Warning: This essay contains spoilers
Fanboys vs. Fans
A lot has been said about Rian Johnson’s Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi since its theatrical release on December 15. Long time Star Wars movie fans, by and large, loved it! They found the story to be true to the nature of the original trilogy and, much like The Empire Strikes Back, a fan favorite, full of surprises and revelatory plot points that moved the story in a completely new direction.
But many long time fans of the Star Wars extended universe (the expansive world of George Lucas’s Star Wars captured in novels, comics, television, and video games), hated The Last Jedi and are even petitioning to have the film removed from the official Star Wars Canon. Yes, such a thing does exist. The foundation of the Canon is the Skywalker family saga as it is told in the movies. Movies are where the young, creative, and ambitious storyteller George Lucas began Star Wars and movies are where it will all end. There is a group of individuals connected to Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch in California who determine, much like the ancient counsels attached to the Bible, whether or not a particular story makes it in or out of the treasured Canon. What the dedicated fanboys of the extended universe seem to have forgotten, in light of TLJ’s release, is that most of the extended universe was removed from the official Canon. The current Canon consists of the official movies, the The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series, and any novels, comics, and short stories released since 2014. Fanboys were, understandably, pissed off about the removal of the majority of the extended universe materials from the official Canon.
In true postmodern Internet fashion, TLJ has been reduced from a cinematic experience and important piece of the vast Star Wars mythos to just another piece of pop culture to fill our social media news feeds. It has welcomed a series of memes, GIFS, and hashtags, both positive and negative, and as such, is a constant reminder of how quickly our screen obsessed culture believes it can determine the worth or worthlessness of any particular person or thing. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram continue to be useful platforms that are misused by abusive tools and ego masturbators.
In 2015, several weeks after the release of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I published an article about how Abrams had successfully revived George Lucas’s almost “untouchable mythology.” I made the argument that people bitching about TFA are basically voices lost under the historical and cultural weight of the sacred Star Wars mythology. For instance, you may dislike the biblical book of Proverbs and tweet about how terrible it is until you’re blue in the face, but it’s in the Bible. It doesn’t matter if you dislike it. It is sacred Scripture, and much like the Quran, the Tanakh, the Dhammapada, or the Bhagavad Gita, it doesn’t give a shit about your opinion.
Some viewers of TFA complained that it was basically a slightly updated mirror image of George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. They said they wanted something “new” and something “different.” Well, as many sadly recall, Lucas tried something new and different with his prequel trilogy and all three films were met with disdain across the board from critics, fanboys, older viewers, and newer viewers alike. Lucas reduced the religion of the Jedi and the spirituality of the Force to “midichlorians” and bastardized the Jedi’s relationship to the Force, turning it all into mere magic tricks. The dialogue was poorly written and actors with considerable talent (Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor) were put on display in a deplorable visual clusterfuck that can only be likened to a colossal CGI dumpster fire.
However, due to the rules of the Canon, the Star Wars prequel films are part of the very standard by which we understand the mythology of the Skywalker family. Yes, that means Hayden Christensen is our Anakin Skywalker, the man who would become Darth Vader. Yes, that means Jar-Jar Binks is an actual character in the vast Star Wars universe. I despise Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I continue to insist that it is one of the worst American films ever made. George Lucas should have known better, and yet, he didn’t. So, we are stuck with AOTC just as much as we are stuck with any other movie, good or bad, in the Skywalker family saga.
The question that needs to be answered is, “Are viewers who are attached to the Star Wars expanded universe willing to accept the movies as the very foundation of the Canon?” If not, then, my answer to you is this: Give up on Star Wars all together. Truly. It is completely within your rights and capabilities to give up on the Skywalker family saga. The Last Jedi raised an interesting, and tough, challenge for long-time Star Wars fans. Rian Johnson is asking us to remember how Star Wars began. Star Wars was a movie. It was released in 1977 by a young Hollywood nobody named George Lucas who was forced to work with a meager budget. What he and his production crew did with the first Star Wars film blew everyone away. I love hearing the stories from people who sat in the theaters on or around May 25, 1977 and dared to give Star Wars a chance. The studio execs expected it to fail. No one had any clue what it was or what it would end up becoming. I remember feeling the same gleeful ignorance the day I picked up J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time. The late, great Roger Ebert wrote a piece about Star Wars for his “Great Movies” collection in 1999. To read his piece is to experience pure ecstasy at the joys of cinematic storytelling. Ebert called Star Wars “an experience.”
