What We Lose When ‘Star Wars’ Goes to the Dark Side
ON FILM: Under Disney management, the Force may be with us always, but will it still offer young viewers that ‘first step into a larger world’?
“If money is what Disney wants,” quipped a friend, borrowing a line from Princess Leia in the original 1977 Star Wars, “then that’s what they’ll receive.”
Both films have also been decently received by critics. It seems the magic touch guiding Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe — which has yet to produce a box-office or critical flop — is alive and well in the ongoing expansion of that galaxy far, far away.
Not everyone is thrilled, of course, about what both fans and skeptics agree is the “Marvelization” of Star Wars. Though a lifelong fan of both Star Wars and Marvel Comics, I’m decidedly ambivalent about it myself. But I recognize that any connection between the latest Star Wars movies and the Marvel movies must be seen as a feature, not a bug.
Still, even features come with trade-offs, and the Marvelization of Star Wars is no exception. This might not be as clear in The Force Awakens — about as pure a work of nostalgia and homage as can possibly be contrived short of a shot-for-shot remake — as it is in Rogue One, where the Marvel-style engineering is more obvious.
Rogue One isn’t just a different sort of story than the original Star Wars films, or even just a story in a different genre. It is a story set in a different moral universe — a story that is on some levels fundamentally incompatible with the spirit of the original Star Wars films.
What do I mean?
It has often been observed that the original Star Wars, notwithstanding its space-opera milieu, borrows a number of tropes or archetypes from traditional fairy tales: an orphaned hero; a wizard mentor; a magic sword; a dark lord; a captive princess.
In fact, George Lucas was significantly influenced by a pair of books that were immensely popular during his college years: T.H. White’s deceptively retro Arthurian epic The Once and Future King and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Cinematic influences on Star Wars include American Westerns and World War I and World War II movies. One thing that links Star Wars to all these genres, including fairy tales, is a more or less straightforward moral tableau of archetypal good and evil.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is Merlyn and Gandalf; Darth Vader and the Emperor (when the latter shows up in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) are morally comparable to Sauron and Saruman. The Empire and the Sith (once that name is put to them in the prequels) are the black hats, the Nazis, the forces of Mordor; the Rebels and the Jedi are the white hats, the Allies, the men of the West.
Characters may cross morally from one side to the other; Saruman became corrupted, as did Luke’s father, Anakin, though he is ultimately redeemed in the very end of Jedi, as Sméagol or Gollum very nearly came back into the light. But the starkness of the two sides is always clear.
Star Wars’ simplistic, escapist style of storytelling was as out of step in the 1970s as it would be today. Prior to Star Wars (and Close Encounters, also in 1977), 1970s Hollywood science fiction tended to be as jaded and pessimistic as early 1970s cinema generally, often in a dystopian mode: Think of The Omega Man, A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, etc.
In this regard, Star Wars had a revolutionary effect on Hollywood sensibilities — up to a point.
Superman, which came out the following year (probably too soon to be affected by Star Wars), offered a heroic embodiment of old-fashioned idealism — but did so with a self-conscious sense of ironic dissonance. When Superman says he’s here to fight for “truth, justice and the American way,” Lois laughs incredulously and says, “You’re going to end up fighting every elected politician in this country!”
Raiders of the Lost Ark pitted literal Nazis against the divine goodness of the Ark of the Covenant and the Hebrew God it represents. But there’s no Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi; instead, the protagonist is Indiana Jones, an even more morally compromised cousin to Han Solo — who, notably, is not the protagonist of Star Wars and is progressively redeemed as the series goes on. Likewise, compare the tart-tongued but noble heroine Leia with hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Marion Ravenwood: a terrific character, but hardly a heroic one.
Star Wars’ mythic storytelling style wasn’t just about good vs. evil. It was also, as Jeffrey Overstreet perceptively put it in a recent article for Christianity Today called “Will the Force Be Strong With Rogue One?” about spiritual growth and transformation. For many of my generation watching Star Wars, we felt we had taken our own “first step into a larger world,” as Obi-Wan said to Luke in the first film. For Overstreet, Han Solo’s arc highlights the point:
He starts out as a cocky gunslinger, independent, roguishly “secular.” “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side,” he boasts. But we rejoice when he “gets religion.” In time, he commits to a “family” of rebels, risks his life to serve the oppressed, and says, “May the Force be with you.” In their hearts, all moviegoers sense that this is an ideal narrative — something better than “Vigilante Hero Stops Evil With Smart Shooting.”
… I believe that Star Wars storytellers’ emphasis on a spiritual transformation is far more than any special-effects revolution, the real secret to the saga’s enduring popularity. Obi-Wan, Luke and, eventually, Han all have defining moments of selfless surrender. Yes, they carry weapons. But they are distinguished by how they put them down and open their hands in risky offers of grace. …
See if you can discern whether or not the Force is strong with Rogue One. Will the 7-year-olds who see it emerge with imaginary blasters in hand, eager to shoot down bad guys? Or will they value mercy, resist the Dark Side, and open themselves to a benevolent force that moves in mysterious ways?
