I’ma gonna talk about Star Wars: The Last Jedi here, and I’m not going to bother hiding spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to be surprised, just skip this ramble until after you’ve watched the film.
I’m late to the party when it comes to The Last Jedi, but the fact that I didn’t see it until seven months after its release gave me a chance to witness the controversy around the film. Fans either love the film or hate it, and for a myriad of reasons. Of all the controversial points in the movie, the portrayal of Luke Skywalker seemed to serve as the biggest lightning rod, and I find this controversy very interesting.
Luke has gone through a lot of changes since the end of Return of the Jedi, transforming from a Jedi capable of turning Darth Vader away from the Dark Side to somebody consumed by failure over his part in creating Kylo Ren. While I’m inclined to just say, “He’s a fictional character – get over it,” the fact is that Luke is more than a character to a lot of people. In fact, Star Wars is a great example of how movie franchises have shaped the current adult generation.
The Rise of the Franchise
While movies have greatly influenced culture since their inception, people who are in their 30s and 40s now are really the first generation to have become children of the feature franchise. If you grew up with Star Wars as a kid, you grew up with more than a series of movies. You lived in a world that inundated you with tie-in comics, action figures, TV specials, breakfast cereals, and pajamas. While film franchises had existed for a while, the marketing of major films of the 1970s and 1980s pushed more than just a movie – it pushed a lifestyle.
As a result, a huge number of children in the 1980s didn’t just like the original Star Wars trilogy – it became a major part of their identity. That’s why the franchise is such easy money for Disney today. Even after a slew of terrible prequel movies, people came out in droves to see The Force Awakens because watching these movies is part of their cultural DNA.
At the center of that franchise stands Luke Skywalker. He’s an integral part of what made the pull of the franchise so strong. To kids across the world, he’s not just a character – he’s us.
Luke the Blank Slate
Let’s face it – Luke Skywalker isn’t really that interesting a character in the original Star Wars. He’s got a bland personality, awkward dialogue, and his risefrom farm boy to hero is one of the most generic versions of the Hero’s Journey ever put to film. But when it comes to building an emotional connection to the audience, sometimes a bland character can be a good thing.
Through the original trilogy, Luke is generic enough that most kids could put themselves in his shoes. You could want to be a roguish pilot like Han Solo or a princess like Leia, but if you were a normal kid who looked to the horizon and wished you could have a grand adventure, you were already Luke Skywalker. In the first movie, he served as the audience’s connection to a fantastic world. As he grew in power and confidence, so did we. When he became a badass Jedi master in Return of the Jedi, it felt like we had accomplished something, even though we were really just observers.
When that fan insert character who is defined by his ever-increasing awesomeness shows up as a bitter old man defined by his failures, it’s quite a shock.
It’s not Luke’s Story Anymore
The new trilogy isn’t Luke’s story. There’s a whole new guard now. From a film-making perspective, you can either leave Luke out entirely or you can give him a new role. It would have been very easy to just have him spout platitudes to Rey and take the role of Obi Wan Lite, but retreading the same ground would also have made for a boring story. There’s a certain value to repetition of themes and giving the fans what they expect like The Force Awakens did, but it would be a waste to do that multiple times in a row.
Despite not being a Luke story, The Last Jedi still gave him a character arc. And to give somebody a character arc, you need to put them in a position they haven’t been before. He had to deal with failure for the first time. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke had faced setbacks but he had never failed. Even losing his hand was a temporary issue – he got a new one, built a new lightsaber, and came back in the next film stronger than ever.
On the whole, The Last Jedi is about learning from failure and moving on. Every major character in the film fails badly. The heroes learn move beyond their mistakes, while the villains become defined by their flaws. Luke, who has known more success than anybody else in the franchise, has the farthest to fall.
In a dispassionate sense, Luke’s character arc is very well-executed. But films can’t divorce themselves from a certain real-world context, especially not when they’re as popular as Star Wars. The fact is that a lot of fans look at Luke from the original trilogy and see themselves. They came into this movie expecting a dose of nostalgia and a chance to put themselves in Luke’s shoes and feel awesome again. And if they did that, they saw their self-insert character introduced as a jaded old man whose hubris had created a new age of darkness.
On top of all that, even though Luke does overcome his failure and save the day in the end, it costs him his life. Other than losing his hand in The Empire Strikes Back (which, again, was a problem he immediately overcame), that’s the first real price he’s had to pay for character growth in these films. Luke went from being a messiah in the original trilogy to somebody with flaws who only earns true success through hard sacrifice.
If you identify closely with Luke, that’s a real kick in the feelings. And while the folks at Disney could just tell people to get over it because it’s just a movie, doing so ignores the fact that they put a lot of effort into making it something more.
What does a Franchise Owe its Fans?
Usually, I think that fans who act as though their continued patronage gives them some sort of ownership over a franchise are acting like spoiled children. You buying A Game of Thrones and loving it doesn’t mean that George R.R. Martin is in any way obligated to finish writing his series. When you buy a book, video game, or movie ticket, you’re paying for that product and that product only. You aren’t buying a stake in future creative decisions.
