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:
I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.