How “The Force Awakens” Reawakened The “Star Wars” Franchise

Let the record show that for the first time, arguably, in over 30 years, we have a Star Wars movie that lived up to its hype.

There’s a very simple reason why. Putting it more accurately, there’s a very simple reason “who.”

To borrow a memorable line from a former boss, depending on other people puts you at the mercy of other people. A long time ago, in a boardroom far, far away, it was very hard to imagine a Star Wars film without the direct involvement of George Lucas. Even after all the crap he caught for the prequels, much of which was justifiable, taking the creation out of the hands of its creator was inherently risky.

That wasn’t even accounting for the Disney factor, either. Selling Star Wars to a conglomerate with a history of turning sacred cows into cash cows was the last thing the franchise needed after a trio of films that did little more than make the rich richer.

But they couldn’t have picked more capable hands in which to put the next chapter than those of J.J. Abrams.

Abrams and Lucas are cut from the same cloth. You might say they are Jedi and Sith–masters of light and darkness. Lucas, in his prime, told inspirational stories like A New Hope, in which the title speaks for itself, whereas the best of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith, was one in which the bad guys win.

One of my favorite Abrams projects was NBC’s Revolution, which, critics be damned, did a phenomenal job drawing me in to the Machiavellian adventures of ordinary people from differing backgrounds trying to survive a dystopian future. Abrams, however, will be more fondly remembered as the guy who rejuvenated Star Trek, based on the revolutionary NBC series about diverse characters whose camaraderie suggested a more optimistic future.

My optimism for another Star Wars movie was quite guarded. Knowing that Abrams was at the helm made me let down my guard.

I became excited to see The Force Awakens this winter for the same reason I was excited last summer to see Jurassic World, spearheaded by eventual Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow. The Force Awakens, clearly, was not chiefly a paycheck gig for Abrams, like Episodes I-III were for Lucas. By now it should be obvious to audiences that Abrams was in it to make a solid Star Wars picture for a new generation that would do a dormant franchise some past-due justice.

Indeed, he did that for Star Wars the same way he did it for Star Trek (and, yes, like Trevorrow did for Jurassic World): by taking it back to its roots.

Star Trek worked because it allowed us to see its characters in their younger, formative years, each bursting with their distinctive personalities that made the TV show great. Chris Pine’s Kirk was a fearless, maverick leader who didn’t care what sort of circuitous route he had to take to save the day, as long as it was saved. Zachary Quinto’s (hashtag: He’s From Here) Spock was a straight-laced, no-nonsense foil who proved more human than he was willing to admit. Simon Pegg’s Scotty was the colorful comic relief, and so forth. The characters grew more into their familiar selves as they learned from each other.

Furthermore, its homages to the TV show were clever. Kirk seduced a green woman. Scotty, trying to save the drowning Enterprise, was “giving her all she’s got.” The red-shirted ensign who joined the landing party was the first to bite the dust. Similarly, The Force Awakens plays to the strengths of the film that started it all nearly 40 years ago.

The most marketable character, Chewbacca notwithstanding, is a robot that accompanies the main heroine, just like C-3PO and R2-D2 accompanied Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. There is a cantina. There is a sobering death. There is a celestial weapon of mass destruction. There are secrets sought and revealed. There is a black-clad villain who had become the black sheep of his family, and ultimately, the good guys avenged the mass destruction he caused by taking out his weapon. Most importantly, there is Harrison Ford being a smartass.

Furthermore, Han Solo, Ford’s perpetually smug smuggler, remains an effective contrast to Carrie Fisher’s equally courageous, but more grounded, Princess–er, General–Leia. It works for me on the same level as the late Leonard Nimoy’s “Spock Prime” in Star Trek. Any director can merely shoehorn these classic characters into new movies for his own sentimental reasons, but the reasons for Solo’s presence in this story, like Fisher’s Leia and Hamill’s Skywalker, are salient. Rather than walking off into the sunset and living happily ever after, a la Return of the Jedi, this movie condemns these characters to relive history–a classic case of art imitating life.

