“Not a coincidence it’s always men and boys committing mass shootings. The pattern is connected to ideas of toxic masculinity in our culture.”
– Anita Sarkeesian
“I was literally watching the chat room as the site posted my address and the conversation moved to places that threatened my personal safety. I made the decision to leave, and law enforcement said it was reasonable. I basically just left the house. I have no idea where I’ll be living this week or even next month.”
– Brianna Wu
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” does one thing much better than the capstones to the original and prequel trilogies. The dark side of the force typically lurks around the edges of the trilogies as a sort of bogey-man. It’s ill-defined within the movies. Some of the TV series and novels are very good, but the further you go into them, the more inconsistent that definition becomes.
Evil is evil and must be fought, the original trilogy argues. The prequel trilogy made a more profound argument about how evil transforms events and redefines systems to pose itself as good. Unfortunately, it’s also a chore to watch.
How exactly does “The Rise of Skywalker” succeed where so many other attempts have failed? Let’s start with the original trilogy’s capstone, “Return of the Jedi”.
Even as a kid, it struck me as self-important that Luke Skywalker felt Darth Vader could be saved. Luke had no intention of turning Vader good before he discovered that the villain was his father. Until then, it was important that Vader was beaten. The lives of others were on the line. Yet when Luke discovered the truth, it was suddenly crucial that Vader could be saved.
No, it wasn’t. It was crucial that Vader was stopped. There’s not even a good strategic reason for Luke to abandon the assault on the shield generator that his friends are risking their lives to attack. He doesn’t even distract the Emperor, who’s still issuing commands at leisure as Luke and Vader go toe to toe.
Over the years, authors like Timothy Zahn have added reasons to the non-canon extended universe, such as Luke interrupting a form of the Emperor’s battle meditation that coordinated the Imperial fleet. This is never actually mentioned in “Return of the Jedi”. All we’re told in the movie is that it’s super important for Luke to save his dad, the more important mission that he actually signed onto be damned.
That’s fine cause it’s Luke, we trust him, we want to see his hero’s journey resolved, and it gives us three battles at once to cut between – ratcheting up the tension on each. We’re rewarded at moviegoers, so we don’t mind that it’s an extremely emotional goal for someone who insists they’re not prioritizing their actions out of emotion.
“Revenge of the Sith” plays similarly as the capstone to the prequel trilogy – up to a point. At least Obi-Wan Kenobi has the good sense to cut his apprentice down once it becomes obvious Anakin Skywalker can’t be saved. Obi-Wan prioritizes protecting others over his own emotions. If only he’d then made sure that Anakin was really dead, or had brought the body with him when he left, he could’ve saved the galaxy a lot of grief.
Both finales to their respective trilogies deal with whether someone who’s become a murderer can be saved. In “Revenge of the Sith”, the answer is nope, but at least we can protect some of the people in his way. In “Return of the Jedi” the answer is supposedly, but it risks a lot of other people in the process and is quietly self-serving.
That brings us to “The Rise of Skywalker”. If there’s one thing the new trilogy has legitimized, it’s the importance of whether someone can be turned back. It’s hinged the central relationship of all three movies on the notion of whether a radicalized young man can be reclaimed. And you know what? This film simply makes a much better – and less emotional argument – about why it’s important.
Each of the trilogies has leaned its themes heavily upon a great performance that’s run through them – Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in the original helps communicate the unpredictability of the story and the maturation of people who become willing to sacrifice themselves for something greater. Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan gives us a steady and measured presence of someone trying to elicit truth in a story about a galaxy’s political turn toward fascism.
The sequel trilogy has a number of great performances – Daisy Ridley’s Rey is underappreciated, in part because she’s a woman leading “Star Wars” movies, and in part because we inaccurately view optimistic performances as less complex. Oscar Isaac’s Poe does a tremendous amount in quick bursts of action, but changes to be whatever that movie’s screenwriter needs him to be a bit too much. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia and Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo have also stood out in previous trilogy movies.
The great performance that the trilogy thematically leans on is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. The story of a radicalized man who rages at the world, embraces a hate-based ideology that worships dead fascists, and plays at emperor is especially relevant today. In the real world, we can see someone playing at emperor is just as dangerous as being one when they have the same tools. We see young men radicalized to rage at the world by harming others, from white supremacists to misogynists who pick up guns. Kylo Ren is introduced in the first scenes of “The Rise of Skywalker” as he causes a massacre. This is someone who’s lost.
