By Dragonborn_CT 13 Comments
Disclaimer: this is an editorial where I speak my personal opinion about recent Star Wars antagonists and it contains spoilers from The Last Jedi and Star Wars: Battlefront II.
It's has been a long time since I wrote in ComicVine (my last blog was written in March of last year ffs), but I decided that this is the best way I could convey my thoughts about a current trend in Star Wars. The villains under the Disney brand have been nothing short of disappointment and wasted potential in my opinion. I refer mostly to the movies though rather than any of the comics or the Rebels cartoon, both of which I have not read or watch (I've seen only the premiere of Rebels and got turned off immediately, but that is besides the point), so I won't include dudes like Thrawn into this rant, or any villains from the comics either.
Good villains are very hard to pull off. Until this year, Marvel Studios has had a bad track record of forgettable and bland villains both in their movies and tv shows: for every Loki was outnumbered by Malekith and Killian for every Kingpin was outnumbered by Nobu and Harold Meachum. They got their stuff get together somewhat by making great villains like Ego the Living Planet (who is pure evil, but his motivation makes sense for him) and Vulture (who is likable and one of the highpoints of Homecoming, a movie I particularly didn't care about). But it seems Lucasfilms' policy is just make them an Empire member and poof, you have a bad guy. You don't need to put more effort into this and I actually have a feeling that there is a mandate preventing villains from being too sympathetic, cool or even threatening. They are either generic buffoons or pathetic pushovers.
I have several problems with the First Order, such as being such powerful superpower in spite of being underdogs in the new timeline, but lets focus in its individual characters. With a very few exceptions, I'd be hard pressed to call any members of the First Order interesting or compelling in some way. They mostly come across as one-dimensional villains that lack any depth, nor any motivation why they are so fascistic. We have Supreme Leader Snoke, a lame ass excuse of a Palpatine clone with a ridiculous name reserved for a fanfic OC villain. Many fans like to argue that Supreme Leader Snoke was no different than the Emperor since his backstory wasn't revealed in the OT, but the viewer had no preconceived knowledge about the Star Wars universe in the original movies and the Emperor was actually charming and charismatic (albeit that was more in the prequels), something Snoke lacks. Everyone should have seen his anti-climatic death coming a mile away when Rian Johnson said on interviews he had no interest in developing the character and his purpose was to be the Big Bad and nothing more, because that is indicative that. General Hux who got a very chilling scene where he makes a Nazi-esque speech in TFA is turned into an absolute joke that gets "yo momma" jokes. And lets not get into Captain Phasma, perhaps one of the most offensive wastes of actors I ever seen. You cast Brienne of Tarth into Star Wars and hypes her up as Boba Fett of the sequels and in a way, she is like Fett since she got disposed in the most anti-climatic way possible. I can't imagine people still caring about that character and hoping that she returns for the final movie, because clearly nobody knows what do do with her.
Kylo Ren has been pointed out by some as the most compelling antagonist in the Sequel Trilogy. Though I have been critical of him in the past, I can see why is he is well-liked by some because he might actually be more than Rey herself since he undergoes some kind of struggle such as resisting the "allure of the light side". With that said, the character has been also described as a "bullied nerd" and the epitome of "toxic masculinity", indicating that he wasn't supposed to be sympathetic, meaning that if he is actually likable it was completely by accident. The same can be said about FN-2199 aka TR-8R. All memes aside, the character became unexpectedly popular even more so than Captain Phasma herself and I doubt that was Disney's intention.
This isn't exclusive to the First Order either. The main antagonist of Rogue One Director Orson Krennic is the epitome of the Big Bad Wannabe trope, a smug snake that gets pushed around by his co-workers and ultimately has his thunder stolen by someone else. He is completely pathetic despite being supposed to be the villain of the story since he has personal ties with Jyn Erso and some such. The natural exception is Darth Vader, who has the best scene in the whole movie, despite having a grand total of 3 minutes. Speaking as someone that actually enjoyed Rogue One, I have also been frustrated by it ever since Garth Edwards' artistic vision was compromised during the reshoots. He wanted to make a war movie that showed the Rebels in a more grey light and the Empire in a more positive way. Disney vetoed this and kept the Rebels grey, but made the Empire pure evil. I know that some will feel that Rogue One was better off this way after the reshoots, I would have certainly like to have seen Edwards' original version at least so I could say whether it was better or worse than the final product we got.
And then there is Battlefront II, which is such a dumpster fire for a myriad of reasons regarding gameplay that could make up a blog post of its own, but lets focus on the storyline which was one of the most anticipated features of the game that got buried by much bigger controversies regarding lootboxes and microtransactions, perhaps for good reasons, since the story is absolutely forgettable even by FPS standards. You play as Iden Versio, an commander of the Inferno Squad that is completely committed to the Empire's ideals. You might think that having the brainthrust responsible for Spec Ops the Line would have made some really compelling storytelling and we would actually see things from the Empire's perspective, that maybe not all people on their side are bad. Alas, this was not the case, since Versio deserts the Empire upon witnessing their atrocities and quickly joins with the Rebellion. This has happened in the old Expanded Universe so many times, its a cliche at this point. Now I will admit... This was most definitely not Lucasfilms' fault, and probably Electronic Arts being the lazy hacks that they are decided to go through the most overused storyline featuring any Imperial protagonist in Star Wars lore.
