The Star Wars franchise is, in a way, the grandfather of modern-day franchises. Alongside the film Jaws, the first Star Wars film A New Hope helped create the summer blockbuster in the mid-to-late ‘70s, and propelled Star Wars creator George Lucas and his company Lucasfilm onto the track of long-term Hollywood success. Along with the successes of expanded material, such as toys, books, comic series and even music albums, Star Wars had already begun to build a large fanbase before the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, was released in 1980.
According to Lucas’ biographer, Dale Pollock, George Lucas originally planned and had even written film treatments for at least 12 films in the Star Wars franchises, meaning that Lucas’ intentions went far beyond his original trilogy and his eventually released prequel trilogy. However, after his prequel trilogy was finished, Lucas expressed no desire to make any more Star Wars films nor did he want anyone else to start making them. His reasoning was that he saw Star Wars as the story of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, an overarching story of falling from good and how one can be saved from evil. He was all right with animated series, books and comic series to continue writing stories in the same universe but didn’t consider them as strictly canonical to his six-film series.
Enter Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company since 2005, who began to pursue an acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2011. Lucas was considering retirement, but he also wanted to maintain some control over his creation, leading the deal with Disney to include naming his former co-chair Kathleen Kennedy as president of Lucasfilm. However, after the deal was finalized in late 2012, the director of the first sequel trilogy film The Force Awakens was basically told by Disney to “start from scratch” with a new story, ignoring most of Lucas’ film treatments. There are some interesting things that Lucas had suggested that were kept in later films, but we’ll cover that a little later. The important part was that the new film trilogy was not directly influenced by George Lucas, and only the previous films and select material from the Expanded Universe, primarily from The Clone Wars animated series, were kept in mind for the story’s canon from then on. If you want a way more in depth look on the Expanded Universe and its de-canonization, I highly suggest Nash Bozard’s video “Star Wars: The Expanded Trashcan.”
The thing about the new film trilogy is not how it disregards George Lucas’ work. In fact, far from it. The new trilogy, and to an extent the two anthology films Rogue One and Solo, go out of their way to homage and reference the original films as acts of fan-service or narrative shorthand, to the extent that many call the new films rip-offs of the originals. However, there is also the problem that the new films constantly subvert expectations as well, as the whole point of ignoring Lucas’ original plans was to create something new and unpredictable for a new and surprise-hungry audience. With this, filmmakers have had to do an extremely difficult balancing act that, while not outright failing, hasn’t universally been accepted by the Star Wars fanbase.
In this post, I mostly want to explore how this balancing act came off on the big screen, primarily through the new trilogy’s main character Rey. I understand that as of right now the trilogy is incomplete with the final installment, The Rise of Skywalker, coming out later this year in December 2019. A trailer was recently released for it as well. However, my purpose here is to explore the incomplete story right now as it is, because once the final film is released that will be the final say and what I have written here will either be supported or refuted. We’ll see if the filmmaker’s balancing act truly pays off or not in The Rise of Skywalker, but until then, we can only speculate.
A Rey of Hope
Rey, the protagonist of the new trilogy, is a very basic archetype, as are many characters in the Star Wars franchise. Especially considering the two protagonists of the original and prequel trilogy, Luke and Anakin Skywalker respectively, all three protagonists are extremely similar in not only character, but in backstory as well. All three are presented as coming from an underdeveloped desert planet, Tatooine for Luke and Anakin and Jakku for Rey, as well as having backgrounds that simultaneously keep them repressed while giving them convenient skills for the films’ various plots. Luke was a farmer, Anakin was a slave, and Rey was a scavenger. These backgrounds fit in with the original multi-genre inspirations of Star Wars, which included Spaghetti Westerns, Japanese samurai films and sword & sorcery stories. The three characters, while having different motivations, are generally the same as they all wanted to do good and make the galaxy far, far away a better place. The differences between them are what make their arcs distinct, and, for better or worse, the nuances and intentional subversions of them are what make and break their characters.
Anakin is the most obvious subversion, considering the whole existence of his character was to start as a hero but devolve into the evil Darth Vader, the right-hand man of the tyrannical Emperor Palpatine. Anakin’s arc began as a child slave whose only hope of freedom was to become a Jedi, but that also meant that he had to abandon his mother. He would also be required to swear off future attachment, which he ignored in favor or secretly marrying his true love Padme, and over the course of his life as a Jedi he was constantly told how impressive his abilities were while also denying him any of the authority he assumed his skill should have earned. Anakin losing the earthly loved ones he’s not supposed to have, while slowly losing his loyalty to the organization that kept failing him, is what led him to the Dark Side of the Force, allowing Anakin’s violent, sadistic and vengeful traits to override his compassion altogether. Anakin’s story subverts the chosen one narrative completely and utterly, as he is foretold to be the hero the universe needs and his expectations of fulfilling this are ruined not only by his actions but also those around him.
