Disney’s IP Problem

Left: Ewan MacGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Right: Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel. (Disney+)

Sometimes you just don’t know.

There’s been a certain amount of surprise and dismay in my household these past few weeks as two prime pieces of Disney IP, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ms. Marvel, have squared off against one another on Wednesday nights. And wouldn’t you know it: the one we anticipated the least has turned out to be the sleeper hit of the spring/early summer.

Obi was clearly the one to watch. Ewan MacGregor returning to the role that cemented his stardom; director Deborah Chow coming off some stellar episodes of The Mandalorian; and, of course, Hayden Christensen stepping back into the shoes of Anakin Skywalker, or Darth Vader. The weight of expectation, it’s fair to say, lay heavy on this show.

And week after week, it tanked. Sure, it looked great, featured a smidge of John Williams, and MacGregor was nothing if not professional. So what happened? Was it that one writer (Hossein Amini) was forced to hand the reins to another (Joby Harold), resulting in stylistic tone shifts? Were there too many Biblical references, as Amini describes? Was it too much like the long-planned film? Or was it that Kathy Kennedy just didn’t like the idea of Obi being so bummed out? “We’re looking, ultimately, to make a hopeful, uplifting story,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “And it’s tricky when you’re starting with a character in the state that Obi-Wan would be in coming off of Revenge of the Sith. That’s a pretty bleak period of time. You can’t just wave the magic wand with any writer and arrive at a story that necessarily reflects what you want to feel.”

And yet viewers were subjected to a decidedly downcast Kenobi, working a menial butcher job in the Dune Sea, an eopie’s gallop from the overlook from which he can observe the life of a certain soon-to-be galactic hero. It may be ten years since the throwdown on Mustafar, but Kenobi’s definitely lost his mojo — and while he can still summon enough Force to stop a young Leia from falling off a building, the old Kenobi get-up-and-go has got-up-and-went.

And speaking of Leia. As an adult played by Carrie Fisher, the character was a badass; whether confronted by Vader, Tarkin, Solo, or a phalanx of stormtroopers, she knew how to handle herself. In foreshadowing that gumption, Harold handed the sassy to 10 year-old Vivien Lyra Blair, in whom the mouthiness came off as precocious at best, annoying at worst. (This is not the first time Star Wars has attempted to inject a kid or kid-like character into a story with mixed to poor results: see also Binks, Jar Jar; the bumbling Neeku in Resistance; and the pointless Omega in The Bad Batch) The idea of trying to backfill the story of why Leia reached out to Kenobi in A New Hope is an interesting one, but personally, I was satisfied with her original explanation: that Bail Organa suggested it. “You served my father during the Clone Wars.” Why do we need more than that?

Then there was the choice to include the Inquisitors, black-clad beings dispatched by the Empire to hunt down remaining Jedi. Made sense, given the timeline, but the three that were chosen for this series just didn’t have enough to play with. Moses Ingram, as Reva, the Third Sister, tried in vain to make Harold’s dialogue sound natural, but there’s only so much reality you can inject into stilted Sith-speak. And next to the biggest baddie of them all, the Inquisitors came off as petulant children — a far cry from their original appearance in Rebels a few years back, which made them oppressors to be feared (even Rupert Friend, as the Grand Inquisitor, barely registered). The idea of making Reva one of the younglings that survived the massacre in the Jedi temple during Order 66 was, again, a worthy one — but the writing was so muddled, it was never clear what her motivations were.

Finally, there’s the issue of stakes, always a concern in prequel land, in which we know the main characters survive, thrive, and go on to fight another day. Certain Star Wars projects have thwarted this by building enough investment in the characters (i.e. Rogue One and the underrated Solo) such that, even though we know their fate, the story of how they got there is compelling enough to hold us. This wasn’t the case with either The Book of Boba Fett or Obi-Wan Kenobi, which failed on two levels: (1) they featured a host of sketchily-drawn characters that we couldn’t bother to invest in, and (2) the plots just weren’t that interesting. I mean, it wasn’t bantha fodder, but the tale of poor citizens struggling to get out of a city or off a planet, escape the Empire and form a rebel alliance feels naggingly familiar. Why? Because we’ve seen it. Over. And over. Introducing legacy characters into the mix does not automatically energize tired scenarios.

The Obi-Wan finale, which promised to tie the threads together, felt entirely by-the-numbers. Yes, we had an extended square-off between Kenobi and Vader, but it was all saber rattling and flying rocks. Nothing new to be gleaned (unless you didn’t realize they hate each other). The scene in which Reva (miraculously recovered from her Vader-inflicted wounds) went after Owen, Beru, and Luke on Tattooine felt lifeless. The only tension I felt was over how much retconning would be necessary after Owen invited Obi-Wan to meet Luke. (NOOOOO, indeed)

