– by Han Spinel
In part 1, we established how perspectives from working professionals in the film industry regarding The Last Jedi consciously undoing The Force Awakens were largely met by dismissive fan response. In their defense, I briefly summarized the diversity of The Force Awakens cast, and how it appeared to be set up to explore new grounds in storytelling. Here, I focus specifically on the characters chosen to collectively lead the adventures and events of the Sequel Trilogy some 30 canonical years after Return of the Jedi. I present a case for when and how their unique and diverse story elements, introduced and set up in The Force Awakens, were washed out in favor of the white male lead in The Last Jedi. Previous installments of this series are linked directly below-
The basic structure of this article will briefly review the defining narrative characteristics established for each of Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. I will then focus on a specific creative decision made by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi that consciously undoes many of these narrative elements established in The Force Awakens. Additional examples are provided. In defense of Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s statements regarding The Last Jedi, I conclude that their perspective is not only valid, but should be considered for the overall success of future Star Wars series and trilogies.
Rey in The Force Awakens: The Classical Adolescent Coming of Age Story
“Without ruining the movie I’m gonna tell you that your daughters are gonna be so excited. This character of Rey is, I think, one of the most wonderful heroines to come along in movie history. I mean, she is great. So I think they’re gonna be very happy. They’re gonna have their own Luke Skywalker now. Let’s put it that way.” – Kathleen Kennedy
Indeed, Rey is this generation’s Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens. Rey is a 19 year-old protagonist from humble beginnings, like her fellow adolescent protagonists before her: Anakin the desert boy slave (19 years old in Attack of the Clones), Luke the desert farm boy (19 years old in A New Hope), and now Rey the desert scavenger…GIRL! Yes, the legacy of an ancestral weapon carried by Anakin, the “Chosen One,” and Luke, the Jedi Master, called out to the teenage girl who only moments before believed their stories to be myth and legend.
“Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth!” – Rey
Rey’s backstory was wrapped in mystery in The Force Awakens, but that doesn’t mean her character was void of familiarity. In fact, quite the opposite. Rey offered perhaps the most familiar aspect of the Skywalker Saga, and myths in general:
Like Anakin and Luke, Rey is the Sequel Trilogy’s only lead protagonist specifically designed to tackle the struggle, conflicts, and coming of age from an adolescent perspective.
Many are familiar with Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, and how George Lucas modeled his Star Wars after this monomyth. However, JoseyFish of the SWSC brings up an important distinction – many discussions of the hero’s journey do not highlight why the Hero’s Journey is so common in myths around the world:
“[The Hero’s Journey] is a metaphor for growing up. And in Star Wars, it’s about growing up in relation to your family.” -JoseyFish
She’s right, of course. Rey’s childhood and family are stripped from her, similar to Anakin, who had his childhood sacrificed for the sake of becoming a Jedi. Rey also didn’t grow up knowing her family or its dark past, like Luke, who grew up not knowing his biological parents or the dark legacy hidden from him. In this same vein, Rey was set up to face the pain of discovering the truth of her past (like Luke) all the while tasked with overcoming the anger of adolescence as she became aware of the means by which she was separated from her family (as both Anakin and Luke did). In many ways, Rey had to simultaneously overcome the adolescent struggles of both Anakin and Luke Skywalker.
For the first time in the Skywalker Saga, some forty years in the making, this coming of age theme was being led by and told through the eyes of a young woman. Kylo Ren is 29 years old and a full fledged adult, and like Anakin, his coming of age story from adolescence to adulthood took place prior to the events of The Force Awakens. Poe is even older at 32 years, and also firmly established as an adult. Finn is technically the closest in age to Rey at 23 years old, and as I’ll discuss below, he was designed to share thematic beats with Rey’s coming of age story.
Finn in The Force Awakens: An Awakening on Jakku
The only other character designed to parallel Rey’s journey is Finn. Just like Rey, Finn’s childhood is stolen from him, and just like Luke, Finn has no solid memory of his family:
“Like all of them, I was taken from a family I’ll never know.” – Finn
“I have no memory of my mother.” – Luke Skywalker
Both are introduced wearing literal and symbolic masks – one a remnant and consequence of the old war (Rey), and one a consequence of the new war (Finn). And both must break free of their consequences in order to accept their journey to adventure.
Regarding the Skywalker family, Finn also shares a history similar to Han Solo, an unchosen hero from nowhere who has to make a conscious decision to be narratively good. Unlike Han, who was introduced as a narratively neutral character, Finn’s decision to do good emerges from within the saga’s symbolic armor of evil.
“I made a choice. I wasn’t going to kill for them.” – Finn
And with the Sequel Trilogy complete, we have the advantage of hindsight regarding Finn’s Force powers. Specifically, Finn had a canonical “Awakening on Jakku” in the film entitled The Force Awakens.”
