What We Fight About When We Fight About Star Wars

What is the point of Star Wars?

When I launched Eleven-ThirtyEight ten years ago, I thought I had the answer, though it would take another eighteen months for me to articulate it.

“When Luke Skywalker throws his lightsaber aside and refuses to kill his father, that’s not just Luke’s crowning moment—that’s the point. Only this expression of ultimate compassion has the power to bring Anakin back to himself, and the fact that the apotheosis of a series with “Wars” in the title is the two main characters throwing their own lives away out of love for each other cannot be overstated.”

Me, In Everything Disney Needs to Know, It Can Learn from Luke Skywalker

These days, I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Don’t get me wrong—if you asked George Lucas that’s probably about how he’d put it, and indeed he said as much to Charlie Rose around the same time:

“…everybody expresses it differently but it’s still, basically, don’t kill people, and be compassionate and love people. And so that’s basically all Star Wars is.”

George Lucas on The Charlie Rose Show, October 23, 2014

Luke’s refusal to kill his father is rewarded by said father saving his life, and for doing so at the cost of his own life Anakin is rewarded with nothing less than immortality—the very thing he’d gone to the dark side looking for. By choosing to end the stories of his two main characters this way, Lucas constructed Star Wars to articulate one specific idea: only through selflessness may we live forever.

Star Wars isn’t just an epic adventure story, it’s an argument by other means—an assertion of what Lucas had concluded was a universal human value. But after more than a decade without him at the helm, I’ve come to believe that he captured something even more universal than that. His galaxy’s unparalleled popularity around the world is due not to our ability to recognize and agree with his specific point of view, but to our ability to find within it that which we already believe. Whether the story intends as much or not.

Divorced from the whims of one quirky experimental filmmaker and given over to the expectations of Disney’s shareholders, the Galaxy Far, Far Away’s core functionality now stands revealed, for both good and ill: it’s a superficially-awesome blank slate. Freed of real history, real culture, even real physics, it’s a platform for stripping a storyteller of all artifice and revealing their core beliefs. It’s a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s not a lot of universal agreement about that these days.

Star Wars is Pointless

Picture Luke Skywalker on the second Death Star, lightsaber in hand, Darth Vader lying prone before him. Luke hesitates for a moment, and then, pop! Leia Organa magically swaps places with him. What happens next?

It would be very hard to argue that the Leia of the original trilogy, somehow placed into that position, would have hesitated even an instant before striking Vader down. It’s also hard to argue that Vader wasn’t much more deserving of that fate than he was of redemption—some would likely say that Anakin becoming a Force ghost is just as much an act of magical contrivance as Luke and Leia spontaneously switching places.

I was fantastically annoyed when I realized I could make this.

Luke’s choice leads to Vader’s choice leads to Palpatine’s defeat. Does that make up for all of Vader’s evil actions? According to the Force, yes.

But that doesn’t mean that Leia’s choice would have been wrong.

Palpatine wanted Luke to kill Vader because he would have done so out of anger, and thus let the dark side into his heart. That’s how it goes because that’s the point Lucas wants to make. But Leia is not Luke. She has her own history, her own priorities. Having carried the weight of authority for much of her young life, Leia’s moral calculus comes from a much more mature, nuanced place than Luke’s. For all of her justified personal animosity toward Vader, she would kill him not out of hate but out of her sense of responsibility to the galaxy at large. Justice is her core motivation, and in both real law and magical space morality, the why matters. That might not get rid of Palpatine, but it doesn’t make her his servant, either.

Luke may be the main character of the original trilogy, but his story’s message is specific to him, and no saga this sprawling can contain only one “right” point of view. After all, if love and forgiveness were all Star Wars wanted to teach us, why have a Rebellion at all? Why not just hug Palpatine into submission?

The truth is, Star Wars has never had just one “point”. Change the focus to Leia and the same events become a story about the conditions in which fighting becomes desperately necessary. Or hell, take the modern patron saint of justified violence, Saw Gerrera. It’s tempting to cordon off the modern canon from what George Lucas did or didn’t think about these things, but Saw was developed by Lucas himself—and his extreme actions are fully justified by the events of the larger story. Saw is depicted as losing himself, mentally and physically, to his decades of fighting the Empire, but his true struggle was against the complacency of the galaxy at large, and only when the existence and deadly potential of the Death Star is revealed does the galaxy understand that he was right and that open war was necessary.

How I want to go out: sneering at an avalanche.

