Comparing Criticisms of ‘The Last Jedi’ to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’
I don’t relish playing the “Pop Culture Defense Force” role. I really don’t. Star Wars is and probably always will be massively successful, and a bunch of dumb Tweets isn’t going to change that. I should just ignore them.
I have a fanboy conniption when I see people say The Last Jedi is a betrayal of canon. If the movie didn’t work for you, fine. There are valid criticisms to be made about the pacing, the script, the effects. I don’t agree with those criticisms, but they’re valid.
What’s not valid is claiming The Last Jedi isn’t Star Wars, or that it doesn’t understand previous films. It understands. In fact, it understands so much it hurts.
But instead of diving deep into the character motivations and themes (gotta have something for future posts!), I thought I’d compare some of the common criticisms of The Last Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back. After all, the latter is widely considered the best film in the series. Surely if The Last Jedi is such a black sheep, the best Star Wars film ever made will avoid its pitfalls, right?
Finn and Rose’s mission was a failure. They just made things worse!
This is an increasingly common hot take in the Twittersphere, and man, it’s one of the worst. Let’s start with the fact that ‘learn from your failures’ is one of the essential themes of the film. Yoda quite literally beats Luke over the head with this. Dealing with mistakes is an essential part of every single plotline in the film.
Comparing this to Empire Strikes Back, we see the same themes of failure. Luke’s arrogance makes him quit his training, face Vader unprepared and generally screw things up. Nothing he does in this film is successful, none of it helps the rebellion or hurts the Empire, and everyone would have been better off if he hadn’t done anything at all.
Han and Leia spend the entire movie running from the Empire, and in the end, they’re caught anyway. Han is turned into a popsicle while Leia and Chewie barely escape and end up worse off than they were the beginning of the movie.
Of course, everyone knows the Empire is not only engaging despite our heroes’ failures, but because of them. They inspire essential character growth that is interesting to watch as it happens and integral for the final chapter in the trilogy.
Likewise, Finn’s failure — and DJ’s betrayal — informs his decision to be “rebel scum” (a decision that he doesn’t quite fully understand, and one that Rose thankfully saves him from executing stupidly). He sees the cost of DJ’s ‘success,’ and he rejects it. He would rather fail than throw his conscience under the bus. That seems like a trite lesson, and it can be–except that most stories ultimately give the hero a win in the end, making the ‘lesson’ pointless.
Finn’s failure has consequences. It doesn’t secretly save the Resistance. It gets people killed. It would be easier for Finn to take DJ’s way out. To run. That he chooses not to is far more powerful than it would be if Finn had turned out to be the Big Damn Hero. Regardless of the plot boxes it ticks, the story provides crucial character growth.
Fine, but the story was still empty. Nothing happened!
Here’s what actually happens, plot-wise, in The Empire Strikes Back. If someone skipped from Ep. IV to Ep. VI, these are the essential plot points they would need to know:
- Luke meets Yoda and learns that Vader might be his dad
- Han is captured by Jabba.
“But wait!” you cry out. “That skips all of the character development! The romance! The new characters, the themes, the wounds!”
Yep, and ignoring the Canto Bight plot does the exact same thing. As I said in the introduction, I think criticisms about the editing, pacing, etc. are fair game. But the assertion that Rose and Finn’s subplot adds nothing is a fundamental misunderstanding of this film’s goals. To wit, without the Canto Bight plot:
- Finn doesn’t join the resistance. Yes, some people may have forgotten this, but throughout The Force Awakens, Finn is not actually a rebel. In fact, the film never resolves the fact that he wants to escape the war entirely, and only joins the Resistance mission because he wants to rescue Rey. He begins this film immediately trying to get as far away from the doomed rebel fleet as he can. Without the Canto Bight plot, without meeting DJ, without seeing Rose’s strength and persistence, there is nothing motivating Finn to fight the First Order instead of running from them.
