Full disclosure: I am a life long Star Wars fan and I will watch every single Saga film they make. Period. No questions asked. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.
So here’s the thing: Americans have a tough time handling capital -P- Power.
Our history began with the overthrow of the (Constitutional) British Monarchy and the practice of wielding power in America has had HUGE psychological baggage attached ever since. American leadership since the Revolution almost seems allergic to the concept of wielding power and would continue to be all the way up until the strong executive branch of recent history. I would argue it’s because the word tyranny got thrown around a lot back when we were fussing about taxes and Stamp Acts and Representation and what not.
Tyranny comes from the Latin tyrannus, meaning illegitimate ruler. That word had power in the western mind, harkening back to the founding of the Roman Republic when they overthrew their own monarchy. It’s a powerful word and it did much to persuade the average British colonist that Revolution was the only due course after the Brits started throwing new taxes around like so much tea in Boston Harbor. But, it was a double edged sword and since then, the word has come to mean not just illegitimate rule but any kind of rule we don’t agree with. Mandates created for the purposes of public health is tyranny. Flight attendants telling you to stay in your seat is tyranny. A company discontinuing a product is tyranny. You get my drift.
It’s ironic, given that 18th Century Britain was not very high on the tyranny spectrum when it came to dealing with her rebellious colonies in the New World. If you want to see tyranny, look no further than how the Brits behaved in Africa and Southeast Asia (The word genocide comes to mind).
What it comes down to is that, in the American Psyche, Power=Tyranny=Bad, which is hilarious given that we became the number one superpower on Earth. Talk about an existential crisis! We were sooooo unprepared for the post WWII world, let me tell you.
Which brings me to Star Wars.
(Reminder to self high-five for that awesome segway)
In this particular case, I’m going to be discussing Episode 7: The Force Awakens and how the Problem of Power in the American Psyche led to some very weird writing decisions.
So let’s start at the beginning, where all good stories start. Unless you’re the Odyssey.
According to the opening crawl, Luke Skywalker has vanished.
Awesome. Great hook. He’s such an important character in this universe that a whole movie plot could revolve around our heroes trying to find him. It gives him an almost mythical quality, fitting for a hero of the Galaxy.
In his absence, the Sinister First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the Last Jedi, has been destroyed.
Okay, we got some stakes here. The baddies are calling themselves the First Order, they are hardcore Empire stans and they want to destroy Luke. Probably as revenge for what he did to the Emperor and his ultra-cool apprentice, the Dark Lord Darth Vader.
All right, let’s continue:
With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE.
EEEEEEEHHHHH! WHOOP! Hold the phone. We just ran into problem number one.
General Leia Organa. Is leading a brave Resistance. Against the First Order.
And what’s wrong with that, you may be asking? Well, the problem, my friends, is that General Leia Organa is one of the founders of the New Galactic Republic. Thirty years after the evil Space Nazis were defeated, she is now a member of the Authority. She is part of the SYSTEM. As in, no longer one of the underdogs. It says right there in the crawl that she has the support of the Republic, so it’s not like she’s using funds from her own royal treasury to run this thing. She’s not getting the band back together to relive the glory days. This is a sanctioned, super official military operation backed by the ruling power of the Galaxy. So that begs the question: why are they calling it the Resistance?
The short answer is because Episode 7 was written by Americans, for Americans and as such, represents a specific failure of imagination; that is, the failure to imagine that we are not the underdogs in this story anymore.
We love underdog stories over here in the states. Even stories about clearly genius or naturally talented individuals get warped and smushed into this weird underdog framework so general audiences can find them palatable. (see: Michael Jordan’s biopic or Prince’s biopic or Seabiscuit’s biopic)
If you’re having trouble understanding what I’m getting at, just imagine how weird it would be if the Agents in the movie The Matrix called themselves the Resistance. Or if the U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment called themselves the Resistance. Or if Nancy Pelosi did so. Absurd, right?
