Frederik vs the Franchises: Reckoning with the Force From A Galaxy Far, Far Away

In pop culture’s pantheon, Star Wars may reign supreme, challenged nowadays only by the MCU, but in my personal pantheon of media juggernauts I’ve always favored Star Trek. Exploring strange new worlds and seeking new life and civilizations has always engaged my imagination far more than fighting in a galaxy far, far away. Still, I won’t deny enjoying Star Wars’ popcorn fun, at least insofar as the Original Trilogy (OT) is concerned. I retain an affinity for the iconic characters that have loomed larger-than-life over popular storytelling, and keep a DVD set of the OT on my shelf to watch again when the mood strikes me. But as more and more content is added to the Star Wars universe, the more the OT is the general limit to my appreciation. As a vast media empire, Star Wars has come to embody everything I find annoying and alienating about franchises – the endless churn of product, risk-averse storytelling overly dependent on nostalgia, the collision of creative visions. It appeals to the dark side of fandom, where marketing influences artistic decisions by giving consumers what they want rather than engaging them with stories told with integrity and respect for authorial intent.

The Force Is Definitely Not With The Sequel Trilogy

While the Prequel Trilogy (PT) left me unimpressed, but not necessarily closed off to further Star Wars stories, it’s the misguided Sequel Trilogy (ST) that ultimately drained the force out of any interest, however casual, I might have in anything further Disney wants to sell. The best thing I can say about The Force Awakens is that it looks professional, which isn’t saying much because I’d expect nothing less given the money thrown at it. While I’ve never felt that J.J. Abrams offers any particularly visionary directing, let alone a substantive understanding of the franchises he works with, I won’t deny the polish he brings to his films. If nothing else, The Force Awakens is a technical improvement over George Lucas’ awkward filmmaking in his prequel trilogy. Beyond that, however, I couldn’t be more mystified by the critical consensus that yields a 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. While the film introduces mostly interesting new characters – Finn is particularly notable as an off-template character, a Stormtrooper who rebels against his masters as a matter of conscience –, these are smothered by a story that yields no surprises in its development on account of being so derivative of A New Hope. Sure, Abrams may have intended to play off the new characters against the mythology of the original, as he asserts in an interview with Rolling Stone: “… to tell a story that was not just history repeating itself, but a story that embraced the movies that we know as the actual history of this galaxy.” But how disingenuous. Cf course he tells a story of history repeating itself. All the events from the OT are repeated and rendered moot – the New Republic is easily (and glibly) dispatched in a single blast by a long-range weapon powered by ridiculous physics – and the attempt to exploit its iconic characters to excite fans only comes across as a depressing attempt to replace the old originals with passable replicas not beholden to Lucas’ vision. To offer an analogy: it’s like replacing checkers with chess pieces on the board only to continue playing checkers.

It’s not only in the broad and derivative gestures of the narrative that The Force Awakens sets a poor stage for the sequel trilogy; it’s in the details too, those small character-defining moments. The most memorably stupid one is the scene in which Kylo Ren tries to Vulcan mind-meld with Rey to extract information, only for it to backfire and reveal his own greatest fear. You’d think that the revelation would be something psychologically insightful, the key piece of the puzzle that is Kylo’s motivation for serving Snoke and the First Order from the Dark Side of the Force. Perhaps a deep alienation from humanity, a fear of parental abandonment, his inability to find someone to lose his virginity to – give me something! But no. What we’re given as his great inner fear is his worry that’s he’ll never be as powerful as Darth Vader. Kylo’s character never recovers from this missed opportunity to uncover an essential insight into his personality and inner conflicts. As a result, the consequences of his actions – notably, murdering his dad – ultimately comes across as pathetic and gratuitous rather than tragic. Rather than a villain whose fascistic pursuit of power has a deeply personal impact on his family, we get a weirdly entitled kid who whines and throws temper tantrums. Sorry, critical consensus: botching key dramatic moments and telling a derivative story just doesn’t add up to a good film, irrespective of its entertainment value (or lack thereof).

