Addressing Criticisms of “The Last Jedi Betrays the Original Trilogy and its Heroes”

My dashed off essay, “The Last Jedi Betrays the Original Trilogy and its Heroes,” has gotten, well, quite a lot of attention. It’s now the most read post I’ve ever written, and it continues to be shared like crazy on social media. While many people have said it gives voice to their own disappointment with the movie, an equal number have told me I’m out to lunch, or not understanding the movie, or stuck in my ways and so incapable of seeing what makes The Last Jedi the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

Here I want to address some of the most common rebuttals, not just because they’re common, but also because they appear to miss much of what I tried to get at in my review.

Watch out for spoilers below.

“All your questions are answered in the novels and comics.”

Yes, I am familiar with the supplemental material in the novels and comics. I’ve read all of them, in fact. But far from lessening the problems with the The Last Jedi, knowing that backstory only highlights those problems.

What the novels tell us about the state of the universe in the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens just doesn’t fit with what we see in The Last Jedi. It does fit with what we see in The Force Awakens. Episode 8 deviates not just from TFA, but from the novels, too. I’m not going to dig into the details, but what the novels tell us about the New Republic and what The Force Awakens establishes about the location of the First Order, the role of the Resistance, and damage done to the Republic by Starkiller Base, don’t support the utterly dire situation our heroes find themselves in throughout The Last Jedi.

“You’re just mad that the universe took a dark turn.”

No, I’m not upset that things are bad in the universe compared to the happy place Return of the Jedi left us, nor am I upset that, in the end, our Original Trilogy heroes didn’t win out entirely over the Empire.

That things turned dark in the decades since the Battle of Endor is just fine, and conflict’s needed for a good story. But TLJ doesn’t earn that dark turn, because the way the darker universe is presented to us doesn’t make much sense.

We’re given no real inkling of how things turned bad. They’re just bad. And they appear to be bad just so we can have another set of Rebels fight another Empire, rather than as part of a meaningful narrative that builds on what came before.

“You’re just opposed to change.”

Likewise, my objection to The Last Jedi isn’t that I think Star Wars movies should slavishly be about old characters and old themes. I’m not against change in Star Wars. I love it and want more of it.

But that change needs to be interesting, it needs to feel like Star Wars, and it needs to build on what we’ve established over eight prior movies — not to mention two TV shows, a dozen plus novels, and countless comics. Star Wars needs change, but The Last Jedi isn’t interesting change.

In fact, it’s not really change at all. That’s what so frustrating about this particular response. The Last Jedi begins with the Rebellion (sorry, Resistance) fleeing its last base as the Empire (sorry, First Order) closes in. It ends with the Resistance in tatters, the Empire ascendant, and with a young Jedi just learning the way as the galaxy’s last, best hope. Along the way we get a Jedi master in isolation teaching a young force users from a backwater desert world about the ways of the Force, and we get a trench battle against Imperial (sorry, First Order) walkers.

The Last Jedi is change in the sense that it ignores the state of the universe it was handed by The Force Awakens and the novels, particularly the Aftermath trilogy and Bloodline. But it’s not nearly enough change because it ignores the state of the universe in order to unthinkingly return us to exactly what we’ve already seen, and without rhyme or reason.

“Aren’t these really problems with The Force Awakens?”

No, they’re not. Here’s why. The Force Awakens is a movie about setup. It’s the start of something new, and so its job is to introduce us to the world and its characters, not to explain everything and resolve all mysteries. TFA does a good job with that.

Yes, its opening crawl is confusing. We don’t quite understand who the First Order are, or how Leia’s Resistance is related to the Republic. The crawl should’ve been revised, because the answers are both simple and make for a pretty cool setup. In short, the First Order is an Imperial remnant, way out in the fringes of the galaxy. The Republic knows about them, but doesn’t consider them a threat, which is why they’re not sending their military to interfere. Leia’s convinced the First Order does pose a significant threat, so she’s setup the Resistance to keep an eye on them. (In the novels and comics, we learn that there’s actually a non-aggression treaty between the two sides.)

That all works. It makes sense that there’d be Imperial remnants. It makes sense that Leia, given what she went through in the Original Trilogy, would consider them a threat. It makes sense that the Republic, tired of war, would want to believe they can safely be ignored.

The Force Awakens has, in other words, good and interesting world-building. And the mysteries it sets up are themselves good and interesting. The Last Jedi discards all that without earning it from a narrative standpoint. The Republic was rocked, yes, by the loss of its capital and senate at Hosnian Prime in the Starkiller attack. But it beggars belief that such an attack would mean the galaxy is now without any military force capable of fighting back against what looks to be a not-too-large First Order fleet. We’re told in TLJ that the Resistance is all that’s left. Why? How? Rian Johnson doesn’t care.

“You’re just racist and sexist, and that’s why you don’t like the movie.”

Um, no.

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  • In the original trilogy, George Lucas thrust us head first into a dog fight between good and evil without any backstory but we immediately knew who to root for. The instant Vader walked onset we knew he was evil and the rebels were the good guys and the underdogs by a long shot. [That Star Destroyer made it clear who was in charge.] We had hardly more than the scrolling exposition that precedes each film and yet we accepted this world of good versus evil as a given. The story in front of us was captivating enough that the origins of these characters weren’t the reason for watching.

    I would say the same for TLJ [not so much TFA]. TLJ was captivating enough to appreciate on its own without needing to know how the republic became undone again. If you didn’t need to know the backstory for the original trilogy why do you need it for this trilogy? It isn’t unreasonable that the Dark Side rose again within 30 years – after George Bush we have Donald Trump. That only took 8 years.

    • Tl;dr: the OT had no preexisting backstory, so it didn’t have any “changes” that it needed to explain. The new films are part of a very known world/story/universe (and are cashing in on that fact). People who have an emotional investment in that universe want major changes justified in-world.

      I think an important difference is that there was nothing before the OT. We couldn’t have preconceptions about what was happening, and the genius of the original Star Wars was that it thrust us into this strange world that still somehow made sense (as you point out). TFA (and TLJ) take place in a world we already have a sense of, with history and characters that were on a clear trajectory when we last saw them. Like the article, I feel cheated when the directors basically wipe out those trajectories with a vague “bad stuff happened when you weren’t watching”. If they want to take those characters and universe in a very different direction, that’s cool, but it feels cheap and manipulative when they undo three films worth of character development in an offhand comment (“I went back to the only think I was ever good at.”) or brief flashback. Much as I like seeing Luke and the gang again, I honestly wish they had set the new films a few generations later: start a new story without having to unravel the ones we already have (it worked well for KOTOR).

      It seems to me like there are people who will watch the new films and think “this is the state of the galaxy now, therefore something must have happened to change things/people. I don’t know how we got here but I’ll trust the director and assume there is a logical reason for it all.”
      Then there are other people, typically ones with a strong personal investment in the original characters, who want more justification for why their heroes are now burn outs who effectively accomplished nothing. Imagine if you met a real life childhood hero of yours 30 years later, and they were nothing like the person you remember and admired. You’d probably want to know what happened, what went wrong.

      There are lots of pricks out there who freak out because: “GASP a female lead character, eww!” I won’t even try to defend that reaction. But there are plenty of people who are ok with change as long as it *either* in line with the arc of the characters/universe we are emotionally invested in, or if major changes to those arcs are made believable (I.e. with enough backstory to explain a significant change). As it is, it feels like key character traits and universe lore are being rewritten simply for marketability.