- THE TOWER
I’ve never seen a popular conversation go as far off the rails as I have with Star Wars.
While the vast majority of people have simple feelings about the franchise one way or the other, it has suddenly become dominated by unfettered arguments, toxic harshness, boycotts, petitions for films to be struck from the canon, petitions to outright remake films, petitions for firings and even full-on racist and sexist harassment campaigns (the lowly depths of which have been covered by Observer’s Brandon Katz). Since I wrote my brief article on how I liked the central message of The Last Jedi, I’ve been inundated with angry messages, been called a shill for Disney, a hack, a hypocrite, someone who clearly has been paid off and a crusading S.J.W.
But all this has really done is exposed a subset of toxic fandom that was made so upset by certain choices in these new films that they’ll desperately resort to conspiracy theories, as well as weaponizing the bold-faced racism and sexism that so nakedly rests under their skin. There’s a lot I could say about this (and I’ll touch on some of it later), but the truth is, I have no interest in validating any of their hateful rhetoric with actual debate. It has no place here. They represent the vestigial tail of white male fragility that seems to have a last-gasp stranglehold on this country, and they are determined to take us down with them. I don’t give one single shit what they think.
They can die mad about it.
What I do very much give a shit about, however, is the larger conversation where there are people who, you know, just didn’t like some of the recent Star Wars movies. And that’s totally cool. All I really want to do in this essay is get at the heart of why. This would normally be less of a problem, but since we all find ourselves having to engage with the aforementioned toxic bunch, it becomes really hard to navigate discussion with each other, probably because it feels like so much is at stake (this is precisely why larger conversations need to be moderated; the troglodytes suck up the space for rationality and common ground).
No one is ever happy about getting lumped in with troglodytes, so I understand why people get defensive. But when people reply to criticism with a kind of “not all Star Wars fans!” mantra, they often miss the point of the criticism being made. Especially because I’ve seen a fair amount of these same “I’m not a troglodyte” defenders toss off opinions that exemplify the exact kinds of subconscious racism and stealth sexism that those same troglodytes proclaim loudly. I know no one likes to believe they’re guilty of any kind of “ist” behavior, but sometimes there’s a larger reason that we get lumped in with folks who are spitting hate. So please be careful, and open your heart and open your mind to a larger conversation.
Because this an essay about why we love Star Wars.
It is about why Star Wars makes us feel certain things. It’s about why we can’t ever seem to agree on what those things are. It’s about what we really want out these movies. It’s about why it moves us or why it doesn’t. It’s about the qualities we see as “obvious,” and the “objective” problems within it. It’s about everything. And this essay has to be about everything because the popular conversation has completely lost its way. It is as if we are all in the biblical Tower of Babel, unable to speak the same language. So of course everyone feels misunderstood and tangled up in rancor (pun intended). Thus, I only have one goal, which is not for us to agree.
I just want us to start speaking the same language.
- THE CORE RETURNS
Why do we care about Star Wars so damn much?
It always comes back to this question for me. Why does it illicit such passion? Why do so many kids love it? Why do so many adults love it? Please allow me to crib a lot of the following thoughts from an article I wrote many years ago, but perhaps it’s that Star Wars has always been a constant fixation of ours. From the adults who saw it in 1977, to those who saw it as young precocious kids, to those who caught it later on video, to those who inherited it like a generational passing of the torch, there is no doubting it is *THE* shared pop culture phenomenon of our era. One that has lasted 40 years. Which just means that people have all had their own arcs of experience with it.
And I am no different. I cannot explain the depths of fandom I have had for this universe. It started with the original trilogy then moved into outright obsession. I legit wore the VHS tapes down to the nub. But it went on from there. I read every damn expanded universe book. I played every video game (will it get better than the original Dark Forces?). I read every diagram book. I can tell you intimate details of Slave I’s design or the mechanics of Bossk’s concussion rifle. I truly went through the depths of unpopularity for having such a nerdy relationship to Star Wars, but then moved on to the popular hope of return to prominence in eager anticipation for the coming prequels. But after my disenfranchisement with that experience, I found myself with a strange sense of disconnection with the world’s celebration of the thing I had once so very much loved. It’s weird watching “May the 4th be with you” parades now; seeing something that was seemingly so personal become so saturated and hollow. And now, it has all came back around, and I find myself having such push-pull with the new Disney movies and the different feelings they all seem to elicit.
But such is the way most pop culture experiences go. For the specific is universal, and my story is the story of many people’s relationship with Star Wars. As such, there is no denying that our relationship to Star Wars always seems both grandly universal and yet deeply personal.
Which means there will always be “the Core.”
It doesn’t matter that I’ve gone through every iteration of this relationship with Star Wars imaginable. It doesn’t matter if I grew to sometimes hate it. No matter what, there will be the simple, inescapable truth for many of us: that the original film not only has great meaning to us, it was what actually defined “meaning” in the first place.
This highlights the special power of that film’s story. Make no mistake, A New Hope is most definitely about something. It gets so much attention for its popularization of the hero’s journey, but that reductive analysis undermines not only how fresh and inventive it was in terms of how it communicated those classic archetypes, but how powerful the larger messaging was, too. So while there’s been so much concentration on the formula and structure of the film, weirdly there’s been so little attention paid to the “what” of the film, and why it matters.
The truth is that I’m is hard pressed to think of a film that better understands the importance of “the aspirational young figure” (a much better word than hero) than A New Hope. For it tapped so succinctly into the hopes and dreams of being young, and adulthood feeling so very far away. Just as it both spoke to our desire and fear of responsibility. Or even how it had the courage to be ahead of its time and make Leia one of the better examples of a dynamic female character in popular entertainment. And, in the end, it was a film that accurately reflected the joy of being part of something bigger than yourself.
It dramatized all of this so succinctly. It is about the dream of what adulthood can be. Going off pure impact alone? It is undeniable that A New Hope is one of the clearest and most compelling stories of youthful desire on the planet. That is, the story of how we shake off the fears that contain us, that make us our worst selves, and how we learn to enter new worlds with courage and an open heart. (Coincidentally, I have simultaneously argued that Star Trek has always been about how we enter new worlds with an open mind).
It’s beautiful, powerful messaging for young person. And because A New Hope was many people’s first escape into the worlds of fantasy, it is synonymous with the very act of how we live vicariously in another world. It is synonymous with fantasy itself. It is synonymous with who we want to be. It is synonymous with nothing short of our own hopes and dreams. Which means it is synonymous with the true power of entertainment. And because of how close A New Hope rests to our hearts, as if laced and entwined with our DNA, it is something we cannot help but feel is a possession of ours, so closely tied to those same vicarious instincts we still have deep inside, even if we don’t always realize it…
Which is precisely what makes dealing with this universe so precarious. For many, it is not just an escape, but *the* only real escape that matters. It is as real in their minds, and as important to their operation, as life itself. And so the “how,” the “why,” the “who” and the “what” of that escape can be so damn hard for some people to navigate, let alone “let go of” as an audience member. Especially as we go through the growing pains of this strange new time…
- THE NEW M.O.
Welcome to the third era of Star Wars.
The first would of course be George Lucas’s original trilogy, the one that started this whole big love affair. The second era is of course the prequels, a reflexive, roughshod time that created nothing short of animosity toward the man who had created the very thing they loved. But many stayed true, as well, adoring the universe they loved, even if they had complaints about the story taking place within it. And so, after Lucas sold the rights (and donated the entire four-billion-dollar price tag to education, like a mensch), we now find ourselves in the third epoch of the corporate-run Disney era.
Back when the sale happened, please remember that certain hardcore fans were intensely relieved. So angry they were at Lucas, that they would now embrace anyone who could possibly do better. And things looked especially good when they hired Kathleen Kennedy (über-producer to one Steven Spielberg) to run the show. But how would both she and Disney handle this responsibility? What would they do with the Skywalker saga? Would they restore the brand to its former glory? Or would this be a chance to bring the world of Star Wars into exciting new possibilities? I normally avoid this sort of comment, but I think it’s telling. When the whole thing started brewing a few years ago, I had a creative friend tell me of a meeting where they were being pitched on the new Disney modus operandi. He reported the following: “if it doesn’t smell, look and feel like Star Wars ’77, they ain’t interested.”
This is an understandable instinct. After all, the biggest complaint with the prequels was that it all felt too polished, hollow and flat. These were, of course, failures of execution more than intent, but that didn’t seem to stop people from adhering to the belief. Not so coincidentally, I just recently just wrote about how we latch onto the “texture” of films while often ignoring their text. But Disney wanted to communicate clearly to the fans that they could rest assured by communicating this critical element of texture. It was as if they were saying, “this will look and feel like what you remember.” Every creative decision seemed to back this up. We’re shooting on 35 millimeter! Behold these demonstrations of practical effects! We’re going to use the designs that are familiar to you! It’s all going to have an earthy, worn-in feel!