If I had any hope that The Last Jedi might prove more persuasive, it came from my enthusiasm for Rian Johnson as writer and director. And for the movie’s first third, I absolutely did feel that rush of exhilaration comparable to the fun of watching the OT. If nothing else, Johnson at least succeeded, where The Cashgrab Awakens failed, in surprising me with a wholly original plot that isn’t photocopied from past film scripts. Even better, he introduced some genuinely new themes into the storyline, namely the conflict between economic classes (via Finn and Rose’s mission to the Monte Carlo-like casino town of Canto Blight) and a perspective of the Force from outside of the Skywalker family.  I also applauded his revelation that Rey’s parents are actually no one of mythic or historic significance, an intriguing subversion of fan expectations and a further view of the Force beyond the Skywalkers. It’s unfortunate that these ideas landed rather awkwardly given a lack of setup from The Force Awakens and, worse, died quietly off screen with The Rise of Skywalker. But Johnson deserves credit for at least trying to offer a richer context to the conflict between the First Order and the Resistance.

I entirely reject his treatment of Luke Skywalker, however. It’s bad enough that the sequel trilogy essentially erases the events and outcome of the OT and replaces them with facsimiles, but Johnson leans into this revisionism by reversing Luke’s character development in Return of the Jedi. I understand that ROTJ isn’t a fan favorite like The Empire Strikes Back, but whatever its overall merits, its climax is much more subversive than people typically think. Luke not only senses the good in his father, unlike Yoda and Obi-Wan, but actively relies on it in a plan for redemption. At first, it seems like his faith is misplaced, as Vader does bring him in front of the Emperor, the Dark Side’s most fearsome and powerful embodiment. For a time, it seems as if Luke will indeed succumb to rage and fall to the Dark Side as he duels his father. But a moment of empathy, arising from the realization that he severed his father’s hand just as his was severed, pulls him from the brink. In refusing to continue the duel, he once again allows his (purposeful, it seems to me) vulnerability to draw his father back to the light side, which is what happens when Vader kills the Emperor to save his son. So what do we get? We get an ending that not only shows Luke confronting a supremely powerful evil, but using an approach to being a Jedi that is markedly different than Yoda’s and Obi-Wan’s. This is hard to reconcile with the character Johnson gives us, a Luke who can be so terrified of the Dark Side that he’d reflexively consider murdering not only a student, but the son of his best friends. The problem is further compounded in that this single moment, which is all the less believable given how empty Kylo Ren’s character is, unravels everything about Luke and renders him an utter failure at, well, everything. For all that time after Return of the Jedi, Luke is given no accomplishments – no new generation of Jedi, no new Republic to support, not even his friendships, which only highlights how bizarre it is for Johnson’s ending to ask us to see Luke as a symbol of hope to the galaxy.

Johnson’s vision for Luke does have its supporters. Daniel Finney presents one in an article at the Des Moines Register, citing a University of Iowa playwriting instructor who pushed back against his “hate” for The Last Jedi:

"It blew up some of the sacred cows of the 'Star Wars' universe," she said. "Characters developed, grew and changed. That was so satisfying to watch."

Gogerty argues that Luke's temptation to kill his nephew fits the arc of Luke's life. He's always rushed in when he should have waited.

Gogerty noted Luke disobeyed Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back," taking his weapons into the cave to face the dark side projection of Darth Vader.

Luke abandoned his training early to rescue his friends on Cloud City despite Yoda's admonishment he wasn't ready to fight Darth Vader.

That rashness cost him a hand.

"Luke has always been pretty impressed with himself," Gogerty said. "It makes sense that he would give into a moment of darkness when he was frightened by a vision of his nephew turning to the dark side."

