Last week I started getting worried about Star Wars and, specifically, JJ Abrams and the direction of The Rise of Skywalker. This led me down a dark path, but one which I hope I have emerged from, like the cave on Ahch-To or Dagobah, with greater wisdom and perspective. This is my journey:
Star Wars: Episode I: The Fandom Menace
Let me make a few things clear up front: I love Star Wars. It is almost a religion to me. I do not remember any life without or before Star Wars. In fact, I have clear memories of endlessly watching, rewinding, and re-watching the original Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi on VHS and acting out the movies with my toys as I watched them over and over. I don't hate the prequels, but recognize some flaws. I really enjoyed The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Solo and love love LOVE The Last Jedi.
But I do hate what the fandom has become. An incredibly vocal set of people who hated The Last Jedi have really sapped my enthusiasm for Star Wars over the last two years. And that's been hard, as it is essentially my geeky equivalent of mother's milk. Before I got into comics, I loved Star Wars. Before I got into Star Trek, I loved Star Wars.
I have been really looking forward to The Rise of Skywalker as an endpoint, but also a possible new beginning. Yes, the culmination of the Skywalker saga. But also the possibility for a "much larger world" which we have sort of nibbled around with films like Rogue One and Solo, but also The Mandalorian and Rebels.
Episodes VII and VIII also set up a lot of mysteries and questions. I've been looking forward to learning the answers of many of those. But also, as a film critic, I've really enjoyed the artistry and filmmaking of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. I love Rian Johnson and think he has one of the best track records of any filmmaker working today. (Knives Out is spectacular and you should really go see it.) I also really like JJ Abrams and his workmanlike ability to synthesize Spielberg, Lucas, and all the other filmmakers I love into substantive popcorn flicks, from Star Trek to Super 8.
Return of the Franchise
One of the reasons I loved The Force Awakens so much is it managed to fit into the George Lucas/Joseph Campbell "monomyth" or "hero's journey" template. While it's reductive to say that The Force Awakens just retells the original Star Wars, it is true that it maps fairly well overall with the main story structure. Again, it's following that iconic hero's journey, or as some fans have posited, a "ring theory" history where events not only repeat themselves but as George Lucas says, "they rhyme."
Why it's reductive to say it is a complete rehash, though, is the audacity of passing the torch to a new generation where the main hero on the monomyth journey is a young woman of destiny, and her new friends and companions are not just white dudes. The moment where Anakin's/Luke's lightsaber flies to Rey's hand is one of my favorite moments in the entire Star Wars saga, not only because of what it is but because what it meant to my young daughter who became a giant Star Wars fan at that very moment. Just as Luke and Han spoke to me a generation before, this was her Star Wars now, too.
Fully expecting The Last Jedi to, therefore, echo elements of The Empire Strikes Back (my favorite movie of all time), I was shocked by what Rian Johnson served up. When you see 200 movies a year, it's a genuinely strange moment to be really surprised by anything, especially in a major franchise tentpole movie. (The only other film to surprise me more this past decade has been the actually truly divisive Sorry To Bother You.)
While The Force Awakens laid out and followed the Star Wars template, The Last Jedi subverted all of those expectations and gave us, in many ways, the opposite. (I know many people don't like the film for that exact reason. We'll get to you in a minute.)
I was blown away. I was glad that not only were none of the Snoke theories correct, but they were also completely irrelevant. Same for theories about who Rey's parents are. The point was that we had all invested far too much energy into these fan theories while completely taking our eye off the ball while the real magic was happening elsewhere.
So here's where my anxiety began. . .
Star Wars: The Doubt Awakens
So all of this leads me to a moment late last week when suddenly it seemed like a memo must've gone out from Disney PR: "The Last Jedi was divisive and lots of people didn't like it. Make sure you take potshots at The Last Jedi and talk about how this new movie is very different."
In an interview in the New York Times, Abrams first praised The Last Jedi for being "full of surprises and subversion and all sorts of bold choices… On the other hand, it's a bit of a meta approach to the story. I don't think that people go to Star Wars to be told, 'This doesn't matter.'"
Ok, first. . . this specific take concerns me greatly. Yes, it's a meta approach to the story. The Last Jedi is literally about the power of myth and the stories we tell, as a poor stable boy on Canto Bight relates the story of how Luke Skywalker stood alone against the entire First Order and won. Then he uses The Force and pulls his broom to his hand, and raises it to the night sky.
Whatever the fate of the Jedi as a religious order might be, The Force, which binds and penetrates all life and holds the universe together, and the power of myth remains stronger than ever. Yes, it's meta. But if anything it imbues more meaning and weight into why these stories matter: because they have the power to inspire and help even the most abused and downtrodden among us to look to the stars and feel a sense of empowerment and calling into the universe. It really worried me that JJ Abrams didn't seem to understand that.
Then Abrams went on to say that The Rise of Skywalker "needed a pendulum swing in one direction [from The Last Jedi] in order to swing in the other." That certainly sounds like a repudiation, if not an indication he was planning to retcon the entirety of what Rian Johnson did. "Is JJ Abrams just going to remake Return of the Jedi with these new characters (and lens flare)?" My anxiety level hit its peak.
And then Twitter happened.
And that's where we'll end it for now. More tomorrow as I take up my own hero's journey wading through my temptation by the dark side of the fandom.