I’ll admit was nervous about the hiring of J.J. Abrams for episode seven from the very beginning, and yet, oddly hopeful. I’ve always felt he was amazing at directing with energy and verve. I think he gets great performances out of his actors. And he might have the single best eye for casting in the universe. But when The Force Awakens came out, all his storytelling faults reared their ugly head, full of horrible conundrums because of the mystery box instincts. But, it was still really good at textural delights. And it did its job in launching a new adventure with characters I genuinely liked. For all my complaints, I still wanted to continue my journey. As far as Disney was concerned, it was a safe landing.
Meanwhile, Rogue One illustrated a different turn with a rockier production path. It doubled down on the obsession with getting the “texture” right, all but copying the design of A New Hope down to a T. And while Gareth Edwards certainly has a keen photographic sensibility, I really don’t think the movie has a lick of story sense, building a solid foundation before abandoning character arcs in pursuit of an out-of-control series of nakedly indulgent moments (I’ll get to the biggest one later). It’s a flawed beast. But again, while there was some division about its relative success, there was very little animosity. Because both of these films still did their “job” in terms of the popular consciousness, and delivering the high the fandom base craved.
At that point, not too much had been made of Kathy Kennedy and her role in all this (something that has recently changed a great deal). Make no mistake, she is a titan of this industry. Even beyond her work as mega-producer with Spielberg and Amblin, her career speaks for itself. She often displays brilliant eye for others work, as she’s also behind the support of such films like The Sixth Sense, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Ponyo and Snow Falling on Cedars. The simple goal of her hiring was to turn her into the new version of Kevin Fiege for Star Wars. But the simple truth is, I’m not always sure how much certain producer skill sets overlap with this very strange job. Overseeing “the vision of a property” takes a weird amount of story sense, along with a good ear for what is and is not outside the bounds of what people are looking for.
I don’t think Feige gets enough credit in this regard for the baseline success, but at the same time, gets too much credit for films that might be failing the grander purpose (my thoughts on the current state of the MCU are here. But he’s also had 20 films in 10 years to work out a lot of the kinks. We’re currently four in with the new Disney era and we’ve hit some problems when it comes to core questions: what are we really after here? What kinds of Star Wars films do they want to be making? Who are they trying to please? Why?
One of the problems in answering those questions is how we think about “time” when it comes to filmmaking. There are many fans who act like the entire approach of Solo was written, directed and released as a direct reaction to The Last Jedi. This is, of course, laughable. Movies take years to make and changes must be considered carefully, which is precisely why you need a steady hand and vision for the rocky points. But people can’t help seeing movies in the terms of how they experience them as an audience. And the danger comes when a group of vision-holders constantly reacts to the the dialogue of response. And then does not change how they talk about the films, but the decisions that go into that process. The Disney approach has had me worried. Look, there’s a lot of replacing and adding collaboration that happens in Hollywood that no one really knows about. Which makes the haphazard nature of Star Wars’ hiring and firing of directors all the more weird. Especially when it comes to the petty “insider” hit pieces that go out to try and appease the fandom. There’s a lot I could say on the matter, but it all adds up to something pretty clear when it comes to their overall approach:
They’ve been playing magnet-ball.
This is a youth soccer term for when all the kids run outside of their positions and just try to kick the ball. Often they’re just trying to kick toward the goal, or even in a forward direction, but that’s not always the case. It’s just a certain form of one-track-mindedness or megalomania that leads to a disorganized, reactionary style of play. Basically, you’re not being strategic or thinking about defense, or making chess moves that lead to greater success down the way. But the real problem with overly-reactive moves in filmmaking is that it ignores Billy Wilder’s first piece of advice, which states: “the audience is fickle.” Chasing after the soccer ball like it will always lead to success makes no sense. Especially because the ball is actually a snarling, hissing wolverine that really just wants to be cuddled (often fandom is the definition of anxious-ambivalent attachment).
The harder truth is that Star Wars fans are infinitely more fickle, for all the reasons stated back in “the Core.” And the hardest truth is that because that fandom goes so deep to childhood I don’t think a lot of them really understand what’s going on within the deeper levels of their fandom. So not only is it folly to overreact to them, but it makes the understanding of your complex audience all the more critical. But luckily for us, there is a film that has come along to act as the lynchpin of our modern popular understand of Star Wars itself.
I am of course talking about…
- THE LAST JEDI OF IT ALL
There is no mistaking that The Last Jedi has become the bellwether for how you approach the larger goals of your Star Wars fandom. Truthfully, I don’t really care to debate whether the film is bad or good. The question I am much more interested in is, “why exactly did this film make a subsection of the fandom so damn upset?”
In that discussion, it should be noted that this angry subsection would very much like everyone to believe this is a 50/50 split (especially after they dive-bombed the Rotten Tomatoes score, which stands in stark opposite to the 91 percent critical score they swore was paid off). Whatever we make of the histrionics, I’ve anecdotally found the non-likers are a smaller group, making up about 20 percent of the fandom, but that they are just rather vocal about it.
This is part of the problem of how any public disagreement can make it seem like there are “two equal sides,” when really it’s just two sides of an argument. But I also say all this like the percentages actually matter. They don’t, I’m just trying to explain what’s happening. But I don’t care about winning some hypothetical popularity contest. I’m much more interested in the aforementioned deeper diagnosis of “what is everyone really reacting to within this film?”
To also be clear, I unabashedly loved The Last Jedi. And I have admitted time and time again that this opinion is probably worthless because I have now come to know a lot of members of the Johnson family. I’ve always been up front about this. So go ahead. Accuse me of bias. Throw out anything and everything I have to say. I accept it. But it also makes me want to talk about a dynamic I’ve wanted to point out for a long time, and that’s how it’s actually hard for lot of people in the entertainment industry to fake liking something. Why? Isn’t Hollywood supposed to be artificial? Well, if you haven’t noticed, we tend to be an opinionated bunch. And there have been so, so many times I’ve seen something made by someone I know, did not like it, and then felt intense anxiety as I quietly nodded and said nothing in response.
It’s an agonizing feeling, to be honest. Which is exactly why you feel intense relief when you see something you actually love. And yes, I loved The Last Jedi. As did many, but I never thought I would love a Star Wars movie again in this way. I loved it for so many reasons, that I felt compelled to write about it opening night, for its beautiful recalculation of everything I had problems with not just in the previous film, but with the franchise in general. But perhaps I should have realized…
Some people would not handle that recalculation well.
But let’s make another thing clear: there is an intense difference between not liking something, or wishing it was something else, and the feeling of being betrayed by a movie and engaging in harassment.
I’m glad we can agree on basic morality. The more nuanced argument, however, deals with the litany of strident people who kept insisting it was just “bad storytelling.” To the point that it has not stopped. It’s like every five seconds after I mention it, I get desperate pleas of just “IT’S BAD. JUST ADMIT IT’S BAD. WHY CAN’T YOU ADMIT IT’S BAD, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!?!” Which is sort of an absurd way to talk to someone, let alone purse argumentation.
It often comes with the assumption I am blinded by my obvious bias, and that is surely what’s preventing me from seeing that which they so clearly see as blatant ineptitude. They all seem to use the same story terms too; like how many Last Jedi haters have you seen argue that the film would fail a “screenwriting 101” test? But every time I point out that I literally wrote a book titled that, and explain why it wouldn’t, this only seems to lead to more indignation. It is downright impossible for them to think the storytelling of the film is on-point as hell, all because it does not reflect their emotional experience of watching it.
And we really have to talk about this.
I don’t care if you liked or didn’t like something. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion. But the opinion is not what matters. The point is that when you say something is “bad writing” or “bad direction,” I want to understand what you actually mean by that, and why you think that. And if you can only stammer out a few confusing words that add up to “that’s how I felt,” then I can’t understand you. And the simple truth is that applying the right words and backing them up with clarity, while showcasing an understanding of the nuance behind them, is literally what criticism is. Which is precisely why I take so much issue with critical culture trying assign a specific kind of value judgement, just because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do.
But we shouldn’t. For example, I’ve been working on a piece that’s pretty hard on the thematic coherency of Blade Runner 2049 for like a year now, but if I use the word “bad” to describe anything about the film, you should just slap me. So when it comes to the larger discussion around The Last Jedi, and the kinds of application of language I’m seeing, I’m seeing so much language that is like “this is bad writing!” with completely mangled non-explanations of why. I’ll leave it to the following twitter comment as response: “@Alecsayswhenhes it’s like these people have no idea what the words ‘unnecessary’, ‘filler’, ‘story’, ‘character arc’, ‘undeveloped’ actually mean.”
