Monday, February 08, 2016

Why Star Wars bad guys ain't as good as they used to be


If you have a problem, said the Judo instructor on the programme, such as for instance a nineteen stone Jap in pyjamas trying to beat you into a pulp, the trick is to use the problem to solve itself. If you can trip or throw or deflect the Jap as he hurtles towards you, then the fact that he weighs nineteen stones quickly becomes his problem instead of yours.
           Douglas Adams

Finn and Rey, and even Han treat life and death as a game and revel in the playing of it. But there is a sense in which the First Order also seem to be playing at being bad guys.

Many people felt that the unmasking of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi failed: there needed to be something more shocking, less pathetic, under the helmet. Nearly everybody felt that Hayden Christensen failed to convince as the young Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. He was neither evil enough to be Darth Vader, nor impressive enough to be the great hero and friend of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Clones Wars cartoon handles him better: he’s the cynical, rule-breaking, wise-cracking Jedi. But a plot arc in which a likable cynical good guy turns evil is not really very satisfying. Likable cynical good guys are meant to reveal that they have hearts of pure gold.

In retrospect, Lucas was much closer to the mark when he cast Jake Lloyd as child Vader in Phantom Menace. If no-one without a helmet and voice-over can possibly be Vader, better make young Anakin the least Darth Vader like figure possible: cute, naive, starry-eyed, kind. Star Wars is never far from the influence of Jack Kirby, and Kirby put a character who looked angelic but was actually demonic in virtually every series he wrote: Orion, the Reject, Angel, even Victor Von Doom. Instead of a moody teenager, Anakin needed to be Sir Galahad: noble, gentle, pious, holy, beautiful. Then his descent to the Dark Side could have literally been like the fall of Lucifer.

Darth Vader is a different character in each of the original trilogy: henchman in Star Wars, pantomime villain and bogeyman in Empire Strikes Back and a tragic hero in Return of the Jedi. But he is never less than charismatic; his every line an instant quotation, demanding to be written in capital letters like Death himself. I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING! HE IS AS CLUMSY AS HE IS STUPID! THE EMPEROR IS NOT AS FORGIVING AS I AM! Probably James Earl Jones would sound impressively evil if he were reading out a recipe for vegetable soup.

There is no iconic villain in the prequels. How could there be? Palpatine sneers. Christopher Lee is Christopher Lee. Darth Maul looks impressive on duvet covers and underwear.

Episode VII knows that no villain it introduces can possibly have a tenth of the impact of Darth Vader. So what does it do? Following Douglas Adams advise, it makes that part of the story. It creates a villain who knows he is a pale imitation of the previous one. A villain who has to keep proving to everyone else that he is evil: losing his temper and breaking things when his plans fail; killing people he has no particular reason to kill to show he can. Actually holding onto Darth Vader’s helmet – presumably retrieved from the funeral pyre on Endor – as a holy relic, and praying to it. Feeling that he is being tempted by the Light Side of the Force.

"Show me again the power of Darkness. Show me again, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started."


The theology of the Force is, naturally, a little vague. The very first time it is mentioned (in A New Hope) is when we are told that Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force. ("Seduced": interesting choice of words, coming from an order which enforces vows of celibacy.) Sometimes, it seems that the Dark Side and the Light differ in their approach ("a Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack"). Sometimes, the difference is just that the Dark Side use the Force for evil and the Light for Good. Sometimes, the opposite seems to be true: it isn’t that bad people use the Dark Side, it is that if you use the Dark Side, it will make you bad. Sometimes, there seem to be two different traditions: the Sith are custodians of secrets and techniques which the Jedi know nothing about. Leia says that Snoke – the Supreme Leader – seduced (that word again) Kylo Ren to the Dark Side. After he has been all but defeated by Rey and Finn, Snoke says that it is time to “complete his training”. But I have an overwhelming sense that Kylo is feeling his way: that he wants to be a super-villain like Grandpa but doesn’t quite know what he is doing.

