Does Star Wars Episode IX Already Have a Villain Problem?

Who’s left to fight for the Dark Side?

Matt Belinkie: So guys, Rian Johnson definitely surprised a lot of people by killing off Snoke. But I worry that leaves us with a villain deficit heading into the final film of the trilogy. We have Kylo, but after two movies in which he loses every fight I don’t see him as a super menacing figure. He almost got schooled by Snoke’s bodyguards! Hux is practically comic relief at this point. And that’s all we have left for the Dark Side. (Phasma fell into a bottomless pit of fire so I’m relatively sure she’s done.)

So what do you do for Episode IX? Power up Kylo into a super saiyan? Introduce Snoke’s big bad brother, Furious 7 style?

Jordan Stokes: To twist your question slightly: I really enjoyed Snoke in this film, but I was disappointed that he died without explaining what his deal was. Who was he? Where did he come from? I mean, they could explain it (and I hope they will), but I’m guessing they actually won’t.

But I was thinking about this, and something occurred to me: by the end of Return of the Jedi, do we know any more about Palpatine than we know about Snoke at the end of this movie? We don’t, right? All the Sith lord, master-apprentice stuff came in the prequel trilogy. It’s actually quite a striking parallel: Palpatine appears as a hologram in Empire and then shows up just in time to die in Return of the Jedi. Snoke shows up as a hologram in Force Awakens, and shows up just in time to die in Last Jedi. But I don’t think that anyone walked out of Return of the Jedi complaining that they never learned what the Emperor’s deal was. So what’s different?

Belinkie: In Episode IV, the Emperor is handed to us as the status quo. We don’t ask ourselves where he came from because we didn’t know a lot of what came before. But in The Force Awakens, we know that the Empire was defeated a generation ago; we saw it happen. Maybe we could accept without explanation if the Empire was back under military leadership, but the situation is a lot more mysterious. The “Empire” is gone and replaced with the “First Order” which is exactly the same thing. Except it’s maybe not: remember that the First Order wasn’t technically in charge of the galaxy until three days ago, when they wiped out the Senate in a terrorist attack and presumably took control (so that part is confusing). And in the place of the Emperor we have Snoke, who seems just as powerful but doesn’t call himself a Jedi or a Sith. His existence potentially upends everything we thought we knew about Force-users. And he’s clearly old enough to have been around during the events of the original trilogy, only he wasn’t, but he WAS instrumental in what happened to Ben Solo, somehow.

The whole thing is a giant J.J. Salad of open questions. Honestly, it feels like Episode VII should have really been Episode IX, with two movies leading up to that giving us a little more of the story of how Snoke emerges and builds up the First Order. Rey finding Luke Skywalker might have been a cool ending to that trilogy! Instead we skipped the setup in order to get back to the good old rebel underdog dynamic sooner.

Peter Fenzel: It’s worth noting that in the original cut of the first Star Wars movie, before George Lucas’s wife, and others, rescued it from disaster, there was a lot more backstory on the Emperor, the Republic, who they are, and what they are trying to accomplish. Here’s the crawl as written out in the screenplay. The theatrical edit was an exercise in chopping out what was unnecessary, and discussions of the Emperor were of course cut out almost entirely from the first movie.

That said, we do get one scene where they talk about the Emperor, what he wants, what he’s trying to accomplish, all in pretty intense detail: the meeting scene where Vader force chokes General Taag. It’s classic George Lucas, and we’ve talked about it before on the site: the Emperor is looking to replace the semiautonomous territorial responsibilities of Galactic Senators with a direct command structure carried out on the ground by the Regional Governors. The Emperor knows the Regional Governors won’t be able to enforce order directly over that scale, so he commissions the Death Star to intimidate star systems that might reject the direct rule of the Regional Governors. Princess Leia even tells Vader to his face that centralizing this power will not work, and, surprise surprise, it does not work. And thus the Rebellion.

That’s enough motivation to justify and explain everything the Emperor does in the whole story, up to trying to convert Luke. And that’s the big difference between the Emperor and Snoke, I think, both in terms of who they are and in terms of how much backstory we need for them to function in the story. The Emperor’s plan has nothing to do with Luke Skywalker. Luke is an amusement to the Emperor—a curiosity.

There’s opportunity there, and he looks to exploit it, but the Emperor’s plan has nothing to do with any of the protagonists directly, at least as it is communicated in the movie. His Dark Side of the Force ambitions are realized through political and military means, assisted by a one-man Gestapo with magical powers. That’s it.