The strengths of The Force Awakens offset its only weakness, the casting of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Although I take no issue with Driver’s performance or the dialogue he is given, he is more physically convincing as the guy who would sit with me at lunch in eighth grade than he is as the biggest evil-doer in the galaxy this side of Vader. Once the helmet comes off, he becomes less threatening.

Be that as it may, Driver’s innocence just goes to remind us that nobody is above the influence of evil, which is one of the all-encompassing messages conveyed by the first six movies. Also, as a further reminder of the human capacity for change, John Boyega’s Finn, the other main protagonist, is a disillusioned Stormtrooper who has seen the error of the First Order’s ways. Even in following an old formula, Abrams has found a new way to tell the story.

If you were as skeptical of The Force Awakens as I was at one time, the time is now to allay your fears. It’s entertaining, it’s action-packed and it leaves you wanting more–the way a Star Wars movie should be. If I’ve convinced you to see for yourself, I’m glad.

But I’m not the one you need to thank.

J.J. Abrams, Director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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While Crosby Wears the “C,” Malkin is an “A” All the Way

I don’t mean to put sports hardships in the same stratosphere as human hardships, but I prefer to think I know a thing or two about leadership after all my time spent in a single-parent household. Leadership is a word that can mean many things, in fact, and it doesn’t always mean the things other people see.

There have been doubts about the leadership of Sidney Crosby. They say he hasn’t been clutch enough. They say he’s lost a step. They say he needs to do more.

Sometimes those doubts have been called for. Since the coaching change that rid the Penguins of Mike Johnston and his play-not-to-lose system, their liberated captain has done more to silence those doubts.

Over the course of his career, you would be hard-pressed to find another Penguin who has worked harder on or off the ice to grow as a player and to grow the game. This season, you would be hard-pressed to find another Penguin who has worked harder to rediscover his own game.

Funny thing is, they used to say the same about Evgeni Malkin.

It used to be that whenever Malkin went into overdrive, whatever superlatives came his way were just as easily negated by a vocal minority that wanted him traded the next time he went all face-on-the-milk-carton. But there’s no downplaying the way Malkin has tried to will the Pens back to the playoffs all by himself this season, especially if he succeeds.

Much talk has surrounded the Penguins’ alleged need to find the perfect Robin to Crosby’s Batman. Chris Kunitz used to be it. David Perron wasn’t it. Patric Hornqvist, if his execution more frequently matched his tenacity, could be it. Who’s to say Malkin hasn’t been Robin all along? For that matter, who’s to say Robin hasn’t turned into Nightwing?

This may not be as fun a team to watch as it once was, but it’s still fun to watch Malkin try to take over a game. Few in the league, not just in Pittsburgh, seem as willing or as able to do that as he this season. He doesn’t need the perfect linemate. Malkin, as he demonstrated Saturday, will thrive on his own terms.

It’s easy to say a team as consistently inconsistent as the ’15-’16 Penguins doesn’t have a clear MVP, at least one not named Marc-Andre Fleury. But through all the unnerving, Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies of their offense, Geno has done the most to rise above any resignation to mediocrity.

In case you forgot what a superstar is supposed to look like when his team is playing for its season, but also playing like feces, take a look at this:

That’s what leadership looks like.

If you want to know what leadership sounds like, stick a microphone in his face in the middle of a losing streak, or even after just one sensationally ugly defeat.

After Malkin held that mirror under the collective nose of his underachieving teammates, he capped off a four-point night against Minnesota by delivering this beauty:

Leadership should always be by example. Well done is always better than well said, and there’s always room in the locker room for the strong, comparatively silent types who lead strictly by example. That’s where Crosby, historically, is supposed to come in and be the yin to Malkin’s yang.