- The Resistance doesn’t meet Broom Boy. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes. Who cares if they inspire some slave kids? Hundreds of resistance fighters died because of what they did! But Broom Boy is one of the most important characters in the story. The film ends on a shot of him staring into the stars, instead of on our heroes gathered in the Falcon, and this speaks volumes. This is the shot the filmmakers wanted to leave us with. This is the character they wanted us to focus on. Not the present, but the future. The future of the Resistance, and possibly the Jedi as well. Without Canto, we see none of this, and the Resistance plot becomes the same old “white hats vs. black hats” battle that was fun in Star Wars but has since gotten stale. The Canto Bight plot shows us the real source of rebellions: injustice and inequality, not death stars and tie fighters.
- Speaking of good vs. evil, no Canto also means no DJ and no discussion of the war machine subtly present in all Star Wars films (including the prequels!) Though the film’s military-industrial criticism is understated, it is nevertheless meaningful. “Let me learn you something. It’s all a machine,” might be my favorite line in the movie. And I suspect we haven’t seen the last of DJ, or what he represents.
“Rey is a Mary Sue! She is strong enough to beat Kylo and a horde of Praetorian Guards without any real training!”
Let’s take a look at what training Luke had prior to his duel with Darth Vader (in which he at least held his own):
- Used his lightsaber to play with a training remote on the Falcon for about five minutes
- Trained with Yoda for somewhere between two weeks and two months. There is never any indication of any direct combat training in this time.
- That’s literally all of it
By contrast, Rey at least knows the basics of combat from her time on Jakku, so her maneuvers against the guards are not surprising. But Empire makes clear that tangibly using the Force is not something that necessarily needs years of training. To some — such as Luke Skywalker — it apparently comes naturally.
What does require years of training is learning how to use the Force responsibly, which is where we come to:
Luke doesn’t act like Luke! He’s a different character!
Well, yeah. It’s been thirty years. He’s lived to see his nephew turn to the Dark Side and murder the rest of his students in cold blood. He’s seen the Empire he thought he defeated rise again, stronger than ever. He’s not the same person he was forty years ago. No one would be.
But anyone who thinks Luke’s mistakes in this story are out of character doesn’t understand Luke’s character. His big screw-up — sensing the dark in Ben Solo and igniting his lightsaber — is seen as some as a massive betrayal of the previous films. Luke would never do threaten violence! And to a FAMILY MEMBER no less!
Except … well…
Luke being brash, emotional and quick to violence in the face of the Dark Side is Luke Skywalker’s defining character flaw. “He has too much of his father in him,” Aunt Beru says, and while that quote didn’t originally refer to the Dark Side, George Lucas was certainly mindful of it when he wrote the words, “No. I am your father.”
In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke ignores his masters, rushes to face Vader, loses a hand and very nearly his friends (remember what I said in the first section about most ‘characters make mistakes’ stories pulling their punches?)
They could have given us a Master Luke who had mastered his emotions, who no longer had flaws. But that Luke would have been the same as Obi-Wan in The Empire Strikes Back. A ghost of the past who existed solely to spout platitudes and clarify some plot points so the important characters could act. He would have had no arc. Is that seriously what self-proclaimed Luke fans wanted to see?
And look, I get being unhappy with seeing Luke brooding instead of taking action. There’s that part in all of us who want to see our heroes wreck shop. There’s a reason one of the most pervasive images of Jesus, generally known as a peaceful guy, is him vandalizing a temple.
But, here’s the thing: blaming Rian Johnson for turning Luke into an exile makes no sense. It was The Force Awakens that put Luke on a deserted island, living a hermit’s life while those he left behind struggled. Johnson had two choices: turn Luke into Goku (“No, I’ve just been training in 10x gravity this whole time to become a Super Jedi, let’s go kick Kylo’s ass!”), or turn Luke into a broken man with unresolved issues.
If Johnson wanted Luke to be little more than a cameo, he could have gone with the first option. I’m happy he chose to make Luke a character instead.
There are too many people of color!
I’m just kidding. This is not something anyone said about The Empire Strikes Back. I’m happy it’s something a minority of assholes are saying about The Last Jedi. Racist tears are delicious.
Note: Darren Gendron beat me to the punch with a satirical article on this topic over at MovieTimeGuru. You should absolutely read it!