We Are All Cassian Andor

There is so much to unpack from #Andor that I’m not going to attempt to do it all at once. But I came across something so deeply meaningful in the first few episodes that I had to pause and write about it. Whether or not you watch the show, there is something remarkably encouraging to learn from what I’m going to share below, so read on.

I’m only five episodes in and still brewing on the incredible story that I’m watching unfold. I wouldn’t call this a “fun” show. The Mandalorian is fun and super rewatchable. The Bad Batch is fun, I’ve watched the first season three-four times already.

Andor is not “fun”, but Andor is incredibly powerful, and I am sitting here watching it as a student of storytelling and learning so much. (And yes, the cinematography and detail are breathtaking, and the action scenes are mindblowing in their choreography. Also, the score is pretty epic.)

Rogue One is where this whole story leads, so we have gotten the story backward. We know where Cassian ends up, and now we are learning how he gets there. It’s a good thing I know who Cassian Andor becomes because when I first “meet” him in Andor, he is not a likable character. In fact, almost no one is. They are all grubby (Star Wars does have showers, right?), striving, miserable people who are trying to eek a living out of a cold, wet, muddy planet. I have yet to see a bright color, a big smile, or a green plant in this place.

Cassian himself is a walking hurricane of unpleasantness (even his suave good looks can’t cover that). He’s angry, bitter, miserable, guilt-ridden, and scared all the time. He owes everyone, owns nothing, and hangs his head low. He has no sense of solid identity or dignity. You can see the guy has street smarts, but his head is down in the mud. His only ambition is to stay alive (quite reasonable but not exactly inspiring). If I hadn’t already seen who Cassian becomes, I would be tempted to give up on this guy.

Through a series of unfortunate and bleak circumstances, Cassian ends up needing to make a quick getaway from his current planet – Ferrix. The authorities are going to track him down and likely hang him. He’s been saving an item for his insurance policy, an incredibly valuable and rare Imperial part, and now he believes the sale of this part will be his salvation and give him enough money to go on the run. Through a friend, Cassian calls in a mysterious “buyer”. He hopes to make enough money to go on the run, and leave some for his adopted mother – Maarva – one of the only characters you feel a hint of warmth towards in the beginning.

We see the arrival of the mysterious buyer, and as all mysterious buyers should arrive, he arrives VERY mysteriously. He is stoic, and silent, with a wall of concrete in his face (but his trench coat is absolutely fabulous as all mysterious trench coats should be). However, you feel the power this man carries. He has come, and with his coming, he carries the weight of destiny and greatness in his every step. This is a man who brings armies to their knees, a man who causes planets to shake, a man who is willing to find diamonds in the mud and set them in their rightful places. There is a sense of purpose, identity, and confident dignity in this man’s every thought, movement, and facial expression. He appears to be the exact opposite of Cassian.

As this mysterious buyer flies on public transport into the city on Ferrix to meet with Cassian, a friendly stranger strikes up a conversation with him, complaining about the high prices and swindlers on this planet. Then, as the transport just reaches the city’s edge, the stranger says something profound, “You know what they say, if you can’t find it in Ferrix, it’s not worth having.” The buyer smiles slightly, he seems to understand the concept well.

At this moment, the soundtrack picks up to tell you to pay attention. The scene transitions and we see the same transport is now in the sky, flying right above the grimy section of town where we see a desperate Cassian Andor running through the muddy streets to prep to meet the buyer.

I paused, rewound the scene, and watched it again, letting the impact of that moment fully sink into my heart. “If you can’t find it in Ferrix, it’s not worth having.” And then we see Cassian.

Cassian Andor is worth having.

The buyer and Cassian meet in an appropriately shifty warehouse. Cassian is all business, he wants to sell his part for a high price and leave before anyone can catch up to him. The buyer, Luthen, wants to have a conversation. He wants to know HOW Cassian came across this rare Imperial part. Cassian reveals, “You just act like you belong there. They are so arrogant, they cannot imagine that someone like me could walk into their houses, their factories, spit in their food. They don’t even care.”

Luthen agrees, and then speaks in greater depth on the great evil the Empire represents, how they control people and tell them to move, how to live, when to die, and so on and so forth. Cassian does not understand the purpose of this conversation, aren’t they just here to do a deal and move on? Then Luthen reveals his true purpose. He didn’t come here just for a part, he came here for CASSIAN.

“Special people are rare.” In moments he reveals he knows Cassian’s entire backstory (freaking the crud out of Cassian). Luthen came for something far more important than a rare part, he came for a rare person – the person he believes Cassian to be. Luthen is building a rebellion, and he wants Cassian to join it.

At this moment, the authorities show up (intent on bringing Cassian into custody). Luthen already has a plan for extraction, but Cassian is still not grasping this larger picture. In the midst of blaster fire back and forth, Cassian tries to retrieve his rare part (despite Luthen warning him not to). This foolishness causes Cassian to get shot and get hit with a piece of machinery. He still continues to go back for that dumb part, over and over again. Finally he is forced to flee the building, and even after he and Luthen have escaped the premises, Cassian says, “The box! We could still go get the box!”

We, the audience who know the details of this Rebellion that Luthen is building, cannot believe that Cassian is so hung up on that dumb box. It’s rare, yes, but it’s just a part. It’s a tiny piece. It’s an insignificant moment, but to Cassian in his current, head-down mindset, that dumb box is everything.

See, Cassian does not believe that he is worth having. He sees himself as a meaningless, useless bit of trash. For how much he hates the Imperials, he sure agrees with them in how he treats himself and his life. He does not see himself as he is, or as he can be.

