Star Wars: The Subversion of the Fans
For this year’s “May the Fourth,” I have some thoughts on Episode VIII and the upcoming Episode IX.
I grew up steeped in STAR WARS. The first film I remember seeing in the theater was RETURN OF THE JEDI. I had all the Kenner toys (at least as many as my parents would let me have), the story books (even the Wookie Storybook that is somewhat connected to the infamous Christmas Special), the soundtracks, the whole lot. I, like most fans, was holding my breath in anticipation for the prequels and was largely disappointed with what we got.
When it came time for THE FORCE AWAKENS, I went in with more skepticism and the hope that maybe, just maybe, they'd get it right this time. Boy did I leave the theater happy. Here we were given a new Star Wars movie, with a group of new and interesting characters, that was set in the universe I grew up loving as a child. A university that had felt sorely lacking in the prequels. Sure TFA had frequent call-backs to the original trilogy, particularly the original STAR WARS, but complaints about J.J. Abrams "playing it safe" are missing the point a bit. He HAD to play it safe, or at least his first order of business needed to be to restore the faith that had been lost in a haze of taxation disputes and Medichlorians.
Rian Johnson didn't have these concerns.
I’m oddly reminded of a quote by Dan Brown leading up to the release of “The Lost Symbol” coming on the heels of the explosive success of “The DaVinci Code”:
“I could write a book about pants and it would sell a million copies. Of course, I could only do it once.”
Now, I find Brown to be a terrible writer (yet I own all his books) but I think this sentiment works for Star Wars too. TFA was not a guaranteed success owing to a bunch of us still recovering from the prequels, but it’s success meant that the sequel was almost assured a massive audience. This allowed Johnson to take several narrative gambles with where the story would go following the destruction of Starkiller Base.
In my humble opinion, they pretty much all payed off.
“You must unlearn what you have learned”
We have been watching Star Wars films for 42 years now, and because of this we have become programmed with certain expectations in terms of story and character structure. Luke Skywalker is powerful with the Force because of his father. Anakin is powerful with the Force because…well…it’s awkward. In the (now sadly relegated to Legends status) “Heir to the Empire” trilogy by Timothy Zahn, Jacen and Jaina (the twins of Han and Leia) are sought after by Joruus C’Boath because they are Skywalker descendants. Familial inheritance matters when it comes to the Force and the Jedi, which is why there was such rampant speculation about where Rey’s powers come from in TFA.
What Johnson does is to play on that expectation and turn it on it’s ear by having Kylo Ten reveal that her parents are merely junk traders. Rey doesn’t come from a bloodline of Jedi, and she doesn’t have because that stuff never mattered.
And what some people can’t seem to understand is that this makes sense. There are plenty of other Jedi around during the days of the Old Republic. Were they all descendants of a magical bloodline? Or were they more likely simply individuals with a particular talent in the Force?
Johnson is clearly in the latter camp, both with his dismissal of the “Who Are Rey’s Parents?” subplot that only really became such a thing because the fans made it into Something and his inclusion of the children on Canto Bight to say nothing of Luke’s two “lessons” that are mostly take-downs of the mythology of the Jedi and the exclusivity of the Force. This democratization of the Force is one of the things that certain fans of the series simply couldn’t get behind, but I feel like if you listen to what Luke is saying about the hubris of the Jedi and their desire to be “special” due to their use of the Force.
Fallibility and Consequences
For the most part, the heroes in Star Wars are pretty infallible. Of course Luke is the last remaining pilot at the Battle of Yavin: he’s the hero. Yes, he is beaten up in Empire but that’s because it’s part of the Hero Journey. He HAS to lose to progress as a character. Rarely do we see our heroes take a monumental risk that doesn’t work or make a blunder so big it threatens everything.
Enter Poe Dameron.
When he was first introduced as a hot shot pilot archetype, fans immediately embraced his roguish nature and dubbed him a sort-of Han/Luke hybrid character, particularly when he played the primary role in destroying Starkiller Base at the end of TFA. At the start of THE LAST JEDI, he is seen taking a one-man-against-the-world approach to distracting the First Order long enough for the Resistance to mount a bombing run against a Dreadnought. This plan ultimately succeeds in destroying the First Order ship, but at the cost of the entire bombing fleet.
Previous incarnations of Star Wars have defined this outcome as victory: it doesn’t matter how many ships you lose (unless it’s one of the heroes) as long as the ultimate goal is achieved—see the celebration at the end of Episode IV despite the loss of nearly the entire Rebel fighter contingent. Not this time. Leia admonishes Poe for sacrificing the big picture for an immediate win and busts him down in rank. Poe’s response to this is not to learn anything from it, but to rather double-down by going along with Finn and Rose’s plan to try to break into a Star Destroyer.