Luke, on the other hand, was a farmer raised by a loving foster family completely ignorant of the Jedi and his father’s descent into evil. Luke desires to go fight in the Rebellion against the Empire, but it is implied that these desires are driven more by Luke wanting to do something more than stay on a farm in the middle of nowhere than they are by an altruistic desire to do good for others. The main reason he is still on Tatooine when A New Hope begins is because of his loyalty to his adoptive family, which makes it really convenient when they are killed early in the film so that he becomes free to go train with Obi-Wan Kenobi and save Princess Leia. The death of Kenobi at the hands of Darth Vader give Luke a personal desire to kill Darth Vader over the loss of his loved ones, which as his training with Master Yoda reveals would ultimately end up being a form of self-destruction for Luke. Luke ignores this warning and goes to fight Vader personally, not only resulting in serious injury and an amputated hand, but also discovering that Darth Vader is his father.
Luke’s realization of this slowly leads him to realize that he can’t fight against his father, which is why the next time they encounter one another Luke instead attempts to bring Darth Vader back to the Light Side of the Force, which he does but not without nearly dying by the Emperor’s hands first. While Luke is ultimately unsuccessful at saving his father’s life, he did manage to save Anakin’s soul, and helped save the galaxy not through fighting but through compassion.
Now focusing on Rey, it is easy to see where her character beats drew inspiration from, but there are key differences. For example, unlike Anakin and Luke, Rey didn’t grow up with a loving support structure as she was abandoned on Jakku with no memory of who dropped her off there, or if they were her parents and what motivation they had to do so. Due to this, she grew up learning how to defend herself and sell scrap pieces from junked spaceships, which she can do either out of talent, intellect or a subconscious connection to the Force, much like Anakin and Luke. This is one of the most criticized aspects of her character, that she is disproportionately skilled for her life experiences, of which it’s hard to argue for or against because it is not pertinent to the plot. Rey’s skill level is argued about more for world-building and audience engagement reasons rather than narrative ones, so I won’t focus much on it. However, Luke was presented as similarly skilled but the audience was also shown that he still had a lot to learn. Conversely, one of the many reasons The Phantom Menace was critically panned was due to 9-year old Anakin being so powerful and skilled as a character that it broke the story’s plausibility for audiences, even in a franchise with space magic, so the discussion of Rey’s skill isn’t without precedent.
Rey is eventually able to flee Jakku with the help of other characters and commandeering the Millennium Falcon, as well as coming across Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber which was lost along with Luke’s hand in their duel. She also finds herself entangled in the conflict between the First Order, the remnants of the old Galactic Empire, and the Resistance, a group sanctioned by the New Republic to deal with the fanatic outliers. This conflict displays the failures of both the original and prequel trilogy’s stories, as the prequel trilogy was about a government not taking a threat seriously enough until it is slowly taken over by a fascist regime, and the original trilogy ended with the implication that the Empire could be defeated just by destroying its primary weapon and leader and replacing it with power structures that helped cause the Empire’s rise in the first place.
This is how Rey’s, and practically every other main character’s stories progress in The Last Jedi, the middle film of the new trilogy; everyone keeps making the same mistakes, leading to an endless cycle. I’ll briefly touch on some of those mistakes later, but for now, I’m focusing on Rey and her character arc. At this point, Rey was sent to find Luke Skywalker, get trained by him and bring him back into the fold of the intergalactic conflict. Luke, however, reveals that he is in self-imposed exile due to his belief that he failed to bring balance to the galaxy and that no one can, so he’s decided to just let the galaxy run its own natural course. Rey won’t accept this and eventually convinces Luke to teach her what he knows about how to be a Jedi and use the Force. He is impressed with her determination and skill, but quickly becomes frightened of her power level and suspicious of her motivations; his suspicions are proven correct when Rey gives into the Dark Side in order to find out where she comes from. It results in her seeing hundreds of mirror images of herself, but nothing else, which makes her realize that she comes from nowhere and, from her perspective, she does not matter. Rey also learns that it was Luke’s strong belief in the Jedi’s old ways that had caused him to nearly kill the new trilogy’s main antagonist, Kylo Ren a.k.a Ben Solo, when Kylo was a Jedi-in-training because Luke foresaw Kylo’s potential for evil due to his power level, which ending up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and led Luke to believe he is incapable of bringing balance. Like the galaxy’s old system of government, the ways of the Jedi ultimately did nothing to restore balance to the galaxy.
