In a recent rewatch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), I found myself struck by how much the series’ scope has changed within a few short years. Three Star Wars movies have been released since then—Rogue One (2016), The Last Jedi (2017) and Solo (2018)—and while only one of these belong within the current trilogy, each played their part to shape and direct the development of the entire franchise and how that development was received by fans and critics alike.
The Force Awakens was a critical and commercial success, garnering near-universal praise and breaking a list of box office records longer than Jar Jar Binks’ tongue. Much of the attention the film received was focused on its visible attempt to introduce some diversity into the previously very, very white series. A woman as the protagonist of the new trilogy! A dark-skinned Black man was wielding a lightsaber! Oscar Isaac! And, hey, droids can be round, too! Anticipation was heightened, and fans were tense. Would diversity save Star Wars, or ruin it beyond all recognition?
And then The Force Awakens premiered, and despite widespread positive reviews, it seemed that the movie hadn’t done much to truly change Star Wars at all on any fundamental level. Judging from the film’s performance at the box office, it was a financially prudent decision on Disney and writer-director J.J. Abrams’s part—keep all the fan-favourite elements, but insert minorities. Appease the old guard while attracting the new.
As the second instalment in the current trilogy, The Last Jedi had a tricky tightrope to walk. It would have come under fire for being monotonous and repetitive if it had followed in the exact same vein as The Force Awakens, and it would have come under fire for being disrespectful to the source canon if it didn’t deliver the same key Star Wars elements. For better or worse, in writing and directing the sequel, Rian Johnson didn’t seem to share the same priorities as Abrams. The Last Jedi gave audiences a lot of surprises and even a few shocks. It dug up classical Jedi lore and overturned it, made our beloved heroes fallible (old and new alike), spent much more time in the main antagonist’s perspective than Star Wars movies usually do, and killed off the supposed big baddie of the trilogy in halftime. With The Last Jedi, Johnson abandoned the tightrope altogether and took audiences on a bungee plunge.
Perhaps The Last Jedi‘s most controversial addition to Star Wars came in the form of an unranked, inexperienced Resistance worker—simply because she was played by a short, non-skinny Vietnamese-American woman. (I’ve talked about the impact of casting Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars before, but it must be further emphasized how powerful it was for an actor birthed by Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Vietnam War to carry the role and responsibility of openly and explicitly criticizing the capitalist exploitation of war, within canon.)
However, The Last Jedi‘s attempts at reinventing Star Wars also opened the door for a whole host of new problems and questions, sparking widespread fan outrage and even inspiring a petition to have the movie struck from Star Wars canon altogether. Eventually, audiences were left with no choice but to wait patiently for the third and final film in the trilogy to seek their validation and answers.
Now that we’ve officially seen all there is to see of the trilogy finale before the movie itself arrives in theatres let’s consider what this December’s The Rise of Skywalker can do to “fix” Star Wars.
1. Treatment of characters of colour
In the lead-up to both The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, fans started noticing a concerning trend: the notable disappearance of prominent characters of colour from official merchandise and promotional material. The WhereIsFinn and WhereIsRose campaigns were started to express fan outrage and disappointment over Disney’s apparent erasure of these characters.
Aside from marketing efforts, The Last Jedi‘s treatment of both Finn and Rose (played by John Boyega and Tran respectively) sparked much debate from fans. Many were upset that Finn was seemingly sidelined from the main narrative, some complained that Rose was “annoying” because of her morals, and the reactions to the beginnings of a Finn/Rose romance were all over the place—hot, cold, and everything in between.
However, it must be said that out of all of the characters introduced in the current Star Wars trilogy, perhaps the greatest potential lies within these two characters. They’re not Skywalkers, they’re not Jedi, and they’re not outstanding fighters or political leaders. Despite what they seemingly lack, at their very core, they share the same things that made Anakin and Luke Skywalker great characters: the humblest of beginnings (Finn from sanitation, Rose from maintenance), a search for belonging and family, and a heart to do The Right Thing. Finn’s and Rose’s stories speak of everyman beginnings, of little cogs in the machine rising up to become pillars of influence, movers and shakers. The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t need to give them the bulk of screen time—just enough for them and audiences to realize their potential.
2. Leadership development for Poe Dameron
If The Force Awakens hinted at Poe Dameron’s influence in the Resistance, The Last Jedi all but shouted it. It’s now evident that with Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) gone, the person best positioned to take over leadership of the Resistance from Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is the impulsive but charming Poe (Oscar Isaac). Their mentoring relationship is a neat parallel to the one shared between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), and The Last Jedi‘s climactic ice planet scenes couldn’t have been more clear than if it did this:
Of course, it wouldn’t do at all to shove Leia or any OG Star Wars hero aside simply for the sake of letting a younger face take the reins. The onus lies on The Rise of Skywalker to pass the torch of leadership from one hand to another, and to shift focus away from the old guard in a respectful way that gives fans closure for these iconic characters without overshadowing the new.
3. Rey’s parentage
One of The Last Jedi‘s biggest shockers was this: Rey’s not a Skywalker.