Saw does not defeat the Empire, but in playing his role in the destruction of the Death Star, he does see to the end of that complacency. After Yavin, the galaxy wakes up, and the person they turn to, by and large, is Mon Mothma. The Empire was not an external threat that could be eliminated but a rot within the same society that had birthed all those who fought it—and at some point the violence was going to have to end and restorative justice would have to begin. In seeking not just to burn down the Empire but to restore the best parts of the Republic, Mon was also right, and every bit as vital to her time as Saw was to his. He may have started the fight, but only Mon—like Luke, someone with the capacity, and the luxury, to forgive and move on—could have ended it. And no practical failing of the New Republic months or decades later negates that.

Immortality through sacrifice may have been Lucas’s central assertion, but human values are an ever-churning morass of conditionalities; they can’t be boiled down to any one point. Not even by the creator himself.

Star Wars is Dumb

“I come out of anthropology, so my focus is social systems. And in science fiction, you’ve got two branches: one is science, and the other is social. I’m much more of a Nineteen Eighty-Four kinda guy. […] It isn’t the science, aliens, and all that kind of stuff that I get focused on, it’s the…how do people react to all those things? How do they accommodate them?”

George Lucas on James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, May 7, 2018

The clearest indicator that Star Wars has no central point is not the variety of alternatives it offers but the number of people who love it fervently while hearing it say things that George Lucas didn’t intend at all. The endorphin rush of clashing lightsabers does not seem to require a holistic appreciation of why the duel exists. Star Wars is adorned with so much cool shit, it turns out, that it’s very easy to be a lifetime fan and never see past the frosting to the cake itself.

That frosting, not exclusively but to a great extent, is science fiction; more precisely, the “science” branch Lucas mentions above. “A long time ago” notwithstanding, Star Wars dresses itself in the trappings of a hypothetical future—and because of that, there is an intense, never-ending pressure by a large section of its audience to view it through that lens. This cohort did not begin with Timothy Zahn, but he is undeniably their standard-bearer: a venerated science fiction author with a master’s degree in physics (the nerve), his numerous works in both canons have shaped the popular understanding of the universe more than any other novelist, perhaps more than anyone other than Lucas himself—in spite of what I would charitably call a willful disregard of how it’s intended to operate.

Star Wars does not set out to depict a hypothetical reality in the way that most science fiction does—or even a comprehensive fantasy reality like Middle-earth. It’s a universe of pure metaphor, and like a red riding hood or a hot bowl of porridge, everything in it exists first and foremost to advance or undergird the metaphor. The Force, which the characters perceive as magic, is in actuality a tool of pure authorial intervention—when someone makes a good decision, the Force is there to reward them, and when they make a bad decision, it melts their face or chops their legs off. It’s there to underline whatever lesson the storyteller wants to teach us, no more, no less.

This guy = bad.

Zahn’s novels strip the Force of its metaphorical power and treat it as just another superweapon to be quantified, countered and/or exploited. At his best—i.e. in the original Thrawn trilogy—the larger story still carries allegorical weight, as Leia brings about Thrawn’s defeat not by outstrategizing him but by empathizing with the Noghri warriors he takes advantage of. But in Zahn’s galaxy, the message, if there happens to be one, doesn’t require the Force’s input.

But as much as I might roll my eyes about this, there’s no getting around the fact that Zahn has been enormously successful as a Star Wars storyteller. His approach set the tone for countless other stories, and the new canon had barely gotten off the ground before Grand Admiral Thrawn was plucked from the dustbin and adapted for television, an ascent that now looks set to culminate in at least one film. I don’t mean to suggest that Zahn or his devoted followers are bad fans—I do think they’re Star Warsing wrong, but that’s a me problem. What matters is that their fandom is fully-formed and coherent and it couldn’t matter less what I (or even Lucas himself) think about it. The modern Thrawn novels now amount to an entire subcanon, written in a different genre with different rules, bulging from the side of the franchise like a benign tumor. But as long as the stories are engaging, Star Wars can sustain them as well—and that’s as much a part of its massive success as the ideas Lucas extracted from mythology and Joseph Campbell.

I’ve waited years to use this image here.

It does make for some difficult conversations, though. Any community with a roster bigger than the Never Nudes is going to have internal divisions, but Star Wars’ ability to speak to so many different interests, aesthetics, and beliefs among so many different people means that there can be no common understanding of what it is, or should be. Imagine three blind men laying their hands on a gundark and extrapolating the entire animal from the part they happen to be touching—then getting into a Twitter argument about it. This is the worldwide Star Wars fandom. This is why we fight.

