Film & TV

Star Wars and the Culture-War Vortex

Rey (Daisey Ridley) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Lucasfilm)
Critics of recent Star Wars movies exaggerate the political aspects of the films, while defenders of the films focus on trolls to avoid scrutiny of artistic weaknesses.

What started as an enjoyable action franchise is turning into cultural trench warfare that only a sadistic troll could enjoy. Too many well-meaning critics are politicizing the very real flaws of recent Star Wars movies and blaming “social justice warriors” — who are obsessed with promoting diversity and feminism at the expense of the story — for the film’s problems. Meanwhile, defenders of the recent Star Wars movies are blaming “toxic fandom” for The Last Jedi’s relatively bad reception and the general negative buzz around the franchise.

As a famous admiral once said, “It’s a trap.” Critics of recent Star Wars movies are exaggerating the political aspects of the films, while defenders of the films mimic the ultimately futile strategy employed by partisans of, for example, the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot: train attention on trolls and harassers in order to avoid scrutiny of artistic weaknesses that might be present in the films.

People on both sides of this divide are trying to drag the Star Wars franchise into a pre-existing set of obsessions and resentments. Neither side has been deterred by logic or consistency in the attempt to target their cultural opponents. The good news is that the rest of us don’t have to pick a side in their never-ending battle.

The Kennedy Conundrum

The self-proclaimed anti-SJW case against Star Wars often starts with a critique of the producer and president of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy. Even if all critics were right about all their gripes with Star Wars, and Kennedy was personally responsible for every single fault of the franchise, her notoriety among critics would still be odd.

Few know the names of the Warner Bros. producers whose heavy-handed meddling turned what should have been Christopher Nolan’s Man of Steel sequel into the mess that was Dawn of Justice. Nobody cares about their politics either. For all that the average movie viewer knows, it might have been a completely different group of producers who turned Justice League into trash.

If anything, Kennedy has a (somewhat) better track record than the suits who ruined the DC Comics movie universe. The Force Awakens and Rogue One, for example, were both financially successful and critically well-received. The Last Jedi drew sufficient criticism that the mood around the franchise soured, and Solo was a flop, but that doesn’t explain why anyone cares about Kennedy. By comparison, how many people can name the executives behind the more successful Marvel Studios?

Part of the issue is that Kennedy advertised her team’s demographic composition to explain why things had been going so well for the Star Wars franchise. If you expect your culture of alleged inclusion and diversity to get the credit when your company is doing well, don’t be surprised when your leadership is described as partisan and your culture is condemned as insular when the franchise begins to do badly.

The second issue is what might be called asymmetric diversity. The original Star Wars movies (and especially the very first, A New Hope) had overwhelmingly white casts. Kennedy and her directors have made an effort to cast non–white males as the new generation of Star Wars heroes. But while the heroes become more diverse, the villains remain just as white as if the newest generation of Star Wars movies had been made in 1977. Critics are right to notice that the villains do not make up a rainbow coalition, and one group is singled out to play the bad guys.

It isn’t difficult for critics of Kennedy to spin these diversity-for-me-but-not-for-thee casting choices into displays of racial and gender prejudice. The tools for doing this were sharpened by leftist critics who critiqued other films on the basis of the racial makeup of their casts: Identify the demographic characteristics of the characters (using creative accounting as necessary), remove all charity, impute bigoted motives, and spit out an analysis that shows the creators are politically motivated racists, sexists, etc. Critics of the Star Wars franchise under Kennedy are using a similar process, but targeting a different demographic.

Nobody should want to treat entertainment in this way, but for years writers have received attention for humorless demagoguery that one can only hope is disingenuous. As you clickbait unto others, so shall they YouTube rant unto you.

The Mary Sues

Another criticism of The Force Awakens (TFA) and The Last Jedi is that the new hero, Rey, is a girl-power “Mary Sue” (a hopelessly idealized and flawless character). In TFA, the first time she steps into the Millennium Falcon, Rey turns out to be a better pilot than the legendary Han Solo ever was. By the film’s second act, Rey is able to use mind-control powers that it took Luke Skywalker three movies to develop. She also has a heart of gold.

