I saw The Last Jedi last week and it certainly defied expectations. In a good way. I think. Star Wars is a franchise that has a history of defying expectations. Vader was Luke’s father. Luke and Leia were twins. The rebel alliance killed scores of blue-collar workers and military personal in near-genocidal numbers not once, but twice by destroying both Death Stars. The prequels defied expectations, too, but maybe that’s where George Lucas went wrong. Fans waited twenty years to see Vader in his prime doing Vadery things to people. Force chokes. Force lightning. Force squish-like-a-bug. They wanted the light-saber-of-all-light-saber battles with Obi Wan and to see baby Luke use the force to breastfeed from across the room.
What they got was Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar Binks, a far-too-young Obi-Wan, and Vader in full regalia for under a minute.
I say “they” because even though I’m a fan too, I don’t make a habit of complaining about the prequels. Frankly, I liked them. They didn’t change my life, but I liked them. And the Jar Jar backlash is silly and overblown. As a storyteller, I have a tremendous sympathy for George Lucas. How often is it that an audience wrests a story from the storyteller because he’s telling it wrong?
But I digress…
As writers, we often make a point to defy expectations, to deliver the big twist, to make our readers say, “Didn’t see that coming!” but sometimes meeting expectations is just as satisfying. There’s a wonderful tension in knowing what’s going to happen, but not knowing how, when, or why.
The best western film of all time is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It’s not opinion, it’s fact, and it’s not up for debate. What I loved about Unforgiven was that you knew lurking deep inside the mild-mannered family man, William Munny, was a straight up psychopath. It was only a matter of time before someone coaxed it out of him, and when they did, oh man. Suddenly you were watching the ghost of a relentless killer resurrected, family and religion be damned. It was magnificent and terrifying and so much scarier than I imagined it would be. Sometimes the magic in story telling isn’t knowing what comes next, but knowing exactly what comes next and not being able to do a damn thing about it.
The Last Jedi, may be history repeating itself. Fans didn’t get what was expected. We were basically told that all the questions we’ve been asking since the release of The Force Awakens were irrelevant. Ouch! The difference is that the outcome of the prequels was preordained, we already knew what was ultimately going to happen, but this time, it’s uncharted territory. We simply don’t know what the galaxy far, far away looks like after the Skywalker saga closes.
It could be that Episode IX will give fans what they want, that Episode VIII was a misdirect, but if my assessment of The Last Jedi is correct, they’re doing something far more fascinating: subverting Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Everyone knows George Lucas was heavily influenced by the hero’s journey in his creation of the original trilogy, but what if this time around, a fatal flaw of that classic journey is exposed? That for once, someone makes it a point to demonstrate that the galaxy isn’t made more balanced and peaceful by outsized heroes and villains, but by everyday people who were right there by the hero’s side before the journey ever began.
Now that would be unexpected! What do you think?