The Rise of Skywalker is out, finally bringing the latest Star Wars trilogy to a close. Episodes 7, 8, and 9 have been epic, funny, sweet, sad, charming, and always hella fun. But after watching The Rise of Skywalker, I kept thinking about it and, in the process, finding myself liking it less and less. As I thought about, more and more reasons kept coming up, and I couldn’t help but compare it to The Last Jedi, which I really really liked. And yeah, some of my problems are kinda superficial – like the Stormtroopers’ new heights of comically terrible aim – but others I think get at something deeper. And that’s where I want to spend my time on this post.
* THIS POST CONTAINS MANY SPOILERS*
We need to talk about Star Wars, women, and the powers of the feminine spirit. One of the things I love about The Last Jedi is how it subverts so much of what came before, particularly in its challenge of more traditionally masculine views of power, social change, and identity through the characters of Leia, Holdo, Rose, and Rey. Every Star Wars film has looked at power as domination — in order to “win,” you must battle and best your opponent. Power hungry men wanting more domineering power to control over other power-hungry men. But The Last Jedistarts getting us to think about power as capacity-building and sustainable change. Part of my problem with The Rise of Skywalker is how it actively undoes all of The Last Jedi’s hard work in this area. In this lengthier-than-I-intended piece, I’m going to focus primarily on Poe and Finn’s character developments in The Last Jedi, how they learn to balance masculine and feminine energies thanks to Leia, Holdo, and Rose, and how all of their awesome growth gets completely undone in The Rise of Skywalker.
Full disclosure: I’m a dude. And for the purposes of this post, I’m going to be primarily talking about “masculine” and “feminine” as two ends of a spectrum of energies and tendencies that everyone expresses. This is not about sexuality, or sexual orientation, or gender identity/expression. I’m still learning how to write about these things, so thank you for your understanding. Also, please keep in mind that I’ve watched The Last Jedi a couple times and can pull it up at will to reference specific parts, while I’ve only seen Rise of Skywalker once in theaters. But here’s what I mean…
First off, let me tell you where I stand on The Last Jedi. I think the movie is amazing, and makes some genuinely bold and interesting creative choices that are rare to find in Star Warsmovies. And writing this piece has only made me love it more. In a lot of ways, it tried to wipe the slate clean while staying true to its roots. This Twitter thread does a good job of explaining this:
Thought Snoke was gonna be a big deal? Nope. We killed him way sooner than anyone expected. Thought Rey was gonna be Obi-Wan’s descendant or something? Nope. She’s the daughter of desperate junkers who sold her for easy money. Thought Luke was gonna be an awesome caring master? Nope. He’s grown bitter about the Jedi’s arrogance and selfishness with the force. Thought the typical down-to-the-wire sidequests that always work against all odds would keep working? Nope. They’re gonna fail. Because these missions are ridiculous. Let us show you just how ridiculous. What an incredible set up for wherever the future of the franchise wanted to go!
It’s not unlike how I felt about JJ Abrams’s first Star Trekreboot. It respected everything that came before but also wiped the slate clean to tell completely new stories with familiar characters without being beholden to what we’ve already seen. Only to have the sequel bring back Khan and everyone in the production make a huge deal about how it absolutely definitely was not Khan. Like, DUDE! You just did all that work to AVOID this situation! Why did you just walk right back into it?! That’s how I feel about The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.
Lets do this.
Poe and the Dead Heroes
One of the most repeated action hero character tropes in cinema is the maverick. You know the one – the one dude on a team who plays by his own rules. He’s cocky, confident, kinda abrasive at times, often misogynistic, and just too cool for school. He follows orders, but only as long as he agrees with them, and will make the riskiest choice no matter the cost, not only because he’s super proud of his own skills and knows he’s the best, but also because of a relentless stubbornness. Typically, he’ll rarely allow the same amount of freedom from others. There’s literally a movie about one coming out soon:
Movies always make these characters seem really cool, but I have a feeling they’d be hella annoying if you actually had to work alongside one. Constantly breaking the rules, constantly bragging, never really listening because they have their ideas they feel are right, etc. And they are tied directly to a particular conception of masculinity that celebrates absolute freedom of choice, arrogance, impulsiveness, individuality, and power as domination and control.