Luthen, on the other hand, carries a higher perspective. Luthen sees the whole galaxy, and he sees one man. He sees how one man and the whole galaxy are connected. How one man can be the tipping point, the domino that falls to change a whole, enslaved galaxy. Luthen sees the purpose, potential, and destiny that Cassian carries. Luthen sees a diamond in the mud that he desires to pluck out of the grime and put in its proper place. Luthen sees Cassian, and Cassian is terrified of it. He either can’t, or does not desire to see himself as what he can be. So he fights against this idea that Luthen has. He cannot see that he is worth having.

In flashbacks, we see Cassian as a child, stranded on a distant planet where a mining disaster presumably killed all of the adults. A ship crashes on the planet, and Cassian is inside the ship, exploring it. His current life is very primitive, he carries a blow-dart gun and wears face paint. Upon entering the ship, Cassian finds a whole room of shiny glass displays. He looks at himself in the reflection, and he is somehow horrified to see himself. What does he see? Fear? Sorrow? Loneliness? Anger? Hopelessness? Vulnerability? In a fit of rage, child Cassian begins smashing screens as he screams as hard as he can. He doesn’t want to see himself, he doesn’t want to believe.

It is at this moment that a younger Maarva – a scavenger – comes upon young Cassian. She is instantly moved to compassion, seeing a child who is in need of warmth, love, and safety. Her scavenger partner would leave Cassian to his fate, but Maarva refuses. “I’m not leaving him here to die.”

Cassian fights her, so she injects him with a sleeping drug and then carries him to her ship, laying him gently down on the bed. She sees Cassian as he is and as what he can be, and though he may fight her, she’s going to pick him up and carry him away to a better life.

These flashbacks play back and forth in between the scenes of Luthen and Cassian making their escape from Ferrix. Cassian emotionally fights Luthen’s attempt to pull him out of the wreckage of his life and take him into his future, but circumstances force Cassian to board Luthen’s ship and take off with him. The flashbacks play back and forth, we see Maarva take child Cassian away from the brokenness of his childhood, and we see Luthen take grown Cassian away from the wreck and ruin of his current life. Both of them fly Cassian higher, to a higher perspective, a greater purpose, and both of them force Cassian to look at himself.

Luthen makes a statement to Cassian that seals this whole message together.

“I said I know you, I know the outside, I know what people tell me when I ask, but the rest I imagine. I imagine your hate (for the Empire), I imagine that no matter what you tell me or tell yourself, you’ll ultimately die fighting these b*[insert non-family-friendly word]*s. And what I’m asking you is this, wouldn’t you rather give it all at once, for something real, rather than carving off useless pieces until there’s nothing left? I didn’t risk my *** for the Starpath unit, I came for you.”

The weight, enormity, and power of this statement hit so hard when you know who Cassian Andor is going to become. Cassian Andor is going to become one of the integral few that manage to retrieve the Death Star plans, and thus be the tipping domino that begins the chain reaction that will bring the Empire down. Cassian Andor is destined to help destroy the Empire, and yes, he will die doing so. But he will die sitting peacefully on a beach with a woman he’s learned to love, and he will finally be at peace with himself and what he has given his life to. Cassian Andor is supposed to change the galaxy. Cassian Andor is worth having, he is worth fighting for, and Cassian Andor was made for more than scrounging in the mud. He cannot see it, but someone else did, someone else who was willing to go down and get him, and lift him to a higher perspective to launch him into his destiny. They both desired to bring Cassian into something that mattered, something real! This has happened twice for Cassian, both as a child and as an adult.

Luthen and Maarva are very imperfect characters, I make no claims that they accurately represent all of Who God is, but they represent an aspect of His heart and how He does things that are so incredibly powerful.

You see, we are all like Cassian Andor. We are tired, vulnerable, lost, angry, bitter, broken people who (if left to our own devices), would spend our entire lives running around on the ground in the mud, just trying to get ahead. We use people and things to try to fill up our empty places. We dive into the middle of firefights and get shot up for useless parts and pieces that in the grand scheme of life are meaningless. And often when God, or someone God has sent, comes into our lives to pull us out of that place, we fight them. We are terrified to see ourselves not only as what we are but also as what we could become. We do not see ourselves as having a purpose, meaning, and potential. We do not see ourselves as rare, valuable, special, and “worth having.” We do not see the future where we are an integral part of something important, meaningful, and galaxy-shaking happening. We have such small, mean, broken perspectives, and we could literally waste our entire lives and die in them.

Maarva – “I’m not leaving him to die.”
Luthen – “I didn’t risk my *** for a Starpath unit, I came for you.”

You are a Cassian Andor. It doesn’t matter what mud-hole you came from, it doesn’t matter what you have done, it doesn’t matter how broken you are, you are worth having. Your life matters. You have an integral part to play in this world. You are special. You are rare. You mean more than useless parts. And God did not leave us to die, and He came FOR us! Like Luthen and Maarva see Cassian, God sees you. He knows who you are and what you are made for, and He desires to help you walk into your identity with confidence and purpose. You are a diamond He made, and He desires to set you in your rightful place.

Lift your head up, friend. Look at yourself the way He does.

I’ve only begun this show, and while I don’t pretend to like, agree with, or condone every action taken by every character or show creator. However, I can already see how many threads of powerful truth are woven into the fabric of the story, and I am deeply touched by it.

