“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Is there a franchise of movies more deeply beloved and mercilessly scrutinized than Star Wars?
It has been seven years since Disney purchased Lucasfilm and Star Wars, and during that time, we’ve watched the fandom’s relationship to the property evolve. We spent over a decade, from 1997 to 2012, lamenting the Star Wars Prequels as the greatest tragedies in the history of cinema, only to watch some of those same fans develop a schizophrenic attachment to them. We’ve watched people complain that – the most heavily commercialized franchise in the history of film – is suddenly becoming overly merchandized. Everything old is new again.
I have an unpopular opinion in some circles, in that I’ve enjoyed most of Disney’s decisions in producing their new films, with the caveat that there are flaws in the process. They haven’t done a great job with worldbuilding and explaining the political landscape of their new films. Their vision of the franchise is overly myopic and obsessive with the aesthetics of the original films, which doesn’t give them any room for organic progression (i.e. Why are they still flying Tie Fighters thirty years later when this universe seems partial to radical and constant aesthetic changes?).
Much of the character writing has been inconsistent. They’ve been extremely shy about letting writers fill in the details in the margins while the main saga films were still in production, which has dramatically hurt the many writers who have wanted to expand upon details that would improve the stories. Potentially great legacy revivals like the Thrawn books are kneecapped by Disney’s indecisive plans for the long run. While I’ve approved of most of their decisions regarding directors, they’ve mostly tampered riskier creative choices down in favor of their house style. We came close to having a Star Wars spin-off from the creators of The LEGO Movie… Still, I’ve appreciated what most of these films have been going for and applauded some of their riskier decisions.
If my twitter and YouTube subscriptions are any indication though, I’m a minority in this opinion. A lot of people genuinely hate these new films. They hate the new characters. They hate the direction of the series and how it’s handled legacy characters. They hate the mostly lukewarm quality of the films. Many fans hope prominant executives like Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson get fired. Some even want George Lucas to return and take creative control of the films back. I hear these complaints and I understand them (mostly). I remember saying back in the fall of 2017 that if The Last Jedi failed, it was going to turn the entirety of the Star Wars fandom against Disney. Lo and behold, I was half right. Half the crowd adored the film and the other half hate it with a burning passion.
We’ve arrived at a strange status quo on the eve of the premiere of Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker. Some life long fans are so furious they’ve refused to ever watch a new Star Wars film again. At the same time, the film has done some of the highest preorder sales in film history. At this point saying you like/dislike a Star Wars film is like publicly proclaiming your stance on a contentious political view.
Like I said, I’ve been fine with most of these decisions on the caveat that I’m hoping Disney starts taking more risks in the future. Their goal to me always seemed to be to get a safe, contemporary trilogy done at the get-go while saving deeper cuts and riskier ideas for a decade or so out. Personally, I hope that the new film for 2022 is a Knights of the Old Republic movie. I hope we get films set in new time periods with risky new directors with bold ideas. I’m even fine with them doing yearly releases if only because it gives them a chance to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. I understand though that this isn’t what a great deal of people want. They wanted a straight-up sequel to Return of the Jedi with Han, Luke and Leia in their prime.
I understand the impulse. The fandom’s desire to see a live action version of something like Heir to the Empire is understandable. That said, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy was never going to do that. According to George Lucas, his original plans involved doubling down on the Midiclorians from Phantom Menace and crafting a story with more experimental themes. He was quoted saying it would involve getting “into a microbiotic world” and that “a lot of the fans would have hated it.” It would’ve also involved Luke Skywalker training a young female Jedi named Kira at an ancient Jedi temple. Considering how the Prequel Trilogy was executed, maybe we dodged a bullet. Maybe the trilogy we got is the best one we could’ve received under the circumstances, even with the understanding that it’s not the series most fans wanted. That doesn’t satiate most fans though. Whatever you can say about what could’ve been, fans still believe deeply that Kathleen Kennedy and Disney have irreparably damaged Star Wars.
Yet in contentious discussion, at the end of all this I’m left with a simple question: What is it us fans want from Star Wars in the first place?
