“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend become fact, print the legend.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
People like to love cinematic legends. Frequently, they become cultural touchstones that almost everyone can idolize. So, anytime new stories or chapters emerge about those legends, expectations will be universally high.
With the release of the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, fan reaction has been strikingly polarized. Either you love it or you hate it—although a small band in the middle, including myself, see equally great and not so great things in the new chapter.
My focus today is on what I think is one of the not-so-great things in the current trilogy: how they have handled the franchise's legends.
Part of the fan base that feel something is wrong—from a certain point of view—struggle to put in to words their exact misgivings. The ones that gave the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt after The Force Awakens seem to be the most disappointed in The Last Jedi. Older fans also seem to be the ones least accepting of the new films while younger ones are excited as ever.
My thought is that this disappointment does, in fact, come down to the fans' expectations.
Specifically, after nearly thirty years of waiting, they were excited to see what had become of Luke, Leia, and Han. However, I don't believe that these shattered expectations are from years of wild speculation and fan theories run amok—though that still plays a part. Rather, the profound feeling these fans are feeling is grief over what has become of their favorite characters from the original trilogy.
For almost thirty years, generations of fans were captivated by the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. Fans felt the highs and the lows as their favorite on-screen heroes fought the forces of Darth Vader and the evil Empire. Along the way, those characters became like friends.
When they saved the day and the galaxy, fans rejoiced. Fans were sad to see the story come to a close, but I doubt anyone reached the end of Return of the Jedi felt disappointment. It's hard to deny the feeling of satisfaction and contentment at the end of RotJ. The original trilogy closed with nearly ever storyline and character arc beautifully closed. If no other entry was made into the series, those first three films would have still been cherished and loved by the fans. They would have been sufficient.
However—setting the prequels aside—there was always hope.
Hope that one day, Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy would again have to answer the call to adventure. Hope to meet these old friends again. Hope to see what had happened to them since Endor. Hope that they'd be doing well. Hope to see what kind of galaxy they had helped to build. Hope that they'd be ready to meet whatever new threat the galaxy was facing.
Among those expectations, many of these same fans would admit that there would have to be new characters. Very likely, the old heroes would be passing the torch the new heroes. One would also expect struggle and hardship and most likely sacrifice—perhaps even a noble sacrifice by one of those old heroes. After all, the conflict and dramatic tension the main characters endured in the original films is what endeared them to their fans in the first place.
I think most fans, especially older ones, expected good things for their old friends, but were ready to accept new hardships and looked forward to how they would respond to those hardships.
Those expectations were the ones most dashed, from their point of view, by The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
In TFA, we find a battle-weary Leia who has lost her son to the Dark Side and her brother has disappeared. Han, also missing his son, has left her. For his part, he has gone back to his old ways bringing Chewy along with him. Leia and Han do reunite but it's bittersweet. By the end of the film Han dies a particularly ironic death at the hands of his own son. For the entire movie, Luke is nowhere to be seen and we finally do see him, he doesn't look very happy.
Luke's disposition only deteriorates further at the start of TLJ. Of all characters fans wanted to see rise to new challenges, it was Luke. Instead, they find Luke regressed. He is not the Luke that turned Darth Vader back from the Dark Side.
None of this is to say that these characters had to have lived amazing lives between movies, but for many fans, seeing their favorite characters appear as broken or wayward souls was a shock to the system. Worse, almost all of their hurt and failure occurs off-screen years earlier and what is shown on screen lacks context and depth.
Whether they can articulate it or not, the fans that have reacted negatively are feeling this way because for them, the new films have taken a certain amount of joy from the conclusion of the original trilogy. Some are asking themselves what the point of those hard fought victories, those trials and tribulations, those highs and lows, those sacrifices were for. To come back after all these years to find these characters—these old friends—in various states of disarray has been a gut punch to the many in the fandom.
