A Fork In The Road
The new Star Wars trailer is not being met with universal acclaim.
I am one of the “I have a bad feeling about this” folks.
Indulge me for a moment, and allow me to put on my “grumpy old man” hat.
I saw Star Wars when I wasn’t yet seven years old, seated on the floor of the front row of the 75mm theater in San Jose, because the guy at the ticket counter caved when Mom pleaded for three tickets even if they couldn’t be together. I then waited literally half of my existing lifespan for the second movie. Unlike Millennials or Baby Boomers, there’s a window of us Gen X folks who have grown up with this whole franchise, almost as a sibling.
There’s been a lot of verbiage written about how the story of Luke Skywalker follows The Hero’s Journey, in the original Star Wars – Empire Strikes Back – Return of the Jedi trilogy. From the age of five until present day, my fiction consumption has been all over the map, but a huge representative chunk of it is a mix of science fiction and fantasy literature, two genres where The Hero’s Journey is a prominent story arc. So I’ve read a lot of iterations of this Journey, some of them really well done, and some not so much.
It happens that these are two genres where authors often continue to write books in the same universe, after their original story is commercially successful, sometimes solely *because* they are commercially successful. So I’ve read a lot of decent Hero’s Journeys that did not successfully make the jump to a second storyline. It’s not entirely unheard of for authors (who are a combination of good writers *and* good storytellers) to be able to successfully craft a narrative wherein a new set of stories builds off of the existing story, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
I’m not talking about just including Easter Eggs for fans, little nostalgia triggers that make fans-of-the-original story have little waves of nostalgia that make the new series more-than-just palatable.
I mean stories where the narrative, itself, is constructive and cohesive with the original storyline.
Where the new story has callbacks to the original story that tell us that the characters that we knew and loved (or knew and hated) continued on, as characters. They didn’t regress, but progressed… or if they regressed, they regressed for reasons that were important and tied to the new story arc that merged seamlessly with the old story arc.
For an example of this done well, look at The Hobbit, and the follow-up The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the first story, Bilbo Baggins goes on his own Hero’s Journey. In the second story, Frodo goes on a new Hero’s Journey. But Bilbo is present in the second trilogy, and he is present in the second trilogy not just as a callback for nostalgia’s sake, wherein Bilbo hands off Sting and the mithril armor and provides a “atta boy, you go get ’em” for Frodo. Yes, that happens, but much more importantly, Frodo sees how Bilbo’s role as Ringbearer has affected him, has bent and damaged him.
This means that when Frodo meets Gollum he sees not just an evil creature, but the natural progression of any mortal who carries the Ring for too long. He sees a shadow of Bilbo, broken under the weight of the horrible evil embedded in the Ring. He longs for the possibility of redemption for Gollum, and this is what tinges his pity with resolve: he must not slay this creature, but attempt to save it, because in doing so he shows that he could repair that damage to his uncle (and, importantly for his own resolve and ability to resist the Ring, he continues to show himself that his task will not damage *himself* irreparably, which is a morale booster he needs to carry the damn thing in the first place).
Bilbo’s Hero’s Journey thus becomes part and parcel of Frodo’s Hero’s Journey, and one that informs and expands that second journey.
In this day and age of reboots and retconns and remakes, many commercially successful attempts give us Sting and the mithril shirt (and one of the reasons why they are commercially successful is because of those Easter Eggs… little nods to the O.G. fans.)
Ultimately, however, they very often *fail* to give us a story arc that does not just repeat (or worse, overturns) the story arc that originally brought us into the world. Examples of this are too many to count. My own personal “most offended” is outside the realm of fantasy, the example of the original Mission: Impossible reboot.
The trailer begins with the ubiquitous “Good morning, Mr. Phelps” secret recording (which we know, of course, will self-destruct in five seconds), followed by the trill of the soundtrack and the same intro that every fan of the original series knew and loved: quick cuts of the show (now film) you were about to see, made so quick that you could not infer exactly what has going to happen in the upcoming hour (now two). There’s a weakness in the trailer, because it fails that second test – it gives away too much of what we are going to see.
Aside from the overall weakness in the trailer, though… the first fifteen seconds were enough to guarantee that I was early in line for a ticket on opening night.
And then they made Jim Phelps the bad guy.
Now, given all of the stuff that Jim Phelps puts up with in the original series, without so much as a waver or a moment of doubt, this is an impossible ask for me, as an original fan. Eight seconds of Jon Voight complaining about “ill-treatment and getting his”… doesn’t carry the narrative load.
If Phelps is going to have become the bad guy, we – the fans of the original series – need investment in that story line. You have to prove that something could have turned Phelps.
And needless to say, Mission: Impossible the movie failed to do that.
