2016 is here, and my Not-Quite-Resolution is to be a more consistent web presence. So Mondays I’ll devote to posts about storytelling, writing, and general thoughts about the job I do.
If you’re not aware of it because, say, you’ve spent the last two years buried in a pit and only now dragged yourself into the light of day, there’s a new Star Wars movie out. I’m not a great fan of Star Wars. I enjoy the original trilogy, find the prequels to be deeply flawed, and have no interest in The Force Awakens. I don’t find the Star Wars universe that interesting, but I realize I’m unusual in that regard.
But I’m not here to discuss The Force Awakens specifically, but one idea that popped up when the project was announced.
WHAT IF LUKE SKYWALKER TURNED EVIL?
The idea has tremendous appeal to a lot of fans, both hardcore and casual, and I think it says a lot about how we view characters and stories.
The obvious reason someone might assume the fall of Luke Skywalker would be important to The Force Awakens is that it does have a certain symmetry to it. If I were cynical, which I often am, I would also assume it’s because people instinctively gravitate toward stories they already know, and so if The Force Awakens is to undo the sins of the prequels then the easiest way to do that would be to go back to the well and remake the original trilogy. This is sort of what happened, but let’s not open that can of worms.
It fits within the structure of the original trilogy. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignore the prequels because they’re just a mess in terms of narrative and what they bring to the Star Wars universe.) Anakin Skywalker was a promising young Jedi Knight who fell to the dark side. In the original trilogy, the dark side is tremendously seductive. It’s power, raw and unfiltered. Sure, it’s bad for your skin and makes you sound like you smoke five packs a day, but it lets you shoot lightning bolts out of your fingers. And possibly other things.
(Again, I ignore the prequels here, which only served to shrink my interest in the Jedi and Sith Lords, who were mysterious orders of roaming knights with magical powers. The prequels make them basically into an organization of space monks / freelance cops who aren’t mysterious and who have generic superpowers of telekinesis and plot-relegated mind control.)
There’s also this classic notion that power corrupts by its very nature. Like a professional athlete who juices once they hit their limit or a politician willing to bend rules in order to keep winning elections, we all can think of dozens of examples of people who do things they might never imagine doing once they get a taste of power and success. I often imagine the dark side is sort of the doping of Jedi Knights. It’s this little whisper that says, “Just this once . . . ” until eventually, you’re in the deep end, doing things you never would imagine.
It’s easy to see any Jedi facing that dilemma sooner or later and, joining Luke decades later, it’s not unimaginable that he would wrestle with that temptation and come up short. Perhaps not full-on Darth Vader mode but straying closer to the edge. Having our new heroes meet and redeem Luke Skywalker is such an obvious storyline, even a seven year old could probably plot it out, and that’s not a criticism. The great strength of the original trilogy is how it has hidden depths while also remaining accessible to young kids.
The other problem The Force Awakens faces is how to incorporate the older characters into a story with the newer ones. This would be easy if the story could just focus on the new characters, but it won’t do to just have Luke and Leia show up, wave, and pass the torch. Characters exist in fiction to help further the story some way, so the old cast has to have some purpose. And giving Luke a redemption story arc could easily integrate the old characters and the new by giving everyone something to do.
Note this is why SPOILER happens. Once SPOILER can no longer serve any useful purpose to the plot, SPOILER. Because SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.
(There. Happy, Internet? You’ve succeeded in tying my hands to actually talk about the story in specifics. Congratulations.)
All these are solid reasons, from a storytelling perspective, of why it’d be sensible and easy to make Luke Skywalker evil, and yet, I don’t think your average person thinks about stuff like that. I think, excusing all the above, people want Luke Skywalker to be evil for another even simpler reason.
We’ve been trained to view evil characters as inherently more worthwhile than good ones.
I think it’s such an obvious truth that I don’t think it needs further explanation. It’s why so many people find Superman “boring”, but Batman “complex.” It’s why something like Netflix’s Daredevil can waste entire episodes showing us that the Kingpin is a grade-A criminal scumbag with good publicity, and yet, you can’t swing a dead cat without someone mentioning how “complicated” his psychology is and how he elevates the show.
