A Meditation on Star Wars: The Last Jedi by Sean E. Ali

From time to time my good friend and collaborator Sean E. Ali will post something on his Facebook page that really resonates with me and reminds me of how deep and profound a thinker he is. So I ruthlessly and without a hint of regret yoink his posts from Facebook and post them here so that they won’t get lost. And so with pride I present his latest post which concerns STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI and addresses some of the controversy surrounding the movie. The title of this post is mine but the content you’re about to read is all his. And so, with pleasure and pride I turn to floor over to Mr. Ali…

Okay you got the two sentence version of a review a while ago…

And if you haven’t seen STAR WARS THE LAST JEDI, this is probably a good time to take stroll out in sun…

I’m not planning to spoil anything, mind, but I’ll probably bring up some situations that may lead you to extrapolate how things may go in the film.

So, for your sake and my peace of mind in knowing I warned you…

…I warned you.

First off I’ve heard some of the fans of this franchise — the hardcore fans, y’know folks who own lightsabers and can recite Jedi code and have memorized Princess Leia’s plea to Obi-Wan from the original film — are not thrilled with this film because it deviates, in a big way, from what they wanted to see from their favorite characters. In fact, they’re pretty much the same folks who were put out at how STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was almost a beat for beat rehash of the original film…

…which is kind of odd to me. You weren’t happy with the last one because it was too familiar, but you’re annoyed with this one because it wasn’t familiar enough?

So I’m going to go around the details of the film and go straight to what’s got a lot of folks in need of unbunched underwear: the way the torch is passed between the old generation and the next generation…

Alrighty then…

STAR WARS as a franchise isn’t one I’ve invested myself in past the original trilogy. I had no interest in the prequels, they didn’t move the story forward which is the only interest I’d have in the franchise. I’m sure they had their points of interest, but how Darth Vader came to be and the prominence of the Skywalker clan in galactic events really didn’t grab me. Heck even Luke and Leia being siblings or Vader being their father was trying too hard from where I sat. Lucas took the space opera and turned it into a soap opera with all the major players being related in such convoluted ways that it lessened my interest past “do the good guys win?”

Honestly, FLASH GORDON got the job done without daddy issues with Ming, but Lucas put it together that way and it is what it is.

Still this franchise has always been about the classic hero’s journey. Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo had begun their journey together in that regard. Each one carrying an arc in their own journeys as heroes. While focus was on Luke in the original trilogy, Han and Leia grew and became heroes and legends of their own as part of the franchise and in the mythology of the world Lucas built.

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But the hero’s journey traditionally runs in three distinct stages. I’ll borrow from Matt Wagner’s MAGE to summarize them: the Hero discovered, the Hero defined, and the Hero denied. There’s a beginning, a time of action, and an ending of the journey. We are at a crossroads where journeys end as other journeys begin.

Now I dug THE FORCE AWAKENS, because we saw the first casualty of the old guard. We saw what happens when the hero who always finds a way falls because there was no other way out. AWAKENS was Han Solo’s story and his swan song. Unless some serious stuff happened behind the scenes, Han’s story in the tale ended with a betrayal he saw coming, but invited nonetheless because the stakes to him warranted the gamble. The once cynical Han was a sort of convert to Luke’s wide eyed optimism. He was older, wiser, still reckless, but he had grown to have a faith in his old friend that hadn’t waned in the intervening years. The rogue turned reluctant hero had gone over to being a hero who was a reluctant rogue. Luke’s legend sustained those who were closest to him and even without being an active part of the film he was a presence felt. That build up and expectation culminated on an island on a distant planet where Rey, who was at the beginning of her journey is left facing an older Luke Skywalker and leaving fans with a cliffhanger worthy of hair pulling.

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The Hero Discovered rediscovers The Hero Denied…

Deified.

What AWAKENS does is bring an ending of Solo’s arc in the saga, where he was still the man he was but shows he grew in character as an end result of his days with Luke. Han not only became a better man – he became the optimist who went from scoffing at Luke’s belief in the Force to being the true believer who brings Rey aboard.