Overstreet wrote those words before seeing Rogue One. As you can imagine, he was disappointed with the film. Rogue One does offer a redemptive arc of sorts — but only because it starts out establishing that its Rebel figures are at best little better than terrorists.
The main Rebel leader, Diego Luna’s Capt. Cassian Andor, cold-bloodedly murders a person who was freely cooperating with him in his first scene. Later he tells the protagonist, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, that their mission is to rescue her father, a scientist held by the Empire, though he actually has orders to assassinate him.
The first major action sequence involves a Rebel assault on Imperial forces that looks a lot like an urban terrorist attack in a modern war film set in the Middle East. Civilians, and even children, are put in harm’s way by Rebel actions.
In the third act Cassian says something like: “In our struggle against the Empire we’ve all done things we’re not proud of.” This is a preamble to the final struggle, which involves a lot of combat action and derring-do, but nothing like the open-handed “risky offers of grace” (those moments like Obi-Wan switching off his lightsaber, Han going down into the carbon-freezing unit, and Luke refusing to fight his father) that Overstreet highlights as essential to the original films’ enduring power.
This is not your father’s Rebel Alliance or your father’s Star Wars. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Some critics have gone so far as to praise Rogue One for its relative realism and darkness, its frank acknowledgement of the ambiguities of the “fog of war.”
My feeling is that we already had pretty much every other pop culture franchise today selling us darkness and ambiguity. Where do we turn today for mythic good-vs.-evil and spiritual uplift?
Disney’s recent The Lone Ranger turns a masked hero conceived from the beginning as a role model of impeccable character into a bumbling simpleton who is callously willing to leave a PTSD-afflicted Tonto buried up to his neck until he realizes that he needs him. Both Superman and the Lone Ranger are traditionally law-and-order types, but these incarnations pit them against the U.S. government.
Jason Bourne is a hero with righteous instincts constantly at war with his own past, a government black-ops agent and assassin. Katniss Everdeen is caught up in a war with no good guys, kills others who are victims like herself, and walks a fine line of emotional manipulation with Peeta’s affections for pragmatic reasons.
Then there’s the pantheon of Disney’s Marvel heroes: more often than not semi-redeemed bad boys (or girls).
The archetype is Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, or Iron Man: a callous war profiteer, caddish womanizer and hedonist until a near-death experience awakens in him a new sense of responsibility — up to a point. Even after he becomes a hero, he remains arrogant, undisciplined and reckless, sometimes with serious consequences.
Other Marvel heroes include former government assassins, thieves and other shady characters, and most recently an egocentric neurosurgeon ruthless enough to turn away desperate patients just because he didn’t want to mar his sterling record of successes. Notably, the most striking exception, Captain America, is a man out of time, an icon of the Greatest Generation.
The latest Marvel extravaganza, Captain America: Civil War, gave us what is, in some ways, the standout battle scene in any Marvel movie to date. Significantly, it pitted the heroes against one another. The villain in Civil War barely registers; to date, Marvel has failed to produce a single memorable villain other than Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. (An internet meme ca. 2008 joked that Iron Man was his “own worst enemy.”)
The dynamics of mythic good and evil aren’t wholly absent from the Hollywood cinematic landscape of the last couple of decades. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films offered mythic good-vs.-evil storytelling with elements of grace and spiritual transformation.
But Peter Jackson’s cinematic Middle-earth was significantly marred by his atrocious Hobbit prequels, and J.K. Rowling’s new cinematic endeavor, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, lacks the defining theme of redemptive love present from the outset of the Harry Potter stories.
The bottom line is that what Star Wars offered in the 1970s is as rare and precious today as it was then. What is easily reproducible about Star Wars — lightsabers and landspeeders, fantastic aliens and kinetic space battles — may deliver thrills, but that doesn’t enrich our imaginations like Luke struggling against temptation in the dark cave or resisting the lure of hatred when facing the Emperor.
A Rebel Alliance of terrorists and assassins may be more realistic than one of white hats, but they exist in a different moral universe from the original films — which is a problem in stories forming a canonical continuity. I’m okay with revisionism and alternate interpretations; I love Arthurian stories in which Gawain is the perfect knight and others in which he has significant flaws. But I can’t accept both versions of Gawain at the same time, in the same continuity. And I wouldn’t want one to completely supplant the other.
When Star Wars goes to the dark side, a generation raised on Marvel bad boys may not realize just how they’ve been robbed. Cynics who find it easy to imagine Superman as a potential threat to the planet and hard to conceive of him as a role model — who are suspicious of the very concept of a role model — may cheer for a darker, less escapist Star Wars.
For my part, I’m firmly with J.R.R. Tolkien on the validity of escapism. As he wrote in On Fairy Stories:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used. … In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. … Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?
It is jailers who are always on guard against escapism. Star Wars was once a notable escape hatch from the pervasive cynicism dominating so much of pop culture as well as the wider world. Under Disney management, the Force may be with us always, but will it still offer young viewers that “first step into a larger world”?