Hope and Heroism in The Last Jedi

last jedi poster

Source: StarWars.com

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! PROCEED WITH CAUTION! 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is many things. It’s surprising. It’s emotional. It’s visually stunning. It’s challenging. And at its heart, it’s deeply, profoundly, and unashamedly hopeful.

Star Wars has always been a story about hope—who embodies it, how it spreads, and what happens to those who lose it. In this way, it’s perhaps our most cherished piece of uniquely American mythology. For generations now, people have seen reflections of our collective national fears and aspirations in this saga, and they’ve found hope in this story that has now been passed on for more than 40 years. And that’s what myths are. They’re the stories we tell ourselves to get through the darkest nights, to inspire us to keep going, and to help us believe that heroes exist and maybe even exist inside of us.

In the eyes of some people, The Last Jedi takes that mythology and smashes it—making heroes fall and hope shrink. However, those eyes are trained on the past, and The Last Jedi is a story about the past giving way to the future and old heroes passing the torch to new ones. It doesn’t destroy the Star Wars mythology that’s been passed down since 1977; it expands it. And in doing so, it provides us with a new message of hope that is deeply important for the world we’re living in:

You don’t have to look like a traditional hero to be a hero. You don’t have to be born into greatness to do great things. Your worth isn’t determined by other people’s expectations; every person has value, and everyone’s journey can be a hero’s journey.

The heroes of The Last Jedi don’t look like the heroes we’re used to, and that’s the point. They’re people of color, they’re women, and some of them are middle-aged. The very young, very white, very male Luke Skywalker of A New Hope—who comes to learn that his father was “the Chosen One”—is no longer the driving force of this story. He’s still part of it, but he’s older now. As Yoda tells him in the film, he is what the next generation has to grow beyond. And this film allows the next generation of Star Wars heroes to begin to grow beyond him.

Luke—along with Leia and Han Solo—represented the traditional mold of heroes when they first appeared onscreen. (Although respect must be paid to the fact that Leia was equal to—and perhaps even more heroic at times than—her male counterparts.) They were all gifted in some way. Han made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Leia was a diplomatic prodigy, a Rebel leader, and part of the same powerful bloodline as her brother. And Luke was known for his piloting skills before even leaving Tatooine, to say nothing of his family connection to the Force.

In The Last Jedi, this idea that all heroes are gifted in some way is directly challenged by Rose and Finn. Although Finn was a Stormtrooper (and maybe there’s still something to the fact that he wielded a lightsaber in The Force Awakens), the point is made multiple times that he was actually a sanitation worker. But instead of that being something to be ashamed of as it would be in some narratives, it’s shown to be a strength. He uses that seemingly ordinary background to help the Resistance more than once. And Rose isn’t her sister Paige; she’s not a heroic bomber. She’s a mechanic. She represents the everywoman in this story, and that’s why she’s so important.

Rose doesn’t use the Force. She’s not a typical Star Wars hero. She has a normal job, she gets tongue-tied when talking to someone she admires, and she comes from a small mining planet. She’s also played by an Asian woman, which in and of itself is a big step forward for the face of heroes in this universe. In most other movies, someone like Rose would be relegated to the background unless some revealing twist about her identity came to light. But in The Last Jedi, the everywoman gets to be a hero not by discovering some part of herself she never knew existed but by owning the parts of herself that have always been there. She seems smart and good with machines and numbers, but that’s not why she matters. She matters because she has perhaps the biggest heart in the film. She matters because she’s a normal person without any special powers who just wants to do the right thing and protect those who need it. She matters because she’s a reminder to all of us normal, non-Force-sensitive women that heroism isn’t about fighting against bad guys; it’s about fighting for what you love. The bravest heroes are normal people who take a stand, and Rose never stopped standing up for what mattered to her.

Rose’s inherent sense of right and wrong—coupled with her inherent warmth and kindness—made her the spark that lit the flame of the Resistance in places far from its home base. Leia’s signal might not have worked, but in a small yet significant way, Rose’s did—another passing of the torch from one hero to another—even if no one knows it yet. Her gentle kindness toward the children on Canto Bight showed them what the Resistance is—a light of hope for those in the galaxy who need it most. Her empathy and compassion inspired those children to hope, and it’s so important that it’s her Resistance ring that the little boy is wearing at the end of the film. The Resistance isn’t just made up of hotshot pilots, Rebel princesses, and Force users; it’s made up of ordinary people who believe in fighting for those who are oppressed, and thanks to Rose, the idea that everyone can make a difference in a movement like the Resistance no longer feels like a catchy but ultimately hollow slogan—it feels like the truth.

