romulus and back (don’t question my math or astronomy). That’s a fact.* I do think it’s a good time to talk about the reboot in general, however, with the sequel looming on the horizon and a Bryan Fuller-produced TV series set to begin airing next year. So, let’s talk about JJ Abrams.

Abrams is a real, Spielbergian film-maker. I know that there are some who consider this heretical, and I understand their objections on the grounds that their output is of significantly different qualities. Cloverfield may have had equivalent cultural impact to Jaws, one could argue (in that both hit theatres and changed the landscape for years afterward with regards to style and tone), but it couldn’t come close to having the same kind of longevity and quality. As much as Super 8 (a movie that is 95% perfection) apes E.T., it had no hope of ever being as well-beloved. Until The Force Awakens, nothing Abrams made had the kind of staying power that Spielberg did; this is despite the similarities between the two men. I touched briefly (in my Blood Massacre review) on the fact that Abrams wrote to Don Dohler and composed the music for his Galaxy Invader, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his interest in getting into film from an early age. Abrams is undoubtedly passionate about his work and his features are generally enjoyable if fleeting in their relevance.

Was he the right man to reintroduce Star Trek to the masses? Even in hindsight, it’s not really clear. The last time the franchise had any real mainstream penetration was with Deep Space Nine, as both Voyager and Enterprise were considered niche television in comparison to the relatively well-known shows that had preceded them. As a result, it had been nearly ten years since anyone outside of insiders had thought about Star Trek in any real way, and Abrams was riding high on the surprise success of Cloverfield when his name was bandied about to direct the reboot. To look back at the franchise’s history for a comparison, consider what happened British novelist Nicholas Meyers was hired to take over the film series and direct the first sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The first film, Robert Weiss’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, wasn’t well-received critically but generated sufficient revenue to warrant a second picture; Meyers had a reputation as a man who could bring a film in on time and under budget, so Paramount tapped him to bring the entire Star Trek franchise to its conclusion. The young director had never seen a single episode before, so he watched the entire series from start to finish to get a clearer idea of how to pay homage to the show and create something that would appeal to the masses and long term fans.

To do so, he chose to bring back longtime favorite villain Khan and make the film a direct sequel to the 1967 episode “Space Seed.” In it, Kirk and company find Khan and his acolytes in suspended animation in space, genetically engineered supersoldiers left over from a catastrophic war on Earth in the dark days of the 1990s (time marches on). Khan and his coterie attempt to hijack the Enterprise; when Kirk eventually defeats him, he mercifully maroons Khan and the others on an idyllic world where they can live out their lives in relative freedom rather than in a prison cell. Meyers took this idea and turned it into Paradise Lost writ large across the Star Trek universe, interpreting this as Kirk literally casting Khan down from the heavens and crafting his film around the return of Khan as a somewhat sympathetic figure of evil who seeks Ahab-like revenge against Kirk. The truly genius thing about the narrative is that the knowledge of what happened in the series adds to the intrigue but is not required for the enjoyment of the film overall; as a result, the film was such a critical and financial success that Paramount decided to make more sequels, extending the franchise and leading to its further growth.

In comparison, JJ Abrams’s Star Trek is not as successful. Abrams freely admitted that he didn’t spend much time revisiting the Star Trek of yesteryear for thematic or narrative inspiration. Instead, his first film focused more on echoing the cinematic aesthetics of the original 1977 Star Wars film, including the destruction of planets, frenetically energetic action scenes, cantinas with strange aliens, and other ideas that, arguably, don’t belong in Star Trek. There was a distinct lack of the philosophical humanism and social commentary that characterized what this franchise is supposed to represent. So did I hate it?

No, actually. The 2009 Star Trek film is delightful, in my opinion. Yes, it’s different from the canon. Yes, it’s not “my” Star Trek. Yes, it makes a lot of mistakes. Yes, its reboot/requel nature means that the only element of the franchise that remains in canon is the regrettable prequel series Enterprise. Yes, a lot of the elements make no real sense (why the hell would you build a starship of that size in a quarry in Iowa instead of in orbit?). Yes, it’s loud and kind of dumb. Yes, it was sexist in ways both obvious (nuKirk isn’t just a horndog, he’s a straight up creep) and small (Starfleet crewmembers’ rank is shown by the pleating on the wrist; by making women’s uniforms sleeveless, the film literally strips them of their rank). I’m not ignorant of or necessarily “okay” with all of that.

