Movies Matter: How Disney, Star Wars and J J Abrams' fan-pandering is far more dangerous than you realise.

January 2, 2020

 

One of the key arguments in favour of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that I keep hearing bandied about at the moment is that it’s a movie for kids, and that, as a result, it isn’t meant to be deep or complex, to deal with issues or make you think, and is instead designed so that you can simply “turn your brain off” and have a good time.

 

This may very well be true. Except, that it’s not. Star Wars has never been about that, let’s be honest. From the very beginning Star Wars dealt with interesting ideas of faith versus logic, of the apathy of those unaffected or seemingly unaffected by war, of familial struggles and the weight of ones own inherited importance. You may not have realised those things were there, but they were. It’s a story, and stories have themes. Like it or not, they all do. Every. Single. One.

 

In fact, it’s the themes and the subtext that often strike a chord with audiences. The plot is just a bunch of stuff. Look at Raimi’s Spider-Man. Sure, people were in need of a fun, escapist superhero post-9/11, but you can’t deny the subtext of “anyone can be a hero” and that scene where the New Yorkers all rally together behind Spider-Man didn’t have a massive affect on just how well that film did at that particular moment.

 

Likewise, the original Star Wars. Likewise, almost every other film you can think of.

 

See, this idea that kids movies are somehow supposed to be dumb or less well made than every other film, or that big budget blockbusters don’t have any requirement to address contemporary issues in a meaningful, albeit not always obvious, way is utter nonsense. Shit, Paddington is arguably the most successful kids film currently about, and it’s so obviously “about” immigration that, well… you can barely even call it subtext. It’s text.

 

And, before we get anymore crazy right-wing asshats going off on one about Paddington – I think you’ll find that facet of the story was there right from the start, and began with Michael Bond who, himself, often interacted with immigrants fleeing war and danger.

 

Kids films have an obligation, as much as any other film if not more, to explore complex and deep ideas through themes and subtext. Inside Out, Tory Story, Finding Nemo… I mean, basically the whole Pixar canon is built around this. But they’re not the only examples. Kids develop their understanding of things, at least in part, through what they watch. That’s partly why kids movies are important, and it’s partly why we, as adults, often find ourselves so attached to them.

 

It’s not a secret why Star Wars, the 1977 original, struck the chord that it did. And it’s not a secret why it has developed such a massive, loyal following since. A big part of it’s success comes down to the way it dealt with certain issues that late 70s society, at least late 70s American society, were very aware of. And framing the aforementioned themes as a fun, genre flick meant that it was accessible. People liked it. People related to it. People bought into it. And, most importantly, people still do.

 

That’s why Abrams’ The Force Awakens didn’t do much for me beyond Kylo Ren. Part of being able to “switch my brain off” and just have fun, is being able to tangibly place myself within the world presented on screen. Kylo Ren was an interesting concept way back in 2015, because it looked like once again Star Wars was gearing up to explore an idea we were becoming all too familiar with in the real world.

 

What Rian Johnson smartly did, in my opinion, way build off of that. He approached The Last Jedi as a filmmaker with something to say, and did so through the lens of Star Wars. He used the ideas and threads Abrams led out to do something subversive but contemporary. It related to the way fandom views these figures, it related to the way the world, in its awful, capitalist way, profits from that. It had things to say, and it said them.

 

We can talk about whether or not we like The Last Jedi until the space cows come home, but really your opinion on whether the film was any good is irrelevant. It may not of delivered what you wanted from Star Wars, but as a sequel it expanded, it developed and it explored. That’s a fact.

 

As I tried to explain to someone a few days ago, the question was “Who were Rey’s parents?” not “Which iconic character is Rey related to?”.

 

By the end of The Last Jedi the universe was more diverse, was more open, and anyone, regardless of their circumstance, bloodline, race or anything else, was able to find a place within this epic story. According to Rian Johnson, the Force is for everyone. And that’s a good message. And while The Last Jedi set that in stone, defined it clearly, and the galaxy far, far away was made more equal and fairer as a result, so too was the real world,

 

You might consider it hyperbolic of me to claim that movies have such a massive influence on the real world, but hear me out. I’ll agree not all movies do. Most don’t. In fact, most are barely a blip. But Star Wars… well, Star Wars is something else. Star Wars is more like a religion. It’s massive. It’s mainstream. It’s arguably the most successful thing in the world. It has that power. It just does. It can change perception; it can make people think and it can alter the course of peoples lives. It’s f**king Star Wars, guys! It’s massive! It has that power!

