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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Modern Myth-Busting: Are Rogue One's Characters Worthy Star Wars Heroes?

"Rogue One is too dark and gritty," cries the Internet! "It sullies the black and white morality of the Modern Myth, Star Wars!" But are these thinkpieces, reviews, and fandom metas really paying close attention to the movies they claim to love? And what does it say that Rogue One's cast is held to a different standard than Han Solo?








A month ago Phil Sandifer proclaimed loftily over on Eruditorum Press that "the bulk of criticism of the Star Wars prequel trilogy is worse at being criticism than the prequels are at being movies." I'm going to blithely go a step further, possibly out into empty air over a Tatooine ravine, and say that most criticism about Star Wars in general seems to wind up at about this level. Certainly a lot of the response to Rogue One has ranged from disappointing to outright depressing, made all the worse because I think it's both the best Star Wars film generally, and one that is remarkably timely in ways that people just cannot fucking seem to recognize.

Phil, and the incredible Jack Graham (also of Eruditorum Press), have mercifully been filling the void with, respectively, a semi-trolling analysis of how the main Star Wars series works when you view it in episode order, and a hard-hitting political analysis of resistance and fascism in Rogue One. This is all very productive, positive, and heartening stuff that uncovers the great potential within Star Wars without ever losing sight of places where the films break down or fall into incoherency.

Phil and Jack are good guys, doing good work.

I, on the other hand, am a fighty little shit.

I loathe bad analysis maybe more than I loathe really bad art. Sometimes I can find it fascinating, of course. You can't write an entire piece on Coma Theories without being a LITTLE bit interested in how bad theories operate, without some appreciation for them. But bad coma/they-were-dead-all-along type theories don't really have that strong a moral(izing) dimension to them, do they? Plenty of Star Wars theories can fall into this category of goofiness. Darth Jar Jar, for example, is mostly goofy fun, even if it's not goofy and fun enough to keep the character from coming off as uncomfortably close to a minstrel show, and even if it's contradicted implicitly by the film's narrative. You could argue, I guess, that the Darth Jar Jar theory replaces human weakness (yeah yeah he's an alien you work with the language you got) and failing social systems with a single evil to scapegoat, but... I don't think it does this any more than the existing films already do via Palpatine. It's pretty innocuous and even pretty fun.

What's not innocuous is the proliferation of reinterpretations of the Empire as actually the good guys.

Neither, for that matter, is the conspicuous trend among white fanboys of declaring the characters of Rogue One and The Force Awakens somehow particularly below the threshold of "relatability," characters that just OBVIOUSLY they "can't care about."

And certainly not innocuous is the claim that Rogue One has somehow tarnished the Star Wars legacy by bringing the evils of political complexity to what was previously a pure "Modern Myth" about strongly defined Good and Evil sides.

What has now sprawled uncontrollably to a predicted 3 articles god help me was spawned originally by an article on Rogue One that criticized it for not having the "risky offers of grace" present in the original series. This is literally incorrect. I mean, to some extent I'm tempted to leave it at that because it's bluntly the level that this and, as we'll see in future installments, a lot of Star Wars theories fall apart. I'm not the Washington Post so I don't have to wring my hands over whether or not "lie" is a word that we can ever use ever. This is a lie, whether intentional or otherwise. It is a falsehood. It is crap. It is bunk. It is horse. shit. The plot of Rogue One is constructed entirely around such moments, moments when characters surrender to death in the name of a greater cause, and it can only be understood within that context.

Not only is it strictly incorrect, however, it's also indicative of a wider inability to grapple with the politics of Star Wars. Rogue One presents a bunch of characters who do some deeply morally questionable shit, no doubt. And this for many people is deeply threatening, because they see Star Wars as a "Modern Myth" that has clearly defined good and evil sides--not without reason, given that Lucas was apparently a bit muddled from the beginning about whether he was making an anti-Vietnam War film or a modern Adventure Serial. While the article in question comes from a perhaps predictably shit tier Catholic website, it's a sentiment I've seen across the political spectrum when it comes to Rogue One and to aspects of the new EU that delve into the ethical and political failings of the New Republic. Star Wars is sacrosanct, the logic goes, because it offers something nothing else does: hope in true goodness in the face of evil! A setting without ambiguity!