Setting aside the question as to why people seem so eager to see Luke dismantled, and whether it’s an exercise in cynicism or not, interpretations like Gogerty’s don’t persuade me to change my opinion of The Last Jedi because they don’t strike me as a good fit with what we see on screen. It’s a strange argument to advocate for Johnson’s “change” in Luke by returning to his character in The Empire Strikes Back and ignoring his subsequent personal growth – let’s even call it spiritual growth, since understanding the Force, light and dark, and handling it with skill is surely what defines a Jedi Master. Luke clearly evolves from The Empire Strikes Back to Return of the Jedi, growing from an arguably rash apprentice to a patient, calmer, more spiritually courageous, and more assured planner. Indeed, insofar as there is any character development in the OT it’s in the hero’s journey Luke experiences. Even Yoda, who criticized Luke for abandoning his training in Empire and rushing unprepared to face Vader, eventually tells Luke in Return of the Jedi that no further training is needed and that he must confront Vader to truly become a Jedi. Yoda’s acknowledgement of Luke’s growth makes it all the more disappointing when Johnson brings him back to push a spiritually defeated Luke into action in a scene that plays back the teacher-student dynamic in The Empire Strikes Back and essentially emphasizes Luke’s failures. But while the scene makes some sense in terms of Johnson’s characterization, it rests on a rather unsteady reading of Yoda’s character, and Obi-Wan’s by association, as a wise Jedi in the OT. Is that really what we see, the impetuous Luke disregarding his teacher’s sage counsel as proof of his life’s arc of rash action? Consider an alternative interpretation. On sensing that his friends are in trouble, his moral intuition is to do what any good friend would do: try to help. Yoda reacts, not by offering to go along and help, but with a disapproving attitude and dubiously helpful advice. And what about Obi-Wan, the man who told Vader “if you strike me down, I shall only become more powerful?” Apparently, that translates to him telling Luke: “If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere.” Add to that the blatantly manipulative withholding of information when it came to being Vader’s son, I’d argue that neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan come across as shining moral examplars. As for the consequences of Luke’s alleged recklessness, while he clearly suffers from his encounter with Vader, what doesn’t happen is just as notable as what does: he doesn’t join the Dark Side and become the Empire’s new weapon, choosing suicide instead. Dark, sure. But not without some nobility and perhaps even a long-term benefit. If his hand hadn’t been severed, would Luke had felt a saving moment of empathy when he later cut off his father’s hand? I’d argue that the premature confrontation with Vader ultimately enabled the Rebel Alliance’s eventual victory, which makes Yoda’s warning – “If you leave now, help them you could, but you will destroy all for which they have fought and suffered” – quite wrong.

Given the many ways in which Luke could have been included or simply referenced in The Last Jedi and, previously, in The Force Awakens – the underlying question is: why commit to a tragic and pessimistic characterization? Without requiring perfection, noting that even great teachers may make mistakes or simply not achieve the desired connection with students that makes learning possible, Luke could still have been presented as a person whose life overall had a positive and inspiring impact – especially in contrast to wishy-washy hand wavers Yoda and Obi-Wan. (It’s worth noting Darren Mooney’s charitable reading over at The Escapist, but I personally agree with commenter Inkstained Wretch that the equivalency between Yoda/Odi-Wan and Luke misreads the OT. More fundamentally, I think The Last Jedi could have addressed the theme of exhaustion, cynicism, and optimism in the context of vigilance against fascism, or perhaps as an analogue to the struggles of civil rights movements, in a much better way than it did, and with greater focus on Rey rather than Luke. If that was indeed Johnson’s intended subtext.)

