What Is Really Challenging: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi

The Rise Of Skywalker, supposedly the last of the mainline Star Wars saga is coming soon. And even so, people are still talking about Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi. Even me. There is something about the eighth Star Wars film, and Rian Johnson’s own responses to fans that I’ve tried to explain, and put into words.

I mean, I even wrote an article for Sequart on The Last Jedi itself, and while it isn’t perfect, I knew the moment I saw it, it was going to become a classic: if only because of how controversial it was, how final it felt, and jarring, and experimental in some ways, while being conventional in others.

Then, I came across this article from IndieWire. It’s title is practically a thesis statement, and it doesn’t hide what it is: Rian Johnson Says Catering to Fans, Rather Than Challenging Them, Is a ‘Mistake.’ This title, combined with the subheading “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard,” left me with quite a few strong thoughts on the matter, and I want to attempt to communicate them as clearly, and lucidly — as both a writer with critical background, and as a Star Wars fan myself — as much as possible.

A lot of what I am going to write is something that has already been written, or talked about, before. After reading the article, which derives its points from an interview Johnson made, and then states that some critics apparently believe The Rise of Skywalker is “disrespectful” to Johnson, his work, and the originality of what he was attempting to do, I was reminded of something.

In 2015, I took took classes in Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp. And, in those classes, we learned many lessons not just about comics writing, but writing, world-building, and even franchise-making and supporting fandoms around it. It wasn’t completely indepth, but there was something Ty mentioned about “supporting a fan club.” Let me try to explain it as best I can recall.

Everyone likes to feel like they belong somewhere. Everyone, to some extent, also likes to feel smart, and informed, and included. Ty taught us about creating emblems, and certain recurring phrases, and the value of “always bringing a character home” each time for each new story or episode: figuratively, and literally. I don’t think about forty or so years, I need to explain how that concept particularly applies to a franchise like Star Wars. But there is something in particular about this that I want to make clear.

A lot of the time, fans will speculate on a work, or details within it. And, sometimes, they will come up with an idea of where something is going to go … and they will actually be either close to it — or completely right. And especially in this Age of Information, these speculations and their conclusions are more accessible and widespread: along with the means of more rapid and open communication.

There is nothing quite like figuring something out, and realizing that you were right. And, while some fans or audience members might be like Rian Johnson and say something like: “‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me,” there is another contingent that will feel pleased, and enlightened. They might even feel a sense of belonging to that fan club. Of course, you can take that too far as well into the pedantic and condescending, but I think every story has a common source: especially human stories like mythology. Like Star Wars.

Back in ancient times, if you look at Greece, you have plays being created. And everyone knew about Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, Lysistrata and the like from oral tales but they still watched the plays. The point I’m trying to make is that even if someone does predict a story, or they want something to happen, you can still give it to them … in the way that you want to give it to them. You focus on the details, on the buildup, the pacing of the narrative, on especially the character development. You don’t do it to give the fans what they want when and how they want it. Likewise, you don’t change the story, or the way something is going to happen just to “subvert expectations.” You do it to make a point, or make an interesting twist: to focus on the story itself.

There are a lot of interesting elements in The Last Jedi that I appreciate, such as Johnson’s critique of the cycle of violence in Star Wars itself. There is a bit of preaching and condescension, and the mess that is Canto Bight but there is also the meditations on the Force itself, the stop motion illustrating an ecosystem and circle of life and death, some words about self-actualization, and even a metaphysical look on how to break out of the cycle. Then you have the milking creature, and Luke Skywalker not learning anything after the lessons of thirty years ago when dealing with his nephew.

But all the Star Wars films are flawed in some way. I mean, I don’t even have to go into the Prequels now, do I? Or even some of the questionable decisions about clunkily revamping character origins like Ventress’ or Maul’s in The Clone Wars cartoons.

I can see, for instance, that The Last Jedi was meant to be an Empire Strikes Back as Johnson put it in the article. You have a story and even advertising build up to make you think A New Hope was going to lead to the enemy being defeated in the next film, but then you get that bombshell: only Johnson attempted to do this by subverting tropes and themes in a very heavy-handed, but clever manner.

The problem is, to imagine Yoda stating this point as I did in my other article, cleverness does not always for good storytelling make. And sometimes what some might see as challenging, can also be perceived as condescending.

This is especially true when you consider all the build up and hype towards Rey’s origins, Snoke’s and then … nothing. It’s supposed to show that those expectations are irrelevant and it is the current adventure and the concepts of overcoming war and hatred that matter more, as well as friendship and love being ascendant. But they are particularly abstract concepts. So is the cycle between good and evil, of course, but then we have the other issue.

What changed as a result of The Last Jedi?

