In the last few nights, I’ve watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (a little late on the latter, I know, but hey man, I have a kid). I’m interested in comparing the two universes, Star Wars’ and Marvel Studios’, both of which are owned by Disney (who now also owns pretty much everything else in Hollywood thanks to the deal with 20th Century Fox).
I don’t know what I’ll discover in this little essay, nor whether it will be original, but I think there’s something in the comparison that could be worthwhile. Instead of reading someone else’s comparison, I’ve decided to write my own.
It’s just more fun that way.
First, for context: I literally just finished watching Guardians vol. 2, and I watched The Last Jedi two days ago, so my memory of the former will be better than latter. Still, let’s jump.
First, their themes. Guardians is an artistic expression of the mythologically poignant argument that one must overcome the ego of the father (assisted by the love of friends and family — a love that is first awoken by the mother) before one can embark on their own journey for meaning.
The Last Jedi, meanwhile, is an artistic expression of the mythologically poignant argument that one must reject any attempt to find meaning in the legends and heroes of the past.
In the same way that Kylo Ren blasts through his father, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker tosses aside the lightsaber handed to him baton-like at the end of The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson democratizes the force of George Lucas’ meta-chlorinated bloodline and tosses aside the plot devices that were delivered to him, baton-like, by JJ Abrams.
Neither of these movies are subtle. But neither do they try to be. Everything in them drives home their themes. Yes, there are technical mistakes in their plots, the kind that can drive a hypercritical fan crazy with rage and/or disappointment, but for any storyteller worth their salt, the plot is never the point.
Storytellers weave their magic across all of the conflicts and complexities that are raised when a theme interacts with a variety of motivated forces. Rey’s search for the identity of her birth parents, for example, conflicts with Johnson’s argumentative theme (one’s meaning cannot be found in the past), and so part of the plot of The Last Jedi comes from the way that conflict plays out. In addition, her attempt to re-engage Luke Skywalker in the conflicts of the wider universe only results in the stunning return of his spirit, which has its fleeting moment of beauty and victory before it too, like the sun, is gone.
And Kylo Ren, driven so long by the desire to defeat and kill Luke Skywalker, his true father-figure, sees his journey climax in an empty fight with a ghost, where his every action is meaningless and all of his emotional rage doesn’t matter. Kylo Ren is focused on the past — he wants, for reasons both he and the audience do not fully understand, to become even more powerful than his grandfather and his uncle, and he hasn’t yet learned that wielding such power doesn’t much matter. That’s what makes him the bad guy (in the moral world of Disney, bad guys are people who haven’t yet learned their lesson).
Compare to the bad guys from Guardians of the Galaxy. In vol. 2, two of the bad guys have carried over from vol. 1, but by the end of the movie, both of them have been redeemed, one of them by finally getting to the sympathetic core of what she really wants (a sister), the other by revealing himself as a misunderstood step-father who, though he joked about eating a young Starlord and made him do some criminal things, really did love him and really did protect him, and who, when push came to shove, chose to sacrifice his life for him (compare to Starlord’s biological father, who killed his mother and was just now literally trying to consume his soul).
At the end of Guardians vol 2., the main characters have no real place left to go. The bad guy is dead, and with it, the main characters’ driving questions: at this point, all they want is to make a new family (with Groot standing in for the moody teenage child). Enter the Marvel calling card, an epilogue to remind us that the Guardians‘ corner of the universe is a big place, and there are always more stories to tell.
At the end of Star Wars, however, we don’t know where the story might go, because for Star Wars, the Skywalker bloodline has always been the one story. That’s what so great about what Rian Johnson forced JJ Abrams to do. By revealing Rey’s truly humble origins, doubling down with his force-strong janitor boy, and killing Luke Skywalker and Snoke, Johnson cut away everything extraneous and said to JJ Abrams, “Kylo is the last Skywalker, and you’ve only got one movie to decide his fate. What are you going to do?”
This is such a baller move. Rian took away JJ Abram’s favorite weapon: plot-based mysteries. With the death of Snoke, the reveal of Rey’s parents, and the discarding of the Luke Skywalker MacGuffin, Rian dares JJ Abrams to approach the next chapter of the story not through its plot, but through its theme and its characters. Like a good professor, he challenges JJ Abrams to become a better storyteller.
Compare that to Guardians and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The basic plot of the Marvel CU has been known for years (not to the general public, but to Marvel, of course). Since its inception in 2008, the universe has shared an already-existing connective tissue. While Marvel encourages its storytellers to make each film stand on its own, it also requires its connective tissue be kept in place, realizing that the strength of one movie supports the weaknesses of the others, much like, in The Avengers, the strength of one superhero supports the weaknesses of the others.
But the Star Wars universe doesn’t work like that. Can you imagine Marvel allowing a creator to toss away major plot-structures (the Infinity Stones, for example) that it spent over a decade of man-hours and billions of dollars constructing and reinforcing?
But that’s what Rian Johnson just did with The Last Jedi.
I applaud Kathleen Kennedy and the rest of the Star Wars executive branch for allowing Johnson to make a movie that was this subversive of its mythos, and then to triple-down on their decisions by giving Johnson the first original trilogy of films in what I can only hope will be an ever-daring and ever-entertaining series of stories.
The difference of course is that the Marvel Universe has been in existence since 1939, and while the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t start until the first Iron Man movie in 2008, it still has over 78 years of connections to contend with.
Star Wars, by contrast, has only been around for forty years. In effect, with Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, we see what amounts to the saga’s midlife crisis, the abandonment of one set of motivating forces for a new but as yet unknown set of motivating forces. We can call it the crisis of one individual life, or we can call the moment when one generation takes over from the one that preceded.
With The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams demonstrated his generation’s ability to receive a beloved set of principles and then toss them back into the universe in much the same form, just with a new sense of style — much like Starlord, in Guardians, tosses a ball of ego-light back and forth with his biological father.
Rian Johnson, however, catches the ball, and like Luke with the lightsaber, he tosses it over his shoulder, as if to say to the previous films, “No thanks. I’m gonna go do something else.” Then he walks off to play his own game, over in a brand new trilogy.
What’s hilarious is that JJ Abrams now has to walk over and pick that ball up again. His whole legacy as a filmmaker rests on what he does with it.