We’ve spent decades trying to collectively decode the meaning of Star Wars. We all sat together in collective therapy trying to figure this out during the releases of the Prequel films, and now we’re doing it again with the new movies. The fandom struggles to find the words to describe what the ethereal appeal of the original trilogy is. Something like The Mandalorian or Rogue One can recapture the aesthetics and tone of Star Wars, but they never truly recapture the alchemy that made those movies perfect. Are fans merely satiated when we see Gonk droids, Monkey-Lizards and Twi’leks walking around in the background? How do we recapture the spirit of Star Wars in a new trilogy without JUST recapturing the aesthetics alone?
I think the answer is that no matter what you want out of it, Star Wars isn’t just one thing. It’s a universe of limitless possibilities, ideas and themes all brimming with excitement, joy and optimism. Whether you love the space fights, the lightsaber duels, the fun characters, the political topicality, the swashbuckling action, the homages to classic films or the limitless lore found in the books and video games, there’s something here for every kind of fan. Star Wars in a lot of ways is the culmination of cinema. It was an enormous pot of ideas, swatches, and cultural influences, thrown into a melting pot and interpreted through the lens of a fiercely creative and successful artist, coming out in the one time in the history of cinema that such a film could’ve been made in the late 1970s.
Watching culture dig through the five new cinematic entries in the Star Wars (six if you count The Mandalorian) you see a kind of culture wide therapy session happening in real time. You see people’s passions, loves, secret impulses and beliefs laid bare. If you want to know why these movies are all so aesthetically and tonally different, it’s just because so many people glom onto this franchise for different reasons. The only thing we all seem to agree on collectively is that the first two movies from 1977 and 1980 are great. Beyond that, there’s no agreement. Disney’s first instinct with their approach seems to be to recapture the aesthetics of Star Wars first, and with different directors like J.J. Abrams, Gareth Edwards and Jon Favreau in the driver’s seat, you see variations on what those directors all take away from the classic films.
If there’s one malady that plagues the new trilogy, it’s their impulsive desire to be so unlike the Star Wars Prequels that they actively tie their own hands up in order to do what they think will please fans. People rightly criticized those movies for burying its audience in long digressions on intergalactic trade and politics, in what’s supposed to be an adventure film. Unfortunately in their desire to recapture the magic of the original trilogy, J.J. Abrams went as far out of his way to forgo world-building and the political landscape so that he could focus on making the fun parts of Star Wars he knew people liked. This new trilogy is theoretically a story about a demilitarized New Republic being destroyed by a cult of space terrorists funded by the galactic military industrial complex, and how a proxy war resistance group inspires the galaxy to come together one last time to destroy the Empire once and for all. There’s a bold and interesting story buried in there, but just watching the movies you wouldn’t pick that up from the way it conveys information. Instead the movies have been myopic in their focus on this small group of characters and they’ve damaged their films in the process.
Maybe that isn’t the most prescient issue. Out of all of the new slate of films, The Last Jedi in particular is the movie that tends to get fans most infuriated. It’s also the one that ventures off on its own the most into new philosophical territory, fundamentally shredding the moral framework of the original movies and asking viewers to reconsider the themes of the first seven films in a new light. It’s the first truly Post-Modern Star Wars.
Now I don’t have space here to go into a full breakdown on the nature of postmodernism given its breadth and complexity. I’m NOT a philosopher. Put simply, it’s an artistic movement that’s founded on a rejection of grand meta-narratives. Those narratives include everything from religion and political ideologies, to the idea of objective morality as a concept. In postmodernism, there is no objective truth, only narratives. In the case of The Last Jedi, the film is designed to uproot the notion that the groups and individuals we believed to be purely good or evil are what they seem to be. It’s a story that speaks to the modern crisis of meaning. Our society is has reached a point where no major cultural institution hasn’t been laid bare as corrupt or broken. The moral relativism at the core of the movie shows a desire to try and move forward. In order to do so, The Last Jedi lays the concept of Star Wars bare and asks what it is and what it can mean in a new context. To paraphrase the video essayist “Implicitly Pretentious”, The Last Jedi feels like what would happen if you wrote Game of Thrones as a direct sequel to Lord of the Rings. You aren’t just writing something tonally or aesthetically different, you’re writing something actively hostile and skeptical to what came before it and cutting it down to the bone to figure out what it’s made of.
