Author’s note—as the title should make clear, there are no spoilers in this piece. I do, however, discuss lots of things that might happen in the film, and with those details certainly out there by now, note that I won’t be reading any of your comments or reactions until Thursday night. Godspeed, Rebels.
As someone who prides himself on rolling with the punches where new Star Wars content is concerned, I have some pretty big worries about what could unfold in The Rise of Skywalker when I sit down to watch it tomorrow night.
As someone who once strongly doubted whether there even needed to be a sequel trilogy, I’m worried that the story they chose to tell will lose its newfound convictions and prove that old me correct—that everything new about this conflict will be undermined by an effort to justify the sequels as part of a nine-episode story.
I’m worried that the failings of the New Republic, instead of being the organic growing pains of a new democracy, will have been part of an insidious long-term strategy employed by the First Order, and that the First Order itself will be an insidious long-term strategy employed by, erm, Darth Sidious. That what we’ve actually been watching for the last four years was one man playing a four-dimensional dejarik game that required him to be dead for thirty years.
Likewise, as someone who both wants and expects Kylo Ren to take some sort of step toward redeeming himself, I’m worried that his fall will be blamed on coercion or even outright brainwashing by Palpatine and/or Snoke. That he, and his parents, and his master, will turn out to have done nothing worse than be ill-prepared for the machinations of an evil wizard or two.
As someone who takes Lando Calrissian very seriously, I’m worried that the Lando of Episode IX will be not the responsible leader of Episode V but the carefree raconteur of Solo—just with a stylish new cane and absent one droid. Having lived through the decades-long death march of failed scores Lando experienced in the Expanded Universe, I’m worried that the rebooted Lando will have taken a different route to the same outcome—no greater power, no greater responsibility.
Speaking of Solo, the only thing that worries me more than a passing reference to L3 that further handwaves the gravity of her fate might be no reference to her at all. I struggle, honestly, to imagine anything that could satisfy me on that score short of bringing her back.
Some of these concerns, I admit, are very specific to me and my priorities. Others were invited by Lucasfilm’s decision to approach—or at least market—The Rise of Skywalker as not just the end of this trilogy but (imagine sarcastic arm-waving here) “the conclusion of the Skywalker saga”. If there were definitely going to be an Episode X in a few years a lot of these things could be addressed later; we could theoretically get a whole trilogy about the reformation of a Republic or the penance of Ben Solo or what have you. Instead, I’m fully expecting that we’ll have to content ourselves with small gestures in those directions—nods toward future concerns and consequences, the details of which are treated as outside the needs of the film audience.
But! Contrary to appearances, I am here today not to preemptively bury a movie that I have not seen, but to praise it. Because after twenty-two years following this franchise I can confidently say that no matter what happens with all that stuff I just spent five hundred words complaining about, I’m probably going to enjoy the damn thing quite a bit.
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A long time ago, on a fan site far away, I reviewed Star Wars novels for TheForce.Net, where in addition to our text reactions we were expected to offer a score from zero to four. This period of time—from late in the New Jedi Order series to the middle of Fate of the Jedi, saw some of the most controversial works of the Expanded Universe, and in retrospect some of the big-picture decisions I was happiest to see relegated to Legends status.
But for all the misgivings I had at the time about where they were taking the SkySolo clan, I found it very hard to score any specific book lower than a three—the one exception was actually a Clone Wars book, Jedi Trial, which I just plain hated. My next-worst review was The Ruins of Dantooine, a Star Wars Galaxies tie-in (that also did not involve the Big Three) that makes the later Republic Commando books look like Tolstoy—and I gave it a three. There was next to nothing in Ruins that I truly enjoyed, but it wasn’t offensively bad either; it was just kind of there: flavorless, assembly-line Star Wars.
And looking back on that review, it’s clear to me now that even assembly-line Star Wars, at least for me, will generally warrant a three out of four. Because it’s still Star Wars.
Before the Special Editions dragged me into the fold, I hadn’t really been a big sci-fi or fantasy reader outside of X-Men and Spider-Man comics, so the question of which Star Wars books were of the best quality didn’t really factor into my burgeoning fandom; I knew I had a couple years to kill before the prequels started, and all I wanted was to know what else happened. That question propelled me through seventeen years and around a hundred books, and even after a continuity reboot it propels me still: what else happened this time? How might things have happened differently, and why? What do those differences tell us about how on-screen Star Wars compares to prose Star Wars, and how 2019 is different from 1997? Those questions are a big part of why Eleven-ThirtyEight exists, and why I began with a staff full of EU fans even though the writing was already on the wall. Those stories were by no measure perfect, but canon or not, they mattered.
