– by Han Spinel
Recently, The Force Awakens editors, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, spoke publicly about their unhappiness with The Last Jedi, going so far as to state that Rian Johnson consciously undid story elements set up in The Force Awakens. In response, some fans are asserting that these statements by professional film editors working directly on The Force Awakens were somehow rooted in head canon disappointment (Forbes), or that The Force Awakens didn’t make any creative decisions to begin with, and as a result it offered nothing to be undone by a second installment.
Fan responses such as these ignore and discount the validity of Brandon and Markey, two professional women working directly on the films. Rather than accept a professional perspective that the hard work put into The Force Awakens may not only have been mishandled, but “consciously undone,” the above articles place blame on the audience’s perception (as if we are also unable to legitimately and independently come to a similar conclusion without bias), or The Force Awakens and filmmakers themselves.
Instead of rejecting Brandon and Markey’s statements as conjecture, this short series accepts their professional opinion, reevaluates the creative decisions made in The Force Awakens regarding character introductions and implications to the story, and tries to gain a better understanding of their statements. Following, one can examine and assess what exactly, if anything, was undone by The Last Jedi. In so doing, a deeper and broader perspective of the creative process is (hopefully) obtained and may shed light as to why the sequel to The Force Awakens has been met with polarizing reviews.
The Force Awakens: Your New Star Wars is Diverse and Colorful
The Force Awakens (TFA) opened with and was led by the most diverse cast in any trilogy installment: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are objectively the franchise’s first female-lead protagonist and first black-lead co-protagonist, respectively. In addition to fronting almost all media and advertising for The Force Awakens:
Rey and Finn clearly dominated screen time at ~45 and ~35 min, respectively. For reference, Kylo Ren had ~23 min, BB-8 with ~14 min, Poe Dameron ~9 min, and Maz Kanata (played by Lupita Nyong’o) at ~6 min. And although Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) had less than 10 minutes of screen time in The Force Awakens, he won over fans for his positivity, selflessness, and departure from latinx characters typically stereotyped as unintelligent, aggressive, or sexual (a.k.a. “latin lover”). Instead, Poe was portrayed as a man willing to help anyone at any time. And the only “latin love” in his life appeared to be a simple and pure friendship with his best ball droid, BB-8.
Rey and Finn were both billed with equally mysterious backstories. Most notably, both of their last names were intentionally being kept from the public record for storytelling purposes. JJ Abrams himself doubled-down on this eventual reveal during the lead up to The Rise of Skywalker for both Rey and Finn.
Unlike Rey and Finn, our leading villain had no hidden origin story, for he was none other than the fallen son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. Stating the obvious: Adam Driver does not check the diversity box in casting as a white male lead. However, and as I’ll discuss further in part II, Ren’s character added new narratives to the Saga. Kylo introduces himself firmly established in darkness as a Master of the Knights of Ren. He immediately slashes down a defenseless and old family friend, and by the end of TFA, Ren demonstrates what evil awaited Luke Skywalker had he chosen to kill his father in Return of the Jedi.
All in all, The Force Awakens appeared to make a bold statement that moving forward, our beloved Star Wars franchise would be led into the unknown with a cast that reflected the diversity shaping our society (Rey, Finn, Poe). It also sought to break new grounds in tragic and villainous storytelling (the fallen son of beloved war heroes from the Original Trilogy). It feared not having a female lead-protagonist walk the Skywalker path, and dared further to blend this story with an unchosen hero from nowhere led by a black man. It presented latino men in a heroic and positive light contrary to common stereotypes, and literally flipped the script of redemption on its head with Kylo Ren murdering his father.
For any of its faults of drifting too close to the Original Trilogy storylines, Perhaps Mark Hamill said it best:
“Real sets. Practical effects. You’ve been here, but you don’t know this story. Nothing’s changed, really. I mean everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. That’s the way you want it to be…” – Mark Hamill, Behind the Scenes of The Force Awakens
In part 2 of this analysis, I’ll dig deeper into character aspects designed specifically for Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. I will then highlight the precise creative decision from The Last Jedi that consciously, and very nearly single-handedly, undoes many of these character’s specific story elements introduced in The Force Awakens. Spoiler Alert: it’s not about subverting head canon….
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.