Rose’s existence also highlights one of the most unique parts of this new generation of Star Wars films: They’re filled with women. Women are doctors, pilots, mechanics, captains, and—most importantly—leaders. In The Last Jedi, the Resistance leadership is almost all female, and the two leaders who are most prominent are both middle-aged women: General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. These two women aren’t just figureheads, either. They shoot blasters, use the Force, pilot ships, and command with confidence. And when a well-meaning but hotheaded young man (aka Poe Dameron) disobeys their orders; he doesn’t turn out to be right all along. He turns out to be wrong, and as such, the film never undermines its female characters for the sake of making the male character the hero. It’s the male character who has to learn from his failures in this story, and it’s the older women who’ve already learned from decades of failures who are actually treated as figures worthy of respect and of the legends whispered about them in hushed tones.

This is especially true of Holdo’s arc in the film. (I could write another billion words about Leia, but I’ll save that for another time.) She isn’t the prototypical action heroine. As already stated, she’s older, but that’s not why Poe remarks that she’s not what he expected. It’s her purple hair, jewelry, slinky dress, and soft tone of voice—her femininity—that defy convention in terms of what a female commander “should” look like. In so many action movies, a woman who looks, speaks, and acts like Holdo would be exactly who Poe thinks she is—a coward at best and a traitor at worst. However, Rian Johnson’s goal in this film was to challenge his characters’ expectations of heroism and our own, so Holdo ends up being one of the film’s bravest characters and biggest heroes. Her sacrifice required nerves of steel and the kind of inner strength few possess, and she did it while looking gloriously, unapologetically feminine. As Leia said, she was more concerned with protecting the light than looking like a hero—but if this movie taught us anything, it’s that the most heroic people are often the ones who look like nothing like what we expect.

And that brings us to Rey’s journey in the film. Even before The Force Awakens was released, speculation began about her identity, and it was all centered on who her parents were. Was she Han and Leia’s daughter? Luke’s daughter? A secret Kenobi? Who her parents were became more important to some people than who she was, and that was reflected in her character. Her search for answers about her identity and her place in the world was wrapped up in her search for the truth about her parents.

And when that truth was finally revealed, it was the hardest thing for Rey to acknowledge—so hard that she spent her entire life repressing what she always knew: They were nobody. They sold her for drinking money, never planned to come back for her, and died unheroic deaths. She wasn’t Luke’s child or the lost sister of Ben Solo. She wasn’t left an orphan by parents who joined the Resistance—or were killed by the First Order. As Kylo Ren reminded her, she wasn’t born into a place in this legend; she comes from nothing. To most people looking at her past, she is nothing. But as Kylo Ren also told her, she’s not nothing to him. And as Johnson makes abundantly clear, she’s not nothing to this story.

She’s everything.

Rey is proof that your past doesn’t have to define you. She is an inspiration to kids dealing with abuse and neglect, kids who struggle with abandonment, and kids who grew up in the foster system because their parents couldn’t take care of them. Her story is meant to show that no one is nothing—no matter where you come from, you are a person of value, and you have something to offer to the world.

When Rey goes into the dark place searching for answers about her parents, she sees herself instead, and that’s the crux of her entire hero’s journey summed up in one image. Her identity belongs to her—not to anyone else. She’s not beholden to anyone’s legacy but her own. She is defined by her own choices, her own strength, and her own compassion—not by her connection to anyone else. Rey is the main character in her own story—not a continuation of someone else’s story. She protects the light and chooses kindness not because it’s in her bloodline—that couldn’t be farther from the truth. She does so simply because she’s a good person. And when she tries to help the man she calls Ben, she does so not because he’s really her brother or cousin, but simply because she believes in reaching out to those who need it, in helping others escape the loneliness she felt for so much of her life. Her desire to fight for a brighter future for everyone is what makes her a hero—not her last name.

Rey’s power isn’t tied up in her family history, and that is going to serve the story well going forward. As Luke said, the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi. In the same way, being able to connect with it doesn’t belong to the Skywalker family. In this universe, the story of Rey is going to resonate with kids like the boy on Canto Bight who have grown up with nothing but a feeling inside of them that they’re meant for more than a life of lonely, hard labor. And in the world outside of these films, her story is going to resonate with anyone who wants to believe they can be defined by who they grew up to be rather than how they grew up.