Star Wars: A Brief History
For skeptical film critics and wide-eyed audiences, the original Star Wars film was comparable to what Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane, considered by many to be the greatest movie ever made. Lucas, who had made the low budget THX-1138 and American Graffiti beforehand, wanted to make a film to fit the story in his head. Apparently, he had already planned out an entire six part space opera, reminiscent of Lucas’s beloved Flash Gordon TV serials. With the inspirations of Stanley Kubrick’s bold vision of space, spaceships, and planets in 2001: a space odyssey and Jim Henson’s marvelous puppetry and animatronic work dancing in his eyes, Lucas set out to make his movie. Not only that, but Lucas had done his homework by watching classic John Ford Westerns and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. He had all of the pieces; he just needed a wise sage to help him complete his task. Much like Sir Alec Guinness’s Ben Kenobi to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, Lucas enlisted Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, to help him craft a simple, powerful “hero story” for somewhere in the far reaches of space, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” if you will.
On a small budget only given to filmmakers expected to fail, George Lucas created a masterpiece of film. When the time came for Irvin Kershner to help Lucas bring The Empire Strikes Back to the big screen in 1980, it was now clear that Star Wars was no longer just a movie. It could no longer stand on its own as a cinematic wonder. The Empire Strikes Back was not only a vastly popular sequel, it had also established itself as Star Wars Episode V. The story was larger than Luke, Han Solo, and Princess Leia flying around in the Millennium Falcon with silly droids and visiting planets that resembled the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Darth Vader, the villain in black who killed the desert monastic from the first movie, was actually the hero’s father. The Force had a long, sordid history of bringing people together and dividing them. The Emperor, Vader’s master, was ever looming. As viewers pressed in to Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, they knew they were forced to live with the stark, abrupt changes Lucas and Kershner had made to the world of Luke Skywalker and his friends. Much like Tolkien, all of the answers for victory seemed to rest in the third part of the saga. Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and director Richard Marquand were the ones to bring it all home. Fun fact: The original director hired to make ROTJ was none other than Steven Spielberg, a young filmmaker who had already established a strong reputation for himself with sci-fi and action adventure outings like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Due to a conflict with the Director’s Guild, Spielberg was forced to remove himself from the project, leaving us to wonder what might have been. We all know that Return of the Jedi is the weakest film of the original trilogy. It barely wrapped things up and it didn’t answer many of our deepest held questions about The Force and The Emperor. Who was he and where the hell did he come from? Also, what about Darth Vader? David Prowse and James Earl Jones had created the greatest movie villain in history and nobody knew where he came from. Obi-Wan’s Force ghost didn’t do a very good job of explaining things to Luke, and now, apparently, Luke and Leia are twin siblings? Who was their mother? As the credits rolled at the very end of ROTJ, viewers were forced to accept that there were no easy answers. The movies were what they were. The story had delivered what it was going to deliver, unwelcome surprises, unanswered questions, weird plot twists, and all.
The Star Wars franchise began as a classic movie trilogy. When Lucas decided to offer us a bunch of lame-ass, cheap, and easy answers with his prequel trilogy in 1998-2003, he paved the way for even more stories to be set to film. Books and comics had been written, video game sagas explored, and yet, the movies still held, and still hold, the day. The Last Jedi may have disappointed some fans and may have frustrated audiences with its decisions, but it is Star Wars Episode VIII and according to the Skywalker Ranch, that’s pretty final. Sir Alec Guinness is said to have hated A New Hope. Folks who watched The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 have told me that, while they found it “cool,” it wasn’t as good as its predecessor and it had complicated the story in disappointing ways. Now, The Empire Strikes Back is considered the greatest movie sequel ever made, next to The Godfather, Part II. How did things change for Empire? Every generation of fans decides how it will respond to the next movie in the saga, but, much like the Bible and sacred mythologies of old, whether or not our generation likes the next movie is immaterial to its staying power in the culture.