Throwing that kind of dismissive heat back at people is tricky. Because there is NO WAY it doesn’t come off as insulting to someone, just as there’s no way I don’t come off as highfalutin or pretentious for saying it. So it just puts me immediately back on my heels: NO, I’m not saying “you just don’t get it.” NO, I don’t think I’m the only one who understands writing. YES, OF COURSE we’re all just being subjective. AND YES, there’s endless layers of nuance and argumentation within criticism. But it’s all about treating the subject with that level of consideration, too, while clarifying the specific nature of your argument. You are not wrong for your opinion, but I come here to understand what you are really saying. And in turn, I want you to understand what I am really saying.
So while I cannot take away your negative experience watching a given movie, what I have come to argue is that the storytelling of The Last Jedi played like a damn song, going from beat to beat with total clarity and acumen. No, I do not think it is full of bad writing. I think it is exemplary of very, very good writing.
And I’m going to explain exactly why.
- LOGIC, CONFLICT, AND DRAMA
“Why didn’t Holdo just tell Poe her plan?!”
I remember I walked out of The Last Jedi, and we were all smiling, but there was one guy in the group who was just so bitterly angry about this plot detail. The rest of us were taken aback, not by the comment itself, but by the depths of the anger behind it (it turns out he would not be alone, as it is the one comment that has been thrown around online ad nauseam). “It didn’t make any sense!” he shouted. It didn’t matter how much we threw back the fact that she outlined her reasons for not trusting him in their first scene together, nor did it matter how much we pointed out the real-life logic of how military brass is under no impetus to tell officers below them their plan (often this is due to potential capture, let alone, in the film, their paranoia of being tracked). But he kept insisting, “she should have told him!” as if he was personally betrayed by her decision.
The truth is, this is not an uncommon attitude to see from some fans. They approach stories in terms of what would be most “logical” for one character to do in a story, and sometimes it isn’t even about what that character would do. They’ll approach it as “what would I, as an individual in that specific situation, do differently?” Which not only misunderstands the whole need for characters with different points of view within storytelling, but that getting into these nonsense-logic debates belies the deeper intent and functionality of storytelling itself.
Because there is literally no point to approach the “bad logic” of a given story choice like you think you are fixing flaws of a film. Instead, you are literally erasing conflict from the movie. The obvious problem there is that the entire damn point of a movie is to create conflict. We want stories that get at the heart of strife between two people, and through the dramatization of that conflict, will say something about the human condition. But in the humane desire for an audience member to seek resolution to that same conflict (which I think speaks to the power that stories have upon people), they will often subconsciously try to resolve it with an outside-the-box practical decision that reflects their own brain, over the logic of the drama itself.
For example, a bunch of years ago I actually came up with a term that speaks to this, hilariously enough while discussing another Rian Johnson film entitled Looper. Someone on twitter said they couldn’t get into the movie because the time-travel plot wasn’t the most efficient way to dispose of a body. “Why didn’t they just drop them in the ocean!?” he asked. I could have got into the logic trap and fed into the debate. I could have argued that because the mob is all about confirmed kills and responsibility, and if they dropped them in the middle of the ocean who knows what could have really happened, they might have survived somehow, but a shotgun blast would definitely do the job. But it doesn’t matter. The real problem is that the person didn’t even realize they were arguing for something that was “better,” which not only removed all conflict, it removed the entire movie.
You would be shocked how often people think like this. It’s the equivalent of saying “why didn’t the good guy shoot the bad guy in the first five minutes?” They usually understand why not in that case. So why does it happen when they can’t get into a given film? Is it really because they didn’t drop someone in the ocean? Would you go see that movie? It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to pull back and ask people: what are you doing here? Why are you watching this movie? What do you actually want to see? Most people don’t realize that in wanting to solve it, they want conflict and drama as much as anyone, but they can’t find a way to talk in those linguistic terms. Which is all part and parcel of why I have such a damn hard time talking about left-brained logic in storytelling, it belies the intent of a story itself.
It’s like when people seem to have no idea what actually constitutes a plot hole. I can’t tell you how many people came out of The Last Jedi angry because we didn’t get “answers” to the “questions” that were “posed” in the last film and literally called them plot holes. Now, to be fair, I’ll actually give them a little emotional leeway on this one because J.J. Abrams can’t seem to tell a single story detail without it lingering in “the air of mysteriousness” with a given scene, so perhaps it’s fair for that storytelling approach to foster some curiosity. But it is equally fair for me to argue that does not make them dramatically posed questions, either.
What happens to the Knights of Ren? I have no idea and I don’t care. There were just a few shots of them in The Force Awakens, and I’m pretty sure they were barely referenced in the actual text. I get being vaguely curious, but there is literally no presented dramatized reason to care beyond their mere extended universe existence within the lore. It is not a dramatic question. Besides, when the time came to tell the actual story between Luke and Kylo, The Last Jedi addressed it in spades. But what about Lord Snoke? Who is he? How did he rise to power? Well, does it matter? Don’t forget the original trilogy never really bothered answering those questions with the Emperor and it didn’t matter. (And didn’t the prequels tell us we didn’t really want that kind of answer, anyway?) Why didn’t Admiral Ackbar get a proper send off? Look, I like his character too, but he just had a couple good beats in Return of the Jedi and was more popular as a meme. To answer that is to largely give into a meta pressure (a la Barb) instead of story pressure. Because these are not pressing dramatic issues.
So why do we feel like we want answers to these kinds of “out of text” questions? Often, it has nothing to do with the point of the story being told, nor has anything to do with creating better drama, it’s just something they think might be cool. This, of course, gets into the larger idea of how we think about “fan fiction” along with how we project ourselves into the most juvenile elements of storytelling. It’s always about the motive under the fan fiction. And it’s all part of the problem of thinking along the “what I would have done!” mantra instead of actually engaging with the validity of what is being put in front of us. We have to accept the movie in front of us, and ask whether it is succeeding in its aims.
But the other problem of appraising the dramatic conflict is how much we are sensitive to pace and texture. The Force Awakens is constantly in a rush, constantly interrupted by danger, constantly throwing you into jeopardy. It’s rather easy to go along with, but it’s also a bit of a ruse when trying to figure out what a movie is actually about. The whole key is just “don’t think about it and smile.” But The Last Jedi has a different modus operandi, in that it’s going to point a conflict in one direction, before twisting it and turning it another. This is common of a lot of traditional storytelling, particularly in noir or mystery, but it’s all about fostering moments of surprise.
The thing about being an audience member is you need to be willing to let it do this. You have to be willing to let yourself be tricked about a given direction. You have to be willing to let things breathe and go, “ooooh, O.K. that’s what they’re doing,” which is precisely why I feel like a lot of people felt like the film had pacing issues. It technically doesn’t, because it moves about a pretty fine clip, but that doesn’t mean the audience isn’t being sensitive to something that’s there. Because, hey, guess what?
Allow me to criticize something about Rian Johnson’s approach in this film! (Cue audible gasps.)
Shane Black often talks about “quality of edge,” which is the belief that a film has to have a proper balance of dramatic clarity, surprise, violence, non-violence, etc. Basically, the audience can quickly tire of something if you overplay your hand. And while it works for most of the big reveals, the feeling of constantly have to augment your sense of dramatic direction can have a lasting effect. So it’s not that the dramatic decisions of the film don’t add up, nor that they’re non-functional. It’s that a traditional audience can tire of having to always play that particular game. Which can make it feel slower, especially set against the grain of the go! go! go! style of The Force Awakens. There! Criticism made! But notice this is not an argument that says the audience should never be willing to be surprised. More importantly, if you view the Holdo reveal as “feeling hoodwinked,” you’re getting into something else entirely. Because you’re focusing directly on the surprise of a male character made to feel foolish or less than against a female character and HOO BOY does that open another can of worms (which we’ll get to later). Again, it’s all about learning to speak the language of what’s really happening with our reactions, especially when people keep insisting it’s about “logic.”
They never call it “bad logic” when it’s something they like.
Or when it’s something that makes them feel good. This reveals everything. Because there are plenty of things I find objectionable in a given film and could apply a logic argument to, but I don’t. Because that’s not the point of storytelling, nor why I’d really find the given issue to be objectionable. It’s all about how characters grow, change and are in conflict in one another. Particularly in the way that all creates “arcs,” which is something that those same hardcore fans argued were “bad” in the movie. So what is really bothering people who watch this film? What is didn’t they get? Well in order to get to that, let’s dig into those…
- THOSE GOOD, GOOD CHARACTER ARCS
I’m going to jump right into this, but remember: the heart of any character arc rests in the dramatization of the character psychology. We want to understand what they’re thinking, why, and how the film shows us this through an action in the text, then track the way it influences their behavior, or how it changes is or how they show resolve. Cool? Cool.