So we’re stuck with tragic Luke leading into Rise of Skywalker, a film that manages not only to insult intelligence but dumbness as well – as in, it doesn’t even rate as good dumb fun. Sidelining Finn and Rose, effectively ending their stories, is a wasted opportunity for interesting characters with genuine potential, while Rey and Kylo’s stories amount to little more than melodramatic mush. (Rey’s adoption of the Skywalker name, after it’s been dragged through the muck in The Last Jedi, is a particularly sour cherry on the film’s tasteless sundae.)  Of course, the crux of the movie’s is that somehow, Palpatine returns. I’d point out how the franchise tends to give the Sith all kinds of novel powers while Jedi seem limited to tricking minds, levitating objects, and telling the truth from a certain point of view, but the Force has never been anything other than an incoherent concept bendable to whatever scriptwriters want, a magic plot device akin to a deus ex machina. Still, while the magically arbitrary means of Palpatine’s return is ridiculous in and of itself, the decision itself to revive Palpatine as the ultimate evil behind the First Order makes the film worse and demonstrates bankrupt storytelling. In keeping with the ST’s commitment to erasing the OT’s (few) accomplishments, Palpatine’s return renders moot the victory Luke and Anakin achieve at the end of Return of the Jedi. (And forget that whole balancing the Force thing from the prequels.) It also takes deprives Supreme Leader Snoke from a deeper characterization, even if in a retroactive manner given his death in The Last Jedi. When considered as a whole, the ST merely expresses the worse tendency of franchise storytelling: compromising story, characters, and artistic vision by wallowing in the past rather than focusing on new ideas – storytelling by committee and marketing.

Looking Back at the Original Trilogy

As much as I can criticize Disney filmmakers, the root cause for the ST’s failure, in my view, actually rests with the OT or, to be specific, with how it’s been perceived and interpreted. I’m not alone  – see here and here ­– in being skeptical of the perception that the OT films are great cinematic art, noting they have many of the shortcomings that sunk other films. Sure, the OT benefits from fantastic design. And many action scenes, like the Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth, are energetic and engaging. But the OT films don’t surpass earlier or later films in terms of cinematic experience and the fight choreography is hardly groundbreaking even by the standards of the time. Some scenes, like Obi-Wan and Vader’s duel in A New Hope or the barge fight scene in Return of the Jedi, are fine, but hardly worth getting overly excited about. Shaolin kung fu movies coming out of Hong Kong at the time offer more kinetic and imaginative fight scenes than even the best lightsaber duels in the OT.

Nevertheless, I’d agree that Star Wars generally succeeds in providing a cinematic experience befitting the spirit of adventure serials. It’s the quality of the writing that really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  To begin with, characterizations are thin. Only Luke experiences meaningful growth, and arguably Vader although his growth is less of an arc than a sudden epiphany. Han’s transition from self-interested mercenary to team playing hero happens quickly in A New Hope and doesn’t evolve much from there. Leia starts as a strong leader and ends a strong leader. The romance between the two is rather incidental, requiring only a few scenes to develop. Beyond that, most characters serve as set dressing and fashion models, with great costume design but little personality let alone impact on the narrative. Even those few given opportunities to utter some lines of dialogue here and there, like Boba Fett, barely get to register as personalities let alone characters with psychological depth.

As for the plot, that too is rather thin, with A New Hope having more plot than The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi combined. It’s rather interesting to consider how The Empire Strikes Back is rated the best of the trilogy when its “story” consists of rebels escaping from an Imperial assault, Luke going to Yoda for training, Leia and Han on the run until they get captured, then another escape from the Empire at the cost of Han’s capture. Without A New Hope, the film is meaningless. Without Return of the Jedi, it’s incomplete. And while it does have one of the trilogy’s most dramatic scenes, a scene does not a story make. All in all, the OT is an example of sacrificing plot on the altar of zippy action.

Plot isn’t the only sacrifice, though: so is worldbuilding. The politics of the Empire and Rebellion are poorly explored. The Force is nebulous hand-waving, at best, with no conceptual structure beyond boiled fortune cookie utterances. (What is the Force? How does it work? Why is it divided into such Manichean moral sides, and what is the psychology of Force practitioners within this division? Perhaps it’s no surprise that the physics of the Force are so poorly determined. After all, Lucas couldn’t even be bothered with real physics in his space-based dogfights.) Even the dramatic impact and moral contexts of key moments are glossed over in the rush to get to the next action spectacle, Alderaan’s destruction being a prime example.