Which is what makes the success of Disney’s Ms. Marvel so fascinating. By now MCU fans and stans are familiar (perhaps overly so) with the plot details of phases one through four. We’ve seen the Infinity War. We know about the Blip, the five-year jump in which half of Earth’s population disappeared. We’ve seen the beginnings of what looks like the next Big Thing, a multiversal war featuring (in no particular order) Doctor Strange, Kang the Conqueror, the Scarlet Witch, Agatha Harkness, Loki and Sylvie, Captain Marvel, Nick Fury and the Skrulls, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and perhaps a few Young Avengers. (I’m only speculating here)

But Ms. Marvel feels different. The Infinity War is, at least in the first three episodes, in the rearview mirror. There’s no mention of a Snap, or a Blip (likely because it takes place a few years from now). There’s just Kamala Khan, a 16 year-old Jersey City high schooler and member of a devout Pakistani-American family whose greatest concerns, at the show’s outset, are boys and grades. This fact alone instantly sets Ms. Marvel apart from earlier MCU shows. Kamala (the wonderful Iman Vellani) is as close to a ‘regular person’ as we’ve seen in this universe. Her love of Captain Marvel is pure fangirl, manifesting itself in daydreams, doodles, a bedroomful of posters and articles, and a makeshift costume, which she dons to enter a cosplay competition at a local convention.

The show’s world-building, courtesy of show runner Bisha K. Ali and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, is its greatest strength. Every space, from the Khan house to the guidance counselor’s office to the mosque, feels lived in. The characters may be types, but they’re lovable types, and given the scarcity of Muslim families onscreen, the Khans are a breath of fresh air. The directors suffuse each frame with light, color, and animation, mimicking the characters’ inner thoughts (and text messages). Every scene feels like we’ve stumbled into a candy-colored dreamscape, culminating in a full-on Bollywood-style dance number in episode three.

As for the story, well… this show is aimed at a YA audience, and the stakes haven’t been particularly high, even when the baddies show up to spoil the fun. Kamala’s powers are a little lo-fi (three episodes in, I feel like we still haven’t seen all she can do). It hardly matters. We’re not focused on what she can do — we’re watching Vellani’s reaction to them, a mix of wide-eyed wonder and amusement. As a stand-in for every fanboy and fangirl that’s ever wished for powers, Kamala’s response (”Cosmic”) is probably the way any of us would respond if we suddenly found we could create solid matter our of thin air.

Which is what separates Ms. Marvel from a show like Kenobi. That sense of wonder. It’s what made Star Wars so memorable early on — we were discovering a world together, one that felt fresh and new and exciting. Now it feels drab, washed out, and washed up. If Ms. Marvel can keep up its charming, breezy, how-did-I-stumble-into-this-superpower-thing feel, it could wind up being the MCU’s strongest TV entry to date — which says something, considering we’ve seen some bangers (my personal faves, and I realize I‘m alone in this, are Hawkeye and The Falcon andThe Winter Soldier). If it can erase the memory of the lamentable Moon Knight, it’ll be doing us all a favor.

So. How did we get here? How is it that one of the most anticipated series of the year wound up being overshadowed by a show few knew anything about? After the utter meh-ness of Obi-Wan and Book of Boba Fett, is Star Wars out of juice? We haven’t seen a feature film since 2019’s childhood-killing Rise of Skywalker. The current animation offering is the flavorless Bad Batch. Tony Gilroy’s Andor is up next, with the Dave Filoni-Jon Favreau collabs Ahsoka and Mando season 3 coming in 2023 — none of which will break new ground. Leslye Headland’s The Acolyte is up at some point after that, and there’s no telling when or if we’ll see Taika Waititi’s rumored project. At least the latter two seem poised to take the property in new directions.

Look. Any of these projects could be decent. We just don’t know. There was a time, some of you over 50 may recall it, when we didn’t get Star Wars two or three times a year. Back in the day, we got one film every three years. Since Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, that’s obviously changed, and sometimes they strike gold. But the hit to miss ratio has grown, and the chances of getting something disappointing like Obi-Wan has grown exponentially.

And whither Marvel? With so many confirmed projects, it’s inevitable that Kevin Feige will continue to churn out blockbusters in addition to Disney+ series like She-Hulk, Secret Invasion, and the second season of Loki. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may have misfired, but last winter’s Spider Man: No Way Home was Marvel’s third-highest grossing film to date, and if next month’s Thor: Love & Thunder can recapture half of the magic of Thor: Ragnarok, fans (including this one) will head home happy.

It’s a fascinating, take-stock moment for Disney— one in which, the good lord willing, will lead to some soul-searching over at the Mouse House.

In the end, the equation is simple. Change is good. Don’t change, and you risk irrelevance. That’s a fate I would hate to see for Star Wars, but as long as we’re moping around on Tatooine or lingering too long in the Favreau-Filoni-verse, I don’t see the situation improving. Meanwhile, with Marvel drawing from far-flung IP and diversifying its casts and storylines, its future seems bright. For every Moon Knight, there’s bound to be a Ms. Marvel. And batting .500, as any baseball fan knows, is way ahead of the game.

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Eric Winick hails from Marblehead, Massachusetts, birthplace of the American Navy. More @ 21jumpscare.com.

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