I left the ‘Force Awakens’ hopeful. I didn’t care for a lot of the ‘New Hope’ retreads like Poe’s quick trench run to blow up an astronomically more powerful Death Star. But the new cast felt fresh, especially Finn. And I chalked up the repeats to this being ‘Star Wars the apology tour’. Disney playing it safe after the prequels. ‘The Last Jedi’ made me second guess that.
There’s a lot of chatter online about the ‘Last Jedi’ being a radically different Star Wars movie. It’s not. ‘The Last Jedi’ continues the ‘Force Awakens’ opening act, it just plays the hits. There were direct film quotes to Hoth, another jedi duel in the emperor’s chamber, an eccentric hermit training an idealistic jedi, the third goddamn time that people have infiltrated an imperial base with a costume change. The list goes on. A friend of mine suggested that it was so long because they stapled ‘The Empire Strikes back’ onto ‘The Return of the Jedi.’
Johnson plays a little with our expectations of these scenes, which might be why people felt it was so different. But what I think is more interesting is that we have these expectations at all. Star Wars has been around for over forty years and has created countless novels, video games, comics, movies. There’s a critical mass that has caused Star Wars to morph into something of its own genre. There’s now the question of what makes a ‘Star Wars’ movie’ a ‘Star wars’ movie?’
Take Snoke and the First Order. Snoke wasn’t a character, he was a plot device, a prime example of breaking the ‘show, don’t tell’ axiom. Any time they needed to handwave something ‘Snoke did it’. Snoke turned Kylo Ren to the dark side, though we don’t see it happening (or see Kylo Ren do anything evil before Luke confronts him). Snoke created ‘The First Order’, but like how thou? In the original movies the Emperor dies and the Empire is largely defeated. So where does the First Order come from? And how did they get so powerful?
I know the answers to these questions wouldn’t be satisfying. Snoke was basically ‘Emperor II’ and Johnson did one of the only interesting things you could with a character like that. But I still crave an explanation for Snoke and the First Order in a way I don’t from other genres. In a superhero movie I don’t need to know the origin of every supervillain that shows up, some even better without origins. I’ve accepted the rules of the superhero genre, the weird costumes and powers.
But I haven’t yet accepted the rules of the new ‘Star Wars’ genre. I think it’s because I used to view Star Wars like a big world, an ongoing story not defined by its legacy. It didn’t need to have an Empire with Stormtroopers, or characters that mimicked Luke or Darth Vader. It could go in other directions, explore new ideas or ones only teased at in the original films. But to Disney the old characters, vehicles, and duality define Star Wars. You don’t need to explain ‘The First Order’, because it’s part of the genre. You buy a ticket for Star Wars, you expect to see a ‘rebels vs. imperials’.
Despite years of consuming Star Wars media, I’m not fully into this new definition. I like some of it’s tenants like adorable droids that kick more ass than their owners. But the devotion to the original three feels stifling. And nothing makes that clearer when the new characters meet the old.
Look, I liked grumpy Luke. Han Solo was fun in Force Awakens. Leia being a general is a natural evolution of the character. But their involvement sucks up time and energy away from the new characters and the new world. This is now the second movie where it feels like the legends of old are handing over the reigns to the new kids, that leaves only one film for the new cast to stand on its own and do something.
There is a density that comes with characters like Luke Skywalker, he’s so iconic now, he’s going to wrap the film around him like a black-hole. That’s why Luke’s transformation into a hero that’s crippled by his own legend is so apt. Skywalker has becomes a metaphor for Star Wars itself. A franchise buckling under its own expectations.
But Star Wars needn’t carry that legacy, it can evolve, change. In my final post on Star Wars (for now) I’ll talk about the future of the franchise, why it matters, and hopefully where it might go.