‘Star Wars’ and the Nature of Expectation

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

There’s a reason this was the money quote for The Last Jedi. The very placement of this film as the middle chapter inevitably invites the comparison to Empire Strikes Back. Writer-director Rian Johnson seems acutely aware of this and it becomes his main storytelling drive to take everything we know about Star Wars and turn it on its head, much to the benefit of the franchise. 

At times, it may appear to the franchise’s detriment. Luke Skywalker, as it turns out, is a vain teacher who seemingly tried to murder his own pupil; Snoke, as it turns out, wasn’t Darth Plagueis or Palpatine reborn; and Rey’s parentage wasn’t at all that critical (or was it?). These were some very crucial elements that fans had spent the last two years theorizing and speculating. Last Jedi subverts these expectations and that can feel like an outright betrayal for some. Yet, Rian Johnson clues us in from the beginning. 

All of the mysteries left in the wake of Force Awakens are tossed away almost immediately in Last Jedi. Take the very literal cliffhanger of Rey meeting Luke Skywalker. Fans were in a frenzy before they left the theater: Is it a moment between father and daughter? Is Luke about to teach a possible Kenobi? Yet when we revisit this moment in Last Jedi where Rey completes the handoff, Luke stares blankly at Rey and casually tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder.

This goes against everything we’ve known and felt about Star Wars, a property so beloved that its objects are as revered as the characters. That lightsaber should be sacred, the same way Skywalker should be on the level of Yoda and ready to impart his wisdom. But as Johnson cheekily reminds us, a lightsaber is a lightsaber, and Luke is just Luke.

How familiar is a character like Snoke already? With or without a ponderous backstory, Snoke is an overlord we’ve encountered before and not just in Star Wars. Last Jedi doesn’t need an ultra-powerful villain because it’s already got one queued up. And how many times has the Chosen One trope been done and done to death? Some say Rey’s parentage makes her wholly unremarkable, but it’s because of her status as a nobody that makes her grasp of the Force all the more remarkable for who she is as a character, not what lineage she comes from. 

You can’t blame fans for feverish speculation. This is a franchise that hasn’t moved forward in decades and fans have compensated by dreaming up their own trilogies. They see themselves in this new cast and have dreamt up scenarios for the likes of Rey, Finn, and Poe to live up to. It’s one thing to anticipate a movie. It’s another thing entirely to hold a movie hostage.

Star Wars struck a chord with so many because audiences didn’t know this kind of science fiction-fantasy was possible. Lightsabers, Star Destroyers, Jedi and Sith Lords; people fell in love with this newly discovered mythology and Rian Johnson, more than any creative mind behind Star Wars so far, implores us to rediscover this galaxy far, far away.

One of the ways Johnson achieves this is by allowing characters to be true to who they were – one of the most reassuring things about Last Jedi. Characters in studio films are so often relegated to exposition dumps, plot mechanisms. Instead, Rian Johnson insists that every character be a character, not just all-powerful beings in the galaxy. 

It’s dishonest to think Luke would mirror Yoda or Kenobi. Nothing we’ve discovered about Luke in the original trilogy suggests that would be his path. He didn’t train his entire life to be a Jedi nor aspire to the rank of Master. He was a farmer’s boy who found greatness in himself. It wasn’t until Empire that he realized he was part of someone else’s story. Quite refreshingly, Luke is still that same boy we found on Tatooine. Comparisons to Empire are warranted, but on a deeper, emotional level, Last Jedi is harkening back to A New Hope and the theme of greatness being found within, regardless of an identity.

Luke may be a Jedi Master, but Johnson doesn’t equate this as an overriding strength, but something with genuine emotional weight. Because in his quest to bring back the Jedi, Luke nearly topples the entire order and inadvertently brings about the rise of the Dark side. Return of the Jedi was supposed to usher an era of long-lasting peace. Something to consider going back to the original trilogy: would Luke save the galaxy all over again knowing it would bring him to his current predicament? 

Johnson isn’t tearing down our expectations for the sake of destruction. It is by dismantling that we are allowed to rediscover Luke as a character. Luke acknowledges his moment of weakness, of trying to put an end to Kylo Ren and realizing he can’t possibly follow through. It’s easy to understand Luke’s brokenness. He is arguably the most powerful being in the galaxy, yet he was powerless to stop Kylo.

Luke indisputably gets his redemptive hero moment by force-projecting across the galaxy and distracting Kylo Ren while the remaining Resistance fighters escape. This might seem like the anti-thesis of what we’ve safely come to define as Star Wars and the obligatory final showdown. But a showdown of that magnitude would go against Luke’s arc (we’ve just been reassured that Luke wouldn’t kill someone). So it has to be him that dies, just not in the way we think. 

The crux of Luke’s journey in Last Jedi is accepting his own insignificance. Because this isn’t his story (arguably, it never was). Star Wars has grown exponentially in the 40 years since the first film came out. Force Awakens attempts to bridge that gap, as if we’re narratively picking up where we left off. That’s also the film’s glaring weakness. It’s every bit of nostalgia a fan could hope for, right down to the plot beats. Force Awakens is credited for simply reintroducing the series because otherwise we know where that film is headed. Last Jedi, on the other hand, is in completely uncharted territory.

The response to Last Jedi has made clear that fans want Star Wars to stay familiar. But Star Wars can’t possibly stay that way. This saga is bigger than Luke, Han, and Leia. Star Wars is more than three movies. This was never about the past, but the future. It’s Rey’s turn, and Finn’s, and Poe’s, and that very possibility is what makes Star Wars so much more exciting. 

It’s fitting that Luke dies in the end. He has to. “As long as he lives, hope lives.” The Resistance is so hopelessly dependent on Luke’s return that they go to great lengths to ensure they survive long enough to see it. But in their mad scramble to survive, countless heroes have risen to the occasion. Paige Tico, Vice Admiral Holdo, Finn, Rose Tico, and finally, an orphan on Canto Bight dreaming of rebellion.

It may seem like Johnson is disregarding the fans, but the ending is crafted in the spirit of the loving fan. Because that kid on Canto Bight is us. Who hasn’t taken a staff and pretended it was a lightsaber? Who hasn’t recounted the story of Luke Skywalker to their friends? Who hasn’t looked up at the stars and wished they were part of something bigger? That boy is also shown to be Force-sensitive. That’s because hope, much like the Force, is finally given an agency. It’s not dependent on the sole existence of one character, but the selfless actions of others. After 40 years, Star Wars is ready to expand beyond our wildest dreams. It’s ready to be a journey of discovery for all, not just newcomers, but the fans especially. If this franchise is going to survive another 40 years, we have to let it.

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