Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Morality of Star Wars & The Chinese Market


"When Lucasfilm does their rewrites, they're not sending their best..."

* SPECULATIVE SPOILER WARNING: CONTAINS HEAVY SPECULATION ABOUT POTENTIALLY MAJOR PLOT POINTS OF UPCOMING STAR WARS FILMS*

The newly announced title to Star Wars: Episode 8, The Last Jedi, is bad-ass but quickly my band's excited groupchat turned gloomy when we realized that Lucasfilm is doubling down on rubbing our face in how not far the story has come since Episode VI.

Firstly, let's discuss the over-all "thing" Disney is doing with their new canon story since acquiring Lucasfilm. The new story is actually the story of the entire Star Wars Galaxy or GFFA (Galaxy Far Far Away). As Rogue One showed us, they are not just continuing post-ROTJ-era stories, they are bouncing all over the timeline to add new adventures and characters. This is dope; I've enjoyed the new films and comic books they are adding to the canon.

I've noticed a distinct trend that at first I thought was really awesome. Notice that none of the new Force user characters, except Luke, in Force Awakens are "Jedi". Rey is a trainee-to-be, Finn doesn't seem to be a Force-user, Kylo Ren is no longer a Jedi and Lucasfilm insists "Sith" died with Sheev Palpatine in Episode VI. Rogue One gives us Chirrut Imwe who is a Force-user from a different religion than the Jedi, with different skills and practices. Rebels focuses on Ezra and Kanann, padawans that are not quite Jedi Knights as well as Ahsoka Tano, now no longer part of the Jedi order, and countless other Force-users that don't fit into the Jedi or Sith category.

Peep this inscription from the beginning of the novelization of The Force Awakens:

 "First comes the day
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say,
Is only made right
By the resolving of grey
Through refined Jedi sight."

―Journal of the Whills, 7:477

Barring an incredibly unforeseen turn of events, Luke and Rey will be the ones doing the resolving of grey through refined Jedi sight in the current saga trilogy. Meaning they will be rejecting both the selfish evil of Sith like Palpatine and Vader as well as the rigid out-of-touchness of the prequel-era Jedi Order. 

Add all that to the introduction of Saw Gerrera's Rogue One cell as "too extreme for the Rebel Alliance", Disney's whitewashing of the Empire's racism and sexism (Bodhi Rook and Captain Phasma wouldn't have been in Lucas' space-Nazi version of the Empire) and you see Disney's Star Wars is interestingly trying to expand the definition of and make more ambiguous the morality of the GFFA and Force-based religion in the Star Wars universe. This is interesting but I worry that this is an excuse to keep Jedi scarce and pander to expanding global markets as opposed to making the best art that the company could be making. 

Episode 7 depicts neither Luke's new Jedi order nor the restoration of the Republic. It also depicts a resurgent Empire now in the form of the First Order. In other words, it seems all the victories Han, Luke and Leia won in the original trilogy were for naught. In Episode VI, Yoda says "Pass on what you have learned."

For decades, fans were led to believe that Luke would help proliferate a new Jedi order and now it seems he will have but one apprentice trained in the ways of the Jedi Knights by the time he is dead which the title The Last Jedi implies he will be by the end of Episode 8. Star Wars titles always have two or three meanings. When the film begins, Luke will be the only trained Jedi in the Galaxy and by the end of the film it will be Rey when Luke likely passes from physical life. 

I understand the desire to have fewer as opposed to more highly powerful wizard-warriors in your fantasy films- it lowers the stakes when so many of the "good guys" are nigh-omnipotent - but it just makes a guy wonder what has been accomplished by the Rebel victories of the original trilogy when the status quo is exactly the same in the subsequent trilogy. The prequels had their flaws but at least the premise was different than that of Episodes 4 through 6. When one watches the story in Episode order, the story progresses until Episode VII makes it clear that the gains made in Episodes 4 through 6 were largely lost.

Anyway, it's quite possible that making morality and religion more ambiguous in the GFFA will pay off in a really awesome way but part of me wonders if it's just a way to appeal to the growing potential global (especially the 1 billion plus person Chinese market) customer base. Star Wars has lots of Christian iconography - fatherless boy who turns out to be prophesied Chosen One -and governments like China's censor certain kinds of religious and paranormal content - ghosts  and more. The term "Jedi' has Japanese roots ("jidaigeki"), so the cultural animosity some Chinese have for Japan further explains why Lucasfilm would want to start creating non-Jedi Force-user religions. The reason this is more of a factor now than say the 70s or 80s is that more Chinese than ever have made their way into the working and middle class since those decades, so a country with a population that dwarfs ours' populace suddenly has untold millions and billions in disposable income for an entertainment budget as discussed in this article from the same year in which Disney bought Lucasfilm.

There's also story reasons-  it's easier to manage a few highly powered warrior-wizards in your story about ragtag rebels than many of them if your intention is to make the adventure challenging for your protagonists - for Lucasfilm's decision to roll back progress made by the New Republic but for me to believe that 5 years from now I'll need to see more pay-off to this editorial take on Star Wars' morality than ticket sales.

To be clear and reiterate - I don't have an issue with making Star Wars' morality more ambiguous. In fact, I find it exciting. I will just be supremely disappointed if there's no further artistic pay-off to it. My grandest hopes: the inscription pasted above implies that Ahsoka is a past hint, a pre-echo to a reformed modified new "Grey" Jedi order with Luke and Rey, one that allows attachments (unlike the rigid old Jedi order) but disallows the darkside (unlike the Sith Order). Given how much of a big deal Lucas' prequel films make about the prequel era Jedi order having a diminished connection with the Force and how out of balance everything was, I feel like this has to be paid off.  So I'm hoping that that is more what this version of GFFA morality is about, and not just getting 1.3 billion new customers.

*   image by Alex "Ppaaccee" Reynoso

Tristan "Tanjint Wiggy" Acker is a staff writer for JooseBoxx, youth hip-hop writing instructor with CHORDS Enrichment Youth program (chordseyp.org) and member of the Inland Empire nerdcore hip-hop group the West Coast Avengers. Catch more of their work at westcoastavengers.com, follow Tristan on Twitter @Tanjint or e-mail him at tristanacker@gmail.com.