You see the implicitly in the characters of Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. Luke is a galactic legend who redeemed Darth Vader and destroyed the Empire. Ren is the inheritor of that legacy and he rejects it in a moment of nihilistic rage in a desire to wipe away the institutions that betrayed him. Characters who we know to be good in nature do bad things, while bad characters are justified in their indignant rage. Luke Skywalker has always been in touch with the dark side of the force, as we see at the end of Return of the Jedi where he nearly kills Darth Vader in a moment of anger. Like his father before him, he’s tempted with a moment of darkness to slay a Padawan who threatens to destroy his world and the temptation alone is enough to permanently alienate himself from Kylo. Justified as he is given that his master attempted to kill him, the movie doesn’t advocate Kylo’s desire to “let the past die” though. It’s very much still affirming that there is a right and wrong to adhere to. It’s just that this new notion of right and wrong isn’t tied to the institutions of the past. For this reason, the movie frowns upon the character of DJ, who is so disconnected from morality that he betrays the rebellion for profit. The movie is suggesting that you can become so disconnected from reality that you allow evil to further it’s own goals in the absence of good. The movie is functioning at a level of moral complexity that affirms the objective morality of the light and dark side of the force, while criticizing those who claim to totally adhere entirely to one or the other.
It’s understandable though why most of this wouldn’t appeal to fans of Star Wars. Most people want to indulge in a series that lets them pretend to be space pirates and space knights without the moral considerations of how such sustained and perpetual conflict affects the average person in the galaxy. At the same time it does this, it’s playing fast and loose with story logic and overall continuity in ways that legitimately bother fans of a series who care about how the physics of hyperspace work. It’s hard to fully describe the ways in full that people hate this movie, since so many people have made so many arguments about it. All of them share a basic conclusion though; Rian Johnson’s vision betrayed something fundamental about Star Wars, and the acrimony it has achieved has cut more deeply than ANY movie I’ve ever seen. I don’t think you do that just by mishandling a handful of characters or making continuity mistakes by itself. You do it by fundamentally changing the moral logic and physical landscape of the story being told. The Last Jedi does that with an enthusiastic abandon and I can understand why that bothers people.
The movie is ambitious in the extreme and tries to fit in enough ideas, themes and story threads that you could reasonably build 2-3 movies out of the material it’s trying to cover. It wants to be a Taoist reflection on detachment, a political thriller about corruption, oppression and the military industrial complex, a meditation on maturity and second guessing your impulses, a quasi-nihilist anti-authoritarian barn burner (see also Fight Club), and a post-modern deconstruction on the nature of morality in a Post-Religious world. It’s mind splittingly difficult to figure out how it all fits together.
None of this is to say that postmodernism and moral relativism aren’t in themselves objectionable. There’s a very modern moral solipsism to the movie that affirms Rey’s status as a savior in spite of her inexperience. Supreme Leader Snoke suggests that she’s a manifestation of the light side of the force, and that her unnatural power comes from the fact that the force has chosen her to counter the rise of the dark side. However, none of that dictates that she’s more wise or intelligent for being chosen. When Yoda suggests that she has everything she needs to handle herself without the wise guidance of the sacred Jedi texts, he dismisses the wisdom of the past as a “bunch of old books” worthy of being burned.
He treats the wisdom of the past with the same smug dismissal of a New Atheist asking what Christianity can teach humanity that we can’t figure out by ourselves. Simply put, Rey at this point isn’t mature enough to be wise with her power. She needs the wisdom of the past to discover her own path. It’s a very modern attitude to believe that the purity of youth is a good replacement for the wisdom of the past. The fact that the Jedi Order failed to stop the rise of Darth Sidious isn’t a suggestion that their religion needs to die. It’s a suggestion that it needs to be reformed. Sadly the movie is quite radical and depressingly modern in this point. Still, the fact that we can parse the details on this kind of philosophy is a testimony that this movie is written with the kind of complexity that you can discuss at length unlike The Force Awakens. A misguided movie is better than a vapid one any day.
The Last Jedi’s attitude towards religion, even in antipathy, seems to understand that the power of our religious stories are more than something that deserves to be thrown away. To paraphrase Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind, the human brain can be best personified as a man riding an elephant. You have control over a small part of it, and the rest of it can’t be controlled by logic. If you want to change someone’s mind, you have to convince them by talking past the human being to the subconscious. Stories are one of the most powerful mechanisms for convincing people to change their positions because they appeal to the illogical, emotional and biased areas of our minds, and offer it new perspectives and empathy. Human beings aren’t rational. In a universe like Star Wars, Rian Johnson suggests that the most powerful way to change hearts and minds is to throw a powerful story.
