Ah, Star Wars. One of the greatest entertainments of our time, one of the biggest box-office behemoths, and one of the most beloved worlds ever imagined. How any property achieves that kind of popularity is a bit of a mystery, but the serialized nature of its storytelling — constantly wiping from one adventure to the next — does much to keep audiences hooked.
That fleet-footedness can lead people astray, though, causing them to overlook the overarching themes and very serious observations that Star Wars makes about the world because it sometimes cuts to cute little bears harassing Stormtroopers. At first glance, some of the adventures do seem like trivial entertainments. But if you pause to consider why these scenarios exist, it often comes down to one pervasive reason: Someone in power is either being gross or stupid, and they get their comeuppance by the end.
Even if you back up and look at the series as a whole, it’s a tale of instability, of political powers rising and falling, and the inherent flaws that bring these systems down. It’s pretty hard to miss the contempt with which the series portrays authoritarianism; the Nazi imagery of the Empire and the First Order may as well put a big, old “bad guys” stamp on them, and despite their overwhelming numbers, they fail again and again to squash either the Rebellion or the Resistance. More often than not, that’s because they overestimate themselves, believing there’s no way this puny group could slip out of their grasp yet again. Of course, they always do, making the Empire and First Order look like fools and causing Vader to force-strangle an admiral or General Hux to yell so loud you can almost feel the spittle.
The heroes of the original and the sequel trilogies are literally rebels, the little guys standing up to a dominating force despite the odds. They’re backing a Republican government, and so you may be tempted to think: Hey, it’s about how great representative governments are, right?
That’s where the prequel trilogy comes in and upends everything. These movies are about how a Republican government fails, how the very system that the galaxy’s subsequent heroes want to install is littered with corruption and discord. Ultimately, the Republic proves too slow to react and too fearful during insecure times, voting again and again to decrease their power and ultimately allow the Empire to rise from within. “So this is how liberty dies …” says Padmé Amidala with disgust in her voice, “with thunderous applause.”
So no, Star Wars doesn’t endorse a political system as much as knock down any that happens to rise, maintaining the instability that keeps war raging throughout the galaxy.
And what about apolitical systems of power, ones that ostensibly don’t care who’s ruling as long as they get their slice? Well, there’s the Jedi, who’ve been held up as a beacon of hope for much of the series but have also been messing up the entire time. In the prequels, they were a firmly established power, enforcing peace throughout the galaxy and overseen by a council with loose ties to the Republic. Fearful that Anakin Skywalker, prophesied to bring balance to the force by destroying the Sith, was too unstable to be trusted, they back off pushing that prophecy forward. After all, they were comfortably in charge, so what was the big rush?
That paranoia about keeping their position allowed a Sith Lord named Palpatine to play them like a fiddle, turning Anakin to the dark side and luring the Jedi Council into a power play that made their massacre easy to sell to the Republic. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda were the only survivors, who lurked off to the subsequent trilogies and a series of piss-poor mentorships that kept the Jedi alive just enough to partake in lightsaber battles.
How was it a surprise to anyone that The Last Jedi questioned whether they should exist at all? After all, the prophecy isn’t about the Jedi coming to power, it’s about the force balancing, and couldn’t that theoretically happen without the Jedi or the Sith?
There are, of course, power structures throughout Star Wars that truly have nothing to do with the Jedi, the Sith or the Skywalker family. Our adventurers usually encounter these outposts in obscure corners of the galaxy, but even these get toppled (or at least disrupted) before being left behind.
Jabba the Hutt from the original trilogy is a monstrous exemplar of excess, ruling a corner of the underworld with extreme cruelty until Leia Organa takes him out. Similarly letting their little bits of power go to their head is Watto, Anakin’s owner at the start of The Phantom Menace, and Unkar Plutt, the junk dealer who gives Rey increasingly bad payouts in The Force Awakens.
These three are tied together by one central force — greed. The contempt for capitalistic societies was never exactly hidden in Star Wars, but it was made explicit in The Last Jedi. When Rose and Finn visit Canto Bight, a playground for the wealthy, Rose encourages Finn to look past its gleaming surface. These individuals are unfeelingly exploiting the raging war just so they can have their fun. The cruelty comes into focus, the heroic music swells behind Rose, and the point is made crystal clear.
Perhaps the only symbol of power in Star Wars that never really gets questioned is Leia, who enters the story as a leader of the Rebellion and stays on top throughout the series. Her presence, though, is itself a pushback against the assumed dominance of men, essentially functioning as a subversion of the damsel-in-distress trope and as an eternal foil to the arrogant flyboys that populate the series.
Just think about how dull the original trilogy would be if Han wasn’t always leading them into dumb scrapes with Leia rolling her eyes behind him. Or Lando, for that matter, who can only squeak out an exasperated “I trusted them to fix it!” when the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon fails for the umpteenth time.
It is, once again, the sequel trilogy that really brings this to the fore. Other women join Leia in positions of power, with Rey’s ascendence as the possible future of the Jedi and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo assuming command of the Resistance after Leia gets a little frosty.
Holdo’s entire plotline is explicitly about men’s mistrust of women in power, with the new pretty-boy hotshot Poe Dameron pushing against her orders at every turn. The only reason Finn and Rose go off to find a hacker and sneak aboard Snoke’s ship is because Poe thinks Holdo is incompetent, and his arc for The Last Jedi boils down to him learning to trust women in authority.
Does this lesson mean we’ll never again see someone question their leaders because of gender? If the rest of Star Wars is any indication, probably not. This isn’t really the kind of story where a solution is found. The Empire builds another Death Star, the Resistance fights for a republic that’s already failed, and the everyday faults of humans (and aliens) cause pain and suffering throughout the galaxy. If a system of power exists that could wipe away every wrong, then Star Wars isn’t pushing it forward. Instead, it’s glorifying the fight against wrongs no matter where they exist, and in the ethos of Star Wars, they seem to be everywhere.
And so the adventure goes on. And on and on and on.