The Last Jedi’s snark problem
The sarcastic storytelling attitude of 2017’s most divisive movie
(Spoilers throughout, so fair warning.)
There’s a scene in Rian Johnson’s 2012 time-travel film Looper in which Bruce Willis, playing an older version of a character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, says to his younger counterpart:
“I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, because we’ll start talking about it and then we’ll be here all day making diagrams with straws.”
In effect, Looper, a time-travel film, tells all the other time-travel films to go to hell.
I was thinking about this scene a lot while watching Johnson’s latest film, which so happens to be The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Star Wars mega-franchise, which the popular consciousness is so invested in that the movie inevitably arrived with insurmountable expectations.
Indeed, for the third holiday season in a row, the Walt Disney Corporation has presented a new Star Wars film to the world, but this time, the new Star Wars is almost as divisive as the national political climate.
Critics everywhere have praised The Last Jedi, the eighth serial installment of the main Star Wars storyline, with the broad platitudes of having “taken risks,” “done something new,” and for being “fresh.”
Meanwhile, the “fans” (a generalized grouping in itself) have bemoaned the sacking of George Lucas’ legacy and the apparent irreverence writer-director Rian Johnson placed in beloved characters and concepts.
But I’m going to push back a little on both of these reactions. If The Last Jedi did something ‘new’ — it wasn’t really new. If the movie took some risks, then they were shallow risks, non-risks that really had little to lose. And if fans claim that The Last Jedi went too far in disrupting their expectations, I’d say it didn’t go far enough.
Allow me to explain.
The Great American Irony Binge
“From the ’90s onward, a specific kind of rhetoric has draped itself over American culture: irony, that beloved tool with the power to humble one’s opponents, to help discern between people who get it and those who don’t, to fight back when one is in the minority, to make life’s traumas and tribulations a little easier to handle.”
This lengthy, byzantine line is from an essay called “The Great American Irony Binge,” authored by contemporary intellectual Christy Wampole in her 2015 book The Other Serious. In the essay, she goes on to argue that irony — in the forms of sarcasm, snark, self-deprecating humor, and satire — has grown to overwhelm and dominate popular American culture. In such fashion, though it was first glimpsed in cartoons such as The Simpsons, American irony spread its tentacles into other media, such as through Stephen Colbert-esque political comedy, and eventually infected all mediums of American culture. And when it comes to film — genre movies in particular — Wampole’s polemic especially rings true.
By the time the 21st century arrived, many genre movies had begun to feel worn-down and ridiculous. Bombarded by TV’s CSIs and Law and Orders, film detective procedurals were only one genre that may have seemed played out. The same went for superheroes in the early 2000s, as a plethora of X-Men and Spider-Men came and went and exhausted audiences in the process. Even James Bond had regressed from fighting greedy gold misers to fighting North Korean-princelings-who-commit-plastic-surgery-to-look-British. (Look up Die Another Day, I dare you.)
In 2008, when the first Iron Man came out, audiences were pleasantly surprised when Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark openly admitted his super-powered alter ego to reporters — thus dispensing with the tired trope of superheroes preserving a secret identity. But the throwaway joke signaled a tectonic shift in blockbuster storytelling. The ensuing Marvel (and Disney-produced) juggernaut went on to routinely shrug away from big moments, preferring to subvert clichés — specifically by making fun of them.
In subsequent films, Iron Man’s signature villain, the Osama bin Laden-esque Mandarin, was revealed to be a phony. The Guardians of the Galaxy laughed and danced their way into defeating their bad guy. The snarky attitude found its way into other films and genres — in The Lego Movie, most tropes of the “chosen one” monomyths (i.e. Star Wars, Harry Potter) are playfully exploited and subverted; in 22 Jump Street, the very idea of an unnecessary sequel is relentlessly mocked.
Sage Hyden, the creator of the YouTube channel Just Write, articulated the weaknesses of cinematic sarcasm in his video “What Writers Should Learn from Wonder Woman.” He first screens a clip from Spider-Man 2, in which Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker reassumes the mantle of Spider-Man in an empowering, if not cheesy, scene. He contrasts this with a similar scene in Doctor Strange, in which a joke involving his sentient magical cape undermines the mystic hero’s decision to dedicate his life to help others.
“What moments like these signal to me is that the creators don’t have confidence in their own stories,” Hyden says in his video essay. “They’re using the joke to distract from the film’s dramatic shortcomings.”
