By Allan “The Iron Nurse”
Warning: Spoilers for the latest Star Wars contained within.
If you’re one of the tens of millions of either grownup nerds who know every line of the original trilogy by heart or a millennial baby who watched Anakin bemoan the annoyances of sand or a bright eyed youngster who likes watching flashy laser swords and funny robot balls of the new movies, odds are you’ve seen a Star Wars movie at some point in your life—even on accident.
With Last Jedi over six months in the rear view mirror, I’ve seen it twice and it’s pretty clear this was, is, and may always be the most divisive Star Wars movie. Depending on who you ask, it was either the best Star Wars story…or the worst.
I find myself equally torn: on the one hand, this movie was a nit-pickers paradise. There was plenty to hate and I hated what most people seemed to hate: the pointless side trip to Space Monaco, Holdo’s meaningless refusal to let anyone in on a simple exit plan, Rose existing, Rey being nobody, Snoke being nobody.
That last bit shouldn’t have surprised anyone. At all. And that’s the focus of this article. Snoke, a looming threat teased in Force Awakins similar to The Emperor, met his demise at the hands of Kylo Ren. His identity was one of a handful of questions fans wanted answers to as Last Jedi approached. Because that’s what we’ve come to expect from movies and media in this time and age: backstory and explanations. It’s only natural to want to know why someone would hound your protagonist. Not every villain or threat needs this, of course, but stories feel much more fleshed out when we know as much about our villains as we do our heroes.
Take, for example, my favorite episode of “Batman: The Animated Series”: “Heart of Ice”. The episode takes a former D-list villain named Mr. Freeze and shows his reasoning for villainy is an emotional and relatable one. He’s not just a crazy, deformed maniac, he’s a man wanting retribution for an injustice against him and his wife. It made him my favorite Batman villain. The problem that Star Wars has always faced is that it treats every villain with the same blueprint as Darth Vader: show up, threaten the heroes with overwhelming force of evil, look as evil as possible while doing so.
The problem is, this doesn’t always work and it certainly isn’t working anymore for Star Wars. This can be traced way back to the childhood of George Lucas (and Steven Spielberg, too). They were kids during the 50s and 60s. Why is that important? Look at what influenced them: Saturday morning serials. And I don’t mean Frosted Flakes.
Kids who love something and are inspired by something may very well grow up with their childhood influences in their minds: in their case, it wasn’t Saturday morning cartoons. Back in this period, cartoons weren’t on tv on a regular basis. They were something that played before movies to keep people entertained. You may look at Looney Tunes now as one of your favorite kids programs growing up, but they were originally aimed at making adults laugh. Watch one of those episodes that makes pop culture references of the times about Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, or Clark Gable and tell me a ten year old at the time was busting his sides open. Cartoons didn’t become consistent kids entertainment until the 60s started rolling around and they played on tv.
Serials were for the kids. Cheaply produced, poorly acted, largely inconsequential entertainment for lazy Saturday mornings when there was no school. Adventures Of some strapping hero in jungles, in space, or some other far off destination. Kids loved them, of course. They made tons of them—Superman starring George Reeves being one of the more prominent ones. A video on YouTube years ago showed a compilation of old black and white serial show clips could be strung together to accurately recreate the entirety of Raiders of the Lost Ark and should give you an indication of what and how they were influenced. These fun little disposable adventures were short and didn’t require an overarching story, Volumes of lore…or a complex villain.
Fast forward to the 70s and George Lucas creates one of the most memorable villains at that time: Darth Vader. And Vader was absolutely a throw back to the villains of old serials just like Star Wars was a throwback to old sci-fi space adventure serials: large, villainous, a force that couldn’t be stopped if you faced it head-on. Vader only needed to be one dimensional in the original Star Wars. You didn’t need to know his backstory or history at that point. But when Empire rolled around, the revelation that he was Luke’s father made him three dimensional. That should have been the point that Star Wars treated its villains differently, but it isn’t.
The villains are only one aspect of the outdated form of storytelling that carried over from the serial era, but it’s one of the series worst traits: here’s someone with a sinister name. They’re the villain. Enjoy.
In Return if the Jedi, The Emperor steps in to fill the boots of the Big Bad, because now the audience had a reason to care about Vader. Palpatine was introduced with little explanation and no background. It wasn’t until the Prequels rolled about that more of his backstory was filled. There’s more story to him, naturally, but you have to delve into supplemental material to fill in the gaps that the movies leave bare. That’s not at all how we digest our stories anymore. It’s an outdated format.
Every major Star Wars antagonist except for Kylo Ren was introduced with zero backstory or explication in the movie they premiered in. Darth Maul is introduced and is taken out in the same movie. Yes, the expanded lore and materials explain that he lived, but that’s beyond the movies. Count Dooku comes from out of nowhere in one movie and is summarily killed at the start of the next. Who is he? Where’d he come from? Why is he the leader of the Separatists? You don’t really find out unless you invest time in the supplemental material like novels, comics, and lore videos on YouTube. The real shame is that Dooku has an extremely interesting backstory as a disillusioned Jedi Master who felt driven out by the Jedi’s archaic ways. But you had to go out of your way to find that out. To some people that’s fun. To other people it’s a drudge. “Sure, you can find out more about your favorite Star Wars character. Here’s some homework for you.”
The time jumps between movies feel like something that doesn’t need to exist either. At the time of this writing, the rumor for Episode IX is that it’ll take place five years after Last Jedi. Granted there’s years between movies in production time, but it almost always feels like you’re jumping from a season finale to a season premiere and rather than flowing naturally from one story to the next, you’ve got to invest energy in getting caught up on where everyone is and what they’ve been doing. It’s sort of like going to your yearly family reunion and you spend most of your time listening to your aunt catch you up on her drama.
Is it breaking the series? No. At least, not yet. But it IS a relic from a bygone era that isn’t aging as well as the other media it competes against. Annoying storytelling technique or not, Star Wars has a significant amount of fan good will. Even when it stumbles and fans howl and gnash their teeth, they still come back for more. Good, experienced writers have done right by the franchise in the past and up to present day with its comics, novels, and games, but those work within the rules and set pieces established by the movies. But they’re not constrained by the format of serials, so their contributions work exceedingly well.
The best storytelling in Star Wars isn’t in the movies. And that, quite frankly, shouldn’t be the case.
But that’s just me.