But for me personally, the first film in this new series did not have to be philosophical in the way that the original series and its descendants usually were (First Contact is a straight up zombie body horror movie set in the Star Trek universe, and I love it despite its tonal inconsistency with the rest of the films). Abrams’s Star Trek had one job: to get people interested in Star Trek again, to bring to the masses a sense of excitement and majesty and wonder about this world and its characters. And, hey, mission accomplished. The movie didn’t have to address human nature or racism or the inherent evils of totalitarianism or the rights of sentient technological intelligence or the importance of tolerance. The film needed to grab attention, so that Abrams could address all of those things in the next film, returning Star Trek to its humanistic and optimistic roots.

But Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t do that. Instead, it doubled down on the blockbuster elements of the first film, with more fights and more out of character moments. Having Spock fly into a rage in the first film, in defiance of what that character should do, was an interesting moment, but having him do the exact same thing in Into Darkness was a huge mistake; how is the audience supposed to set a baseline expectation of who the notably stoic and logical Spock is supposed to be when he flies off the handle in every appearance? Having Uhura pester Spock about their relationship in the middle of a mission damages all of the positive work that was done expanding her character in the first film. And, worst of all, they made Khan a white guy. And not just any white guy; the most British, whitest, most casually ableist, classist actor out there: Benedict Cumberbatch (I’ll be writing more about this soon, when I finish a write-up about why we won’t be performing an Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review of Doctor Strange until after the film is out of theatres). Yes, as discussed above, Khan was originally played by a Mexican actor and not a Hindu one, but that was progressive for its time, and casting a white actor in a Hindu role, the way that Into Darkness does, would have been regressive two decades ago. There are a lot of fun moments in Into Darkness (and if you don’t have a fetish for Chris Pine in a wetsuit, get ready to develop one), but it failed utterly on the whole to be Star Trek, instead just being a forgettable sci-fi action adventure wearing its clothes. As The Mary Sue recently asked, where are the radical politics of modern Star Trek?

In recent months, we’ve heard very little about the upcoming third film in the reimagined franchise. Concerns that were raised early in the production, like those that arose from Abrams handing the reins over to Fast/Furious franchise director Justin Lin, were largely put to bed when it was revealed that cast member (and notable “one of us” nerd Simon Pegg) would be working on the screenplay. Since then, there’s largely been a dearth of information about the film. That’s not a good sign. This year is the franchise’s 50th Anniversary (and the 20th Anniversary of my induction into the fandom), but where is the hype? Compare this to the lead up to the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who from a couple years back, which featured retrospective specials, an anniversary team-up, a new line of merchandise, and the introduction of a new direction for the franchise. We’ve got a new film coming out in less than three months, and so far we’ve had one trailer, which was met with a collective “meh.”** As Gizmodo recently asked, why aren’t we hearing more about this movie?

Overall, as a Star Trek fan, I’m cautiously optimistic. Beyond could be the return to form that we’ve been waiting for all this time. But to be honest, I’m more excited about the upcoming television series, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the film franchise will continue to be beholden to the skeleton of the original series, which means sticking to the characters from that show and not being able to expand as much as a new series would. For another, a new series means more material, with new Star Trek to watch every week rather than every few years. Further, Bryan Fuller has previously said that, given the opportunity to helm a Star Trek TV series, he would love to cast Angela Bassett as the captain, which is an idea that I am so on board for. More recent news has led to speculation that the new series will not be a continuation of the NextGen chronology but take a step back to cover the adventures of the Enterprise-B under the command of Sulu’s daughter Demora; this would be set during the middle of the century jump from Kirk to  Picard, and would also be the first time that we had an Asian (specifically Japanese) captain. (News that Demora will be mentioned, and perhaps even seen, in Star Trek Beyond has further fueled this belief.) In even more recent news, Nicholas Meyers, who brought Star Trek back from the edge of death before, has been announced as a consultant on the new series; frankly, there’s no reason to suspect that the new series will be anything other than perfection, and I’m really looking forward to it.

What are your thoughts on Abrams’s Star Trek, and the Star Trek that is to come? Are you excited about Beyond?

*No, it isn’t.

**It’s time for everyone to accept that there will never be a sci-fi/Beastie Boys mashup better than the BSG music video treatment of “Sabotage”. Here’s the side-by-side comparison, just for your edification.

-Mark  “Boomer” Redmond