The fact that some of these same people no doubt would howlingly condemn Lucas retconning it so Greedo shoots first is telling.
But, in fairness, it's also telling that Lucas wanted to rewrite that part of the film to begin with. More on that later.

An inability to see what Rogue One is doing narratively--to see that the film is full of "risky offers of grace," crushingly, devastatingly filled with characters who focus not on being self-aggrandizing heroes but who give their lives in a desperate attempt to save sometimes perfect strangers--is paired with an inability to see what the other films, the prequels in particular but really the films as a whole, are doing politically. These are films full of characters who are rebellious, who Refuse the Call, who do the unexpected, who are crooks and occasionally collaborators and often incompetent. Many of them skirt around the edges of the good or bad, and some of them fall, tragically. If Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are revealed in The Force Awakens to be flawed mentors with glaring blind spots, well, does that make them so different from Qui-Gon, who has no interest whatsoever in freeing Tatooine's slaves, Obi-Wan, who kind of continuously fucks up through prequels and original films alike, among other things lying to Luke about his father, or Yoda, who makes garbage decision after garbage decision, whose certainty of Vader's utter lack of humanity is ultimately rebuked by the narrative of the films?

Flaws in the personal mirror flaws in the political. It's pretty easy to read the prequels as a narrative about a failing democratic institution that collapses not because of an attack by fascism but by a corruption into fascism, if you're paying attention. They're a story about corruption not just in the casual sense of taking 60 thousand dollars from the DeVos family for your reelection campaign, then voting to confirm as secretary of education an absolutely incompetent rich buffoon [grinds teeth slowly], but in a more cosmic horror sense as well. The Empire and the Dark Side reproduce like Phyrexia or Alien or The Thing, by subverting existing bodies and transforming them into engines for death and horror. 

In this sense, the Prequels (which, I should point out here before this gets out of hand, are definitely not good movies) have a fascinating kind of content, in that they're really about Anakin as both an entity that is corrupted, and as a corrupting force himself, as a victim and vector of the disease of fascism. The parallel between Anakin and the Republic being subverted and turned to evil is actually pretty compelling.

It's not like any of this is reading into the text stuff that isn't there. Padme's only interseting line in Episode 3 is "So this is how liberty dies, to thundrous applause." It's bullshit that she's sidelined for the whole rest of the film in favor of CGI duels in video game environments, but hey, if you're going to give your most critical viewpoint character just one line of any meaning or import, this is a pretty good line.

And yet it's something that seems to be completely obscure to this writer and to the segment of the fandom incensed by Rogue One being "dark and gritty." As someone who was complaining about dark and gritty aesthetics five years before it got popular, I take issue with this, given that the aesthetics of the film are neither dark, nor gritty, but more deeply I find this inability to grapple with the actual material of these films pretty frustrating.

In some ways it's not hard to understand, though. Remember that Coma Theories don't emerge from nothing--they're a result of a bunch of factors within fandom that make them inevitable. Some of the same factors play a major part in bad star wars analysis as well. Weirdly, though, the process that we see in coma theories is inverted. In that article I argued that coma theories are the result of people reaching for a maturity that they don't have, grasping at a kind of genre savvyness that isn't actually grounded in either what they're analyzing, or in an understanding of why we do analysis at all. This particular reading of Star Wars as this perfect pure myth does the reverse, reading into the text an innocence that simply is not there! It posits a kind of cloying childish morality and then condemns the new material for not conforming to this Star Wars That Never Was.

There's a kind of elitism to childishness here. Why else cite JRR Tolkien, or as I've seen elsewhere CS Lewis? Of course, for Catholics like the writer I'm primarily citing here, there's the religious connection, but there's also the appeal to authority, the appeal to that deep history of the fathers of fantasy (one that lops off a century or so of fantasy stories if not more but hey who's counting right?), that justifies not having to, you know, think about things. CS Lewis says that the REALLY childish thing is not staying a child forever and ever and ever! Really, being infantile and demanding everything else pander to my hatred of complexity is the TRUE maturity, isn't it? Of course things like the Scouring of the Shire, the deep ambivalence of Faramir about war, the continual failures of Numenor's line of kings, the sometimes strange interweavings of good and evil purpose in The Magician's Nephew, or the cynicism about humanity in Out of the Silent Planet can all be safely ignored, because, hey, we've got our pull quote don't we?

