I'm kind of a late comer to all this Star Wars criticism, but a couple of weeks back I gave my initial impression of The Last Jedi. I focused mainly on the stupid plot dynamic between Poe and Holdo, and the fact that most of the movie's tension would evaporate into thin air if Holdo were an even halfway competent character.
That was far from the film's only flaw, although it was definitely a fatal one. The much bigger issue for me, however, was the film's treatment of Luke Skywalker.
This is one of The Last Jedi's most divisive aspects. Luke's arc is a love it or hate it thing, and how people feel about it tends to be a pretty good predictor of whether or not they liked the movie.
The people I know who loved it were impressed by the unexpected story direction, and the realism of Luke being unable to live up to his own legend. One friend described the broken, burnt-out Luke seen in The Last Jedi as a perfect mirror image of his younger self in the original Star Wars.
I don't disagree. I just think it's a complete misfire, one that justifiably pissed off a lot of fans.
Luke the Antihero
Last week, I wrote a post about the corruption of the word "antihero" away from its original meaning. That original meaning has nothing to do with the amoral badasses it constantly gets applied to, like the Punisher or Deadpool. In its original meaning, an antihero was "a central character in a play, book, or film who does not have any heroic qualities, such as courage."
And while that definition doesn't apply to Deadpool or Punisher, it's a dead-on description for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi.
When we meet him on Ach-to, Luke is living the life of a solitary hermit. He's cut himself off from the Force, fled to a place nobody will find him, and chosen to spend the rest of his days wallowing in misery and contemplating his failures.
When Rey shows up, seeking to learn the ways of the Force and to enlist him in the fight against the First Order, two things happen in relatively short order. The first is that he learns about Han's death at the hands of Kylo Ren. The second is that he realizes Leia is involved in this fight.
His response to learning that his closest friend is dead, and that his twin sister is in mortal danger?
He rebuffs Rey. He refuses to go with her, and he refuses to teach her about the dangerous power growing inside her. "Go away," he says. "It's time for the Jedi Order to die."
At last, R2-D2 plays on his sympathy, using the old hologram of Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. He agrees to train Rey, but he still adamantly refuses to leave Ach-to to personally intervene.
All of this is, of course, before the flashback scene where Luke admits to a "moment of weakness" in which he contemplated murdering a teenaged Kylo Ren in his sleep. All because he "sensed a great darkness" in him.
You know. Just in case we needed any more reasons to see this version of Luke as a pathetic, cowardly loser.
The thing is, none of that really squares up with what we know about Luke from the original trilogy.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke abandons his training and knowingly flies into a trap because it's the only way to save his friends. After failing to defeat Darth Vader, he spends time training himself for a second confrontation. But he has no intentions of killing Vader in their second encounter. Luke senses good in him, and believes he can be redeemed.
Then, to help ensure the success of the Death Star mission (as well as his personal quest to redeem his father), Luke surrenders to Empire troops and faces both Vader and the Emperor alone in the throne room. And he does it on the freakin' Death Star, a battle station he has every reason to believe is about to be blown up.
Luke in the original trilogy is a hero in the classical sense, a man of great strength and courage. He puts his life on the line time and again to protect his friends and fight against the threat of the Empire. He's also a hero in the more modern sense, displaying a strong moral compass in addition to his physical prowess.
Luke in The Last Jedi completely lacks those traits. He doesn't even have any vestiges of them left.
And yes, I've seen the argument that Luke staying on Ach-to was a "courage of his convictions" thing, a dedication to pacifist Jedi principles that no one else in the movies ever had the strength to adhere to.
I think that's bullshit. And in order to explain exactly why, I'll need you to bear with me a second.
Coward is as Coward Does
In his wonderful screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee outlines an idea called "taking a character to the end of the line." In brief, he points out that the positive and negative forces in a character's life don't exist in a binary. He says they're actually on a four-point scale with a positive (+), a positive/negative (+/-), a negative (-) and a "worse than negative" (-/-) expression.
So, if the struggle is life and death, the four point scale is:
That fourth point on the scale is what McKee means when he talks about taking the character to the end of the line. It's the "fate worse than death," the thing that the character cannot allow, no matter the cost. In Return of the Jedi, Luke faces this when the Emperor goads him into fighting Vader. Luke nearly betrays his friends and his values by giving in to the Dark Side. He stands on the edge of that personal damnation, finds the strength to pull back from it, and tosses away his lightsaber. He tells the Emperor he has failed.
"I am a Jedi," he says. "Like my father before me." In that moment, Luke knows he will die by the Emperor's hand, but it doesn't matter. He faced that personal damnation and defeated it. He's already won.