These shortcomings are not disparate, but rather symptomatic of a deeper issue, namely, that Lucas’ vision for Star Wars has been opportunistic rather than coherent and methodical. Compare Star Wars to the depth of literary universes such as Dune and Lord of the Rings, or comprehensively planned TV series like Babylon 5. There’s a clearly visible difference between a series whose story and background details have been methodically mapped out and a hodge-podge approach, however creative in parts. Although to some extent it’s no different than the brainstorming any creative goes through before finalizing a story, the many stories of the various ideas Lucas considered and discarded offer some proof of this. For more definitive proof, consider this: Lucas commissioned sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the novelization of A New Hope based on early script drafts, to write a sequel that could be filmed on a lower budget if the first movie performed poorly at the box office. That sequel was the novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and its significance isn’t only that it gave us an entirely different story direction than The Empire Strikes Back, it highlights the extent to which Lucas was perfectly content with outsourcing Star Wars to other people rather than conceiving his own vision. And, crucially, allowing his vision to be drastically altered by financial considerations. The Empire Strikes Back and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye are the cinematic equivalent of A/B testing in online advertising.

Assigning a Grade: B

Altogether, the conclusion can only be that the OT is B-movie grade, a triumph of style over substance. But to say that the OT movies are B-movies isn’t to say that they’re bad entertainment or can’t be personally meaningful in some way. Recognizing that a film’s entertainment value doesn’t necessarily correlate with its quality, there’s no contradiction in viewing the OT as engaging but superficial. That “B” isn’t a scarlet letter. After all, it’s not uncommon for B-movies to connect with viewers, especially as cult cinema, while more elevated award-winning fare may shine for a moment at the Academy Awards than take a nap outside of pop culture’s spotlight. A movie doesn’t have to be profound or exceptionally crafted to be relatable, inspirational, emotionally resonant, or meaningful in some way.

Still, the perception of the films as something they aren’t explains why attempts to fix the OT’s shortcomings creak and groan from the strain to make the continuity work, a common problem with franchises. Because with all the later retcons and reinterpretations reinforcing what people want Star Wars to be rather than what Lucas present, we see the franchise transformation from light swashbuckling adventure to Very Serious Storytelling and, in my opinion, losing the quality of undemanding fun that characterizes the OT. (The shift is almost like watching an Indiana Jones movie, deciding that the Nazis need explaining as villains, and creating a spinoff called Indiana Jones and the Rise of Hitler to show us why Nazism is evil all the while doing some PR to rehabilitate Indy’s image as a less-than-heroic figure.)

Rogue One is a tempting milestone for the decision to tell Very Serious (and Absolutely Not B-Movie) Stories, given a downbeat ending that is far from the swashbuckling happy ending heroism of the OT. But Lucas himself arguably changed course with the Prequel Trilogy (PT) and its modeling of a liberal republic’s fall to fascism, providing context and explanations for the state of that distant galaxy leading to the events of the OT. As films, there are some aspects of the PT I can appreciate despite shortcomings both technical (e.g. dialogue, performances) and conceptual. The storyline spanning three films is more cohesive and Lucas is generally effective at presenting a tragedy of complacency, arrogance, and moral bankruptcy as the gateways for the corrupt and destructive pursuit of power. If it weren’t for Hayden Christensen’s unwatchable performances in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I might be open to rewatching the films despite the fact that I don’t feel the PT is quite in continuity with the OT. (Given the skepticism expressed by characters like Han Solo and Motti, my impression of the Force and Jedi Knights in A New Hope is that for all that they might have been guardians of peach and justice, they were less grandiose than their depiction at the center of Republic power in the PT. But that’s just my impression.) In any case, Anakin’s turn to the dark side and the Empire’s rise emerging from systemic flaws in the Republic’s governance, combined with the critical failings and misjudgments of a fossilized Jedi Order, makes the PT surprisingly bleak. And bleak, of course, is quite tonally different from the jauntier OT, especially when it stems from treating the subject matter with a greater attention to realism.