Now, as much as I think this is all very motivated by self interest, I do get to an extent why recognizing the moral complexity of Star Wars is difficult for people. Star Wars is not really the series of masterpieces we've built them up to be pop-culturally, and the Prequels in particular are really emphatically not good movies. A lot of the most interesting things seem to happen accidentally, by half measures, or in ways that aren't able to come to fruition in a major blockbuster franchise. As noted earlier, Lucas apparently wanted to make a classic mythic adventure, and also an anti-Vietnam movie in which the Empire was modeled on an America gone fully fascist, and muddled the two together in a way that made things very marketable but notably stripped of content. As I and others have noted before, the fact that Rogue One even exists is outright astounding. 

I don't want to talk too much in this piece about the actual problems of the prequels, but I'll say for now that the problem with the opening scroll of Episode 1 is not that the hook is bad, that trade disputes are unfitting for Star Wars or whatever.

It's that it's poorly written. 

I mean let's break this down:

"Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute." By whom? And hey, aren't there any number of ways you could have described this more engagingly? I mean a whole segment of the GALAXY is gearing up for civil war and you go for this New York Times bullshit?

"Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships," Straight up, what does this mean? No really, how do the constituent parts of this sentence add up to anything like an informative whole? What does "resolve the matter" mean in this context? Huh?

"the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo." Again given that this is a siege of an entire planet you'd think they could come up with SOMETHING more interesting to say about it.

"While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events," You know, from the outset here this film about the death of democracy seems pretty ambivalent about democracy, but this opening scroll sure doesn't give us a lot to work with here does it?

"the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict...." This is ok except that everything before it has made the actual conflict in question and its stakes about as clear as fucking mud. You would also think that the opening scroll would do SOMETHING to indicate the important piece of information that for the most part is buried in the film under layer upon layer of racist caricature, bad CGI, and confusing writing: that the Sith are working from the shadows to manipulate events.

I think that some of the problems with these films and their shitty field of fan theories can be explained by this lack of clarity, the way that Lucas is simply put not a particularly good or clear storyteller. He clearly has something to say here, but he has no idea what that is in concrete terms, and tends to get sidetracked by video game fight scenes and continuity gorn instead of actually providing consistent characterization, themes, politics, or focus on Padme.

The only way you can resolve these problems is by making the films fit together coherently, forcing them to work properly, and it's easy to trick yourself into thinking that in fact what you've done, by virtue of how much damn work you've put into making these films function at all, is found the true brilliance at the heart of the films, the secret genius of George Lucas. But... you haven't, you know? Like give yourself some credit, Hypothetical Star Wars Fan. You've just pulled out the most interesting material from these films and strung them together with a LOT of work and careful shoving aside of the problems with the films.

That's totally, totally fine! But it also can become a kind of trap, where people confuse their readerly constructs for the text itself. It's a bit of an epidemic in fandom these days, actually, this absolute surety that one's reading is THE reading. Though in fairness I guess it's not like nerds don't have a long history of throwing tantrums whenever their subjective knee jerk reaction to things isn't treated with servile dick-sucking reverence. From this confusion, this inability to see the actual content of Star Wars as already fraught, complicated, fragmentary, full of fraught, complicated, fragmentary characters, we get things like this bad take: seeing Rogue One as undermining the politics of Star Wars. Seeing Star Wars as having this straightforward black and white morality and seeing Rogue One as a departure from that, rather than seeing Star Wars as having a black and white morality in which the characters themselves are firmly gray, with Rogue One being a logical extension of this practice.

I have to actually wonder whether the people who want Star Wars to be a Modern Myth, Free of Cynicism have actually bothered to pick up any books of mythology lately. I mean god it's not just that these people don't seem to have watched the films they're supposedly such big fans of, it kind of seems like they haven't read the weird, disturbing, fraught myths of old either! It kind of seems like people are just working from this nebulous idea of myths drawn from several-times-removed bastardizations of The Hero's Journey. This is pretty egregious when you're, you know, writing for a Catholic website, of course. I know it's become a bit of a trope for the Nu Atheist set to question whether Christians have actually read the Bible, but, fucking, have they?

