I can’t say that I remember the hysteria that surrounded the release of the original Star Wars trilogy. While technically I was alive when Return of the Jedi hit theaters, let’s just say I wasn’t going to any PG-13 movies. I remember I had a bunch of the action figures, and my parents really didn’t like the second movie. That’s about all…oh and I thought the Ewoks were pretty cool (I was a child give me a break).
I definitely remember the digitally re-edited versions that were released in the 90s, and the subsequent prequel trilogy which was released to mixed levels of critical reception. I honestly never thought the prequel films were that bad, the guy that played Anakin Skywalker had a character range between board and block of wood. But I thought they told a generally good story, and did some shameless fanservice like you might expect by giving us some deep insight into our favorite characters, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and even the first visual of Darth Vader.
Besides maybe the pod racing scene in Phantom Menace, most people point to Jar Jar Binks as the low point in terms of characters and story arcs for that trilogy. Jar Jar was an awkwardly inserted bit of comic relief; an attempt to cut a level of tension that the movies never effectively established. I was never exceptionally fond of this character, and rather hoped that we would’ve heard the last of him by the end of the first movie, somehow he survived all three…
Then after a 10 year hiatus, the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, and a company leadership change to a progressive ideologue named Kathleen Kennedy… Star Wars decided to convince me how good a character Jar Jar really was.
I would contest that Jar Jar Binks, the character such as he was, had a more interesting story, hero's journey, and character arc than the lead character of the new Disney trilogy. Rey would be “Skywalker”.
In my last blog, Activism Not Entertainment (https://www.blindowlblogs.com/post/activism-not-entertainment) I pointed to the movie where I felt the dam burst in terms of Hollywood putting its political messaging in front of its entertainment value. Certainly Captain Marvel was an example of that, but as one of you very astutely pointed out, it didn’t start in 2019. In truth it started before 2015, but the recent Star Wars movies are by far the largest example I can think of. The idea of a lead female Jedi protagonist, as a concept, was not bad… The challenge, just like with Captain Marvel, was a complete lack of execution. The leading indicators were not good, it became evident from interviews with the producers and directors, that the emphasis was not going to be on characters or story structure. Not what the characters did, but what groups they were born into would be the emphasis.
Let's examine these two aforementioned characters.
Jar Jar Binks was a goofy outcast, who possessed only tangential use to the main characters in the story, his basic functionality was to help Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi get to the Gungan city. He was then promoted to general, participated in the battle against the droid army, and eventually was elected to the Imperial Senate, where he was instrumental in transferring temporary power to the chancellor… soon to be revealed Darth Sidious. He was annoying, but well-meaning, while he certainly made mistakes, some tragic, most people on some level can relate to the character because he was a man too small for the tasks in front of him. He was pushed too far forward into things that he couldn’t handle. Ultimately inadvertently contributing to the rise of the empire and the near enslavement of the entire galaxy. His hero's journey was, in all aspects, a failure.
Despite being of an alien race, he had many human traits. Most people aren’t ready when major responsibility is thrust upon them, and often even when we do what we think is best we can come to realize that our lack of understanding or concept of the scale of events created bigger problems than we could ever hope to solve. He is far from a perfect character, but his arc, such as it is, is not a terrible one from a storytelling point of view.
Now consider the newly styled (since JJ Abrams made this change as a last ditch effort to logically close the series in movie 3) young “Palpatine”.
Rey started life on a remote planet as a junk collector, whiling away the days until her missing parents returned. The events of the Force Awakens started more or less around her, and she was quickly thrust into a conflict between the first order, and the resistance. On the surface there’s quite a bit to work with there, pretty strong foundation for a character… But it falls apart very quickly.
In Canaan, Rey is universally liked by almost everyone she meets, even people who logically would have reasons to distrust her. She encounters soldiers and rogues, but despite having no military training she overpowers or outwits everyone she fights. She is better than Han Solo at fixing the Millennium Falcon, she gets captured by Kylo Ren and decides to rescue herself. She then fights Kylo Ren and despite him being highly skilled in using the force, and even leveraging the dark side of the force, she beats him. She goes to Jedi island, finds the mightiest living Jedi, the late Luke Skywalker, and when she comes to blows with him… she wins. With no training she moves giant heavy rocks to save her friends from a cave. She then spends a week or so receiving training from Leia… who is not a Jedi. Then uses that training to once again defeat Kylo Ren and eventually the entire First order. This also may seem like a minor side complaint, but she knows how to swim even though she comes from a planet without apparent oceans or lakes.
What is the arc of this character? She starts out well liked and all powerful, and at no point has any credible threat from her enemies or the dark side of the force. She never really needs anyone's help, never makes any meaningful mistakes, never suffers any consequences (a hard thing to do when you don’t make mistakes). With minimal training and little hardship she overcomes every obstacle and opponent in her path. She has no arc, no hero's journey, and no relatability. She is the worst character to appear in all 3 movies of the new trilogy.
You might find Jar Jar loud and annoying, but ask yourself, what is more annoying than a cynical Hollywood cash grab trilogy selling you overpowered idealized characters that check all the right boxes at the expense of characters and stories you used to be able to enjoy apolitically? I think we all owe George Lucas an apology for our reception of Jar Jar…Sorry George.