Courtesy: Lucasfilm

Opinion

Does 'Star Wars' Need to Change Its View on Evil?

For all of the troubles during production, audiences are likely to find that Solo: A Star Wars Story feels pretty much like any other Star Wars story of the modern era: It’s slick enough, fast-moving and features all manner of familiar tropes from other movies, including smart-ass droids, protagonists outgrowing their shortcomings in the third act and audiences asked to feel sympathy for the fascist villains of the galaxy. One of those things, you might have noticed, is not like the other.

For the first couple of movies, villains in Star Wars were more icons than characters, per se. Darth Vader, the Stormtroopers and the Emperor were defined more by their visuals and their actions than any particular personality, and the Imperial officers who displayed the most actual character were, for the most part, generic lickspittle generals, or those who displeased Vader and paid the ultimate price. That all changed with the third movie, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which for the first time gave inner depth to an antagonist in the series when Darth Vader’s inner conflict about his son led him to rebel against the Emperor (pun intended). Vader was no longer a faceless villain and leather-clad boogeyman to scare the kids; after Return of the Jedi, he was transformed into a tragic—yet ultimately redeemed—figure who got to hang out with the other good-guy ghosts in the movie’s final scenes.

The prequel trilogy, of course, doubled down on this notion by transforming the entire series into one where Vader (or Anakin Skywalker, depending on your preference) is the doomed protagonist of the whole story. He's a figure doomed by his own desires—desires the audience is trained to expect from heroes, importantly, like falling in love and keeping his loved ones safe—who is misled and betrayed by those he trusts, but is eventually redeemed by his family. The entire series of George Lucas’ six original movies became a portrait of a complex, flawed man whose actions destroyed the galaxy. And since then, Star Wars has wanted its audience to, if not love, then at least understand and empathize with its villains.
This has been clear since 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens—a movie which not only has a hero who was formerly a Stormtrooper, but also spends an impressive amount of time on the inner struggle and sadness of Kylo Ren, arguably making him one of the most fully realized and sympathetic characters in the franchise’s history. It’s something that recurs through every movie in the series since: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story foregrounds not only the pain of the Imperial scientist as his daughter tries to rescue him, but also the fragility of the movie’s central antagonist, who is himself bullied and humiliated in his workplace. Star Wars: The Last Jedi continues the attempt to explain away Kylo Ren’s villainy with a Rashomon-ed take that boils down to, “His uncle was mean to him.” And now, Solo.

The most morally troubling aspect to Solo: A Star Wars Story is not that it restores the earlier idea from spinoff novels and comic books that Han Solo was once an Imperial officer—as morally complicated as that is, if you choose to dig into it. (Yes, he signed up through desperation, but he was there for three years before deserting; how many massacres was he party to during that time? How many genocides?) It’s the scene of Solo in the middle of battle as an Imperial officer, showing the inhumane circumstances he and his fellow Imperial soldiers are in, and the struggle they’re dealing with. The morality of their mission is literally never addressed in the movie; indeed, the Empire is barely touched upon, outside of being the means used by Han to escape his home planet. For all intents and purposes, Han simply signed up to the army and then left because he wasn’t into authority figures. The Empire, they’re just regular guys with tough jobs, don’t you know?

It’s a far cry from the original Star Wars, which was so disinterested in that idea that the destruction of the Death Star, and the murder of the countless workers, officers and soldiers onboard, is barely given a second thought outside of the medal ceremony that follows. (There’s an entire riff in Kevin Smith’s Clerks about this carefree attitude, in fact.) On the one hand, this is a sign that the storytelling in Star Wars has become more complex and more nuanced, growing with its audience, and this is probably a good thing—at least to those who don’t like the idea of Star Wars being a kids movie, now that they’ve grown up themselves. 
When anti-fascist groups are growing at speed, it feels counterintuitive for Star Wars to pursue the idea that the fascists should be listened to and understood.
On the other hand, there’s something surreal about seeing fictionalized space Nazis treated with an increased empathy and interest in explaining and understanding their motivations, at a time when the media repeatedly attempts to explain and understand real-life alt-right and neo-Nazi figures, often getting criticized for doing so. When anti-fascist groups are growing at speed, leading to a thankfully increased intolerance for fascism, it feels almost counterintuitive, or at least misreading the room, for Lucasfilm and Disney to recreate so many elements of the original trilogy but simultaneously pursue the idea that the fascists should be listened to and understood instead of opposed and, ultimately, defeated.

As both box office receipts and social media chatter have made clear, Star Wars has touched a nerve upon its return, and let’s be honest: It’s easy to see why a series of movies where a group of diverse people standing against an authoritarian regime, calling themselves the Resistance, would feel particularly timely. It should be noted that Solo significantly underperformed in its opening weekend, however, which has been used as the basis for fake concern over franchise fatigue or whether the series has upset white men.

While either are possibilities, there’s another option: Perhaps the audience is getting less and less willing to put up with movies where the line between good and evil is more blurred than in the original movies, and the audience is being asked to feel for the fascists on a recurring basis. As Star Wars looks to grow in the future, the question at the heart of the franchise may be, which side of the fight are the filmmakers and studio on, and as political culture swells with ever-more-obvious partisanship, will the movies eventually move away from a centrist take toward something more willing to dehumanize the other side?

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