Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker, and the weight of audience expectations

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After watching The Rise of Skywalker and following some of the initial internet response to the final film in the Skywalker saga, I’m still processing through the feelings I have about it and why I feel that way. And the things I keep coming back to that underlie my reaction have to do with the franchise (particularly the new trilogy), TRoS in particular, and storytelling in general. But before we begin, I wanted to offer a few caveats:

This post is long and will contain spoilers. If you have not yet seen the movie and don’t want spoilers, stop reading now.

Also, I loved The Last Jedi, and that will be a significant part of this discussion as well. If your response to that opinion is to tell me I’m wrong, please don’t. I’ve heard the arguments. They haven’t changed my mind. This post isn’t aimed at changing your mind about TLJ and isn’t intended to spark a heated debate about the nature of Star Wars.

And finally, I’ll be taking a somewhat critical stance of the new movie. If you loved it and don’t want to hear why I didn’t, feel free to stop reading now. I won’t mind.

Baby Yoda and I will wait a moment while you decide.

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Still here? Okay, then let’s do this.

I love Star Wars. I’ve (mostly) enjoyed watching the movies and the expanded universe as it continues to grow. And as the Skywalker saga comes to a close, I waited for the release of Episode IX with great excitement. I had the ticket months in advance and anticipated seeing how the final movie would wrap up all that has come before. I wanted to love it. I expected to love it.

But I didn’t.

In the end, it left me disappointed. And frustrated. And I honestly wish that wasn’t the case, but here we are.

Let’s start with the positives. J. J. Abrams is a huge talent, and he clearly brought a great deal of vision to this movie, as well as love for the franchise and subject material. The cast is fantastic. The visuals are stunning. It’s exciting and it works hard to bring together threads from all throughout the franchise into a fitting conclusion. There is a lot to appreciate about what Abrams and company gave us. My issue with the movie is not so much that it did things badly. My issue lies in what it didn’t do.

But let’s back up a little.

Focusing mostly on the new trilogy, I loved both episodes VII and VIII. After the Star Wars prequels got too big, too bogged down in special effects, and generally lost the heart of what many people loved about the franchise—Abrams recaptured the original magic with nostalgia and love. In effects, in homage, the very fabric of episode VII took us back to where it all began. The movie felt familiar, and familiar was what we needed. It had been a long time since Star Wars felt that way, and The Force Awakens showed a renewed vision, a return to what so many loved about these stories. It was the return to a galaxy far, far away that we needed to see.

And once Abrams had achieved that re-centering of the franchise, I was surprised and delighted to see Rian Johnson use The Last Jedi to take risks with the world and characters we knew and loved. Johnson drew heavily from what came before—and showed love for the source material in his own way—but he also dove deeper. In playing with expectations, Johnson took a step back to examine the Star Wars mythos itself. He still told a dramatic Star Wars adventure with skill and flair, but he also embraced the complexity of the characters and the larger world. He built on the foundation already in place while taking the franchise in new directions. Rather than holding onto what had already been done, Johnson’s vision allowed the franchise to grow, to become something more and find its place in the modern day.

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TLJ raises some important questions about the Star Wars universe, and its themes are immensely relevant. These are themes and ideas only arrived at because Johnson chose to embrace difficult twists and deeper complexity. In TLJ, Luke is not a flawless hero who overcame his darkness once and never needs to struggle again. Kylo Ren does not face kindness and immediately renounce his old ways. Rey’s search for identity ends in disappointment and leaves her to find her own place in the galaxy. None of these characters gets easy answers. Instead, the movie confronts ideas of hero worship, fanaticism, identity—leaving the audience with a sense that life is complicated, but common, everyday people are able to make a difference. This is an idea that grows from the Star Wars mythos but carries such weight and relevance to audiences now and in the future.

The Rise of Skywalker was a chance to continue building on the daring direction of TLJ. With such growth already set in motion, the final movie of the saga had the chance to pay homage to the previous films and draw everything to a close—but to do it with new awareness and a willingness to grow into something greater still.

But rather than embrace this challenge, TRoS backtracked to safe ground and stay there in the comfort of the familiar and the expected. Throughout the film, every time a major decision needed to be made for storytelling, TRoS takes the safe route. Rather than complexity, it offers spectacle and reassurance and suffers because of it.

In a recent interview, Johnson captured the idea I’ve been dwelling on since watching the movie: “Even my experience as a fan, you know if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like ‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards.”