There seems also to be a Tao idea that the Light and the Dark sides of the Force need to be balanced. Qui-Gon believed that Anakin Skywalker was the one who would bring balance. Tekka says that without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force. Han Solo defines the Force as "a magical energy holding together good and evil". This is one of the ways in which VII acknowledges the prequels without having a guest appearance by Jar-Jar Binks: the idea of "balance" occurs nowhere in the first trilogy.

Anger and fear are paths to the Dark Side. Kylo Renn fears that he will never be such an iconic villain as Darth Vader, and is angry when one of his minions fail him. When people failed Vader, he strangled them, with his fist or with the Force, but in a calm and controlled way. When the Millennium Falcon escapes at the end of Empire Strikes Back, he simply walks away. When Kylo Ren sees that Rey has escaped, he goes berserk and starts smashing things with his lightsaber. (Two stormtroopers simply turn around and leave him to it. They are obviously used to him throwing wobblies.) But it feels like someone showing off: going through the motions of being angry to prove a point, like someone smashing a tea-cup in a domestic row. As if he doesn’t really mean it.

When Luke says that there is still good in Darth Vader, no-one believes him. When Leia tells Han that there is still good in their son and he must try and bring him back, we take it as a definite possibility. He clearly isn't very good at being evil.

All the officers of the First Order are young. If the First Order only arose after Luke disappeared, and Luke disappeared because of the rise of Kylo Ren, then the First Order can hardly have been in existence for more than fifteen years. (Quite quick work in converting a planet into a hyperspace planet destroying cannon, even so.) But there seem to be no old generals in their 50s who remember the great days of the Empire.

General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) seems positively amateurish. His bickering with Ren somewhat recalls Motti's quarreling with Vader in the first film. But he doesn't seem to have properly got the hang of being evil. His ranting speech before they wipe out the Republic looks like someone doing a very bad imitation of Hitler: more Roderick Spode than Oswald Mosley. Look at the way the stormtroopers salute him. The Empire never went in for this kind of thing (if anything, it was the rebels who liked Triumph of the Will style ceremonials). And look, for goodness sake, at the chief Stormtrooper, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christiie), with her silver armour and bright red cloak. These are people who love playing soldiers; people who became Nazis because they liked the uniforms.

Alan Moore, thinking about Jack the Ripper and the mythology of serial killers, remembers that when he was a small child, he experienced an intrusive thought about stabbing his mother with a knife; simultaneously knowing that it would be easy to do; and that he would never do such a thing. The serial killer, he speculates, is the person who has both imagined and done the impossible thing; and that gives them a certain kind of power because they have crossed a line. He thinks it would be like perceiving the script for your life, and abandoning it. Allowing yourself to be seduced by the dark side of the Plot.

Kylo Renn kills his father. He doesn't kill his father for any reason. He doesn't appear to hate him. He may even love him. He falters for a moment; tempted, as he would see it, by the light. The sky literally turning dark seems to push him back to the Dark Side. He's doing something pointlessly evil; because he wants to step over a line and never go back.

And when he pulls of his helmet: well, it’s a surprise, certainly, but it’s not a shock. Young; floppy haired; rather good looking; weak. Like the Anakin of the prequels. The anti-Luke.

The Pope complained that the villains in the Force Awakens were not evil enough. That's sort of true; but it's also sort of the point. Darth Vader is a fallen angel, with all the evil and charm and charisma that implies. George Lucas was a true artist, and presumably therefore of Darth Vader's party without realizing it. Kylo Ren is not the Dark Lord: he is a very naughty boy.

"General Kenobi: years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars: now he begs you to come to his aid again." 

