The Backlash Awakens

11-minute read

I spent the holiday around my 3-year-old nephew.

While he is very cute, with sandy brown hair and vivid blue eyes, he’s also like all children, a child. That means that he’s entirely at the sway of his emotions. One morning he said he wanted yogurt for breakfast. My brother didn’t have any.

What followed was a slow-motion deterioration over about a half hour that led into a full tantrum. It’s said we grow out of this.

Maybe, in the sense that we generally don’t throw tantrums, but the underlying pattern is there. We dress it up in reason and give it more complexity, but really we want what we want, regardless of our age.

Is this a fancy way of saying that some people are having a tantrum after seeing The Last Jedi? Maybe, but not really. Many people wanted A and instead got B.

I’ve seen the videos. I’ve read the posts. I’ve seen this thing about how The Last Jedi should have unfolded (TL;DR: Everyone is a hero!). There’s even a petition to have the film stricken from the canon.1

I get the backlash.

However, I do think the film is misunderstood bigly. As a pedant (read: insufferable smarty pants) I feel I must at least examine why people dislike it and at least defend what it was trying to do.

While the beefs with the movie are many, the key one centers around the characterization of Luke.

“They ruined Luke!” is the most succinct version of this complaint. “Luke would never do that!” the howls of outrage go.

This complaint is, in short, bound to the fact that fans can’t seem to reconcile the two images of Luke. Last seen in Return of the Jedi as heroic savior of the Galaxy. In The Last Jedi he’s bitter and deep in a crisis of faith. The notion that he would, even for a passing moment, think of striking down his nephew, is anathema.2

That this rash act led to the birth of the First Order is just the the ice for the Hateorade.

There’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll just say it: This position is horseshit.

It stems from a basic failure to understand the character of Luke, and more importantly, to understand a major theme and texture of the original trilogy itself. To put it in a succinct form favored by those booing The Last Jedi: What movies have you been watching for the past 30 years?

Luke is not the unalloyed hero and crusader for the light side that fans seem to think he is. Nor are the Jedi. In the end Luke does win and does do the right thing, but only after repeatedly indulging his dark impulses.

Luke’s defining characteristic – other than being whiny – is that he struggles with darkness. At his first meeting with Yoda, the Jedi master refuses to train Luke. (I feel I should point out here that this is just like Luke first refusing to train Mary Sue3. Jus’ sayin’.)

Yoda dresses Luke down, arguing he’s filled with anger and too reckless and focused on dreams of glory — you know, Dark Side shit. Luke’s cave vision shows him replacing Vader. It’s a manifestation of the inherent darkness he carries with him.

He eventually proves Yoda right by blasting off in a fit of pique to face Vader.

In Return of the Jedi he is increasingly being drawn to the dark. Such as this scene where Vader goads Luke into embracing darkness only to get his black-clad ass kicked:

In the above clip, Luke is in all black, deep in the shadows. Most of the fight he’s bathed in darkness – almost a Vader analogue. It’s almost like the director was trying to say something. A metaphor perhaps!

But, Luke would never be tempted by the Dark Side to take up his lightsaber and try to straight-up murder someone — well, other than this time:

Anger, impulsiveness, and petulance – them’s those Skywalker men fer ya.

With that in mind, here’s a point I think people really are not getting:

When Luke says that the Jedi must end, that should be read as Skywalker family drama must end. Because for three generations, the word Jedi has pretty much been synonymous with Skywalkers. And unceasing war4.

Those wacky Skywalkers don’t settle their differences the way normal dysfunctional families do: by screaming at each other at the Life Day dinner table. They’d just have a ruined holiday as Anakin sarcastically calls Luke’s new job as Jedi “impressive” and Luke would ask his nephew Ben Solo “when are you going to stop hanging out with Snoke behind Tosche Station and get a real job?”

Meanwhile their Uncle Owen would be muttering about how they need to build a wall to keep the Jawas from stealing all their jobs as Aunt Beru tries to change the subject to how well the roast bantha turned out.

Instead, the Skywalkers drag the entire rest of the galaxy into their mess. First the dad blows up his daughter’s planet, then his son blows up his dad’s prized moon-sized space station. There’s a few billion people dead right there.

Then dad uses the entire resources of the Empire to track down the son, killing a large portion of Empire senior management in the process. Even after all this, the son decides to just show up on his own and hang out with dad at his new space station while dad uses it to blow up his daughter’s friends and coworkers.

A few years later, another Skywalker decides to settle his daddy issues by blowing up several planets. There’s a few more billion dead there. And Leia, the most sensible Skywalker of the whole lot, ends up leading two armed rebellions, first against her dad and then against her son.

Jesus fuck, Skywalkers, leave us out of this!

Why would Luke, looking at any of this, be OK with this continuing on? Why would he be a party to it?

But let’s set aside complaints about Luke for a moment. These were just a part of a larger picture — a tessellation of complaints. The real source of objections is found at a meta level. The Last Jedi is a decidedly different statement overall than its predecessor.