Calling members of the Establishment “the Resistance” doesn’t work because they are not the Resisters. They are the Power that the Resisters are resisting. This is what the (well-paid and much better than me) writers of Episode 7 didn’t get when they were in the script stage, or if they did they decided fuck it and went with this anyway. The Republic is the Power. It is the Status Quo. Granted, they’re not the monolithic institution the Empire was, but thirty years later they are the biggest political organization in the galaxy. In this story, it is the First Order that are the Resistance.
They could have told the story of the desperate remnants of the Empire clawing to remain a viable political entity in the galaxy. It’s all there in the text, no digging needed. Or, hell, if you want a rising Imperial style baddie, why not make who is funding and organizing this neo-Empire faction part of the mystery? Maybe tied to the reason Luke disappeared in the first place? Maybe he was investigating that very question before he vanished.
Either way, desperate Empires do all sorts of depraved, violent shit to stay in control, so there’s plenty of room for upped stakes and darker, edgier baddies even if they don’t have the monolithic oppressive veneer of an Empire anymore. Plus, keep in mind that while thirty years sounds like a long time, in reality it takes empires anywhere from one to three centuries to fall completely. Rome wasn’t sacked in a day, you know. The Galactic civil war may be over, but the Imperial Resistance is just beginning.
But they’re the bad guys, I hear you say! They can’t be the Resistance! How do we square this circle?
How about making the good guys a bunch of scrappy freedom fighters that engage in guerilla warfare against the rogue regime of the First Order with no support from the Republic at all? No stylish Rebel uniforms. No shiny, top of the line Super X-wings. Just a bunch of underdogs with heart and a willingness to fight Space Fascism. Hell, that’d make Leia even more of a badass if she turned her back on the Republic to fight the First Order, politics be damned!
At least, that’s how the story could have gone if the writers of Force Awakens had any BALLS. You gotta admit, it’s an interesting twist on the Star Wars formula, and it examines the proxy wars we in America have been running since the 1950’s. The Galactic Civil War was the WWII of the original trilogy, after all. It only makes sense to advance the kind of Wars we see fought among these Stars. There’s so many opportunities for writers to dive into depressing examinations of war and its effects. Who wouldn’t want a Vietnam style Star War? Or a Black Hawk down situation? The possibilities are endless! What are we waiting for?!?!
Now, I don’t blame the crafters of Force Awakens for making this the starting point of the new trilogy. It’s a safe place to start and they’ve got billions of dollars on the line here. For Chrissake, they had the impossible task of making something new and exciting while also catering to the older fan base that liked the original trilogy!
Honestly, the way Episode 7 turned out is the best possible compromise they could have made given the demands they were handed by Disney. And I guess it worked out in the end since Force Awakens is the most liked of the new trilogy. I mean, I liked it. But, in order to achieve this, they basically had to reset everything and everyone back to square one. Leia is a rebel leader again. Han Solo is a gruff smuggler again. The good guys are Rebellsistance Fighters. The bad guys are Space Nazis only “different” this time. Thirty years of potential character growth is erased in service to OG Trilogy fans and Abram’s mystery box style storytelling format. At least Last Jedi, for all its faults, swung for the fences.
Safe… but not at all daring.
And so, totally unaware of the irony that this underdog story came from a film company owned by one of the biggest most successful corporations on Earth, the writers delivered the Force Awakens to big screens everywhere. And pretty much everyone enjoyed it. The movie made more money than God and it spawned a merchandising empire the likes of which would make Jesus cry. And the mental gymnastics it took to get us there would have won all the Olympic gold medals because, again, the company that won harder than almost any company has ever won ever, were the ones who gave us this story of Resistance.
It’s why they can stick Leia in a Rebel Leader outfit without a single hint of irony.
When young George Lucas first rolled out Episode 4 back in 1977, he could make the underdog claim. No one believed in his Flash Gordon pulp science fantasy knock off. Studios didn’t get it. A lot of critics didn’t get it. Then, he and his crew blew everyone’s expectations out of the water.
It’s been over forty years since then. Star Wars is now one of the biggest multi-media franchises in the universe. George Lucas lives in a house made of money and the people who now control the fate of the Star Wars universe are stuck writing stories about Galactic Superpowers who are also underdogs.
