Finally got a chance to do viewing #2 this past week. I watched with a clearer, more critical eye this time, and I think I’ve dug down into what much of the disconnect may be (aside from the stuff I mentioned before about white dudes who can’t see someone unlike themselves as a hero or protagonist.) Short version: It’s about recognizing that perfection is the enemy of progress.
Star Wars is a generational thing. The first two trilogies were created by Boomers for their own 1950s pulp-sci-fi nostalgia, and for two generations of youth: Gen Xers in the ’70s; Millennials in the 2000s. This most recent spate of films, however, is largely being created and driven by Gen Xers–those of us at whom this universe was originally aimed. We’re making these new films in part for our own nostalgia, but also to carry on these beloved stories for our own children. Millennials are involved in this, too, but by and large, we’re doing these stories for a younger generation. Not the kids who were born in the ’80s or ’90s, but the ones born this century–Generation Z (or whatever they’re calling the 21st-century kids.)
This being the case, I think one of the reasons this film is resonating so much with some of us yet not with others is parenting. Yes, some parents dislike it and some non-parents love it, but the overarching themes of the story are particularly aimed at and best able to be understood by people who are now telling these stories to their own children. Most especially, one of the key themes–that heroes are not infallible–is an understanding that’s hard to come by until you’ve had a moment of reckoning with your own failings as an adult who’s supposed to be someone for a child to look up to.
Kill Your Heroes
I’ve heard a lot of criticism about how Luke was supposedly out of character: How he never would have even considered killing Kylo, no matter what darkness he saw in him, and how he never would have exiled himself even if he made a mistake. First off, he’s hardly the first Jedi to have run off after a major screwup: Obi-Wan couldn’t save his Padawan from turning to the dark side. Yoda couldn’t see Palpatine’s true nature. In their shame at their failure, both disappeared. Luke, no matter how morally right he was by the end of ROTJ, couldn’t have been expected to be any better than those two. Moreover, that moral compass would have been the very thing that drove him into his exile anyway: Someone with no heart would have no shame at their act. This realistic version of Luke isn’t just true to the source material, but true to anyone who has ever felt like they failed a child in their care. Which is the case for virtually all parents, lemme tell you. (Frankly, the ones who think they’ve never done anything wrong by their children are the ones who most certainly have done some great damage.)
Though the plot of TLJ is driven by the new protagonists, the story is really Luke’s. And that story is what we older folks need to hold onto when we leave the theater: Yes, we still have influence and still have a part to play, but we have permission to let go–to let the younger generations take the pilot’s seat while we play wise mentor instead of dashing hero. We may not yet be ready to go full Force Ghost, but we at least need to retire from the front lines. As Luke tells Kylo: He is not the Last Jedi. And neither is Rey, for that matter: She is simply the newest scion of the order. He is able to let go and become one with the Force because he knows very well that she is capable of taking on the responsibility for perpetuating that work. He didn’t believe that before–he believed that he had failed in his task to bring up a new generation of Jedi–but Rey shows him that’s not the case. Even though he didn’t do all that much to actually train her, he spent enough time with her to know that she already has what she needs: He can hand things off to her, and finally be at rest. As Yoda tells him: “We are what they grow beyond.” Recognizing when it’s time to step back and let your students shine is the pinnacle of the master’s work.
The people who looked up to Luke as a role model and hero probably felt betrayed by this. They wanted him to be larger than life–that unassailable manifestation of the Light. But the truth is that there are no heroes like that, even in stories. The ones who do seem perfect always leave the audience unsatisfied because they make for terrible avatars. If everything a hero is is something you can never imagine being, you’re never going to really connect with them. Steve Rogers is probably the closest thing we have to a morally pure hero (and bless Chris Evans for carrying that over into his real-life persona), but even he makes mistakes and bad decisions. I’m not one for anti-heroes or Gritty! takes on heroism (don’t get me started on the latest version of Superman), and the trend toward redemption or sympathetic arcs for even the worst of villains is gross, but a few spots of tarnish on a hero’s armor aren’t the same thing. Indeed, those spots are what make those kinds of heroes that much more heroic: Knowing that someone is flawed and yet still gets up in the morning and fights for good is an incredibly inspiring thing.