If Star Wars were—how do I put this gently—a more serious product, it would be easier to argue for one true interpretation of the creature. Star Trek, by contrast, inarguably exists to depict an integrated, egalitarian, anticapitalist society,[1]And yes, I am aware that some people would argue with this. and to imply by doing so that only those issues are holding mankind back from space travel, teleportation, and conjuring club sandwiches out of thin air. I’d go so far as to say that this is why modern Trek has done much, much better than Star Wars at depicting queer and nonbinary characters onscreen—that kind of envelope-pushing is a core function of the franchise that goes all the way back to Kirk and Uhura locking lips in 1968.

If Star Trek were a cannon (two n’s) its apparatus would be aimed squarely at the future; the firing mechanism of Star Wars is pointed inward. Because it speaks to much deeper, more basic ideas, Star Wars is able to pick up and put down real-world social issues at its convenience, just like it can with science fiction, westerns, samurai, drag racing, or almost any other interest a given creator might want to pepper in there. By encompassing everything, Star Wars, absent a creator with a point to make, isn’t about anything.

Put more plainly: Star Wars is dumb. You can’t swing a mynock without hitting something in the original trilogy that makes no logical sense. The disregard of physics goes without saying, but even beyond that—why doesn’t the Devastator tractor in the droids’ escape pod? When you have access to antigravity (or even, I dunno, wheels), why build a troop transport with elephant legs? And what exactly was the plan to rescue Han from Jabba’s palace, again?

These things? On snow? Don’t be ridiculous.

Star Wars gets away with this stuff because most of us got into it when we were too young and dumb to ask these questions. But the reason we got into it is that those deeper ideas actually counted for something, and while they may not have shaped our moral character one way or the other, they took root in us just the same. As a metaphor, Star Wars speaks to us most clearly in its whys—why the writer (I mean, the Force) chooses which characters and actions to reward and which to punish. What point—and again, it can really be anything—is the story asserting by making those choices?

Star Wars is littered with dumb shit. But when the whys work, when they speak to our existing values, we don’t care. We don’t even notice. Only when they don’t work, when some part of our lizard brain takes umbrage at the thematic content, does it even occur to us to ask a question like “how exactly are those bombs falling in space?”

*     *     *     *     *

“The great thing about Star Wars is, I had a thing, [a] vessel that I could throw anything into.”

George Lucas, Ibid.

Star Wars is a mirror: its core function is not to impart but to reflect. What’s it about? Only what we take with us.

Its point, then, is whatever the teller of a given story wants it to be. With the building blocks of its metaphorical reality, Star Wars can be about anything—so long as it’s about something. The counterpart of this versatility is that content that’s not advancing some kind of argument, some compelling theme, ends up feeling utterly hollow. Star Wars is a rampaging green monster of pure id; without a point of view to aim it, to imbue it with meaning, it yields nothing but exquisite noise.

Many new Star Wars projects have come and gone since this site began. Plenty of them told great stories within their own remit, on their own terms. But to my mind, the biggest weakness of the modern era has been the lack of a unifying intentionality across the franchise as a whole, the effort instead to appeal to all of the fans, all of the time. This first became clear to me in the case of The Rise of Skywalker, a movie paralyzed by indecision, a sequence of half-measures so afraid of alienating anyone that it satisfied almost no one. After the rage inspired by The Last Jedi, the general disinterest in Solo, and the disappointment in Rise, Lucasfilm seemed to experience a years-long dark night of the soul, until finally announcing a new slate of films all at once just two months ago.

That new slate? The origin of the Jedi, a Legends-hugging spinoff of The Mandalorian, and a sequel to the sequels. Something for everyone.

From a corporate standpoint, this makes sense: try a few different things and see which one catches fire, thereby earning the creative and financial resources worthy of a new Star Wars saga. Who are Lucasfilm to dictate what Star Wars should be when they can let the fans vote with their wallets?

But nothing is going to make everyone happy. For all that George Lucas set out to tell a universal story, he gave up on universal appeal pretty damned quick, and rightly so. For Star Wars to have any creative significance going forward Disney must learn that lesson as well. They thought they were buying the greatest story ever told, but absent Lucas’s weird little collection of interests and inferences and idiosyncrasies, what they actually brought home was the most thrilling empty vessel ever. No amount of focus-grouping and fawning reverence can fill it—what can, maybe the only thing that can, is a good argument.

1 And yes, I am aware that some people would argue with this.