But imagine, if you will, what kinds of stories you could tell if you didn’t have to hit the reset button on your universe or your characters. There’s a lot of meaty story territory to mine. Hell, after Episode 6 wrapped the trilogy, we got, like, twenty years of extended universe novels, video games, and more, pushing the narrative into the future in all kinds of frankly weird directions.
Yeah, Disney decided all of it is non-canon now, but that doesn’t mean they can’t ‘borrow’ ideas or whatever. They didn’t have to gloss over the big questions regarding these characters. Like, how does General Leia defend the downtrodden when she herself is at the heart of Galactic politics and is probably partly responsible for what’s trodding the people down? Well, the movie’s starting so just skip to the part where she’s a Rebel Leader again. I mean, they don’t expect us to believe Leia’s been a Rebel general this whole time, right? What’s she been up to? Did it not matter? Like, at all?
And how does Han Solo handle the life of a ‘Hero of the Rebellion’ now that the fighting is over? Hey, movie’s starting, he’s just a smuggler again. How did he end up there? After the war, he could have wrote his own ticket. So why didn’t he? What’s his motivation to be a sailor of that starry sea? Eh, throw a line in about gambling or cheating the wrong crime lord or whatever, we got Star Wars to do!
What about Luke and his dream of building a New Jedi Order? The Sith are dead. The Force is in balance. He isn’t a young man going on adventures anymore. He’s a responsible Headmaster of a Jedi school. What’s his mid-life crisis look like? How does he handle responsibility? A lot of people didn’t agree with Rian Johnson’s characterization of him in Episode 8, but at least he had one! Here he’s reduced to a macguffin who doesn’t get any lines and whose flashbacks are of him being sad next to R2D2. Which, again, is fine as a story. The heroes of previous movies and games being the macguffin of the current installment can work really well as a trope, but in Force Awakens nothing ever comes of it. The journey to find Luke isn’t even that hard or really the point of the movie, despite what the opening crawl may have you believe. Instead, R2 decides to turn on and solves the movie in two seconds.
If it had been a journey across the galaxy, hopping from planet to planet, looking for clues, visiting places old and new in search of the lost Jedi Master, that could have been an interesting movie. It would have been a satisfying conclusion to end up at the Jedi island sanctuary and resort at the end after everything the characters had to endure to get there. Double points if they had done even a little bit of planning and had the ending of 7 actually be the beginning of 8, where Luke tosses the lightsaber aside without a second thought.
Imagine if this had been the ending. Talk about a cliff hanger!
That’s probably what frustrates me the most about the new trilogy. This was their chance to metaphorically flip the script and make something we hadn’t seen before in Star Wars and instead we just got Episode 4 again. Yeah, I know, billions on the line, play it safe, blah blah blah. But come on! It’s Star Wars! Even after three questionable Prequels, the franchise continues to exist and make butt loads of money. They could have literally done anything they wanted! Anything! Aaaaahhh!!!
So, um, anyways, for an example of the post-war story done right, look no further than the anime, Gurren Lagann. Arc One of the story follows the same beats as the original trilogy. The heroes are a ragtag group of rebel fighters going up against the ultimate power of the world, which in this case is the oppressive Spiral King and his mech suit army. Though they lose some friends along the way, in the end the power of grit, guts and friendship carries them through and they defeat the Spiral King’s Evil Empire.
Arc Two starts years after the heroes’ victory. The Revolution is over and now is the time for them to roll up their sleeves and build the new world. The only problem is that the main character, Simon, is really good at fighting and leading troops into battle, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot in peace time. So he languishes in his cushy post in the new government, remembering the glory days when things were simple and all you had to worry about was fighting the good fight. It’s an awesome show and an awesome examination of life after the Revolution, a story the new Star Wars trilogy could have (and should have) explored.
(Hell they even do a better job telling the prequel story than Star Wars did and they do it in 3 minutes and 41 seconds!)
It’s a great show. If you like anime and have somehow never seen it, go watch it now. I’ll wait.
You back? Cool.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to offer a look at what could have been had they wrote Episode 7 with Power dynamics in mind.
