Reviews and reactions to The Last Jedi—a film released seven months, and also an eternity ago—have become well-worn by this point. But beneath heaps of praise, as well as tiresome accusations of feminist cabals destroying the Galaxy Far, Far Away, a curious middle ground has emerged—the notion that The Last Jedi, while a perfectly competent film, was a bad follow-up to The Force Awakens.
To be clear, Episode VII and VIII are very different films, but I’ve been irked by how often “TLJ ignored TFA” is accepted as fact. Other writers have addressed TLJ’s solutions to TFA’s supposed “mystery boxes”, but I find discussions surrounding TFA’s new Big Three much more interesting. While much of the common wisdom around this film holds that TLJ jettisoned the character arcs of TFA to tell its own story, evidence shows the opposite is true.
More than I expected on first viewing, TLJ sticks to TFA’s character arcs with near reverence, often relying on subtle moments from TFA to ground interactions. And on the flip side, after watching TLJ, TFA’s characters feel incomplete without the resolutions provided by the trilogy’s second volume.
Rey – Becoming a Hero
In The Force Awakens, Rey is defined primarily by two traits. The first is physicality. Far from a novice in need of training, TFA establishes Rey as proficient enough in combat to impress a man trained in combat since childhood. This may seem like basic hero stuff, but contrast her with Luke, who swings his lightsaber like a flashlight in A New Hope, and Rey comes out on top. This isn’t because of some Mary Sue nonsense. On Jakku, fighting for your life is an everyday occurrence. Rey and violence are inextricably linked.
The Last Jedi carries this trait forward, placing Rey in the film’s only major fight scene (incidentally pairing her up with Kylo Ren, a character also defined by violence). Her success in this battle should not be surprising; it is informed by an already-established aptitude. Simply put, Rey knows how to smack a dude.
Rey’s second major attribute in TFA is optimism. Unlike young Luke, Rey’s optimism does not include her own agency. Throughout TFA, Rey declines a role in the story far past the required rejection of the mythological call-to-action. Her climactic summoning of the lightsaber would seem to complete her heroic journey, except that minutes later, the film ends with her offering that power to someone else.
Many fans assumed Rey would seek training, but it is instead Luke who insists she needs a teacher, perfectly in line with her insistence in the second act of TFA that she is “no one.”
Indeed, it’s not until The Last Jedi that this character arc is completed. Kylo brings her greatest fear out into the open: “You have no place in this story.” And once she’s forced to face it, plainly, truthfully, she’s freed from it. The self-confidence on her face as she lifts the rocks on Crait shows us she’s accepted her agency. And if we needed any more evidence, Poe’s greeting makes it clear:
Rey isn’t “no one” anymore.
Finn – Becoming a Rebel
In the leadup to The Last Jedi, much of the speculation revolved around Finn. Other than his friendship with Rose, his arc was something of a mystery. Would he be revealed to be Force-sensitive after his duel with Kylo? Would he volunteer for a super-secret spy mission to give the Resistance the victory they desperately needed?
Not quite. Instead, he tries to jump ship at the first opportunity—which is exactly his strategy at the end of TFA before Rey’s kidnapping interrupts him.
It’s underappreciated how novel this decision is. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to heal Finn offscreen, jump his character development forward a few months and make him a full-fledged member of the Resistance. This is precisely what The Empire Strikes Back did with Han Solo, and while it’s an exaggeration to call that decision a “betrayal” of the character, it’s a shortcut at the very least.
Finn’s storyline, more than any other in TLJ, belies the assertion that the film was written in a vacuum. His entire arc is dependent on the fact that he never technically joined the Resistance, a subtle development in TFA even many passionate fans failed to notice. In the scene on the Resistance base in TFA, note how he asks Poe for help in rescuing Rey, rather than offering his own in taking down the First Order.
Viewed this way, Finn’s TFA arc is wholly incomplete. He begins the film disillusioned with the First Order and trying to get as far away from them as possible, and ends the film with much the same attitude. One could imagine TFA ending with Finn’s triumphant self-identification as “Rebel Scum”, but it’s the sequel that gives the audience this resolution and makes Finn the insurgent many assumed him to be.
Poe – Becoming a Character
Poe Dameron is the first major character portrayed in The Force Awakens, and yet he’s more of a MacGuffin jumpstart than a dynamic character. That’s not a criticism; most side characters are plot devices (Rose in TLJ serves this role. Why her character got more criticism than Poe did after TFA is an exercise left to the reader).
To give Poe an actual narrative arc, TLJ relied on four major character traits established by Episode VII:
- One, Poe is one helluva pilot.
- Two, he’s cocky and a little bit reckless, as evidenced by his conversation with Kylo Ren on Jakku. Even Han Solo dropped the comedy routine in the presence of Darth Vader.
- Three, Leia trusts him more than anyone in the galaxy, possibly excepting Luke.
- And four, he’s hopelessly in love with Finn. (Fine, this one might be speculation.)
Johnson had a huge blank canvas on which to paint Poe’s character. He could have easily made Poe Force-sensitive, skeptical of the Resistance, a deadbeat dad, and none of this would have contradicted TFA, because there was nothing much to contradict.
But instead of upending Poe’s TFA attributes, Johnson bases his entire arc around them. He’s cocky, and a great pilot? Okay, make hotshot piloting his catch-all solution, to a fault. He’s Leia’s most trusted soldier? Okay, let’s have him take that trust for granted and push it to its breaking point.
One of the most common criticisms of TLJ is that Poe’s story is an out-of-the-blue commentary on toxic masculinity that isn’t relevant to his character, but on the contrary, Poe’s actions in TLJ build directly on his character in TFA. While valid criticisms of the Poe/Holdo storyline exist, the claim that it dropped the ball passed by TFA is not one of them.
After the mistakes caused by taking these traits to extremes, Leia’s trust of Poe implied by TFA proves crucial to his redemption. Assuming everyone trusts him the way Leia does catalyzes his conflict with Holdo. But accepting the responsibility bundled with that trust, instead of merely the privileges, transforms him into the leader the Resistance needs. Talented, cocky, a little bit reckless, and ultimately cognizant of how to find the balance in himself.
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None of this to say that The Last Jedi isn’t mold-breaking. If you consider lightsaber duels and Sith Lords requirements for a Star War, character discussion matters little. But if the criticism offered revolves around character or thematic consistency, consider how much of that is consistency between the film and fan speculation as opposed to the film and its predecessor. Examining the evidence shows that, when placed side by side, the characters in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi flow together so seamlessly that the individual films feel incomplete without the other.