In this argument, the resounding success of Wonder Woman in 2017 reflected a return to genuinely-felt emotion. Throughout the movie, Gal Gadot’s character is self-serious and thoroughly dedicated to the idea of helping others. When there are jokes in the film, they accentuate her authenticity, rather than undermine it. Though the villains she faces are on the high-end of campy and ridiculous (straight from a Roger Moore-led Bond film), Wonder Woman is aspirational and inspirational. She embodies what many people crave most in the world right now — hope over jadedness.
And here is where we return to The Last Jedi.
New tone, old tropes
Everything about the new Star Wars films have reflected different tacks on the beloved property. The Force Awakens was a soft reboot. J.J. Abrams remade the original Star Wars film to invoke crippling nostalgia on the part of older generations, and made the movie flashy and fast-paced enough to introduce it to the ‘younglings.’ Though it tried to do very few new things — it featured a new desert planet, a new Emperor, a new Death Star — it made about $2 billion dollars worldwide. Well-played, Disney, well-played.
Next, Rogue One tried to turn Star Wars into a gritty war movie. In it, the once-morally-flawless Rebels routinely murder people. By the end, all the major characters are killed. But dogfight set-pieces are intact — and more dramatically effective than ever.
Turn to The Last Jedi, and I wonder why we didn’t see its sarcastic pivot coming. After all, Rian Johnson has made a career in making genre films that subvert clichés. His first film, Brick, is about a hardboiled detective — set at a Southern California high school. Looper mocked time-travel tropes. With Star Wars, why did people think he might change his tune?
From Poe Dameron’s first prank call to the First Order starship, we glean the idea that Johnson is out to make a Star Wars parody. Aside from character development and some ham-fisted commentary on arms dealing and horse-racing animal abuse, Finn and Rose’s side-quest amounts to nothing in terms of the greater plot. Meanwhile, Luke throws away his own lightsaber. In a further subversion of the ‘King Arthur’ tropes Star Wars usually employs, Rey’s parents turn out to be nobody special. The evil and grotesque Snoke is dispatched rather quickly, and we still have no idea who (or what) he was. Luke didn’t really die — and then he ‘dies’ (i.e. becomes a Force ghost, probably) anyway.
The sarcastic twists and subversions are so relentless that they no longer feel shocking. It feels like a thesis — and it is. “Let the past die” is the refrain touted by the villainous Kylo Ren. Sure, that’s fine. This is Star Wars, Jump Street-edition. (This is also doubly ironic, since Chris Miller and Phil Lord, Jump Street and Lego Movie directors, were sacked from the upcoming Han Solo-centric movie).
But to paraphrase an oft-quoted Faulkner line, the past is never really dead. It’s not even past — um, the actual content of The Last Jedi. The movie still borrows whole set-pieces from other Star Wars movies. If you wanted to prove your own originality, then why do you need a white-landscaped planet attacked by giant mechanized walkers? Rebel dogfights? A new cute alien animal perfect for selling plush toys?
Sure, there were some inspired twists, like Luke’s Hamlet/Macbeth complex, given his failed assassination of Kylo Ren. But making him a prankster felt out-of-line with his character’s past trajectory of maturation.
What’s more, despite the relentless cop-outs and twists, the movie still felt painfully safe. Whereas Johnson gets so much credit for “doing something new,” all he did was turn the tables on J.J. Abrams “mystery box” ethos — that creating small mysteries helps hook audiences — by throwing away each and every one of those boxes.
But this feels like the lesser option to nuking the boxes. For instance, what if Finn was killed? What if Rey turned evil and joined Kylo? What if Luke was left alive, now that both his apprentices have turned evil? The series had an opportunity to dive into truly unexpected territory, an undiscovered country that would have left audiences gasping—rather than smirking.
A long galaxy to go from here
J.J. Abrams is set to wrap up the trilogy, all the more challenging now that his intended plot threads have been frayed. In all likelihood, he probably will not maintain Johnson’s tonal shift, and make a crowd-pleasing, albeit disappointing, thriller — God forbid, with Starkiller Base №2.
Rian Johnson, however, is off to craft a wholly new, unconnected trilogy, which should give him the freedom to craft his ironical tendencies as he pleases.
Some critics have claimed that The Last Jedi will be viewed differently, and more favorably in the distant future. I wouldn’t be so optimistic. It’s neither the worst Star Wars film (some people obviously don’t remember Attack of the Clones) nor the best. It’ll just be one of maybe 30 Star Wars movies Disney made in the early 21st century, part of the larger “Great American Irony Binge.”
What this ‘binge’ really tells us, and Wonder Woman’s positive reception in spite of it, is that we need something genuine, affecting, and get this — new. After a decade of widespread sarcasm toward movie tropes, The Last Jedi is not exactly risky nor fresh, and it’s definitely not new.