What THE LAST JEDI does this time around is put Rey face-to-face with the legendary Luke Skywalker, she stands before him with a mission in one hand and the hope that she’ll find answers in the other. Instead the question Rey found herself facing (along with the audience) is…

…what happens when your legend isn’t what you expected him to be?

See in modern day media, especially in the USA, we’re spoiled. Our heroes go on forever in fiction, they stay the course, their missions never end and for the most part the characters stay in a certain framework and maintain base characteristics we come back to – even if those characteristics come from an evolution of the hero along the way. What THE LAST JEDI does is boldly step through the door that cracked open by doing in Han Solo in the previous film: passing the torch and tying up the storylines of the original heroes. A lot of fans are saying how Rian Johnson chose to do this spits in the face of the story Lucas began in the 1970s…

Well…

…yeah, pretty much he’s saying let’s end this, because this is not Luke’s story any more.

Luke Skywalker is closing in on the last part of his journey. He’s been discovered and defined, now he’s living with and in denial. Mark Hamill, when he first heard Johnson’s plans for Luke, wasn’t thrilled. I think the reasoning was “Jedis don’t give up.” Sure they do. In the original trilogy we, with Luke, meet up with Ben Kenobi who has pretty much given up on being the legendary Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’ll even stretch it out to Ben probably cutting himself off from the Force as Luke has done in this new film since Vader was close enough in relative distance to sense Ben and he didn’t. But Ben was done. He walked away and he walked away for reasons generally echoed all these years later ironically by the same guy who practically begged to become the man he is now. Like Ben, Luke found himself in a place he didn’t mean to be and like Ben, Luke is suddenly looking the future in the face…

…and he’s not it.

Which, for a guy who was once so vital to the entire narrative of this saga, has to be an eye opener. In Rey, Luke is rediscovering who he was and reconciling that with who he is. There are beats throughout the film that reiterated that sudden change, but the important thing here, the thing all the hardcore fans can’t accept, is Luke Skywalker is no longer the kid who found himself with power and ability and the will to stand as the light in the face of darkness.

What they got instead was Luke in his Ben Kenobi phase. And Ben’s job was to open Luke’s eyes to the possibilities ahead of him, to see what his potential could be.

Folks get upset, for example, at the short time Luke spent training Rey. They forget, that was much more training than he initially got from Ben. “How was she able to fight Kylo Ren without full Jedi training?”

The same way Luke did. He abandoned his training in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but fans act like he was there for the full graduate course or something. He was still a disappointment to Yoda when he left, and when he returned…?

Yoda said he had nothing more to teach him.

So, essentially, Luke was as unprepared as Rey was. So the fan rage for moments they’ve embellished is nice and all, but honestly, Rey and Luke were both intuitive wielders of the Force and their natural abilities filled in what they lacked in education.

Was this Luke and Leia’s film? Sure, it’s obvious that they were there to hand off the franchise. Poe Dameron is the next Han Solo, but tempered by Leia’s example. In the end, he’s the son Ren should’ve been. Finn…

…ah, I’ve got so many issues with Finn in general as a Black man watching how this character plays out…

…so if it’s all the same to you, I’m gonna sidestep Finn because basically that’s how he plays. He’s a filler character, he’s the bloody sidekick to whoever the sidekick is.

But Rey and Ren are the folks who are going forward. Ren is the last of the Skywalker legacy. He’s modeled himself after his grandfather, fears his uncle, disdains his father… and apparently loves his mother enough to not kill her when he has the opportunity to do her in like he did Han in the last film.

Rey is no one’s child. Her parents are faceless, nameless non-entities who aren’t connected to the Skywalker/Solo Family tree at all…

…and fans screamed like wounded eagles the loudest at that revelation.

My question is…

Why?

If you start to tell me about the long saga’s run with the Skywalkers in the spotlight, consider this…

…why are the Skywalkers the only folks allowed to be the keepers of the Force?