They mattered because, even when I have pretty big concerns about a given plot direction, it’s interesting to unpack why. Did the later years of the SkySolos leave me cold because of where their story went, or because of how it’d been told? Could Han and Leia lose a child to the dark side, could Luke fail as a teacher, in ways that strengthened the story rather than deflating it? Could these beats be retold in service of new, more complex themes rather than reiterating the old ones? It’s not an accident that the sequel trilogy’s macro plot has a lot of overlap with Legends, but it doesn’t mean the films are cribbing from it—Star Wars, at least thus far, is about those kinds of failures, what causes them, and what we choose to do about them. We can debate which format was better-suited to telling this story, and which continuity told it better, but even where the quality falters the story has never stopped being interesting as hell.
I think deep down that’s what drives Star Wars’ appeal for me: it’s endlessly interesting. The universe can support some downright outstanding storytelling, and it can also support The Ruins of Dantooine—but I’m not here for quality, I’m here to be engaged.
Of course, Legends was a while ago now, and I’m not the same fan I was back then. Maybe my patience for bad ideas has dwindled over the years? Let’s look at something more recent: in the earliest days of sequel production, I took the rumored casting of Jesse Plemons, hypothesized that he would be playing Ben Skywalker, and extrapolated an entire strategy for Episode VII in which the EU was sidestepped rather than overwritten, which I described as “the best-case scenario“. Shockingly, said scenario did not come to pass—but I got over it.
Much later, once a baseline of official information had become available, I developed some big reservations about Starkiller Base. So wary was I of another superweapon that I hypothesized that it would turn out to be an in-universe hoax. That hope, obviously, was not borne out—but I got over that too, and The Force Awakens remains, stubbornly, my favorite Disney-era film so far.
I have a long history, then, of being let down by this franchise. I’ve had no qualms over the years about stating my hopes openly, even my most ridiculous ones, and with that comes an inability to pretend I was actually rooting for whatever really ended up happening. Sometimes this disappointment is almost immediate (what do you mean, BB-8’s lighter is a thumbs-up??), but often I don’t fully recognize it until much later. For those of you who actually keep track of my opinions, I wouldn’t blame you for taking even measured praise with a grain of salt—I can imagine coming across as someone who will eventually talk himself into liking anything.
But I don’t think that’s it—I may well have given Solo a three in my old TFN days but I’m willing to admit that it was far from the movie I’d hoped it would be (not to mention creating some of those aforementioned Rise concerns), and it’s the only movie I skipped on my slow-motion franchise rewatch over the past several months. Even disappointing Star Wars is often fascinating to pick apart, though—and Solo prompted a whole string of ETE pieces unpacking the handling of L3, and whether droid rights were something the franchise should take more seriously or avoid entirely. I don’t love what happens to L3, but I’m glad she exists. Val may have died for no reason, but I’m glad she exists too, and that we got to see her walking around behind Imperial lines with that glorious afro in full view. Solo was flawed, yes, but hardly a disaster. Underwhelming, but with enough cool and interesting stuff to deserve another viewing or two. Yeah, I’d call that a three.
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That I have so many concerns about The Rise of Skywalker is not a sign of pessimism regarding its creators, but an acknowledgement of how much the story they’re telling matters to me. And not just to me: to the extent that anything Star Wars does could be called important, the choices they make here are important. As much as I might have preferred otherwise, this film has been positioned as the climax of the prime narrative of the franchise—the decisions made herein will not only affect future storytelling, but could potentially reframe how we view everything that’s come before, and even our larger cultural conversations about redemption, inclusion, agency, and democracy.
For such an even-tempered guy, I have some pretty hardwired ideas about what Star Wars should be adding to those conversations. But I’ve been around this block enough times to know that even if—no, when—I don’t get everything I want from it, I’ll still have a good time, because it’s Star Wars. Disappointment, even failure, can be a positive experience for both the franchise and its fans because they force all involved to confront the reasons for those failures and grow beyond them. Maybe someday they’ll make a Star Wars movie about that.