Just as the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi, Star Wars doesn’t belong to a certain group of fans. It belongs to everyone, and, as such, everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in this story. That’s where hope is born—in the stories we’re told as children that we cling to like a security blanket. The end of The Last Jedi is so important because those kids on Canto Bight telling Luke’s story with handmade dolls aren’t so different from kids around the world playing with Star Wars action figures. We’ve all been those kids, and now a new generation of kids gets to keep the next chapter of the myth alive by telling the stories of a new generation of heroes. And that new generation of heroes looks a lot different than the one that came before—giving many more kids, especially many more little girls—their own place in the story.

Hope is spread through the stories we share about the heroes we dream of becoming. The Last Jedi reminds us that we can all be one of those heroes—that everyone’s story matters and deserves to be told. And that is the spark that will light the fire that will bring hope to a world that desperately needs it.

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Hope and Heroism in The Last Jedi

  1. ALLOW ME TO SCREAM ABOUT THIS PERFECTION FOR A MOMENT. Star Wars truly does bring out the absolute best in your writing, Katie. This was a masterpiece, a truly beautiful analysis of what I’ve always appreciated about these films. And I think by now you’ve guessed that this is coming from someone who has had her fair share of disagreements with The Last Jedi. Disagreements that I won’t even bother going into because none of them have anything to do with what you’ve written and the importance of the message you’ve brought to life.

    Everything you’ve written is everything I’ve appreciated. The parts of the film I’m trying desperately to cling to because they’re what I know I’m going to remember even more than the things that upset me. These characters matter so much, and they matter not because of where they come from, but because of who they choose to be — an idea that has always meant so much more to me than I could ever articulate. It’s why Star Wars has always resonated with me because the first time I saw it, I felt something so deeply moving, I’ve never been able to look back. And that’s been captured in The Last Jedi through these characters and their arcs. It’s captured in the moment Holdo says “God speed, rebels” because that’s the kind of moment that reminds us all of the strength we’re looking for. It’s in the moment where Luke says no one is ever really gone, because no human being is ever one dimensional, and there’s so much more than passing judgements right away, it’s about looking to understand things bigger than our hotheadedness at times. That’s why Poe’s arc is so important too because he comes to learn just how wrong he was, and for that to happen to a man!? It’s amazing. Seeing these flaws in him made me love him that much more. And then there’s Rey’s goodness, that innate need to believe that maybe, just maybe there’s still good left in people, which is why she could never accept the truth about her parents. It’s all such a beautiful showcase of the fact that we need to slow down for a moment, find the balance in our thoughts, look for it in our hearts before we move forward. Because it’s only when we find that balance where we could let go of the past in the way that we need to and move towards the future that’ll be best for not only us, but those we care for too.

    I’m going to stop myself before I sit here and write another keysmashing analysis of just how beautiful it was to see a character like Rose stand as a reflection of so many people. Her enthusiasm was so infectious and her heart so pure, Kelly Marie Tran stole my heart. And I’m so glad we get to see more of her in IX! She is everything!

    Pat yourself on the back for this one, darling girl. You’ve outdone yourself with a truly remarkable analysis! I’m so proud to call you my friend.

    • You’re far too kind, Giss! I love how much this series means to both of us and how writing about it brings us even closer as fangirls and friends. ❤

      Also, whenever you want to write a keysmashing analysis of Rose, let me know because I am HERE FOR IT.

  2. This was so beautifully written, eloquent and smart and insightful and perfect, and you made me cry a bunch at how much this new trilogy means to so many people. Thank you for articulating exactly why these new heroes are so important, and provide so much hope ❤

    • Thanks bb! It’s good to know I’m not alone in crying over how much this movie and its new generation of heroes is going to mean to the next generation of SW fans.

  3. Fabulous write up Katie!! I love reading your analysis when a piece of media has spoken to you, and its clear from this just how deeply you connected to it.

    I can see why this movie has been so polarizing, probably because it does shatter the status quo. Of my friends I have talked to, I think I am the person that liked the movie the most, for many of the reasons you mentioned. For me, I just loved that it felt new and different (my major compliant about The Force Awakens was it felt stuck in the past – catching us up on missed time, a story-line similar to A New Hope). I never felt stuck in the past watching this one. And it did what great sci-fi does, it feels relevant to now, even in a completely unfamiliar setting.

    Sean’s main complaint was he didnt feel like anything really happened. That it was a simple “on the run” movie that ultimately ended with not all of them dying. Personally, I loved that the movie was slowed down to a point where we got so much character development. That was the true purpose of the movie, to let us get to know these characters better and see how each of them reacted to the situations they found themselves in.