Which brings me to the other angle that I think really resonates here: Politics.
Effective Good Guys Aren’t Pure
One of the reasons we’re in the current fucked-up situation is that thousands of lefties wanted a candidate who passed purity tests (nevermind that Bernie never passed those either.) They saw one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the office, took a few bad decisions she’s made over the years, and decided she was a villain instead, and the party that backed her yet another evil empire. They voted third party or abstained, thinking that maybe letting Trump win would somehow make things bad enough to wake people up and force them into the kind of bloody revolution they fantasize about (one that of course only other people will die in, leaving them to claim what glory might be left.) Political neophytes who think of politics in these terms rather than the boring reality of day-to-day policymaking are happy to assign those purity tests. As far as they’re concerned, the existing structure is hopelessly tainted, and only by burning down the whole thing will we ever have something good rise from the ashes. But real life and real politics don’t work like that. Revolutions don’t build, they only destroy. Managing a country of 300 million people that spans four time zones requires structure. You don’t fix what’s wrong with that structure by tearing it down. All that ends up doing is leaving gaps for power-hungry opportunists to fill. Strip away the structures that allow for collective action by those with lesser individual power and you get rule by warlords and autocrats. Lord of the Flies, yo.
People who favor this kind of revolutions-will-fix-everything thinking probably found themselves quite irritated by the Canto Bight plot. In addition to its contribution to the “even heroes fail” theme, it also pointed up a nasty reality of war: The people who profit from it. If we’re lucky, those sorts of people end up meeting a fate like Littlefinger’s–never walk under the chaos ladder, dude–but in reality, there’s always going to be some devil with money who must be dealt with. And yes, even the good guys occasionally have to deal with them. You can’t properly clean a toilet without getting a little dirty yourself. People who wanted to believe Luke could do no wrong and that the Rebellion/Resistance was always a morally pure cause really didn’t like seeing this part of the story. Personally, I loved it. Not because of some supposed false equivalence (which I hate) but because it actually lays waste to that lesser-of-two-evils version of an excuse to stay out of politics.
See, the good guys in this story are, in fact, undoubtedly good. The other side blows up entire solar systems, FFS. Knowing that even these clearly good people sometimes have to do something morally questionable for a far greater purpose only makes their underlying Lawful Good alignment clearer. Countless people died when the Death Star and Starkiller Base were destroyed, and many undoubtedly were there only because they were conscripts or people who believed the lies the Empire and First Order told them (see the terrific novel Lost Stars to get a feel for that.) Yet of course they had to die to prevent far more deaths of innocents. Taking a purely pacifist approach to conflict isn’t a neutral position. It’s siding with aggressors. If you’re not fighting on behalf of the good guys, you’re throwing your weight behind the bad ones.
Previous Star Wars films (and some of the side stories) have touched on this moral grayness before, but somehow, many fans still came away with the sense that the Republic, Rebels, and/or Resistance were morally untouchable. Seeing that proven otherwise with the Canto Bight story probably didn’t sit well with them. Yet in my view, being explicitly told that the good guys sometimes do bad things for a larger purpose was a good thing. Who would you rather vote for: The person who has a seemingly spotless record (which may hide a graveyard’s worth of closet skeletons), or the one whose checkered past is on full display, but actually isn’t all that bad in the bigger picture? I know who I’d pick. I want the one who has faced the temptation to be evil and came away with something no worse than a round of shoplifting when they were a teen. I want someone who has faced moral quandaries and chosen the one that’s the lesser of the evils. No one is ever totally pure. The ones who seem that way are undoubtedly hiding something icky. Finally taking the lid off of the ancient leftovers in the back of the Resistance’s fridge was a long-overdue bit of moral realism, and I loved it. Maybe it will lead some people in the real world to understand that sitting around waiting for a pure politician to vote for only leads to situations like the one we’re in now.