The Last Jedi: Arguments and Retorts
Rian Johnson, a devoted fan of Star Wars, only had three feature films to his name before he was enlisted to make The Last Jedi. Johnson has been very public about his excitement to be one of the new storytellers in the sacred Star Wars mythos. He’s a Star Wars mythologist now, much like Lucas and Campbell before him. He knows that Star Wars isn’t just a set of sci-fi films. It’s bigger than that. However, as a wise filmmaker, he knows that Star Wars is told, primarily, in movies.
I really loved The Last Jedi. I do not think it was an amazing movie on its own, but, I do believe it was an amazing Star Wars movie. Johnson, a young filmmaker and storyteller did with his movie what Lucas did with The Empire Strikes Back, he confused us and challenged us and excited us and made a damn good movie doing it!`
With that, here are the chief complaints and comments leveled against Rian Johnson’s Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and my responses to them:
1. Rey’s family lineage: At the conclusion of The Force Awakens, we were all wondering where Rey (Daisy Ridley), the hero of the new trilogy, came from. She had to be connected to the Skywalkers in some way, or at least Obi-Wan, or maybe even Qui-Gon Jinn! She must have Jedi blood! Well, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), our villain in black, reveals to Rey that she is, in fact, a “nobody.” This angered fanboys. I say to that, get over it. It is a powerful message that someone outside of the Jedi lineage could utilize the Force for good. Remember, the Jedi aren’t an exclusive membership club of midichlorian magicians. Lucas created them as a peaceful religious monastic order. Isn’t it an awesome message that Rey is welcome to join them, even if she is a nobody from Jakku? Also, on that note, Johnson has indicated that Kylo could very well be lying to Rey to distract her, so, I guess we will have to wait until Episode IX for a full reveal.
2. The Death of Supreme Leader Snoke: Halfway through TLJ, Supreme Leader Snoke (a disfigured, motion capture Andy Serkis) is murdered by his young apprentice, Kylo Ren. Fanboys have cried and booed saying, “He’s a wasted character! We don’t know who he is or where he came from!” Please recall that in Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader killed his master, The Emperor. At that point in the saga, the name Palpatine wasn’t even used. We had no background for the Emperor. Lucas and Kasdan weren’t even using the word “Sith” to describe the followers of the Dark Side of the Force yet. If all we had to go on was the original trilogy, we would just have an ugly ass evil old dude in a black cloak and hood called the Emperor. Darth Vader kills him. Without the prequel films, we wouldn’t have Senator Palpatine and his background story as Darth Sidious. Maybe J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio will answer questions about Snoke’s origins in Episode IX, but, his origins don’t really matter. Snoke is what I call “a Joker villain.” In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker offers to tell each victim the story about his “scars.” The story changes each time. In Nolan’s version of Batman, the Joker doesn’t have an origin story. We don’t know who he is or where he came from. He is mysterious. Mystery makes him scary and the Joker is a great movie villain precisely for that reason. The same can be said of Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, HAL 9000 in 2001: a space odyssey, Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or Darth Vader himself in A New Hope. It wasn’t until much later that audiences became obsessed with origin stories and making villains “relatable.” Snoke, like the Emperor before him, does not need an origin story to be a villain. He needs to be scary. The Emperor was scary. Snoke was scary. That’s all we need to know.