I think these fans are wondering how they can re-watch Return of the Jedi without now feeling a tinge of sadness. Can seeing Leia and Han finally come together be seen without seeing a son murder his father? After turning his father back to the light side, can they share Luke's smile as he sees Anakin appear next to Yoda and Obi-Wan knowing that Luke would one day help turn his nephew to the Dark Side? Can they celebrate the Rebels overcoming impossible odds to defeat the Empire only to have it undone by yet another super-laser and title crawl? Can we take joy in Admiral Akbar saying 'It's a trap!' knowing he'll die with little to no fanfare?
Okay, that last example was a stretch, but...
I believe some fans feel the footing on which they find Luke, Leia, and Han in these new films hollows out the triumphs they had achieved. Forget all the other properties, shows, comics, and stories built up around Star Wars. The stories, the tech, the battles, and the locations carry little weight without a strong connection to the characters.
For Star Wars, the fans' connection to Luke, Leia, and Han made the fantastical backdrop real and meaningful and the payoff at the end of the original trilogy so sweet. That said, no fan owns the movies or the stories they adore; no fan can lay exclusive claim to how those stories should continue or how new chapters contextualize previous ones. But that doesn't change the fact that fans have invested emotionally (and with Star Wars, financially) into the stories, the characters, and the universe they exist in.
These characters—that mean so much to so many—left the screen on such a high point but returned to the fans at such seemingly low points. The contrast is stark when you look at it closer.
RotJ: Luke has learned to reject anger and fear and seems to embody the original true nature of a Jedi.
TFA/TLJ: Luke is consumed with anger and fear and is hoping the Jedi die with him.
RotJ: Leia helped lead a Rebellion, at great personal cost, to restore democracy to the Galaxy.
TFA/TLJ: Leia has lost her son, Han, and the new Republic is in tatters.
RotJ: Han has learned there is more to life than just his own self-interest.
TFA/TLJ: Han abandons Leia to pursue his own self-interest.
I can understand the arguments and the praise of The Last Jedi as lesson that even heroes fall and fail; that we need to look within ourselves and rely on our own courage instead of waiting for legends to come around and save us or show us the way. There's a lot of heart behind that and I do like that Rian Johnson was putting that take on it.
I just feel that taking Luke, Leia, and Han and placing them at low points with just a few lines of exposition just didn't work for half the fans—much like a when a body rejects an organ transplant. This is especially true of Luke.
When those fans last saw Luke, he had just pulled off the impossible. He reject fear and anger and violence. He embodied the type mastery of self that the Jedi Order forgot in their twilight. In so doing, he drew out the last of the good in Darth Vader to defeat the Emperor. Thirty years later, he's bitter, angry, and afraid and they don't understand why.
You may be quick to point out that Han told us about how Kylo Ren betrayed Luke and destroyed his new Jedi Order, thus, Luke's state of mind shouldn't come as a shock. That's true. We were told what happened to Luke.
This, I believe is where the break in the fandom has occurred.
If you were ready for new adventures with new characters getting the baton passed to them by the older characters, Han's reveal about Luke in The Force Awakens—and the implications for Leia and Han—worked just fine for you. I don't believe that there's anything wrong with you if you were okay with this.
However, if you were expecting a continuation of the characters from RotJ, one last ride with the old characters before they passed the torch on to the new ones, Han's reveal didn't work for you. And it didn't work for you because your favorite characters had been changed with a few lines of dialog.
An old adage in cinema is 'Show. Don't tell.'
Now, that's never been a hard or fast rule. Often, we as filmmakers have to just tell the audience about a bad event. It would be impractical to shoot flashbacks for everything. However, you have to be precise with how you decide to simply tell an audience about a character's background.
A great example is with Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? We meet him on the set of a Roger Rabbit cartoon. He's clearly off put—almost disgusted—to be in the same room with a toon. But we chalk it up to him be a crusty old PI. Later, he assaults a guest at his girlfriend's restaurant for insinuating he'd ever associate with a toon. His reaction is so raw and visceral, we as an audience immediately want to know why. After he storms off, Dolores reveals why: his brother was killed by a toon. After completing his job for R.K. Maroon, we see Eddie getting drunk as he looks over a pile of news articles of him and his brother from the good old days where we discover he used to help toons for a living!