Meanwhile, I'm slowly working my way through Carl Jung's book of prophetic texts and not only do I not know what the hell is going on, I'm finding the whole experience real unsettling. I mean after fighting his soul in the Desert, the dude murdered Siegfried, because he loved him I guess? And because that was necessary to a whole process of renewal and rebirth that I remember from Eliot's The Waste Land, another contender for deeply, deeply cynical and unresolved "Modern Myth." I mean I'm not sure how you get much more Modern Myth than an illuminated manuscript of vision-quests by the guy who came up with the idea of the collective unconscious. Certainly it feels much more akin to scripture--whether canonical or my favored Gnostic scriptures--than Star Wars A New Hope does.

What we see with this reading, then, maps strongly onto some of the same dynamics we saw in coma theories, but with some unique Star Wars spins. Confronted with a conflicted, often contradictory text, readers develop their own image, probably spurred on by pop culture hagiography, of a pure, original, unsullied Star Wars, bolstered by an idealized understanding of what a "myth" looks like. This reading of Star Wars is more than a bit childish, though, petulantly demanding simultaneously that "the original" (which, remember, features Han shooting first!) not be fucked with, but that its rough edges, its grey-toned characters, be sanded and bleached in cultural memory. Then, because knowing things about the text, or criticism, or, you know, people is an active hindrance to this reading, they find a way of going "isn't childishness... the real maturity? Think about it." I have some sympathy for parts of this, but the whole seems pretty damn questionable.

It's questionable, I think, above all else because it seems to imply a bunch of deeper level, insidious ideas. Can you really have a moment of grace, this essay seems to ask, if you're not a white man?

Oh, no, I'm sorry, I guess it's just coincidence that Han, Luke, and Obi-Wan can do the same damn thing as EVERY SINGLE FUCKING GOOD CHARACTER in Rogue One and get credited as having more "grace." It's not really fair to call this author's motives into question, since I can't really know the inner truth of his heart. But let's move on to the other implicit arguments... like....

If the good guys fuck up, for example, doesn't that mean by comparison Space Nazis aren't so bad after all?

Yeah, this is where I think this goes from "shit tier but predictably so within the collision of bad writing and readers who don't know how to pay attention to the media they consume" to "actually dangerous." What we see in Rogue One is a bunch of characters ranging from fuckup to war criminal doing something critically important against a much, much worse enemy: Space Nazis. And I do think it's important to recognize that "Space Nazis" is not a glib monicker, it's just literally what the Empire is, in the same way that Hydra, for all Marvel's recent deeply suspicious rebranding efforts, is also superhero nazis. It's important to remember this because the worst takes on Star Wars tend to pretend the empire is contentless, despite it being a visually quite explicit parallel to Nazism and in many ways an allegory for the kind of incoherent violent systems that tend to emerge from the incoherent ideology of fascism. Certainly in my experience the Empire tends to appeal greatly to people ranging from Republicans to Neo-Nazis, all of which I had extensive experience with among my friend group in high school so don't you fucking dare come at me claiming I'm stereotyping here.

I think it's important to see within that that the Rebellion, Republic, and Old Jedi Order are all flawed entities, and in some sense in fact the old order gave rise to the Empire. But just as equally it is crucial to recognize that the eagerness of this author to paint Indiana Jones as somehow not sufficiently good despite rescuing the Ark of the Fucking Covenant from literal, actual Nazis is super suspect. Surely, SURELY just by virtue of not being a Nazi one is inherently good enough to fight Nazis!

