Thursday, December 21, 2017

The right thing to want from Star Wars

SPOILERS. I hope this goes without saying at this point.

Such an online debate has cropped up around Star Wars: The Last Jedi that it has started to resemble other big binary debates in recent memory, like Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton. But really, this is more like political in-fighting in the same party. A true parallel with Trump vs. Clinton would be people who like Star Wars vs. people who do not like Star Wars. This fight is entirely between people who love Star Wars.

I love Star Wars, but I just now had to defend myself against being a “hater.” It was not done in an aggressive way. The person said “I can’t keep track. Are you a TLJ hater? It would seem so.”

My response: “I only hate the term ‘hater.’ ‘Hater’ implies disliking something for illegitimate reasons with the possible intent to troll. I have legitimate concerns with the movie, which does not make me a hater. I give it 3.5 stars out of 5 with a far greater inclination to talk about the things that disappointed me than the things I liked.”

I was possibly going to grapple with my feelings about the movie by seeing it again last night, in conjunction with a trip to the mall to do Christmas shopping. (The mall is open until midnight the week before Christmas, as opposed to closing at 5:30 (!) like it usually does on weekdays.) The other options was Bad Moms 2, which had the benefit of being an hour shorter. As it turned out, my shopping took too long and I saw neither.

I did, however, grapple with The Last Jedi last night by consuming two different well-argued pieces that took both a pro and a con stance on the movie. The first was this piece during my dinner at the mall, entitled “The Last Jedi Doesn’t Care What You Think About Star Wars.” The second was after I got home, when, exhausted from walking around the mall for four hours, I should have just gone to sleep. Instead I watched the Red Letter Media video on The Last Jedi, all 45 minutes of it, which can be found here.

The Red Letter Media video was nice because it made me laugh and confirmed a number of my own concerns with the movie, plus added some I had not previously considered. (The line about the cumulative effect of these two movies being like John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison being shot in the same night was the best.) But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that the arguments made in the SlashFilm piece were also resonant for me.

Whether you like this Star Wars movie or not comes down to what you want from a Star Wars movie. And what’s frustrating about this debate is that people are trying to tell each other what they should want, rather than just accepting that everyone wants different things.

If you want the strain of relatively uncomplicated heroism that has been explored in most, if not all, of the previous Star Wars movies to continue, this movie may not be that satisfying for you. Those who don’t want that will tell you, or at least imply, that you are wrong to want it.

The thing is, Star Wars has not really always been uncomplicated in its heroism. The entire prequel trilogy followed a hero who would turn out to be one of the most infamous villains of all time. If that’s not complicated, I don’t know what is. And since we knew that was what was going to happen, we were okay with it. If Star Wars had started with Episode I and sent Anakin Skywalker on a Walter White-style descent into evil, we might have felt much differently about it. (Though we shouldn’t have been surprised in Breaking Bad, either, as it’s all there in the title. To follow a protagonist who is going to turn bad, you kind of need to know it from the start.)

So I don’t think those of us displeased with the character arcs of the main heroes necessarily demand a lack of complexity in our heroes. A little complexity is great. A lot of complexity may be too much, and may ultimately feel depressing. The Half in the Bag guys talked about this being a movie where everybody always fails. On a basic cinematic level, that’s disheartening.

But the pro Last Jedi faction argues that we should want these people to seem more human, if not only because it’s more realistic, then because it gives the Star Wars universe more space to grow. Rian Johnson clearly did not want to be imprisoned by everything that had come before in this saga, and boy did he show it. So that’s what Johnson wanted, and what those who have loved this movie (including most critics) clearly wanted.

But it doesn’t mean that it is, by necessity, the right thing to want, and that anyone who doesn’t want it is intellectually stunted in some way. The success of the MCU has showed that we like movies to be fun, and I would argue that this is not a fun movie. But are we to be derided for wanting something to be fun?

The conventional wisdom is that fun is good in a superhero movie, as the continued rejection of the DC superhero model has proven. But if we want Star Wars to feel more escapist, suddenly we aren’t holding ourselves to a high enough intellectual standard. 

Which makes The Last Jedi even more complicated, because its attempts at slapstick humor are some of its most derided elements. So The Last Jedi is trying to be fun, and in some corners being derided for its attempts to follow the MCU model, but it doesn’t have a natural sense of how to be fun, which is what I would argue is one of the best attributes of The Force Awakens. So it's an unfun movie trying to be fun but dwelling on depressing things. It's kind of one of those situations where it seems like you can cherrypick the elements of the movie that most directly speak to your argument, ignoring ones that directly contradict it.

The reason this resembles a political debate is the sense on both sides of how wrong the other side is. If you want heroes to succeed, and fail only because they are trying so hard to succeed (which is kind of what happens with Poe), you think the movie and the people who love it have no respect for the grand history of Luke Skywalker, one of the most prominent heroic figures in modern popular culture. If you want heroes to be human and Star Wars to surprise you, you think the people who don’t like the movie are shallow or intellectually inferior.

But really, it’s okay to want different things from Star Wars. We all do. And we all should. 

And wanting something I didn’t get doesn’t make me a hater. It just makes me a spurned lover.

And part of the reason I may not go again to see it in the theater is very simple:

I know that nothing different is going to happen this time around. 

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