3. Finn and Rose’s subplot was pointless. The Intercept, a publication managed and edited by the great and daring journalist Jeremy Scahill, actually took on The Last Jedi, examining the position it took in an ongoing “class war.” It is a great piece that argues that Finn and Rose’s subplot puts Star Wars in the place it needs to be: on the side of the lower working class. Say what you want about the “empire” of Disney and the way they are devouring everything in sight with dollar signs in their eyes, but, Rian Johnson knows damn well to put the rebels on the side of the poor, something that is missing from the original saga. The casino planet of Canto Bight is in the middle of holding a major party for the wealthy 1% of the galaxy when Finn and Rose show up. Rose grew up here as an oppressed minority. She knows these people. Journalist Kate Aronoff writes that The Last Jedi “is a ‘Star Wars’ for populist times and a kind of remake of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary that sides firmly with the left.” (https://theintercept.com/2017/12/24/star-wars-last-jedi-class-politics/) This, in the wake of a less-than-benign wannabe dictator president at the helm of our nation, and the 1% wealthier than ever before, is a powerful move for The Last Jedi to make. In a popular online theater and film blog, TLJ is called “subversive AF” and the writer reminds us that in every era, Star Wars has made commentary on social and political themes. “Bitter Gertrude” writes, “Star Wars has always had its finger on the pulse of the cultural fear of the moment. In the original trilogy in the 1970s and early 80s, it was The Man– an evil establishment that needed to be purified by a younger generation. In the prequels of the 90s, it was evil corporations secretly colluding with a corrupt government to create endless war. Now, in early 21st century America, the villain is an unstable young white man who had every privilege in life, yet feels like the world has wronged him.” Finn and Rose’s story is not pointless, it’s vastly important. It places a long sacred mythology on the side of the oppressed and marginalized. If that is all the film did, that would be enough. It also serves the story, however, because in classic Star Wars fashion, it is a “nick of time” side story that gets shit done for the Rebels. Remember the Endor scenes in Return of the Jedi? No difference.
4 General Leia flying through space like Mary Poppins using the Force. Yeah, that was weird. I’ll give you that one.
5. Admiral Holdo was pointless. After General Organa finds herself in the Resistance version of the ICU, a new commander must step forward in the form of Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo. Holdo is important for much the same reason Finn and Rose’s story is important. It places a new woman, with purple hair no less, in power over major decisions. This frustrates the ballsy, ego-charged man on board, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, as he attempts to mutiny and take her captive. I have had many colleagues who identify as women, in leadership roles, be reminded frequently by the men in the group, that they should not “silence” them and that they are acting “unfairly” toward the men in the group. Male fragility is put on full display in TLJ and it is because of Holdo’s character that we are forced to see these flaws in Poe and the other men on board the Resistance ship. Holdo, ultimately, knows best, and makes a major sacrifice that saves the future of the Resistance. Even if she was there simply to make the point that women in leadership should be listened to, followed, and obeyed rather than resisted and called a “frigid bitch,” isn’t that enough?
5. Rian Johnson was putting us on with The Last Jedi in the way Aronofksy did with mother! or Fincher did with Fight Club. Rian Johnson has been a devoted Star Wars fan since he was a small boy. This is public record. As a storyteller welcomed into the fold as a Star Wars storyteller, I do not see any conceivable way in which he would stoop so low as to bastardize Star Wars and turn it into a big farce and joke on Disney and its viewers. Sure, Disney sucks and is one big money-grubbing machine, but Star Wars transcends Disney and Johnson knows this. He has too much respect for Star Wars and his viewers to “pull one over” on us all.
6. Lastly, Luke Skywalker was “not the same Luke” from the original trilogy. Of course he wasn’t! This, my friends, is proof of good character development. Both Abrams and Johnson have had a difficult task: take beloved heroes who made their reputations as young adults and do something interesting with them now that they are senior citizens. Han Solo, that brash, beloved flyboy who had no love for “hokey religions and ancient weapons,” now believes in the power of the Force and has resigned himself to the fate that awaits him. If he had been the same Han Solo from the first films, he would not have grown or changed, and that would be damn disappointing. The same can be said of Luke. He moved in the opposite direction of Han. Now, he’s bitter, angry, and sassy. He’s been living by himself. He feels washed up. He doubts everything. He’s angry. He embodies mental illness in the middle-aged and senior community. Everything he has touched has turned to shit. Of course he is angry and bitter! What would you have Johnson do with him? Make him eager and starry-eyed again? Make him all light and no dark? Shit, no! He’s seen too much! Mark Hamill delivered his finest performance as Luke in Why? Because there was much more demanded of him. He had more to wrestle with, and he wrestled beautifully.