We see Eddie's disdain for toons. We see him react violently at merely being associated with them. The character's actions onscreen make us want to know why he is that way. When we get our answer, we suddenly have a new question: why did a toon kill his brother? We want to turn the page, so to speak, and find the answer. By the time his detective friend wakes him up, we've gotten a better picture of what Eddie has gone through. We're now sympathetic to him and we're rooting for him. This wonderfully frames the conflict for the rest of the movie as he is forced to help a toon beat a murder wrap.
So, it's possible to reveal a character's past traumas in a way that feels understandable and relatable. We don't get this with Luke. In TFA, we learn Luke has disappeared in the title crawl. Han reveals Luke was betrayed by one of his students and later that the student was Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. We learn all this without seeing a single second of Luke.
What if we had somehow not been told about Ben turning into Kylo? What if we are totally surprised by Luke being a curmudgeon at the outset of TLJ? What if Rey has to coax it out him? Or what if this new series started before Ben was turned and we got to see the investment Luke had made him?
Obviously, those are all hypotheticals that would require a lot of reworking of the Han/Kylo plot line. But my point is, where these films went wrong with Luke's newfound grumpiness was that they were never made a mystery. The audience was never given a chance to ask 'why?' because they were told why before Luke ever appeared on screen. This meant that the fans that expected good thing from Luke—and the others—never got that valuable time to explore why they were seeing what they were seeing. And, because of the lack of effort put into that reveal, these fans were seeing a Luke that was incongruent with everything they had previously known and expected from him.
From there, it became very hard for them to watch the rest of the film and very easy to start picking it apart.
So, to wrap this all up: if you were fine with how they handled Leia, Han, and especially Luke, there's nothing wrong with that. Star Wars at its absolute best is forward looking. The filmmakers made the choice to keep the focus on expanding the primacy of the new characters.
If you are not sure about the new films or feeling loss at what became of your favorite characters, you were so used to experiencing their high, lows, pain, and triumphs with them that it simply wasn't enough to be told about that night Luke confronted Ben. You needed to see and experience it for it to have meaning and give Luke's state on the island context you could understand.. Unfortunately, for many, what was given to you wasn't enough and your experience of the new films were diminished.
I believe that had we seen a little more effort in revealing why Luke was in the state Rey found him on the island, you wouldn't be reading this essay right now.
So, if you've encountered a Star Wars fan expressing their disappointment or even anger at the direction of the new films, understand that they are not complaining but rather grieving. They are feeling a profound loss for what could have been but wasn't and that is often the hardest loss to overcome.
I thought it might be good to include what I thought was great about The Last Jedi. Beyond the issue with how the series has brought/sent off the original characters, the other things I didn't like about TLJ fall squarely in the realm of the sci-fi nit-pick and don't have any bearing on my thoughts on the film. So, here goes:
Loved Poe's call waiting schtick. In fact, the only joke I didn't care for was Luke tossing the light saber.
Loved the idea of Rey being a 'nobody' and the Force having to bring up an equal to Kylo.
Loved the Force Time chats with Rey and Kylo.
Growing to love Snoke getting murdered as it sets up Kylo as the main bad guy. This is new fertile territory for Star Wars considering both previous third chapters had Sidious pulling Anakin/Vader's strings. How Kylo forges his own path where his grandfather could not could be amazing.
Who didn't love the Light Speed Kamikaze? Epic.
Really loved Rey and Kylo going into battle back-to-back then trying to turn each other. On the second viewing I really felt Rey's “Don't do this.” I think giving them a chance to care about each other sets up some very heavy potential climaxes.
I'm still not in love with the Finn/Rose side-quest (but I did like Rose). However, I understand that it wasn't a wasted ordeal. They failed in their mission to save the Resistance, they inspired the next generation.
On that note, finishing with the force kid was another really nice touch. I want to see where they take that.
I'm still split on Luke and Kylo's force projection confrontation.
Porgs and crystal dogs. Just the right amount of each.
I actually liked DJ's character and got mad at him (not Rian) when he betrayed Finn/Rose.
Almost forgot: Yoda! Yes to everything from the lesson he taught Luke, his persona, and going with the old school puppet.