The Force, as explained, is a power that binds the universe. It’s this thing that is a part of us and in theory anyone can access it…

…so why are folks freaking out because someone stumbled into this story doing exactly that…

…just like Luke did?

I mean before the prequel trilogy, before RETURN OF THE JEDI, before THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Luke Skywalker just happened to be some farm kid who, through a series of circumstances, finds himself a key player in a war between the Empire and the Rebellion because of all the folks in all the cities in all the worlds of the universe a farm kid finds two droids who just happen to know of a guy with a similar name and off we go.

And not one of the folks complaining now, points out Luke’s story, without the later revelations and family ties, is as implausible as Rey’s. I wonder if after the prequels were folks mad at Ben in the original film for not being the guy he was retroactively.

But now the franchise is supposed to be “ruined” because a film was made that basically said, “Luke Skywalker’s just a guy who isn’t the same guy he was nearly 40 years ago”…

…well, yeah.

Exactly.

I’d be more disappointed if Luke were still the same guy. It would mean in the intervening years he learned nothing, had no adventures or experiences that transformed his life. If he were still rushing off into danger without a thought then I’d be concerned about whether he did anything outside of winning on the strength of his legend. He didn’t, but he also wasn’t General Skywalker or Senator Skywalker or President Skywalker – he was instead an aging Jedi master who at some point failed miserably and withdrew.

And believe or not, that makes a lot more sense than the perfect Luke fantasy, it beats Hamill’s “a Jedi never gives up” myth too. I know folks are saying that Luke was trying to kill Kylo Ren back when he was Luke’s student, but, as we saw, Luke couldn’t go through with it. However, where he feels he failed was in the simple consideration of doing that when he realized how far gone his nephew was. Rey gets that much right, Luke didn’t fail Kylo Ren, it was the reverse. The darkness was there, but Luke didn’t trigger that. Where Luke fell short was in hesitating and allowing Ren to survive.

Hey it didn’t work out for King Arthur and Modred either. So there’s a precedent to Luke’s eventual downfall. But even when he knew there was an evil to destroy, Luke Skywalker stayed in character.

Don’t believe me? I offer you RETURN OF THE JEDI and Luke’s final scene with a dying Darth Vader. Hell, Luke’s entire motivation is to turn Vader not kill him. Rey is stuck on that same path despite Ren not being a relative. She has sort of absorbed that one through her time with Han and Leia respectively, but I’m thinking I shouldn’t expect that to be her default mode just yet, we’ve got one more film to go.

Look, no one wants to see their heroes fade away. No one wants to see their heroes tire of their crusade and, as I said from the outset: we’re spoiled in our modern mythology because that doesn’t happen like it should. Superman’s still perpetually between 30 and 40, Batman’s still surviving on the mean streets of Gotham, James Bond’s still sipping his shaken martinis and James Kirk is still on the bridge of the Enterprise…

…so Luke’s getting to the end of his story is an old dynamic returning to the fore. The Hero’s Journey fulfilled and finished. It throws everyone because Luke’s final adventure really is final. His story, as the man he is, ended and it ended with Luke admitting that at the end of it all he’s not as large as his legend…

…but not before he adds one last epic moment to serve as a capstone to the legend he was despite that.

And believe me there are worse ways to go out in these stories.

Now everything in the new film can be wiped away just like elements of THE FORCE AWAKENS were dismissed by LAST JEDI to basically clean house and bring the Skywalker era to a close. That doesn’t prevent Hamill as Luke to reappear as a Force ghost, advising Rey, but I hope they avoid that. With Carrie Fisher gone, Leia’s story has ended prematurely but Poe’s in place and maybe Finn will rise to the occasion. Chewie, R2-D2, and C-3PO are still in play though they can all be wiped out or retired in the next movie. What is in this brave new dynamic though is uncertainty. There are no guarantees, no sure thing, no clear lines of who is on who’s side outside of maybe Poe. What’s been abandoned is all the lore that weighed the franchise down while leaving it intact. None of what’s come before has gone away, it’s just helped set the stage for the next part of the story.