And that’s who Poe is. The cocky flyboy. And the first time we see him in The Last Jedi, he’s doing very typical cocky flyboy things: he’s leading a charge on the bad guys, the odds are completely against him and his team, but he refuses to give up or lose confidence. Things go south though, and it becomes pretty clear that their mission is at risk, so the person in charge – GENERAL Leia – orders that he fall back and retreat with the rest of the squad. Of course, as the cocky flyboy, he pushes back and even turns off his comms so he can keep doing whatever he wants with his life and the lives of his squad. Still, pretty typical action movie fare – that’s how the audience knows that a) the situation is REALLY bad, and b) Poe is a cocky flyboy who will do whatever it takes to get the job done no matter the cost — that’s why we like him. But then, things suddenly take a very different turn than we’ve come to expect from action movies — we’re forced to face the natural consequences of the cocky flyboy’s reckless actions.
Most action movies, including those in the Star Wars, franchise don’t want us to think about just how many individual lives are being destroyed. So lesser characters will wear masks, will be aliens, will have no close-ups on their uniquely individual faces, so that we don’t think of them as people. They’re just another cool explosion. Think about all the stormtroopers who have died, or all the TIE fighters that have been blown to pieces, or all the identical-looking aliens across all the Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc. We don’t get to spend any time with them before they die, otherwise it would be emotionally draining and maybe even morally questionable.
But in The Last Jedi, one shot lets us know this will be different: we see Leia look at the screen showing the losses the rebellion just suffered because of Poe’s actions. Those were individual people whose lives mattered.
When Poe returns, focused solely on the fact that they did in fact destroy a Dreadnaught, Leia patiently tries to show him the error of his ways. She slaps our stereotypical hero and DEMOTES HIM. She needs him to learn that some problems can’t be solved by jumping into an X-Wing and blowing things up. But “Those were heroes,” Poe says. “Dead heroes,” Leia replies. “No leaders.”
This is the crux of the lesson she wants him to learn. Whereas he can only see things in terms of the next conflict that must be won through battle and contest for greater personal glory, she has to consider what that future world they’re fighting for will look like, who will survive to enjoy it, and – importantly – who will be left to lead it. A destroyed dreadnought and a bunch of dead heroes mean nothing if it means that any potential future leader died among them. Poe is chasing the opportunity to be a hero, while Leia is looking for the development of future leaders. In other words, the masculine tendency to prioritize conflict, war, and competition clashes with the feminine tendency to nurture, develop, and cultivate.
After Leia falls into a coma, Holdo takes command, and man is Poe a jerk to her. Here’s this incredible woman, being forced to step into the shoes of a legend at a time when all hope seems lost for their entire cause. She’s suffered lots of casualties, has to figure the best plan for her people, has to balance her leadership style with that of her beloved predecessor, keep morale up against all odds, AND deal with this recently demoted pilot who keeps getting in her face demanding answers and not following orders. Best of all, he’s convinced himself that Leia – his superior, his mentor, his friend who just slapped and demoted him – would understand.
Anyway, he stages a mutiny to buy some time but their plan fails. Leia wakes up and stuns him, and Poe wakes up inside an evacuating transport ship headed to an abandoned rebel base. This was Holdo’s quiet and confident plan all along. And where’s Holdo? Voluntarily and quietly left behind on the big ship to sacrifice her life for the sake of the rebels and the rebellion itself. As Leia so beautifully says, Holdo “was more interested in protecting the light, than she was in seeming like a hero.”
Here is the face of a man who has had to be taught the same lesson twice by the same supernaturally patient woman:
And where does all this patience come from? I think it comes from her desire to develop leaders who will make thoughtful choices. She’s literally coaching him to insights that he needs to continue to be of value to the rebellion. Leia sees the incredible potential in Poe, but also the more destructive tendencies of his more masculine energies.