Maisie Lockwood and Sylvie: How to Advance Plot Without Sacrificing Character Growth (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 1, I showed how two franchises advanced the growth of two main protagonists, Claire Dearing (Jurassic World) and Loki Odinson (Marvel) while still ushering in terrible world events. These two characters grew while still maintaining active participation in the story moving forward. The growth required from both Claire and Loki was that they show restraint where they previously had not. Both characters passed the test and chose to limit themselves.

However, if they had been the only players on the board, the terrible events would have been stopped right then and there. Which is great in a real-life scenario, but not so great for a fictional story that requires conflict to keep moving. The storylines in both the Marvel and the Jurassic franchises needed terrible events to happen in order to move forward.

This is where Maisie Lockwood and Sylvie come in. They are what I like to call “the innocents”.

Maisie Lockwood takes the role of “the innocent” in Jurassice World: Fallen Kingdom. She also fills that vital child role that exists in every Jurassic installment.

Look at that face! So much sweetness and fresh life!

Maisie Lockwood is the granddaughter of Benjamin Lockwood, who was apparently John Hammons’ business partner back in the pre-Jurassic Park days. A difference of beliefs separated the two and is our “convenient” explanation for why we have never heard of Lockwood before. Maisie is about 10-11 years old. She’s sweet, playful, curious, and has the beautiful sense of wonder that all of the child characters bring to the Jurassic series. The themes of the Jurassic franchise are never more clear than when we see how they affect children.

One thing we discover about Mr. Lockwood that is different than John Hammond is what Lockwood does with genetic technology. Lockwood decided to use genetic cloning technology to create a clone of his beloved daughter, who was tragically killed in a car crash. Maisie is not actually Lockwood’s granddaughter, but a genetic recreation of his daughter. The ethical questions involved there raise the roof to a whole new level. As I said in Part 1, every Jurassic installment is always engaging with the important theme of how we value life.

Maisie discovers Eli Mill’s evil plan to exploit the dinosaurs instead of saving them. She is caught by Mills when trying to investigate further, and he locks her away in her room and then murders her grandfather. Maisie finds her dead grandfather and has to escape where she blessedly crosses paths with the good guys, Owen and Claire. During the evening they are hunted by Eli’s latest pet project – the Indoraptor (your worst nightmare of a dinosaur). To put the cherry on top, Eli drops the bombshell that Maisie was created the same way the dinosaurs were. She’s a genetic clone that he had hoped to maintain control over. God only knows what he might have done with her if she hadn’t escaped! This revelation trumps any birds and bees or puberty talks any of us have ever had. Try processing that kind of information when you’re having the worst day ever!

The day ends in the control room where Claire has to make a horrible choice between letting the dinosaurs die, or setting them loose on an unsuspecting population. She wants to, but she cannot, so she walks away from the button in tears as she watches the beautiful creatures in agony. It’s awful…but then…

The light goes green, and the doors open releasing the dinosaurs to the wilds of California outside. All adults in the room turn around to the control panel to spot a tearful Maisie, her hand on the button. She has let the dinosaurs go.

Maisy I had to. They’re alive, like me.

Imagine having just learned you were created the same way these dinosaurs were?

It’s a uniquely triumphant moment for every dinosaur lover watching, even as we know there will be consequences in the end. The beauty of this scenario is that the dinosaurs were let loose, but we cannot actually feel anger towards the person who released them. Why? Because she is innocent, and from her perspective we understand her decision.

Maisie is a young child who has been through the most traumatic day imaginable. Her grandpa was murdered. An evil man wanted to control her. She was almost eaten. Everything she thought she knew about her life was wrong. She doesn’t even have a biological mother and father. Can you imagine getting hit with all of that in one single day when you are only 10 years old?

Children have very straightforward and honest logic. Sometimes it makes more sense than adults’ logic. And sometimes it has the best of intentions and the worst of consequences. They’re alive, like me.

In Maisie’s mind, the only right and moral decision is to release the dinosaurs. If she is alive and has value, so do they. Her value for life is strong, untainted by greed or bitter life experiences. Her heart was in the right place, even if she doesn’t yet have the wisdom or maturity to think beyond this moment and understand what she has just done.

Claire could not push that button and maintain her character growth, she knows better. But Maisie had to push that button to explain and advance hers. It’s all understandable and we follow the emotions and motivations perfectly. The Big Bad Thing has happened without compromising the growth of the characters who knew better. But Maisie doesn’t know better, and in every way possible she believes this is the right choice.

And who can blame her? Who in her life has ever taught her otherwise? The writers get their cake and get to eat it too!

Sylvie is female Loki variant who was stolen from her happy life as a child.

Sylvie was probably about the same age (in Asgardian years) as Maisie when she was kidnapped. She was committing the terrible crime of being a happy little girl, playing with toys in her own bedroom when a door from the TVA opened up and a Hunter came through and stole her away. They gave a timeline reset charge, and just like that, Sylvie was erased from existence. Scheduled to be pruned – KILLED, IT’S CALLED KILLED, PEOPLE – Sylvie made a brave escape and has been on the run from the TVA ever since.

She is a powerful woman in her 30s now (in Asgardian years). Her entire growing-up experience was about trying to hide throughout the multiverse and stay one step ahead of her pursuers. Revenge is what raised her. On the outside, she is beautiful, intelligent, cunning, witty, and bitter. On the inside, she is still that little girl who is devastated, terrified, and asking the obvious question -WHY?

Why was she removed from her happy life? What had she done that was so wrong it was okay to try kill her? WHY???

Observe. This is a child. A CHILD! The TVA just grabbed this child from her own bedroom floor, shoved her around like a criminal, and judged her worthy to be pruned. Not a single tear shed, not a single person listening to her cries for help. This is sick!

