Why ‘Star Wars’ Needs to Forget About the Emperor

May 4, 2019
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Features, Film

Talking about what would make Star Wars better invariably leads to the problem that this series means a lot of things to a lot of people. In order to even approach the subject that I’ve brought up in the title of this article, I need to explain my view of what Star Wars was and is so that I can fully explain what I think it needs. Realize that I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love the idea of Star Wars. But that doesn’t mean that I think it’s perfect.

Star Wars was an adventure film, an Arthurian legend buffed up with the appearance of space technology. It’s Dune with action figures. It’s inspired by samurai movies and the old epics and Leone’s Westerns and a bunch of things that aren’t science fiction. Most of all, it’s in love with Flash Gordon, the swashbuckling serial from the 1930s that featured a strongman hero rescuing a princess from the emperor of the universe. When George Lucas set out to make this movie, he wanted to make Flash Gordon and couldn’t secure the rights. What he made instead is as close to it as he could legally get. It is styled after his own childhood. But I think that it exceeds its inspirations to become a universe that stands up on its own.

And the reason for that is probably The Empire Strikes Back: it transgresses everything the original film stood for in order to expand it. It takes a Flash Gordon fan-film and gives it its own lore. I’m not sure if most people realize this even today. When Yoda says, “Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things,” he’s condemning not only Luke’s behavior but the essence of the first film, and what it meant to us. Empire takes the expectation that we’re on another adventure with our stalwart hero and subverts it: as Luke expects a “great warrior” to be imposing, and finds little Yoda instead as a symbolic representation of the non-physical nature of the Force, we expected the sequel to support our desire for more Star Wars rather than question it.

From this point on, the Force is bigger than saving a princess, defeating a bad guy, and destroying a superweapon: the Force is enlightenment and universe-awareness. Yoda is telling the series to grow up. This is not a common thing for a sequel to do, and I don’t underestimate the task of concluding a series of space adventures with a sequel to a film that re-examines its entire mythology in this way. This is where things get problematic.

And that’s because Return of the Jedi reverses the subversion of Empire part-way, to be closer to the original film. It re-establishes the value of being a strong hero, going on adventures, and saving princesses: all of the things that Yoda enlightened us about not obsessing over so much. It tries to turn Luke into a mature version of his original idea of himself and tries to ignore the complication of the discoveries that we made with Yoda on Dagobah. The result is that the concept of bringing “balance” to the Force doesn’t make a lot of sense since Return of the Jedi interprets this as killing or converting all of the villains until only the Light Side remains. This isn’t the concept of universal duality, or the Yin/Yang: it’s the space adventurer’s desire to kill the big bad guy merely called “balance.” It’s the script making its ambitions look good on its resume by adding in a buzzword.

Remember that Yoda didn’t want Luke to face Vader in Empire; that was not required to save the universe if he even believed such a thing were possible. He didn’t instruct him in how to use a lightsaber and he didn’t have one himself: once you become enlightened, you seem to not need those things anymore. Luke went into the cave to discover how his character flaws would influence his future; despite Yoda’s warning, he took his weapons with him (he took in his ambition to be a hero, his desire to preserve his material self). Imagine that Return of the Jedi is the cave. The mythos had to step into it and discover what its future would look like, and it was the writer’s responsibility to make sure that it left its weapons behind. The fact that it didn’t is where all the problems with Star Wars began. This is the moment that the series failed to be enlightened by its own ideas.

The beginning of Return of the Jedi features Luke using his lightsaber and his cunning to save a princess: this is what he imagined he’d be doing as a Jedi all the way back when Obi-Wan gave him the lightsaber. It’s also what Yoda told him to outgrow. Then the movie discovers the existence of another Death Star, the weapon that Luke destroyed to prove he was a great space adventurer. This is the script, and therefore the imagination at work in the series’ universe, defaulting back to its original conflicts. It doesn’t go all the way back – Luke doesn’t fly the ship against the Death Star this time and instead fights a battle for the universe’s spirit, which is the movie’s best idea. But Jedi doesn’t know what this means in terms of Empire’s new information: if it did, there wouldn’t be a speeder-bike chase, a wacky adventure with Teddy bear soldiers, or a princess captive in a sparkly bra. It wouldn’t imagine the two sides of good and evil as a ragtag team of good guys against one improbably evil villain, which sounds an awful lot like an adventure serial.

And as a result, the only thing it thinks will add drama, the only construct that makes sense as a compromise between what we learned about discovering the evil in ourselves and what we already used to know about defeating big bad guys, is to introduce the biggest bad guy in the universe. This is where we get to the Emperor.

Of course, the Emperor was introduced briefly in Empire, but at that point, we didn’t know what his purpose was or how the story would approach him. And yet, even his introduction makes a few things just a little less clear, such as the Imperial commanders’ flippant criticism of Vader’s faith in the previous film, despite the fact that the entire Empire is apparently ruled by a religious figure (I’m thinking of lines like, “Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you”). I’m not really concerned about details like that. What’s troubling is that Return of the Jedi takes us all the way back to Flash Gordon with the final conflict against the ultimate evil. This was never the best place for Star Wars to go.

If we ignore all of the extended canon (which Disney has demanded that we do) and look only at the movies, what does Emperor Palpatine represent? At the end of the original trilogy, he seems to be the source of the Sith, whereas before him it was like a looming, ancient evil that was harder to define and much more threatening. In Empire, the Dark Side represented doubt and fear and flaw: it was succumbing to the parts of yourself that you can’t outgrow; it was causing death and pain when the motivation is flawed, even when the intention is good. To any normal moviegoer that doesn’t read the books or think about it more than they have to, the Emperor simplifies the Dark Side to a digestible constant: the pursuit of the hero defeating the enemy. When Vader says to an Imperial lackey in the original film, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force,” the last thing I would have expected, two movies later, was for his master to be so obsessed with rebuilding the Death Star.

