‘Til All Are One, Buy All Our Playsets & Toys!
I’m just old enough to have been raised on VHS tapes. Every weekend in the 80s, my sisters and I would go to the little video store in our tiny California town, right next to the feed store, to pick something out of the 1$ rental shelf for the weekend.
I always picked Transformers: The Animated Movie. This piece of ’80s insanity is a hyper-violent, bonkers-weird, hour-and-a-half toy commercial. Hasbro wanted to clear the 1984-1985 model toys, especially those that weren’t selling well, from toy store shelves and introduce new characters. So the first half-hour of the movie, ahem, transforms the franchise. Unlike the syndicated cartoon, a consequence-free zone of stun guns, the animated movie follows Megatron as he mows down Autobots with gruesome detail, climaxing in the brutal death of Optimus Prime from a gaping stomach wound. Oh sure, these are robots with scratched chassis and cut fuel lines, but they fall and scream and mutilate like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.
It blew my little mind. This was, no doubt, because this was the first piece of popular media I ever saw where the good guys died. I adored the film, watched it every weekend, and read the equally bonkers monthly space adventures in Marvel Comics, with equally high body counts. Don’t mention Michael Bay (grrr), but I have the plastic incarnations of the 1986 movie characters looking down on my writing desk right now.
And yet the existence of the Transformers is entirely due to President Ronald Reagan, and Gipper’s deregulation of the FCC was of a piece with his general mission to destroy the safety net and the middle class and create the nightmare of amoral billionaires we live in. If I’m honest with myself, there wasn’t much to the movie except the explosions, death, and subsequent plug for new toys.
If you’re interesting a really thorough dissection of the film, you can find it here. For me, I can’t help wondering at the way something that seemed so dramatic, so moving and awe-inspiring, was essentially just a huge toy commercial, preying on the just-authorized child market. I recognize that authorial intent doesn’t create the story’s relevance, the reaction of the audience does.
But what does such a mercenary intent do to the audience that loves it?
Return of the Returning Jedi
I sat my kids down to watch Return of the Jedi the other weekend and came away feeling… mixed. Jedi was my favorite Star Wars movie growing up. I loved the high drama of the throne room duel, the intense practical effects of the Death Star battle and the speeder chase. It’s pretty awesome to watch Luke kick butt all the way through Jabba’s sail barge, and though the gaze-y sexism of Slave Leia grosses me out now, she gets some badass revenge on Jabba. And I was young enough that I still love the yub-yubbing toy-selling Ewoks.
Last weekend was the first time I’d watched the movie since I heard about some of the troubles that plagued the production—George Lucas’s divorce from his editor Marcia Lucas, the Directors’ Guild protests and failure to sign Steven Spielberg, disagreements with director Richard Marquand, the early departure of Gary Kurtz, and the decision to drop any threads leading to further sequels. Harrison Ford pushed for a tragic death for Han, but Lucas “thought there wasn’t much future in ‘dead Han toys.’” Kurtz indicated that Luke would originally walk off into the darkness, a lone gunslinger who would spent episodes VII-IX searching for his hidden twin sister, but Lucas ham-fistedly resolved the “other” plot line by making Leia Luke’s sister.
Return of the Jedi holds up—mostly—if only for the big emotional moments. Still, Kurtz & Ford’s critiques stand out once one’s aware of them. Jabba’s Palace, sail barge and the Ewok Village are especially toyetic. (If you don’t know the word, toy collectors, like me, use it to mean a story point meant to sell toys.) There’s a phoned-in quality to some of the acting. The scene in which Han convinces Lando to take the Millennium Falcon, which should be all warmth and good humor, is awkward and stiff. And the sister-plot resolution is soooooo obviously a last-minute lazy rewrite.
Popular Media, And Meaningful Media
At the same time that I was watching Return of the Jedi and Transformers: The Animated Movie every weekend, I read some of the best books ever written, and the most formative ones of my life. The Lord of the Rings. Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon series. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Tolkien’s stunning critique of industrialism and paean to his fallen friends in war, Taran and Eilonwy’s choices to seek honor in defeat, and the brutal, heart-breaking death of Heart’s Blood all mixed in my head with “I, Galvatron, will crush you just as Megatron crushed Prime” and “If you will not be turned, you will be deeee-stroyed!”
There was no separation in my mind between that’s cool for Taran’s moral bargain with the three witches, or that’s cool for the Sarlacc pit. The death of the dragon Heart’s Blood was so heartbreaking I could hardly read it… but then, I didn’t quite understand that there was something different in the way Yolen told her story compared to the extended death of Optimus Prime. They were both good stories. If one seemed to have more there, it didn’t mean that I always chose it over the cheesier, flashier one, and the cheesier, flashier one came with toys to reenact it.