Let’s go one by one:
Poe: At the start of the film, Poe is still the brave hotshot pilot from The Force Awakens (who didn’t even have an arc at all in the last film, nor anything to really do, but that didn’t seem to bother these complainers then, did it?). At the start, his mission is to successfully create a diversion so the cruisers can escape, but he’s so cocky that once he’s on a roll, he decides to go full-tilt for the chance to take out a dreadnought. So he calls in the bomber squad. It sets off a tense Swiss clock sequence, and they go all in and actually manage to destroy the dreadnought, but not without great cost as they have decimated their own bomber squad. Poe comes back elated, but Leia scolds him because the losses were too great. Not just in terms of having a bombing team that can potentially help them later, but the simple human cost. No war can be won when you end in a wash. For this, she demotes him.
While Poe loves and respects Leia, he is still furious and does not seem to grasp the lesson she is trying to teach him. When the follow-up attack commences, which puts Leia on life-support, Poe finds himself now beholden to General Holdo, who doesn’t trust him one iota and finds his recklessness to be absurdly dangerous (especially as she doesn’t have the same affinity for him that Leia clearly does). Given everything we have seen thus far, she is absolutely right to do this. But Poe, still the hot-head, thinks she’s just doing the wrong thing. So to prove her wrong? He comes up with a secret plan to stop the tracking beacon, one that’s reckless and dangerous and puts his closest friends in danger. He’s going to fight, dammit. Poe then confronts Holdo, but she’s clearly paranoid as to why they are being tracked and thus doesn’t want to tell him the plan. Again, she already doesn’t trust him one iota, so why should she trust him now? She commands him to fall in line. Poe does not. Instead, he stages a coup to try and enact his own plan.
Let’s just talk about the “logic” of this for one second, because this is still the single most talked about issue I see come up in discussion. No, it is not “logical” for her to tell him the plan. Again, military brass are not in the business of telling all mission details to subordinates, particularly those they do not trust and have demoted, particularly when they’re being tracked and information is literally the most sensitive thing. When you have a hot-headed soldier, the most important thing for them to do is fall in line and trust the system.
She has no reason to even believe he will accept her plan of the distraction and running away, because his entire approach is confrontation. But dramatically speaking, it’s all about the lesson his character needs to learn. So when Leia wakes up from life-support just in time to intervene in his coup, Poe learns of the plan from Leia, realizes his error and why Holdo didn’t trust him, and falls in line. And then Holdo gets one of the most singular badass moments in Star Wars history when she blasts her ship through a damn star destroyer. The entire thing is a clear lesson about leadership, about saving your fellow soldier versus shooting the heart of the enemy. And so in this final moment of Poe’s arc, Leia looks at him and puts her trust in him to do the right thing. Poe does just that, and helps the remaining soldiers find a way out of the base, instead of charging at the proverbial dreadnought of his mind (there’s a lot of thematic similarities here to Dunkirk; sometimes survival is enough). In true character arc fashion, our hot-head pilot has done the one thing at the end of the movie he could not do at the beginning: he thinks rationally and saves his friends. Every bit of this tracks. Every bit of it makes perfect sense. There is nothing wrong with it.
Moreover, it is one of the most important lessons of tackling toxic masculinity and egocentric thinking…which brings us to the whole point. That’s the exact reason people might not like it. Wouldn’t you know, there are a lot of men who don’t want to learn this lesson. They especially don’t want to feel like women leaders are withholding something from them. Instead, they want to be confident, forthright, righteous and be proven right in the end. This is the indulgent arc. And, quite frankly, it is the exact kind of brashness a Marvel character is always rewarded for (cue my problems with the MCU). And that’s why I think it’s one of the most important lessons to take on. This film did that, and it did it with a perfect character arc. And apparently some people hated it for it. But if that’s the case, acknowledge it. Please don’t tell me it was because it wasn’t “logical.”
Finn: So, people are accusing Finn of having the weakest arc in the film. But let’s start with an important thing to talk about: yes, I too wish this new trilogy had better explored Finn’s stormtrooper trauma. I too wish it spent more time exploring how he’s deprogrammed and comes back into the world. I wish these things because it is important messaging that I feel is prescient to our own world. However, I do not take that wish so far as to make it a criticism of his characterization in these films, because they are out of text fan-fiction-y concerns. And it matters even less, because The Last Jedi not only grounds Finn in a way that The Force Awakens never did (his behavior was always haphazard, contradictory and weird in that one), but I actually think Finn actually has THE STRONGEST arc in film, and one that speaks to the entire movie.
To wit, Finn begins the film a man all on his own, waking up in the bacta-medical-suit thingy. He learns what happened at the finale of the last film, but it conveys his want immediately: he still doesn’t care about the resistance or rebellion, he only cares about the well-being of his friend Rey. Thus, he immediately tries to find an escape pod to go to her, but not to return them to the rebellion, but to just save the two of them. But then he runs into Rose Tico who is guarding the escape pods. Immediately, she freaks out because she gets to meet a hero of the resistance. Finn likes the attention, but he certainly doesn’t feel like a hero inside. You see it in his face immediately, the imposter syndrome setting in, but he tries to play it cool. But when Rose actually realizes he’s trying to escape and she has to stop him, you can see her heartbreak at having to do so.
But then Poe ropes both Finn and Rose into his spy mission plan to shut down the tracker. Finn doesn’t want to disappoint either of them and goes along (even while secretly just being concerned about Rey). Thus begins their “meaningless” trip to Canto Bright. When they get there, at first Finn sees the glitz and glamor and wants to partake in a world that seems so alluring, but then he sees the way the rich treat those below him. The way they profit off murder. The way they treat children and slaves and animals. Suddenly, he sees the larger world and the way they are affected by the oppressive First Order (the very place he came from). It’s not mere sympathy, suddenly he taps into his own anger, built from all the years of his own abuse, seeing himself in the animals who were prodded and caged. He wrestles with this, but when they’re both duped by a turncoat who doesn’t believe in anything, one who even tempts them with some “both sides” nonsense (a brilliant, telling little detail), Finn finally is ready to flip.
I’ve seen people comment, “this is good theme work, not story!” And no, it’s absolutely story because this is good character arc work. It’s all exactly how Finn comes to believe the message of the resistance while learning so much about passion and righteousness from Rose. Similarly, there are people who say that it’s meaningless because the plan completely failed, but this is simply the failure to recognize that most character change does not come through success, but through failure (think of Luke and X-wing in the swamp, also a lesson Yoda will teach again in this film). It all comes together for deep part of his grandest philosophical change.
But Finn’s arc isn’t merely about “beating Phasma,” but the moment just prior when she calls him scum, and he retorts with a most telling line of, “Rebel scum!” It’s a triumphant, rousing moment that shows he’s now bought into the mission of the resistance hook, line and sinker. It’s a character arc seemingly complete, but there’s still one important lesson left to learn.
Now, fully believing in the cause, he has so much anger to unleash. He’s so angry at all the injustice and abuse that he wants to be a brave hero the way he sees Poe, the man who will fly into a dreadnought. He wants to sacrifice himself, to be a martyr to the cause. And so he pilots his ship right toward the giant laser and…Rose pilots her ship into him, knocking him out of the way. Why would she do this? He was about to get those assholes! She comes up to him, clearly hurt and delivers the most important theme of the whole damn movie: “We won’t win by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love” (a.k.a. the same exact lesson being taught to Poe). And then she kisses him.
It’s so much to process against his anger in that moment, but Finn stares at Rose after the battle and then stares at Rey. He’s a young man who has gone from being purposeless to having purpose, beyond the myopia of pining for Rey (who he realizes is on her own path), to now having something real and earnest, and has gone from selfish to the kind of selflessness that is shared. It’s downright beautiful. It’s an arc with moments that are anything but purposeless, and are all a part of finding your ethics and your heart. His story is the entire point of the dang film. And I love it so.
Rose: There are a lot of people who confuse the term character arc for “someone going from good to bad,” but that’s not always the case. Rose never changes her beliefs, but she still has a very different arc going on here. It all starts with a full dramatization of her sister’s sacrifice, before we even know Rose exists. Then, when she comes into the picture, we have a complete sense of what she lost and how it has affected her.
When Rose meets Finn, we get a sense of how she sees her place in the world. She’s just a mousey maintenance worker, so far away from the grand heroes of the resistance! And you can see her crushing disappointment when she realizes Finn is not who she thought he was (echoing the sentiment, as is often said, that you never want to meet your heroes).