 

And, to go back to Spider-Man for a moment, with great power comes great responsibility.

 

See, this is where I start to get a little concerned. The “switch your brain off” argument is like a get-out-of-jail-free-card for people who want their Star Wars exactly as it always was. They can keep making that argument as much as you want, but the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone views it the same way, and that, even if they’re not fully aware of it on a conscious level, sub-text and thematic conversations are happening constantly. There’s a responsibility on the filmmakers working with something as massive and influential as Star Wars to acknowledge just how big a platform they have, and just how serious a great many people take it.

 

And that’s why, when J J Abrams chose to spend a big portion of The Rise of Skywalker undoing a great many of the things Rian Johnson had done in The Last Jedi, it’s more than simply retconning a part of a story, and it’s more than simply making a bad film. It’s a statement. It’s saying something about our society, and it’s influencing our society at the same time.

 

Let’s talk about Kelly Marie Tran, shall we?

 

Introduced in The Last Jedi, Kelly Marie Tran plays the character of Rose. In The Last Jedi she is a pivotal role, and one of the core cast of characters. Lots of people like to downplay her importance, but she has a definitive and clear part within the film, she has her own arc and she affects the arc of Finn, another key character. Outside of The Last Jedi, she was also an element of further diversity in the cast, and for a great many people she was a great addition. For another group of people, she was simply just an addition. And for another group of people… she was a problem.

 

Whether you put it down to racism, misogyny, both, or whatever, Kelly Marie Tran was the subject of horrific online abuse upon the films release. She still suffers it now. It was so bad she had deleted her social media. It was appalling on every level, and anyone who doesn’t consider it terrible is just a bad person. No one deserve the abuse she received.

 

Now, you may argue with me that the sidelining of the character in The Rise of Skywalker has nothing to do with that, and rather it’s simply part of a wider attempt by J J Abrams, or in some people’s eyes Disney as a whole, to backpedal on what they saw as a screw up on The Last Jedi’s part, and get back to the fan-pleasing nostalgia of The Force Awakes. You could very well be right. In fact, you probably are right. I suspect whoever decided to go down that route has nothing but good things to say about Kelly Marie Tran. But I’m telling you that doesn’t f**king matter.

 

Thing is, as we’ve already established, Star Wars is influential and massive. By treating Kelly Marie Tran in the way that it does, The Rise of Skywalker validates the beliefs of those racist, misogynistic abusers, and, worse still, actually rewards their behaviour. They got what they wanted. Regardless of whether they got it because of their actions or not is irrelevant. They got it. They won.

 

But it goes further than that. This isn’t just J J Abrams giving them validation. It isn’t even just Star Wars, the cultural behemoth that it is. It’s Disney. The mega-corporation that controls almost every aspect of your childhood years, and is only getting bigger and bigger by the day.

 

Last year 80% of the box office was won by Disney. They’re bigger than Star Wars. Most of the media you consume through film and television is pumped out by Disney. Most mainstream media, anyway. And plenty of video-games, comics, books and so on too. And if they’re willing to validate that kind of behaviour, give credence to the notion that racially abusing someone is a successful strategy to getting them removed from that film you like, solely to appease a fan-base that would have shown up for the movie regardless, especially at a point in time where racism, alt-right rhetoric and fascism is on the rise, then… well, we’ve got bigger problems than a serious lack of understanding in how to construct a coherent trilogy.

 

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom first post into the New Year (Happy New Year, by the way), but this is concerning. When I wrote in my review of Rise of Skywalker that I felt the direction this was heading in was downright dangerous, this is what I meant.

 

So, look, even if those Rise of Skywalker fans are right, and we are supposed to simply “turn your brain off” and enjoy it, I can’t. This is damaging stuff. These things matter. Movies matter, and we all need to be more aware of that.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018