The Rule of Cool
We love mysterious characters. Why then do creators feel compelled to ruin the mystique
Admit it, Boba Fett was way cooler before.
Before we knew he was the original clone, brother to 200,000, with a million more on the way. Before we knew his surname came from his proto-father Jango Fett, the clone template himself. Before we’d seen him as snot-nosed kid laughing at his dad’s jokes.
Before. When he was a masked bad ass with a rocket pack and an assortment of nifty weaponry. A savvy hunter that saw through Han’s float-away-with-the-garbage gambit. A killer so remorseless Darth Vader singled him out amid a cadre of the galaxy’s deadliest to sternly warn that disintegrations were off the table.
Not even an unceremonious end in the Sarlaac’s belly could diminish him. He was so cool we denied his death, a sentiment bolstered by comics and novels.
Boba Fett is the Elvis of the Star Wars universe.
At least, he was, back when an air of mystery draped his shoulders as tangibly as the braid of wookiee hair and the bullet-riddled half-cape.
We see this same pattern time and again in pop culture: interesting side character is introduced as part of a larger story, side character captures the imagination, creator destroys the mystique by retroactively telling their story. AKA, the dreaded origin story.
This is not to be conflated with the superhero origin story, a necessary but often masturbatory part of the genre that precedes the really good stuff. Though I would argue that Wolverine is far more interesting prior to Wolverine: Origins than he is after.
Star Wars is king at this, shining a light into the dark corners of the franchise, giving everyone a name and background.
Is Han Solo a better character now that we’ve seen how he meets Chewie, wins the Millenium Falcon, or completes the Kessel Run? Or that the Solo name came via a bored Imperial recruiter? Emphatically no. Fortunately, Han emerges with his mojo intact because the movie largely avoids recasting Han in a different light from what we’ve seen previously.
The Prequel Trilogy is the ultimate origin story, a three-movie saga conceived solely to depict Anakin’s dark side osmosis, culminating in his conversion to Darth Vader. And, just as in Fett, Vader’s dark shadow is lessened for it. The Phantom Menace establishes Anakin as a figure of prophecy, reframing his decision to throw Palpatine down the shaft in Return of the Jedi as something preordained and less a father’s final act of mercy.
The Prequels change Vader from a murderous villain redeemed by the love of his son into a misunderstood man prone to emotional outbursts and horrible decisions who finally sees the light.
Something is irrevocably lost, each time a creator goes back.
Creating a fictional thing is often an act of improvisation, of building just enough backstory to satisfy the needs of the story. These building blocks are like raw wood, hastily cut, and should never see the light of day. Spending days developing mythology and an exhaustive history can be fun but is usually just a form of procrastination.
Everything must serve the story.
The original Star Wars trilogy was constructed in this haphazard, intuitive manner. Darth Vader wasn’t originally Luke’s father. Leia wasn’t his sister. Those details were later developed to inform the ensuing narrative when they were needed. Story always came first.
George Lucas on the origins of Boba Fett, from The Making of Empire Strikes Back:
“Darth Vader started as a kind of intergalactic bounty hunter in a space suit and evolved into a more grotesque knight… He became more of a Dark Lord than a mercenary bounty hunter. The Boba Fett character is really an early version of Darth Vader. He is also very much like the man-with-no-name from the Sergio Leone Westerns.”
Boba Fett was always intended to be a mystery, a man without country or cause. But alas, curiosity won out.
The creators aren’t entirely to blame. The fan thirst to know is limitless and can never be quenched. The Star Wars brand remains a license to print money, and this remains primarily a business.
Nuance and wonder are the first casualties in the quest to answer all the questions and make all the money.
Is there a way to meet demand for new material while still maintaining that mysterious aura? It turns out, there is, and the answer comes from the Prequel Trilogy of all places.
Consider Palpatine aka Darth Sideous aka the Emperor. Introduced via hologram in The Empire Strikes Back, Palpatine steadily earned more playing time with each successive movie. Almost impossibly, he becomes even more fascinating as he rises from unassuming Senator to Chancellor to Emperor. But even as we witness these events, Palpatine remains shrouded in mystery for one reason: we know next to nothing about his origins.
The only way to win the origins game is to not play at all.
If you absolutely must revisit a mysterious character in a prequel, keep them firmly in the background. Putting the spotlight squarely on them will only undermine the ethos of the original work and water down the character’s vivacity.
It should be noted there is a novel that explores Palpatine’s origins, but I am ignoring it because A) 95% of Star Wars fans don’t read the novels, and B) the novel (which I’ve read) only reinforces my overall point: we aren’t better off for knowing how Sheev Palpatine assumes the mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith.
Yes, his first name is Sheev. Ridiculous, right?
Sometimes not knowing is the best thing of all.
Many fans were furious over the unceremonious departure of Snoke from The Last Jedi, but if they’d been paying attention to their Star Wars, perhaps they shouldn’t have been. Creating interesting, shadowy villains and abruptly killing them with questions unresolved is fully on-brand. But as much as I loved his hasty exit stage left, I know this is not the last we’ll see of him. Not when there is mining to do, and this deposit runs deep.
First there will be a novel. Then a role in an animated feature. A blink-it-and-miss cameo in one of the new trilogies. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even get our very own Snoke trilogy, charting his rise from a misunderstood boy with dangerous powers to the shattered-faced ancient with a taste for silk pajamas.
And then, finally, we’ll discover his real name is Bobo Snoke and his life’s ambition had once been to open a high-end slipper shop. And we’ll never look at his craggy face the same again.