The Force Awakens begins with the line “This will begin to put things right.”

Intentional or not, that line serves as the film’s purpose statement. Indeed, that is pretty much what The Force Awakens accomplished: Righting the ship.

It was a tall order. The movie needed to set up a new trilogy with new characters and give old characters their due. But it’s most important mission was to win back the hearts of fans alienated by the dreadful prequels.

Three years ago I wrote this of The Force Awakens trailer:

Rather, the implicit message of The Force Awakens trailer seems to be a sort of relationship counseling. “We know you’ve been hurt in the past. It’s OK to love again.”

And The Force Awakens is very much in that mold. When Mary Sue and Finn hijack the Millennium Falcon and lead a pair of TIE fighters on a chase as John Williams’ score swells, it’s a moment of pure, naked, shameless fan service.

But I’m not made out of stone either. I’ve literally waited my entire life to get to see the Millennium Falcon be awesome again. The Force Awakens knows this.

The Falcon, R2-D2, Luke’s iconic blue lightsaber — they’re right where we left them, on a metaphorical shelf. Luke, Leia and Han? They’re long split up. We haven’t had Star Wars or its icons since 1986 and neither have they.

The Force Awakens is everyone getting Star Wars back – in the most fan-service filled, comfortable manner possible. Much has been written of how it’s a soft reboot and beat-by beat retelling of the original Star Wars. When a character exclaims “It’s another Death Star,” the correct reaction is “Of course it is. What else would it be?”

If you want safe pop entertainment, co-writer and director JJ Abrams is your guy. The Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson is not. He’s an indie filmmaker of clear ambition. His notable filmographyBrick, Looper, four excellent episodes of Breaking Bad – are genre exercises that carry a decided edge.

The Last Jedi represents a 180-degree shift in mission. If the key line of The Force Awakens is about setting things right, the key line of The Last Jedi is “This is not going to go the way you think!”

The clearest contrast between the two films is found in scenes where iconic characters revisit the Millennium Falcon 5. When Han and Chewie re-enter it in The Force Awakens, it’s nostalgic, a big warm fuzzy blanket. It’s about regaining the past. “Chewie, we’re home.”

When Luke visits the ship in The Last Jedi, it’s about what has been lost and can’t be regained. Luke, too, is home. But the meaning of home has changed for him.

Awakens is about using emotional attachment as fan service. Jedi is about using that same attachment to tell a story, define a character. The difference is stark.

Those expecting the easy nostalgia of Awakens were no doubt left cold. As were the speculators.

JJ Abrams may have set up his Mystery Box world — spawning dozens of “Who’s Mary Sue’s father” speculative pieces — but Johnson shows up, just like Yoda5 at the end of the second act, and burns it the fuck down. All that speculation about Mary Sue’s parentage or Snoke’s origins or how Luke’s lightsaber turned up – “page turners they are not.”

Snoke, aka Darth Hef, served his purpose and died. (Though not everyone is ready accept this.) You may recall the emperor in the original trilogy played much the same role. From a pure screenwriting perspective, he was there to service Darth Emo and Mary Sue’s characters.

He should be called Darth McGuffin.

What’s important to the story is that Kylo Ren’s Darth Vader cosplay is smashed, that he’s unhinged and out of control. Luke’s lightsaber is severed. Mary Sue, she’s a nobody. There’s no midchlorians and notions of destiny or any of that heavy mythological nonsense.

For those who thought all that family tree and Mystery Box bullshit is important, here’s some advice from Basil Exposition:

The Last Jedi is an iconoclast in the true definition of the word: One who topples icons.

Star Wars movies need to stop being about The Force and Skywalkers and who’s related to whom, all with a thick layer of fan service ladled on like grandma’s Life Day bantha gravy. Just make them fun and exciting with strong characters, humor and great action.

After the throne room battle Darth Emo has some words of advice for Mary Sue.

“The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”

It’s almost as if Kylo Ren is talking about the movies themselves.

  1. Good luck with that one. The execrable Star Wars Holiday Special remained EU canon until 2014. It gave us such things as the name of Chewbacca’s home planet, the existence of and names of his wife, child and father, and provided the first appearance of Boba Fett. Additionally, if the Holiday Special was canon then Bea Arthur is the owner of the Mos Eisley cantina, Harvey Korman in drag hosts a popular cooking show in the Empire and Diahann Carroll provides spank material for the galaxy’s holo-headsets.
  2. The Luke / Ben story arc bears a striking resemblance thematically to Rian Johnson’s previous film, Looper in which the protagonist attempts to prevent a disastrous future but ends up setting it in motion.
  3. Sorry, Rey. I actually know your name. I keep making this mistake for some reason.
  4. It would be like if the monarchial heads of state during World War I and World War II were related to each other. Oh, wait. That actually happened.
  5. Yoda here is a puppet. Thankfully that George Lucas prequel CGI-Yoda horror is finally behind us.