Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
*Warning: Contains spoilers but is a very good article so read it anyway.*
I walked out of J. J. Abrams’s The Rise of Skywalker satisfied and emotional, but my satisfaction was the buzz of having consumed an exciting movie extravaganza, and my emotions were far too shallow for the finale of a nine-part epic story dating back to my childhood. In other words, both were fleeting. What lingered was a discomfort I’ve had about the new Star Wars trilogy since I saw the first movie, The Force Awakens, back in 2015—a discomfort borne out of a sense that the narrative arc I had just been introduced to lacked storytelling cohesion, metanarrative vision, and the ability to tie together both old and new in an original way. In short, in 2015 I was concerned that Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy already evidenced engineering flaws—I already looked ahead to the end and worried that while it might be enjoyable, I would not be able to call it, as a whole, a good story.
This past December’s The Rise of Skywalker was the end not only of a trilogy, but also of a nine-film story saga, and when we think about such a story, we should remember that they—whoever the ultimate decision makers are—declared this to be the Skywalker Saga. Such a declaration carries a weight of expectations. Expectations are not bad in this scenario, because in a serialized story, the writers should know where they are going and what they want to do with it, and most importantly how it is going to end. If they don’t know how it is going to end, they don’t know what story they are telling. More importantly, they don’t know whose story or stories they are telling, as character development is always inextricably linked with plot development in an epic of this scale. For example, how can they say they are continuing the Skywalker Saga if they haven’t yet decided whether or not their main character, Rey, is a Skywalker—or how or if she is connected to the Skywalkers in any sort of tangible way? Large decisions such as these should not be left up to the interpretations of the directors of the individual films because they drive the plot.
Creative license is a false freedom when not enough boundaries are established.Knowing the story one wants to tell is crucial because it provides direction to the writers and directors. Know it, plan it, tell it. It is as simple as that, but also intricate and difficult, because with any epic tale, there are a thousand moving pieces. When I first heard each movie in the new Star Wars trilogy would have a different director (a plan that ultimately fell through, allowing Abrams to direct two installments), I was extremely concerned that would cause problems. But changing directors (changing writers, even) doesn’t need to cause inconsistency in storytelling. Each of the three films in the original trilogy had a different director. And the eight episodes of Disney+’s The Mandalorian boasts five different directors, yet maintains story vision and overall consistency—despite a few episodic lulls. Disney is capable of overseeing an epic multi-director storytelling project, as their ownership of Kevin Feige’s massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe with the just-concluded 23-movie Infinity Saga proves. What such a project with so many moving parts and people needs is clear direction and vision, as George Lucas provided for the first six films (say what you will about the quality of the prequels, they do at least tell a cohesive story).
With the new trilogy of the Skywalker Saga, however, it felt as though someone somewhere in Disney (perhaps many people) decided on a vague direction—Let’s tell another story about more Skywalkers!—and left it there without any clear idea or vision of where to take the story next, handing it then off to J. J. Abrams to do with as he wanted. But creative license is a false freedom when not enough boundaries are established—whether they are boundaries the creator establishes for himself or boundaries a producer or visionary or someone standing above the project who can see where it needs to go sets for him.
This is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful with Kevin Feige at its helm, despite so many writers and directors being brought on over the years. For well over a decade Feige has had a clear vision for the Marvel “phases,” how they all tie together, and where they are going. All writers and directors in the MCU have to adhere to Feige’s vision, or they don’t work for Marvel—but each also is given artistic license to produce films that look and feel very much like their own brand within the metanarrative. Doctor Strange is very much a Scott Derrickson film, but also an inextricable part of the Infinity Saga, as Black Panther is a Ryan Coogler film, and Iron Man 3 a Shane Black film. They bear the stamp both of their makers and of the overarching story to which they contribute. It’s a tricky balance to meet, but not an impossible one when clear direction is provided and everyone works together rather than struggles against each other.
Too little direction leads to too few boundaries, and when there is insufficient metanarrative vision laid out before a work begins, cracks will eventually show. Sometimes early, sometimes late. You can’t build a house on a faulty or insufficient foundation—it might end up looking pretty, and there might even be some really good work done on and in the house, but it won’t hold up to inspection, and it might even fall down. This is, in my mind, what happened with the final trilogy of the Skywalker Saga.
