The Importance of Star Wars: The Last Jedi
When people think of “important” films, they tend to think of quiet arthouse movies, often independent from big studios, that mostly tell their stories through dialogue with a small cast of characters. When we see a film where the characters are obviously talking about important issues and big themes and ideas, we tend to think of it as “important”, whereas big action blockbuster films are usually seen only as entertainment. The truth is that only people actively seeking out these “important” films tend to see them, the ideas talked about in the story often don’t spread beyond a relatively small group who has probably already thought about them, and already has an opinion. Those action blockbusters thought of as just entertainment are the movies that have reach, but it is true that a lot of them don’t have much of anything to say, or if they do, it’s a light, simple message that everyone can agree with(the theme of almost every “Fast & Furious movie can be summed up with the word “family”). However, as time goes on, our blockbusters have started to become more thoughtful. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was a big action blockbuster about parenthood, toxic masculinity, and surviving abuse. Black Panther was a film about isolationism, moral responsibility, and cultural identity. But of all these thoughtful blockbusters coming out in the last few years, none has been more important than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Not just for its positive feminist messages and diverse casting, but for its unconventional plot structure and reliance of character and theme over plot and action that presented audiences with the choice of thinking about it, or going home disappointed. Enjoying the ride and not turning your brain on isn’t an option when watching The Last Jedi. More than any other film, it has pushed audiences to increase their critical literacy when it comes to the media they consume. This has resulted in backlash from longtime fans, certain critics, and anti-feminists, but almost all of this backlash either doesn’t engage with the film on its own level, or it misunderstands what the film is and what its goals are.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a film rich in complex characters, multi-layered themes, and ambiguous morality. Many critics have latched onto the feminist angle the film takes, showing he failures of both the heroes and villains as a result of toxic masculinity, as well as presenting women in positions of power and authority. The most obvious example of this is the constant backstabbing, violence, and tantrums of Kylo Ren, General Hux, and Supreme Leader Snoke. Rather than talking to his apprentice, Snoke chooses to manipulate him, for fear that Kylo’s emotions would get the better of him. It is this betrayal that leads to Kylo cutting Snoke in half. Kylo is so consumed with revenge and the desire to kill Luke Skywalker with his own hands that he stops the First Order’s entire invasion to fight Luke, falling right into his trap. General Hux is so determined to posture and insult Poe Dameron that he stays on the communicator with him long enough for the Resistance ships to ambush the First Order. The failings of these characters and the roots of these failures in toxic masculinity is fairly obvious. These men do not trust others, they are violent, they suppress their more sensitive emotions, and they posture and want others to think of them as powerful.
However, the more interesting failures as a result of toxic masculinity are, to my mind, those of Poe Dameron and Luke Skywalker. At the start of the film, Poe is so determined to be the hero of the Resistance and take out a First Order ship that he sacrifices most of the Resistance’s fighter ships and all of their bombers, losing dozens of lives in the process. It is this plan of his that causes Vice Admiral Holdo not to trust him, just as his plan to stop the First Order later in the film is what caused the evacuation to fail, leading to the deaths of yet more people. It is only when Poe recognizes that he can’t be the hero on the front lines saving everyone with bold, dangerous plans that he truly steps into his role as a leader. Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, manifests his toxic masculinity in a misguided idea that he must share the full burden of his mistakes by exiling himself and letting everyone else die. He has become a hermit who cares nothing for the Jedi or the Force. Whereas Poe’s flaws are an external manifestation of his dangerous actions, Luke’s are internal, shutting himself off not just from other people, but from the Force itself. Eventually, Luke is shown to be wrong, and he joins Leia and the Resistance briefly before making his final stand against Kylo Ren. The metaphor of cutting himself off from the Force as a shorthand for isolating himself from even his own emotions is brought back here, as Luke’s heroic final stand comes when he opens himself back up to the Force, and portrays the most powerful use of Force powers by any character across all nine movies by projecting a doppelganger of himself across the galaxy.