Luke Skywalker is in many ways a secular retelling of the Gospels. It draws upon the universal story as described by Joseph Campbell in Hero With a Thousand Faces. He’s the universal archetype best embodied by Christ. George Lucas is both a self professing Christian and a Buddhist, and the hearts of both of those sets of ideas drive Star Wars. The curveball The Last Jedi throws at Old Man Luke is that it reminds us he’s still a normal man living a fallen world despite his amazing power and that he can be broken. The movie is doing to Luke Skywalker what Martin Scorsese did to Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s humanizing and demystifying him. It’s also not dissimilar to how John Ford deconstructed the myth of the American West in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The legend may not be true but the value of that story is more powerful than the truth we tell ourselves. As a result, Luke’s incredible sacrifice galvanizes the galaxy and sets the wheel in motion for the final battle between good and evil. He creates a new story from the ashes of his failure that inspires others. It’s all encapsulated perfectly in the movie’s final shot, where the young force sensitive slave child looks up to the stars with a renewed sense of hope that people like Luke Skywalker are out there, trying to make their world a better place.
The Last Jedi is a reminder that the world we live in is complicated. Our heroes falter, sin is attractive, and our gut feeling is often the most dangerous option. Those aren’t always fun things to think about. The same can be said for The Empire Strikes Back. The horrible reveal of that movie is that the evil inside ourselves is a lot closer to us than what we’re willing to admit. We can be consumed by the sins of our fathers, and we can fail those around us, barely surviving the day. People hated that movie in 1980 and praised Return of the Jedi for offering closure in a way that its predecessor didn’t.
We want our escapism to take us to a galaxy far far away and The Last Jedi took us to a place that was much too close to home. You’re not wrong to dislike that. Most people don’t want a philosophical deconstruction on chivalry, morality and politics. Most people legitimately want an unironic movie about space knights. That’s why so many fans who hated The Last Jedi have praised The Mandalorian as a redemption of the franchise. It doesn’t pass judgement on it’s main characters or suggest what kind of societal breakdown it took to make the world corrupt enough for someone to make money as a bounty hunter.
For me though, it’s why I love The Last Jedi and much of Disney’s regime over the franchise. This is the most deadly serious look at the core of a major film franchise we may have ever seen. This is the kind of massive deconstruction you can do when a franchise is THE most popular thing in the world. All this is in service of a story that’s designed to accomplish an answer to the question of what Star Wars actually means to us.
The conclusion it comes up with is that, in a world as complex and cruel as ours, a good story itself is a value in and of itself. Morality may be trapped in shades of grey in this world view, but that doesn’t mean that what we do in the world doesn’t matter. Good people like Luke Skywalker screw up. Bad guys like Kylo Ren can do good and aren’t beyond redemption. The Last Jedi teaches us that as silly, myopic and bad as these stories can be at times, that Star Wars is a powerful story. There’s a reason people love even BAD Star Wars content. It’s all beautiful and valuable. Even the objectively terrible stuff like The Holiday Special becomes fun in time as we find other things we can enjoy in such a huge franchise. There’s always something else to check out. After a while the hurt goes away and you’re just left with the stories as they are.
Maybe when The Rise of Skywalker is out later this month, we’ll have a moment of collective breathing to finally close the door on this new trilogy. Historically none of these trilogies have been totally embraced until he final cathartic conclusion. Finally having a resolution to these four year old mysteries may allow us to finally embrace this new trilogy for what it is, without the wound of having to anxiously wait for answers.
Why do we love Star Wars?
We love it because it’s exemplifies the story that we want to tell ourselves.
It’s a shaggy, awkward and enthralling retelling of the hero’s journey, brought to life with a vision, love and scope in ways only incredibly talented people can conjure up. It’s a reminder that even the most skeptical, broken and hopeless people can be inspired to do the right thing. It’s a reminder that the worst people can be forgiven. That’s why these movies inspire a religious zeal in its fans. They’re almost a religious experience. We can and will spend a lifetime debating the nuances of how these movies fail and succeed. If you don’t like these stories, I hear and respect you. Let’s just find a way to still be friends!