    I love your discussion here about Rey’s parents and what that says about her as a character. Sean was really disappointed by this reveal, but I loved it (and I am hoping they dont retcon it). It goes back to my complaint about the previous movie feeling stuck in the past. As you said, “Her identity belongs to her—not to anyone else. She’s not beholden to anyone’s legacy but her own. She is defined by her own choices, her own strength, and her own compassion—not by her connection to anyone else.” I also love the contrast this provides between her and Kylo.

    Snoke was largely disappointing, but if I had to choose between knowing his motivations and backstory or getting more time with our heroes, I would choose the latter any day of the week.

    One of my friends said she thought the movie was too depressing, which is interesting to me, because I felt an enormous amount of hope throughout the whole thing. I never felt at any moment during this movie that the rebels fully gave up on that hope even when things looked at their worst. “But nobody came to help them” she argued. But they just arent ready yet. This generation might not have been ready or willing to help, but as we saw in the final scene, there is hope in the younger generation to come. Right now their job is to grow that hope until they are ready to fight back once again. I keep getting reminded of one of my favorite comic panels of all time from Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’. Ive probably mentioned it before, but I think relevant here. The dreamload and a demon are having a battle of wits, and the final exchange goes like this:

    “I am anti-life, the beast of judgement. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, God, Worlds…of everything. And what will you be then Dreamlord?”

    “I am hope”

    Nothing can conquer hope, and that pretty much sums up the movie for me. All cannot be lost. And I cant wait to see the fire that spark of hope creates in the 3rd installment.

    • Thank you so much, Shauna!

      I think Sean’s argument is the one I most understand when people mention their issues with the movie—nothing much does ultimately happen plot-wise, but as you and I have talked about MANY times before, character development >>>>> plot in my book. This movie actually gave its characters time to learn lessons, examine their own flaws, and have meaningful interactions with each other.

      I’m also in the camp that is hoping with everything in me that they don’t retcon Rey’s parentage. This was such a beautiful and thematically pleasing way to answer that question, and I really hope JJ doesn’t screw it up.

      I also find it interesting that your friend found the movie depressing. That’s how I felt about Rogue One; I walked out of it thoroughly depressed even though it ended with that message of hope. In this film, I can see why it would feel like a downer to some people, but that’s why the ending with those kids is so important. Hope is alive for those who need it the most because of the Resistance. And because the Resistance gave those kids hope, they’ll turn into the next generation of heroes who spread hope throughout the galaxy. Star Wars is all about cycles, and that last scene showed how the cycle of hope goes on. It was a moment I wasn’t expecting but a moment that elevated the entire film for me.

  4. Ok, I’m a little late to the party . . . I just NOW saw the movie.

    As always (and always worth mentioning), you have done a lovely job with your writing, sweetie. It’s always great to see you excited and passionate in your writing.

    I’m old-school Star Wars. I grew up with the originals. You want to talk ruining the Star Wars Universe? That’s Episodes 1-3. (I like to pretend they don’t exist.) Episodes 4-6 are Star Wars to me.

    I THOROUGHLY enjoyed this movie — for all the reasons you listed, Katie, and more. I loved, too, how they reworked elements from the original movies. I could trace themes/foils/lines/conflicts/stuff from A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back in this movie, but those didn’t feel stale. To me this felt more like Star Wars than those episodes of which we shall not speak. This still felt optimistic to me — but then, I remember when Empire Strikes Back came out and we all had to wait THREE YEARS to find out what happened to Han Solo and good grief what if George Lucas gets hit by a truck before the next movie?? So, I guess I was expecting middle act dark before the dawn — which I didn’t get, but I can see where some folks might.

    At its core, Star Wars is about the rebel “scum” fighting back. It’s about the heroes (of all kinds) finding each other and creating a family. It’s also about the droids (who are the real heroes). 🙂

    Star Wars started off with A New Hope. In my opinion, that hope continues.

    • Thanks, Tempest! (Also, I hope you and yours are having a wonderful holiday season filled with happiness and plenty of fun!)

      I loved what you said about the wait between Empire and ROTJ because I cannot imagine having to wait three years to find out what happened to Han. I got a chuckle out of your worries about Lucas getting hit by a truck because I would have had the exact same fears! (It’s how I still feel about George RR Martin and the Song of Ice and Fire books, to be honest.)

      Also, heck yes to the droids being the real heroes. My sister’s been saying that for years!

  5. Pingback: Best of 2017: Shows | TVexamined

  6. Pingback: NGN’s Best of 2017: Reasons to Hope | Nerdy Girl Notes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s