Whereas Snoke has a specific, peculiar interest in Kylo Ren that is still not explained. Snoke cares about Luke Skywalker enough to go several levels deep in subterfuge to go after him and his academy. Is it just because Luke is an asset to the Republic in much the same way Vader was an asset to the Empire? Maybe, but within the J.J. Abrams mystery box, at least, it doesn’t seem that way. Snoke seems to have a much more personal interest in what is happening with people like Kylo and Rey than the Emperor ever had even in Darth Vader, whom, at least in the original trilogy, he seemed to enjoy having around, but not enough to, say, visit more than one time in five years.

It would be simpler if Snoke were a Sith, and they did the same trick they did in The Phantom Menace and other old Extended Universe stuff where it’s just a rule that there’s one Sith and one apprentice. But in The Force Awakens at least, Snoke is specifically not a Sith.

What I need to know about Snoke for the events of The Force Awakens at least to make sense are his relationships with the other characters. Why does he know them? Why does he even care? How does this all benefit him? Yeah, I can guess, but it’s a big enough leap that it makes me uncomfortable and distracted.

Oh, and the thing I said I’d mention in a bit I might as well mention here: I don’t understand the goals behind Starkiller Base. As I’ve brought up on the site and the podcasts before, I think it’s confusing in The Force Awakens when Starkiller base blows up multiple planets that are close to each other rather than just one planet, especially when they’re positioned as the core of the whole political and economic structure. As I’ve said on the podcast, if your only goal is power, what’s the point of destroying the territory that you are trying to rule? The elegant, simple story is that Snoke would want to conquer the Republic capital and control it. I wouldn’t need an explanation for that. But razing it introduces the need for an explanation.

Stokes: Both of you make really good points about why the villains in the new trilogy can’t be held to the same standards as Vader and Palpatine. I’d add that Vader being such an implacable badass in Hope and Empire gives the Emperor a little extra juice. (Even Vader’s afraid of this guy? Well then.) Being able to dominate Hux and Kylo is not such a big deal. I thought they did a great job with Snoke’s look, dialogue, and performance in this movie—but he can’t skate just on being scary.

Belinkie: So assuming they want to wrap up this set of three movies with a reasonable amount of closure, I feel like it’s too late to bring in a new character with the same menace as Snoke. That means they are going to have to evolve Kylo a little. What would it take to turn this guy, who it seems like Rey could take easily, into someone scary? Or is “scary” not exactly what they’re going for?

Stokes: I think the angle is maybe that Rey could probably kill Kylo if she wanted to — but she doesn’t want to. She knows people can be turned from the dark side, and she feels like she has to do that (for Han’s sake, for Luke’s sake, for Leia’s sake). Meanwhile, although Kylo isn’t a credible threat to Rey, he’s definitely a threat to her friends. So the tension is like “can Kylo be redeemed?” But also, “who has to die before Rey decides to put Kylo down like a mad dog?”

And I still like the idea of Kylo haunted by Luke. Ooh, maybe he’s haunted by Luke AND Snoke. Half of the movie is focalized on him (with Rey as the second-most important character in those sequences), and the question is “does this guy’s soul get saved after all?” The other half is Finn and Poe and Rose just like curb stomping Hux. But every time the good guys win another military victory, this makes Kylo more desperate, setting back Rry’s campaign to save his soul.

Fenzel: I would like to file a formal request for Mad Cyborg Hux, please. Wounded in five battles, lightsabered and left for dead twice, thrown in a trash compactor, with only his face above his jawline and one of his hands still human. The specific injuries don’t matter as long as they are generally grievous

Stokes: That, except rather than wounded in honorable combat he’s like Wile E. Coyote’d over the brink. Lost a leg when his own blaster misfired. Tripped into the trash compactor. Lost the other leg in a hot-coffee-down-the-front-of-his-pants incident.

Fenzel: It gets to the point where Po Dameran can’t even taunt him anymore. So Hux commisions a little droid wth a Po Dameron effigy head who constantly debases itself for him. And Hux abuses it all the time. Except the droid also malfunctions and starts sassing and burning him left and right.

Stokes: Hux walks into his quarters, with a new robot hand, seething. Po-bot: “mmm-If. You wan-ted. BEEP. To feel. What a mechanical. ~bzzt~ Handjob. Felt. Like. You. mmm-could. Have asked.”

Fenzel: I really like the idea that Rey could kill Kylo, but doesn’t want to, and that Kylo keeps daring her to come do it, because he’s obsessed with other people validating what a lost cause he is.

One idea that comes to mind is we skip ahead a couple of years. The First Order is triumphant, but Kylo Ren has seized control of it, and because Kylo Ren can’t really do anything useful except kill people who oppose him, it’s in really rough shape. Stormtrooper armor is all dirty, ramshackle Star Destroyers slapped together from mismatched parts, maybe a bit of a grimdark cyberpunk vibe to the Imperial capitol. The Knights of Ren are his henchmen – his dark mirror to the Jedi order – and they mostly go around hunting for force sensitive people and murdering them.

