Note that this is yet another Star Wars-related post because for some inexplicable reason the damned franchise won’t get out of my head. Hopefully it’s the last one for a while so I can get back to TTR/TTS. Also note that the opinions expressed herein are my own, and you are welcome to your own opinions regardless of whether or not they match up with mine, even if I personally think your opinions are wrong and you deserve to be laughed at for having them.
Point 1: The Tone
The series is not meant to be taken in any manner other than that of a callback to the adventure serials George Lucas enjoyed in his youth. While the series as a whole is not slavishly devoted to the pure pulp of the works that inspired it, as is evident in the darker turns introduced with The Empire Strikes Back, it is ultimately meant to, in the end, take those old stories and then proceed to tell them in new ways without losing sight of their essence.
Going all grimdark with Star Wars misses the entire point of the series, given that many modern audiences don’t appreciate the context into which the movies first entered the popular consciousness. After the rampant melodrama in mass entertainment in earlier years, cinema entered into increasingly dark, realist, and psychological periods, with the era into which George Lucas first made his mark being one known to some as New Hollywood, during which the biggest movies often were more artistic in their aims and often rather cynical. This in part explains how Lucas’ strange little movie managed to distinguish itself from all the other major releases coming out of Hollywood that year.
The movie called back to the films of yesteryear, which were more melodramatic, sillier, and more idealistic, even if they were also a lot kitschier in their stylings. Even with the darker turns the story took in the following installments, everything still managed to end on an idealistic note, which was fitting given the nature of the story.
It’s not that I don’t have a theory for why people seem eager to take the series apart and make it darker and edgier. People have grown weary of simplistic blockbusters in the modern age of Hollywood, an age that Star Wars’ massive success helped bring about. With this much saturation in the movie market, it’s hard to appreciate the earnest and simplistic way the movie communicates to audiences. In a way, the series is a victim of its own success. Some people want it to be different because what originally made it so different has been copied to death by other blockbusters, if to, for the most part, lesser success.
The problem with that is that once you take the franchise to darker places in side stories, the overall optimistic tone begins to seem questionable given the new information. How does one reconcile the inscrutable, yet seemingly benevolent Force with some writers’ later attempts to question this part of the premise? How does one reconcile the eventual conclusion that everything will turn out for the better at the very end despite the occasional victories of evil with the urge some writers have to say, no, in this case the darkness wins, and that’s final?
Point 2: Manichean Morality
Relating to the above points on the premise of the series is the rather simplistic morality of the story. Something that bugs me a lot about some of the non-movie material that was released as part of the franchise was a tendency to split the Force into a light and dark side, with the implication that both needed to be balanced out. This bothered me because one, it conflicted with how I interpreted the Force as laid out in the movies, and two, because it gave me the sense that people wanted to revise the morality of the Star Wars universe and make it into something more resembling that of Dungeons & Dragons or whatever other franchises are out there with moral ambiguity.
The Dark Side (note the capitalization of the words in the term) is not a different point of view. It is meant to represent a corruption of what is natural. The Dark Side is to the Force what cancer is to the body. There is no light or dark side, just the Force and its corruption in the form of what groups like the Sith espouse.
It’s why the climax of Return of the Jedi is so important. Luke’s physical triumph over Vader is not treated as such. Listen to the music during that sequence and you hear something mournful, because it represents the darkest moment of the story, when Luke finds himself sorely tested on a spiritual level upon seeing the benefits of giving in to the Dark Side. In fact, after disarming Vader, the music segues into the Emperor’s theme, indicating that the bad guys are this close to winning. Luke’s real victory comes when he rejects the pull of the Dark Side and decides to save his father’s life by affirming his decision to remain a Jedi instead of becoming Palpatine’s new apprentice. There is no moral ambiguity there. By making the choice that he does, Luke becomes the ideal Jedi and a pure force for good, in this way not only surpassing his father as a warrior, but also surpassing Yoda and Obi-Wan, who had been revealed as having manipulated a young man in the direction of killing his own father due to their lack of faith in the man who had once been Anakin Skywalker. It’s the culmination of Luke’s character development, as he has at that point mastered himself on both a physical and spiritual level.
People miss the point when they say that the Jedi were wrong to believe what they did about the Force, and that Yoda was simply biased in his teachings to Luke. Rather, what they should have taken from the movies is that while the Jedi had the right idea, the way they went about it was often flawed, just as the doings of a religion’s representatives do not necessarily reflect on the teachings of the religion itself.
It’s also annoying, if understandable given the at times questionable execution, when people completely misinterpret the Prophecy. There was no balancing in the Force by destroying the Jedi and Sith alike. The Jedi resemble Taoists in that they try to live in harmonious balance with nature, in this case, the Force.
While the original trilogy had the moment of triumph of all that was good be Luke’s rejection of the Dark Side, in the context of what was revealed in the prequels, the real victory thus comes after that moment. Anakin had seemingly failed to fulfill his part of the Prophecy when he joined the Sith and became Darth Vader. However, once Luke makes his decision, all the moving parts finally click into their proper places. It is Vader who can only look between his master and the son he wanted to so badly protect. It is Vader who says nothing as he is forced to choose between a continuation of his current life or certain death for the sake of saving someone he loves. It is Anakin Skywalker who makes the fateful choice to sacrifice himself in order to protect the person he cherished most. And in doing so, he destroys the Sith, destroys the corruption in the Force, and thus brings it into balance.
There’s no moral ambiguity there: good triumphs over evil. That’s all there is to it.
Well, at least that’s what it seemed to be until a certain storyline in The Clone Wars was confirmed as part of the canon. Honestly, I can’t even keep up with this franchise anymore. I’m too old and have too many responsibilities in the real world to geek out and memorize all sorts of minutiae like I could in my youth. But anyway, fuck everything; I still prefer my original conception of the story’s morality. Maybe if Disney sells the franchise somewhere down the line or something, a new canon will be established.
Still, regardless of the above, if I wanted moral ambiguity, I’d just check out another franchise which had such a thing as part of its overall premise. Star Wars is ultimately a very idealistic story, with a simplistic and idealistic morality to match. To take that away is to take away part of what makes it Star Wars and not some other story. Sure, you can play around with things as some entries in the franchise have, but to outright argue for some sort of moral ambiguity or balancing of the light and dark sides is to write stories that just aren’t Star Wars. When you introduce elements that contradict the very premise of the work, you either have to do them very well so that everything fits nicely, or you don’t do them at all. It’s why I didn’t mind when George Lucas clarified that anyone arguing that the Dark Side wasn’t necessarily a bad thing was just deluding themselves. In the end, for better or worse, the simplicity of the franchise is a defining part of it. It’s what makes it childish in many respects, but it is also what makes it easy to digest and relate to.