Then when Rose goes off on the adventure to Canto Bright, we don’t just a sense of her opinions on the state of the galaxy, as if they come from nowhere, we get a sense of her history and upbringing. We get a sense of what caused Rose to join the resistance and how she has become who she is. While she might not be changing, the audience is learning about her and going through our own arc with regards to how we see her. But we do see Rose start to change as well. We start to see her find her courage. We see her find her confidence, particularly in all the ways we see her and Finn start to grow and understand one another.
And in the final moments of the ships running against the laser, she has every reason to be the one who wants to sacrifice herself. They took her sister, who is her other half, they abused her more than anyone growing up. And yet, that means she understands the real cost of trauma is the loss itself. And Rose will not lose any more, thank you, and thus stops Finn’s martyrdom. It is a kind of courage often not shown in these kinds of movies, and a kind of arc that is often not thought about at all. Rose’s arc is that of the good person who never thought she could have a place on the main stage. She does not experience a change in philosophy, but a change of actualization. Her story of courage is one that finds, “Yes, I too have a role in this, and it may be the most important one of all, I just have to stand up for my convictions and act on them.”
It is one of the great lessons of the aspirational young person, just like Luke Skywalker before her. And I can only speak anecdotally, but I can’t tell you how many women, particularly women of color, have expressed a feeling of kinship and identification with this arc. Because it is a kind of heroism that is often not recognized, but is just so damn beautiful.
Kylo: So Kylo Ren is my favorite part of the new trilogy, which is probably because his characterization was also my favorite part of The Force Awakens. I love that the big bad of Star Wars is now imagined to be a moody, impetuous and entitled young man. In the opening scene of The Last Jedi, Snoke dramatizes his failure in the last film and calls out his impetuous, raging, juvenile nature. He laughs at him for trying to be a posturing badass, even calls him “a boy in a mask” and a wannabe like Vader (yes, there strikes Dark Side fandom in a very specific place). Kylo can only react by smashing that same mask in the elevator. I’m not hiding! Let me prove it! Smash smash smash! By smashing it, he’s of course only treating the symptom, not the problem. Kylo does not understand his own lingering wounds. Sure, he has the courage to kill his father, but in the space battle in the opening act, he cannot bring himself to shoot down his mother (while another ship does it in his place). Beyond the anger of Kylo Ren, there is an immense pain.
But then a mysterious thing starts happening: Kylo starts force connecting to Rey. Neither understands what is happening or why. (For the logic obsessed people, we’ve seen that people can force communicate across distances, we have no reason to not extend the logic a little further, but even getting into this is not the point because it’s a great dramatic choice). But so many of Kylo’s feelings start coming into play: fear, anger, empathy, even (gulp) attraction.
All their scenes get to the heart of his anger at Luke Skywalker, the one who was supposed to look after him, but who ended up merely trying to murder him. The pain of this knows no bounds, and is all part of the confusion of an angry young man who does not understand the catch-22 of why people fear his anger and can only lash out in turn. But it also makes us understand Kylo’s humanity, and wonder, “is he capable of turning back toward good?”
Nope. At least not right now. Rey goes to Kylo and we realize it was all part of Snoke’s masterminding to try turn her bad. Kylo watches his master speak smugly to her in his chair. He feels used. And he clearly feels something for Rey, too. And as she denies Snoke from moral conviction, his anger seethes. All it takes is Snoke finally belittling him and boom, enfant terrible strikes with a turn of the light saber and he kills his master. Cue a bad ass fight scene where Rey and Kylo take on the imperial guards. Gasp! Has Kylo realized the error of his ways? Of course not. He’s just as impetuous as ever. So sick of being belittled, he is also as impatient as ever. He has no regard for his worship of elders, telling her “burn the past, kill it if you have to.” Sure he has feelings for Rey, but they are the toxic feelings of a boy who doesn’t understand the difference between a crush and love, possessiveness and partnership. She denies him, and so she becomes just another person he must put against the wall. The boy emperor is assuming his place the top, certain this will surely give him the sense of control he desperately craves. Falsely believing this too will fix his feeling of powerlessness, he only becomes more and more out of control. In the final sequence, he forgoes all reason to concentrate on killing Luke Skywalker, who he believes is the source of his pain, only to be duped at the end.
This articulation behind Kylo’s continued fall is brilliant. He has clear issues of abandonment, which feed his anger. And when Luke feared his anger, he saw this as yet another betrayal. We so clearly see what Kylo wants. He wants love. He wants a feeling of control. But like so many toxic young men, he does not realize that comes from the peace inside, and not in the reflection of the world around him. If anything, when we rage inside, we only see the rage in the world. And so Kylo will fight it, burn it, kill it all the way down with no regard for anyone, thinking this will save him. It is his flawed adaption. Being a Sith lord makes him feel powerful. Being the head of the empire makes him feel powerful. But in the end, he only feels the powerlessness of that which he does not possess. Whoa. I cannot wait to see how this journey concludes, and whether it will consume him, or whether he will finally be able to undo the pain deep in his heart.
Rey: In the last film, Rey practically stumbled into the resistance and discovered a power she never knew she had. In some ways, it’s much like Luke’s journey in A New Hope, but I could talk about the differences of execution all day. But coming into this film, she brings her pain of abandonment (a feeling that makes her very similar to Kylo, unsurprisingly) and a yearning to find her place in the world. This is most evidenced in her desire to go see her hero, her aspirational figure, the one person who can save them all: Luke Skywalker (which is how the audience sees him too). But as the aforementioned popular adage goes, “never meet your heroes,” because he tosses his old lightsaber right off the cliff.
Simply put, Luke is not what she wanted him to be. He’s grown bitter, angry and resentful. Most specifically about his own failures. The hope of the Jedi rested with him, and they failed with him. So he wants the Jedi to end. But Rey cannot accept this. The world needs hope. She needs hope. She wants the training; she wants to be a Jedi like he did before her. But Luke keeps denying her. He does not train her, but constantly gets at the heart of the debate. He makes fun of his own training, proclaiming “the force is not about moving rocks.” He conveys every reason to give up and close herself off from this power. And it would be so easy to obsess over the fact that Luke does not train her in this film, but to do so would be to miss the obvious point: Rey is not the one who needs to change her outlook. Her heart is in the right place, as are her ethics. What Rey needs is a deeper kind of belief and self-understanding.
When she faces her own cave moment, her issues come to a head. It is not like Luke seeing himself in Vader, but instead, Rey sees endless refractions of herself, endless mirrors, and a truth she refuses to face. Like Luke before her, she cannot listen.
And these issues only follow her quest on the way back to Kylo. In the elevator, Kylo calls out the truth of her greatest fear: she is no one. Rey always imagined her family was some kind of answer that made her feel special, like she has a place in the world. But they sold her as worthless. She is alone. Even abandoned by her hero. There is an immense kind of pain in this truth. But it’s the most important lesson she will have to learn: because she is enough, exactly as she is. She doesn’t need to be a Skywalker. She doesn’t need mythical parentage. All she needs is her morality and belief in self. Kylo and Snoke ask her so many times to give into her power and she does not. Just as she clearly cares about Kylo’s pain, but she will not suffer for it. And finally, in her ultimate test, Rey escapes back to the rebels just in time in order to…move rocks. She laughs at this moment, but in a knowing way. Point being, you should not take this last moment literally. Because it’s not actually about moving rocks. It’s about the people underneath it. Like everyone in this film, it’s about saving what we love.
And Luke’s arc? Well, we’ll get to that later.
For now, what I want to point out is the outrageous clarity of every single one of these character arcs. Unlike The Force Awakens, where characters bounced around willy-nilly from scene to scene, psychologically-speaking, the emotional core behind all these characters is clear as day. Now, you might not like the details or wish for other ones, but that is not the “problem” with them. Some of you may even feel angry at the clarity of characterization expressed with these summaries, lamenting that I’ve had months and months to see this film and parse over every little detail so it’s not fair. But…I have seen the film once. Six months ago.
But I remember all of this because it was all immediate and articulated beautifully through drama. I got all of this on the first damn watch. So I really don’t know what to say to someone who tells me that the character arcs weren’t there or that this is “bad writing.” It is literally some of the most diligent, coherent character work I’ve seen in a major blockbuster in recent memory. So why the heck are people saying it was unclear? Well, it means they either simply didn’t see it for what it was or, more likely, they just didn’t like how it made them feel.
And that’s where we really get into it.