Loki falls in love with this vulnerable and aching place in her. Not because he can exploit her, which would have been the old Loki’s approach, but because he has compassion for her. Because he wishes he could restore that sense of peace, safety, and beauty of life that was stolen from her. I think he also finds her fight for life refreshing. The odd contrast between them is that Loki actually had a semi-decent life and often squandered it. He missed what was right in front of him and held true relationship at arms length.

Sylvie dreamed of getting to have that life but it was stolen from her without any decision on her part. Loki kind of deserves a lot of the crap he gets, Sylvie deserved none of it.

One of the most devastating moments to me in all of Loki was when Sylvie confronts Ravonna Renslayer, the judge who ordered her to be pruned as a child.

Sylvie Do you remember me?

Ravonna Renslayer I do.

Sylvie Why did you bring me in?

Ravonna Renslayer What does it matter?

Sylvie It was enough to take my life away from me.

Ravonna I don’t remember.

Ravonna’s dismissal of the pain she’s caused Sylvie is sickening. But then when Sylvie and Loki fight back against their TVA captors, Ravonna faces off against Sylvie with bitterness in her face.

Ravonna Renslyer This time I finish the job!

This time. This time, as opposed to last time when Sylvie WAS A CHILD ABOUT TO BE MURDERED?!? Ravonna regrets she wasn’t able to kill Sylvie sooner. This scene makes me ill. Ravonna wishes she had succeeded in murdering an innocent child. That’s so sick.

And yet, this belief system is alive in our world today. People justify the killing of unborn children, the elderly, or the disabled for a variety of reasons. “You wouldn’t belong in our world”, “You don’t fit our definition of perfect”, “You will have problems and might have a hard life”, “You will get in the way of someone/something else more important,” “You didn’t belong on The Sacred Timeline.” Etc.

The same, sick, twisted justifications that we see with glaring clarity in Ravonna are fed to men and women in the real world every day. We are fooled into destroying precious lives (young and old) by the same evil logic.

I do not say this to condemn anyone, but to condemn the lies and root of the evil itself. Life is PRECIOUS, this is a theme we see upheld in both Loki AND the Jurassic series.

When Loki and Sylvie reach the End of All Time and see He Who Remains, it’s clear to the viewer that there really isn’t a nice or safe option. We can figure out that the story probably needs He Who Remains to die. We also can figure out that the Sacred Timeline and the measures taken to protect it are evil. But is there a right choice here? That Multiversal War, whew, that’s a hefty price! The enormity of the choice sounds just dreadful.

Sylvie is right, you have to set things free. You cannot control everyone and call it “love” or “compassion”. True love does not control, this is a truth from God Himself. Loki is also kind of right, freedom and free will is a two-edged sword and there are sometimes dark consequences for it. Our own world has startlingly clear evidence of both of these facts.

Sylvie’s motivation and the intended goal remain focused. She’s going to destroy this man who destroyed her life, and in doing so she’s going to protect others from enduring the same suffering she’s had. Sylvie has had one thing to keep her alive, one purpose in life for who knows how many centuries: revenge. Destroy the people before they destroy her.

After seeing the horrors of the TVA firsthand, I can totally understand her motivation. It’s a heck of a better motivation than Loki ever had.

When I look at Sylvie, I don’t just see a woman. I see a terrified little girl trying to survive. Every time I stare into her big eyes, I see that raw fear and torment. I see her saying, “Somebody help me!”

Nobody ever tried to help Sylvie, so she had to help herself.

If I were in her shoes, who knows, I might do the same thing and feel entirely justified in doing so. Even so, enough information is shared by He Who Remains to give Loki himself major pause. Hold the phone, sister, we should think BEFORE we stab!

Loki is “right” in what he is saying. Most importantly, the hesitation and restraint he shows with both finesse and compassion are RIGHT for his character arc. Loki says “no” and I couldn’t be prouder!

Sylvie is also right. Both characters sort of face a no-win scenario in this scene. You don’t know what is going to happen, but either way, it’s going to be awful and messy. I loved that Loki said no, and I also understood why Sylvie said “yes”. She first removed Loki from the situation, and then followed through on her intentions to destroy He Who Remains once and for all.

She sees this moment as saving lives while avenging her own. She’s seen the waste and destruction of human life, and the trampling of freedom across the universe as she’s waged this one-woman war. Sylvie never had someone to fight for her. But she believes she can fight for others and spare them the grief she has suffered.

It makes sense, and it needs to happen. Marvel needed a bigger problem than the Purple Abomination Himself. A multiversal war should do the trick, and Sylvie was the perfect choice to stab that door open.

And now? Well, now we watch all of our characters face the consequences of choices made in the past and in the present.

…..

Well-crafted characters who are “innocents” should not be stupid or consciously rebellious. Many stories have made use of foolish or stupid characters to create trouble for the smarter characters to solve, and it gets obnoxious very quickly. An example of this would be every single scene with Frances in Disney’s classic The Swiss Family Robinson. That kid is anything but innocent, he’s a brat who almost gets his family killed time and again. His reasons for getting into trouble are not compelling or defendible, they are just foolish.

No, a truly innocent character has a legitimate and “logical” reason for the decisions they make. They may be naive, uninformed on some things, or unaware of the full consequences of their choice – like Maisie Lockwood. She’s an orphan child with a great deal of courage and a very simple sense of morality. You understand her heart and love her for it even while you know she is wrong.