For me as a viewer, The Rise of Skywalker delivered everything I expected without surprise. It doesn’t take risks. Indeed, it backs away and tries to retcon nearly every risk taken in the previous film. Let’s walk through a few comparisons.

In The Last Jedi, Rose Tico became a point of controversy for reasons I still don’t understand. In a story full of heroic (mostly male) figures rushing to throw themselves headlong into violence to solve their problems, Rose is the embodiment of steadfast faith, loyalty, and belief in goodness. She helps give the movie a strong heart in the way that she never backs down from the challenge, but never loses sight of who she is in the process.

Rose is a highlight of TLJ due to her uniqueness in the franchise and the relative scarcity of this sort of character in action films in general.But after the film’s release, the relentless and shameful social media backlash against the character and Kelly Marie Tran, gained a lot of attention and threw weight at not seeing Rose in the continued story.

I don’t know the actual reasons for Rose Tico’s all-but-absence from Rise of Skywalker, and as such, I won’t speculate further. Relegating her to a nearly meaningless background character could be considered the “safe” decision for such a flashpoint of a character, but the lack of her strength and goodness leave a hole in the TRoS that did not need to be there.

Next, as mentioned earlier, the decision in The Last Jedi to make Rey be nobody—the abandoned child of nameless parents—is a bold step against the idea of a powerful chosen one destined to save the everyone else from impending evil. This idea is given poignant resonance in the final shot of the movie with the kid and his broom looking up at the sky and believing his is capable of greatness. Heroism does not need to be for a select few. Heroes can be anyone willing to rise to the challenge. We need more everyday people willing to be heroes—whether they feel qualified or not.

The Rise of Skywalker chooses to reverse that message. Making Rey a Palpatine creates a new link to the previous films, but it weakens the message of what has come before and ultimately loses power because we’ve seen countless stories already of people forgotten backstories and destines of greatness. Seeing Rey persevere in spite of lacking any sort of qualifications is a much more powerful story than the one we were gives.

I’ll return to Rian Johnson again because apparently he is capable of putting into words so many of my own feelings about storytelling. In a Twitter excerpt attributed to Johnson, he describes how in the original trilogy, the reveal that Vader is Luke’s father is the hardest revelation that could have come at that moment. Rather than Vader simply being a villain, their relationship brings a great deal more complexity to both their characters and introduces new challenges for Luke to overcome in his own identity and journey.

In contrast, the reveal of Rey Palpatine has the opposite effect. She is desperate to know who she is and where she has come from. Revealing her powerful parentage—as distasteful as it is—hands her a place in the galaxy. The choice to stand against the emperor is not as difficult once all the answers have been revealed. Her greater challenge would be to remain nobody—with no special parents or ties to the heroes of old—and still face the choice of whether she will rise to the moment when the challenge comes her way. Will she forge her own identity or wait for someone else to show her the way?

And then we have Kylo Ren. In TFA, we meet him as a moody emo kid, torn with conflict, isolated, and striving to uphold the (bad side of) the family legacy. TLJ carries this conflict further as Ren weighs the two halves of himself—in some powerful interactions with Rey—but ultimately tips the scales toward a desire for power. His character acting as a nuanced but ultimately selfish and entitled villain is something fresh and ultimately relevant beyond the world of Star Wars. Many in the audience want to see him redeemed, but Rey’s believe that Ben Solo still lives is not enough to cause redemption if Kylo Ren is determine to hold onto his chosen identity.

TRoS could have handled this two ways. He could have remained a villain, showing us the power of pride, selfishness, and stubborn entitlement to carry people down a dark road. Or, we could have watched Ben Solo truly grapple with the forces inside of himself, reckon with his own failings, and come out the other side on a new trajectory.

Episode IX gives us neither of these character arcs. With nods to his old conflict, passing interactions with Rey, and a single encounter with Leia—Ben Solo’s inner turmoil somehow resolves itself. Ben is then given a superficial role in the rest of the move—leading to a brief happy ending and his peaceful passing into the force. It’s a lackluster Hollywood resolution aimed at giving people the happy ending they were hoping for—kiss and all.

Finally—Palpatine. I won’t linger here long, but Palpatine’s return is crammed into the final movie with awkward exposition and half-explanations. It feels like an attempt to bring unity to the saga but is underdeveloped in delivery and execution. Rather than a conflict grown out of the choices and consequences of TLJ, TRoS nearly ignores the previous movie in favor of a simple explanation—that a familiar villain was behind it all. Individual consequences don’t really matter and the great evil of the galaxy can be defeated with teamwork and fancy flying. The end.