With this information, Rey decides to confront Kylo Ren and his master, Supreme Leader Snoke, in a manner that reflects Luke’s compassionate salvation of his father Darth Vader. Believing she is worth nothing in the grand scheme of the universe, Rey isn’t concerned for her own safety but does believe that she can prove Luke’s compassionate methods correct. In a way, she does, leading Kylo Ren to kill his dark master and save Rey. Unfortunately for Rey, the story is then subverted by Kylo Ren revealing that he is now free from the old ways of both the Sith and the Jedi and he is free to do as he chooses; which unfortunately means continuing to fight for the fascist First Order.
Rey is shocked to find that even if he is free from the supposed influence of the Dark Side Kylo Ren still wants to fight for the First Order, and Rey is even more shocked when he offers her a place of power, seeing her as an important and powerful potential ally. Her convictions still strongly aligned with the side of good so she declines his offer, leading the two to use the Force over possession of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber. The lightsaber is destroyed in the process, which can be seen as a metaphor for the struggle between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force. Rey ends the The Last Jedi having failed both her quests, to be taught by Luke Skywalker and her desire to redeem Kylo Ren. However, the film also ends with Rey’s renewed hope that she can still make a difference in the galaxy, and rather than base her new path on the way of the Jedi, she will instead use the Jedi teachings to forge a brand new way by learning from the past rather than dwelling on it.
Rey’s character arc is not very unique, as feelings of inadequacy, questioning of parental abandonment, and learning to move on from the past are all common elements for characters in fiction. Even compared to Luke and Anakin, these differences are notable, but not exactly overt enough to really stand out compared to the similarities between the characters. However, the problem isn’t that Rey’s character arc isn’t unique. The problem is that Rey’s character arc, unlike Luke and Anakin’s, is more dependent on multiple studio executives’ and filmmakers’ whims for every single film, rather than an overarching storyline developed by a single person.
Director V. Director: Dawn of “Just Us”
The biggest problem with the new trilogy is that it began with different directors and writers for each individual film. This isn’t outright a bad idea, as the original trilogy each had different directors and writers, but they still had something in common, which was George Lucas and his final say in where the story’s direction went. For better and for worse, George Lucas’ direction of the story did help the over-arching narrative feel consistent and complete in both the original and prequel trilogies.
Apparently, J.J. Abrams was offered to write and direct all three films of the new trilogy, but declined for unknown reasons, such as possibly to keep himself open for other projects. This led to him co-writing and directing the first film, The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson being attached to the second part of the trilogy, The Last Jedi, and for Colin Trevorrow to direct the third film, recently revealed to be called The Rise of Skywalker, before he quit early in the film’s production and being replaced by a returning Abrams. It’s also believed that J.J. Abrams had written ideas for the final two films and at least discussed them with Rian Johnson, but Johnson ultimately went in a slightly different direction. While J.J. Abrams didn’t outright disapprove of Johnson’s modifications, he was publicly critical of Johnson’s decision to make Rey’s parentage irrelevant by portraying her parents as nobodies who purposely abandoned their child, which is not the direction Abrams had wanted the story to take. Trevorrow quit The Rise of Skywalker due to creative differences (like there weren’t enough already), which led to Abrams taking control of the film, which he has said will be not only the final of the new trilogy, but also Abram’s response to The Last Jedi.
This writer and director conflict has, in a way, tainted the new trilogy in a way that hadn’t happened to Star Wars before. George Lucas’ fears about not having control over the story had been proven partially correct as Disney and the filmmakers chosen for the new trilogy have constantly been at odds with one another. This is paralleled by the way some Star Wars fans are at odds with each other as the new films are released. Essentially, we have a large cluster of people disagreeing with one another , with no singular entity able to quiet them down. It’s like the exact opposite of what is going on with J.K. Rowling and her Wizarding World, over which one person has absolute control of the direction of the story. However, look at the critical consensus of The Last Jedi and compare it to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Is it odd to say that despite the internal conflict, Disney, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson have handled Star Wars better?
The comparison between The Last Jedi and Fantastic Beasts isn’t just to express my distaste for the latter film, but to illustrate how there is no guaranteed route for how to handle multi-film franchises. People like to claim that they want a single person driving their favorite franchises, but J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World franchise proves that this strategy isn’t always effective. The new Star Wars trilogy being handled by several different people seems to be equally ineffective, at least as far as being divisive to the fanbase is concerned. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has been consistently praised for turning out good films and has had different directors for different films but also an overseeing force in the form of producer Kevin Feige, hasn’t developed a fool-proof formula as many people have complained of “superhero fatigue,” which some argue does exist and some argue doesn’t exist. My point here is that there is no perfect formula for great franchise films that appeal to everyone.