We are also privy to JJ’s intentions that Finn’s origins have largely been overlooked by many, and are central to the story – just as important as Rey’s.
In fact, it appears that Finn’s origins have always been tied to the Force since the beginning. Finn’s Force powers were not only a plot line in original drafts of The Rise of Skywalker, but also filmed. John Boyega confirms this himself below:
And up until this point, any and all moments of each Skywalker Saga installment featuring a one-on-one or two-on-one lightsaber duel is specifically reserved for Jedi protagonists:
Qui-Gon vs. Darth Maul (TPM)
Obi-Wan & Qui-Gon vs. Darth Maul (TPM)
Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett (AotC)
Obi-Wan & Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku (AotC)
Yoda vs. Count Dooku (AotC)
Obi-Wan & Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku (RotS)
Obi-Wan vs. General Grievous (RotS)
Mace Windu vs. Palpatine (RotS)
Yoda vs. Palpatine (RotS)
Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader (RotS)
Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader (ANH)
Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (ESB)
Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (RotJ)
Finn & Rey vs. Kylo Ren (TFA)
Although overlooked by many as JJ Abrams mentions, The Force Awakens clearly established Finn’s “awakening on Jakku” as a tell-tale sign of his Force abilities and potential to become a Force user or Jedi.
Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens: The Antithesis of Anakin’s Redemption
Let’s define Ren’s choice in The Force Awakens for what it was specifically designed to be: Kylo’s murder of Han Solo as the narrative antithesis of Anakin’s redemption.
So what exactly does this mean?
In The Force Awakens, the father attempts to redeem the son, rather than the son attempting to redeem the father as in Return of the Jedi. But this isn’t just about the roles being reversed; we see the narrative trajectory and implications reversed as well. Specifically, instead of the father (Anakin) sacrificing his life to save the son (Luke) and his family from certain death in Return of the Jedi, the son (Ren) sacrifices his bond with his father (Han) and family for the self-righteous pursuit of power in The Force Awakens.
It is well-documented that patricide (murdering one’s father) is a classical element in storytelling that results in a character’s choice to never return to the light; i.e., they are narratively irredeemable for most all intents and purposes. Note also that general audiences are more inclined to forgive evil acts committed off-screen than they are those featured and focused on-screen.
In this way, Ren was established to add diversity to the Skywalker Saga not by representation, but by narrative.
Star Wars is founded on choosing to do good and what’s right in the face of evil:
“Never. I’ll never turn to the Dark side. You’ve failed your highness. I am a Jedi like my father before me.” – Luke Skywalker
In this case, Ren’s specific choice to do evil in the face of one of the foundational pillars of inherent goodness in the Skywalker Saga (Han Solo) was narrative subversion done right. The heinous act was specifically designed to challenge our heroes in previously unexplored ways. Without question, and regardless of whether or not he would ultimately be redeemed in the Sequel Trilogy, Ren was set up to explore new levels of darkness beyond that of our previous villains.
Rey & Finn vs. Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens: Co-Skywalkers vs. the Anti-Skywalker
Finn and Rey’s shared and parallel origin stories are used to establish a powerful and heart-felt bond between the two. They are specifically designed to be two halves of the Sequel Trilogy’s Skywalker protagonist. Rey is unequivocally the lead here based on screen time, but it is Finn that is specifically designed to understand, share in, and lift up Rey’s story like no other character.
For instance, Rey’s story unfolds as she is literally called to the Skywalker Saber – which is used in The Force Awakens as a narrative ancestral weapon. This calling establishes Rey as a chosen one-style of hero:
“That lightsaber was Luke’s and his father’s before him, and now it calls to you!” – Maz Kanata
As an ancestral weapon, those who carry or wield the Skywalker Saber embody and define what it means to be a Skywalker – redefining the legacy in light from its dark history. The saber is a metaphorical story of the Saga’s primary protagonists, and whether or not they will use the power (Force/Saber) they were given for good or evil. The ancestral weapon calling out to Rey therefore further signifies Rey’s connection to and inheritance of the Skywalker family.
Rey initially rejects her call to adventure at Maz’s castle by not accepting the Skywalker saber, which is consistent with the first act of the Hero’s Journey:
In response, Maz Kanata, a Force sensitive Oracle-type, entrusts Finn to carry and wield the ancestral weapon until Rey is ready to accept her calling. Finn is highlighted here as he picks up and defends the Skywalker legacy at a time specifically designed to show that no other hero was chosen, capable of, or willing to do so. Further, this moment for Finn also underscores a generational passing of the torch so to speak – one hero from nowhere (Han) to another (Finn) as Finn is gifted the saber by Maz who could have easily extended the saber to Luke’s best friend and her long-time ally, Han Solo (“Hero from nowhere” being a bit of a misnomer, as every character has some origin, however trivial to the overall narrative). Point being, both Han and Finn originate outside of the Skywalker family, but find family within them.
