I have no nostalgia for either of the two previous Star Wars trilogies. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the prequels, and found them uninteresting because I had no idea of why I was supposed to be either engaged with or angry at them, and I never got into the original trilogy to begin with. Blasphemous as that statement may sound to some, my reasons are quite simple: While ahead of their time in many ways, the Star Wars films still promote many of the more sexist tropes of the adventurer (Han Solo) and hero (Luke Skywalker) archetypes that are still prevalent in today’s society. That is, the ideas of swashbuckling pirate types with disregard for rules (and consent) on the one hand, and ideas of emotions as an evil that must be overcome in order to become part of some rational (mainly) boys club on the other (while simultaneously fostering ideas that are damaging to boys’ and young men’s ability to express themselves in meaningful ways). Not to mention the Orientalism present in the Jedi’s vaguely Asian superpowers (yes, even taking into account that the Jedi were modeled not only on samurai movies but also on Westerns).
I can understand why people are able to overlook these flaws (and I am not really interested in why you might not consider them to be flaws in the first place) to marvel at the vastness of the universe as a whole. I can appreciate that some of the ideas in the original trilogy were truly insightful, both from a sociopolitical (love and compassion conquers all evil) and a film-making perspective. And I understand that like so many other milestones of nerd and geek culture, fans are so engaged with the work at large that they become defensive of it. So I am not surprised in the least that the reception of the latest installment in the new trilogy, The Last Jedi, has been so mixed, and that many of the film’s biggest critics consider themselves to be true fans. Many of these true fans are male and white, and are annoyed by the exact same scenes I considered to be refreshing and interesting. Yes, I liked The Last Jedi. It was the first Star Wars film I had any sort of major emotional reaction to. And while you may think that this statement immediately disqualifies me, because I am obviously not a true fan, I would like to argue that it is the opinion of casual viewers that counts more in this instance, because film franchises like this can only be innovative and new, i.e. they can only survive for a new generation of fans, if meaningful change occurs. You might be countering that argument by pointing out that some of the more casual fans disliked the movie, as well, but I would argue that this is a very specific subset of casual viewers, and that they are not the ones whose opinions we should be paying most attention to.
Official Star Wars: The Last Jedi Trailer on YouTube
This article will, by its nature, be fairly spoiler heavy from here on out. You have been warned.
First things first, the fact that Marc Hamill (Luke Skywalker) himself disliked the film and was unhappy with his role is of no relevance to anything. I don’t agree with him being chastised for talking smack about the movie – the man is entitled to his opinion and free speech is important to me – but just because Hamill thinks the film is bad doesn’t make it so. Hamill, I believe, is unhappy with the role he was given because, similarly to the true fans, he doesn’t understand that the Luke he played all those years ago has changed in the 30+ years since the original trilogy. He is unhappy because all of the resistance’s work was undone, because the character failed as a Jedi, and because Luke didn’t partake in a “real” battle in the end. He doesn’t understand why Luke is portrayed as someone who has, essentially, failed. But that only speaks to the fact that he is part of the old establishment when it comes to promoting ideas of heroism, and if I do decide to discuss Hamill’s ideas further it will be in a different article.
Instead, I would like to focus on two aspects that true fans are annoyed with: The casino scene and General Holdo.
But before we get to that, let me briefly discuss the casual fans that were annoyed with the film: These are people who often base their opinion on media on what the people they follow on social media have to say about it, i.e. they are part of a certain meta-narrative. In the Gamergate discourse of 2014/2015, there were a couple of true fans who played a lot of video games and believed that female developers and youtube feminists were somehow contributing to the demise of gaming culture. They were joined online by a lot of people whom I’d wager would be considered casual gamers if you looked at the bare bones of hours and energy they put into gaming, but just didn’t want gaming to suddenly become more inclusive and/or worthy of criticism because they disapproved of feminism (“the feminist agenda”) and diversity policies in general. All of these ideas are quite symbolic of the fear that underlies most racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted viewpoints, which is simply the fear of becoming irrelevant as a result of change. It is no coincidence that one of the top comments on Star Wars: The Last Jedi reads “SJW Wars: The last White Male”.
