Even as a kid who liked sci-fi and grew up when the original Star Wars movies came out, I was only ever a moderate fan. The closest I came to excitement was when I was seven years old and saw the first episode (which in the story’s chronology is the fourth). The swaggering Han Solo was my favorite character, but I liked Luke, too, and all the excitement the movie had to offer.
When The Empire Strikes Back came out, I was a little older. I was starting to get to where I could appreciate the story’s darkness, though was borderline with the episode’s ending. I didn’t like that my favorite character had been frozen, and wasn’t sure how I felt about the Empire having won the day. I also had not yet adopted an understanding of In Medias Res when it came to narrative, the importance of how to use and perceive events starting (and arguably and in this case ending) in the middle of things. I also disliked the New-Agey aspects of this installment, the events going on with Yoda and Luke on Dagobah. I didn’t understand why everybody was going around quoting Yoda. He was just a little green guy that I didn’t realize teleported from the future to escape being a character in Harry Potter. You can’t blame him, and yet I wasn’t feeling the Force mumbo-jumbo. Still, I liked the straight up battles and remained a fan of the series, though with less enthusiasm than when I was seven.
Then came Return of the Jedi. I was twelve going on thirteen going on twenty by then. I remember being excited about the opening sequence. Jabba the Hutt had a cool mafia party going on at which part of the entertainment would be Luke’s execution. At that time, I had almost abandoned my interest in Luke’s character, and yet he rose in my estimation when he took on a little bit of attitude, threatening Jabba while still a prisoner. He acted calm yet meant business, like Dirty Harry with a lightsaber. I’d watched plenty of R-rated movies by then, was a Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger fan (in a time when my family didn’t have a VHS player, I was pretty good at scamming my way into age-inappropriate movies; for more on that, see the essay I wrote about seeing The Shining when I was ten years old).
Then something happened—all admiration I had for the third installment of the Star Wars series collapsed.
It was the Ewoks. The fuzzy little teddy-bear people. They did not compute in my twelve-year-old brain. It was more than just that they were little-kiddish. It was that they were a big thematic risk for the significant number of Star Wars fans who were young males already risking their dating future by openly playing Dungeons & Dragons and engaging in other nerdy pursuits. The Ewoks just took it too far. I was growing up in rural Maine and was pretty sure you could take Ewoks in December with black powder, and my father, avid hunter that he was, had a few skinned specimens hanging in the garage between the deer and the woodpile. Though I may not have put it in these terms at the time, I knew that an interest in the fantastic in film and literature would be mitigated as I matured by a growing appreciation for stories with grayer ethics, stories that relied less on the themes and conventions of the Epic and more on those of Tragedy.
Fast forward to 2016—I now have two daughters, Maddy, age nine, and Izzy, age seven.
“Wanna see the new Star Wars this weekend, kids?” I asked.
“Yay,” they said.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go Saturday afternoon.”
And so we drove to the mall theater. Though I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, I rarely actually go to a theater. As we entered the lobby, I got to enjoy Proustian moments of flashbacks to knowing we were entering while it was light, and would return to the car when it was dark. The girls got some treats (cotton candy, because it was $3.00), but not a soda (because they are effing $5.50). As we settled into our seats, I felt somewhat hopeful that maybe I would be able to regain some appreciation for the Star Wars series for what it was.
“Daddy, when are these previews going to end?” asked Izzy.
“Soon. I think,” I said.
“Is this gonna be another one of those movies where the good guys win?” asked Maddy.
“You don’t like it when the good guys win?” I asked back.
“They just always do,” she said. “It’s more boring.”
“Well, we’ll see,” I said.
“Daddy it’s still the previews,” said Izzy. “Can you get me a soda?”
“Honey, sodas are $5.50. We can get you some water.”
Supplies finally set and previews finally over, The Force Awakens made its symphonic start. Maddy appeared glued to the screen from the get-go. Izzy, not so much. Though the same age as I was when I saw the first movie, she doesn’t share her sister’s penchant for action and violence. I got ready to help cover her eyes when The First Order started wiping out the village in the beginning, but she managed to do without them. Maddy watched the whole thing and asked who different people were, thinking old people must already know all the characters.