Star Wars reached back into previous episodes, previous movies previous chapters — even in the good years when it was the only one. We didn't need to have seen Ewan McGregor totally failing to either look or sound like Alec Guinness to understand that Ben-Obi-Wan-Kenobi is the hero of a previous film which just happens not to exist. The Force Awakens reaches back into episodes and movies and chapters which do exist. And Han Solo finds himself in the Obi-Wan role. He’s the hero of the last movie; he’s getting too old for this kind of thing he’s back for one last hurrah.

Perhaps his exit wasn’t a completely unexpected plot twist after all?

As soon as they get to the Death Star, Ben Kenobi knows that he has to face Darth Vader. There's no actual reason for the fight. Vader could have been standing between Ben and the shield generator; or he could have been blocking Ben's path back to the Falcon. But they seem to be fighting because they have to. Part of a personal quest: Jedi stuff that both Obi-Wan and Darth Vader acknowledge, but which the rest of us wouldn't understand.

In Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, facing Vader, in the cave and in real life, is part of Luke's spiritual progress; a thing he has to do to become a Jedi. This makes sense if Vader is a Jungian archetype. In order to become a Man, you have to confront and overcome the terrifying shadow of your father that haunts your dreams. It makes much less sense if he just a particularly nasty war criminal.

Maybe there is some rule which says that when the Light Side and the Dark Side meet, they must duel. Maybe they are fulfilling some promise they made, years ago, before Vader killed Luke's father. Maybe Obi-Wan is consciously seeking his own death. Because he knows that he needs to be at one with the Force before Luke will be able to destroy the Death Star? Because he has learned from his old master a discipline which enables him to maintain his consciousness after death? Because enlightenment involves confronting your shadow self and experiencing ego death?

Is it possible that Han Solo is seeking his own death?

Does he know that the moment he faces his son is the culmination of a redemption arc that began when he turned the Falcon around and covered Luke’s back on Yavin? Or is he just keeping a promise to Leia, knowing how it will end, but going through with it anyway. ("Not my idea of courage. More like… Suicide.")

Han Solo, the real Han Solo, the one who gunned down Greedo in cold blood and cracked a joke about it, did not believe in the Force. I used to wonder how that was possible. How could you not know the Jedi Worreel when they were acting in big numbers when you were a teenager. Chewbacca knew Yoda, didn't he? But the Republic extended across the whole galaxy. (There are maps of the Star Wars universe. It is clear that by galaxy we mean, well, galaxy.) So even if there were hundreds of Jedi, they were awfully thinly spread. Maybe they were more like Saints than Cardinals. Even if you believed in them, you would probably never meet one. If you'd never met one, well, it was pretty easy not to believe in them.

Yoda tells Obi Wan that there is another hope besides Luke. In Return of the Jedi, when we discover that Leia is also Vader's child. Luke thinks she has inherited some of Darth Vader's midichlorians, and that some day, she will understand how to use them. This is a catastrophic failure of Lucas's retrospective plotting: it’s impossible to imagine that the hotheaded politician that Leia has been established to be would undergo the sort of training Luke underwent…and anyway, wasn't Luke too old to begin the training? It’s much more believable that she’s General Leia, running the Resistance to the New Order.

But this makes me wonder…

On Starkiller base, Finn admits that he does not really know how to take the shield's down, but says that he will trust the Force. Han Solo looks shocked and says "That's not how the Force works."

What does Han Solo know about how the Force works?

"I used to wonder that myself” he says “Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo-magical power holding together good, evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is, it's true. The Force, the Jedi, all of it. It's all true."

And when he meets Rey, and recognizes her as his daughter, he takes her, not back to Leia and the resistance, but to Maz's tavern, where she has a mystical vision associated with Luke Skywalker's lightsaber.

It couldn't be, could it?

It couldn't be that while Leia never learned to use the Force Han Solo did?

And that there may be a familiar voice whispering in Rey’s ear in the next movie?

If you want me to carry on writing, either buy my book...

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

"It couldn't be that while Leia never learned to use the Force Han Solo did?"

Genuine shiver down my spine, right there.