Another example in McKee's book is the scale below, outlining the possible expressions of "Courage versus Cowardice":
Cowardice Masquerading as Courage (-)
I believe that fourth point on the scale is where we find Luke in The Last Jedi. For all of his high-minded prattle about how "it's time for the Jedi to die," and cutting himself off from the Force to keep the galaxy safe, what he's really doing is hiding.
He's hiding from a mess he helped create in Kylo Ren. He's hiding from danger when his friends need him the most. And in cutting himself off from the Force, he's even hiding from having to feel any of the consequences of his inaction.
That's simple cowardice, no matter how you frame it. Only Luke has somehow managed to convince himself that it's the noble course of action.
Audience Expectations Can Suck It
All this ties into an important storytelling principle, one that Rian Johnson deliberately violated for shock value: keeping the promises made to the reader/viewer.
I'll go into more detail about this principle in a future post, but for now the easiest way to explain it is this: If you start out telling one kind of story, don't shift gears in the middle and deliver a different one.
If Act I of your story is a taut cat-and-mouse game between the police and a killer, don't deliver a climax that hinges on a tearful confession between husband and wife, and a commitment to learn what it means to love one another again. Act I promises a thriller, and the audience had better get a climax worthy of one.
Like it or not, this same principle applies to characters, especially in long-running series. If you don't believe me, try to imagine the flak J.K. Rowling would get if she penned a sequel depicting Harry Potter as a burnt-out loser who flatly refuses to help his old friends Hermione and Ron. Or if Ian Fleming wrote a Bond story in which 007 suddenly finds himself clumsy and flustered around women, and having panic attacks at the prospect of having to use his gun.
In both examples, fans would justifiably see it as a betrayal of the character they'd come to know over the years, a violation of the promises made by the beginning entries of the story. In Harry's case, that promise is that he's a brave and resourceful boy who would never shy away from helping his friends. In Bond's case, it's that he's a cool, suave agent with a License to Kill.
Of course, Rowling and Fleming would have every right to subvert audience expectations and tell those stories. Just as Lucasfilm had every right to take Luke in a subversive new direction in The Last Jedi.
But most of the core audience isn't looking for subversion. To them, the thrill doesn't come from seeing the ways in which creators can tear apart their assumptions about the character. It comes from seeing that character tested to the limit, and still coming out on top.
And that's really the crux of the problem. At some point, subversion became an exalted ideal in storytelling. It's like there's a school of thought that dictates a story isn't "serious" unless it tears down the audience's expectations. That simply meeting those expectations is a lesser form of storytelling, one that's inherently childish and naive.
I don't mind subversion, as long as it happens in a satisfying way. I think Rogue One did it brilliantly. In delivering a Star Wars story where all of the main characters die, it made a powerful statement about the human cost of the Rebellion. It's satisfying because we know all that suffering means something, that the stolen plans will eventually lead to an important victory for the "good guys."
But Rian Johnson's blatant character assassination of Luke doesn't give any satisfaction. In showing us our old heroes are nothing but burnt-out losers and cowards, he doesn't make any powerful statements about the cost of the conflict. He's making a nihilistic declaration that the conflict meant nothing, and that our admiration of those heroes was stupid and misplaced.
Johnson's treatment of Luke is nothing but subversion for its own sake, an attempt to shock the audience by tearing down one of the icons of the story world. And worse, he doesn't give us anything worthy of taking that icon's place. The end result is Rian Johnson's Star Wars is reduced to being a galaxy without heroes.
And sure, maybe that's "serious" storytelling. Maybe it's more "realistic." But I never watched Star Wars for the realism.
Play us out, Twisted Sister:
One of the online discussion groups I belong to is dedicated to the life and works of the late Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner, in case you're unfamiliar with him, was a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author. Among his most enduring and famous creations is Kane, an immortal, ageless killer cursed by a "mad, idiot god" to wander the earth. Kane is amoral, killing both the innocent and the corrupt in pursuit of his goals, and sometimes he's only cast as the hero in relation to the greater, more ancient evils opposed to him.
This leads some to describe Kane as an antihero. But according to Wagner's longtime friend John Mayer, Wagner himself would strongly disagree. He always preferred to call Kane a villain-hero.
This wasn't just an author playing pedantic games. Wagner would stress that "antihero" was a word with a specific meaning, one that was slowly being corrupted and lost by misapplying it to characters like Kane.
I agree with him.
When someone says antihero, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the tough, morally grey outsider. A character like Deadpool, the Punisher, or the Man with No Name. By any reasonable metric, these aren't people to be admired. They're criminals, outlaws, and mercenaries. They don't reflect the values of society. Under other circumstances, they'd be considered villains.