On multiple levels, the Pens needed Crosby to toy with the Flyers just like old times when the Broad Streeters came to CONSOL Energy Center last Thursday, and without anything more than his usual mild-mannered sound bites preceding, he did. Still, when that aforementioned feces has hit the fan, the Pens have sorely needed someone in that room to step up and pipe up.

That locker room was refreshingly salty after the Malkin-led comeback over the Canucks. While this team is not currently in a position to care about winning pretty versus winning ugly, it must do a better job of winning in ways that are sustainable if it wishes not to get embarrassed in April.

Guess who was among the first to admit it (h/t Seth Rorabaugh/Empty Netters, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):

“We talked before [the] game about slow starts, [like the] last game. But it’s the same start tonight. I don’t know what was going on but I think we were ready before [the] game. After [the] first, it was 2-0 again. It’s not good for us. We need to change a little bit and play better [in the] first period. It’s very important because if we want to play in the playoffs, it’s not right because playoffs [are a] little bit different game. We can’t score five goals every game. We need to play 60 minutes.”
-Evgeni Malkin

Even with 21 points in 19 games under Mike Sullivan, and even with an NHL-best seven power play points in January entering Tuesday, he knows he’s not above such reproach, either.

He knows he needs to curtail turnovers like the one he committed that led to a Vancouver goal and compounded that deficit.

He knows he needs to eliminate the kind of penalties that have cost his team just as dearly, like the one he took in overtime in Carolina a couple weeks ago.

He knows he needs to do it again, and again, and again…and he will.

Or so we hope.

Take Sunday’s postponement as a blessing, giving Malkin and the Pens time to let those lessons sink in, and above all, time to rest up for New Jersey. Beating a team on the road that, realistically, you’re not going to pass is not as important as beating a team at home that you have to pass. In the meantime, Pens fans, be grateful for what you still have, and be careful what you wish for.

It used to be that social media GMs regularly examined the possibility the Penguins would be a better team without Evgeni Malkin. Now they’re not so sure anymore.

It used to be that the Penguins’ admission into the postseason was a foregone conclusion. Now, as they try to avert disaster, Evgeni Malkin says they’ll make it.

Now, considering the source, is not the time to disagree.

Yes, the Pens are Better Off Under Mike Sullivan, But…

Wednesday was National Penguin Awareness Day. So here’s what I’m aware of:

As things stand on the third Wednesday of January, the Penguins haven’t been good enough. The product, in the big picture, has been beneath itself and the foundation of its fanbase for a while now. There’s just no putting a prom dress on that pig (and in the event of National Pig Awareness Day being a thing, I apologize in advance).

On the plus side, the biggest winners of the NFL’s Divisional Playoff weekend, from a Pittsburgh P.O.V., were actually the Penguins. While the Steelers were playing their guts out in Denver, the Pens gut-punched the Carolina Hurricanes in a battle for playoff positioning, and they went to bed Sunday knowing many Pittsburghers had been distracted by football until their season was more than half over.

However, whatever gas was in their tank that afternoon, they clearly ran out of in St. Louis, losing a game that was winnable through two periods. Sadly, this has been par for the course for this group.

(Sidebar: It’s a damn shame they couldn’t play that game on Wednesday. Back when both “Expansion Era” franchises were in their infancy and played in the same division, Pens-Blues was a very rancorous rivalry, and on history alone, much more appropriate for Rivalry Night than many of the NHL’s made-for-cable-TV “rivalries.” At least this time NBCSN gave us a worthy substitute with Blues-Red Wings.)

Losing to Ken Hitchcock is bothersome. I’ve never had much respect for him, between his Olympic team tanking and his pioneering of the nonsensical “Crosby is a diver” narrative when he coached the Flyers and his own hand-picked punk, Derian Hatcher, performed involuntary dentistry on Sid. What’s much sadder, though, is the constant spinning of Penguin tires that just won’t cease.

We’ve seen the Pens approach games the right way more often under Mike Sullivan, and yet we haven’t seen a winning streak of any kind since Steigy had hair–or early November, if you wish to split hairs. Even under Sullivan, they’ve been consistently inconsistent.

