Television

Star Wars Has Figured Out Something Marvel Hasn’t

Other franchises, take note.

In an animated style, a man holds the hilt of a red lightsaber.
The Duel from Star Wars: Visions. Lucasfilm Ltd.

Most of the spin-offs, sequels, and reboots that have become de rigueur in modern pop culture have failed to distinguish themselves as anything but capitalizations on nostalgia. Star Wars: Visions, on the other hand, blows any and all expectations out of the water. The new series, a collection of nine animated short films from some of the biggest names in anime (Kamikaze Douga, Geno Studio, Studio Colorido, Studio Trigger, Kinema Citrus, Science SARU, and Production I.G. were all involved), is a breath of fresh air, proving just what is possible when creators are given the freedom to break the rules rather than forced to stick to an established template.

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Each short tells a different story, from that of a droid who longs to be a Jedi to a Tatooine rock band struggling to achieve fame. Some broad themes overlap—a few of the shorts involve villages under the thumb of the Empire—but the distinct visual styles and narrative focuses (a wanderer helping struggling townspeople versus a conflict between family members as to how to deal with occupation, for example) keep Visions from feeling repetitive.

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On a purely visual level, Visions is breathtaking. These shorts show us the Star Wars universe in a way that we’ve never seen it before. The short The Duel, for instance, is almost entirely black and white, right up until lightsabers are drawn, and the characters are rendered so stylishly (with crosshatching and superimposed film grain) that it does almost feel like you’re watching an old samurai movie. It’s impossible to imagine any Star Wars movie taking such risks with its visuals, let alone allowing the shenanigans that ensue with said duel. One of the characters wields a device that divides the beams of their lightsaber, turning it into a sort of deadly umbrella. In another short, a character is capable of wielding her lightsabers like whips. That is to say, these artists are taking full creative license, playing fast and loose with the Star Wars universe’s lore in favor of telling as dynamic a story as possible.

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In a world where recognizable characters and IP are all the rage, Visions is all the better for how little it tries to pander in that direction. While it doesn’t totally shy away from known quantities (one episode features a couple of big Star Wars names), the series largely explores the unknown, finally taking the step of exploring a giant universe of which the movies have only shown us a sliver. The apparent lack of preciousness about what is or isn’t canon is exactly what makes Visions so compelling—and such an anomaly. After all, Star Wars is a franchise that actively “course-corrected” after Rian Johnson dared to try to tell a story that was even slightly different from what fans were apparently expecting. Granted, Visions doesn’t really hold any stakes in the storyline presented by the Star Wars films, but at the least, it still feels like a rebuke to the problems that other Disney spin-offs—WandaVision, Loki, etc.—have been running into, e.g. that, even if they start in an experimental space, they’re beholden to fold back into a bigger, more staid story.

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That is to say, these spin-offs have, until now, run into hard limits. Visions, by contrast, feels limitless. The brevity of each installment—the shorts all hover around 15-20 minutes—means they don’t have time to get too deep, but they don’t have to. The primary sense watching Visions is that of possibility; these shorts are so striking, so visceral, so thrilling, that, though the shorts are contained stories within themselves, they seem to promise endless other worlds in a universe that has otherwise felt relatively strict. Even The Mandalorian, one of the most popular series in recent memory which seemed to be following a similar playbook at first, eventually reached its limits, with its big Season 2 finale planting it firmly in known territory rather than exploring outward.

The shorts are different enough that viewers will likely get differing mileage out of each, but it’s still difficult to choose a favorite. The Duel is the most visually stunning; T0-B1 is the cutest; Lop and Ochō features the richest worldbuilding; The Elder hangs its hat on a thrilling fight. Every short has something to offer, and something to distinguish itself. From start to finish, it’s a totally remarkable series, and an undeniable argument that taking big risks can result in some of the most interesting art.

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