The most important thing I ever needed to know about archetypal storytelling, I learned by accident off sick from school, playing Lord of the Rings with Star Wars toys.
Before Lord of the Rings became mass transmedia entertainment, growing up with it as early childhood mythology meant having a parent prepared to read it to you (with the voices) or replaying the BBC radio adaptation. I had both.
I didn’t have the toys – which would only have been made for the collectors’ market then, and which we couldn’t have afforded to buy new in any case – but what I did have were the Star Wars action figures, handed down by cousins almost exactly ten years older than my sister and me, who had adored the films when they went to see them at the turn of the Seventies and Eighties.
Passed down to us were all the main characters plus a reasonable selection of troopers and footsoldiers from this planet or that, but not – despite auntly negotiations – the Millennium Falcon, which the younger of my cousins had still wanted to keep.
I had no idea about Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey or comparative mythology when I doled out Lord of the Rings parts to Star Wars characters so that I could play out the story I knew back to front with the approximate personifications I had in front of me. Luke with a cape on could be Frodo (it made him look more like a hobbit). Luke without a cape was Legolas. An Ewok could be Gimli. Leia could easily represent Eowyn and Arwen and Galadriel, benefiting from how few scenes in Tolkien passed the Bechdel Test and how seldom I’d ever have to stage a conversation between two women; Han made a decent Aragorn; while Obi-Wan had to be Elrond and Saruman as well as Gandalf (one of the few times in any universe it would have been useful to have Qui-Gon Jinn). Darth Vader was the Lord of the Nazgul, but then, wasn’t he always? I wish I could remember what I used for Sam: I think it might have been R2-D2.
I mean, Frodo and Luke are both naive country boys who come of age crossing the known world to fight the Dark Lord in his volcanic fortress with the help of a seasoned commander and a mystic guardian of ancient knowledge and a doughty friend, even if one of them has a doughty friend who says beep boop…
Millions of people have memories of playing with Star Wars action figures (and probably a fair few of them had arguments over who kept the Millennium Falcon, too) as a very early part of the trilogy-turned-universe soaking into their imagination, which is what makes the very last scene of The Last Jedi a new kind of moment for the franchise: one that directly references what its stories have meant outside its universe to show them having the same effect on people inside.
The Last Jedi, as many reviewers have already written, is more than a film about a small band of warrior-monks and daredevil pilots out to save the world (spoilers, naturally, from here on): just as often, it’s a story where the glorious hero’s way might win the battle but take the cause further from victory. This classic path of heroism is, of course, a gendered script, which only white male protagonists have traditionally been allowed to embody (while Hollywood convention expects every other viewer to sand away their differences in order to identify with him).
Dan Hassler-Forest writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books that The Last Jedi ‘not only … question[s] and even challenge[s] its own legacy, but it also accepts responsibility for a cultural phenomenon that is itself part of a frighteningly powerful media empire’ – one that was already lending its name to real-world, government-backed fantasies of space warfare under Reagan, and that cultivates fascination with its compelling villains by knowingly giving new cultural life to the aesthetics of the Third Reich.
If the franchise can transcend the ‘latent fascism’ embedded in its inspirations, he suggests, it has to recreate its ethic of heroism around an utterly different philosophical and social grounding, which The Last Jedi more than any other Star Wars story starts to do:
The initial conflict between the increasingly aggrieved Poe Dameron and the women in leadership positions who surround him is echoed throughout The Last Jedi’s many plot strands: again and again, we see male characters’ self-centered and violent heroic ambitions challenged and corrected by female voices redirecting the narrative, always in the first place by refusing to glamorize death.
Its theme of setting the past alight feels quite unambiguously steered towards renewal and regeneration, rather than the cult of conflagration that inspired early Fascism (which isn’t to say some fans won’t still create a counter-reading that sides with Kylo over Rey; while the much-praised diversity of those voices redirecting the narrative still has some way to go, notably in the films’ failure to imagine any high-profile black women, or to do anything more than hint that characters might be queer).