That said, there is a degree to which Disney and Lucasfilm should expect a strong emotional reaction to The Last Jedi, especially when it makes such a controversial decision with Luke Skywalker. These guys have invested a lot of money into making Star Wars an integral part of people’s lives. They have deliberately marketed the franchise not only as a film series but as a way in which people identify themselves. If you spend billions of dollars creating a culture of expectation around a property, you should expect backlash when you choose to subvert those expectations.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that fans should take their emotional investment as a license to harass others. The idiots who did things like chase Kelly Marie Tran off Instagram for having the gall to play a character (who, quite frankly, was adorable and who I hope returns in the next film) have taken their obsession to unhealthy and dangerous levels. For that matter, even films like The Phantom Menace, which are more universally hated, should never have resulted in things like Ahmed Best contemplating suicide because of harassment related to his role as Jar Jar Binks or the myriad of troubles that faced Jake Lloyd for his role as young Anakin Skywalker.
Since the beginning, the marketing behind Star Wars has manipulated people’s emotions into making them see it as something more than an entertainment franchise. For that reason, those involved in it should expect strong fan reactions. At the same time, fans who can’t separate entertainment from reality and who feel like their emotional investment in space-based soap operas gives them a license to ruin people’s lives don’t deserve nice things. I hope the afterlife for those jerks consists of being locked in a room and forced to watch an endless loop of Luke Skywalker guzzling green milk from an alien’s teat.
My Thoughts on The Last Jedi
Okay, so after 1,500 words, I’ll finally reveal my thoughts on The Last Jedi and how it influences my viewing of the controversy surrounding the film.
I freaking loved this movie.
It’s not perfect, but it feels pretty close to me. I wish Snoke had some sort of backstory, and the casino scene ran a little too long. Other than that, I disagree with every other criticism I’ve heard involving the film. Depending on the response and comments I get from this piece, I’ll happily provide my defense of why Admiral Holdo shouldn’t have explained her plan, why Rose was right to stop Finn from sacrificing himself, why Leia floating through space was awesome, and why ending the film with broom kid was a good move.
Setting aside a potential defense of the directing and story decisions with this film, my enjoyment of the movie, like many people’s hatred of it, stems from the portrayal of Luke. In fact, the moment where my brain went from thinking, “This is fun” to, “This is good” came during the Rashomon-style telling of his near-attack on Ben Solo.
To be clear, I was very nervous about the movie going into it. I strongly suspected that Luke would die, and I didn’t want to see that. I grew up in the 1980s, and Luke is my self-insert character in this franchise. When Kylo Ren gave his description of Luke trying to kill him, I almost lost interest in the movie completely. My Luke does not kill innocents, no matter how evil they may turn out to be.
When it got to Luke’s telling of the scene, though, I immediately re-engaged in the film. He changed from a guy who attempted something horrible to somebody who considered it for a moment before coming to his senses. That moment of consideration was enough of a failure, and his subsequent realization and shame saved the character for me while still propelling the movie forward. That scene took the, “From a certain point of view” line in Return of the Jedi to new heights, illustrating how perspective can shape heroism and villainy.
I also love the movie because Luke has to deal with failure. Again, I have to emphasize how thoroughly I identify with Luke in the series. For me, the original trilogy reflects my childhood dreams. Luke is a kid full of potential who becomes the biggest hero in the galaxy. From childhood on, that was essentially the character arc I saw for myself, I came from a poor family and a broken home but was destined for fame and fortune.
Real life did not play well with my hero’s journey. I have experienced personal, professional, and financial failure dozens of times as an adult. I never seem to succeed at something without failing at it 20 times first. And even when I have achieved success, such as with my writing, I’ve done so on a much smaller scale than my younger self ever imagined.
Just as young Luke exceeded my fantasies, old Luke surpassed my greatest fears. I have an intense dread that one day I’ll fail so badly at something that I won’t bounce back. Between trilogies, Luke went from being a positive fantasy to a negative one, but his personal significance to me never diminished. Because he managed to move on from a failure worse than anything I could ever do, because he still got up off the mat and saved the galaxy yet again, and because he went out like the badass hero he deserved to be, Luke continued to be the type of hero I want to become.
Some of the backlash against The Last Jedi is based on film technique and storytelling disagreements, but a lot of it comes from the raw emotion that fans have put into this franchise. Likewise, while I can defend the movie based on the technical aspects of filming and story construction, the biggest reason that I love this movie comes from the emotional connection that I still share with Luke Skywalker.
A Story is What We Put Into It
The Last Jedi is a divisive film largely because fans are very emotionally invested in the characters, especially the character of Luke. This is a good thing in a lot of ways. A story without emotional stakes isn’t worth telling.
There is, however, a risk that the culture around this film becomes toxic. As people state their opinions as objective fact and shout down anybody who disagrees with them, others can feel conflicted or even intimidated by all the furor. They become less likely to watch the film and form their own opinions.
Whether you love or hate Luke’s portrayal in The Last Jedi, you should be sure to recognize your own bias with regard to the story. Embrace the fact that you care about the character, but don’t mistake your feelings for facts. Moreover, don’t become so angry or elated that you shout down anybody who disagrees with you. Star Wars has made its fortune on the emotional investment of its fans. To ignore that and mistake your feelings for objective fact is to do a disservice to everybody else who has a similar investment but might share a different point of view.