Rogue One is, in the end, a fairly black and white movie, actually, if you pay any attention to the stakes of its conflict! It is a movie about complicated people who yes sometimes do questionable-to-outright-reprehensible things in the name of a struggle against a much, much greater evil, but who all in the end surrender their lives doing things like:

  • Walking serenely through a hail of lasers to hook up a cable while reciting a mantra of devotion
  • Abandoning efforts to open a sealed door, surrendering to the oncoming force of nightmare slaughter that is Darth Vader,  instead opting to pass a message on at the cost of ones own life
  • Seeking redemption after working for evil by putting down arms and working, again, to get a crucial message through
  • Fighting on despite a blockade of Imperial navy ships in the hopes of letting the bearers of the Death Star plans to escape, and also because fucking shit the Empire straight up destroyed Mon Cala and apparently considered the Mon Calamari "natural slaves" (!!) and so Admiral Raddus was actually resigning himself to death but also determined to die with honor fighting a human supremacist enemy that arguably tried to perpetrate genocide against his people holy FUCKING SHIT HOW DO PEOPLE NOT THINK THE CHARACTERS IN THIS FILM ARE "GOOD" AND "NOBLE" ENOUGH?

It kind of comes off, in the face of this much denial, not so much that these characters aren't good enough, aren't "graceful" enough, but that people just aren't really taking the Empire as baddies. Or, perhaps, some of the writers are starting to wonder if THEY aren't the baddies. I mean, it's not like my primary example here of this type of criticism is exactly beyond suspicion, given that it's printed on a site loudly proclaiming that Donald Trump is here to save Christianity. Once again, it seems, Catholics seem to be blithely making deals with Nazis to increase their own power. I don't know that everyone clinging to the "Modern Myth" argument has similarly politically questionable beliefs, but there certainly seems to be a trend among Rogue One's hatedom along these lines, and I think the Modern Myth critique is bad enough in its own right, suspicious enough in offering grace to some characters and not others, that it is worth ripping the mask off here and revealing the way this argument serves some nasty political ends.

The problem here is not that Star Wars was black and white and has become murky. If anything, Star Wars was murky and has become clarified! The real problem for at least some of the Modern Myths crowd, then, is not so much that Star Wars has changed, but that their position within the Mythos of Star Wars has become unclear.

They thought they were solidly on the side of the Rebel Alliance, but it is increasingly obvious that the people both in real life and in contemporary Star Wars films taking risky grace propositions, the people laying down their bodies for freedom and justice, do not look much like them at all.

This discomfort probably is at the root of a lot of bad Star Wars theories, and certainly is a motivating factor in a move some nerds prefer to pull: just embrace the Dark Side and find ways to rationalize the Empire as actually the good guys all along. That's the heinous bullshit that we'll be looking at when next I pick back up this exploration of Star Wars and its many, many terrible theories (which you can read in Draft Form here).

Some of these critics are starting to look a lot like the Empire now, and they will do any mental gymnastics and any violence to the text and to logic in order to get back to that place of childish comfort where the bully can watch a film about bullying and imagine himself in the position of the victim.


6 comments:

  1. Hey, I don't really have any insightful commentary or anything because im just, kinda bad at retaining lots of information and being well-read in general but, just wanted to say i've been following your work for a while and i really really enjoy all the stuff you put out. Besides your writing just being fun to read in general, it kinda helps me put together a lot of vague, hard-to-grasp thoughts and feelings of mine into something resembling a coherent line of thought ahaha. but, yeah. thank you ^w^

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    1. Thanks so much for letting me know! Glad the articles are helping you :)

      And don't worry too much about being well read honestly? I haven't read TONS of The Classics because I spent most of my youth reading Dragonlance and Magic the Gathering novels and watching anime. I mean right now I'm boning up on some game design theory stuff because I just don't KNOW that field very well. There's always time to learn more and I hope this can be a good jumping off point for deeper exploration :)

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  2. This was...really well put together and I appreciate your thoughts so much! Some of the points you brought up were things I hadn't even thought about but this makes me want to start a conversation about it with my friends.

    Thank you for writing and sharing your writing honestly I've really enjoyed your articles

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    1. Really glad they're giving you something to talk about!

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  3. I'll agree with the general sentiment that this was well-written, if not a little long-winded and dense, but I can't help but sense a bit of anger and frustration in your writing from-time-to-time. It breaks the flow and draws me out a bit, and I really think that some calmer prose would've helped with your overall points.

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    Replies
    1. I'm pretty sure "Dense, long-winded, and frustrated as hell" are my actual web brand...

      Delete

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