Star Wars Lightsaber battle

Star Wars, the American Myth

Star Wars blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy, not only through its mixture of aliens and magic, but through its narrative perspective. Like great sci-fi, it speculates on what’s to come in the modern world; weapons that could wipe out entire cultures would be an overreach of power, just as space travel and fully functional prosthetic limbs would make for a wonderful future. But modern Western/Anglo-Saxon fantasy (often drawn from Tolkein, himself inspired by Arthurian myth) gazes back at the way things were. Dynasties. Blood-feuds. Stories of lineage. These are dramatically potent, no doubt — Aragorn, the rightful King of Gondor, fears a weakness inherited over millennia — but Star Wars has a distinction borne by neither The Lord of the Rings nor Game of Thrones, nor even most modern sci-fi for that matter:

Star Wars isn’t just a product of American capitalism. It’s Americana.

The Saga is an American artifact. A confluence of cultures, cinematic styles and spiritual perspectives that stem from America’s melting-pot experiment. To what degree George Lucas watered down or (mis)appropriated these cultural facets is a valid conversation, though as a continuum, Star Wars seeks to improve. Paradoxically, part of this improvement is a function of capitalism too; regardless of whether newer audiences see women, people of colour and LGBTQ folks as financially viable, it isn’t until studios have hard numbers to back this up that more films will reflect reality. But this is, in fact, the new Star Wars regardless. Whether one chooses to see it as lip-service, pandering, or genuine artistic vision, our new heroes are women and people of colour (the lack of queerness bolsters the point of capitalist acceptance), and some of the Eastern perspectives Lucas originally paid lip-service to even find themselves paid off in The Last Jedi; Luke’s arc, for instance, is visually and thematically entwined with Buddhist nirvana, among other Eastern philosophies.

The original Star Wars was born partially out of Lucas’ anti-war perspective; it’s the Vietnam movie he wasn’t able to make (he was once attached to direct Apocalypse Now). The central debate engulfing America at this time however, is one of birthright. It is by birth that Americanness is decided, and thus, human worth; naturalized citizens run the risk of being denaturalized, while those who come to America seeking refuge from violence are locked in detention camps. America continues to be hostile to those not born into whiteness, the structure it was built on in the first place through slavery and Manifest Destiny.

It would be pithy to suggest franchise cinema could have a major role in fixing these structural problems, but Star Wars is, and always has been, a reflection of America. The prequel films, for all their faults, were set against a democracy descending into authoritarianism through fear and propaganda — “Execute Order 66” sounds far too much like “Executive Order 9066” to be coincidence — prophesying the inevitable outcome of the War on Terror. The idea that Jedi-hood ought to remain solely inherited, or that the narrative focus ought to remain on those it was passed down to from a quasi-religious figure, is antithetical not only to where Star Wars ought to go (an admittedly subjective conclusion), but more pertinently, where Star Wars is already headed.

Star Wars The Last Jedi

What Comes Next?

The Last Jedi tells not only of the failure of the Jedi Order, an old-world paradigm that let the forces of fascism fester in the shadows, but of the form that same failure takes today. Luke Skywalker sees his father in the young Ben Solo (though what he arguably senses, like in the cave in The Empire Strikes Back, is the worst version of himself) but the film ultimately comes down on the side of lineage being irrelevant in determining what one deserves. Luke Skywalker repeated the mistakes of the Jedi, just as America continues to repeat the mistakes of past authoritarianism, elsewhere and at home. Yet the future of the Rebellion lies not with the son of legendary war heroes and literal royalty, but with the outsiders. Not only Force-users like Rey and the stable boy, but ordinary members of the workforce like Rose and Finn.

I love the Skywalker saga. I will always love the Skywalker saga. Depending on the day, Return of the Jedi is my favourite of the original films precisely because it’s a story of lineage. In it, Luke grapples with the worst parts of himself, parts that are a reflection of where he comes from. And therein lies the central problem of the Skywalker saga as an overarching framework for heroism. Its heart and soul lies not in virtue passed down, but in cycles of anger and hatred. The original trilogy culminates in Luke’s refusal to follow the violent path of his father. The next time he nearly gives in to it, he creates Kylo Ren, who picks up where the cycle left off. If the Skywalker saga is about the breaking and re-forging of this cycle of male angst, then maybe it’s worth telling as history continues to repeat itself in the real world. But it also denotes the need for a wider berth of perspectives writing both cinema and history, and maybe it’s time we tell the story of how this cycle ends.

If the casting announcement was mere marketing spin and if there are more Skywalker stories to be told, so be it. If every spin-off film from this point on builds to or stems from the Skywalker conflict, it would certainly make sense financially. However, if Star Wars as a whole is to move forward, it has to grow beyond the Skywalkers.

And we have to let it. 

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