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One Hero’s Journey ends with his affiliated characters tied up as well. Whatever comes next isn’t tied up in a generational saga focused on one family, it’s the what comes next after everything is over.

It’s about the new going beyond what’s already been done…

…and the next Hero’s Journey begins.

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One thought on “A Meditation on Star Wars: The Last Jedi by Sean E. Ali

  1. Great guest post, Sean! Thank you for clearing up all the ruckus with the fandom due to so many conflicted expectations, and reminding us that this newest Star Wars trilogy is a progression of the well-known Hero’s Journey that we are too often denied in a genre that continues perpetually through regular reboots back to the beginning. The end result of that, as you pointed out, simply maintains the ongoing saga in a perpetually “ongoing” status, with evolution occurring but actual endings of the saga or true passing on of the torch being more rare than a chunk of Gold Kryptonite.

    This may have been different if the major comic book publishers had chosen to go the generational route with their heroes on a wide scale, rather than doing the periodic reboot and “time-crunching” things to keep the status quo from progressing past the middle of the Hero’s Journey and all the way to the end. Like, for instance, if Bruce Wayne had eventually passed on the mantle of Batman, first to Dick Grayson and then to, say, Bruce Jr., as imagined in John Byrne’s “imaginary” mini-series GENERATIONS. Or, say, if Peter Parker were allowed to permanently pass on the mantle of Spider-Man to either Miles Morales or the former’s (alternate future reality) daughter Mayday Parker to become Spider-Girl (later the Spider-Woman of her reality). But I hear too many fans complaining about even the semi-passing of the eight-legged torch to Morales, with one fan friend of mine saying that Peter Parker should remain “the one, the only Spider-Man,” since they can’t accept anyone else in the costume. Hence, they insist that Bruce (Sr.) and Peter’s journey must never end, and the most we can get in mainstream canon is the next generation sharing the mantle with the “forever ongoing” original.

    I can understand the sentiment behind this — I admit to having trouble seeing anyone other than Steve Rogers effectively carry on the mantle of Captain America, especially since so many others have tried and made a mess out of it (including Bucky Barnes), with only Sam Wilson coming close to doing it justice IMO, and he recently doffed the mantle to forge his own legend as the Falcon, a legend that he started himself.

    In most cases, the only true completion of the Hero’s Journey we get in mainstream comics are what occurs in those tantalizing alternate reality and alternate future, “Elseworlds,” “Imaginary,” or whatever one prefers to call them deals. Through them, we at least got to see the Silver and Bronze Age Superman of DC’s pre-Crisis “Earth-One” reach the end of his journey in Alan Moore’s and Curt Swan’s classic story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”; Batman’s journey ending (or at least trying to) under Frank Miller’s pen with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS; and Peter Parker’s journey end after he (at first inadvertently) passed on the mantle to his daughter Mayday in an alternate reality that we still get to see from time to time. We also got to see the journey of the “Ultimate” version of Peter Parker end, with the mantle permanently passing on to Miles Morales a few years before the Secret Wars came along and put paid to that by destroying Marvel’s Ultimate Universe and pulling Miles and his entire history into a slightly rebooted “mainstream” Marvel Universe (let’s choose to ignore the seeming but never fully explained return of Peter Parker in Miles’ last Ultimate story arc before the Secret Wars came along and rendered the whole question moot).

    And, of course, let’s cherish the touching end of Mar-Vell’s journey in THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL graphic novel under the guiding hand of Jim Starlin, and the eventual passing of the great Kree hero’s mantle first to his son Genis-Vell and now to Carol Danvers (a more worthy heir to the name), as this was one of the few permanent ends to a major character in “mainstream” canon that we actually got.

    Hopefully, Star Wars fandom will come around to embracing change, and allowing the journeys of their heroes to logically end while a new generation picks up the torch and carries it towards an uncertain but always interesting future.

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