Some innocents like Sylvie began as helpless victims caught in a whirlwind that they now seek to undo. This type of character can easily morph into a monster who believes any and all means justify the ends. They can become as evil as the thing/person they seek to destroy. One of the saving graces of Sylvie’s story is that it’s so incredibly twisted up, complex, and confusing, that you really can’t find a firm ground beyond one thing – all lives matter. Sylvie does fight and sometimes kill, but that’s usually after she’s attacked first. When she enchants Hunters to use for her purposes, she leaves them with a clearer mind and a memory of who they were before. Is every choice Sylvie makes good? No, I wouldn’t say that. But I understand many of them.

We see the evidence of a tender heart in Sylvie in the candy that she gives to the small French child Mobius interrogates. Or the comments Sylvie makes regarding a woman who is in love with her husband. We see it in how she looks at Loki when she kisses him before shoving him through a portal. Sylvie believes 1000% that what she is doing will bring greater good to the universe, and she will follow through on that even if it means losing a relationship with Loki.

…..

Complex and well-crafted stories can be intimidating to storytellers. I guarantee you that these stories are not as out of reach or impossible to create as you might think. The best stories are grounded and driven by beautiful, human characters.

Claire, Maisie, Loki, and Sylvie are some prime examples of brilliant storytelling and character development that we all can learn a lot from. When you create characters like these, it’s not hard to have your cake and eat it too!

Katy and Shaun, Shang-Chi’s Real Superpower

Marvel’s recent origin story Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was good enough to pull me out of movie blogging retirement.

I could spend article after article talking about the depth, meaning, and symbolism of this movie. Everything from the costuming to the scenery was full of purpose and interest. The character work was excellent. Shang-Chi carried a balance of sadness, triumph, humor, and potential.

But what actually got me to put words on the page is the relationship between Shaun (Shang-Chi) and his best friend Katy. They are probably one of the best things the MCU has created in a long while. Here’s why – warning, spoilers ahead.

Katy and Shaun are the defining relationship of the movie.

That may sound funny given how many other turbulent and dominating relationships we see Shaun experience throughout this story. But Katy and Shaun’s relationship is the most important one in the entire movie; and every other relationship (good or bad) can be contrasted or compared to it.

His relationship with his father is a twisted one. It’s defined by abuse, sick expectations, deep desire for something genuine, broken heartedness, and whatever true love is left in his father’s heart. It’s turbulent, nauseating, angering, and aggressive.

His relationship with his sister is one of broken promises, a broken heart, bitterness, coldness. At the root is a little girl who lost everything/everyone. It’s sad.

His relationship with his mother is one of remembered sweetness and meaning and beauty that he once had. He can’t reach her, he can’t get her back, and he couldn’t save her. It’s full of guilt and longing. It’s tragic.

Shaun’s new relationship with his aunt brings back some of the light he’s had hidden inside of him from his mother. It helps remind him of who he is, but it’s still much more of a mentor relationship.

And then there’s Katy. Quirky, witty, adorably awkward, forever faithful Katy. Katy is Shaun’s defining relationship throughout this entire movie. He deals with every demon (literally) of his past and present. From the bus fight in San Francisco to a magical valley in China where a dungeon full of soul-eaters exists, Katy is there. She’s Shaun’s reference point, his only constant, the anchor. He orbits around her as he faces everything else.

Unlike his father, Katy isn’t always about what Shaun has to do for her in order to earn her love. Unlike his sister, their friendship has been one of constants. Unlike his mother, Katy is very real and in the present. And unlike his aunt, Katy is facing some of the same struggles he is when it comes to being grounded in her identity and life direction.

We see Shaun experience many relationships in this story. We meet many layers and versions of Shang-Chi/Shaun, but we always return to Katy and Shaun. The way they laugh together, the way they tackle problems, the fears they both have, the way they listen to one another. It’s a healthy, life-on-life kind of relationship that keeps Shaun from jumping off of a character cliff. Katy grounds him even as she helps him fly. For a character with no superpowers, Katy is one of the most powerful characters in this movie.

It’s subtle, well-written, and woven logically and beautifully into the story. It feels real. Katy and Shaun are forever even if other things/people are not.

Katy saved Shaun

No, I’m not just talking about when she jumped in between him and the bully (honestly, she saved that jerk’s life). I’m talking about Shaun. He’d been through horrific things and had no where to land – until Katy showed up. She gave him a home, a family, a friend, and a sense of normal he lost the moment his mother was killed.

We see just how much this one friendship has defined Shaun when we see the contrast between him and his sister – Xialing. Where Shaun is warm, Xialing is cold. Shaun is gentle, Xialing is harsh. Shaun is normal, Xialing is very much abnormal.

You can’t really hold it against her. Shaun got to spend more years nurtured by their mother. Once their beautiful mother was gone, their father didn’t just see Xialing as a neutral presence, he treated her like a negative. She became someone lesser, someone to step over. He looked away from her in pain for something that wasn’t her fault. Even though his relationship with Shaun was perverted and full of abuse, he still affirmed Shaun in a twisted way. Xialing never got any of that. The only place where she found affirmation was in the gross underworld of using force to gain respect and admiration. For how much she hates her father, she has learned to be very much like him.

At the end of the movie, Shaun goes back to his normal life of karaoke and storytelling over drinks and appetizers with Katy – until Wong comes along with what is essentially a gold-lettered invite to the Avengers. Shaun has maintained the ground he’s gained and grown a few sizes larger as well. But he’s still Shaun. He’s a pretty amazing knight-in-shining-armor character.