I included this bell hooks quote in my review for “The Force Awakens”, because I discussed what it meant to see a Latino as a major character and hero in that film. I’d been trained by my peers and the culture around me to stuff the Latino side of myself down as a child, to suppress it and play at being only white. It was a violence I was trained to internalize, to gut myself of something valuable so that I could always yearn for a social approval that would never come. The quote’s one of her more famous ones because it resonates through so much of our culture:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
The effects of this in Kylo Ren’s entire worldview are obvious. To see an alternative, we need to see a community that rejects and functions without it.
The biggest part of what makes this film work so well is the relationship shared between heroes Rey, Finn, and Poe. This is extended to characters like Leia, a Carrie Fisher who’s (awkwardly at first) inserted posthumously into the film through outtakes from the prior two movies. It also extends to an underutilized Rose Tico and a number of very brief cameos (like suddenly Dominic Monaghan for some reason). More than the other sequel films, the droids are brought in for emotional moments here. C-3PO gets a surprisingly moving scene that actor Anthony Daniels pulls off beautifully.
Rey, Finn, Poe, and their community can lean on each other and rely on each other. That relationship was separated in “The Last Jedi”. It needed to be in order to make that film work, but the heart of the “The Rise of Skywalker” is seeing the three come back together. That relationship and healthy interdependence is a crucial and necessary contrast to the sense of isolation the film argues against.
As the film repeats, they win if you think you’re alone. I’ve worked extensively with people who have received online threats. The goal of their stalkers and harassers is always singular: isolate them. Make them think there’s no one to rely on. Hatred operates through isolation. It disempowers through isolation. It can’t be fought anymore when the people fighting it each think they’re alone in doing so.
What bell hooks refers to as “the first act of violence” seeks to instill this isolation in young men. As Vanessa Tottle wrote eloquently on this site after the Isla Vista gun massacre, someone who’s isolated can also be turned into a weapon. They can be made to blame others for that isolation and lash out at them as a way of imagining they’re fighting back against it. They can be turned against the people who do care about them, the community that could help them overcome that isolation. They repeat a violence internally against themselves as a way of legitimizing that they should one day enact that violence against others. Then they teach others to internalize that violence, to lash out as a result, and to propagate the cycle.
The new trilogy understands this, and it gives its consequences an immediacy and importance the original trilogy never had. The original trilogy served as a tremendous hero’s journey, perhaps the most iconic example of it in cinematic history. That’s important. They were just more successful films than allegories sometimes.
The prequel trilogy may have its failures, but it broadly laid out and warned us of the steps of a democracy’s erosion – its importance is often dismissed because its quality and focus were so wildly inconsistent. The prequel trilogy forms an underrated allegory; just not very successful films.
The sequel trilogy that ends with “The Rise of Skywalker” is more specific than either, and feels more immediate than both because of it. It finally shows us the danger of the dark side in one person, and it feels more real because of it. It makes it matter beyond a generalized sense of good vs. evil that’s fairly useless and inapplicable in the real world. It shows us radicalization. It shows us the difficulty of trying to undo it in a person. It balances the story not on the fate of the galaxy, but on the demons of a character. It succeeds in one of the few places “Return of the Jedi” failed.
Make no mistake. These are Rey’s movies. The focus on diversity and its importance is as broadly featured as it was in “The Force Awakens”, although the near-exclusion of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is a glaring problem. The value of resistance is less specific but still frames the conversations and actions of the story in the way “The Last Jedi” does.
This is Rey’s story; it’s just that her story in this installment includes whether or not someone who’s violently radicalized can be recovered from it. It’s difficult to say whether this centers her story on a man, or whether this is being consistent in her approach to building a community. (There are one or two choices that play her into tropes I wish the film could have avoided.) She’s certainly willing to kill Kylo Ren, and she also sees other options available. This continues the tradition of two men who fronted previous trilogies: Obi-Wan and Luke. This trilogy simply gives us much better and more relevant reasons for why. It de-mythologizes the dark side. For all its power and magic, what it really boils down to is radicalization, and that can be fought.
A hero is defined by two things: the danger she fights, and how she enables a community to protect itself. In both ways, Rey’s the best hero the franchise has given us. Men could do with understanding the part about community much better than we do. While it’s not perfect, I’m thankful that this film and trilogy exists. The radicalization of young men isn’t a theme we see covered widely in film, especially in event movies. When it is covered, it’s often approached with sensationalism – in ways that make the character an anti-hero, or pretend toward a neutrality that aids, shields, and excuses violence.
I love the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but it doesn’t speak to the things that are important to me. It doesn’t address the things that have impacted my life, the things that I’ve fought against in others or faced in myself. The sequel trilogy does. Does that make it better? I don’t know, but I do feel very comfortable watching them side by side.
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