- THE TONE ZONE
Behold the following statement from a petition to Lucasfilm to strip episode 8 from the official canon—which I will present without tarring and feathering the name of the petitioner who wrote it—but it so exemplifies the point I want to make in this section. To wit, “Star Wars ep 8: The last Jedi was crowded with unacceptable, infantile, disappointing and downright irritating jokes. These ‘jokes’ made the movie a perfect example of self-degradation. In the upcoming episodes, please do not spoil all the potentially epic Star Wars moments, legendary characters and basically the whole Star Wars Saga with humor every A class movie would be ashamed of. As the biggest and most complex fictional universe so far, it just deserves more than this.” So again, a grown ass man writing a petition to Lucasfilm to have a movie be stripped from the official canon is saying this should be done because certain jokes are too infantile…
Sometimes, a reflexive moment does not get more perfect. But the truth is that I’m fascinated by these kinds of tonal comments because they tell you a lot about how certain people absorb storytelling. Specifically, how there are whole groups of fans who do not like anything “too silly” in their movies, especially blockbuster films that feature their favorite characters. They will say jokes are “too lame.” And you should definitely let your ears perk up and notice when people use the word “corny” to describe these films because it’s a perfect signifier for what I’m about to talk about. People particularly say it with regards to a filmmaker like Sam Raimi and his Spider-man films. When trying to explain why these innocuous jokes “bother” them so much, they’ll throw out heady comments arguing about an “uneven tone” or something like that. And often they’ll start trying to sound like Mr. Civility, like in the paragraph above where the guy is trying to sound like the most urbane person in the world as he argues over nerd canon. Why, they’re too adult for that silliness!
But it’s all very simple: if the movie feels silly, then *they* feel silly.
And they do not want to feel silly one bit. Make no mistake, a lot of people watch movies and live vicariously through the characters. They go “I’m Luke Skywalker!” or “I’m Spider-man!” and they do this because these movies are really good at making us feel this way. So it’s not just about escape, but an empowerment fantasy. They want to hold a lightsaber or web-sling around New York City. They want to feel awesome. They want to feel badass. But they definitely don’t want to feel like the butt of a joke. It’s exactly why Christopher Nolan endeared a certain kind of superhero fanboy who wanted to dress up their dark affinity for Batman in an intellectual, very serious packaging. While I will certainly go to bat for those films, there is nothing inherently “mature” about this fan approach. As I’ve argued before, most fan posturing has nothing to do with maturity, but instead the desire to shed their kid-like sensibilities and child-like interests, all by catering to juvenile stories.
There’s a reason the Star Wars petitioner personality gets saddled with the “basement dweller” stereotype. It’s not a fair one and probably not even accurate (which is scary, imagining them as full-grown adults with jobs and stuff), but it happens because making those comments are absolutely the tonal equivalent of a self-serious tween boy yelling, “MOM, GET OUT OF MY ROOM, I’M SUPER SERIOUS.” It is always in the desperation to be taken seriously that we make ourselves the joke. But embracing our kid-like sensibilities, along with all the sadness and range life has to offer, is maturity itself. It’s understanding we can be silly and make fun of ourselves just as much as we can be anything else. But this hits roadblocks with a lot of men, which is all part and parcel of a toxic male culture that thinks we cannot show emotion (again, think Batman). This culture thinks showing weaknesses is a form of weakness instead of strength. Here too lies the ugly heart of fandom, for it is often the people who feel weakest that most cling to empowerment fantasies to off-set how they really feel in life. So while we have the romanticized image that it’s an escape for nerdly torment of the ’80s, there is also a dark-side to that expression that sees entertainment as a kind of revenge on life itself.
It’s no accident that a generation of white men, who always saw themselves as the ones being stepped on, worship their properties as the things that give them strength and lash out at those who try to make it more inclusive. There’s a whole link to anti-S.J.W. culture, etc., but the truth is I’m not really interested in going down that path. I’m actually more interested in the intersectional heart of this that speaks to the many sides of indulgence and how we place ourselves into narrative. For instance, I had a young person of color write me, fed up with the narrative that only anti-S.J.W.s hated The Last Jedi and he rightfully had problems with that. But when writing about the reasons he didn’t like the film, he wrote, “For all that talk about being progressive, Finn is reduced to over-the-top comedic relief. A goofy sidekick that overreacts to everything and anything around him. He has water squirting out of him in his opening scene.”
And there it is, it comes back to indulgence and the unwillingness to feel silly. To justify it, he relies on conversations about “uneven tone” and even criticizes Rose with the logic stuff, saying, “Crashing her ship into someone else’s ship, risking the lives of your comrades, is completely tone deaf.” Again, that’s not even what tone deaf means, and I genuinely don’t want to project why that moment might bother someone, but it doesn’t matter.
There are a million really important conversations to have about representation and inclusivity, and this person actually started their email with all the same points we very much agree on. I want a Star Wars that looks like the entire world, too. It’s all I want. But what his complaints—I think—speak to, is our larger “tower of babel” language issues within it. What this gets to is the bigger question of how we see “ourselves,” within a narrative. I don’t want a litany of white Jedis, but I also don’t know what to do when someone is coming at that same argument from the place of indulgence, and I understand what they’re asking is, “I want to be a badass Jedi,” too. Which is an O.K. thing to ask! It’s all part of the spectrum of roles that need to be filled out. I also want this very much. My problem is when we don’t realize that’s what we’re talking about. Just as my problems come, in turn, when we criticize Finn, who I think has an incredible arc, but is being criticized because “this didn’t make me feel powerful.”
Understanding what we want is at the heart of everything.
For instance, I was having a conversation with one of my local bartenders I love. We’ve had a lot of lovely, spirited bar arguments. Sports. Movies. You name it. And it’s always been fun and inclusive. But The Last Jedi is the first time I have ever seen him incensed. He kept yelling at us and talking about all the things that were so “stupid” about the film, and then proclaiming that the director “clearly doesn’t understand the tone of Star Wars!” He made this point particularly about the sense of humor in the opening Poe scene. It didn’t matter that I pointed out the tone was no different from Han’s off-the-cuff joke, “everything’s fine here… how are you?” as well as a litany of other moments. He finally just yelled, “I felt like the film was making fun of me!”
And there it was. All these things that I’ve been talking about. The feeling of “being talked down to” by Holdo. The not wanting Finn to be silly. The ignoring of character arcs, the silly tone, the faux logic arguments, it all adds up into the vicarious way people place themselves into a movie. So they felt attacked by this movie…but it’s not attacking them, it’s attacking qualities of people. It’s attacking toxic masculinity. It’s attacking toxic fandom. It’s attacking all the worst parts of ourselves and asking us to do better.
But to everyone who wants the power fantasy, they can only shout in response, “this doesn’t make me feel the way I want to feel!” And that’s certainly true, but the greater truth is it’s not even attacking them within the dramatization, nor being smug, but moving right past them toward a larger message of inclusivity and love. And all the while, they never once stopped to ask themselves…
“What if all this a good thing?”
- INDULGENCE, THY NAME IS FAN
I use the word “indulgence” a lot with regards to popular narrative, and I do for good reason. Movies, TV and Video Games are so powerful, so involving, and so good at their jobs that we can effectively do things that make us “go into another world” or “live a day in someone else’s shoes.” Simply put, they are empathy machines—vehicles for deeply visceral experiences that make us feel heightened emotions beyond our own lives.
There is such joy in getting to indulge in that sensibility. To feel like we get to go off on an adventure, or get to be a superhero, web-slinging around Manhattan. This is the reason we become so damn obsessed with them in the first place. And while there will always be the confectionary elements to summer movie fare, the simple truth is that no narrative can sustain itself on the sugary-sweet, dizzying highs of storytelling that are just three to make the audience feel empowered and cool. Not just because movies need to operate off conflict, character arcs, and all that good stuff I talked about earlier, but because all movies, whether they mean to or not, illustrate something about how they think people and society operate. And this works. We have all the evidence we need about how storytelling reinforces viewpoint. And if all narrative teaches us something, then the only real question is, “what about?”
The truth is a lot of movies aren’t interested in that question. In fact, most people don’t think movies even have messages. Of course, like everything about narrative, they only notice this message stuff when it’s something they don’t like. I mean, there are video game fans who don’t like anything “political” in their games, but they’ll happily spend 40 hours getting their rocks off to a jingoistic, republican wet dream, but then they’ll scream “politics!” if a game wants them to play a female character (see: the recent debate about female soldiers on game covers). The motivations behind this stuff are nakedly obvious. But they’re also emblematic of the fact that, as a society, we’ve been playing the indulgence game with fandom for way, way too long.
Everything that I’ve talked about within this article, about the dangers and obligatory fan thinking that come from the empowerment fantasy, has been backed up by the slow and steady machine of Hollywood and industries dominated by white guys (like me) for decades. Ultimately, it’s not just that Luke Skywalker was really good at speaking to young boys. It’s that there are a million Luke Skywalkers across media. Luke is the default. And I worry it’s actually getting worse, too. I’ve talked about my genuine worry about the Marvel modus operandi, but allow me to outline my problem with their core character arc: egocentric white guy (probably with beard) goes full ego, has incident as a result of that ego that slightly humbles him, but also unlocks a deeper power. He is taught faux lip-service lessons of responsibility, then pushes through the walls of that responsibility by embracing the stubborn ego that created that situation. He is rewarded for that decision.
