Longrunners and the Cruelty of Time

I’ve written before about how I find Star Wars to be uninteresting in terms of storytelling analysis. There’s simply too much baggage around it for any kind of judgment, either good or bad. But I do find Star Wars interesting in how it sits in our popular culture, especially how that culture has changed over the course of 40 years. If you think about it, that’s a lot of time for something to stick around, and like all longrunners, Star Wars is shaped by the culture of its past and the culture of its present.

We can debate merit in many ways, but much of it is a waste of time without discussing the changes in our perceptions and expectations as creators and audience over the course of four decades. It’s like trying to discuss Tarzan without discussing the tangled cultural reality that surrounds the character’s past. I love Tarzan, but the notion of Savage Africa tamed by a physicaland intellectual European ideal is a sticky wicket. It’s not that I agree with all the deconstructions of Tarzan, but it’s okay to admit that many things audiences once took for granted about Tarzan can be a bit problematic. It doesn’t stop me from enjoying Tarzan stories, but I also get why it’s so difficult, despite efforts, to bring Tarzan forward into the modern era.

Star Wars isn’t the only longrunner. Comic book superheroes, in the pages of their own comics, have been around for decades. Most are steadily adapted in one way or another. Iron Man was originally a capitalist ideal who fought communists. Captain America was birthed in the fires of WW2. Spider-Man’s exact level of nerdiness and “woe is me” attitude has varied over the decades. It’d be weird for Black Widow, originally a Russian femme fatale, to remain that character in this day and age.

Incidentally, this is why I found Spider-Man: Homecoming so refreshing. It felt like a very necessary update to a character in this modern world. The notion of the tech geek who is bullied by jocks and made fun of by everyone else is a hard sell in a world where tech geeks rule the world. Peter Parker is still a bit of an outsider, but no longer ostracized and overlooked. He still struggles with his responsibilities, but the world of 60’s Peter is a heck of a lot different than the current one. It’d be strange for Peter to be selling photos to newspapers, for example, and in a world where cell phones have changed how we coordinate, the idea of Peter not showing up isn’t the big deal it once was.

Hearing grown men bemoan that Spider-Man is no longer aimed at them is unsettling to me. Spider-Man was intended for teens and young people. It isn’t a flaw in the character when he is updated to reflect that. A lot of older fans would do well to consider that maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that they’ve outgrown Spider-Man. It’s not such a bad thing if we can’t relate to the struggles of a teenager like we once did.

Back to Star Wars:

Much of the debate around The Last Jedi could be a discussion about the differences in storytelling over the decades. This isn’t meant as defense of the film, but rather a cold, hard fact. I could dissect many of those differences, and I probably will at some point, but let’s stick with a simple one.

Luke Skywalker is no longer the protagonist of Star Wars.

This is something comic books have been able to avoid since inception. Peter Parker is a drawing. He doesn’t need to age. Other longrunners have gotten around this by recasting. Most people have their favorite James Bond, but most people accept that he is no longer synonymous with a single actor. Godzilla has always been a concept. But Luke Skywalker has always been Mark Hamill, and Mark Hamill is, despite himself, a human. He ages and changes.

Things might have been different if there had been several Star Wars movies after the original trilogy featuring the further adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia. In such a universe, it might’ve happened at some point that they’d recast the actors, like Bond, and we’d be accustomed to the idea of these characters being larger than the actors who inhabit them. We never had that though, and with the new movies, the choice was made to carry the continuity forward.

This continuity issue is going to interesting in the MCU. Will the films recast the characters or let them retire, replacing them with a next generation of heroes? I don’t know. Superhero comics have a tendency to reboot and return to default, but in the world of drawings, there’s incentive to stick with what you know works. Reality isn’t as accommodating as an entirely fictional universe. Concessions have to be made.

This may come as a surprise to many of the angry hardcore fans of Star Wars, but Hollywood doesn’t spend 100’s of millions of dollars to win affection of middle-aged folks. Yeah, it’s kind of a bummer, but these blockbusters are designed to appeal across the board. And the studios sat around thinking whether it made more sense to put younger characters in the protagonists’ seat or stick with the old cast. They probably went with the right decision.

Luke’s transition (via the reality of age) means that he’s now a supporting character, and the transition highlights how story treat different characters. Some might argue that Luke’s doubts and bitterness are “out of character”. (Though it’s been thirty years since we’ve seen this guy. Character changes, even extreme ones, might not be that strange.) I’d argue that they have less to do with his character and more to do with his role in the story. In the original trilogy, Luke is there to solve problems. In the new trilogy, he’s there to create conflict.

The same could be said for Han in The Force Awakens. In the original trilogy, he’s there to save the day. In TFA, he’s there to inform the protagonists a bit about the backstory and die for extra drama.

Whether these elements are executed well or not is a discussion worth having, but many folks are basically upset and confused that the series original protagonists have been pushed aside in favor of new characters. It might even feel like a betrayal. Worse, it might be an unpleasant reminder of our own transitory natures. I’m not saying that all complaints (or even most) stem from the uncomfortable realization that we, like Luke Skywalker, are doomed to an inevitable decline and replacement, but I’m saying it can’t be a very comforting subtext for everyone.

In a world where even Luke Skywalker gets old and bitter and loses his way, what chance do any of us have?

I don’t think this bit was intended by the creators of the new trilogy, but it’s there regardless. Every story is shaped by the culture and reality that creates it, and one truth about the new Star Wars is the reminder that you are going to die and that all your great deeds may indeed be forgotten. And all this is because of the cruelty of time.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

 

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One Comment

  1. Charlie
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I am guilty of wishing Luke had been more heroic in the first half of The Last Jedi entirely because I’ve spent a few decades thinking of him as heroic. I enjoyed the film and I understand that it’s more interesting for a protagonist to be told no than yes… but the Luke business left me feeling a bit empty in a way that isn’t fair to pin on the director.

    People also just seem a lot less inclined to like movies these days. Maybe it’s the infectious nature of internet opinions – I was unaware that there were people who loathed Ewoks until the mid-2000s. It seems like it’s uncool to like much of anything except the few gems each year that geekdom agrees are amazing.

    I’m on the reverential side (I have enjoyed all of the Star Wars films) but the originals get a pass on things that amateur internet movie credits love to be persnickety about. Like “character growth.” People love to bag on lack of character growth in genre films but gloss over the fact that in the original Star Wars exactly one character gets growth and it’s not the woman who watched her planet blow up. That lady is the same throughout (and I adore her).

    Everyone has their sacred cows, I know you adore the Godzilla franchise and I hear you and other Godzilla true believers when you explain why the 2014 version was a failure but I thought it was about as good as my favorite entry in the series: The Return of Godzilla.

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