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The Importance of Scrutinizing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories

Genre stories like ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ are today’s dominant fictional narratives. It’s not a slight to subject them to impassioned analysis or critical inquiry; it’s a sign of respect.

Last week, Obi-Wan Kenobi concluded its six-episode run, possibly bringing an end to a limited series but more likely setting up Season 2. You’ll never believe this, but evaluations varied. Some viewers valued the series’ Star Wars prequel connections, emotional moments between legacy characters, and customary serving of blasters and lightsabers enough to celebrate the bridge between Episode III and Episode IV, or at least overlook its shortcomings. For others, the highs were outweighed by confusing character choices, compressed, implausible, and partly preordained plotting, and relatively lackluster production. All camps could agree on at least one thing: Ewan McGregor looked great.

Although “divisive” is a dirty word for franchises that aim to appeal to the masses, there’s nothing wrong with a range of opinions. I’m only one person, and during the Disney Star Wars era, I have deeply loved things, less passionately liked things, disliked things, and even loathed things (well, one thing). Sometimes, as with The Book of Boba Fett or Obi-Wan, I’ve praised and disparaged installments within the same season, and even from one week to the next. I’ve had notes for the franchise, but on the whole, the quality of on-screen Star Wars has been no more variable than it was while George Lucas was in charge—and though the clamor of social media sometimes makes the conversation surrounding Star Wars more tiresome or toxic than it was before millions of voices could easily register their disgust throughout the world, Lucasfilm’s actual output over the past decade has been far preferable to past periods of no Star Wars at all. One welcome (albeit somewhat overwhelming) aspect of this era of Star Wars—and IP expansion and proliferation in general—is that there’s always something else on the way. If Book of Boba or Obi-Wan didn’t float your sail barge, Andor or The Bad Batch or Ahsoka or The Mandalorian or Taika Waititi’s movie might.

Only a small minority of high-profile sci-fi/fantasy releases—the kind with broad and devoted fan bases—spark near-universal acclaim of the kind that greeted The Mandalorian, Loki, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peacemaker, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. More often, there’s some amount of discord, whether the heated takes that greeted late-stage Game of Thrones, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and The Matrix Resurrections or the less vociferous differences of opinion sparked by, say, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, The Wheel of Time, and Foundation. This is fine, and not even in the cartoon-dog sense. Pleasing everyone is not only an unrealistic goal, but also one that’s almost incompatible with creating fulfilling and evolving art. I’m a committed member of Team Let People Enjoy Things, but I also suit up for Team Let People Dislike Things, provided that the people on both teams play nice with each other. Thus, I can cosign or support almost any sincere response to a piece of genre fiction. I’ll disagree if you say that Solo: A Star Wars Story or Star Trek: Lower Decks sucked, but I’ll defend to the death—or at least, like, grudgingly grant—your right to tweet it.

There’s only one strain of responses to stories like these that truly bums me out: the suggestion that they aren’t worthy of impassioned analysis or critical inquiry, be it primarily positive or negative. That stories about space wizards or dragons or superheroes are inherently silly or unserious, and that those who have issues with their plotting or pacing or depictions of characters should just stop overthinking things. That they aren’t supposed to make sense, and that the only way to enjoy them is to turn one’s brain off before boarding the ride. That they’re purely escapist, popcorn pablum. That they’re just for kids, and that it’s a waste of time to engage with them on an intellectual level as well as a visceral level.

Even now that nerd culture is ascendant, there’s sometimes an element of above-it-all detachment to this stance: I like these stories, but I don’t like them enough to think about them that hard. Often, though, those who espouse this perspective are ostensibly defending these properties, on the grounds that those finding fault with them have misread the directions: These stories aren’t really intended to be thought-provoking, unless the thought is lightsabers go vrrrm. And even if that’s said with some level of love, I think it discounts how meaningful many of these modern myths can be.

There’s a passage in a classic New Yorker essay by the late, great Roger Angell in which Angell explains why sports matter so much:

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.