Xialing isn’t as far along as he is. While at her father’s compound (where Shaun thinks she’s cleaning up the mess) we see Xialing uncovering the wall in her room. It’s full of angry, dark, violent pictures/posters/images. Half of the wall is uncovered, revealing a beautiful painting of a sad little girl. Xialing sits in normal clothes on the floor (the first time we see her this way) clutching a beautiful drawing of her mother. It’s symbolic – half of her heart has been uncovered – but the other half is still caught in darkness.

Her scene ends where we see that she is actually taking over the Ten Rings name and running the thug group on her own. The black leather is back, she’s still chasing affirmation and identity through force. She hasn’t learned as many lessons as her brother has, her future is still more in question.

What’s the difference between the two siblings? Shaun had a Katy, Xialing didn’t. Katy’s tiny family apartment in an old corner of San Francisco represents more genuine wealth than the entire stone compound Xialing possesses. The life that Shaun has where he gets to argue with Katy’s grandma about where the whiskey went, gulp down cereal before taking the bus to their shared valet job is more real, beautiful, and genuine than anything Xialing has. For a movie about the child of a 1000 year old warlord and his magical, soul-sucker fighting wife, Shang-Chi gave a place of great honor and value to the everyday beauty of a normal, loving family.

When Katy stepped in between Shaun and that bully she was saving his life. She was bringing in beauty, truth, life, warmth, hope, and a future. She didn’t know that, she doesn’t overthink it, she’s just herself and that’s what he needs.

Shaun’s mama used to sit at a table with him and make construction paper dragons and tell him stories from her homeland. That kind of beauty is what had literally caused his evil father to put the rings away and act normal for a while. It’s magic – powerful magic woven into ordinary, extraordinary, everyday kind of love. I finally found something worth growing old forXu Wenwu

Shaun lost that life the moment his mama died, but he was given it anew the moment he met Katy. It didn’t matter if his mama was from a magic corner of China with fantastical creatures, and Katy is the self-described “Asian Jeff Gordon”. It’s the same magic presented differently, but the fruit produced is just as good.

Katy and Shaun are a perfect team.

Are they perfect as people? No, they are beautifully flawed and that makes the story that much more enjoyable. But they are a perfect team.

A mistake many people make is they create a normal character like Katy, and a super-character like Shang-Chi, but then they don’t know how to keep the two together throughout a story. The Katy’s of the world get pushed off to the sidelines to ooh and ahh at the wonders of the Shaun character.

Shang-Chi didn’t do that once. Katy was always as relevant and important to the storyline as Shaun was. It isn’t because she is crazy brilliant, superpowered, rich, famous, etc. She’s just a good friend who doesn’t give up, and that’s an overlooked and under-utilized power. Her loyalty and faithfulness to Shaun is what made her the perfect boom to his pow. They need each other and they give to each other.

Shaun gets attacked on the bus and fights back – so Katy drives the bus.

Shaun has to go face his deadly family – Katy buys a plane ticket. So what if we are going to a seedy corner of Macau? Girl’s got a fanny pack, she ready.

They have to escape his father’s compound – Katy drives full speed towards a cement door trusting that Shaun is gonna get a henchman’s bio print on the screen in time to open it.

Shaun admits to murdering someone at the age of 14 – Katy is the first person to point out what a bad situation he was in and how he needs to be kinder to himself.

Shaun is about to lose to the soul-eater as it’s sucking the soul out of the dragon – Katy fires an arrow at the soul-sucker’s throat and causes a pivotal interruption.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina)

Shaun and Katy are a one-two punch, on and off the battlefield. They fill in each others gaps, listen to each other’s problems, and have each other’s backs. They develop together, something that many movies struggle to portray. Their friendship naturally produces growth in both of them even if they take turns supporting each other. They are a both and kind of relationship, not an either or.

The director of the film (Destin Daniel Cretton) said very clearly that Katy and Shaun are just friends for the majority of this movie. Shang-Chi is going through a lot and Katy’s friendship is what he needs, there isn’t room for anything else….But now? Who knows?

I could easily see (and let’s be real, AM TOTALLY ROOTING FOR) them becoming more in the future. Shaun and Katy are one of those legendary kind of relationships that are quite simply, best friends forever that slide smoothly from one phase of friendship into another. They are never gonna find someone else to connect with at the level they connect with each other, and they don’t need to. What they have is powerful and the world needs more of it.

The friendship of Katy and Shaun created this base rhythm for the rest of the movie to build off of. Their humanity and love for each other gave a heart and soul to a story that without that human base could have felt very bizarre. But with them in the center of it, it was just perfect. The strength and health of their friendship created a measuring mark for every other character interaction. As a writer and a fan who is always looking for character-first stories, I was incredibly pleased.

What did you think of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings?

Pixar Spark Shorts – “Smash and Grab” Awesome Things You Didn’t Know Were on Disney+

Everyone had their own reasons for getting excited about the arrival of Disney+.

The old favorites released from the mysterious “vault” such as classic Princess movies like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

Fan-favorite Disney Channel shows That’s So Raven, Lizzie McGuire, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Can I admit that I watched all of the seasons of The Suite Life On Deck without seeing The Suite Life first?

New favorites such as the over-the-top successful AladdinI can confirm that the movie is at least as good the 6-7th time you see it as it the first time.

And then the pièce de ré·sis·tance, the first original live-action Star Wars series The MandalorianA show that has exceeded our expectations and is worth every bit of hype it was given.

There are a few gems on Disney+ that I wanted to spotlight for those looking for something that they may not have heard of before, but would definitely enjoy.