Sullivan has roughly a third of his $70-million team invested in three presumably elite forwards. He has the respect of all three, and of the rest of his players. He has an exact idea of the way he wants those players to play. One thing he doesn’t have, which could make a world of difference, is time.

Walking from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton into the shit-storm that’s been brewing in Pittsburgh the past few years is analogous to when Pat Narduzzi took the head football coaching job at Pitt. Eddie Johnston put it well; as a first-year guy, you’re just trying to put your best foot forward with what you’ve inherited, and hope you can instill a couple good habits along the way. We probably won’t know what the Penguins are really capable of under Sullivan until he has a training camp to further evaluate that talent and further instill those habits.

Count Crosby among those playing the right way under him, and looking, at last, like himself. Don’t buy that tabloid mularkey about him being a coach-killer. Right sentiment, wrong captain. Let’s just leave it at that.

If anything, Sid is guilty of being too obedient, and consider the style and disposition of the coach he was obeying before Sullivan. The shackles are off now, and Crosby is back to making Crosby-esque plays, aiding an improved power play, and scoring goals like this one:

Evgeni Malkin, also, has developed an immunity to the rest of his team’s sporadic offensive woes. His go-ahead goal against the Blues was a vintage one of his own. Alas, Geno giveth, and Geno taketh away.

Whether or not you agree with the call he was assessed in overtime last week in Carolina that cost the Pens a valuable extra point, Malkin has to realize when you do what he did right in front of an official–even an NHL official–you should expect to get whistled. Once again, it goes back to becoming a creature of better habit, which doesn’t happen overnight.

Sullivan, for his part, won’t get a free pass for his team leaving those extra points on the table with one overtime loss after another, especially if the wrong players are on the ice for 3-on-3, or if the wrong players are on the ice for shootouts. Nor should he. This team used to be money in the bank when games went beyond 60 minutes. Now, not so much. For as tight as the Eastern Conference is anymore, that needs to go back to the way it was, quickly.

There have been myriad problems with “the system” dating back to the middle of Dan Bylsma’s tenure. Sometimes, though, it isn’t the coach’s vision. It’s the people executing it.

David Perron just couldn’t shake “Edmonton Disease.” Patric Hornqvist has a nose for the net, but hasn’t always finished what he’s started–a recurring theme throughout the lineup. Role players like Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr, thought to be intelligent offseason acquisitions, have been invisible, Fehr’s above-the-line penalty killing notwithstanding. And there’s no reason Phil Kessel, who, despite the team’s struggles, got off to an okay start, shouldn’t be building upon that start under a more offensively-inclined coach–especially after playing well in Toronto under Randy Carlyle, a very strong-willed man, like Sullivan.

As often as they’ve let their team down, one offseason narrative that has come to fruition is that the Pens’ defense has let them down even more. There was no reason that come-from-ahead OT loss in Tampa Bay should have gotten out of hand the way it did, which started with usual suspect Ben Lovejoy again getting beat like he stole something:

Another embarrassing play by Lovejoy was a momentum-shifter in St. Louis as well:

He will be Jim Rutherford’s albatross until Rutherford makes it right, just as he potentially rectified his bad investment in Perron by trading him for speedier Carl Hagelin, who had success under Sullivan when the latter was an assistant with the Rangers. That said, how much worse could Adam Clendening have been than Lovejoy, given the same minutes? For that matter, how much worse could Matt Murray be in goal than Jeff Zatkoff?

It is not in the DNA of this front office to stray from its win-now course. To wit, when in the position of having to fight for every point, certain chances have to be taken. That’s on the guys in coats and ties–all of them.

The Penguins are better off under Mike Sullivan. Unfortunately, Mike Sullivan doesn’t pass, shoot, score or defend. Unfortunately, for this no-excuse organization, results still matter, and they still aren’t there.

On multiple levels, there’s no better time to start getting them than Thursday night.