All this purpose is embodied, Arkady Martine writes, in the image as much as the storyline of Vice-Admiral Holdo, Leia’s second-in-command. Poe Dameron, the nearest thing to an air-ace protagonist, is the voice of much of the audience when he spots Holdo’s loosely-draped clothes and pastel hair and comments, ‘Not what I expected.’ Nor many of us: and when she demotes Poe for taking a disastrous risk in battle or kicks over a smokestack to start a counter-mutiny, neither do we expect the narrative to come down on her side.
It’s no coincidence that Rose Tico, whose presence as ‘a fully-formed hero’ has given Asian women what Olivia Truffaut-Wong hails as a groundbreakingly non-exoticised identification point in this sequence of modern mythology, gets the line that seems to define the film’s intentions: ‘That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.’
To save what we love, Star Wars and other long-running franchises have started to realise, global audiences and fans from marginalised backgrounds need to be able to enjoy them and internalise them as much as the middle-American white everyman. And that doesn’t only mean apparently ‘diverse’ stories where the hero could be swapped out for a white guy called Chris and nothing much would change; it means stories that need to be told differently because of the diversity of what their tellers and characters know.
The end of The Last Jedi, where a stable-boy on the casino planet of Canto Bight uses a handmade action figure of Luke Skywalker to retell how Luke’s last stand against the First Order helped the Resistance escape certain doom, reflects many viewers’ own mythology of Star Wars back to them.
We’re much less used to it in Star Wars than in Doctor Who, where practically every series since the reboot has given us a child or young person who looks up to the Doctor much as the show knows its own fans do. These children, sold or indentured to the stables of Canto Bight where cruel overseers work the planet’s majestic fathiers to exhaustion as entertainment for the gambling arms-traders of the galaxy, belong to the same downtrodden class as Finn or Rose.
Earlier in the film, visiting Canto Bight and encountering the elites who get rich from selling arms to the First Order and the Resistance has been the occasion for Rose to remind the audience of the structures of oppression and destruction that sustain galactic (and earthly) warfare, and that provide stories of battlefield adventure with their stage: Rose’s home planet, Hays Minor, is a child conscription zone and weapons-testing ground for the First Order, hinting (much more obliquely than Thor: Ragnarok, the work of Māori director Taika Waititi) at neocolonial parallels on Earth.
Reminding the audience of their own games with Star Wars action figures – the first time they were moved to tell a story about galactic heroes turning the tide against the odds, via the mythos that George Lucas had mapped out for them – in the very place where the film has staged its structural critique ties the emotion of nostalgia for childhood fandom and the inexorability of the hero’s journey together with a broader, deeper politics of resistance: inspiring hope that we can work together to defeat oppression, and giving us a shared script for the struggle, is what these myths are for.
Indeed, The Last Jedi‘s director, Rian Johnson, wove his own memories of playing with Star Wars toys into his decision to end the film by opening out towards what the new mythology of the Resistance will mean to the rest of the galaxy:
the fact that the kids are retelling his story, the fact that they’re being inspired by it, the fact that they’re playing with these toys that inspired me when I was a little kid playing with them, to want to grow up and have an adventure and be… I don’t know, it all ties directly back into why Luke Skywalker inspired me growing up.
The opening of the scene, with its close-up on the children’s action figure, binds viewers’ memories too into the film’s revived mythology.
Yet the contradictions of Star Wars toys enabling children to create their own imaginative universe at the same time as they make billions for multinational corporations and, feminist International Relations scholars like Cynthia Enloe argue, naturalise the ideas that make war more likely are not lost on Johnson:
It’s easy to be cynical about merchandising and toys… I can’t be, really, because when I was a kid I was playing with those toys. I was creating stories with those toys, in that world. Those toys […] that Millennium Falcon, my action figures, it was what I was using to transport myself, to tell stories that were meaningful for me and helping me through childhood.
And look, the whole Canto Bight thing itself is the notion that people are just making money off this war. I feel like it’s explicitly kind of said. But for me, I don’t know. I guess I’m so close to it and I know personally what they meant to me in such an uncynical way when I was being able to let my imagination loose in these places, and that so much is why I wanted to make this movie in the first place.
The problem the Star Wars universe has exemplified, and which The Last Jedi finally contends with, is perhaps no less than the ethics of imaginative play through war – where who gets to be the hero, and what actions will be remembered as heroic, matter as much as, and have become part of, what the Resistance say they’re fighting for.