Spark Shorts: Smash and Grab

spark shorts

If you have not checked out Pixar’s section of Spark Shorts, you must do so immediately. Pixar more than any other studio has taught us that compelling stories with deep messages can be told in less than 10 minutes but remain in our memories forever.

Smash and Grab : After years of toiling away inside the engine room of a towering locomotive, two antiquated robots will risk everything for freedom and for each other.

smash and grab

This short is one of the best shorts I have ever seen in my life.

In less than 10 minutes we are introduced to a beautiful and complex dystopian robot society where some robots live in freedom and luxury while others are enslaved.

A deep connection of love and brotherhood is made apparent between our two main characters. They have been enslaved together, and they will be free together, or they will die trying.

big robot s and g

The personalities of these robots are communicated through simple eye-shape changes, robot sounds, gestures, and movement. You understand who these characters are, what motivates them, and what they mean to each other without a single word being spoken.

little robot s and g

You fall in love so fast with these characters that you immediately feel the fear when they are put into peril by their decision to reach for freedom. The fear they feel for each other is worse than the fear they have for themselves.

Y’all, there have been dozens of movies that cost millions of dollars who couldn’t accomplish in 2+ hours what this one short is able to accomplish in 7 minutes.

weapon robots s and g

An entire world/society is clearly communicated, injustice is seen for what it is and a decision is made to do something about it. Two distinct personalities are established as well as their connection and meaning to each other. These characters step out of their comfort zone and all that they have known to reach for something better, no matter the cost. They have a complete and full character arc in 7 minutes time.

And all of this is communicated without a single word being spoken. The world, a problem, main characters, decisions, a battle, sacrifice, love, endurance, and the ending?

I’ll let you watch the short to find out what happens. It’s glorious.

Plus, just check out how gorgeous this world is. The colors, the textures, the lighting! The artistry is purely stunning and takes its place on the stage of excellence right alongside the storytelling and music.

s and g concept

s & g concept art

train sm and gr

Everyone involved in creating this short should be dang proud of themselves.

Check it out today on Disney+, Smash and Grab! 

 

Flynn Rider: Reimagining the Disney Prince

The 2010 Rapunzel story Tangled was an instant classic and remains in a place of high honor.

Much of this is due to the charming and roguish Flynn Rider, adorable crown thief- turned into the adventure partner and harmonizing prince we ladies dream about.

Was it his gorgeous face that caught our attention? Uh, well, yeah, that certainly helped.

His sense of humor? Mmmhhmm.

The smolder? It certainly did not damage his cause.

the smolder

As much as we love his charming exterior, what really sold us all on Flynn Rider was the way he changed the “face” and expectations for the classic “Disney Prince”.

The character that came closest to Flynn Rider before he hit the screen was most definitely Aladdin. Not only was he also an adorably mischevious thief, but rather than just a pretty face with a castle we were given a more 3-dimensional character who had his own backstory, own dreams, and own failures.

Still, Flynn Rider, or shall we say Eugene Fitzherbert took it to the next level.

Flynn Rider started out as a self-seeking jerk.

You are talking to a girl who loves the good guys. I have only fallen for the “bad boy” twice in my life and those two bad boys ended up becoming the best of the good boys. #edmundpevensie #captainhook (Apparently I go for dark good looks as well? Hmm…)

But it is wise to admit to ourselves that everyone is human, male or female.

We have imperfections, we have broken places, we have pockets of selfishness or places of retained anger. There are things about ourselves we would like to change and things in others we find hard to overlook. We’re really messy, and sometimes kind of ugly.

Flynn Rider is something of a scoundrel. He double-crosses his own partners-in-crime in order to keep the crown for himself.

When Flynn arrives at Rapunzel’s castle, he has an initial moment of awe over her beauty, but it passes like a cloud over the sun and then he’s back to scheming again.

Can I just say how much I love the fact that Flynn and Rapunzel broke the “love at first sight” Disney couple trope?

I 100% believe in love at first sight. It happens all the time in real life. I just think it’s a good idea to present more than one way for a couple to fall for each other. Many couples discover each other over time, building one step upon another. Such is the case for Flynn and Rapunzel.

Flynn Rider has eyeballs, anyone with eyeballs can see how beautiful Rapunzel is. He has a normal human reaction to her appearance and then he starts trying to pull one over on her. His own selfish needs and desires trump whatever reaction she just created in him.

#canayoneelserelatetothis

Let’s be honest, people, we’ve all been Flynn Rider before (maybe even like 2 minutes ago). Humanity, apart from Jesus, is inheritently sinful, broken, and definitely selfish!

Flynn's agenda.png

Flynn’s plan to frighten Rapunzel at The Snuggly Duckling ends up placing them in a situation of danger where Rapunzel’s indomitable spirit and open heart earns Flynn’s respect.

She takes a roomful of gross and scary (and anatomically incorrect) men and turns them all into mush by seeing beneath the surface and touching their hearts.

Follow that up with an epic escape from multiple foes that succeeds when it shouldn’t…

…yeah, Flynn looks at Rapunzel with new eyes.

He is impressed, there is more to her than he at first thought. The sweetest thing is that Rapunzel does all of this without the intention of winning someone’s approval or respect. She is merely being herself and is entirely guileless. It’s refreshing, tantalizing, and touches a long-hidden part of Flynn Rider.

Enter, Eugene Fitzherbert.

First respect, next we go to a new level. Vulnerability.

Flynn and Rapunzel find themselves in a dark cave with water rising. #thisismyworstnightmareminussomesharks

The idea that they are facing death gives Flynn the courage to reveal one of the most precious and tender parts of himself…his true name.