Why is all of the above important? Because, as is the case for most thoughtful screenwriting, a character’s narrative experiences should have a satisfactory payoff before the story is through, and Poe’s comes as the rebellion is poised to make its last stand.
Luke shows up, Kylo blasts him with all he’s got, but he’s still standing. From the base, Poe seems Kylo coming down to face him. What would old Poe do? He would want to go out there with all the rebellion’s got for one final glorious stand alongside Luke Skywalker, the legendary Jedi master himself! And that’s exactly what Finn suggests! But, Poe’s learned his lesson now and stops him. Instead of reacting impulsively, he stops Finn and takes some time to think.
Finn is adamant! “We have to fight!” Another temptation for the old Poe. But Holdo’s words come back to him. There must be another way. Because they must survive to keep the spark of hope for the rebellion alive. He’s not thinking solely about himself anymore. That’s when he notices those ice creatures are gone, which means there must be a way out! “Follow me!” Poe tells the group. But everyone looks at Leia, who characteristically responds, “what are you looking at me for? Follow him.” Poe has officially become leader material. He’s no longer trying to be the hero. He’s no longer asking his fellow rebels to become dead heroes. He’s leading them into the future of the rebellion. And in what is probably one of the most significant pair of shots for Poe’s storyline, Poe and Leia exchange knowing glances; his, of focus and new insight, and hers, of approval, pride, and perhaps even relief. His masculine ideal of individuality and recklessness has given way to more feminine ideals of community and collective good.
Sadly, Poe’s growth does not extend to The Rise of Skywalker, where he spends most of his time away from the main work of the rebels on a fetch quest with Rey and Finn. Then, after getting a promotion to general following Leia’s death, the lesson he learns is to randomly make Finn a co-general because “we’re all in this together”(?) And then get EVERY SINGLE PERSON EVER REMOTELY TIED TO THE REBELLION to join him on an attack that he’s really hoping will work out but is actually pretty sure will be the death of them all? Where is the recognition that they are the spark that will light the fire of the rebellion? Where is the concern for individual lives? Where is the sense of personal responsibility over the lives of each and every person he calls upon to join them? And then to add insult to injury, the worst of his masculine tendencies come out swinging when he keeps trying to get Zorii Bliss to kiss him. Ugh. The. Worst. So gross.
The films give Finn a similar treatment.
Finn, the Dummy
Finn has been indoctrinated in the most toxically masculine tendencies possible: taken and trained through violence and fear, the First Order is all about power as domination, conflict, submission, oppression, and extremes. Someone refuses to comply? Beat them. Kill them. Destroy their whole planet until they do! There is no room for discussion, for education, or personal growth. It’s kill or be killed. The ends justify the means. Hurt and kill as much as it takes to accomplish the goal. Coherence and integrity be damned!
When we meet Finn in The Force Awakens, he’s a stormtrooper who suddenly can’t perform in battle. He makes the choice to not kill on command and we’re told that it’s the first time he has failed to comply — implying that he has killed aplenty in the past. Already that’s one thing The Rise of Skywalkerundoes when he shares that he couldn’t go through with his first mission. But that’s neither here nor there right now. He decides to run from the First Order and saves Poe, the only rebel he’s seen so far. Finn clearly idolizes Poe to an extent. He wears his jacket, follows his lead, and has a great deal of love and affection for him.
In The Last Jedi, Finn is driven by the love of the new friends he has made, especially Rey. It’s the first thing he asks about when he wakes up from his injuries. He also meets Rose and together they go on an impossible mission that a lot of people seem to trash talk as being pointless. To me, calling a subplot pointless implies the feeling that it had no payoff, or at least not a satisfying one. So what is the point/narrative payoff of their ultimately doomed adventure? I think there are several:
First, it plays an important part in Poe’s journey, as he gets one more confirmation about the error of his selfish ways. Their crazy idea fails, and his direct disobedience puts more people’s lives in danger.