That is the plot to almost every Marvel movie with the exception of a few recent entries (and part of the reason I adore Black Panther more than ever). But that M.O. is the most indulgent indulgence that ever indulged. It is the lip-service of change while doing nothing of the sort. Feeding you cotton candy and telling you it’s granola. And it’s emblematic of a culture that really likes the idea of “with great power comes great responsibility,” but never actually bothers to dramatize it.
And it all goes somewhere.
The longer the indulgent instinct gets catered to, the longer entitled fandom goes untreated and the more and more and more it festers. Since 1977, the messaging of Star Wars and that “first escape” has sat there. Sure, Lucas could outright talk about how the empire was America, but the symbology was just broad enough for anyone to adapt it however they wanted. Simply put, the Infowars guys will always see themselves as the rebel alliance, so broad is the messaging.
But for 40 years, the core identification markers were untouched and nakedly rewarded. While there were surely young girls who wanted to be Leia, there were so many young boys who wanted to be like Han, but saw themselves in Luke. And that connection with the characters has built so much over time. If you read any of the extended universe books, you’ll know that the empowerment fantasy went so deep that Luke Skywalker basically became god. Coupled with the deep revere for the Vader lore, there were so many disgusting notions about the power of the Skywalker bloodline and the toxic thinking that goes with it. Fellow nerds would look at me dead in the eye and exclaim, “FORCE POWER CAN ONLY BE INHERITED THROUGH REALLY GOOD GENES.” Yikes.
Now, it’s no accident both these films criticize Kylo’s thinking along these lines, and that he wants to emulate Vader, but it’s also the same troubled thinking that keeps people obsessed with Rey’s parentage. It’s like, seriously? You guys don’t see the problem in thinking this way? None at all? They don’t engage because they kept them separate. But dealing with Luke forces you to deal with everything about these issues. It swirls you into a level of expectation so deep within the “fan identity” that it’s honestly part of the reason I think J.J. Abrams didn’t want to address the character in the first film of the new trilogy.
And now that has all exploded. To wit, a person I dare not link to, who has basically been operating a full-scale harassment campaign at everyone involved in the movie, wrote the following about what happened to Luke: “There are children now dealing with bereavement, mourning their hero, and they don’t understand. Their parents have to explain it to them, and they can’t. There are sick children (and adults) who needed an escape, and hope. But @RianJohnson mocks them. #TheLastJedi. #StarWars.”
The language he uses is so telling. Even if he is somehow speaking about real kids (and while I like giving people the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think he is, to be honest), it’s a clear projection of all his childhood hopes and pathological hurt when it comes to what this movie was really trying to with the character…
So, yes, let’s talk about Old Man Luke.
It was surely a shock for a generation of young people, who intrinsically identified with Luke Skywalker, to suddenly see “themselves” as a cranky, cynical hermit who ran away from the damage they caused the world. If you wanted to imagine yourself as a Jedi god, that can be a rude awakening (or is that the most god-like thing a person can do? Dumb thought bomb!). But, of course, some fans were uncomfortable with this. So, of course, they first fell back to the “logic” of how this action didn’t seem to make sense. Never mind the fact that Luke literally did the same exact thing that Yoda did, but Yoda’s introduction in Empire took the audience’s dramatic understanding from hermit to Jedi master, not the other way around. They then threw out a million other fan fiction ideas about what to do with that character, many of which seemed to deal with him secretly building a weapon (you know, like bad guys do) or training to BECOME EVEN MORE BADASS THAN KYLO AT THE FORCE. The juvenile instincts of these choices are telling when it’s all about indulging your power fantasy. But the simple truth is there is no way to come into this movie and tell a story about Luke hiding away without getting into this kind of fault-laden characterization.
More importantly, there is no telling that is more appropriate.
Old Man Luke is a human being stuck in the cycle of regret, pain and self-hatred. He took his nephew under his wing and tried to do his best in raising him, and in the moment where he was supposed to show the most love, he showed the most fear. The most difficult part of raising a troubled child is that sometimes all it can take is one bad moment to confirm their worst fears. Kids with abandonment and anger issues only know the fear of abandonment, and so they will look for it at the first chance they get. For Luke, the regret of propagating this cycle haunts him. Everything he fought to overcome (in the original trilogy) he has created anew. The failure of his pain is so immense. He has closed himself off to life itself. Like any full-scale depression, he is a dead man walking. His only purpose is guarding the relics of a Jedi past he can barely think of, and beating himself up. He denies Rey. But he denies her not because he doesn’t want her to succeed, but because he does not want her to feel the pain he feels now. And if he lets her in, Rey may propagate his cursed cycle. And so, he can only deny and look into the shame of his past.
Which is exactly why an old friend shows up in Yoda, to tell him it’s “time for you to look past a pile of old books.” God, it’s such a beautiful scene. He evokes so much we know about this character. “Skywalker, still looking to the horizon.” Mournfully, Luke admits his failures, admitting “I was weak, unwise.” And Yoda tells him the one thing he’s never seemed to learn: that failure is the greatest teacher of all, and it’s something we must accept that we pass down along with strengths. And then, as they look at the tree of the past burning, Yoda echoes the most beautiful statement yet, something that can be only the truest comfort: “we are what they grow beyond.”
There were some who argued this messaging was “just” meta commentary about the fandom, with comments like, “The books are the extended universe!” or, “it’s about old Star Wars fans needing to let go!” and other such simple 1:1 symbolic ratios. But the reason so much of this scene seems to apply to fandom is because it is the kind of humane insight that applies to everything about adulthood, parentage and the proverbial passing of the torch. It’s a gorgeous statement about how we grow up and relate to the world, along with how we much we acknowledge our failings in the realities we hath wrought (if anything, the messaging can double for a lot of Baby Boomers who were a little more than Luke’s age in 1977). There’s so much beautiful messaging here, but also a stark change in his character’s purpose.
Luke in this film is not really a power fantasy, he’s a mirror to our complete selves. A mirror to all the darker truths of what adults carry around inside. But it’s precisely the act of Yoda showing him this mirror that helps Luke accept how he has changed, and therefore come back into “himself.” And so when Luke finds his courage to face his demons? It results in the most rousing sequence of the film, and maybe even the entire series.
Luke’s transcendent finale battle with Kylo is probably the single most badass thing I’ve ever seen in these films. Luke literally heads off an entire squad of AT-AT walkers, has a tense samurai-esque lightsaber battle with Kylo, and then it’s revealed to be an incredible ruse of force projection from across the galaxy, thus rendering it an incredible act of Jedi-like pacifism to boot. He, like so many in the film, wins not by fighting what he hates, but by saving the people he loves. And having used every ounce of the force within him, he stares into the sun, the boy who always looked to the horizon for what was next, now simply closing his eyes and feeling where he is now…and he lets go.
I got literal goosebumps. For all the deep want of Luke being a god, it is with the most Jesus-like notions of sacrifice that he feels the most human. But I was talking with aforementioned bartender about this scene and he kept harping on “the logic” of it (same goes with Yoda summoning lightning). After getting through all that nonsense and down to the feeling beyond it, it came down to the fact he was already “out” on Luke’s portrayal and looking for excuses. When I made the argument about all the beautiful things his character arc was doing he just exclaimed, “O.K., a bunch of nice messages! So what?!” This brings us to the whole dang crux.
Because I think viewing a separation between indulgence and messaging is how we even see things like this in the first place. Because they’re not different. A power fantasy with rigid toxic views you already hold is the message of certain films; it just feels right to you. And when it doesn’t feel right? When it’s a bunch of things you’ll just dismiss as “nice messages” but can’t feel? Well, you are just belying the truth about what you really want movies to say and do. For me? I watched this film unfold and all those “nice messages” weren’t divorced from my dramatic experience of the film. They were part of character moments, oohs, aahs, cheers and tears that come with me experiencing the power of a story. With Luke, I saw so much of the pain of who I really am, not the projection of the man I wanted to be when I was a boy. And that has its own emotional kind of power that strikes you to your core.
