The basic contours of “Star Wars” movies, which form the core of the franchise, have been set for decades. These stories focus on the highest leadership of the Empire (or the First Order) and on the outskirts of the Rebel Alliance (or the Jedi Council, or the Resistance).
On the Imperial side, Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) relationship with the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and the pull he feels from the Light side of the Force is the most important character arc, just as Anakin Skywalker’s (Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen) discovery as a Jedi and fall to the Dark side are the core of the original trilogy. It’s true that Vader isn’t exactly drafting legislation. But through his relationship with the Emperor, we at least get some sense of the grand strategy and personalities guiding the Empire.
By contrast, while Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is technically part of the Rebellion’s political leadership, we meet her when she’s stealing the Death Star plans, and she spends the rest of the original trilogy jaunting around with a space pirate (Harrison Ford’s Han Solo) and a knight-in-training (Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker) because, let’s be honest, that’s where the action is. Mon Mothma (Caroline Blakiston in “Return of the Jedi,” and Genevieve O’Reilly in subsequent live-action outings) hangs around the margins of the “Star Wars” movies along with a number of generals, reminding us that there is actual civilian and military leadership working to build something sturdier in the background.
There are strong narrative reasons to preserve this dynamic: Watching the just and scrappy beat the evil and overwhelming is a lot of fun. And certainly, it’s easier to script a heist or a dogfight for maximum drama than it is to tell a story about forging a coalition government that involves tens of thousands of inhabited planets and inevitable moral compromise. The scenes from the “Star Wars” prequels set in the Galactic Senate didn’t exactly pop, and I can understand why subsequent directors and Kathleen Kennedy, who runs the “Star Wars” franchise, might not be eager to return to the narrative muck of governance.
But it’s odd and annoying for the “Star Wars” movies to contort themselves and repeat old story dynamics to hold onto those dramatic balances even when it might make more sense to try something new. “The Force Awakens,” last year’s “Star Wars” movie, was set decades after “Return of the Jedi” and based on the premise that the Rebellion has established a government and was fighting a still-powerful remnant of the Empire, the First Order. Puzzlingly, New Republic apparently spun off an entire new movement, the Resistance, led by now-General Leia, to fight the First Order, rather than sending out its own army to do so. There is plenty of story potential in holding a movement together and the moments when it strains or fractures; if “Star Wars” had to have Leia leading up a rebellious, marginal organization, why not suggest that she has quit the New Republic over some sort of irreconcilable political difference? Of course, that would require more careful thinking about the New Republic’s politics in the first place.
There are hints of tensions over tactics in “Rogue One,” which is set immediately before the events of “A New Hope.” The movie introduces us to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who was once a member of the Rebel Alliance but left when it decided his methods were too radical. His backstory — as is the case with much in “Rogue One” — is stated rather than shown or meaningfully explored. That’s a shame. Given attention and intelligence, Gerrera and his organization could have been the “Star Wars” universe’s version of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military organization Nelson Mandela founded as an offshoot of the African National Congress to retaliate against the South African government. The Rebel Alliance would be a more interesting organization if it was developed enough so that we could see why anyone with the same goals might object to its strategy and if we saw its leaders grapple with people who had committed atrocities against the Empire.
Instead, in “Rogue One,” we get the semblance of the Rebel Alliance deliberating over a plan to steal the Death Star schematics, only for that decision to be thrown out in favor of whatever leads to another round of air battles and frantic running-around. I like a good dogfight, but preserving this particular balance between the Dark side and the Light will have diminishing returns, just as surely as watching Marvel’s superheroes and villains turn cities to dust has gotten disturbingly wearying.
And beyond the question of repetitive action beats, if the Rebel Alliance never gets the definitive upper hand on the Empire and settles down to become the New Republic, that stasis calls into question whether “Star Wars” is truly an epic. Remaining a perpetual underdog means that Leia never really gets tested as a peacetime leader and that we never really see whether the movement she’s a part of can maintain the moral superiority it gained in wartime once there’s peace, and Luke Skywalker never gets to figure out whether the Jedi Order can be resurrected and find a new role in society. These are critical questions that ought to be at the heart of the “Star Wars” story. And if this conflict never moves toward a resolution, then “Star Wars” isn’t really chronicling an epoch so much as filing dispatches from a stalemate.
The ultimate defeat of the Empire or the First Order as the governing power in the galaxy doesn’t mean that “Star Wars” will lose all possibility of great villains. Instead, the fracturing of a huge military and political bureaucracy would inevitably give rise to new, and potentially more interesting, ones whose plans for dominating the universe don’t always come back to the construction of massive, cylindrical super-weapons with design flaws.
The pulp writers behind the “Star Wars” Expanded Universe, the now-banished books, games and comics that sketched out what happened after “Return of the Jedi,” came up with plenty of possibilities for who might be the New Republic’s next bete noire. Michael Stackpole, who wrote the “Rogue Squadron” books, came up with my favorite: Ysanne Isard, a former lover of Emperor Palpatine’s who almost split the New Republic with a virus that targeted aliens, but not humans, and that could only be cured with a massively costly treatment. A story like that gets at all sorts of terrific questions, including how to hold a coalition government together, how to combat a bio-weapon and what it might have been like to thrive as a woman in the overwhelmingly male Imperial power structure. After all, shouldn’t Tilda Swinton or some equally fabulous woman get to swirl in one of those magnificent Imperial-style capes?
In a similar way, getting beyond the same drama about Jedi Knights falling to the Dark side of the Force and, correspondingly, into Imperial service, would make it possible to tell new stories about the Force itself, one of George Lucas’s greatest fictional inventions.
The sight of Luke Skywalker standing on that island promontory at the end of “The Force Awakens” thrilled me, but there has to be more to the Jedi than dour meditations on the temptations of power. What might it be like if the Jedi Knights were restored and went into law enforcement and government again? How might society and religion change if the order reemerged? What happens to people like Leia, who as we know from “Return of the Jedi” has some nascent power in the Force but as of “The Force Awakens” has chosen not to develop those talents? Again: If you can move things around with your mind, influence other people’s thinking and fight off whole battalions of people aimed with standard weaponry, and the adherents of your movement are spending all their time in hiding, coming out only to conduct occasional duels, how grand is the struggle between the different interpretations of the Force anyway?
Though Hollywood may be losing sight of this fact, the measure of an epic story isn’t how big your production is, how many CGI artists you hire or how many city blocks get destroyed. The real metrics here are big ideas and grand sweeps of time and change. And for the new “Star Wars” movies to be great rather than merely popular, they need to move on to the next phase of this titanic struggle.