Did the concept of war get challenged? Did the Light and the Dark Sides of the Force get scrutinized and be seen beyond a simple binary good verses evil dichotomy? Did Rey and Kylo Ren realize they didn’t have to be enemies and go into a Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis Hegelian dialectic: two opposites meeting to make something new, and challenging for the next film. According to the Indiewire article, as I mentioned critics are annoyed that Johnson’s innovations are seemingly being downplayed to “pander” to fan and fandom expectations for Star Wars in The Rise of Skywalker. However, it was Johnson himself who kept Rey and Kylo Ren on different sides. Rey is still on the Light Side. Kylo Ren is still motivated by the Dark Side. Perhaps they are challenged, as fans are supposedly challenged, but in the end their resolve is more or less the same: except for the regret in Kylo, which doesn’t matter as he continues on from that point until, presumably, the next movie by J.J. Abrams.

I could make a compelling case that Johnson uses the aesthetic or the seeming of innovation and subversion, but really just makes opposite, contrary trope choices that ultimately lead right back to the status quo. And this seeming of change or challenge, doesn’t really change anything. And it wouldn’t if it were simply a standalone film with its own story, but the issue is that it is supposed to be part of a nine film saga arc in which seven of those films said something else entirely. It’s jarring. And it does sometimes feel like he is subverting tropes to make it look clever, instead of actually focusing on character development and working with what came before, and making something cohesive after.

It reminds me of those creators that imitated the style and edginess of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s comics works, but didn’t really look at the content or spirit of them. I’m also reminded of something EA Games apparently did where, apparently, when some fans figured out a major plot point in the Mass Effect series, the creators went out of the way to change it so as not to seem “unoriginal” or to have people guess their story, and not want to play their game. But they forgot the lesson: that the fandom, in solving that puzzle, would only make it more interesting because even they couldn’t realize all of the details, and it’s one thing to know something — like an ancient Greek tragic story — but it is a whole other thing to see it play out, even with that knowledge or good guessing.

I don’t know. Sometimes, I think that Rian Johnson in how he has dealt with the criticism of his work can be as condescending as some of the fans who also have a tremendous sense of self-entitlement.

Either way, it is all right to like The Last Jedi or this Sequel Trilogy. It is also valid to dislike it. But I do think that if it is ridiculous to think one is insulting a fandom over the change in a film in a forty year old franchise, it is just as silly to believe a writer is being slighted when something else is being written in a different tone from his own work: which is what he did to begin with, and even then he ultimately went right back to where it all started despite that finality of a child with a broom sweeping away the past, readying for the next words to be shown on a screen.

I’m Not Locked In Here With You: Todd Phillips’ Joker

So I wrote an article for Joker on Sequart a little while ago now, but while they eventually will post it, I have some other more personal thoughts on some of the themes in the film: mainly why I like it, and why I relate to it.

I tend to call this Joker, or this earlier phase of him, the Arthur Fleck Joker. He isn’t the same as the Mark Hamill, the Heath Ledger, the Jack Nicholson, or the foolish Cesar Romero depictions. He isn’t even the comics Joker, any of them. This is the phase, the dress rehearsal, before the agent of chaos that we are going to get. I’ve always been fascinated, you see, with watching something in the process of being created, or creating itself. I find the best kinds of art, or artists, are those that you can see are constantly working on themselves. Mark Twain has a quote about knowing the details behind the creation of a miracle, and how it can take away from the simple joys of just experiencing it, yet I am someone who likes to — to borrow a phrase from Neil Gaiman — see the work backstage, and how it adds to the performance that we are given.

This Joker is a moment of realization in progress, of living two different lies at least, and then finding out who he actually is. That is what I took away from this film. Let me be clear about a few things though: I do not romanticize the Joker that kills people for amusement, or is an abuser. The one in this film is very different from those other depictions, though there are some similarities with regards to his more destructive actions.

But I really, like I said, love the process. We see Arthur wearing the clown makeup when he is at his gig helping a shop sell its wares, but a man wearing a clown costume does not a Joker make. Even the nervous, involuntary laughter doesn’t make the Joker. Not even the killing of those abusive rich men out of self-preservation, or the one out of a sense of street justice makes for the Clown Prince of Crime. The flirtation with this image, the sensuality of it in the restroom with blood-splattered on his face, his wig and clown nose gone, and his ragged elemental features at that point are a start. But he’s still Arthur. He still wants to be loved. He still wants to be a comedian, and to stop hurting.

Even the white makeup he has on when he kills the person who betrayed him isn’t quite there yet, and this after he discovers what he is — where he came from, how he was betrayed far worse before — and preparing for what he is going to do. He wants revenge, but he also wants the pain to stop: for the joke that is his life to finally end. That is the tipping point.

I would even say by the time he makes it to Murray’s show — to the man he used to look up as a father-figure before he publicly humiliated his non-neurotypical behaviour on television for laughs, and didn’t think anything of it — and when he decides to kill him instead of himself on national television, he’s still not Joker. But what started as practice in that restroom, and then choreograph when he danced down those flights of stairs, and then self-awareness by putting on a clown mask to hide in the discontent of Gotham’s lower class that made his actions against the rich into a memetic force, followed by one great bellow of selfish vengeance on a man and system that failed him … ends when he gets out of that car crash, and he uses the blood coming out of him to make a bloody smile on the costume whose lipstick had already faded. It was cheap and artificial. Now, the blood makes that twisted smile real.