Let me just tell you, as a person that doesn’t have a problem being called an SJW to you, a self-proclaimed rationalist, there’s no need to be afraid. White males in leading roles aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even with Luke Skywalker now having moved on to the realm of Jedi ghosts (that is what happens, right?), there is still Kylo Ren, who is not only white and male, but the son of Han Solo, whom you probably like best as a character in the entire series. And there is Poe, who is basically a stand-in for Han Solo. You are still represented. To all the people annoyed at the casting of a Vietnamese-American actress (the “they did it because of the Chinese government/fans” argument is priceless in this context, not only because Tran is VIETNAMESE, but also because of the role she embodies in the context of the movie), you do understand how that comes across, right? I’ve also heard people argue that the implied romance/smidgen of a hint of more-than-friendship between Rey and Finn in the first film is “race-baiting.” The less said about that, the better.
You might think I just went on a tangent there, but the fears alluded to above actually have a lot to do with why General Holdo and the casino scene are so disliked.
General Holdo is a female general, an older woman, who not only rebukes Poe, our stand-in Solo, but in the end is portrayed as being more heroic than the traditionally framed swashbuckler pilot, because she is willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good, save others instead of sacrificing them in pointless combat, and more level-headed. The only reason her plan initially fails is because Poe sends Rose and Finn off on a suicide mission – which ultimately fails. True Fans dislike her because she deconstructs the idea of Poe – and by extension Han Solo – as a heroic figure, because she doesn’t concede to what a man whom she outranks tells her (compare this to how Leia, even though she doesn’t outright concede to what Han Solo says or suggests, is ultimately portrayed as needlessly rebellious against both his advances and his plans), and she puts Poe in his figurative and literal place.
The casino scene is disliked because it is deemed pointless and too political. It is, in fact, very political, and that is the entire point. But if you mean that it is pointless because Finn and Rose’s plan fails: The theme of The Last Jedi is failure; Yoda even says so in his conversation with Luke, when he tells him to teach his students “failure above all else” because it is failure that we learn from most. Finn learns not to run away, yes, but he ultimately also learns that compassion is more important than winning by all means necessary – a lesson Rose as a character has always been aware of, but can only truly actualize when she saves Finn from certain death, i.e. after having risked and lost too much already. The casino scene is there to establish that things are not what they look like. This is stated outright. The people who gain most from the struggle between the Light and the Dark are those who profit from their continued conflict.
What true fans are annoyed with is, ultimately, that the clear distinction between Light and Dark that, aside from Vader, had been maintained until now, suddenly is called into question, and that the role of what is heroic in and of itself is called into question. Naturally, having grown up or embodied the world views of the original movies or even the prequels, fans have strong feelings towards what they feel are the pillars of what Star Wars is meant to be.
What they fail to recognize, however, is that as our understanding of the world evolves and moves forward, so does and must the media landscape if it wants to remain relevant. A clear idea of good and evil is, perhaps, not what we need in this day and age. We do need media that reflects the dangers of corporate machinery and the importance of resisting the temptation of becoming exactly like the Dark Side by embodying its tactics.
Of course, the irony of the fact that a Disney owned franchise, which is itself steeped in a capitalist tradition (there are, after all, more than 30 years worth of Star Wars toys and merchandise) is the one to point out the importance of failure and some of the underlying issues of our consumerist society is not lost on me.
But if your argument of why you disliked Star Wars: The Last Jedi boils down to “not enough cool fights, pointless failure, too much diversity and Snoke wasn’t important” I just don’t think those are very good or interesting points (I’m not going to talk about Snoke or the characterization of Kylo Ren here, either. Another time, maybe). You aren’t owed a continuation of a story where ultimately nothing ever changes, where there’s always the same super mysterious villain behind a conflicted Jedi turned Sith who can still be reformed/ gets persuaded to join the Light Side in the last moment. You may be a true fan, as you keep on tirelessly reminding everyone, but if you want Star Wars to remain relevant for future generations of true fans, you might want to take a step back from defending past ideals and become a little rebellious for a change.
(Simone was humming the Darth Vader theme while writing this. Cross-posted on personal blog)