In one fell swoop, Disney brushed aside the happy ending of our youth in a franchise money-grab, and it was the first storytelling blunder in a long line of missteps.These sorts of structural engineering problems are bad in storytelling when a story is being authored, written, or created by a single person—they are devastating on a collaborative project of the scope and size of Star Wars. What it can lead to is a tug-of-war between storytellers and competing visions for the story. What I expected and hoped for when the new trilogy was announced was a carefully plotted story that fit seamlessly as an extension of the original trilogy. What we got was a money grab in the shape of an improvisation performance, and it was not even a good example of how to carry out improv. Disney displayed an inability to approach the new trilogy with a plan that allowed the directors to say, “Yes, and” with each installment. This is not to say that each of the individual movies do not have merits on their own, but from a collaborative serial storytelling perspective, the issue was never really whether or not any of them are good movies on their own. When a story is supposed to be acting in tandem with another story, the quality of the individual tale must be weighed in accordance with how it fits with the others. It doesn’t belong only to itself. Rather than giving us a Skywalker Saga that carried on the story of the Skywalker line in a logical progression, what we were given instead was an improv project where each collaborator ultimately failed to “Yes, and,” instead opting for “Well, actually.” But they should never have been given the space to do that in the first place.
The cracks in the storytelling foundation showed almost right away, revealing Disney’s lack of metanarrative foresight with this particular project—no matter what J. J. Abrams might have had in mind. The Force Awakens stumbles off the blocks by undoing everything that had been achieved in Return of the Jedi, thus setting up a new story premise that had very little ground to tread other than the same old ground over again. In an attempt to make it feel new, Abrams and his team tweaked a few things here and there—instead of an orphaned farm boy, we have an orphaned scavenger girl! Instead of a Death Star, we have Starkiller Base! Instead of the Empire, we have the First Order!—but told essentially the same story as A New Hope.
The Force Awakens also errs in how it never seriously examines the problem of evil in its universe, or the reversal of the hard fought and hard won victory of Return of the Jedi. In retreading the old story plot, it underdevelops the premise for the main conflicts of the new story. We’re asked to accept that despite the fact that Emperor Palpatine has been destroyed and Darth Vader redeemed, and the Death Star once again blown to smithereens—despite everything our heroes went through and achieved—within their children’s generation another evil power has arisen that is evidently more powerful than the Empire ever was, that there are more storm troopers everywhere, a bigger and badder Death Star-like weapon, a scarier emperor-like villain, that Luke has abandoned training any Jedi and disappeared, that the new Republic are basically just rebels again, that Leia and Han are not together anymore, and their only child has become a Sith.
Well, the story seems to say, at least they tried. Once more—with bigger guns.
None of this is ever adequately explained as to how it happened; we’re just expected to accept that it has. In one fell swoop, Disney brushed aside the happy ending of our youth in a franchise money-grab, and it was the first storytelling blunder in a long line of missteps.
When Rey finds Luke at the end of The Force Awakens and offers him back his lightsaber, I—along with Star Wars fans everywhere—held my breath, wondering what J. J. Abrams and the Storytelling Minds at Disney had planned for the next chapter in the new trilogy. As it turned out, however, the offering of the lightsaber was a true handing off of the baton. Abrams had ideas of his own, surely, but he wasn’t making the next movie and thus didn’t really know or have the authority to determine the next steps—and there wasn’t any set plan dictating where such aspects of the story had to go. Rian Johnson was next to take the helm, and he could, essentially, take that baton and do anything he wanted with it.
Formulaic storytelling, done properly, sets writers free to tell stories heavy with age-old wisdom and truth.And so Luke Skywalker tossed the lightsaber away. It was a bold character decision—one still hotly debated by fans, and one of a number of controversial plot and character decisions made by Johnson that makes The Last Jedi the most divisive Star Wars film of them all. I have no interest in starting any debates about the quality of The Last Jedi or its standing in the Star Wars universe in this article, but I will say that merely being a good film or story and having—as my friend and fellow Christ and Pop Culture writer Luke T. Harrington likes to say of it—something “on its mind” does not necessarily make it flow cohesively with the film that came before it, nor the one that comes after. And I don’t blame Johnson for this, or Abrams, but Luke Skywalker tossing his lightsaber away in The Last Jedi becomes an apropos symbol for the storytelling method of the entire trilogy. None of us will ever know exactly what went on behind closed doors at Disney, but what communicates onto the screen is a tug-of-war—a sense that the metanarrative was being made up as they went along, that nobody really knew where the big story was going or why. Some people are able to set these sorts of issues aside and simply enjoy each individual movie for what it is, but I struggle to look past such things.
So I went into the theater to see The Rise of Skywalker with extremely low expectations. I knew the studio hadn’t planned the ending from the beginning and that Abrams’s vision differed from Johnson’s. I hoped merely to watch some space wizards and to maybe, possibly, attempt to turn my brain off for two-and-a-half hours. I expected and hoped for redemption in the third act for characters I had grown mildly attached to. But even these hopes were a bit too high because things like redemption have to be earned, and a splash of emotion and satisfaction in the moment can be engineered if the director generates enough light and action to turn your attention away from the man behind the curtain.