Yet we admire them anyway.
Despite their moral failings, we're drawn to their strength and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Their outsider status gives them the advantage of being able to ignore society's rules in pursuit of their goals. And because those goals often serve some greater good (either by accident or on purpose), they're moved a step closer to "heroism" on the morality scale.
Here's the thing.
All of that stuff up there, about the grey morality and the admiration solely for strength and courage? That's not antiheroism.
That's just straight, garden variety heroism. At least in the classical sense.
The English word "hero" comes from the Old French word "heroe," meaning "man of superhuman strength or physical courage." The Old French is in turn derived from the Greek and Latin "heros," meaning "demigod" or "protector." Its original meaning in English was "man who exhibits great bravery."
What all of the above definitions are lacking is a moral component. There's nothing in there about right and wrong, serving the greater good, or any of the other "traditionally" heroic qualities. That's because the basic concept of heroism (having great strength and personal courage) predates dualistic notions of good and evil. It isn't rooted in any specific morality, dualistic or otherwise.
This is readily apparent when you look at some of the Greek myths. Heroes like Achilles, Theseus, and Odysseus exhibited some genuinely awful behavior. Their stories are filled with betrayal, murder, kidnapping, and forced marriages.
So if these characters were such shit-heel human beings, why have they been admired for thousands of years? For that matter, why were they admired by the ancient Greeks?
Answer: They were admired because they faced the enemy in battle, risking death and crippling injuries. Because they challenged monsters spawned by the gods. When their own people or lands were menaced by outsiders, they stood on the field and fought tooth and nail to protect them.
Their strength, their skill, and their willingness to put everything on the line when it mattered is what made them heroes.
And as bitter a pill as it can be for us to swallow with our modern sensibilities, it's possible to exhibit all of those qualities and still be a reprehensible human being.
So, if heroes can be awful people, where do antiheroes come in? Why does the word even exist?
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines an antihero as:
"the central character in a play, book, or film who does not have traditionally heroic qualities, such as courage, and is admired instead for what society generally considers to be a weakness of their character"
In the original meaning of the word, an antihero is a very specific kind of character. The weak, nebbish leads in Woody Allan's films are antiheroes. The henpecked, buffoonish husbands in most sitcoms are antiheroes. The resigned and listless characters in Franz Kafka's work are antiheroes.
And just as heroes can be rotten piles of human garbage, antiheroes can be good people. In the case of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray is a loving father and husband. He honestly tries to do right by his family. But he lacks almost any kind of courage or strength. Which means he will never, ever be a hero. Not in the classical sense.
Which brings me back to Wagner's original point. It's really not possible to apply this definition of antiheroism to characters like Deadpool, the Punisher, or Wagner's own Kane. Reprehensible actions aside, all of them display physical courage in spades.
Of course, language evolves. At some point, "heroism" picked up a moral component, one that seems to have completely replaced "strength and physical courage" in most contexts. This, in turn, bled into the idea of an antihero being someone who lacks that morality. But with that evolution, we're losing an important distinction. We don't have another word to replace "antihero" as it evolves away from its original meaning.
Considering how many characters in modern fiction are antiheroes in that original, classic sense, it's a loss the language can't really afford.
So thanks to Netflix, I finally got around to seeing The Last Jedi. I wasn't boycotting it or anything. It's just that my wife and I have a house now, and as a result, much less disposable income. Seeing movies in the theater can be an expensive way to spend the evening, so we tend not to do it unless we're 100% sure we'll enjoy the ride.
Frankly, when it comes to The Last Jedi, I'm glad we saved the money.
And no, I'm not some raging misogynist who can't stand women in "muh Star Wars." I enjoyed The Force Awakens for the fun nostalgia trip it was, and I thought Rogue One was the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. My gripes with The Last Jedi have nothing to do with the politics of diversifying the cast. My gripes have to do with the fact that it was a boring, muddled mess that hinged on an "idiot plot" for the majority of its suspense.
Not to say the movie was without merits. Overall, it was visually stunning. The bombing run against the dreadnought might be my favorite space battle in the entire series. Some of the individual set pieces, in particular the throne room battle, were outstanding.
The problem is none of those individual pieces can make the whole stand together.
Case in point, the "idiot plot." For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an idiot plot is a plot that depends on one or more of the characters behaving stupidly to create the central problem. If the characters were smart or competent, then the problem would either be solved immediately or would never have come up in the first place.
