Gonna do some rambling incoherency about The Last Jedi here. Probably don’t read it if you don’t want spoilers, because, spoilers. Also probably don’t read it if you want good, insightful commentary. There’s enough of that elsewhere.
I’m old enough to remember when Star Wars fanboyz were complaining The Force Awakens was a “shot for shot remake of A New Hope” that brought nothing new to the franchise. Good times, good times. Now they’re reviewbombing Rotten Tomatoes and petitioning for TLJ’s removal from Star Wars canon, because It Didn’t Get Star Wars Right. Okay, look, we agree toxic masculinity is a problem, but it’s a big problem; can we start small by wiping out toxic fannishness? One Golgafrinchan ark fleet ship ought to do it.
(You know who decides what’s canon and what isn’t? You do.)
They were a little overboard but basically right about TFA: it was mostly a comfortable pair of shoes. Fan service here, fan service there, and a story line with almost no surprises. (OK, I didn’t expect Ren to execute his father in cold blood.) Which was, more or less, what the movie really needed to be. Perhaps slightly to excess. But Abrams had to establish his credentials as one who knew and understood and loved the original trilogy, and had the right to bring the franchise into a new era.
And the story line and the nods and winks didn’t matter so much as the introduction of the new characters, and especially the two central ones, Rey and Finn. Who were, to the shock and disgust of scumbags everywhere, female and black, respectively, and that was the big point: That you don’t have to be a white straight cis male to be the hero of the story.
The whining that Rey was a Mary Sue was nothing but sexism in its vilest form. Rey’s talents are extraordinary. So are those of practically every white straight cis male ever to star in an adventure tale. Luke Skywalker, for instance. Rey was not the first female adventure hero, but one of only a few, and a groundbreaker in the Star Wars franchise. Leia and (if I may acknowledge the prequels) Padme had their moments, but Luke and Anakin owned the stories. Rey owns TFA. In a world where women and minorities still are being told to sit down, stand back, and let the white straight cis males take charge, having her and Finn at the center of Star Wars is the kind of defiant act we really shouldn’t need, but do.
(And then they went and doubled down with another woman leading Rogue One. Amazing!)
So, bringing the franchise back after so long, putting people of a sort you didn’t expect in the starring roles, Abrams really did need to make TFA an exercise in familiarity. And that having been done, Johnson really needed to kick some holes in peoples’ expectations.
I mean, he could have told another safe, familiar, hackneyed story, a shot for shot remake of The Empire Strikes Back or whatever, and it probably would have made tons of money, and then Episode IX and X and XI and XII could likewise have covered no new ground; it’s not like most interminable movie franchises don’t work that way. If you’re setting out to make a cash grab, that’s the safe way to do it. If you’re setting out to make a good set of movies, it isn’t.
At nine movies already, if you count Rogue One and The Clone Wars, this series is pretty long in the tooth. This was the moment to either shake things up, or settle into comfortable mediocrity forever.
Johnson shook. Hard.
Coming out of TLJ, a few things bugged me. One was the whole Canto Bight / hyperspace tracker subplot. What was the point of it? How did it advance the movie? At first it seemed it didn’t. They didn’t get the right code breaker, they got their ship blown up, they got caught. The whole thing went nowhere, it failed, it didn’t even in its failure set up final success.
Then I realized this was only the biggest, but not the only failure here.
There was Poe’s costly attack on the super star destroyer. Poe’s mutiny. The attack on the battering cannon, and especially Finn’s attempted suicide run. Rey’s attempt to turn Ren. (Okay, and Ren’s attempt to turn Rey.)
And what do all these failures have in common? Well, with one exception, they’re all male failures. Pretty much everything done by a male in TLJ is a costly mistake, while the women, Rey and Rose and Leia and Holdo, time and again shut down the showboating guys and get stuff done. Luke’s faceoff with Ren at the end is pretty much the one male idea that goes well, other than Poe’s idea of following the crystal foxes (and even that idea needs Rey’s talents to make it work). Misandry! Well, not really.
What it really is is subversion of tropes. Every one of those failures — including Rey’s — is pretty much a dime a dozen plot device, the kind of thing we’ve seen over and over in and out of the Star Wars Franchise. Hot shot pilot defies “safe” orders and saves the day! Twice! Plucky heroes go rogue to execute a complicated plan to sabotage the enemy and save the day! Courageous team goes up against incredible odds and hero sacrifices himself to take out the enemy’s weapon and save the day! Hero sees good in the supposed villain, brings him around to the good side, and saves the day! In movie after movie, we’ve seen this kind of thing done — and almost always by white straight cis males. Yay, happy ending. This time? One trope after another… fails. One audience expectation after another gets shot down.
Instead what saves them is good, unspectacular plans (get the rebels to a safe haven and call for help!) and a decidedly un-tropeish sequence at the end (Hero force-projects himself across a galaxy to fake out the bad guy while the good guys follow some foxes out a hole to get away! I don’t think I’ve seen that one before.) The point of all the failure? For one thing it gets our heroes deeper and deeper into a hole, closer and closer to utter defeat. It’s the second part of a trilogy, after all. This is where you have to go; it’s just not usually done this particular way.
And the other point is, I think, to get you thinking about those tropes, about showboating versus leading, about toxic masculinity.
Those aren’t the only audience expectations to be thwarted, of course. We expected Snoke to be the Big Bad through all three movies — instead we get a shot for shot remake of the ending of Return of the Jedi a movie and a half too early and the real bad guy immediately stepping into the power vacuum. We thought we knew all about the Force; so did Rey, who got every word wrong, and we got to see Luke and Leia and Rey and Ren using the Force, or vice versa, in ways never seen before. (“That’s not how the Force works!!!!!1” Oh, spare me, fanboy.) We thought we’d learn where Snoke came from; turns out it doesn’t matter. We thought we’d learn who Rey came from; turns out they were nobodies. (And that right there is huge. The Force, Johnson’s telling us, isn’t a dynasty. It’s everywhere, and everyone’s. And there’s that beautiful scene at the end with the stable boy to drive that point home.)
And we also didn’t expect to see Luke drinking green milk fresh from an alien udder, or fishy aliens seething at Rey’s effects on the local architecture, or Yoda calling down lightning and giggling over it, or Finn naked and leaking, or Luke tossing his light saber over his shoulder (perhaps the most obvious metaphor of all) and saying of Jakku, “Yeah, that’s pretty much nowhere.” More jokes per square meter here than we’ve been used to, and fanboyz complain about that too. Well, you know what they say you should do if they can’t take a joke.
Altogether Rian Johnson’s turned out to be Star Wars’ Till Eulenspiegel, and after TFA, he’s given Star Wars exactly what it needed. A good shaking up, a kick in the butt, a fresh direction. All we need is that ark fleet ship and we’ll be all set.