But The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t earn its third act. If story creators don’t know what the end of their story is, then they can’t know how to get there. They can’t build in foreshadowing—such as the return of Palpatine or Rey’s actual lineage. Subplots and side characters get dropped when late decisions are made—such as Rose Tico’s virtual disappearance from the final film and whatever happened between her and Finn in The Last Jedi. New characters and late elements must be introduced to make things work and to squeeze things into an already established mold, and tension in the plot must be engineered rather than emerging organically from two previous films worth of story development. This process is called retconning. What should flow (and resolve) seamlessly feels more and more contrived, and the audience must be asked to just accept certain things because they must exist or the story can’t end.
Retconning is not the same thing, however, as adhering to established storytelling structures and formulas. I’ve heard some feedback on The Rise of Skywalker that it fails because Abrams adhered too rigidly to formula. But storytelling formulas do not by any means have to spoil our expectations of what is coming in a story, force the writers to do certain things in certain places, or twist the plot into unnatural contortions—quite the opposite.
A good story told poorly will never effectively champion its themes, no matter how righteous those themes may be.Formulaic storytelling, done properly, sets writers free to tell stories heavy with age-old wisdom and truth. Harry Potter, for example, held millions of readers captive through J. K. Rowling’s use of storytelling formulas, allowing her to tell a story both old and new. An able storyteller utilizing a structure that demands redemption in the third act, for example, crafts the story in such a way that even though we are almost certain it will happen, we are simultaneously equal parts uncertain. Our experience becomes like Schrodinger’s Cat: simultaneously dead and alive. Existing in as much a state of surety and unsurety as the hero himself until the moment of eucatastrophic victory. It doesn’t matter that every Hero’s Journey ends the same way—a writer who is skilled at their craft should be able to sweep us away so that we are surprised again and again by an ending—a return, a redemption, a sacrifice—we’ve seen a hundred times, a thousand times, before. And very few epic stories in the film world are as formulaic as the original Star Wars trilogy, which is as tight a Hero’s Journey example as if Joseph Campbell had written it himself. A good formulaic story gives writers a means for their characters to earn their final act redemptions. “I am a Jedi, like my Father before me.” Luke Skywalker refusing to give in to the dark side at the end of Return of the Jedi is a powerfully earned character moment because of strict adherence to formula.
Formulas are not the problem with The Rise of Skywalker, but we might say lack of formulaic vision for the whole trilogy contributed to problems within the final film, lessening the impact of what could have otherwise been powerful moments.
Although good things were done with each movie when taken individually, the trilogy as a whole fails as a metanarrative for lack of planning. Did the executives at Disney know what story they wanted to tell? Should executives really be the ones making such decisions? I have no doubt Abrams and Johnson each had visions for their individual installments, but without a unifying and clear vision to tie them together, neither of their visions could ever fully work as installments in a trilogy, which furthermore led to a failure to effectively champion what are otherwise good (and timeless) themes such as the triumph of good over evil, redemption, failure and loss, and self-sacrifice.
It would be silly of me to try and claim that this trilogy has been a failure on all levels. Pragmatically, it has made hundreds of millions of dollars. It has brought joy to millions of people, and it has continued the joy of the Star Wars experience into a new generation. I myself have quite enjoyed aspects of it as I am predisposed to love all things Star Wars—I’m even far less fussy about the prequels than most people are. But I will always believe we should study stories critically, as well, aside from our enjoyment of them, and that good storytelling enriches us all and bad storytelling culturally impedes us. A good story told poorly will never effectively champion its themes, no matter how righteous those themes may be. Rey and Ben’s triumph over Palpatine at the end of The Rise of Skywalker feels amazing in the moment, but rings hollow over time if one realizes that Palpatine was retconned into the story to fill the role of “Big Bad Guy” simply because Ben needed a worse evil than himself to defeat once he turned good. If Palpatine had been the looming evil all along, imagine how much more powerful that defeat would have been?
Imagine what could have been if Abrams and Johnson had been given clear parameters about who Rey was, what form Ben Solo’s redemption should take, and what role the adults in their lives should play. Rather than the tension in the new trilogy feeling like something external, as a battle between competing directors and creative visions, it could have been written into the story from the beginning—grown from the talents of two men working together to produce a unique tale carrying on the story of the Skywalker line. That might have been a story I would feel comfortable calling good.