The Big Picture
- Mark Hamill played the voice of Merlin in the science fiction movie Wing Commander, but his performance lacked the energy and relatability of his iconic roles.
- The Wing Commander movie, based on the popular video game, was a critical and commercial failure, receiving backlash from fans and being overshadowed by the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in the same year.
- Despite his involvement in previous Wing Commander projects, including the video games and an animated series, Hamill’s role in the movie was limited, and the franchise never recovered from its failure.
Mark Hamill has embodied several roles over his career. The most prominent, of course, is Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise (a role he almost lost to Robert Englund.) Others remember him for providing the voice of Batman’s archenemy the Joker, and serving as a foil to the late, great Kevin Conroy. Recently, he took on voicing He-Man’s nemesis Skeletor in Masters of the Universe: Revelation and its sequel Masters of the Universe: Revolution, both on Netflix. There’s one role of Hamill’s that not many people know about, and it happens to be a science fiction movie as well. That movie is Wing Commander, based on the video game of the same name.
Wing Commander was notable for a few reasons. It premiered in 1999; that same year, the Star Wars franchise made its grand return with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. It was also meant to be a major showcase for Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard as the two had previously starred in She’s All That earlier that year. It was also the first space videogame adapted into a Hollywood movie. But Wing Commander was a critical and commercial failure, with moviegoers of all stripes turning against it – most notably fans of the video game series. What exactly was Mark Hamill’s role in Wing Commander?
Blair, a fighter pilot, joins an interstellar war to fight the evil Kilrathi who are trying to destroy the universe.
- Release Date
- March 12, 1999
- Freddie Prinze Jr. , Matthew Lillard , Saffron Burrows , Tchéky Karyo , Jurgen Prochnow , David Suchet
Who Does Mark Hamill Play in ‘Wing Commander’?
Wing Commander explores the ongoing war between the Terran Confederation and the feline-esque Kilrathi; the battle has led to the Kilrathi discovering Earth. To protect Earth, a group of new pilots including Christopher ‘Maverick’ Blair (Prinze) are given a mission to halt the Kilrathi’s advances before they attack and destroy Earth. He is helped by Merlin, a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence that serves as his navigator during combat with the Kilrathi. Hamill voices Merlin, and chose to go uncredited for the role; it also didn’t help that digital trickery was used to alter Hamill’s voice to the point where it’s unrecognizable. There’s none of the humanity that made Luke Skywalker such a relatable protagonist, or the impish trickery of Joker or Skeletor. Part of what makes Hamill a great actor is the energy he brings to his roles, and that energy was lacking for Merlin.
Ironically, Hamill was a major part of previous Wing Commander projects. He played Christopher Blair in Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger and Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. Both video games featured a unique mechanic where live-action cut-scenes were intersecting with the gameplay; this was long before the concept of “open world” gameplay. Hamill was joined by a group of science fiction veterans including Thomas F. Wilson, Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), and John Rhys-Davies. He’d also reprise the role in the Wing Commander Academy animated series, which served as a prequel to the original game. Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts, who also directed the live-action adaptation, had deemed that Hamill was too old to play Blair – but that didn’t mean that he had to be regulated to a bit part.
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In any case, Wing Commander wasn’t a great success. Most of the criticism focused on the overuse of sci-fi cliches, particularly a development surrounding Blair that wasn’t in the games. In the Wing Commander movie, Blair is descended from an ancient race of humans known as the “Pilgrims”, who had the psychic ability to navigate space. As one might guess, this drew less than favorable comparisons to Star Wars. Ironically, it was because of Star Wars that Wing Commander‘s fate was sealed. Roberts cut a proposed 12-month filming schedule in half so that he could put Wing Commander in theaters before The Phantom Menace. But in a twist of irony, The Phantom Menace had its teaser trailer debut before Wing Commander! Roberts also boasted that his film was better than Mortal Kombat, saying “Mortal Kombat is a bunch of characters kicking each other in the head. The bottom line is: you need a good story and compelling characters.” Wing Commander was found to be lacking in both those counts, and it shows in the final box office tallies; it grossed under half its $30 million budget.
Mark Hamill and Freddie Prinze Jr. Both Have Star Wars Roots
While Mark Hamill hasn’t spoken about Wing Commander, Freddie Prinze Jr. was far from forgiving. “‘I can’t stand Wing Commander. I can’t watch one scene of that movie… I read the script and loved it,” he said in an interview. “We went on location and they said, ‘Here’s the new script’. It was a piece of crap.'” Both actors would become part of the Star Wars franchise following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm; Hamill returned to his role as Luke Skywalker for the sequel trilogy while Prinze would play former Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus in Star Wars Rebels. Rebels was such a popular Star Wars project that it set the stage for live-action series like The Mandalorian and Ahsoka, not to mention Dave Filoni‘s larger role in shaping the Star Wars universe. Prinze would also voice Kanan in a pivotal sequence in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and while he’s said he won’t return to the role it’s clear that he had a far better memory of voicing Kanan than playing Christopher Bliar.
In contrast, the Wing Commander franchise was never the same after the movie’s failure. Apart from the Wing Commander: Arena video game that was released in 2007, the franchise hasn’t had a major release in years. That may be because Chris Roberts founded a new video game company titled Cloud Imperium. Cloud Imperium’s first project, Squadron 42, was meant to be a spiritual successor to Wing Commander – to the point where Roberts hired Hamill and other Wing Commander veterans to play roles in this new universe. But despite a successful crowdfunding campaign, Squadron 42 remains in limbo. It looks as though Wing Commander will remain as a small blip in Hamill’s otherwise exemplary body of work.
Wing Commander is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S.
Watch on Amazon Prime