The first Star Wars film that I ever properly watched was Revenge of the Sith. It remains an epic that details the rise of one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time: Darth Vader. The film fascinated me with a litany of quickly-killed villains, shoddy dialogue, and CGI that is steadily aging like milk. I say this with great irony, since my six-year-old self was hooked, and my adoration for Star Wars has continued ever since. But why, despite the clear flaws of Star Wars – a franchise torn between three trilogies each at least a decade apart from the next– has it remained such a cultural phenomenon?
The appeal of Star Wars is grounded in deep nostalgia. Nostalgia for the characters, for the world that has been adoringly built over the decades, and for the viewing experience itself. After nine episodes, how could any fan resist another glance into the fantasy they have grown so comfortable in. The universe is strangely inviting despite its creep towards the authoritarian and the unstable. We trust Obi Wan when he speaks judgementally of a “hive of scum and villainy” and we feel Princess Leia’s slightly underwhelming reaction when Alderaan is destroyed. Star Wars is at its strongest when it weaves the darkest moments with the light and it’s carried by its likeable but archetypical characters: the space wizard, the space scoundrel, and the space princess. The reason why we love Star Wars is clear: escapism, fantasy, and the vicarious joy of the Hero’s Journey.
It’s a structure that we’re all familiar with. A young person embarks on a journey beyond their homestead with an old, idiosyncratic mentor who spouts platitudes and dies thankfully early. From here, the hero faces a crisis of inner turmoil, a confrontation with their ‘main’ villain, and a final rebirth where they overcome all challenges. Having faced their destiny, they return home for a final time where they ascend from man to myth. This is not a new storyline.
All this may be why The Last Jedi, the latest saga film, bore a great deal of criticism for its handling of Luke Skywalker, one such hero, and led to many questions about Disney’s understanding of the franchise. This criticism, though, actually reveals something I see as a success for the Luke Skywalker ‘fantasy’. Disney made one great step forward for Star Wars: they dared to be depressing.
The great Luke Skywalker, a legend, had retreated into hiding, as the myth had become only a distant memory. Luke rejected his role as mentor, and thus his complicity in the next ‘iteration’ of the Hero’s Journey. The cycle of Star Wars had stopped. The fantasy was shattered, as fans were left confronting a depressing and cyclical universe that reneged on character development. Then, at the end of the film, Luke atoned for his apathy with his death.
Yet when we lost Luke, Kylo Ren also lost a mentor, and Luke faced his homecoming, his final stage ending his tale as he had started it: facing the twin suns, head held high, and soundtrack triumphant. Rian Johnson’s treatment of Luke, whilst bittersweet, was sobering. It gave Star Wars some needed maturity. Growing up against this third cycle, seeing such ‘maturity’ operates as a reflection of the real life of the fan. Luke Skywalker is not infallible, and neither are we. We spend most of our lives fearing failure or attempting to overcome it. As we see in Empire, having your hand cut off (by your dad of all people) is a challenge, but Luke has it replaced in the following scene. By comparison, dealing with self-loathing, creeping doubt, and the repercussions of responsibility allows us to appreciate the flawed but relatable character of Luke. We are forced to reconcile the former image of ‘Luke The Hero’, the unbeatable image of adoration, with this new portrayal, something which, though it might be difficult for die-hard fans who have based their confidence and ego on the hero’s own, is a necessary step.
We inevitably turn to The Rise of Skywalker. How is the saga ending? Will Disney do it properly? This, dear reader, I cannot answer. But I’m optimistic. I was concerned when I saw that Kylo Ren’s helmet had been put back together in the teaser for IX. But I see now what it represents: renewed strength from the challenges that he’s faced. Kylo Ren is embarking on the final stage of an inverted Hero’s Journey.
Standing in the stage-wings is Sheev “The Senate” Palpatine. Darth Sidious represents the foil to everything ‘Skywalker’. He is designed to lack humanity and rob it from those around him. He is Satan, whom Palpatine’s actor, Ian McDiarmid, has previously played in Paradise Lost. So his presence in Episode IX is reassuring. It shows that Disney still subscribe to fantasy, to the Hero’s Journey, and know that the rise of every great hero happens in the shadow of a great villain. Laugh away, Sidious. Your overconfidence is your weakness.