Thomas King, the justly famous Native American writer, says “the truth about stories is that’s all we are.”
Inside my creative brain, the trash churns with the meaning. I’m not the only one. The Force, to George Lucas, is just another tool his kit, allowing him to combine whiz-bang Flash Gordon serials with World War II dogfights and samurai movies. The Force, according to the religion category of multiple censuses, is a genuine part of people’s faith in the 21st century.
One can’t help wondering if this world—this world where we too often accept easy answers, platitudes and slogans instead of real, complicated, meaningful change—is partially shaped by media that teaches us to associate “meaningful” with “toyetic.”
To Grow Beyond Their Masters
The Last Jedi’s plot beats are wobbly. It wants to be a harrowing chase film, but also take a long detour into a casino heist. But while the movie probably could have used another pass in terms of plot, it’s the strongest Star Wars movie thematically. It is certainly the strongest Star Wars movie in terms of recognizing that the franchise means something. In that, it does something no other Star Wars movie really does, and that is why it means so much to so many people.
Yes, it’s a little bit of a bludgeon to have the ghost of Yoda appear and call a lightning bolt to destroy the sacred Jedi texts, or to have Finn and Rose comment on arms trading. But it tells us that Rian Johnson and crew know that these ideas about freedom, justice and the Force must be addressed, must be discussed, must be taken seriously. This is the most representative Star Wars movie ever, with characters of color in the lead, female authorities asserting themselves over hot-headed young men, and the central villain an overprivileged, radicalized young man who idolizes a martial past that seems to offer him manhood.
The Last Jedi states that Star Wars’ Rebellion is a push against any and all Empires, against closed borders and military fetishism. That meaning isn’t there in the phoned-in Return of the Jedi. To paraphrase, Rian Johnson grew beyond his master, making a movie that recognizes the hope inherent in the story.
Transformers: Lost Light, formerly known as More Than Meets The Eye, is a comic book written by James Roberts, who, like me, spent his formative years reading the Marvel comics and watching the animated movie. And like The Last Jedi, it is better than it needs to be because Roberts understands that this franchise, giant toy commercial or no, means something to people. It grounds Megatron in a past as a revolutionary, railing against a corrupt system that doomed mechanical people because of their perceived function, and then, in the “present,” has Megatron face the way his brutal actions have betrayed his convictions. It’s also a great examination of gender, post-war change and the ways that people define themselves against expectation. And it’s my favorite comic by far. It’s the only comic I’ll buy in monthly “floppy” format and trade paperback. Not just because I liked to see this silly franchise done well. Because Roberts knows what it’s like to love Transformers even when you know its flaws, and he wants to make it mean more.
We’ve Achieved Something!
These mercenary franchises, out to sell toys and earn cash, mean enough to me that when I sat down to write my own trilogy, I thought about how much I loved Transformers and Star Wars—just as much as Rian Johnson and James Roberts love them. I thought about how those franchises haven’t always loved us back. The central villain of my space opera trilogy is John Starfire, a brave, energetic, handsome hero who orders a galactic genocide. (Imagine if Luke Skywalker had turned out to be a bit like Lenin or Stalin.) There’s a reason why Starfire reads as a toy-ready, science fiction hero, because populist tyrants, dictators-in-chief, and military fetishization go hand in hand with easy answers, flash and cheap violence.
In my final novel in the trilogy, Memory’s Blade, out February 27 from Tor, the main character Jaqi struggles with her followers’ desire to make a populist of her. She’s an illiterate, ne’er-do-well smuggler who has suddenly become the face of a resistance to John Starfire. She doesn’t want to be an action figure, and she realizes that her followers’ desire for one is as much trouble as her enemies, and the giant sun-eating space spiders.
(Yes, there are sun-eating space-spiders. And bug ships. I did mention that I liked fun and badass, yeah?)
I’ve never liked the saying “art holds a mirror up to the world” because the world itself reflects art. If the world we live in can survive its current crises, it won’t be because we idolize and fetishize art like Return of the Jedi or Transformers: The Movie. We have to demand more meaning from “fluff.” We have to get past nostalgia and fan service and look for stories that move us forward. The truth about stories is that’s all we are.
Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. His short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and at Tor.com. Over the years, he’s worked as a wilderness survival instructor, paraeducator in a special education classroom, and in publishing; he currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children and works at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation.