Star Wars wars against itself

[cn: mild Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers]

I dislike mainstream movies almost categorically. They cost too much to make, which means they need to appeal to broad audiences, and it turns out that broad audiences really like Hero’s Journey stories full of standard archetypes and tropes. The original Star Wars trilogy was a case in point, so you might imagine I don’t care for it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was okay though. One of the things I liked about it was its clear rejection of the Hero’s Journey. Usually in these stories–and Star Wars stories in particular–you have the hero take a huge risk, and achieve a brilliant victory. The Last Jedi makes nods to this trope, by focusing on characters who take huge risks to strike at the enemy’s critical weakpoint. But the characters fail, and in the process they screw up the more intelligent plans of Vice Admiral Holdo. (Later, Holdo herself takes a huge risk to strike at the enemy’s weakpoint, but I won’t dwell on this bit of thematic incoherence because I’m sure someone in the comments will explain how it all makes sense.)

Because of its rejection of conventional heroism, many critics have argued that The Last Jedi has progressive themes. The Guardian calls it “triumphantly feminist“. Vanity Fair says it offers a “condemnation of mansplaining“. Another critic says “toxic masculinity is the true villain“. Even anti-feminist fans agree, resulting in some backlash.

My reaction is, The Last Jedi sure is rejecting something, but is it really toxic masculinity? The whole idea of small band of heroes taking a huge risk to achieve a linchpin victory, that’s something that mostly happens in fiction (and Star Wars in particular), not in the real world. Neither the rejection nor acceptance of that trope seems to say anything about the real world. It’s just a dispute between works of fiction.  I agree more with the critic who says The Last Jedi doesn’t care what you think about Star Wars.

I would compare it to the theme of “destiny” in fiction. Many works of fiction like to say deep things about destiny. Either they say, there’s nothing you can do to change your destiny, so you just have to accept it. Or they say, screw destiny, you can make your own destiny. Or else they say, sometimes prophecies are fulfilled in unexpected ways, and how foolish of you to think you can truly know your destiny.

Stories about destiny are fun and all. But I mean. Destiny doesn’t exist in the real world. Mystical prophecies aren’t a thing. All these stories are arguing back and forth about the nature of “destiny”, but it’s just some mystical force invented by the stories themselves.

Speaking of mystical forces, Star Wars have a similar thing going on with the Force. Many of the themes are entirely about the value and importance of the Force. The different movies have slightly different takes. But the Force is a work of fiction, so what are these themes really saying, if anything at all? So it is with the “heroism” that is both accepted and rejected by Star Wars movies

Of course, many of these fictional entities and concepts operate as stand-ins for real-world concepts. For example, “destiny” could be a stand in for the will of authorities, or the will of God. The Force could be a stand-in for intuition or mindfulness. Clearly many people are taking the heroism of Star Wars to be a stand-in for toxic masculinity. And I can see that. It makes sense that toxic masculinity would be built upon fantastical narratives detached from reality.

Stories can be a tilted playing field for such themes. It’s well-known that stories often have trouble with anti-war themes, because in portraying war, they inadvertently makes it seem exciting and glamorous. Likewise, stories have trouble with anti-heroism themes, because heroism is exciting, and stupid risks build tension. This is all to say that if toxic masculinity ever wins out in a work of fiction, the victory probably isn’t truly deserved.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    AFAIC, in fiction everything else is at best secondary to a good yarn. Is it a crappy story with all the admirable social attitudes? Then fuck it. Write an essay or make a documentary.

  2. StevoR says

    Another good review here :

    Watched The Last Jedi last week and got mixed feelings because there were aspects and scenes I really enjoyed and others I really didn’t and what they’ve done to the old cast post ROTJ in both movies I really dislike but the new heroes are great and the new villains are, well, Kylo Ren is getting better &more interesting anyhow.

    The alt-reich neo -nazis have been hating this movie :

    & even trying to sabotage it by using bots to lower its ratings :

    So it’s cheesed off the right people and it does pass my “would I see it again” test and is better than TFA in my view.

  3. drken says

    I liked it. I think everything that happened between Poe and Holdo was designed to build tension around their flight from the the First Order and it worked. To do that, it both subverted the hero’s tale (or just not telling us who the hero is) and exploited the biases held by the audience regarding “what an Admiral should look and act like”. I hold a few of them myself that they very deftly exploited. The movie wanted me to be frustrated with Admiral Holdo and I was. I don’t think it would be nearly as good had it kept to the expected trope even though it would have made me feel more comfortable in the way expected outcomes usually do. I haven’t read that review yet, but I agree that The Last Jedi doesn’t care what I think of it, but in a good way. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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