This theme of toxic masculinity is the first hurdle audiences face when considering Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It takes heroes and makes them fail, it destroys the legend of beloved characters like Luke Skywalker, and it creates villains that are far more flawed, broken, and overall less intimidating than the likes of Darth Vader. While critics seem to have fully embraced these aspects of the film, with places like The Guardian proudly proclaiming it is “the most triumphantly feminist movie yet” in the series in an article titled “A Force for Good”(Smith n.p.), fans seem less than thrilled with some of these character turns. The character of Vice Admiral Holdo has been mocked endlessly by fans and anti-feminists alike for both her purple hair and the fact she withholds information from Poe. There is also the claim that it is impossible to take the villains seriously, of course, but the most grievous crime committed by writer/director Rian Johnson in the eyes of longtime Star Wars fans, is the fate of Luke Skywalker. Simply put, for most fans, this is “not the Luke they grew up with”. Luke Skywalker would “never even consider doing something like that” in regards to the reveal that Luke briefly reacted out of instinct to seeing the evil in Ben Solo by drawing his lightsaber. Luke Skywalker is not “some weird hermit”. I’ve seen these exact words and phrases extremely similar across twitter, facebook, user reviews, and forums, but it all falls down to what Ann Hornaday says in her article, “The ‘Last Jedi’ Backlash Provides a Useful Primer in How Not to Watch a Movie”. She notes the exact same reaction from many fans, and comes to the conclusion that it stems from a sense of misguided ownership over the series. In responding to claims from fans that Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is not their Luke Skywalker, she says, “Subtext: Because Star Wars is all about the fans, and because it doesn’t adhere to this fan’s deeply personal expectations, sense memories and demands, it can be rejected with extreme prejudice”(Hornaday n.p.). The largest obstacle for the fans when it comes to The Last Jedi is realizing it will not adhere to their expectations.
Star Wars is not, as some have claimed, an apolitical series. For one, no art is truly apolitical, and for two, it’s about the remnants of a democratic government resisting against fascist space nazis. But, it has always been fairly straight-forward. The heroes are the heroes, the villains are the villains. There is a light and dark side to the force. By presenting heroes and villains who are deeply flawed and fail in similar ways, Rian Johnson has thrown the audience, and especially longtime fans, a bit of a curve ball. This is not the expectation from a Star Wars movie. I would argue that the impact of the film is all the more important for the fact that it forced an audience not expecting to think about complex themes and ideas to do exactly that, but clearly, the effect didn’t work out for some who weren’t expecting it, and chose not to adapt to the film they saw.
There are other places in which The Last Jedi’s adherence to character and theme at the cost of plot and action seem to have left some viewers out in the cold. One of the most frequent complaints levied at the film is that the entire sequence on Canto Bight, and especially the character of Rose, are unnecessary. The claim that it’s unnecessary because the plan ultimately fails is missing the point entirely, as the failure of the plan is necessary for Poe and Finn’s growth as characters, as well as the fact that failure was one of the major themes of the movie. It only makes sense for a plan that both the characters and audience have invested time into has failed, because it is more impactful that way. Rose is also said by some fans to be a pointless character, and by certain anti-feminists to be pandering to “the far left”(Benjamin n.p.). The character of Rose is very obviously meant as a way to empower marginalized voices when talking about issues of class, imperialism, and oppression. The sequence on Canto Bight makes the consequences of the series’ villains real in a way that hasn’t been seen in previous movies, showing the audience first hand how the lower class suffers and the upper class profits from imperialist governments.
Alongside the fans and anti-feminists, this sequence has been pointed to by critics as throwing off the pacing of the film(Chipman n.p.). This claim can’t really be disputed, but I would argue that the intent of writer/director Rian Johnson was to place a spotlight on these themes and characters, even if it comes at the cost of the pacing of the movie. Throughout the film, plot often comes at the cost of theme, but this is less a flaw than a deliberate choice.
Despite the issues long-time fans and certain critics had with parts of the movie, it reviewed very positively and was the #1 movie at the box office for 2017. Most would call that a success, but then there’s the issue of the backlash the film has suffered from anti-feminist and sometimes alt-right groups and individuals. These groups mostly complain about the number of women and people of color in the film, framing it as coming at the expense of the role white men play in the story. To this end, there was an infamous “no woman” edit of the film that was soundly rejected by the filmmakers, critics, and the majority of people who saw the movie(Philip n.p.). However, anti-feminists have gained traction elsewhere. Representative of this backlash is the video “Gender Wars: The Last Snowflake” — which has nearly a million views — by Carl Benjamin, a prominent voice among conservatives and the alt-right, from his channel “Sargon of Akkad”. Yes, the video is really called that, and yes, that’s really the name of his channel. As the backlash to The Last Jedi has become an overwhelming part of the cultural narrative surrounding the movie, it is worth looking at it to see if it has any claims that hold water.
The first third of Carl Benjamin’s video recaps Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a semi-joking manner, referring to characters using silly nicknames. The names Rey, Finn, and Rose are never used, and Benjamin only refers to them as, “Mary Sue”, “Token”, and “Diversity Hire”(Benjamin n.p.). After this point, Benjamin makes the claim — that I’ve already debunked — that Star Wars used to be apolitical, and he sees the “leftist” messages in the movie has being put there by the filmmakers to appeal to “whamen and negroes of color”(Benjamin n.p.). This is how he refers to women and people of color throughout the entire video.