The truth is that all I can do in this discussion is try to help foster understanding. I don’t know how to take away your bad experience watching the film. I would never even really try. All I can do is show a different path of how I see things. All I can do is point out why I see problems with the paths that others take, and why it might foster animosity. I can only point out that there are moments of these Star Wars films that tell us everything about what we really want out of them. The most clear of these moments, to me, is actually Vader’s hallway fight in Rogue One. There were many who talked about how they wanted Vader to feel scary again in these new films (again, a feeling that was seemingly robbed from people in the prequels). Hence the scene of Vader showing up with a lightsaber at the end. But the scene is not meant to actually play scary on the dramatic level. It’s meant to play badass. The faceless rebel soldiers are just fodder for his casual destruction as he nonchalantly disposes of them. We even knew they would get away with the plans. And so my audience hooted and hollered with glee as Vader sliced up nobodies.
This is not the reaction to something “scary.” This is the reaction to something indulgent. If he was chasing after our lead in Jyn, then maybe it would have actually felt like there was an actual stake and fear being played here. But that was not the intent of the scene. It was meant to indulge, for it’s the kind of thing that Kylo Ren would have loved to see…. Oof.
We have to think about what we are actually getting out of these films. For all the ways that some of the most toxic fans criticized the “S.J.W.” qualities of The Force Awakens because of the mere presence of minority characters within it, they were really criticizing its texture. Because most fans were on board with the film’s “isn’t this delightful?” mantra that fueled the storytelling choices. It was all about the cotton candy-esque approach to empowerment. So while I like the lip-service ethics of the film and its representation, it’s also incoherently indulgent all the while. But The Last Jedi? There are more coherent moments of genuine joy, humanity, comedy, light and darkness than any film we’ve seen since Empire. I mean, I find the idea of Luke closing himself off to the force as the darkest idea the narrative can present. But it’s not “fun” dark. Nor is it juvenile badass dark. It’s just sobering dark. But it’s also the kind of sobering that can lead to the most fun possible character catharsis. Like the mirror for Luke, it is the mirror for our own ability to embrace that which grows beyond us.
But as much as I want to thank the mirror for getting me to change, it creates animosity for those who do not want to see the truth about themselves. Like Rey looking at the endless possibilities of herself, it is so much easier to lash out and blame the other rather than engage in self-reflection. And good granola has there been a lot of lashing out and trying to flip the tables.
Within the popular conversation, Johnson has barely engaged it beyond calling out a few of the most insincere who openly take part in harassment. They say his failure to respond to them is “smug.” And when I try to point out the problems with these attitudes, they all rally together in saying I need to work on my own “superiority issues.” It’s the kind of naked commentary that gives me flashbacks to growing up with jerks in Boston. (Me: “I have to hand in this book report tomorrow.” Them: “What, you think you’re better than me?” Me: “What?!”) But I don’t want animosity. I don’t want people to feel attacked in tough conversations. I don’t want any of this.
So what do I want?
I just want these active hardcore fans to be able to admit that what they really wanted was an indulgent Star Wars. I want them to understand what that term really means. The whole point of this was to understand our language and this whole debate is the debate of indulgence and its role within these films. I want us to have a genuine conversation about what kinds of indulgence are more okay than others. I want us to have a conversation about how awareness is the most important part of indulgence (think of it just like dieting, there’s nothing wrong with Candy. There’s a lot wrong with only eating candy and calling people smug when they say “you probably shouldn’t just eat candy). I want us to acknowledge that indulgence has a huge role in backing up our political thinking. I want some of the most callous of fans to admit that they just wanted to feel like the biggest, toughest space boy in the universe. Because I cannot do this dance of pretending any longer. I can’t let them tell me their intense hatred of Holdo is about “logic,” just as I can’t listen to Sarah Sanders talk about “civility.” Just as I can’t take the endless refrain of Canto Bright being purposeless when it’s literally the entire point of the film. And it’s why we come back to the ending shot of the film. In an epoch obsessed with Skywalkers and living vicariously through the power holders, it is the moment that relays how the force belongs to everyone. And if you have a problem with that, what you are really saying is “No, the force should belong to me. Not some rando.” And I just want us to admit this.
Because it is then, and only then, that we can we see the true nature of ourselves and what we want. The mirror of art is the constant act of self-reflection. And so to all in the casual fandom who simply feel like you are in the middle of all this, all you can do is open up, look around, and try to understand what’s really going on under the surface. To understand the stark difference between movies that admonish and movies that simply ask us to grow. To understand that humanity of a movie that wants your kindness and willingness to indulge in another before yourself. To understand this movie is not about ’77, but tomorrow. To understand the beautiful heart of Star Wars should belong to everyone. To understand that all of this can lead to a difficult catch-22 with the most hardcore of fans…
Their reaction to The Last Jedi proved exactly why it needed to be made.
- THE TOWER FALLS
I began with The Tower of Babel, but now I want to evoke another popular bit of iconography of the same name to end this.
While I am definitely not a believer of astrology, nor fortune-telling, I still believe everything is a part of a system of symbols and meaning making. Within Tarot, one of the cards I most think about is “The Tower,” which is a sign of “sudden, disruptive, revelation and potentially destructive change.” The reason for this is evident in the art on the card, where you see bodies thrown from the tower, lightning crashing, fire, and the disaster of it coming crumbling down. This is representative of when the support structures in our life (often self-built) come tumbling down. Sometimes it’s literal, sometimes it’s relationships, sometimes it’s our own sense of self, sometimes it’s all three at once. And when they are destroyed, our sense of everything we hold dear goes along with it. While it may feel like death, it is not death. It is just the true face of hardship.
Just last week, Disney announced they’re putting the remaining spin-off movies on hold. Business-wise, this is a bigger deal than you think. Corporate projections of stocks are all about dependability and the reason movies target certain release dates and then set them in stone. And Disney promised a new Star Wars movie, every year, from now until forever. Coming back from this promise, not just after the box office performance of Solo, but after so much upheaval in the process of the new M.O., is a really big deal. They realized it would be too hard to push forward with the current magnet-ball approach, while also trying to figure out what to do with the anger of certain fans, while also realizing that catering to a certain kind of prequel-reference-laden indulgence with Solo wouldn’t be enough for the fans who they thought just want the fan-service look and feel of ’77. This is the kind of thing that happens when you realize something isn’t working no matter all you seem to be doing…it feels likes “The Tower” of Star Wars’s direction has come tumbling down.
Because the moments where the tower crashes are the moments that inspire the most self-reflection. And the simpler truth is that the tower of Star Wars has crashed many, many times before, for many, many different people and for many, many different reasons. For some it fell at the mere sight of an Ewok. My tower fell with the prequels. Somebody’s surely did with The Last Jedi. Or even for a business person within Disney, it may have been Solo. Everyone has their own story with Star Wars, both personal and universal. But Star Wars itself never crashes. That’s because of “the core,” and I don’t think it ever will. It’s just our idea of what it “is” to us that continually crashes, time and time again.
Again, this is good.
When the towers of our lives crash, we can learn to understand what is really important to us. We learn to see ourselves and what we want to really believe in. We can rebuild them. This is actually the same reason an aggrieved Star Wars fan wants to remake The Last Jedi. But wanting to rebuild towers in the same unhealthy ways we did before leads nowhere good. Just as a toxic relationship with one’s own fandom leads nowhere good (just like a toxic relationship with anything). You will rebuild poorly again and again, and it will fall time and time again. The simple action is to take stock of the fact we are O.K. standing in the earth and mud, that we are still alive, and then set forth to build our towers in the healthiest of ways. To understand our traumas, to understand others, to understand the heart of what we want.
So what do you want?
To the toxic fans, what do you want out of this? To become the Kylo Rens of your own demise, or to become the Lukes of your deepest fear? To those who create these films in first place, so you want set forward with a brave new path? Or do you want to take this realization and go, “Oh, O.K., we have to make indulgent films.” Hey, Marvel’s mostly doing it, so join the party. But every time, you decide who you want to be and what you want to say. And lastly, to the real person I’m talking to in the middle of all this, what do you want? Probably for all of us to shut up. Just as I understand that it must all seem so dire. But the harassment campaigns and all my highfalutin rants about the soul of art are about a larger world. One where the animosity of fandom is nothing new. After all, people made fan films about kidnapping George Lucas and torturing him by making him watch Howard the Duck. This was always part of the story. Not a meta one about fandom, but the beautiful, ugly and ultimately possessive hearts of humanity itself. Within that, there’s only truth that really matters.
Possessing something doesn’t mean you love it.
In fact, that’s not even really love. That’s need. That’s dependency. And while we all indulge in escape now and then, we have to think about what that escape really gets us, and realize there are so many people who want Star Wars to be just for them. It’s a possessive approach that feeds exclusion over inclusion. And it’s perhaps no accident the very same brutal issue of exclusion in our country’s borders is the very same issue the fandom is wrestling with now. For the ugliness of the human heart is everywhere. But the simple truth is that after all of this, I still love Star Wars. I always will. And like the force itself, there’s something we are all going to have to reckon with…
Love belongs to everyone, too.
< 3 HULK