People have complained about decisions made for the new Star Wars trilogy, such as the “forced diversity” of making the main character female and for turning beloved hero Luke Skywalker into a disillusioned hermit. Interestingly, these contentious aspects were actually some of the few ideas Abrams and Johnson used that were suggested by George Lucas himself. The fans who try to play gatekeeper to the franchise and make it so that only the creator of the whole franchise has final say end up being defeated right then and there, as it turns out that George Lucas would not have given them what they wanted either. This shows that whether there are multiple directors or a single overseer, there will always be some fans who will complain about something.
It is my personal hope that The Rise of Skywalker ends the trilogy on a high note, not necessarily because I’m a fan of Star Wars, but also because I want to see proof that good can come from all the problems we’ve seen. I want the Star Wars franchise to be able to move forward in new directions without being criticized for being both rip-offs and radical revisions of canon. Would it be better if the next trilogy has the same writer and/or director? Maybe, but I also want to believe that that the next trilogy doesn’t have to do that to be good.
For a franchise as large as Star Wars is, there are going to be some contradicting elements and story changes as the franchise continues to develop. The Star Wars Expanded Universe might not be considered canon, but all of the books and comics can still be enjoyed, and the new series doesn’t have to be universally approved just because it is in canon. People are free to like or dislike anything they want; however, blaming problems solely on who’s making the films is becoming a tired excuse.
Finally, while I do think that the constant fighting over the story’s direction ultimately meant Rey came off as a flat and uninteresting character, that’s just how this project developled, and the way the project developed cannot be blamed for all of the new trilogy’s issues. I can complain about how Disney forced the new trilogy to be made too quickly or that the filmmakers should have hashed out a more solid backstory and arc for Rey that is consistent across the entire trilogy, but sometimes characters just don’t get the development they need regardless of how a franchise is controlled. Besides, we do have one more film, and it’s very possible that J.J. Abrams will do the character justice, and Rey will be lauded as this generation’s greatest hero. Probably not, because I’m sure there will be debates and contention, as the internet is wont to do. Maybe 30 years from now Daisy Ridley will play a crochety old lady version of Rey teaching a young Jedi in a new trilogy. However, knowing Disney, I’m sure the next trilogy will be released much sooner than that.
- Vice-Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, was a heavily criticized character from The Last Jedi. Holdo basically represented the military version of the “obstructive bureaucrat” stereotype seen in a lot of movies; these characters are supposed to be obstacles for the free-thinking, younger protagonists, but Holdo breaks the stereotype by being a female, where the stereotype is usually male. The stereotype is further broken when it is shown at the end of the film that Holdo was actually right to leave a younger Resistance fighter out of the loop. This didn’t sit well with a lot of people, probably due to the long-held stereotype where a loose cannon hero is celebrated for his appropriate and impetuous decisions to go against orders. Of course, it also didn’t help that Admiral Holdo was female and was opposing a young male. The character’s choice in hair dye matters too to some people, apparently.
- Kelly Marie Tran, who plays the character Rose Tico, was harassed off Twitter due to racist and sexist comments regarding her role in Star Wars. Like Admiral Holdo, Rose Tico at first appeared to be a stereotypical character: a lowly support person whose job was to have blind faith in another character’s actions. This formula is immediately subverted in how her behavior towards Finn, the trilogy’s second protagonist, indicates that she does not tolerate his attempts to manipulate her respect for him in order to get away with his somewhat selfish actions. Again, because a female is representing a righteous obstacle to a male character, this probably did not endear her to a certain subset of Star Wars fans.
- Finn also represents a certain amount of privilege from a meta-textual standpoint. While some people wanted to boycott The Force Awakens over having a black lead, not much outcry occurred for The Last Jedi, even after the film was released, possibly because everyone was complaining more about Rey, Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico. While this may be conjecture, it is nice to see not as many people complaining about race, although it does suck that these complaints have switched gears towards misogyny.
- Yes, General Leia’s “Superman” moment in The Last Jedi looks silly, but to be perfectly honest, it is no more silly than anything else the Force has been used for in the rest of the franchise. Plus, there is a difference between “looking silly” and “being silly.” Look at some of the actual Superman films for the distinction between the two; Superman flying isn’t silly, but it can look like it sometimes, but Superman flying to fix the Leaning Tower of Pisa is silly in both appearance and action.
- The constant push and pull for new Star Wars films that homage the original while being completely original is a standard that can not be met. You can never make a film that appeals to everyone, and trying to appeal to toxic parts of a fanbase will never be productive, which I think Disney knows better than to do. In the end, I agree with Rian Johnson letting the past die and moving forward, and letting the fans who are extremely upset over it wallow in their own outrage, because I’m sure the franchise will outlast that outrage. After all, if Star Wars can survive the prequel trilogy, the Ewok animated series, and the infamous Christmas Special, it can survive anything.