Rebels’ Thrawn: Turning Genius into Competency

At this point, I feel my appreciation of Timothy Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn is well documented. The villain first appeared in the Star Wars universe as the direct follow-up to Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. The success of Thrawn came from the fact that he met two conditions: 1) He had very different character traits from Vader or Palpatine. 2) He came off as no less dangerous.

Thrawn is a villain without the Force. Indeed, physically, he is not intimidating. He can fight – sure, but against a jedi it would not be a contest. Thrawn’s weapon is his intellect. He can stand in a room with Luke Skywalker and Luke will be unable to touch him, because Thrawn has calculated every scenario and anticipated every plan. The Grand Admiral’s own designs have layers upon layers upon layers of intricacy. Simply put: Thrawn has no intellectual equivalent.

Thrawn outsmarting jedi
From a graphic novel adaptation of Heir to the Empire. Thrawn’s research leads him to a way to disrupt the Force.

At least, that is how he was in the Heir to the Empire trilogy – the novels that sparked the Star Wars expanded universe (long before Disney or the prequels). Author Timothy Zahn crafted compelling new characters (Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade) that breathed life back into the Star Wars fandom. About 24 years later, Disney is rebooting the Star Wars expanded universe – hoping to capture the brilliance while whittling out the…well the not-great ideas.

I was overjoyed to hear that Grand Admiral Thrawn was to be made officially canon in Star Wars Rebels. After seeing season three (Thrawn’s introduction) however, I have doubts that the show writers are up to the task of capturing what made Thrawn compelling.

Thrawn in Rebels

Grand Admiral Thrawn is assigned into Rebels after the unexplained departure of Darth Vader (he is hunting the rebels until he isn’t). For much of season three, Thrawn is present but passive. He observes but rarely acts. When he interacts with the rebels, one of two things happens. Thrawn “lets them go” or he turns over their handling to a subordinate…who promptly fails, allowing the rebels to escape. Neither of these courses of action paint Thrawn as a genius.

Plans without Payoff

The former could have done so with appropriate payoff. Early on in the season, Thrawn captures a family heirloom of Hera’s and seems very intent on learning about her family and culture. Later on, Thrawn lets Commander Sato escape after learning the extent to which the man values family.

The problem here is that neither of these developments are revisited in season three. Thrawn never utilizes his knowledge of Hera’s family to out-think her and never manipulates Sato’s dedication to family. Nope, instead he just finally figures out where the rebel base is and attacks it. That’s it. For a master of planning, Thrawn is incredibly simple.

Given Commander Sato’s death at the end of season three, it is very unlikely that Thrawn’s information gathering will ever be worth it.

So…why does Thrawn let them escape? It comes off as masked incompetence rather than cleverness. Thrawn is merely spinning his failures to sound more positive. “I didn’t let them get away… I wanted this! Yeah, yeah that’s it!”

In addition, a subplot of season three centers around Agent Kallus, an imperial agent turned rebel spy. While Thrawn learns of Kallus’ true loyalties fairly quickly, he does nothing to use this information to his advantage. This despite a scene where Thrawn says he will do exactly that. I believe the line is “Agent Kallus will have far more use as a rebel spy” or something like that. But nothing comes of it in terms of payoff – Thrawn never feeds Kallus false information and Kallus eventually leaves to join the rebels. In literary terms, this is loading a gun without ever firing it. What was the point?

I also find it hard to believe that Thrawn, who meticulously studies art, would not immediately notice a removed planet in a map he had been researching.

The “Stupid Watson” Syndrome

I credit pointing out the “Stupid Watson” syndrome to author and cartoonist, Kate Beaton. In the early Sherlock Holmes movies of the 20th century, Watson is re-imagined from a clever doctor to a bumbling sidekick with juvenile-or-senile levels of intellect. While it’s good for a chuckle, it raises a question: “Why does Holmes hang out with this guy? Isn’t this creating more work for him?”

Stupid Watson syndrome

The answer is that it was lazy writing. Rather than make Holmes look like the genuine genius he is, they paired him with a moron to amplify his competence and make even mundane actions look intelligent. In Rebels, the show writers did a similar thing with Thrawn.

Thrawn continually hands off command to people who promptly screw up – much as Sherlock Holmes in the old movies continually gave Watson tasks, which he promptly screwed up. The problem here is that the genius stops looking smart when he repeatedly places idiots in charge.

It also is uncharacteristic of a mastermind. In the season three finale, Thrawn begins by overseeing command of the bombardment of the rebel base. He then hands off that command to go down to the surface so that he can accept the rebel surrender. For a macro-manager, this is an odd choice. Why abandon the position of control? It also gives the writers an easy way out. Thrawn didn’t lose the battle – Governor Price did. This isn’t Price’s first failure so why – with the situation so crucial – does Thrawn again give her command?

Only fools keep around other fools whom they can pass the blame onto.

It would be one thing if this new Thrawn was supposed to be different from the original, but Disney has taken pains – including bringing back Timothy Zahn to write a new origin story – to recapture Thrawn’s evil genius. They want the compelling character who gave birth to the expanded universe. Unfortunately, at least in season three, Rebels writers have not been up to the task of writing genius. The Thrawn in Rebels is so far only a pale shadow of his literary predecessor – he is nowhere near as interesting and less than half as threatening. Let us hope they can turn it around in season four.

From Ripoffs, Inspiration: Street Sharks

The year is 1994 and DIC Entertainment is looking to recreate the magic of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Their brilliant “new” idea: four teenage brothers are transformed by a mad scientist into half-human, half-shark hybrids. Each of the four brothers has a different personality, but all are radical in their own way. So is born: Street Sharks!

Wow… so original.