Sports, Angell suggests, matter because they make many of us feel something special that’s in short supply. So do sci-fi/fantasy stories, as Samwise and Tyrion remind us. For better or worse, IP fandom increasingly resembles sports fandom—and just as it’s possible to appreciate sports on several levels, fictional worlds can be big tents and rich texts, too. Some baseball fans just want to have a beer and a brat at the ballpark, immerse themselves in the sport’s sights, sounds, and smells, and root, root, root for the home team. Others want to read scouting reports, study stats, and set their fantasy lineups. Some keep their concentration here and now, while others are more mindful of the future. Neither kind of fan is doing it wrong; each is just doing it differently.

The same multiplicity of approaches applies to fiction that may strike some as frivolous but is really deceptively deep. Stories like Star Wars aren’t consequential in the same sense as, say, hard-hitting reporting about pressing, real-life matters that may affect lives, but they do intersect with our world in other ways, whether via their reflections and critiques of societal standards, their utility as parables that make us examine and question shared or individual values, or their potential to inflame our imaginations. Superhero fiction and pulpy sci-fi may have been marketed mainly to children, and they retain the power to imprint themselves on young minds that helped them snare mine in the ’90s when I read The Death of Superman or saw the Star Wars Special Edition. (Just as earlier generations were hooked by The Fantastic Four and the original Star Trek, or by Superman, Batman, and Buck Rogers, or by the Barsoom series and Amazing Stories.) But most of them aren’t solely, or even mostly, crafted with kids in mind: They’ve grown with us, and we with them. Forget about The Boys, Peacemaker, or Game of Thrones; even much of the supposedly PG stuff offers something for all ages. Obi-Wan Kenobi is sort of a sequel to a kid-oriented movie, but as my colleague Justin Charity wrote, it’s really “an epilogue written for a generation now largely in its 30s.”

There’s nothing wrong with consuming or sampling this bottomless buffet of adaptations, sequels, and prequels in a casual, passive, or childlike way; for one thing, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the sci-fi/fantasy fire hose, and for another, these stories’ capacity to provide a distraction and put us in touch with our younger selves is part of their appeal. But sci-fi/fantasy franchises have become our culture’s dominant and defining fictional narratives, and they attract some of our most skilled artists and storytellers. There’s more to them than may have been immediately apparent from Saturday morning cartoons (though there was merit to those, too). To insist that they can best be appreciated by deactivating one’s critical faculties, or that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as any non-genre fiction, is to concede that they can’t measure up unless they’re graded on a curve. It’s not a slight to subject them to scrutiny; it’s a sign of respect.

Marvel impresario Stan Lee said as much in a 2012 IGN interview, when he dispensed some advice for aspiring comics creators:

Comics are stories; they’re like novels or anything else. So the first thing you have to do is become a good storyteller. I think the way you become a good storyteller is to read a lot of stories and evaluate them in your own mind. Why did I like this one? Why didn’t I like this one? What quality did this one have that made me like it? Whether you do that consciously or unconsciously, it’s something that has to go on inside of you.

Even if you just want to consume or sample existing stories, not make more, there can be some satisfaction, or even exhilaration, in pulling at plot threads and themes to discover why one story stirs your soul and another leaves you feeling deflated. Admittedly, it’s sufficient for some fans to feel wonder without investing extra time to wonder why. For some fans, in fact, stopping to interrogate a story on an elemental level might sap some of the fun, yielding an effect akin to when Wile E. Coyote looks down and suddenly stops defying gravity. For others, though, a deep dive can enhance the spectating experience—or, alternatively, help them figure out why the wonder wasn’t there, ensuring fans can draw distinctions between the tales that thrill and those that fall flat. Most sci-fi and fantasy stories reject our reality to varying degrees, yet any successful story that relies on what in our world would pass for supernatural powers imposes its own set of rules, logic, and consistency—a schema that dictates its characters’ behavior and helps ground us in their galaxy or corner of the multiverse. There may be magic or technology advanced enough to be indistinguishable from it, but there are also always limits or counters to those powers, and steps that must be taken to unlock them. The heroes’ actions and motivations do mostly make sense, assuming you suspend your disbelief enough to accept the starting point of the premise and setting.