I think I’ve made my point, so let’s just hurry through the rest of these. Each twist, each major story point, there are different ways the plot could go. It’s not that I wanted the alternate version of every one of these scenarios. Rather, it’s further illustration that the writers chose the every route every time they had the option to take a risk.

Of course, Chewie doesn’t die—he was on a different transport.

Of course, 3PO gets his memories back—his best friend wouldn’t let him down.

Of course, Ren saves Rey’s life so they can share the kiss everyone has been waiting for. Then of course he dies after his dramatic sacrifice.

Rey doesn’t risk the dark side. Palpatine is destroyed by his own evil.

Poe struggles with leadership, but the power of friendship leads the way.

Lando shows up exactly on time.

Apparently, the entire galaxy is able to get fighting craft together in time to save the day.

Almost all our heroes come through relatively unscathed to share in sweet victory.

These story beats are familiar. We see them coming. TRoS feels like it internalizes every criticism leveled against its predecessor and bends over backwards to appease those who were unhappy with TLJ.

Okay, we’ll pause here and take a breath. This is a lot of criticism, but the above reasons show why I was unable to shake my disappointment during the film—and why I haven’t warmed to it in the days following. The safety of the storytelling, the predictability of the plot, kept pulling me out of an experience I wanted to lose myself it. But it wasn’t all bad. The movie does deliver moments that come close to having real impact.

Rey using force lightning by accident is a great moment—as is her tangible fear that she’s going to cross that line between light and dark.

We have the moment of realization that C-3PO is going to have to sacrifice his memories—and thus his very identity—if they are to have any hope of succeeding in this fight.

We have the fight between Rey and Ren near the ocean, and their struggle to each turn the other. Indeed, it could be said that they have hung their own identities on the belief that the other could follow. If Rey can turn Ren, then there is hope for her as well. If Ren can turn Rey, then perhaps his decisions have not all been a mistake.

The conversation about how the First Order wins by making people feel that they are alone strikes at something very true about fascism and resistance.

The revelation that this new fleet can destroy planets at whim should be terrifying.

Finn finally meets others like himself who have thrown off the chains of the empire.

Leia’s sacrifice should have been a moment of bittersweet accomplishment and tragedy.

Rey’s “death” could have been more than a standard gimmick.

Honestly, even Hux’s reversal had the potential to be something truly effective.

These moments and more do have (or at least could have had) real impact on the audience. However, they are glossed over in the interest of moving the plot forward and/or reversed a short time later. Rather than diving deeper into these tangible moments of significance, the movie gets caught up in what it wants to be and loses the complexity it might otherwise have achieved.

The characters in TRoS rarely stop to talk. They are defined by a single conflict or a couple characteristics. Rather than giving the story and characters room to breathe, the plot hurdles from one action sequence to the next, rushing toward the dramatic conclusion we all know is coming.

Let’s take a moment to look outside of Star Wars. Whether you enjoy them or not, there is no denying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has captured a place in the public imagination. One thing that stands out about the MCU movies is the heroes. They are powerful, unique individuals called on time and again to save the day. At the same time, they remain complex and deeply flawed individuals. They fight, they fail, the grow and seek to do better. We care about the larger stories because we care about the people at the center.

In contrast, X-Men: Apocalypse is one movie that I will forever rant about for failing me. With a fantastic cast and all the possibility it could want, Apocalypse gets so caught up in its world-threatening plot that it forgets to create a story worth telling. The world nearly ends in the film, but without any level of meaningful character development, the film’s finale sputters into nothing and is easily forgotten.

Epic stories do not rest on epic moments. The grand stories that last are carried by the small meaningful moments amidst the adventure. Consider Lord of the Rings—one of the defining works of the epic fantasy genre. It’s a huge story, but one of the most memorable moments to come out of the movies is found in the brief quiet between the various conflicts. Exhausted, nearly broken, entirely on their own—Sam reminds Frodo that there is good in the world, and that it is worth fighting for. It’s moments like that which give the story meaning. It’s because of moments like that, that we care what comes next.