Ian McDiarmid does a wonderful job with what he’s given. But I want to ask: what exactly was he given? The Emperor is a schlocky kind of villain, the kind that has an evil laugh and announces his big plans in monologues, and isn’t nearly as scary as the fear that a good man like Anakin could be seduced by his own desires into becoming evil. This does kind of happen in the prequels – it seems to be the intention – but it also seems just as applicable to say that he was seduced by an evil man into becoming evil.

The prequels obsessed over Palpatine, further reinforcing that the only problem with this universe is this one man. This denies moviegoers the broader understanding of what it means to balance the Force, to be enlightened, to become a Jedi, or to fall to the Sith. Some would argue that Anakin’s character flaws are set up to prepare him for his fall, but most people only saw an evil man seduce a vulnerable one. It is never entirely clear what makes Anakin susceptible to desire power other than the Emperor’s influence, and as a result, the villain that worked in the original trilogy now does not: Darth Vader made more sense when we knew less about him. All we knew before was that he was a good man; now, even that one thing isn’t clear.

Imagine a version of Return of the Jedi without the Emperor: Darth Vader leading a fragmented Imperial navy against the Rebels, confronting his son, and dying an enlightened man. No Death Star, no Ewoks, no Bond villain monologues. Most importantly, the Dark Side would remain a creeping, universal darkness rather than one person’s ill-defined scheme to conquer the material universe. Defeating it would center entirely on the spiritual aspect of Anakin’s journey and not at all on uncovering a villain’s convoluted plan to destroy Rebels, or using Teddy bears to defeat his Nazis. The Emperor confuses the issue by putting a face and a “scheme” to the ultimate evil, but with Darth Vader as its example, Star Wars has always asserted that this evil is within ourselves. Anakin’s sins used to seem like failures of his own goodness, and now armed with all the movies, most people would say that no sin seems to be as heinous as his support of the wrong political party. The addition of the Emperor even makes Luke’s role in the universe more or less extra. If defeating him is what really matters, the Emperor would have blown up with Vader even if Luke had never been there. After destroying the first Death Star, Luke’s part in the broader plot of Star Wars was not technically needed.

This brings me to today. The Disney trilogy introduced a new evil emperor in the form of Snoke as quickly as possible, in order to emulate old conflicts. They gave him a new Death Star for the scrappy heroes to destroy and emphasized how much bigger this one was. And then they took him out of the picture after realizing that the new trilogy was heading down the same path as its predecessor. This is, at least, what I assumed. Having no evil emperor, I had hoped, would give us a chance to focus on characters rather than tired action movie plots. And now, with a fresh slate, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker got its confirmed title and its first trailer. At the end, the characters look out at the ruins of the second Death Star and a voiceover reads, “No one’s ever really gone.” Cut to black. We hear Ian McDiarmid’s evil laugh. The original Emperor is back.

This is now the ultimate reduction of the Star Wars saga to the issues at play in an episode of Flash Gordon. This is taking all of its ambition to have grey morals, to enlighten us, to build a mythos, and compressing it down to the conflict between stalwart heroes and one big villain. In other words, this is the final destruction of The Empire Strikes Back. We have never known anything about the Emperor other than the fact that he’s evil; none of the prequels delved into his character in any way that engenders sympathy, understanding, or motivation. He’s just evil. Despite the fact that the characters learned in The Last Jedi that the same money funds the Resistance and the First Order, that the two sides aren’t what we’ve always thought they were, that Light and Dark factor into the same balanced Force, the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker sets up a band of heroes saving the galaxy from the ultimate evil. Sound familiar?

If you still have doubts, consider this: what matters in Star Wars, what stakes could there possibly be, if anyone can come back whenever the marketing requires it? If the Emperor was truly an incredible addition to the story, then wouldn’t he have been more effective as a twist? Spoiling plot details of Avengers: Endgame is making Twitter explode with rage. What about Star Wars spoilers? The Emperor’s laugh in the trailer is a spoiler thirty-six years in the making. It’s not in there to impress and excite you; otherwise, it would have been an amazing reveal in the actual film (just imagine the response in the theater). Everyone would have cheered, and I would have had to include in this article an explanation of why I didn’t. But Disney made it so that I don’t have to work that hard, by putting the Emperor in the movie not as an incredible reveal but in the trailer to bait us to see a conflict that we recognize and which will bring us a recognizable pleasure to experience again. Disney thinks we deserve it, after the disappointing reaction to The Last Jedi. They’re using this character for the feelings we have for him. He’s the ice cream your mom promised after your visit to the dentist.

This is not a judgment on the quality of The Rise of Skywalker. It may be filmed beautifully and exquisitely acted; it may hit all the right emotional notes for a conclusion to a saga that’s been going on since 1977 (or, possibly, since 1934). But the presence of the Emperor and his cheesy introduction in a reveal trailer proves to me that it will not be better on a story level than the series has been thus far: it will default, as it always has, on recognizable elements in order to simplify difficult issues down to the level of an action blockbuster. It’s not impossible for them to find poetry even in this repeated conflict. But I don’t think they have any idea what Yoda was saying all those years ago. He was trying to tell us that we don’t always know what we want, that sometimes enlightenment requires us to be disappointed. The raving, and the crying gifs, and the exclamation emojis, and the reaction videos, over the laughter of an outdated villain from a movie that didn’t know what else to do other than default to its ancient inspirations, proves that we still have a lot to learn, if any of us Star Wars fans ever hope to become Jedi.

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