To illustrate how different the story could have been, while staying true to the legacy of the previous films, let’s keep the details the same but change the context. Let’s start with the basics: The Empire’s dead, Luke’s missing, the First Order are the baddies and they’re rising from the Empire’s ashes and want Luke dead, and the New Galactic Republic is in charge of peace and justice in the galaxy now.
So let’s set up the stakes. If the First Order are the underdogs and General Leia and the Republic are the Power, how do we do that exactly? Well, why not have Starkiller base be a Republic project that the First Order hijacks in order to wipe out the capitol worlds of the Republic in one fell swoop? In fact, that can be the first scene. A tense, nervous Leia Organa is on Starkiller base waiting for the official reveal/christening/ribbon cutting ceremony. There is a lot of *ahem* resistance to the Starkiller program and so she’s there to smooth things over and give some good optics to the event. Hero of the Rebellion supports Starkiller program, the headlines would say.
“But wait!” I hear you hardcore fan boys and girls say, “why would Leia support the construction of a planet killer after all the trouble she and her friends went through to destroy not one but two Death Stars?”
It would make sense for her not to support it. She has every right not to. Or maybeeeeeee… Starkiller base was her idea. Maybe Starkiller base is an Anti-planet killer defense weapon. The first in a long line of planned defense weapons that the Republic is rolling out to make sure no Death Star ever threatens the galaxy again. In fact, I think Leia would have the most motivation out of anyone to have one of these planet-killer killers built after watching her home world get dusted back in Episode 4. Not to mention that the trauma of watching Alderaan get blown up is a fascinating place for us to explore her character all these years later. How does the turning of the trauma cycle lead to Leia becoming the thing she fought against, i.e. a person that builds planet-killer level weapons? The possibilities are exciting. At least, more exciting than leading a Brave RESISTANCE against a bunch of terrorists that should absolutely have no hope of turning an entire planet into a Death Star.
Speaking of which, what about them First Order boys? Well, it’s been thirty years since Episode 6, so if they claim to be the Empire 2.0, that basically makes them Star Wars’ version of Neo-Nazis. So let’s make them scrappy and filthy looking. Make their armor, weapons, and ships look janky and slapped together. Make them desperate and willing to go to any extreme to win. The Mandalorian had the right idea with how grungy the Stormtroopers on Tatooine looked. Shiny stormtroopers are for closers, and the First Order ain’t there yet.
So back to Scene One. Leia is on Starkiller base, waiting for the photo op and the big speech and the ribbon cutting to start. Then, what’s that? Tie Fighters on the horizon? Why, if it isn’t a surprise assault by the First Order! But how did they get past the defenses of a weapon platform that’s basically an entire planet? Why, by exploiting a fatal flaw that the Republic wasn’t even aware of. Because the history, it rhymes, you see.
So in a desperate all out assault, the First Order manage to overwhelm the Republic’s defenses and take Starkiller base over before it has a chance to fully come online. Leia and a bunch of the Republic leadership is taken hostage. Now we have a major crisis. The First Order has control of a SUPER DUPER Planet killer and they have it pointed directly at the heart worlds of the Republic and they WILL blow them all up if their demands aren’t met!
Bam. Stakes, hooks, and an Act One turning point. The rest of the film unfolds from there. Now new heroes are needed to fight this fight. Perhaps this is how the Resistance is born, on Starkiller base, with General Leia Organa, an old hand at leading Rebellions, out in front fighting back against the Neo-Space Nazis. Han comes out of retirement one last time to save his love. Poe Dameron, the Republic’s number one Ace pilot, is leading the charge to take the base back. Finn finds his moral compass in the wake a vicious terror attack perpetrated by the First Order that goes too far even for him and his Stormtrooper brainwashing. Rey is… I dunno, on the planet already or passing by trying to sell old Imperial junk when a Republic blockade of Starkiller base blocks her only escape from the system and to fix it, she’s gotta kick some First Order ass.
So there you have it. Something new, yet familiar if you’re paying attention and it takes into account how the heroes and the galaxy have changed since Episode 6 ended. You’re welcome, Lucasfilm!
Just remember the dynamics of Power in the story and you too can create fan re-writes of Billion dollar film franchises!