In this way, The Force Awakens uses the ancestral weapon trope to establish three important narrative lessons about what it takes to be, and what it means to be, a Skywalker:
1) some are specifically called to and inherit the ancestral weapon (e.g. Rey, Luke)
2) the ancestral weapon is bestowed unto or earned by the unchosen hero through virtue of a righteous heart (Finn).
In this way, and paired with their parallel backstories and connections to the Force, Rey and Finn are narratively established as co-protagonists in the Sequel Trilogy.
This concept is reinforced with a third lesson via Kylo Ren’s character: Ren demonstrates what it means to be an anti-Skywalker. Ren is specifically revealed to have a blood-claim to the Skywalker Legacy being the son of Leia, and The Force Awakens intentionally states his arrogant feelings of entitlement:
“That lightsaber. It belongs to me.” – Kylo Ren
Thus, the third lesson:
3) Blood alone is not a narrative pathway to embody what it means to be a Skywalker.
Recall also that prior to asserting his feeling of entitlement, Kylo Ren calls Finn out as a “Traitor!” Finn doesn’t say anything in response – he simply stands to face Ren and ignites the Skywalker blade.
Finn literally says nothing, but his decisions and actions narratively say everything: The Skywalker saber does not belong to Kylo Ren. The story shows us that the saber belongs in the hands of the young man willing to defend its legacy and his new found-family at all costs – just as Luke Skywalker rushed off to do in order to rescue Han and Leia in The Empire Strikes Back.
Further, Finn is not the “traitor” of this story. Indeed, we are shown through several perspectives that it is Ren who is the narrative traitor, both to what his family fought and stands for, and also as the antithesis of Anakin Skywalker’s redemption.
The Force Awakens doubles down on this message in arguably the most iconic moment of the Sequel Trilogy. We witness that even if Ren is able to physically best those who are worthy to wield the Skywalker saber, he cannot physically take back what he’s chosen to narratively throw away. Ren’s heart is not worthy (lesson 2). Here, Ren calls the Skywalker Saber to his grasp, but the Saber itself appears to refuse Ren’s call. We are then witness to why Finn’s sacrifice to defend Rey at all costs is so important to the story – Finn’s choices have sparked Rey’s acceptance of her call to adventure. An exclamation point is added to her mysterious connection to the Force and the Skywalker family as she calls the ancestral weapon to her hand over Kylo Ren.
Not only do Finn and Rey represent a co-protagonist of The Force Awakens, they also each present, by design, narrative foils to our antagonist.
In defense of Brandon and Markey: How The Last Jedi Consciously Undoes The Force Awakens
Now before fully diving in, it is imperative to remember the following: There is literally no canon-redefining moment that takes place in between the last second of The Force Awakens and the first second of The Last Jedi. There has been no time skip, and no extra adventures changing the direction of our character’s personas such as a death or traumatic life events.
So this is how diversity dies… to thunderous applause for Kylo Ren:
“I think Rey and Kylo are almost like a dual protagonist. You identify with Rey, but also you identify with Kylo in a way that you never did with Vader. I know I do. Because if these movies are about adolescence, Kylo is that anger of adolescence and that rejection of the parents, and wanting to screw over your dad; and that’s something that all of us, to some degree, can identify with.” – Rian Johnson.
This creative decision consciously undoes many narrative threads established in The Force Awakens, and it also underscores why The Last Jedi is anything but progressive. Here’s why.
Because if these movies are about adolescence, Kylo is that anger of adolescence
As we’ve discussed above, Star Wars and the hero’s journey are about adolescence, and in Star Wars specifically, also about family. However, Kylo Ren wasn’t designed as a coming of age story, nor was he designed to share the adolescent perspective with our leading teenage girl – Ren is a 29 year old adult white male at the time of The Force Awakens. Ren’s coming of age and adolescent story has already come and gone, and although the precise details are unknown to us at the time of The Force Awakens, we do know that it resulted in his turn to the dark side (akin to Anakin’s coming of age story in the Prequel Trilogy).
It should go without stating, but implanting the 29 year old adult white man into your female-centric coming of age story cuts the legs off of the first-to-Star Wars leading female teenage adolescent perspective that Rey provides in The Force Awakens. Instead of letting Rey’s unique adolescent perspective shine in The Last Jedi, it seems to assert that this female perspective from unknown origins isn’t interesting enough when supported by the black co-protagonist, nor was it strong enough without the assistance of the adult white man.