As with everything else mentioned so far, this caused a lot of mixed reactions. How can the protagonist of Star Wars not be a Skywalker? Why does the Skywalker lightsaber call to her? Why all the emphasis on her parents and family if she’s not a Skywalker? Is she really not a Skywalker, or is that just Kylo Ren’s attempt to disparage her? Also, if Rey’s not a Skywalker, who is about to rise in The Rise of Skywalker?!
I love the Skywalkers. I love the tragedy of their story, and I love the hope of their legacy. It would be lovely if Rey were eventually revealed to be connected to the Skywalkers by blood… but also she doesn’t need it.
In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren tells her, “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.” But that is the beauty of her character. Rey doesn’t need to belong to a specific bloodline for her story to be beautiful and inspiring. Her story is hers, whether she’s a Skywalker or not. Like Finn and Rose, she shares all the same traits that made Anakin and Luke great characters—the humblest of beginnings (an orphan from the desert), a search for belonging and family, and a heart to do The Right Thing, plus the ability to use the Force. She doesn’t need to prove herself worthy of becoming and being a hero in the universe of Star Wars. She is already more than qualified to be a hero in her own right, and whether or not The Rise of Skywalker reveals her to be a Skywalker or not, her heritage cannot and should not take away from that.
4. Dealing with established lore and canon
Folks disagree a lot about The Last Jedi, but in my opinion, one thing it inarguably did right is explicitly discuss the negative connotations of the old Jedi Order. It is questionable that a select few are born with the ability to use this mystical power even though said power resides within and connects all living things, and that these few were formalized into an organization and given a measure of influence and involvement in large-scale political developments. Caught up in outrage over the apparent disrespect to beloved canon lore, several seemed to have missed Luke’s point, one which he’d clearly struggled many years to fully grasp: being able to use the Force doesn’t automatically make you Better Than.
But Luke’s final words in The Last Jedi create hope. When he says, “I will not be the last Jedi,” he’s not just placing his faith in Rey to defeat the First Order. He’s creating hope for a new future for the way of the Jedi—deconstructing the old ways and rebuilding the Jedi identity to create something pure and positive. A new legacy. If The Rise of Skywalker were to have Rey return to the Jedi-hood of the prequel trilogy, that would be genuinely disrespectful to Luke’s final journey and message.
5. The Kylo of it all
It’s near impossible to talk about Star Wars without mentioning Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and it’s even more impossible to talk about Kylo Ren without inciting a myriad of heated reactions. All Reylo theories aside, actress Daisy Ridley has said that in The Rise of Skywalker, the “toxic relationship” between Rey and Kylo Ren is “dealt with really well because it’s not skimmed over.”
But here it is, as objectively as possible: Kylo Ren doesn’t need redemption to be a good antagonist/character.
A lot of comparisons have been drawn between Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader and his grandson Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, but the fact of the matter is, it’s a far more complicated comparison to make than many seem to think it is. For starters, Anakin and Kylo grew up in vastly different environments, with different resources available to them in different capacities and extents. Anakin’s reasons and motivations for his actions are very, very well explained throughout the prequel and original trilogies. He started as a child slave on a desert planet with nothing to his name but the love of his mother, and ended his life with access to power and status but wanting nothing but the love of his son. His journey makes sense.
But Kylo, as far as we know, has had far from the same experiences. Maybe he’d had an absent father, but he also had a mother who clearly cared, as well as an uncle who only ever wanted to nurture him and help him grow in the light. Until we are given more concrete context and information on how and why Snoke was able to turn him to the dark side, that turn doesn’t yet make the same kind of sense.
The question of redemption is always a loaded one, but several seem to think that Kylo “deserves” redemption “in the same way” Anakin received it. However, it’s not reasonable to equate the two characters’ arcs. Love had always been the driving force for Anakin, so it made sense that his love for his son would be the thing to redeem him. To put it more baldly: Vader didn’t kill Palpatine because he disagreed with Palpatine’s philosophy and actions, Vader killed Palpatine because Palpatine would have killed his son. This is why Anakin/Vader’s death is his redemption.
However, unlike with Anakin/Vader, Kylo has already been offered a chance at redemption. In The Last Jedi, once Snoke is dead, Rey asks him to save the Resistance and, in effect, shut down the First Order. He says no. He says, “It’s time to let old things die. Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels, let it all die.” (Notice how he doesn’t include the First Order in that.) And then he tells Rey, “We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy,” and establishes himself the new Supreme Leader of the First Order. Kylo’s actions in The Last Jedi prove that he didn’t turn to Snoke because he never received enough love and attention from Han, Leia, or Luke. He turned to Snoke because Snoke offered him what he truly wanted—absolute power and total dominance.
Is Kylo good? Despite the glimpses of humanity shown to us in The Last Jedi, despite the sporadic claims that “there’s still good in him,” his choices and actions are firmly and repeatedly pushing the answer further and further towards “no.” However, is he a good character? Yes.
Here’s hoping that The Rise of Skywalker realizes that It’s enough to let the two answers remain separate.
By: Melissa Lee
Edited By: Keshav Kant