In Rey’s defense, we should look at Luke Skywalker’s arc in the very first Star Wars movie. In the first act, he is beaten up by a Tusken Raider and has to be saved during a bar fight. In the second act, he manages to shoot up a bunch of armored professional soldiers in order to rescue a princess. In the third act, he becomes the best pilot in the Rebellion the very first time he flies an X-Wing fighter, and he saves a planet by using magic to blow up a genocidal space station. The movie ends with him getting a medal and a standing ovation at an awards show. But, yeah, it’s Rey’s character arc that’s unrealistic.

In TFA, Rey follows an exaggerated version of Luke’s progress in A New Hope. She starts out more competent and ends up farther ahead. This is a common occurrence in sequels, especially ones that don’t live up to the earlier installments. This is for the same reason that TFA involved blowing up an even bigger round object of death than the one Luke took on in A New Hope. But that isn’t the only thing that separates Rey from Luke. In The Empire Strikes Back, for example, Luke came across as lazy, arrogant, and vainglorious. If A New Hope was about Luke finding his inner greatness, Empire was about struggling to manage his vices. It is one of the reasons why Empire might be a better movie than A New Hope, if less enjoyable.

By contrast, Rey in The Last Jedi has to deal with her fears and let go of comforting illusions (about the Jedi and about her parents), but she doesn’t face the moral struggles that Luke faces in Empire. If anything, Rey’s troubles are mostly caused by the moral weaknesses of those around her (including those of the aged Luke). Everything would be fine if only people stopped letting her down. She is — and remains — too good for this galaxy.

Does this mean the new films are promoting an SJW agenda? Maybe not.

Poor Finn

There is a scene early in The Last Jedi, when, after a costly victory, the fighter pilot Poe Dameron sees his friend Finn, who has just woken from a coma and is walking around comedically dazed, as fluid runs out of his life-support suit.

This almost perfectly mirrors a scene in A New Hope. Obi-Wan Kenobi had been killed, Luke and Han had just blown up pursuing Imperial fighters, and the heroes were seemingly safe for the moment. The scene then cuts to Luke’s droid C-3PO lying in a pool of wires and saying, “Help! I think I’m melting!”

Both scenes are designed to relieve the tension following an escape after suffering grievous losses. The problem is that Finn (played by John Boyega) — who is supposed to be the second most important of the new generation of Star Wars heroes — is the butt of gags that had previously been reserved for the prissy, comic-relief droid butler.

This inconsistency is a problem with Finn’s character from the beginning. We are told that he was a child soldier (and knows no name other than the one given to him by the fascist First Order) but he acts as if he has never even been in a barracks scuffle. We are told he has only known brutality, but he comes across like someone who was kidnapped maybe a couple of months earlier and put on janitorial duty.

The Finn gags are also inappropriate for his role in the story. The early Star Wars movies included gags at the expense of Han, but they’re based on the fact that, while he is very capable, he tends to promise more than he can deliver. The Finn gags are based on a portrayal of him as a slapstick buffoon, until the plot requires him to suddenly become a champion dinosaur rider.

Based on this reality of Finn’s character arc, if we rigorously applied the logic of both SJWs and anti-SJWs to him, we would have to conclude that Kathleen Kennedy wants her Star Wars films to emasculate black men such as Boyega in order to elevate white women such as actress Daisy Ridley (who portrays Rey). It is hard to believe that Kennedy has such ambitions.

A better explanation is that these movies have jumbled writing. We see the same phenomenon take place with the evil (and white) General Hux from the newest trilogy. Hux is supposed to be the military leader of the First Order but is portrayed as a cowardly, slow-witted dope. Hux gets relatively little screen time, but his role is dramatically important. He runs the First Order’s military operations, while the other villains, Kylo Ren and Leader Snoke, are embroiled in more personal conflicts.