Watchmen is bandied about a lot in terms of comics references. Hell, it even made it into the title of this Blog post. I don’t need it to sell Joker that’s already sold its own soul to the Devil of our collective imagination. But there is this idea in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work with the vigilante Rorschach. He starts out with a troubled past of childhood abuse as well, but that doesn’t make him Rorschach. It doesn’t make him Rorschach when Kitty Genovese is brutally raped and murdered publicly and her neighbours do nothing, and he vows to become a masked hero to stop other such incidents. He’s still just Walter Kovacs, an abused child taken to foster care, wearing the mask of Rorschach. Rorschach is still his alter-ego.

It isn’t until he hunts for a kidnapped baby, and finds out that the kidnapper fed the child to his dogs, and he burns the man alive that he isn’t Walter Kovacs anymore. He realizes he is Rorschach. And when he is hiding in plain sight as that Prophet of Doom in the background, Rorschach wears Walter Kovacs as his mask, just as the Joker wears Arthur Fleck’s face as a mask at the end of Todd Phillips’ film.

We can go into how in Star Wars Darth Sidious was the real self of the man who wore the mask of the politician Palpatine, or how Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne — though that last is highly debatable, though appropriate given that this article deals a great deal with his arch-nemesis. What I’m trying to illustrate is that none of these alter-egos becoming true identities happened overnight, or had always been their true selves. Parts of these personalities, these culmination of experiences, were there but there were other circumstances, and reactions to those events that precipitated the processes that made these happen.

That is how I understand a lot of what I’ve been going through this particular year. I don’t romanticize these characters. I think there are aspects of them, as archetypes, that are really fascinating and relatable, but they are not heroes. The Joker is not a good person, even if there are parts of him — of this one, and even his “burn everything bad to the ground” or “watch this flawed, disgusting world burn” attitude that my Id can sympathize with.

I guess the best way to describe it is that 2019 has been a different year for me. I’ve new people. I’ve had some new experiences, or explored them in a whole other way. I’ve been angry, and scared, and frustrated. I’ve delved into that fear. I’ve confronted it. I’ve pushed my comfort zone. I’ve worn my makeup and my masks. But I’ve realized that identities, especially those that we associate with things and events, are fluid. They change. And trauma in particular is a massive force behind some of those changes. There are ways to explore that power — trauma — in controlled environments with calculation and experimentation. Writing is one of those outlets, and the confines of the imagination. But sometimes it’s also trading stories and interactions with like-minded people. Sometimes it’s putting old selves behind you. Sometimes it’s realizing you are angry, and accepting it, and knowing that you are changing.

I think the most painful thing is trying to hold onto the person that you were, with all those experiences — good or bad — to stay in the past, because you will never be that person again. You will keep changing. That’s part of your nature. Some core tenets will remain the same, of course. But you will not have the same experiences again. We hold on out of fear, or resentment, or a genuine sense of overwhelming purposelessness. Where do we go from here? What do we do? And why is it I have this inclination to know where I can go, or what I can do, but not quite get there before … something? Right?

This year, I felt myself let go of a lot of attachments and realize some things are gone. And that they, most likely, needed to be gone. I still have to deal with more of these due to logistics, but I now understand that I don’t feel the same about them as I did. I don’t feel the way I used to, because very naturally I’m no longer that person. And that’s not a bad thing. I can still feel sad about it, even angry, but it doesn’t change anything beyond whatever it is I do next.

I’ve been busy, confronting those parts, dealing with the anxiety. I have fascinating friends and explorations. And I’m lucky. I felt my old self beginning to wane, to fade, but to also be subsumed by my new choices, and activities. It’s sad and you mourn it, but there is no other way to go on: even if you do need to remember to pace yourself. Imagine being Arthur Fleck, though, and realizing that your old self never really existed to begin with. Maybe it’s not that different, as nothing is permanent. It’s not a science, but I will argue with you that it can be art.

And that’s what I’m making. Even if I don’t write as much as I used to, or stay indoors as much in front of my computer, I am still expressing myself, and thus making art. I might have been wearing masks, but they are closer to being who I am now than where I was. And even despite that, masks aren’t false things. They are organic and we are all different people in different situations.

The New Year is coming up. I actually had myself made up as the Joker a while ago, and this great, rumbling laugh came from my chest. I’ve dressed as the Crow, but as people like to quote from that movie and perhaps even the comic from which it came “it can’t rain all the time.” The Crow isn’t supposed to smile, apparently. But I laugh. I love to laugh. But I also like to be between states, and know how the meat is made, or destroyed. I like to hide in plain sight, and plan things out. But sometimes, when I can get past the fear I just go with it accordingly.

I’ve actually liked 2019. It’s so far been a good, but challenging year. I will keep shedding more of the old as I go on, and it won’t be easy. But we all know that “laughter” has an extra letter in front of it sometimes. And it isn’t so much that I’m trapped here with my challenges.

It’s that they are trapped here with me. And, when I can, I intend to have my fun.