Aside from the mouth-breathing fanbro contingent who can’t abide the fact that a girl is the hero of these films, this entire segment of the film is the one that I’ve seen receive the most criticism:
Why won’t Admiral Holdo just tell Poe her plan?
The trip to Canto Bight is a waste of time.
Poe isn’t special
This first point is another issue that is solely about the fact that Poe is a Hero™ and therefore deserves special considerations. Forget our experiences with him as the audience, what does Holdo know about him? He’s a hot-head pilot who just got demoted for doing something strategically dumb. The only reason he “deserves” to know what the big plan is because we view him as a hero of the story, not for any reason that actually makes sense. So while it can be frustrating for the viewer to not see Poe getting to be In Charge, it absolutely fits within the context of both what is happening during those scenes and also in terms of his growth as a character through the film. The Poe we see at the start of the film would have absolutely joined Finn in going out to help Luke on Crait—in fact, it probably would have been his idea to do so. His realization that Holdo actually did know what she was doing is what allows him to get to the point where Leia finally is able to tell everyone, “What are you looking at me for? Follow him!”
The Light, the Dark, and the Gray
I’m admittedly a sucker for ambiguous characters. Painting people in terms of being either Good or Bad is often the result of lazy writing or simplistic storytelling. While I agree somewhat with the criticism of the Canto Bight sequences—namely that they could have been shorter—I think there is a lot of interesting points raised there and by the character DJ.
Even before the film opened, DJ was dubbed the “new Lando.” And for a while, he fits that descriptor, to the point that the fans expectations are once again subverted when he doesn’t side with the “good guys” in the end. I would argue, at what point does he indicate that he ever would?
Besides, DJ serves a more important point for the story: to finally show that there are characters out there who live on the periphery and don’t fall into simplistic good vs. bad categories. The scene with Finn is particularly illustrative of this where we learn that the “bad” arms dealers on Canto Bight have also been helping the Resistance. This touches on something that has only recently begun to be explored in Star Wars: the “good guys” aren’t good just because they fight against “bad guys.” The Rebellion was always described as a force of good, but rebellions in general need to do morally questionable things, and I appreciated this being brought up (as it had been previously in ROGUE ONE).
“I have a bad feeling about this…”
I’m not saying THE LAST JEDI is perfect by any means, but most of my issues with it are relatively minor quibbles—Leia’s “Mary Poppins” scene is poorly staged; the Fathier chase feels right out of the prequels; and while I like what her character represents, Laura Dern’s take on Holdo is…interesting to say the least. But overall, I appreciated where the story was willing to go. Killing off Snoke was a great decision as far as I’m concerned, because he was not a terribly compelling character. Unfortunately, we now live in a world where movie-goers seem to want everything spelled out to them, so the backlash that we didn’t get Snoke’s backstory was inevitable. Do we know how Jabba became a feared gangster or the details of Han’s failed mission for him? It’s not important for the story being told, and neither is where Snoke comes from as far as the story being told here is concerned.
So when I saw the preview for Episode XI, I felt a mix of excitement and trepidation. I could be wrong, and I really hope I am, but there’s a distinct feeling that JJ Abrams is going to retcon a lot of what happened in THE LAST JEDI. If he does, I’m going to have a very hard time with it.
Let’s start with the title. THE RISE OF SKYWALKER has been interpreted by many to refer to Rey, suggesting that Kylo Ren lied to her about her parents and she is indeed somehow a Skywalker descendant. To me, this would undercut so much of what Rian Johnson has set up in THE LAST JEDI: the Force isn’t something under the purview of a select few, but rather something that everyone could be in tune with under the right circumstances.
Or, the title could be referring to Luke, which again would fly in the face of everything we saw in THE LAST JEDI. Luke is clearly wanting to move on from the Jedi, and he has scoffed at the very notion of being a legend. I would be fine seeing Luke reappear as a Force ghost to Rey or even to Kylo Ren, but the notion that he needs to “rise” suggests he died in anything but victory as he chose to define it.
Then there’s Palpatine. Again, we don’t know how he will appear in the film. It could be a flashback, or it could turn out that Palpatine is somehow the big baddie of the new trilogy. If that’s the case, apologies to JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, et al, but that’s just dumb. Not only would this be incredibly lazy writing, but it would undo one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Star Wars saga (at least until Lucas ruined it in the BluRay): the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. If the last image we have of Palpatine is not him streaking as he falls to his death at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI, I am going to have a very hard time accepting that.
But where do you stand with THE LAST JEDI? Have your opinions changed since you first saw it? And what are your expectations for Episode IX? Feel free to drop a line in the comments.
And as always, may the Force be with you…