His second major claim comes when he insists feminists are wrong to like to movie because it actually supports the Patriarchy. I can see where this reading comes from, and why it’s wrong. Benjamin reads the First Order as being representative of Patriarchy, and the Resistance as being Representative of Matriarchy, given that the leaders of the First Order are men, and the leaders of the Resistance — excluding Poe at the end of the movie — are women. Ignoring theme or narrative framing, it is easy to read The Last Jedi as being about the First Order’s victory over the Resistance. Unfortunately for Benjamin — and this tends to happen when critics ignore theme and narrative framing — the film’s message is actually one of hope and optimism in favor of the Resistance. At the end of the movie, the Resistance has been forced to flee, but as triumphant music swells and characters are framed in hero shots, we are reminded of Luke Skywalker’s promise that he will not be the last jedi, and that love will win out over hate.
The final third of Benjamin’s video is a mixed pot of various half-baked claims. He claims Rey really is a “Mary Sue” and not a positive role model for women, and cites an article from Gizmodo that he cherry picks to say what he wants it to say, when in reality it is claiming the exact opposite. The quote Benjamin used from the gizmodo article was, “So yes, Rey is a tad unrealistic”(Anders n.p.). He ignores the line from the very same paragraph that says, “What she isn’t, is more unrealistic than most of the other characters”(Anders n.p.). Benjamin more or less ends on the claim that Mark Hamill himself doesn’t like the movie, but conveniently ignores the fact that Hamill was talking about his initial thoughts on the film as it was in production, and after it was finished Hamill said in a tweet, “All I wanted was to make good movie. I got more than that- @rianjohnson made an all-time GREAT one!”(Hamill n.p.). Unsurprisingly, the arguments against the film from the man who admits he skipped watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story because there were too many women and people of color on the poster aren’t actually all that sound(Benjamin n.p.).
While Star Wars: The Last Jedi has gotten a reputation as a divisive and controversial movie, the resistance to the film is in reality quite shallow. As fantasy author Erin Lindsey said, “When people get really attached to a property, they get a certain sense of entitlement about how the story needs to unfold”(n.p.). The film itself outside of the controversy surrounding it is one of the smartest blockbusters among a trend of increasingly more thoughtful and intellectual movies. It is the current gold standard of what hollywood blockbuster entertainment should be. Whether or not people agree on if the messages of the film are positive, the fact that a movie that is part of the definitive blockbuster film series talks about such heady ideas, and in fact prioritizes those ideas, should be applauded. Blockbuster movies have a larger impact on society and culture than perhaps any other form of art or entertainment. The trend of intellectual blockbuster films being released is a net positive, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a film that takes huge risks to bring positive messages about feminism, diversity, class and oppression to audiences in such a bold way should be celebrated as an example of what entertainment can be, and the positive impact it can have on our culture.
Anders, Charlie J. “Please Stop Spreading This Nonsense that Rey From Star Wars Is a “Mary Sue”.” Gizmodo, edited by Kelly Bourdet, Gawker Media, 21 Dec. 2015, https://io9.gizmodo.com/please-stop-spreading-this-nonsense-that-rey-from-star-1749134275. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
Benjamin, Carl, Writer. Gender Wars: The Last Snowflake. Carl Benjamin, YouTube, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPsRp7uUXUk. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, . “‘The Last Jedi’ Is the Most Intellectual ‘Star Wars’ Movie.” Wired, edited by Nicholas Thompson, Condé Nast Publications, 23 Dec. 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/12/geeks-guide-last-jedi/. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
Hornaday, Ann. “The ‘Last Jedi’ backlash provides a useful primer in how not to watch a movie.” The Washington Post, edited by Martin Baron, WP Company, 5 Jan. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-last-jedi-backlash-provides-a-useful-primer-in-how-not-to-watch-a-movie/2018/01/04/6fa9a72c-f142-11e7-b3bf-ab90a706e175_story.html?utm_term=.71c67c77. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
Philip, Tom. “An Angry Fan Re-edited Star Wars: The Last Jedi to Make It Less Feminist — And We Watched It.” GQ, edited by Jim Nelson, Condé Nast, 17 Jan. 2018, https://www.gq.com/story/angry-fan-re-edited-star-wars-the-last-jedi-to-make-it-less-feminist. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
Romano, Nick. “Mark Hamill ‘regrets’ airing his The Last Jedi concerns in public.” Entertainment Weekly, edited by Henry Goldblatt, Meredith Corporation, 27 Dec. 2017, ew.com/movies/2017/12/27/mark-hamill-star-wars-the-last-jedi-luke-skywalker/. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
Smith, Anna. “A Force for good: why the Last Jedi is the most triumphantly feminist Star Wars movie yet.” The Guardian, edited by Katharine Viner, Guardian Media Group, 18 Dec. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/dec/18/star-wars-the-last-jedi-women-bechdel-test. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.