Its also unfortunate that Star Wars got dragged into a political battlefield too - not that Star Wars wasn't a stranger to this before, since the Empire and the First Order were strongly inspired by Nazis and Palpatine has being inspired by Richard Nixon. However, if you have been in the internet long enough, you probably heard people comparing Donald Trump to the Empire/First Order, which is a frankly absurd comparison because when get down to both of them, you don't see any similarities between Trump's policies with the Imperials unless if you stretch really hard to some vague definition of "fascism" - you don't hear any talks about a wall, "making x great again" or anything of this sort. For example, one of Rogue One's writers Chris Weitz made a now deleted tweet where he called the Empire a "human supremacist movement", which is a correct assertion according to established lore. However he made that point to connect it with white supremacists, which fell flat on its face due to Versio's actress being Indian, Bodhi's is a Pakistani and Finn is black, and while all three end up defecting, it was most definitely not because of discrimination based on their race. If they did had to make a comparison to real life, the First Order at least has more in common with the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (employing child soldiers to perform horrible atrocities against a dominant superpower that doesn't know how to contain them) as well as North Korea and Iran (they are governed by a self-styled "Supreme Leader"). I wish this was merely a fringe view, but this has been embraced by several people and Weitz is not the only writer under Star Wars who shares the same sentiment. Chuck Wendig also does the same thing, but less said about his body of work the better or else this essay would be completely derailed.
I have a distinct feeling that one of the reasons why villains in Star Wars can't have sympathetic or identifiable motivations are because the people currently politicizing it are afraid that their alleged real-life counterparts will be emboldened by these movies. I won't give names, but there is a part of the fanbase unable to distinguish reality from fiction and thinks that these movies are not made to entertain the masses, but to demoralize an "opposite side" perceived as "fascist". I imagine that if an Imperial was depicted as a protagonist but never sided with the Rebellion/The Resistance, a backlash would ensue due to "fascists being portrayed in a positive way". Or perhaps even worse, a minority that completely embraces fascist ideals of the Empire and which would have been extremely "problematic". It sounds ridiculous, but the neurotic Twitter mobs have been assembled to harass others for less than this. Remember when Joss Whedon was chased out of the platform for allegedly inserting a "rape joke" in Age of Ultron or because they lack reading comprehension and misconstrued Black Widow's line about her being a monster due to her being unable to have children? This is just the one example that comes from the top of my head. Another egregious case was the fake news that Jennifer Lawrence would have been cast as Mulan in its live-action remake by a tabloid blog. Nevermind it was baseless rumor with no confirmation from Disney, it did not stop the mindless masses from protesting over "white-washing" and assembling a petition with over 100,000 signatures demanding that she wouldn't play the role. Notice how quickly these people mobilize in panic over anything considered un-PC.
If you think I am exaggerating: do yourself a favor and research the hashtag #starwarshatespoc. There are those upset that Kylo Ren received more characterization and screentime than the heroic characters portrayed by minorities. There is also this article highly critical of the Last Jedi naming all the shortcomings of a movie that profess itself "progressive" and "liberal" but falls short of it. Of course, looking at the number of posts and retweets that hashtag contains, it definitely qualifies as a fringe view... But just imagine the scenarios I proposed in the paragraph above and the backlash would have been unbearable for them to handle, and this is precisely why Disney will never allow them to play out.
Or maybe, the less sinister reason why they don't make better villains is this: they are just that lazy. They are sitting on the biggest cashcow franchise in history, they have the blue print to make loads of money which is Rebels vs the Empire, meaning there is no need to take risks and fans will enjoy it no matter what. For as much praise the sequels get for how innovative they are (specially TLJ), they still play it safe with the most archetypical conflict in Star Wars ever, featuring a Emperor-expy, a Darth Vader-expy, Stormtroopers with slightly different designs and massive super-weapons against a ragtag bunch of plucky rebels, because that is what fans want the most and that is what they identify it better. Which wouldn't be so bad, if the formula wasn't so stagnant. I suppose it can't be helped because the Expanded Universe already came up with even some more interesting variants of the Empire like the Fel Empire in the Legacy comics, which was more lawful neutral than actually evil, and Disney seems to be almost adverse in treading into EU ground. The point is: the MCU managed to get its shit together and write some really compelling villains for their narratives, while Lucasfilms doesn't seem to be able to reach the same ground.
I have to wonder what will happen when the sequel trilogy is concluded and they want to go forward with this new trilogy... What are they going to do next? Repeat the same cycle of rebels fighting imperials all over again, which would have made whatever victory achieved by the Resistance pointless just like the sequel trilogy made the Rebel Alliance's victory in ROTJ pointless? How long are we going to push the same kind of story over and over again? Would Disney try to create their own equivalent to the Vongs or Abeloth? I doubt so, given they are extremely controversial. But if Disney had actually some bold people in charge to do what they wanted without caring about the risk, they would have. And they certainly would get away with it, since they enjoy a privilege position as controlling several successful IPs, but they decide to play it safe because they have a dedicated fanbase that will enjoy whatever is given to them and are actively hoping it becomes a monopoly over entertainment, or at least that is how they view it. There is saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" but everything has a boiling point... The Transformers movies used to make a lot of money, but the The Last Knight bombed hard that not even China could save it. Lets see what is Star Wars' limit and considering the current numbers in China aren't impressive and merchandise is taking a plunge, it may come sooner than you expect.