Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is about two things. It is about a new generation of reluctant or unexpected heroes pulled into a cosmic battle of good and evil, and it is about the futility of engaging in that battle.
In creating new heroes, director/co-writer J.J. Abrams and the greater Disney machine do a good job. Our two main heroes include a young woman whose origin vaguely echoes Luke Skywalker’s, but who has more grit than any of our original heroes. And then they humanize a stormtrooper and give us the potential for a fascinating story about identity and the creation of the self. (That these heroes are a woman and a black man, respectively, is very important, but the characters are good and interesting for reasons beyond these wise casting choices.)
So yeah, nice job with the new kids’ story, J.J. Disney. Shame you had to serve the singular fantasy heroes of two generations so poorly at the same time. Not only is their galaxy not better off (New Empire! Multiplanet genocide this time!), but our heroes are sad failures at life, and mostly in hiding from that fact.
For just shy of forty years, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia Organa were the greatest, most recognizable fantasy heroes in the English-speaking world, if not the entire globe. Superman or Batman might have more global recognition, but those are brands. Leia, Han and Luke lived in those three movies, as embodied by those three actors. Ancillary adventures in comics and novels were vague shadows at best. And whatever we saw in these new films was going to be the definitive statement on where our heroes ended up. So, as far as make-believe stories about pretend space pilots and magic warrior monks go, the stakes are pretty high.
And what was the payoff? Meeting my youthful heroes again in middle age, I learn that time is a black hole that sucks the best of us into mediocrity and failure. And while I have been gathering empirical evidence in the real world to suggest this might be the case, I really didn’t need that from the most gloriously ambitious and optimistic hero franchise ever. (Okay, Star Trek is more optimistic, but you can’t beat Star Wars for ambition in saving a dark, dominated galaxy from tyranny.)
One character destroys all three heroes. They beat Darth Vader, the Emperor, two Death Stars, and the embarrassment of dancing with teddy bears, but they’re brought low by the Vader knockoff whose name constantly escapes me, so I call him Darth Whiny. This kid goes Columbine on a school for Jedi kids, and Luke vanishes into self-imposed exile, Leia lets herself be consumed by her career, and Han just takes off to be a smuggler again.
When we last left these three, they’d overthrown a cosmic tyrant and defeated (or “redeemed,” ugh) his genocidal monster henchman. It would’ve been “unrealistic” to assume peace would then reign across the galaxy, and certainly our new generation of heroes needed dire challenges. So I’m not saying the Original Trinity should have had perfect Happily Ever Afters, but come on.
Leia is arguably a success. All she ever wanted to do was serve the cause of peace and democracy, and while it’s a shame we still need a Rebellion (or Resistance) thirty-odd years later, if that’s the case, then of course we’d find General Organa right at the top. But as a wife and mother, she’s known nothing but sorrow, and it’s that human level, not the vaguely bureaucratic job of generalship, that matters to us. (Did anyone grow up wanting to be Akbar or Mon Mothma? Show of hands …) The battle against Darth Vader and the Emperor was always Luke’s—the character victory for Han and Leia was falling in love, and ending up together at the end.
Han … don’t get me started. Better articles about his poor Force Awakens character arc have been written. But in short: The one defining trait of Han Solo is that he doesn’t run away. In the original movie, he was genuinely dangerous and genuinely amoral, and his return during the Death Star battle was his singular moment of change. In the next two movies, he went from dangerous rogue to comical sidekick, and his intense loyalty despite his tough talk was what made him Solo (ironic name, huh?). He went out into the snow for Luke. He eventually, clumsily, opened up to Leia. He offered to step aside when he misunderstood the bond between her and Luke as romantic. That’s all Han is—the guy who’s there for his friends. And in this movie, he can’t even keep track of his beloved spaceship, much less his relationships.
Luke … okay, I’m sure that we’ll find out that by “seeking the first Jedi temple,” he’s accessing knowledge to help him overcome the new emperor-type (Smoot? Snootchie Booches? Remind me …), but what we’ve got in this movie is a guy who gave up the first time he lost a big fight.
So that’s why the film sits poorly with me. I’m very much looking forward to the next adventures of the young heroes. (As long as they don’t redeem Darth Whiny. He’s a mass murderer of children who also committed a murder, on camera, that’s unforgivably personal. He doesn’t get to decide to be a good guy later.) But I think the iconic heroes of the original trilogy deserved better.