The Problem with the Star Wars Sequels

On Wednesday, Vanity Fair released a cover story about Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, containing the most information about the film apart from the trailer. Included was confirmation of the Knights of Ren, who were mentioned and briefly shown in The Force Awakens before being a no-show in The Last Jedi. The other major reveal is that Episode IX will mark the end of the Jedi and the Sith.

Some people were making a big deal out of this, but I’m frankly not surprised. The Sith died with the Emperor – neither Snoke nor Kylo Ren was Sith. As for the Jedi, the only person with formal Jedi training was Luke, who is now dead. The Force, in both its halves, is bigger than either the Jedi or the Sith, and the end of the two religions will not be the end of the Force any more than the end of the Catholic Church would be the end of Christianity.

It’s also not surprising given the direction Star Wars seems to want to go. Star Wars, predating but continuing with Disney’s acquisition in 2012, is trying to abandon the black and white Jedi versus Sith, light versus dark dichotomy in favor of a more morally ambiguous universe with a more balanced conception of the Force beyond the organized religious sects. Rise of Skywalker is what will usher in this post-Jedi Star Wars.

Putting that aside, I want take a stab at why the Star Wars sequels don’t quite measure up. The movies have been generally enjoyable and with the exception of Solo, have been box office successes. However, many fans, myself included, feel like the new films lack the magic of the original trilogy or the prequels, even if the new ones are better movies than the latter.

I don’t need to run down all the various explanations proposed as to why. The sequels are too political or overtly progressive. There are too many jokes. JJ Abrams was too timid to do something other than remake A New Hope. Rian Johnson doesn’t understand the lore. There wasn’t a time jump between the first and second movie. And so on.

Some of these have merit. Some don’t. However, I think the problem with the sequels is much deeper than irreverence or unoriginality. The problem with the sequels is the main story, the Resistance versus First Order, more personally Kylo Ren against Rey, just isn’t compelling. There just is not enough substance to make me care.

Timeline recap: After the death of the Emperor, what was left of the Empire fled into unknown space. There they met a dark side user named Snoke and reformed into the First Order. As they began to start trouble, General Leia formed the Resistance, a semi-independent military arm of the New Republic.

How powerful is the First Order? We don’t know. In The Force Awakens, they had Starkiller base, which they used to destroy the New Republic. But that was destroyed, and the Resistance seems to be able to challenge them without too much difficulty. But in The Last Jedi, which takes place right after Force Awakens, the destruction of Starkiller Base was no setback and the First Order had the galaxy under their heel. The Resistance is powerless to oppose them, facing impossible challenges, finding a way to beat them, and then being faced with another impossible challenge.

This matters because, in Return of the Jedi, the heroes won. To get back to where the bad guys have our heroes on the ropes, something major had to happen, an event the sequels gloss over. Instead, we get a villainous entity which is as powerful as the story requires it to be.

But in spite of this, the First Order isn’t particularly intimidating. Every time they’ve gone up against the Resistance, they’ve failed to accomplish their objective. As for leadership, Snoke was menacing, but he’s dead. Kylo Ren, who is one of the best characters in all of Star Wars, has the role of tormented antagonist, which means he can’t serve as the villainous presence looming over the entire trilogy. General Hux is incompetent and Captain Phasma is an empty shell in a cool suit of armor. In contrast with the Empire, whose leadership was always cool, efficient, and professional, the First Order leadership is always shouting and emotional.

And despite the ambiguity Star Wars seems to want to create with regards to the Force, the First Order is so clearly evil it’s almost cartoonish. Hux’s speech to the First Order army in Force Awakens was so on the nose his stormtroopers might as well have kept their left hands down and just done the Nazi salute. The Empire sought to maintain their control of the galaxy, which I can at least respect. The Separatists in the prequels wanted freedom from a restrictive, corrupt, and unworkable Galactic Senate, which I can get behind. The First Order? They’re just evil, something I neither respect nor connect with.

The heroes don’t fare much better. I’m going to ignore the Resistance as a whole, beyond the question raised earlier, in that the story doesn’t tell us how the victorious Rebel Alliance ended up decimated by the First Order and small enough to fit on the Millenium Falcon. I’m also going to ignore my problems with Rey, which could be 1000 words on its own. I instead want to focus on our main triad of heroes.

Each Star Wars trilogy has three main heroes. In the OT it was Luke, Leia, and Han. In the Prequels, it was Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme. This time around it’s Rey, Poe, and Finn. The problem is that Rey, Poe, and Finn aren’t a team the way Luke, Leia, and Han were. Once Luke meets Han at the Mos Eisley Cantina, at least two of the three heroes are essentially together the rest of the trilogy. For large chunks, they are all together. Rey, Poe, and Finn haven’t spent any time together through the first two movies, as Poe and Rey just met. They also don’t spend much time in pairs, especially in The Last Jedi.

This negatively affects the heroes in two ways. First, with each protagonist doing their own thing, someone inevitably gets shortchanged. In The Force Awakens, it’s Poe, who misses the middle hour of the movie and does nothing beyond destroying Starkiller base at the end. In The Last Jedi it’s Finn, who goes to Canto Bight, accomplishes nothing, and then is prevented from sacrificing himself at the end of the movie.

The second detriment is that the interplay of the main characters is what attaches us to them in the first place. Luke and Leia’s relationship in the first two movies is what makes the reveal that they are siblings impactful. Han Solo’s relationship with Leia is what cements him as one of cinema’s best characters. Had it been better executed, the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan in the prequels would have served to make Anakin’s descent to the dark side more believable and powerful. Very little of this exists in the sequel trilogy, especially for Poe, and so whatever character development does happen feels somewhat lackluster. The only possible exception is Rey, who is interacting with Luke and Kylo, two characters we already care about.

In conclusion, my problem is not really with the execution. It is the way the story has been structured, in which I have no connection with the heroes and no fear of the villains. I still remain cautiously optimistic for The Rise of Skywalker, but it has an uphill battle ahead if it wants to stick the landing for the sequel trilogy.

Speaking of optimism, we know that the next Star Wars trilogy is going to be separate from the first nine episodes, the first film will be arriving in 2022, and it is coming from Benioff and Weiss, the showrunners of Game of Thrones. Rumor has it that this trilogy will be adapted from the Knights of the Old Republic video game. If that is true, I will lose it. Those games are masterpieces, and seeing it on the big screen would be amazing. If what I have heard is true, Disney will have earned my trust.

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