The New Heroes
I thought Force Awakens was merely serviceable as a movie, a huge chunk of fan service and a merry-go-round of “hey remember Star Wars?” but not a lot of new life. And honestly, that means it was a massive failure.
It was the vanguard of the new guard, the movie that was supposed to introduce us to new heroes that we’d love as much as the old ones. Instead, we got Rey (generic gee-whiz do-gooder with a hardscrabble past who can somehow fight and fly better than all the others), Poe (generic impulsive anti-hero type), and Finn (indecisive cipher). To be fair, Awakens was more of an ensemble romp, more like Avengers than Star Wars, but none of these characters are given full living breath in Episode VII; they all feel like stand-ins for real heroes, or Saturday morning cartoon characters.
Finn is the most glaring screenwriting problem. For once, we have a character who’s been inside the machine, who’s served as a stormtrooper, and yet he’s as bland as porridge. He was sold at a young age to be trained by the First Order as a killing machine, for crying out loud! And then he got reassigned to sanitation, apparently. Do we get to peek inside his head? Aren’t the rebels going to treat him with a little suspicion, deprogram him, debrief him, pump him for secrets, test him, find out what his true motivations are? Do we find out what it’s like to be a ninja who’s been bumped down to trash detail? Does he think about his family or his friends back in the Empire? Does he undergo a journey of self-doubt and self-discovery (Rey) or discover the meaning of sacrifice and leadership (Poe)? Nope, nope, nope. If anything, he’s the counter-example to Poe’s learning as he tries to sacrifice himself futilely against that space cannon thing.
In the real world, we have examples of kids like this, who were abandoned by family and trained to be child soldiers. People like this are usually scarred, hard, fragile, difficult, unpredictable, and inherently compelling. But Finn does not behave like a Sudanese child soldier. He behaves like a suburban dork.
I think Force Awakens is a good case study on what does and doesn’t make a hero. Star Wars shows Luke Skywalker suffering great tragedy and then struggling to understand himself and his tremendously dangerous challenges, building a framework for action and self-sacrifice. Force Awakens shows a group of stock videogame characters running from objective to objective, completing quests to get to their next level-up. It feels cheap.
Last Jedi, however, does a better job of capturing that Star Wars panache, in my opinion. While watching it, I remember saying, “Finally, a Star Wars movie that brings it back to these loaded, fraught, incredibly tense face-offs between powerful and determined heroes and villains.” Chiefly, the emotional psychic connection scenes with Rey and Kylo; the Kylo-Luke confrontation; and of course that brilliant faceoff between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke in the throne room. Jedi also does something that none of the prequels ever did: it gave real immediate stakes to a character’s moral choice. Game of Thrones isn’t a brilliant show because of the bloody battles; it’s a great show because of the memorable tensions between great and unpredictable characters.
The Star Wars prequels are boring because there are no mysteries or surprises. Kylo is definitely one of the more interesting elements in the new Star Wars.
For me, Jedi also performed the miracle of redeeming Rey as a character. She was bland and uninteresting to me in Awakens but in Jedi she developed passion, self-doubt, and purpose.
Killing Off Heroes
I agree that Jedi wrote Skywalker out in a weak and anti-climactic fashion. Honestly, the magnitude of Luke’s Force achievement– broadcasting his convincing self across the galaxy, blah blah blah– was never convincingly shown in a cinematic way. To the average moviegoer, Luke could’ve just jumped in an x-wing and flown over in five minutes… and Disney would’ve been better served to shoot that and let Luke die epically in the flesh.
I also take issue with the way in which the creators have chosen to close the chapters of the three primary heroes of the original movies. For a franchise as mythological and metaphysical as Star Wars, does closure on a character arc have to be a death? I think that’s short-sighted. Look at all the great movie endings through history. Many end with deaths, but just as many end with small victories or new journeys. (And of course that’s also what I hope happens to Princess Leia.)
I was deeply annoyed at Holdo’s sacrifice, not because of any complaints about the character, but because of the holes it punches in the rules of space combat that Star Wars has always upheld. If lightspeed is really the ultimate weapon, why aren’t the x-wings firing off little miniaturized lightspeed missiles instead of stupid lasers? Is it because a lightspeed drive is too big and expensive to put in a missile? Cellphones used to be too big and expensive to put in your pants, too.
Those Other Tiresome Dustups
As for the fuss over Holdo, here’s a great article that puts Jedi‘s leadership lessons into laser focus. If you missed the Poe leadership thread in this movie, shame on you.
And here’s another great article about the much-ballyhooed Canto Blight casino scenes in Jedi and what they brought to the franchise. Say what you like about the inclusivity, which I think expands the Star Wars universe rather than tainting it, but you have to admit that Blight itself represents a whole new facet to the universe.