Second, when they’re on that casino planet, Rose helps Finn see some of the wider implications of both sides of the conflict: the corruption and evil of the Empire and First Order’s rule as well as what it means to stand up to such evil. It becomes more than a simple good vs. evil battle. The harm caused by the Empire is more than what the Rebels see and feel up in their battle cruisers and X-Wings or down in their rebel bases: animals are being abused, children are being beaten for labor, and people are hurting underneath the lavish cover of a fancy and successful casino town. On the flip side, standing up to the Empire and the First Order is more than just winning the next aerial space battle or hand-to-hand or saber-to-saber combat, it’s about doing the right thing, bringing hope to the hopeless, and inspiring the next generation to do the same.
Third, it develops an awesome relationship between Finn and Rose – whether it’s romantic or not is irrelevant. All of the adventures they go on are driven primarily by Rose. Every step of the way, when Finn doesn’t know what to do or wants to give up, Rose is there to keep him – and them – moving forward for all the right reasons.
Fourth, the biggest payoff of all, Rose saving Finn’s life. All Finn has known to this point is what the First Order indoctrinated him with and, more recently, what he’s seen from the rebels, but mainly Poe. So, of course, when Kylo is about to blast through their defenses with that cannon, Finn does the only thing he knows how: disobey orders to fall back and sacrifice his life for the good of all. OF COURSE that makes sense to him in that moment. It’s what heroes do. Sacrifice one life to save hundreds. And the only way he has ever known to strive for change is with more fighting, more death. But, as Leia said, that’s what DEAD heroes do. So Rose risks her own life to save his. Sacrificing one life for one life. Even in that moment, Finn has no idea how to process this! He actually has the nerve to be ANGRY at her! “Why would you do that?!” is the first thing he asks her as she sits bleeding in her cockpit. And he unbuckles her not to get her to safety, but to shake her in his anger! How DARE she take away his hero moment? It’s what all action movies have taught us! That one hero moment will change everything, right? Right?! WRONG! He MAY have destroyed that cannon, but then what? Ultimately, that action would have done little damage against the enemy, but irreversible damage to the rebellion with the loss of Finn’s life.
Finn is indignant! “Why would you do that?” he demands! But then Rose delivers the lines that I claim, here and now, as the most important lines in the entire franchise:
I saved you, dummy. That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.
Then sparks literally fly in the background as she goes in for the kiss:
These lines alone makes their entire relationship-building adventure worth it. They completely flip the script on the franchise’s entire conceptualization of power, change, and conflict. And it’s made possible because of the intricate groundwork laid down earlier in the film with Leia, Holdo, and Poe. It even connects to Rey and Kylo’s plotlines as Rey decides to meet Kylo and try to turn him, instead of killing him.
So yeah, I’m disappointed in The Rise of Skywalker. Not only because of the gross disservice and disrespect it shows Rose’s character (and which other people have already written about much better than I can) but also because it completely disregards the lesson she risked her life to teach. Faced with a similar choice in the latest film – with yet another underused female character – what does Finn do? He decides to pull the hero move AND FIGHT WHAT HE HATES by turning that gun around and destroying the bridge of that lead cruiser and risking becoming a dead hero! Ugh.
Wrapping Things Up
It’s no coincidence that all of the characters teaching these lessons in The Last Jedi are women. Nor that all the characters needing to learn these lessons are men. Might as well have called the movie Star Wars: The Superhuman Patience of Women When Dealing With Men. But maybe it wasn’t as catchy. And I’m not at all saying that all men this or all women that. What I’m saying is that there are more masculine tendencies that tend to pull towards conflict and which see power as domination, and more feminine tendencies that tend to pull towards reconciliation and which see power as capacity-building and empowerment.
And that THAT is the central conflict of The Last Jedi — between unsustainable and sustainable approaches to social change; between the view that says the ends justify the means no matter the cost, and the one that says the ends and the means must be coherent if we want the change to mean anything; between individualistic power-hungry masculinity, and community-centered and nurturing femininity. And that the lessons learned (and earned) through some deliberate and thoughtful screenwriting in The Last Jedi were Thanos-snapped into oblivion in The Rise of Skywalker with some lazy and, frankly, disrespectful screenwriting.