In A New Hope, Peter Cushing’s portrayal of another villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, was crucial because he represented the technical and bureaucratic competence of the evil Empire. If Tarkin had slipped on a banana peel every time we saw him, the Death Star wouldn’t be nearly as menacing, because Tarkin’s futility would undermine the sense that he is able to supervise such an impressive achievement. There is humor surrounding Tarkin’s character at some points in the film: Leia insults him, and Tarkin has a streak of amusing sarcasm, but the gags don’t undermine his basic competence.

In the new trilogy, that Hux is a ranting, ineffectual clown weakens the conflict. The heroes’ Resistance spends most of The Last Jedi being picked off (slaughtered really) by the First Order. It is more difficult to sympathize with the Resistance for failing to defeat such a weak opponent. Or, as Obi-Wan might put it, who is the greater loser: the loser or the loser who loses to General Hux?

Give this to Kennedy and her directors: They are utterly colorblind in their use of poorly structured humor to undercut the dramatic stakes. Is this politicized misandry? A more likely explanation is that screenwriting is hard, and some of the elements jelled poorly.

Respect Mah Authoritay

This brings us to perhaps the strongest argument in the anti-SJW case against Star Wars: Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), a woman who helps lead the Resistance in the new trilogy. For some critics, this entire subplot is “problematic.” The worst part is that the subplot isn’t even about Holdo herself. It is about Resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron’s evolution from a frontline fighter to a military-political strategist.

Poe’s natural antagonist in this contest is Princess Leia, whom he is being groomed to replace. The conflict between them could have been compelling, since the audience likes and respects both characters, and their disagreement could be based on their different experiences, which the audience has seen for themselves. The decision to continue fleeing the First Order would have made more sense coming from Leia rather than from Poe. In Empire Strikes Back, she fled the planet of Hoth, and we know it wasn’t based on a lack of intelligence or guts.

Instead, the film writers decided to put Leia in a coma and give Poe a new antagonist: the widely mocked Vice-Admiral Holdo. The script puts Dern in an impossible position. We already know and like the brave and witty Poe. We are just meeting Holdo, and she is written as that unlovely military stereotype: the martinet. Her actions are baffling both in the moment and in retrospect.

The anti-SJW critique of Holdo is that she represents humorless, arrogant, and entitled feminism. The real problem is that Holdo’s introduction and characterization change the question from one of prudence (a virtue Poe needs to learn) to authority (which Poe should accept without question). Poe is such a likeable character, and we have already seen him accomplish so much. Holdo, on the other hand, is intensely unlikeable, and we have never seen her accomplish anything. Perhaps unintentionally, the film heavily stacks the deck in Poe’s favor as we witness their conflict.

From A New Hope until The Last Jedi, the political authority in the Rebellion and subsequent Resistance had always been vested in female characters, but Holdo’s combination of hostility, self-imposed isolation, and self-defeating secrecy in the face of disasters makes it almost impossible for the audience to understand her perspective while the conflict is developing. We might keep faith with Leia, but given the circumstances, trusting Holdo requires placing absolute, mindless trust in rank alone. As critics have pointed out, this sounds more like the Empire than the Resistance.

Is this Trip Really Necessary?

Even defenders of The Last Jedi have trouble defending the subplot in which Finn and secondary character Rose travel to another planet. The subplot has a whole movie’s worth of interesting ideas about how a seemingly endless series of wars will corrupt even those who keep their distance from the political and religious controversies tearing the galaxy apart, but it is terribly rushed. Some parts (such as the CGI dinosaurs being ridden through a 1950s casino) are an embarrassment.

Worst of all, everything Finn and Rose set out to do in this subplot come to nothing in the end, and Finn ultimately fails to deactivate the beacon that the First Order is using to track the Resistance — the pretext for the entire trip to this planet. He fails to blow up the First Order’s mini–Death Star and give his friends a chance to escape. What’s more, Rose’s explanation for why she stops Finn from sacrificing himself in the end only makes sense if she knew that Luke Skywalker’s Force ghost was going to save the day, which she likely did not. Otherwise, all she did was postpone Finn’s death by a few minutes and sentence the members of the Resistance to death. Essentially, the film’s other two subplots (those involving Rey and Poe) would have resolved in exactly the same way if Finn had spent the entire movie in a coma rather than undertaking this mission.