This isn’t because “we’re special, us fans-of-the-original-series, and we deserve special treatment”, which is how people often read “fans of the original series don’t like this thing” (odds that there’s a comment to this effect in the comment thread: 5 to 4).
It’s because the story deserves better treatment. Because Jim’s story deserves better treatment.
I didn’t walk out of the theater, like Greg Morris, but I could never love that movie as part of the greater story arc of the Mission: Impossible universe.
(It was still an entertaining enough movie in its own right, and a commercial hit, spawning a half-dozen sequels, which I’ll admit can be fun if you turn off the part of your brain that remembers the television series, or you never watched it in the first place.)
So now that I’ve set the stage, what does this have to do with the Star Wars trailer?
I’m not the Star Wars nerd that some Star Wars nerds are. I haven’t consumed the entire Expanded Universe of books, and thus my own canon of Star Wars is largely my own headcanon.
My long standing personal headcanon includes this theory: to get good at the Force, training can take you so far, but only so far.
After that, your ability to challenge yourself in major trials is what it takes to get to the next level of Force mastery. Challenging yourself via a major trial involves major temptation by the “other side” of the Force. This isn’t an original thought, granted, it’s a common enough story line.
The weakness of the Jedi Order, and the reason why they ultimately fail as an order, is that the inner circle of the Jedi Order knew this, but basically walled it all off as forbidden knowledge. Why? Because the problem with challenging yourself is, of course, sometimes folks lose, and then they go to the Dark Side. The Jedi Order is in opposition to the Sith, and the Jedi thought that once someone was turned, there was no redemption: you have to get rid of them.
Thus the failure mode of a major trial is unacceptable, and understandable: nobody wants to have to execute a buddy for failing a test, after all!
Like many of the major mysticism story lines in fantasy and science fiction (Yin/Yang, Dark Magic/Light Magic, Kirk getting split into Milksop Kirk and Aggro Kirk, etc) , there are aspects of each “side” that are laudable traits. Those traits are toxic if you take only that laudable trait without the corresponding offsetting trait from the opposing side.
Will for victory is toxic… if not combined with mercy.
Authority is toxic… if not tempered with empathy.
A Jedi does not deal in absolutes… is toxic when it itself is an absolute.
And so on.
So Luke’s Hero’s Journey involves him becoming more than your average Jedi not because of his training with Yoda, which he never even finishes, after all… but *because* he faced major trial.
Now of course this works as a narrative for the new trilogy if they take it that route. You can come up with multiple storylines that allow Kylo/Rey to work against/for/around each other to provide trials for the other.
But it *won’t* hold together with the original story if Luke isn’t still kinda badass.
And this trailer makes me think they’re not going that route.
Luke had to have learned from the experience with Vader and the experience with the Emperor. The whole point of Return of the Jedi – the reason why it worked, as part of Luke’s Hero journey – is that he threw aside the common wisdom of the Jedi (“once you start down the Dark Side, forever will it dominate your destiny”), which both enabled him to survive the trial with Vader *and* engage with it in the first place (by believing that he could save him). Vader killed his friends! Vader tortured his friends! Obi-Wan told Luke that Vader couldn’t be saved! Yoda told Luke that Vader couldn’t be saved! And still Luke believed he could redeem him.
If instead the story line is that Luke has… just forgotten all that, that Kylo became seduced by the Dark side and Luke just retreated from view because he was all torn up from that… then that makes the entire first trilogy (and the second one, for that matter), completely null. Luke didn’t actually learn anything! His whole Hero’s Journey wasn’t a Hero’s Journey at all… just a dumb one-off fluke!
The way that the story can work will be if Luke still knows what he learned from his battles with Vader and the Emperor, namely that in order for the Force to come into balance there needed to be a new order that did not include the problems with the Jedi way of training. An order that enabled challenge and trial, and most importantly (what was really missing from the Jedi Order) … redemption…
… and Luke had a Force vision of his own showed him that he couldn’t be the one to bring Kylo back from the Dark side, but it needed to be someone else.
So he retreated to exile not because he’s all tore up over Kylo and worried about his own ability to teach… but because he knows that he needed to play his new role: that of the Yoda.
But not a Yoda who passed along the broken idea that once you turned down the Dark path, forever would it dominate your destiny… but a Yoda who learned the error of the Jedi way and fixed it.
If the Star Trek writing is any guide… JJ Abrams will probably not do this. Because JJ has not convinced me that he’s particularly good storyteller.
He’s probably going to have Luke be broken over Kylo, which doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all because Luke knows that even Darth Vader, who slaughtered defenseless children can be redeemed from the Dark side. And he knows this because that was the whole point of the original trilogy!
And then I’m gonna be super-grumpy.