We can draw a line, then, from PT to Rogue One and, apparently, Andor. “One of the things Andor is interested in is how people live under fascism, and how fascism changes environments—natural, built, and social,” writes Abigail Nussbaum at her Asking the Wrong Questions blog. I’m inclined to wonder if – in addition to the retcons, continuity fixes and rationalizations – the decision to start exploring the workings of fascism is a sign that people don’t actually like the OT very much. At the very least, the transition from fluffy adventure to serious storytelling points to an identity crisis at the heart of what is, fundamentally, military fiction. Torn between Lucas’ infantilized approach in the OT, which strips the moral complexities and brutal realities to offer kid-friendly fare, to the current impulse toward grittier, more complex offerings, Star Wars is confused about its premise as a story of war and violent conflict. Alan Dean Foster’s impression of Lucas offers some support to this, as he tells Yahoo Entertainment in response to his inclusion of a particular gruesome massacre in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye: “George is a very sensitive guy; I picked up on that from the moment I met him. That’s why, I think, the Imperial troopers never take their helmets off [in the original movies]. Because if you’re seeing people get shot all the time and their faces are contorted in agony, it gives you a very different cinematic vibe than if its just a figures in plastic helmets that all look the same. I don’t know this, but I think that was a deliberate choice on George’s part to mitigate the violence.”

This essential confusion about depicting war raises cultural questions, such as: to what extent is Star Wars an expression of Hollywood’s tendency to glamorize war and repeat stories in which victory is achieved through the superior application of violence? (How many people fantasize about being Jedi so they can sit and meditate? Not nearly as many as those who dream of dueling with lightsabers.)

Uncomfortable moral questions aside, the tonal shift of later works, along with the attempt to lean into thematic issues from a more adult perspective, points to a key problem with franchise: the hijacking of an original creator’s story by other people with their own ideas of how it should be told.

For my part, then, I’m content with the Original Trilogy in all its B-movie glory. I can excuse its lack of profundity on account of being simplified for the benefit of younger viewers. I can also appreciate how the whole is more entertaining than the superficial concepts of its parts. And when I really want a sequel, especially in a franchise that’s become a choose-your-own-adventure, I can always turn to the Dark Forces story, particularly the trilogy of novellas by William C. Deitz based on the seminal game series. An excellent example of how to do a sequel, Dark Forces works particularly well because it introduces a new character, Kyle Katarn, whose journey only marginally intersects with OT characters. After starting with a gift to fans, with Katarn stealing the infamous Death Star plans, the plot takes off in its own direction, backtracking to Katarn joining the Imperial Army under the belief his parents were killed by the Rebellion, learning the truth about the Empire’s coverup, turning Rebel-aligned mercenary, and eventually discovering his Jedi heritage while attempting to stop a group of Dark Jedi from claiming a tremendous source of power. Aside from being a snappy adventure, Dark Forces succeeds in justifying why the Jedi should be perceived as forces for good, which is less about brute force but moral perspective. Katarn proves to be a Jedi not because he’s better at violence than his Dark Jedi opponent, but because for all his lifetime of cynicism he can still bring compassion to bear in even the most difficult circumstances. The clever way Dietz writes Katarn’s final duel with the Dark Jedi’s leader, Jerec, for example, is an especially memorable demonstration that the light side of the Force doesn’t have to be stronger than the dark in terms of raw power. It only needs to approach the fight with an entirely different perspective in order to win. And all without introducing new hand-waving mumbo-jumbo to magically solve thorny plot points.

One Last, and Very Important, Thing

So as Disney churns out yet more Star Wars content, I have no regret about sitting on the sidelines. The OT, Dark Forces – these are enough for me. But I will end by pointing out an important topic I haven’t addressed: racism and the challenge of diverse representation in Star Wars. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’d encourage you to read these articles from The Playlist, Scientific American and, especially, CHS Globe Online.

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