When those rules—arbitrary as they may be when initially laid down—are subsequently violated, the storyteller risks breaking a kind of contract with their audience, and the resulting loss of trust can be tough to undo. In that same interview, Lee was asked about the key to creating enduring, resonant characters. With the caveat that many of Marvel’s most famous characters weren’t really (or fully) Lee’s, his response is still illuminating:

It may sound funny, talking about characters with superpowers, but one of the keys is to make your characters as realistic and believable as possible. Even if they have superpowers, you say to yourself, “Well, if somebody had a superpower like this, what would his life be like? Wouldn’t he still maybe have to go to the dentist or wouldn’t he have to worry about making a living? What about his love life?” You’ve got to make characters that your reader can believe exists or might exist. … You’ve got to try to make all of your characters as empathetic and realistic as possible.

Sure, a Jedi, an Avenger, or a Red Priest may possess abilities that we would consider to be unnatural, but in a well-constructed story, they would act in ways that seem comprehensible for someone with those powers, based on our own intuition or a body of existing stories. Some deviations from past precedent are excusable, or even advisable; there’s a benefit at times to subverting expectations, especially in service of some emotional payoff that might make minor conflicts with canon an afterthought. Make those too frequent or too glaring, though, and the illusion of a lifelike universe and organic action dissolves, exposing the strings pulling protagonists and antagonists around.

Take the first scene of the Obi-Wan Kenobi finale, which echoes the opening of Episode IV. In A New Hope, a Star Destroyer pursues a Rebel blockade runner, which returns fire but is soon disabled by the bigger ship and boarded by its troops. In Obi-Wan, which is set nine years earlier, a similar scenario arises: The same Star Destroyer chases a small, unarmed transport, which in theory should be less equipped to elude destruction or capture than Tantive IV was. We’re firmly in sci-fi territory here: interstellar spaceships, deflector shields, Sith lords, and so forth. From a certain point of view, we’re already so unmoored from fact that nothing that happens next could be more or less plausible than anything else.

Yet decades of Star Wars stories, including the extremely famous one that inspired this scene, have established certain expectations. We put ourselves in the place of the pursuers, who have a few options: Blow up or cripple the helpless ship from afar, dispatch starfighters to harry it from close range, or lock onto it with a tractor beam. In this case, Darth Vader and his underlings do none of those things: The transport is inexplicably indestructible, and when Obi-Wan splits off from it in a dropship, Vader and the Grand Inquisitor wrestle with a seemingly false choice between following one or following the other, instead of following or incapacitating both. At no point does either of them explain why the other obvious options aren’t on the table. It’s a fairly small sticking point, but it took me out of the story. Suddenly I was wondering what the writers were trying to pull instead of focusing on the characters and the confrontation to come—and that was one example among many mystifying moments, some of them purely plot-based and others pertaining to core character choices that may have made the difference between delivering cathartic closure and potentially taking it away.

In a 2019 article about the rushed, reviled ending of Game of Thrones, Steve Waters, a professor of scriptwriting, told Wired that the response to the last season was indicative of a dissonance between setup and payoff. “These are fundamental tools in dramatic storytelling to prevent the impression of arbitrariness,” he said. “We want to have the sense that the foundations are laid subtly that then yield a given event—if it happens randomly, the whole story is threatened and we sense contrivance and failure of craft.” Similarly, he said, it’s off-putting if a character choice “feels imposed rather than something immanent in the character and the story—so it feels like the writer’s cheating, skipping crucial cues, to reach a preconceived outcome. … We want to know why people act as they do, and if the reason is set aside for contrivance, it’s a letdown.”

That’s true regardless of how many (or how few) warp drives, dragons, or Inquisitors there are. More of that dissonance stood out in Obi-Wan than in some other recent Star Wars stories, possibly because of the path the series took from big screen to small. But many Obi-Wan watchers came up with convincing justifications for some of the series’ logical leaps, or simply accepted them in order to dwell on the aspects of the series they found rewarding. That’s good! I wouldn’t tell anyone how to enjoy things, or worse, that they shouldn’t enjoy things. We should all be grateful for whatever comfort we can take from fiction at a time when real life itself sometimes seems poorly plotted—and tragic, too. But no one needs to make excuses or allowances for Star Wars or any of the other worldbuilding and world-bestriding sagas that have made their marks on our minds. They’re potent and indelible enough not to need the help.