Interestingly, the futility of the Finn and Rose subplot could have been — but was not — used by SJW critics to attack TLJ as racist. The most important action in the film involves a young white woman, Rey, and her relationships with a young, white, male villain and an elderly white wizard. Meanwhile, the black man, Finn, and the Asian woman, Rose, are sent on a side quest where they fail at everything and have no impact on the movie’s events. The Last Jedi could plausibly be condemned as Episode VIII: White Privilege Strikes Back.

That TLJ isn’t interpreted this way demonstrates the flaws in the shared moral accounting practices of both SJWs and anti-SJWs. Often, the facts about a film or television show can easily be manipulated to fit the pre-existing agenda or feelings of a critic. Kathleen Kennedy is perceived to be on Team Diversity, so therefore minority characters Finn and Rose must be inspirational heroes — no matter the pointlessness of their adventures. If Kennedy had “liked” a couple of President Donald Trump’s tweets, on the other hand, the weaknesses of the Finn and Rose subplot could just as easily be interpreted by SJW critics as evidence of Kennedy’s secret, white-supremacist agenda. This kind of cultural criticism bears similarities to a show trial, complete with imputed motives, preemptively decided guilt, and torturing the evidence until it produces a confession.

The Game of Trolls

In The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway notes that defenders of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot tried to pick a fight not over the merits of the film but over the sexist behavior of Internet trolls in response to the film. It seemed easier than defending the movie on its merits. As if to prove Hemingway’s point, one critic described the new Ghostbusters as “more a matter of politics than of art” and analogized watching the movie to voting for a compromised and uninspiring political candidate.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between the quality of the movie in question and the degree to which the movie’s defenders focus on “toxic fandom.” For example, the fairly recent Star Wars spin-off Rogue One had a female lead, a diverse cast, and the standard white, male lead villain but partisans of the film don’t need to focus on the trolls in order to stand up for the movie. It helps that Rogue One is a more consistent film (TLJ has slightly higher highs, but far deeper lows). Wonder Woman, in contrast, had a female lead and a female director, but discussion of the movie doesn’t focus nearly as much on Internet sexists.

That is because both movies — whatever their flaws — can speak for themselves, so defenders of Wonder Woman and Rogue One don’t need to obsess about Internet trolls. After a while, condemning “toxic” critics can morph into an effort to drown out all critics. If you don’t like the movie (or rather say too loudly that you don’t like the movie), the bad guys win. One could adapt the common saying: If you have the law on your side pound the law. If you have the facts on your side pound the facts. If you have neither the law nor the facts on your side, pound the table.

If you can’t defend the movie on the merits, pound on “toxic fandom.”

This is why there are writers arguing already that Kathleen Kennedy should be retained as president of Lucasfilm in order to preserve diversity and spite the trolls. I have no particular opinion on Kennedy, and I tend to blame the directors for the artistic weaknesses of the recent Star Wars films, but this is crazy even on its own terms. The “diversity” of future Star Wars movies does not hinge on Kennedy’s continued employment. If Kennedy is replaced, a new executive won’t recast the franchise as an all-white, community-theater version of Star Wars. Somewhere along the line, the argument over these films stopped being about diversity or equality, and definitely not quality, and it became about tribal warfare.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and both sides of this divide can pull back. It is a waste of mental energy to try to discern whether Poe or Cassian (from Rogue One) count as “white” or “diverse” for purposes of demographic representation, along with what this might mean for the politics of Star Wars and America. You can’t guilt people into spending money on a piece of popular entertainment that doesn’t resonate as much as the studio might wish. The 2016 Ghostbusters couldn’t make enough money to justify extending the franchise, and The Last Jedi made $700 million less than The Force Awakens did two years earlier. Culture war is becoming the last defense of artistic mediocrity, but it cannot overcome public indifference.

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