“Hey, the bad guys are winning,” I commented.
“Yeah,” she said nodding and grinning.
I was starting to be kind of impressed—it took me until twelve to reach that level of appreciation for the dark side of the Force. Maybe she’s like me, I thought. I mean, she doesn’t need to be, but it’d be nice to share that perspective, Sith and Sithling laughing it up while the Jedi get their butts kicked.
As we watched, however, it became clear that The First Order was a significantly lamer set of villains than The Empire. The only place I could give them high marks was in appearance—Kylo Ren looked a little black metal. And though the scene with the rally alluded to clichéd images of World War Two fascism, Kyle Ren looked more medieval, like a dark Teutonic Knight. The best touch was the crossbar on his red lightsaber. Slender Man meets Nazgul. While the Jedi dress like the hippies who got thrown out of the yoga retreat, Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma mixed intimidation with a touch of beauty. Unfortunately, that’s where it ended. While I can appreciate the writers trying to differentiate Kylo Ren from Darth Vader, and make his methods of maniacal rage contrast with Vader’s aristocratic control, the change fell short due to Ren’s ineffectiveness in combat. At least Darth Vader actually dueled and held his own with Obi Wan Kenobi before Kenobi let himself be slain. When Han was killed, it’s as if the only way Ren could get away with it was by deception. And when Rei fought him later on, his inability to keep her from pulling a lightsaber through the air came off almost as a continuity error when juxtaposed with his stopping a laser bolt mid shot at the film’s beginning. While I understood and was cool with Rei as the hero, her victory over emo-boy didn’t come across as much of a conquest. I wanted her to take on a real corporate badass like Vader.
Well, as Maddy said above, the good guys always win. The intimidation factor and awe that came with it that I felt somewhat as a kid watching the first two movies just didn’t seem to exist for her.
For a moment, when Kylo was talking to the giant image of Commander Snoke, she seemed to perk up:
“Whoa, Daddy! Who’s that? He’s giant.”
“I think he’s supposed to be a projection, honey.”
“Oh. So why do they listen to him? Can he fight?”
“I don’t know. Hey Izzy, what do you think, is he scary?”
I poked her, but she remained asleep. She did wake up in time for the end, and both girls seemed pretty into Finn’s and Rei’s victory over Kylo Ren, even if it was predictable.
“So who was your favorite character?” I asked when the lights went on.
“Rei,” said Maddy.
“Yeah, Rei,” said Izzy with a yawn.
“So you’re glad the good guys won again?”
“I’m glad because we get to go home,” said Izzy.
“It doesn’t really matter, because they just always do,” said Maddy.
She must have noticed I was crestfallen as we rode down the escalator, so she tugged my sleeve. “Cheer up, Daddy,” she said. “The good guys always win in the end, but the bad guys always win in the middle. And the middle’s longer.”
* * * * *
In Medias Res—perhaps that has proven to be the entire Star Wars franchise’s most redeeming quality. Though I was far over the series by the time episodes I-III came out just after year 2000, I had enough friends who liked them to tag along and see them in the theater. For the most part, these were even more painful, Ewok-y, and New Agey than Return of the Jedi. Forget the debacle that was Jar Jar Binks and go straight to the nauseating love affair of Annakin and Padmé. But there was a scene that I appreciated and appears now to me to be the key to the entire series—it came at the end of Episode III and consisted of Darth Vader stepping off the contraption that completed the transformation of the wounded Annakin Skywalker into the Sith Lord. The scene echoed the original Frankenstein, when the monster took his first steps off the operating table. At that moment, Star Wars became The Tragedy of Darth Vader, and though the audience knew that within the story’s chronology this took place in the middle and the good guys had a victory to look forward to in Return of the Jedi, in real time, this was the end of the series and succeeded in presenting to a contemporary American audience how it feels to recognize the choosing of evil over good, and how this can be emotionally cathartic. This is the series’ true triumph, a catalyst by which, as Nietzsche put it, “art approaches, as a redeeming and healing enchantress; she alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live.” And so though I remain a skeptical Star Wars fan, I’ll give the series credit for being one of the few places where a relatively family-friendly American story has embraced the tragic.