It’s nothing new but the idea has hit a renewed vitality. Perhaps The Sopranos started the trend. Perhaps not. But almost all our praised, sophisticated media features damaged, broken characters, often outright murderous criminals, and elevates them as cultural icons. From “heroic” serial killer Dexter to reluctant (at first) drug kingpin Walter White, we’ve come to view bad guys as more worthy of our attention than good guys.
That’s sort of my problem with it. I have no qualms with stories about damaged, broken people. I enjoy dark fiction now and then. Nightcrawler is one of my favorite movies, and it is a portrait of a reprehensible human being succeeding not despite his terrible flaws, but because of them. I’m not a fan of Breaking Bad or The Shield, but I think they add something interesting to our shared cultural discussion.
Yet my problem is that we are told, over and over again, that these are not simply characters expanding our stories, but that these are stories that are taking things to the next level. If I had a dime for every time I heard someone casually equate “unpleasant” with “intelligent” and “grimdark” with “sophisticated” I’d have a lot of dimes.
We love this idea so much that we even apply it where it doesn’t always work. For all his grim demeanor, Batman is a story about a man who trains his body and mind to become the ultimate athlete scientist detective to fight crime in the form of evil clowns and bird-obsessed gentlemen. Bruce Wayne might have a tragic backstory, but he isn’t all that grim or particularly sophisticated as a character. He punches crime. People try to say he’s damaged because he does this, but he lives in a superhero universe. People do that all the time. Seriously. There’s a guy in the Justice Society who is such a good boxer he decided to dress up in a purple suit and punch out bad guys for justice.
This BAD is more interesting than GOOD idea means that if Luke Skywalker is to remain an interesting character, he must eventually turn EVIL. A running theme through the original trilogy is that all Jedi struggle against the dark side, and so Luke has a built in reason to become more “interesting” to the audience. If Luke Skywalker showed up and was perfectly fine, it would probably still be greeted with enthusiasm by fans, but for many, it would seem like a missed opportunity. Luke Skywalker, accomplished Jedi Knight, would be boring. And we know Luke is our hero. And we know our hero is interesting. Therefore, he must have some demons to wrestle with.
What’s interesting here is that there is a thread of that running through the trilogy, but it’s fairly minor. Luke isn’t a perfect character, but his flaws aren’t his own dark side. It’s because he cares. Aside from a strange vision sequence in the swamps of Dagobah, there’s little indication that Luke was ever in danger of falling to the dark side. In fact, I think a more realistic reading of his arc is that he isn’t particularly vulnerable to corruption. When his friends are in danger, he rushes to their side. When he realizes Darth Vader is SPOILER (Just kidding) he becomes dedicated to saving him as well. I’m not suggesting that this makes him invulnerable to corruption or misplaced passions, but it does highlight that his biggest flaw is that he wants to help people. Even evil people he thinks can be saved.
Luke is undeniably good. And not just good, but GOOD. He isn’t flawless, nor is he naive. But he isn’t conflicted. When the Emperor entices him to slay Vader, once the adrenaline wears off, it’s not even a question. Luke isn’t willing to do it. He’s not even willing to pretend he’ll do it. He’s that straightforward that even facing the Emperor, where he’s obviously overmatched, he doesn’t try anything tricky or subtle.
The eventual death of the Emperor and “redemption” of Darth Vader (something, I’ve already commented upon in previous blogs which I’ve always found to be the weakest part of the trilogy) springs about because Luke is willing to die rather than be corrupted. Some might argue that getting his ass kicked by the Emperor was all part of a master plan, but that’s not obvious from the scene. Luke isn’t great with guile, and his plan to redeem Darth Vader probably never extended past, “Hey, I’ll show up and be a good guy and maybe dad will realize he doesn’t have to be a bad guy anymore.”
That was then. This is now.
Now, the idea of a character willing to die to help another, who isn’t particularly clever but who gets by on sheer courage, determination, and a desire to do good is seen as old-fashioned. There are some exceptions. One of the reason I enjoyed Winter Soldier so much was how traditional Captain America is in his definition of heroism. Cap fights for the greater good, believes in giving people a chance, and is perfectly willing (like Luke) to die in the pursuit of redemption for a friend. But that’s an unusual thing.
Most “interesting” heroes are defined by how willing they are to break the rules, how damaged they are, how far from “good” they can be without becoming outright villains. So Luke, to remain worthy of his cultural icon status, must become “evil” at some point. Otherwise, he’s just a good guy.
And everyone knows good guys are boring.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,