As I’ve reflected on these things that feel like such shortcomings of the newest film, I’ve already stated that I think it’s an issue of delivering a safe story as opposed to taking risks. But now I’d like to take that idea one step further. I think that the reason TRoS plays things so safe is because it is fully aware of its place at the end of the saga, the backlash of the previous film, and a desperate desire to deliver the conclusion fans are waiting for. And not only does this desire to please hold it back, it also causes it to breach its own rules for the sake of spectacle. The sudden revelation that the new star destroyers can destroy planets, Palpatine’s cult of thousands, Rey and Ben’s ability to transfer material between locations through the force—even healing with the force—these are things that have little to no precedence in the film saga. And even if they might have worked, none of them are given enough time in the new movie. Instead, they are jarring changes in the rules of the universe delivered without explanation for the sake of effect.

And that’s the problem. TRoS inherited a lot of expectation. It’s the final movie. The fans had expectations. It had to be epic. It had to tie up quite a few story threads. It wanted to pay homage to the Star Wars legacy. These are challenges for any storyteller. However, in the end, it got so caught up in being the final movie, that it lost sight of being its own movie. The action is superficial, and the characters are lost in service of a plot tied inextricable to its own legacy.

If the expectations and desires of the audience are given more weight than the demands of storytelling, then any story will suffer. Any storyteller whose primary goal is to please as wide an audience as possible is going to find themselves limited from the very beginning. Story must come first. Because I think Johnson has it right—meeting expectations at the expense of story is a mistake.

Sure, there is absolutely an audience for movies that meet all the audience’s expectations. Early reviews of TRoS from many individuals are leaning toward high praise. People have loved this movie. It’s made them happy. It’s made them hopeful. If that’s you, I’m honestly glad. There are times when we simply want a story to comfort us. Many people love Star Wars, and that in and of itself has a great deal of worth.

So let’s broaden this discussion beyond Star Wars. For my part, I’ve seen so many movies that checked all the boxes. They were entertaining. If you asked, I’d probably call them good movies. But off the top of my head, there are so many “good” movies that have fallen out of my mind. They didn’t linger beyond the credits. They didn’t have anything more to offer or to say.

In contrast, there are the movies that take the risk. It’s in the movies that persist. From Casablanca to Jaws to The Last Jedi—there have been movies that surprise audiences. They don’t go exactly how we expect. They surprise us. They make us think.

Good storytelling should leave us seeing some piece of the word differently than we did before we encountered that story. It doesn’t have to be something huge. It doesn’t need to be “a message.” But if a story doesn’t carry something underneath the spectacle, then it has nothing to offer in the long term. And this isn’t confined to any form or style of story.

I’ve read romance novels that deliver powerful characters, keen insights, and inspiring hope and romance—even as they follow the expectations of the genre. I’ve seen horror movies that are scary in all the ways you expect—and still leave you turning them over in your mind days or weeks later.

“High art” or “mass media. “Genre” or “classic.” It’s not about labels. If we can predict where a story is going, if the concerns inherent to the story do not rise above entertainment value, if creators deliver content that is comfortable, familiar, and safe—then that is all the story will ever be.

There are times when we want safe. There are times we want to be comfortable. This is not a bad thing. But I don’t think that these elements are mutually exclusive. TLJ is a movie committed to shaking things up. In contrast, many of the Marvel superhero movies could be called comforting for the right audience. They’re dependable. This does not stop them from delivering deeper ideas as well.

Whatever its category—and leaving room for a spectrum of goals and audiences—a story should rise to the task of being a good story. It should shake us out of ourselves and leave us changed. Whatever else comes, staying true to the story and telling a story worth telling is important.

I think I’ve made my point at least three times over, so I’ll wrap things up. I wanted to love Rise of Skywalker. Instead, I’m left saying “it was good…” and considering what it could have been. I don’t blame the creators. I truly believe everyone involved gave their all to this story. I’m glad they did. I’m glad Star Wars exists and that it will continue to exist for me and for all those who count themselves fans.

So let’s end with this—whatever disappointments I might have, the last scene of the movie is a thing of beauty. Bringing us full circle, Rey returning to the place it all began—having come through difficulty and chosen her own place in the universe—is a resonant image. It’s the perfect final note on a saga that fully deserves the place it has taken in our culture. Evil is powerful, and we all have a bit of darkness within ourselves—but people willing to fight for good, standing together, can make a difference. Star Wars reminds us of that.

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People have felt something in these movies, and at the end of the day, that matters. Support art. Take risks. Tell good stories.

And never stop believing in good.

Thanks for reading.

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