Continue reading From Ripoffs, Inspiration: Street Sharks

The Horrible Life Lessons Learned From Space Jam

Oh to be a child of the nineties and have opinions grossly clouded by nostalgia. I grew up during this strange and magical time of Pokémon, Gushers, and DZ: Discovery Zone. Being a kid back then was awesome, it’s no lie. We had a lot of great things to entertain ourselves with. Sadly, there are some not so great things that some of us also remember fondly. I speak, of course, of Space Jam. Most all of my friends (also children of the 90s) love Space Jam. As a kid, I remember really liking it in the theaters. I mean it was Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes, how can you go wrong?

It was very wrong.

Unlike the best childhood movies, Space Jam (or the poor man’s Who Framed Rodger Rabbit) is full of really horrible life lessons. This is not a movie that teaches you to learn from the past and take responsibility for your life (The Lion King), or to be yourself (Aladdin) or that true beauty is found within (Beauty and the Beast).

Nope, none of those are here. Let’s look instead at what is presented in this film forgotten largely by anyone not between the ages of six and ten in 1996.

Kidnap Your Friends

Let’s start with something that’s really pretty big in the movie: Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes never ask for Michael Jordan’s help (even though they easily could have – as it is established later in the film that they have no problem going to the “real” world). What do they do instead? Just toss a rope around him at a golf course and drag him over. Sure, once in Looney Tune land, Michael may have the opportunity to say no… maybe. Just keep in mind, if he did – he would have said no in a land surrounded by thousands of angry cartoon characters… oh and no one from home knew where he was so they’ll never find his body.

This guy is the villain and he only ever TALKS about kidnapping people. Let this be a lesson kids: Winners let their actions do the talking.
This guy is the villain and he only ever TALKS about kidnapping people. Let this be a lesson kids: Winners let their actions do the talking.

Women exist to be Sexualized in All Forms

 Even bunnies.

Holy crap, who designed Lola Bunny? Speaking as someone who saw this movie at seven, Lola Bunny gave me some confusing thoughts that would not be explained for the next few years. Once they were explained, it left me with one question: who designs a children’s cartoon rabbit this way? She has human breasts! Lola is sexualized in a way that is frankly disturbing. Since no one other than Bugs (who is another rabbit) is attracted to her, why was she drawn with different appeal. Just why – what was the conversation that lead to her creation?

It's like someone turned Natalie Dormer into a rabbit.
It’s like someone turned Natalie Dormer into a rabbit.

“Hey we got that Space Jam movie coming out, are we going to get the teenage crowd?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Better add breasts to the bunny just in case.”

Remember kids, if you’re going to have a woman in your movie, she had better be a sex symbol – even if she is a rabbit.

Bully the Fat Guy

Wayne Knight exists in Space Jam for one reason: to be made fun of. This wouldn’t matter so much if all the jokes weren’t targeted at one aspect of his character, namely his size. Sure, Stan (Knight’s character) is presented also as a dork, but why is he a dork – because he’s fat.

Haha! His shape is round! By the way - man do those effects not hold up.
Haha! His shape is round! By the way – man do those effects not hold up.

Forget the fact that he offers to help out in the big game against the Monstars, or that he sacrifices his health for the good of the team, or that he is the one to discover the Monstar’s plot, or that he generally tries to be a nice guy in general (the only one to really try to find Michael after the Looney Tunes kidnap him) – the movie doesn’t care and treats him only as a punchline. F*ck him, he’s nothing but a big old fattie. Yeah, he gets to announce Michael’s return to humanity at the end of the movie, but how about an apology – how about the “thanks for helping out, we were really lucky to have you with us, sorry we were kind of total dicks to you.”

No? Only Bill Murray gets told he can play basketball? Okay.


… Oh! And also bully short people, like the Looney Tunes were doing to the Monstars before they got tall. That’s the whole reason they picked basketball in the first place!

Succumb to Peer Pressure ALL the Time

Why does Michael agree to help the Looney Tunes? Does he feel truly sympathetic to their cause? Or is it because he gets insulted, and then goaded into joining by Tweety?

“You’re not scared of them, are you Michael?”

"Kill them, Michael. Kill them all."
“Kill them, Michael. Kill them all.”

To which Michael, being the mature, responsible father he is, agrees to risk never seeing his family again in order to help out the cartoon characters who kidnapped him. Awesome.

Take Steroids and Cheat to Win

Oh my god, this is totally in the movie. Remember Michael’s “secret stuff” that helps him win every game? Sure, in the movie it is just water and the effects are purely placebo but holy crap! This comparison is really spot on to the steroid scandal that was (and still is) going on in the professional sports world today. Actual quote from the movie:

Daffy: “You know, this goes against everything they taught me in health class.”

Michael Jordan (role model to a generation): “You want to win or not?”

Sure, it makes Bugs all muscle-y, but I bet he also has anger problems and a smaller carrot as a result.
Sure, it makes Bugs all muscle-y, but I bet he also has anger problems and a smaller carrot as a result.

If Tom Brady said those words (even in a kid’s movie), people in New England would never hear the end of it, just saying.

Don’t Talk to Your Significant Other/Family

The whole time Michael is doing this potentially enslaving act for the Looney Tunes, never once does he send a message to his family. His kids only find out because they catch Bugs and Daffy robbing their house.

Michael’s wife, the woman he wanted to share his life with: she’s not important enough to know. Maybe he would have told her if she was more sexualized.

So there you have it. Keep in mind, I have not seen Space Jam in quite a while so I may not be remembering everything that happened in the movie. There could be more instances of life lessons that would have scared every child watching the movie.

Who knows? As I said, Space Jam has been largely forgotten. If only they could get that sequel off the ground:

Maybe they can promote racism and adultery in this new movie!
Maybe they can promote racism and adultery in this new movie!