In hindsight, why was any character other than Rey or Finn used to explore the anger of adolescence? Both stripped of their family and childhood and forced to live in constant fear growing up. Rey – Why did my family leave me on Jakku? Why didn’t they ever come back for me? Can I ever forgive them once I find out the truth? Finn – Is my family dead? Who killed them? Is revenge the answer? Ren’s character was designed to have next to nothing in common with our leading co-protagonists; he grew up under the loving care of well-established narrative heroes and legends in Han and Leia. Again, Rey and Finn collectively present narrative foils to Ren, not just Rey.
So what happens to our black co-protagonist in The Last Jedi? The former child soldier who had his family ripped away from him for the sole purpose of becoming a killing machine is spoon-fed a lecture about the pitfalls of war as it pertains to children. How did The Force Awakens establish this as a narrative lesson Finn was in need of learning? Short answer: it didn’t, and The Last Jedi doing such, consciously undermines Finn’s background.
And the promise of Finn’s Force powers established in The Force Awakens (and corroborated by The Rise of Skywalker)? Finn’s Force plot and “awakening” was turned into comic relief in The Last Jedi. Moreover, removing Leia from the story due to a coma left Finn without any Force-user to learn from as he questioned what he had been feeling since his awakening on Jakku. Thus, Finn’s established connection to the Force is not explored in any detail in The Last Jedi.
All this to say, The Force Awakens unequivocally sets up the adolescent coming of age story to center on Rey, and this is supported by Finn sharing a parallel origin story. The Last Jedi deliberately undoes this by forcing the leading 19 year old female protagonist to share this narrative with the 29 year old, and only white, leading male. This all at the expense of the only leading black male actor, and the character Finn’s connection to the Force.
….but also you identify with Kylo in a way that you never did with Vader. I know I do… that rejection of the parents, and wanting to screw over your dad; and that’s something that all of us, to some degree, can identify with.
Rian Johnson’s ideology indicates that he specifically does, and suggests that we the audience should, identify with Kylo Ren immediately after the events leading to him choosing to murder his father. How can we, the audience, or Rian himself, identify with Ren in a way that we didn’t with Vader? Vader, for instance, fell to the dark side believing it was the only way to save his family – a narratively bad choice rooted in good intentions, and broadly speaking, a much more relatable aspect of storytelling than murdering one’s own father. Indeed, murdering your father is a narratively evil choice rooted in bad intentions – and I would sincerely hope that audiences do not identify with or relate to this aspect of the story.
It is apparent that The Force Awakens used one of the most heinous acts in storytelling on one of the most beloved characters of the entire franchise to position Kylo Ren in a darker space than any other villain to date. It cannot be overstated: with The Last Jedi taking place one second after The Force Awakens, Rian’s perspective of woobifying a 29 year old white male committing cold-blooded patricide to an adolescent boy screwing over his dad clearly undoes a major narrative element of The Force Awakens. For good measure, Johnson is also infamously known for moving Ren’s scar from The Force Awakens for the sole purpose of having it look cooler.
I think Rey and Kylo are almost like a dual protagonist
The Force Awakens firmly established that Rey and Finn are co-protagonists both in the narrative and objectively based on screen time. Both Rey and Finn share, and must overcome, a broken childhood, both must make conscious decisions in order to become the heroes that they were destined to be. Both Rey and Finn embody what it means to be a Skywalker, and both wield the ancestral weapon against the lead antagonist of the story just like every Force-using Jedi protagonist before them. You may be hard pressed to find two characters who comprise a narrative duo of a protagonist more than Rey and Finn. They are, by design, two-halves of the same Skywalker protagonist story built from the broken childhoods of the Prequel- and Original Trilogy protagonists. The Last Jedi erases Finn from this equation.
Lastly, and amidst the movie and direction that suggests we should identify with the antagonist adult white male as our dual protagonist over the black co-protagonist, how is it progressive to feature a little black boy, a little girl, and a light-skinned little boy recounting the heroics of Luke Skywalker, only to feature the light-skinned boy later using the Force?
A proper film critic might point out that this is a rather meta take for a film that saw the regression of its starring female lead and black co-protagonist.
Through a broad lens, The Last Jedi’s story-altering perspective of Kylo Ren not only destroyed the evil narrative built up for this character, it took with it the independence and unique perspective of the franchise’s first female and only adolescent teenage lead. Centering the dual protagonist dynamic between Rey vs. Ren alone (rather than Rey+Finn vs. Ren) sabotaged the Force-plot of the franchise’s first black co-lead. Whether you enjoyed The Last Jedi or not, I hope this offers some insight into why Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey have a valid basis for speaking out publicly against the creative decisions made for The Last Jedi. I hope also that this sheds some light on those who have thus far not understood arguments for why The Last Jedi is not quite the progressive film many claim it to be.
Next, I’ll review the financial costs and repercussions of said decisions in The Last Jedi following the relative and global success of The Force Awakens.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading –