Star Wars Takeaways: Subverting Expectations Without Dishonoring Your Legacy
This article is part 5 in a series. Check out all the other articles here.
We need to talk about the elephant in the galaxy: subverting expectations. The balancing act between giving your readers exactly what they want and expect vs subverting expectations and giving them something they didn’t know they wanted is a tricky one, but it can be done! For this section I’m going to talk about themes, since we’ve already covered keeping your characters consistent yet growing.
What if, at the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang had decided to retire to some backwater Earth Kingdom village and refused to do his job? What if, after the coronation of Fire Lord Zuko, another imbalance occurred and Aang just threw up his arms and said enough was enough. When Katara goes to find him and convince him that the world needs him to bring balance and to be the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds he just replied that it was a crutch for people to put all their hope onto one person, even a divinely ordained person, and that people should solve their own problems.
Expectations averted! Unfortunately, we’ve also just betrayed the core theme of Avatar and split the fan base in the process while destroying Aang’s character.
This is the problem with The Last Jedi, and it can become a huge problem for you in any series you’re writing, even if it’s not one you decided to return to years later. You have a message you want to get out, but that message contradicts everything woven into the fabric of your earlier work.
What Star Wars Is and Isn’t
Star Wars has always been an optimistic story at heart. It delves deeper than good and evil with the prequel trilogy and The Clone Wars, giving us metaphors for corruption, bureaucracy, hubris, and more. However, even when the Jedi were at their most arrogant and functioning less like an order of monks and more like an extension of the military, allowing the Sith to manufacture a civil war as a huge distraction while climbing the ranks within the bogged-down Republic, Star Wars never portrayed the Jedi as something bad. They were a force for good who had simply lost their way, much like the Republic itself and Anakin Skywalker.
This is a bizarre theme to present to people when the story isn’t ripe for it. The Jedi Way had nothing to do with Kylo Ren’s fall as far as we know. The Jedi have also never believed that had exclusive rights to the Force, making his argument unbelievable. The only way he could possibly believe that would be if, in his downward spiral into depression and living in an echo chamber, Luke had come to create his own bad head canon about the Jedi, but we’re never shown that. Moreover, even when Yoda appears, no one ever seems to dispute his core reasoning.
Rey also doesn’t care about training or the Jedi (which is why her character’s arc and motivations really need reworked), her only desire to be bringing Luke back to the Resistance. As such, Luke’s rantings about the Jedi and why the galaxy shouldn’t look to them to solve its problems make no sense. His problem doesn’t do much for Rey, whose character is so poor at this point we have no idea why she wants to become a Jedi (if that’s even her goal, which doesn’t seem to be) at all!
If, as in the Avatar example above, Luke’s argument was that he was a failure and his presence probably wouldn’t make a huge difference to the Resistance anyway is what his reasoning is, that would be a better theme. Disney was trying too hard to introduce the concept of a moral gray area to a story about literal space Nazis attacking and invading others. While there’s a time and place for such a thing, and The Clone Wars was both ripe for it and carefully introduced it, this particular story just doesn’t have any wriggle room for that kind of a theme.
We’re also given a side plot of Leia and her last fleet fleeing from the First Order. They’re running out of fuel and the new commander has a plan that, for some reason, she intends to keep to herself until it’s time to execute it. Poe is frustrated and has already been scolded for having a bunch of ships destroyed and Resistance members killed to take out a large Dreadnought ship before running away. Seeing as how the Resistance wasn’t aware that the First Order could track them through hyperspace when Poe made that attack, he was rightfully demoted.
However, when the new commander seems to have no plan and almost appears to be actively working against the Resistance, Poe and several other members decide to mutiny. Finn and a new character named Rose, in the meantime, leave to find a master code breaker who can get them onto the First Order ship that is tracking them so they can disable the tracker and allow the fleet to escape.
The Problems with This
There are two themes presented here that are either poorly executed or directly contradict the themes of earlier films.
The first is that you should always obey orders because the people in charge know better than you. If you’re in the actual military, disobeying orders is considered a terrible thing, but within Star Wars and most other stories where we don’t want to view our heroes as mere robots or cogs in a machine, following your gut is usually going to lead to something good.
Luke, Han, and Chewbacca disobeyed Obi-Wan’s orders on the Death Star and now Leia is alive because of it.
Luke disregards Obi Wan’s and Yoda’s warnings on Dagobah and leaves to save his friends in Cloud City. While he loses to Darth Vader and it’s Lando who ultimately saves his friends, it sets up that Luke puts the lives and well-being of his friends above all else, which is ultimately treated as a good thing, albeit something very risky.
Finally, Luke is presented with two choices: kill Darth Vader or fail and he decides to disregard Obi-Wan’s and Yoda’s orders again and takes a third option: try and redeem him. It’s a close call, but it pays off in spades. Instead of viewing the situation as black and white, Luke takes a more nuanced and compassionate approach, the one his mother would’ve taken, and succeeds where the traditional Jedi would have failed.
To suddenly decide to start presenting disobeying orders as a bad choice that results in a completely worthless side plot isn’t just bad plotting for your movie and a waste of time for your characters, it contradicts earlier themes. If you’re writing a series, your story will start feeling disjointed and less like a cohesive narrative once you start doing this. By keeping themes intact or running throughout the story, you may feel as though risk not subverting expectations and making your story stale, but that’s why you introduce fresh themes that fit with the story you’re trying to tell while not betraying what’s come before.
The second theme is one that was already explored in The Clone Wars: that war is very profitable for some people, and they don’t care who wins or who loses. Unfortunately, the story takes a sour turn with a side plot that ultimately goes nowhere and doesn’t even explore this theme very well. You should never do your characters or story a disservice for the sake of social commentary or a theme that doesn’t jar with the story being told.
You could also interpret Kylo Ren’s insistence on killing the past as being a meta theme or commentary on how the story’s legacy and past victories (and failures) are overshadowing the new story being told. This is a dangerous theme to insert into a beloved, established story and universe. If Kylo Ren were a more developed character, it might actually fit with him, and in my rewrite I might be able to preserve it, but it doesn’t subvert expectations, and when used correctly and stems from a character following a compelling, logical line of growth.
These themes are used to subvert our expectations, whether they fit or not. You expect the story to be about how good ultimately triumphs over evil, but by questioning the Jedi, the code breaker, and people like the kind who frequent Canto Bight, you insert some moral relativity and gray area into the mix. Now we have to think a little bit harder about what is good and what is evil, but again, we’re talking about a trilogy that’s using the original trilogy as a template.
When your foe is Space Hitler, you might need to rethink that theme. It works in TCW because we’re talking about a civil war in which neither side started off evil. There’s a nuance there, making it hard to say that the Separatists (before they were taken over by Dookoo) were actually aggressive and in the wrong.
I’m not saying that, even in World War II, the Allied Forces always did what was right and noble or that American soldiers never killed civilians or dropped nuclear weapons on civilian populations with the intent to keep Stalin from coming into Europe and moving in on America’s territory. No one is perfect at all, but to properly explore those kinds of themes in a rather clear-cut good vs evil story, you need a lot of time and to be able to do it carefully.
The Clone Wars featured an episode about a banking system funding both the Separatists and the Republic, touching on a similar theme that Disney tried to explore with Canto Bight. The difference is that The Clone Wars is a civil war, both sides having justifiable reasons to fight, and both, unfortunately, being co-opted by the Sith. It’s ripe for exploring that theme and subverts expectations while not damaging the integrity of the characters in any way.
To properly do a theme like this in Star Wars, they’d have to pull a Mockingjay. In the final Hunger Games book, it turns out that District 13’s president isn’t much better than the Capitol. She’s in it for the power, but she just happens to be on the side of the oppressed. She champions a good cause, but she should hardly be put in charge. Given the themes the books have been exploring thus far, this was right up that alley. It allows us to see how power dynamics work and how sometimes the little person just always seems doomed to fail, dominated by a tyrannical government no matter what happens. It’s cynical, but the book ends on a bittersweet note and a somewhat happy ending that makes the theme feel justified for being there while keeping the story from ending on a 1984 note.
Hunger Games isn’t optimistic in the way that Star Wars is. The characters are broken, the system is rigged, and the people are caught in the throes of apathy.
It also subverts our expectations. We don’t expect Katniss and the other characters to be helping a monster rise to power and we feel as betrayed as she does when the realization hits.
So, Can We Fix This Mess?
How do we set this up so that we get new themes that Star Wars either hasn’t explored or did so in an unsatisfying way that we can rectify now? How do we, as writers, give our audience twists and subvert expectations without throwing something in for the sake of being edgy or unforeseeable?
First of all, we fulfill an important expectation by giving us a Luke that’s more in line with what our readers want. They love Luke, so we give them the reworked Luke I created in “The Luke Problem” and go from there. That’s an expectation fulfilled, but we’re not done.
Yes, the Republic in my new plot has been building its own super-weapon meant to act as a deterrent to the First Order using theirs. We have a Cold War in the making, but Luke is absolutely opposed to the Republic doing this. Depending on your view, either Luke is wrong or the Republic is wrong. Should a country, or planet, be armed with weapons of mass destruction because they’re afraid of their enemies having them? Is it a moral failing? Do you have that much faith that your country/planet will always be in the right that you know such a weapon will never actually used?
This is gray area that Star Wars could have explored earlier but didn’t. The prequel stories had the Old Republic mass producing clones to fight their war. Aside from the way this really came back to bite them later, this was a morally reprehensible move.
These are living people who are being produced. They are rapidly aged to physical maturity over the course of a year with no time to really be children. They have to learn all the things that both normal students and soldiers have to in a matter of months, then they’re thrust into a conflict they don’t truly understand. They’re fighting for a government and political infrastructure they don’t have any say in, to preserve a way of life they’ve never known, and ultimately have no stakes in this war at all. The Jedi, Bale Organa, and Padme at least should have been calling out this outrageous act, but the Senate barely bats an eye and the Jedi don’t seem to have any qualms about it at all. The general idea is that since the Separatists and mass producing soldiers with their droid army, they have every right to do the same.
This means the theme of the Republic being as bad the Separatists could have been explored more thoroughly, but it wasn’t. It’s ripe for us now, so let’s throw in a super-weapon and Cold War metaphor. This type of thinking has left people fearful, and it’s the reason why North Korea refuses to relinquish its nukes today. We don’t expect the New Republic’s actions to be questioned, especially by Luke Skywalker, and it gives us a theme that fits in well with the story.
A character like Leia would absolutely endorse this action and a character like Luke would definitely be opposed to it. This gives us meaningful conflict between our characters while giving us a decent plot moving forward.
What Would You Do?
If you feel inclined, let me know in the comments how you would fix this massive problem. Next time I’ll talk about plotting!