Eugene Fitzherbert. It’s soft and sweet. Rapunzel listens with such kind respect. She proves to Flynn that not only is she someone he can rely on in a pinch, but she is also a safe person to trust himself with. His true self.

The theme of revealing their inner selves continues by the fireside where Rapunzel reveals the story of her magic hair. Then Flynn tells her about a special book that gave him oxygen to dream during the tragedy of his childhood as an orphan.

Whoa, a sad orphan who used to read this book to the younger orphans? A kid who grew up and took on the name of his literary hero to try and build a life of plenty for himself to replace the history of lack and lovelessness?

I. Am. Intrigued.

We begin by seeing Flynn through the mask he has invented for himself – a careless and debonair thief who needs no one. #funnybutnotmarriagematerial

Within the course of about two scenes of tender and revealing moments, our perception is entirely changed to match what is this character’s truth.

eugene fitzherbert

Flynn is not a typical Disney prince. He is just as broken and in need as the princess is. He needs her as much or more than she needs him. They need each other in different ways.

It’s a beautiful picture of so many real-life relationships where you take two extraordinary individuals who each bring something neat to the table, but together they create something wonderful.

Together they end up helping each other heal.

Together, they dream a new dream.

We started with respect, leveled up at vulnerability, and now we bring in attraction.

Flynn is sooooo attracted to Rapunzel. She has had a deprived life in a way that is different from his, but no less real. However, her deprivation has made her kind, patient, and eager to enjoy every little thing.

The word that best describes Rapunzel is “wonder”.

The biggest dream of her life has just been to go and see these beautiful lights that fill the night sky on her birthday.

Flynn has been everywhere and thinks he’s done everything, it was all old news to him until he met her. 

Rapunzel reintroduces Flynn to the idea of wonder, and during that process, he finds himself deeply attracted to her.

I love the montage of this glorious day in the town that leads up to one of Disney’s best romantic songs in existence. It shows Eugene and Rapunzel falling for each other in such a sweet, specific way that celebrates life.

Falling in love with Rapunzel doesn’t just bring stars to Flynn’s eyes, we get to go so much deeper into the why behind his love for Rapunzel that we do with many other Disney princes.

Rapunzel reawakens the Eugene within him, reminds him of who he is, and gives him the courage to dream something far bigger than just a castle of his own.

Rapunzel and Flynn’s story reminds us the power of human connection to create change as well as the healing capability that true love can bring.

And what is true love? It has been said in passing in so many stories, but we actually get to see it lived out in Tangled in a way that blew my mind.

True love is a sacrifice.

Flynn first respected her, then he allowed himself to be vulnerable with her. His attraction grew alongside hers, but Flynn’s love was proven to be real when he sacrificed himself for her without a single selfish thought…

…he actually dies for her.

Flynn’s sacrifice is not pretty, he gets stabbed in the back and is bleeding out on the floor. #thisscaredmesobad #disneybrokealltherules

There were no grandiose words or declarations of valor. There was no masterful sword fight against a dragon (the dude lost a frying pan duel to a horse, y’all), no sweeping in on a vine to rescue the girl. No magic shoe to gallantly slip on her foot.

He is weak and bleeding out on the floor. In hoarse tones he calls her to come close to him, and in one swift motion he uses the last of his strength to take a shard of glass and cut off all of her hair! Freeing her forever from her lifelong bondage.

The shock of that moment hit me like a tidal wave in the same way it does for the other characters. Rapunzel can’t even comprehend the fact for a moment that her hair, the source of her magical strength as well as her hideous bondage, is gone. Mother Gothel dies a very disgusting/ugly death, and then Flynn DIES! 

As Rapunzel cradles a dying Eugene in her arms, they have such a broken and tender moment where they tell each other “You were my new dream.”

eugene dying

I love this! The word “dream” gets thrown around so often in our stories and our real world. It gets watered down, misused, abused. So many people practically kill themselves in the pursuit of what they believe to be their “dreams” only to reach the end and find themselves with no one.

Flynn Rider, or rather, Eugene Fitzherbert thought he knew what a dream was, and then he met Rapunzel. And she became his new dream.

The word “dream” is redefined for both of them as they realize that the true dream to is share a lifetime of meaning and purpose with someone you love. Together you create something bigger than yourself.

Flynn’s entire life has been about achieving his “dreams”. He actually finds out what his true dream is, and he gives it all up without hesitation in order to ensure that the woman he loves is safe.

This is pure love. This kind of dream and this kind of love make so many other cheap fakes called “love” seem so empty compared to the rich potential of Rapunzel and Flynn’s love for each other.

It makes the moment when Rapunzel’s teardrop heals him all the more amazing as yet again, she does the impossible by simply being herself. The payoff of this movie is incredible.

We went deeper, therefore we celebrated bigger.

flynn and rapunzel rescued gif

Respect. Vulnerability. Attraction. Sacrifice. Joy.

flynn and rapunzel in tower

He’s the “perfect” man, physically the man has 0 faults. But Disney secreted a real-life, 3D human in a perfect package.

Flynn Rider completely reinvented the way we looked at Disney men and opened the door for characters like Kristoff, Kit (Prince Charming), Prince Adam (live-action Beauty and the Beast), Finn (Star Wars: Sequel TrilogyAladdin (live-action Aladdin), and so many more to come.

Flynn was so perfect it wasn’t even real, and yet, they managed to take the “perfect man” and teach us the beauty of imperfection as well as the depth and meaning of a true dream and the true definition of love.

To one of the greatest Disney characters ever created.

Flynn Rider, we love you.

flynn rider kind face

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