Most of the suspense in The Last Jedi is driven by the fact that Vice Admiral Holdo refuses to share the plan with Poe. This leads to Finn and Rose taking on a secret mission, Poe leading a mutiny, and the hired hacker selling the Resistance's plan to the First Order. The First Order then blows the escaping transports out of the sky, slaughtering most of the Resistance and necessitating Holdo's suicide run against Snoke's flagship.
Oh. Um... Spoilers, I guess.
The thing is, Holdo not revealing her plan is stupid.
And yes, I understand this was done partly to give Poe his character arc. After disobeying orders and incurring heavy casualties on the dreadnought run, he needed to learn how to accept authority and work as a part of a larger team. I can even understand the need for Holdo to take him down a peg and assert her own authority.
But no commander worth a damn would do so at the expense of withholding the operational plan from her own troops. She's depending on them, and much more importantly, they're depending on her.
Yes, Holdo is a superior officer. No, she doesn't owe a long and detailed explanation to a junior, especially not one who is demanding her time on a busy command bridge.
But real world talk: Trust is a two-way street in the military. A commander needs to trust the troops to do their jobs, and the troops need to trust in the commander's abilities. And rank, contrary to what you'll see in movies and on television, does not automatically convey that trust. This is especially true in combat.
When Poe demanded to know what the plan is, the exchange should have gone something like this:
POE: "Admiral, you have to tell me. What's the plan?"
HOLDO (giving him a dismissive look, and putting special emphasis on his newly-reduced rank): "Your section leader has all the details. He or she will brief you, Captain Poe."
POE: "But I..."
HOLDO (more firmly): "There is a chain of command, Captain. I expect you to use it. Now get off my bridge before I have you demoted to scullery boy."
This would have immediately established Holdo as a strong leader, one who isn't going to take any bullshit from her subordinates. It would also have established that there is a plan, and that Poe doesn't get to be a part of the decision making process again until he matures enough to be both a leader and a follower.
In short, it would have built that two-way trust.
Of course, if you make that one change, the entire middle section of the movie falls apart. Poe is briefed on the plan, so he doesn't mutiny. Holdo isn't kept in the dark about the tracking device, because that information goes back up to her through proper channels. The side mission either never happens (because it's not necessary to her plan), or it gets full approval and enough personnel to pull it off. The majority of the Resistance survives. Holdo still makes her sacrifice, but to lead the enemy away.
Rather than come up with set-pieces and adventures that would have flowed organically from the characters making the smart choice, the movie settled on trying to sell us a Vice-Admiral who's not only too smug to share her operational plan, but also has no idea how to handle an out-of-line subordinate. It then expects us to believe that she's a brilliant and respected battlefield commander.
Even worse, The Last Jedi asks us to see Poe's mistrust of Holdo as a character flaw, in spite of the fact that mistrust is exactly the reaction her "leadership" style would inspire in any sane soldier. It asks us to believe that Holdo was worthy of his trust all along, and he was just too hotheaded and cocky to see it. It asks us to believe that, in witnessing her sacrifice above Crait to save the remains of the fleet, he has seen the error of his ways, and has grown and matured because of it.
A good message, one that was sadly undercut by making Holdo an uninspiring, ineffective buffoon.
There were plenty of other problems, too.
1. We really didn't see Rey struggle with learning to use the Force, so her ending payoff felt unearned. Lifting the boulders to clear the path would have been more dramatic if we'd seen her try and fail to do that on Ahch-To. Instead, her biggest dilemma was whether or not to believe Luke Skywalker, legendary hero of the Rebellion, or Kylo Ren, the man who murdered his own father while she watched. I can buy her not believing Luke. I can't buy her believing Kylo.
2. Rose stopping Finn's suicide run was incredibly stupid, and her actions would absolutely have killed everyone inside the base if not for the arrival of Astral-Projection Luke (something she had no idea was going to happen). She dooms her friends and allies to die, and then has the complete lack of self awareness to talk about "saving what you love." My working theory is that she suffered a severe head trauma in the crash.
3. Leia Mary Poppins. 'Nuff said.
4. I hated Luke's arc. I just couldn't square the optimist who saw good in Darth Vader with the burnt-out cynic who contemplated murdering a sleeping boy. It smacked of subversion for its own sake, rather than natural character progression. I have more to say on the subject, but I'll save it for a dedicated post in the future.
All in all, it just felt like The Last Jedi was trying to be too clever, too witty. The filmmakers were so focused on undermining the audience's expectations, they neglected to tell a coherent story.
At one point in the movie, Kylo talks about the need to "kill the past." While I wouldn't say The Last Jedi succeeded in that, it did manage to completely kill my interest in Episode IX, and the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, and company.
That, in itself, was no mean feat.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.