And you BEST BELIEVE I’m gonna tie all of this to my faith. Here’s what ʻAbdu’l-Bahá said over a century ago:
The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.
The balance he refers to is exactly what I saw The Last Jedi working towards accomplishing. Which is also why seeing it so thoroughly undone in The Rise of Skywalker feels to disheartening.
So yeah. That’s that.
And I haven’t even talked about Kylo and Rey! Daisy Ridley’s performance was probably my favorite part of The Rise of Skywalker. She absolutely killed it. I’m all out of steam to go into her character across the last two movies, but my problems are generally the same as those I’ve already described above. Plus, lots of people have written a lot more about that aspect, particularly when it comes to the unhealthy relationship they have. More than anything, I wish her parents had remained “nobodies” and then at the end, she had replied with “Just Rey.”
Thank you for coming on this journey with me. For the reasons above, and many others, I can’t help but feel like The Rise of Skywalker actively and lazily tries to undo what was done so beautifully in The Last Jedi. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that The Rise of Skywalker was made from a checklist of common complaints about TLJ:
- Didn’t think Rey, Finn, and Poe spent enough time together? Let’s make them go on random missions full of convenient coincidences!
- Didn’t like Finn and Rose’s subplot or romantic possibilities? Let’s straight up ditch Rose for the entirety of the movie — but wait! Let’s make it HER choice. I mean Finn DID ask her if she wanted to go with him.
- Wish we made Finn at least force-sensitive? We won’t tell you that’s what we’re doing, but we’ll let him have “feelings” about things whenever it’ll help the plot move forward.
- Sad that Snoke was killed off too soon? Didn’t like how that opened up a whole new world of unexpected possibilities? Don’t worry! He was a puppet all along! It was Palpatine the whooooole time! Remember him? From the other movies you said you like?
- Didn’t like grumpy Luke? It’s ok. We’ll just have him show up and say he was wrong about all the really well-thought-out reasons he gave the last time. And which Yoda actually agreed with in some of the most beautiful dialogue about education, failure, growth, and mentorship.
- Didn’t like Kylo and Rey’s ForceTime abilities? Guess what? Now they can ForceDrop lightsabers to each other too! Also, they’re a dyad. But don’t worry about what that means. Just go with it.
- Uh oh. People are saying Poe and Finn might have romantic feelings for each other! Quick, let’s make Poe a smarmy creep so people don’t think he’s gay! No man who’s ever struggling with his sexuality would ever be this blatant with his heterosexuality!
- Wait, but what about Finn? Eureka! Let’s give him a different potential heterosexual interest in each movie but never commit fully to any of them! But this time, let’s make people think he wants to tell the first girl he loves her, and make him meet a new girl. People will definitely think he likes the new one. You know, because they’re the same color!
- Also, here’s Han again, and Lando too, just in case you need more things from past installments to distract you from how none of this makes any sense. And did we mention Palpatine is back?
May the (feminine) force(s) be with you, always.
Prologue: Kylo – The Lost Cause?
Ok, one last thing. Let’s talk briefly about Kylo Ren. Others with much greater expertise in the areas of abuse have written insightfully about Kylo and some of his abuse tendencies when it comes to his relationship with Rey. That dynamic is just not healthy in the least. But Rey still decides it’s worth the struggle to try and reach Kylo rather than kill him. By the end of The Last Jedi, every seeming barrier keeping Kylo from escaping the dark side is removed, primarily seen in his murder of Snoke. Now there is nothing forcing his hand, manipulating his emotions, or pushing him along, and what does he do? He CHOOSES to continue down the dark path, refusing to stop the aerial assault on the rebels, and even inviting Rey to share the throne of the First Order with him. But she refuses, knocks him out, and escapes. Hux walks in, asks what happened, and Kylo INSTANTLY turns on Rey, telling Hux that Rey murdered Snoke, and must be stopped. So no, Kylo does not earn that sudden turn in The Rise of Skywalker.
Ok. I’m done for real now.
But, I mean…so was Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, so who knows. I might return when you least expect me to.