History is Written by the Survivors
Lastly, there’s one more major theme I want to talk about, and it’s the one I’ve had the most trouble reconciling myself: Poe’s arc. While I appreciate the attempt at bringing in the contemporary problem of “good guys” nonetheless not having enough respect for women leaders, I really don’t think Poe was the right character to do that with. It’s too out of character for him. (And let me also insert here my complaint about the continuity error of him not having met Rey. Though they didn’t meet on-screen in TFA, they did in the novelization–written from the original script. Moreover, they would have met anyway, what with both of them checking in on wounded Finn. Rey had enough time to change clothes and prepare for her journey to find Luke. She’d have had time to at least say hello to the one other person who had a lot of interaction with the person she’d bonded with the most.) That said, within the limitations of the story, I think the lesson Poe learns is a key one: Martyrs make terrible heroes.
When your suicide mission is made up of a small squad or even just one individual trying to defy the odds for a major gain, it makes sense (see: Rogue One, plus Luke and Holdo’s acts of self-sacrifice in TLJ.) However, when your entire force is small, and the potential for gain questionable, suicide missions are, frankly, pretty boneheaded. Poe is a fantastic pilot, especially in dogfights. Risking his own life for the sake of a single win was never a good idea. He had to learn that he was and is far more valuable to the Resistance alive than dead. He is not and never has been cannon fodder, and he apparently didn’t realize that. For all his cockiness, he didn’t think of himself as important to the overall mission as he really is. He had to learn that the goal was not to go out in a blaze of glory, but simple survival. In a situation like the one the Resistance found themselves in, you have to preserve as many lives as possible. As Rose put it in so many words: saving the things you love. After all: If you die “heroically” but no one is left to tell the tales of your heroism, what was really the point?
There’s a reason that airplane-safety speeches tell you to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. If you pass out in some ridiculous attempt to be noble, all you are is dead weight getting in the way of other people trying to help. Sometimes, self-sacrifice is the right choice, and saving your own ass at the expense of countless others is evil. But most of the time, a real hero is going to do what they can to live to fight another day. Because if they don’t, who will be there on that other day when they’re needed?
Bringing this back around to the parenting thing: One of the things that’s difficult for many new parents to understand is that you do your children a disservice by making too many sacrifices for them. Sexist culture especially expects women to do this: to dedicate every waking hour to attending to their children’s every need and want, letting their own self–even their own health–suffer in the process. My mother in law, for instance, literally died early (at only 64) because she had spent virtually all of her adult years enduring difficult pregnancies or minding her five children. She did next to nothing for herself, including taking care of her health, and ended up dying before most of her grandchildren ever got to know her. While her story in particular is a matter of cultural and religious pressure, even parents who don’t have such influences find themselves doing that these days. They beat themselves up about using child care, or, conversely, drain themselves of all energy at soul-sucking jobs just so they can afford private schools and expensive toys. A parent who does nothing for their child is neglectful and terrible, but a parent who does nothing that isn’t for their child is pretty terrible, too. Kids aren’t clueless. They know when their parents are exhausted or numb, and when/if they learn that that’s because they’re spending so much time and energy on the kids, that messes with their heads. Children need to know that their parents are human. They need to learn self-sufficiency and that other people have needs. They need to learn how to help both themselves and others: to see when they have strength to give, and to ask for help when they don’t have enough of their own. If they don’t see the adults in their lives doing things this way, they’re not going to learn it themselves.
The heroes in TLJ learn this–sometimes the hard way. Luke learns that he can’t hide from his responsibility to hand off to the next generation. Poe learns that he’s more valuable as defense than offense. Finn learns that even though he was raised to be cannon fodder, that’s not his highest purpose, even if he’s trying to be fodder for a different cannon. Rose and Rey both learn that even someone who comes from a humble background rather than a legendary bloodline still can be a hero. And Leia learns that the Resistance can and will go on even without her being in conscious, constant control of it. The Resistance will carry on without her. And Star Wars will carry on without Luke, Leia, or Han.
The Last Jedi, then, is primarily about letting go and growing up. For younger folks, it’s about realizing that even the most heroic of your idols still screw up. For older folks, it’s accepting that even though you have screwed up, you’ve done a good job helping the younger ones learn how to drive the bus themselves, and now it’s time to let them do that. The First Order lives on. Evil always will. The fight is never truly over. Transitioning from one generation of fighters to the next is how we all keep evil at bay year after year, decade after decade. The film isn’t without its flaws, but even that itself is part of the story it tells. Perfection doesn’t exist, but good still can even in its absence.