And every day Kylo Ren does a galaxy-wide broadcast of him executing some innocent person, which he says he will keep doing every day until Rey is delivered into his hands. This is having the predictable effect of strengthening resistance to his rule, so the other protagonists see it as useful, but it’s torturing Rey with frustration. And it all REALLY frustrates Hux.

Hux then launches a coup (which he can do now because he is a powerful mad cyborg or has some other McGuffin), seizes control of the government, and vows to exterminate every world that stands against the First Order, starting with the wookies or the porgs or something. Kylo, cast out of power, seeks to team up with the rebels to go after Hux, because he is totally tone deaf to other people’s feelings, or just goes rogue hunting Rey.

So the threat is that the First Order will collapse violently from the inside and take down the whole galaxy with it. This is set against a big multi-love triangle among the resistance folks, because come on why haven’t we dealt with any of that yet?

And the action sequences are around explosive collapses: a space battle on the edge of a black hole going nova, a fight with swamp monsters like bloodhounds hunting Rey who pull her down into the mud only for her to burst out, lightsaber blazing, coated like Arnold in Predator, Finn and Rose dropping gravity modulators on imperial ships to get them to crash into each other with the force of their own artificial gravity.

And Hux trying to blow himself up to kill Kylo but stopped when he is hacked by BB-8 and Po Dameran, who make him dance for their amusement.

Best Supporting Actress nomination for Gwendolyn Christie as Captain Phasma, whom Finn discovers broken and humiliated, living among refugees on a planet about to be destroyed, who tells the story of how her unit collapsed and was disbanded, and she was abandoned, to finally understand the meaning of pity. She begs Finn to kill her, but he refuses and herds her onto a rescue ship.

Belinkie: Remind me where we netted out on the Jedi policy of killing bad guys. Obviously they kill bad guys in self-defense, but they aren’t supposed to set OUT to kill bad guys, right? Seems like a grey area. When Mace Windu faced down Jango Fett, did he HAVE to cut the guy’s head off? Or did he choose to? Yoda and Obi-Wan straight-up told Luke to kill Vader, but there’s at least an interpretation that he wasn’t supposed to actually do it and the moment he realized this is when his training was complete. I ask because I at least would say that at this point it doesn’t matter if Kylo is conflicted or not. He’s a mass murderer and if you have the chance to stop him, you should take it. That’s a utilitarian analysis but I get the feeling that for Rey, the slim chance of saving Kylo is worth hundreds of lives.

Do you guys think that Rey wants to spare Kylo because she senses he deserves saving? Or is it more because she’s not mentally prepared to kill anyone in a premeditated way?

Fenzel: I hesitate to re-calibrate my expectations for the next movie based on The Last Jedi, because it is so different from The Force Awakens, and we’re headed back to J.J. Abrams. But I think Rey isn’t saying Kylo deserves to be saved, I think she is getting visions that are telling her he will be saved. Snoke tells her in The Last Jedi that he put the visions in her head in order to trick her to come see him, but with Snoke dead, if she keeps getting those visions, that will put his manipulations in doubt and make her think Kylo actually will be saved so there’s no point in thinking she can kill him.

Belinkie: I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of a passive, fatalistic Rey. One of the interesting things about her character is that even now, it’s not clear what she wants, other than someone external to straight up tell her what she SHOULD want, “What my place in all this is?” She spent the whole last movie running for her life, and this movie looking for a sense of meaning. It seems kind of telling and maybe a little bit unlikely that she’s so determined to go meet Kylo that she doesn’t seem to notice or care that Kylo’s ship is chasing a rebel ship that presumably has all her friends on it (she at least temporarily forgets about her beacon). It’s an interesting reversal from the last film, where Rey was super excited to join the rebellion and Finn just wanted to get away. Now it seems like Finn is ready to die for the rebellion and Rey, while certainly embracing Leia as a mother figure, seems more interested in her personal journey than whatever the next target to destroy is.

But look, real talk here: there’s like an 80% chance that Kylo sacrifices himself to save Rey’s life in the end, right? Or am I not giving these filmmakers enough credit?

Fenzel: I would not take +400 odds on “Kylo Ren does not sacrifice himself to save Rey’s life.” I think it would have to be something like +1200.

Think Tank is an occasional series of articles written by Overthinkers in collaboration and friendly competition.

One Comment on “Does Star Wars Episode IX Already Have a Villain Problem?”

  1. Stephen #

    Admiral Motti. That’s who Vader chokes. General Taag is the guy with muttonchops.

    Reply

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