Movie Reviews Rants Star Wars

The Rise of Skywalker and the Year of the Finale

For better or for worse, this has certainly been a year for endings. Game of Thrones, Marvel’s Infinity Saga and the Star Wars franchise’s core Skywalker saga all reached their conclusions in 2019, after years of build-up, speculation, and sheer anticipation. But these weren’t just mere episodes of a television show or installments in a movie franchise, they were events all to themselves, with massive press coverage and, as would soon be apparent, dangerously high levels of expectation from critics and regular viewers alike. Each franchise wanted to go out with a bang, and l think it’s safe to say that they did. Each respective finale will likely end up as a textbook example of how to drum up hype and excitement for a property for years to come. However, for reasons which you’re likely already well aware of, they also served as prototypical examples of how exactly a finale can be done well, and how it can go horribly, horribly wrong.

How successful a piece of media is in this particular endeavor is ultimately decided by one simple thing: planning. It sounds so obvious, but whether or not a franchise or series has an end goal in sight from the very beginning, or at least from relatively early on, can make or break it in the long run. It’s like putting together a puzzle: it’s way easier to finish when you look at the picture on the box, and know what the end result is going to look like. It helps with pacing, with character development, and, of course, it makes sure that the story develops in a logical, consistent manner. The reactions, from critical circles to casual viewers, to the conclusions of both The Avengers and Game of Thrones, show just how important planning is in the lifespan of a franchise. Marvel is notorious for meticulously planning their films years in advance, constantly keeping track of how they synergize with one another, and how they’ll eventually intersect and overlap. The benefit of this was a cohesive, organically satisfying grand finale that surpassed audience expectation. Conversely, Game of Thrones fell apart the second they no longer had George R.R. Martin’s writing to pull from, with the showrunners even blatantly admitting to not having a plan beyond even the show’s pilot. As a result, the show’s finale was one of the most unanimously hated media moments in recent memory. And unfortunately, after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I can say with no real uncertainty that this most recent Star Wars trilogy falls more on the Thrones side of the spectrum.

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Each of these three franchises serve as a fascinating study of what happens when you let the fans dictate the direction of a story. In the digital age, dissenting voices are louder than ever, oftentimes louder than the supporters for a given thing. The result of this trend is that now, creators and filmmakers have real-time feedback from their respective fanbases, which can inaccurately represent what the general consensus actually is. These creatives are then faced with a choice: Either stay the course, sticking with their original vision for their property, or buckle to what they perceive as overwhelming fan pressure and alter their plans in an attempt to satisfy people who are essentially incapable of being pleased. A franchise should never try to hide from previous moments in their history, just because some portion of the audience disliked it. There’s much more creatively interesting and fulfilling ways to take advantage of that particular situation.

Marvel is a perfect example of this. While none of the films in the Infinity Saga were flops, either critically or commercially, it’s clear that there are some were less liked than others. In particular, Thor: The Dark World is pretty unanimously considered to be the weakest film in the series, being fairly forgettable in the midst of its more exciting and perhaps more well-made counterparts. But rather than ignoring it, and simply sweeping it under the rug to avoid potential embarrassment, Avengers: Endgame instead chooses to embrace it fully, and make the events of the film a crucial part of not only Thor’s journey as a character, but of the entire fate of the MCU as a whole. It’s a brilliant move, as it both acknowledges the possible mistakes of the film, while at the same time attempts to re-contextualize them and work them to its own advantage. Likewise, after the controversial reaction to Captain Marvel, and a very vocal outcry of angry white guys begging Marvel to recast the character, the studio chose to ignore negative criticism, and trusted their own judgement as to where they wanted their franchise to go. And sure enough, the character appeared in Endgame as if nothing happened.

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The Rise of Skywalker does not take this same high-road approach. This movie does every single possible thing that it can to completely undermine and contradict The Last Jedi. Almost every major twist from the previous film is either disregarded altogether, or openly mocked in blatant, almost fourth-wall-breaking dialogue directly calling out the previous film. It seems like more of The Rise of Skywalker’s runtime is spent “apologizing” for The Last Jedi than actually doing anything of its own. Instead of embracing and reinforcing some of their less-popular decisions, the creative team behind these films had instead chosen to treat them as sins. The film even outright sidelines a main character from the previous film, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rebel Mechanic, Rose, because of the vocal dislike from certain fans (in all likelihood, the same exact people who hated Brie Larson as Captain Marvel). Even beyond the scope of the internal storytelling of the films, this is just downright unprofessional from a business perspective. JJ Abrams is basically stating, publicly, that he thinks all of the decisions made by The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson were worthless. If Marvel had chosen to retcon or ignore The Dark World, they would have done the exact same thing. Granted, the Game of Thrones showrunners also completely abandoned much of the show’s earlier character moments and story elements in their final season, but at least they were only contradicting themselves, and not antagonizing other writers or directors.

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By bowing to fan pressure, the filmmakers behind this final Star Wars installment have shown that they’ve learned the wrong lessons from The Last Jedi. Instead of viewing the fan outcry as a positive thing, indicating that they’ve genuinely surprised audiences, and then continued to carry that story to its natural conclusion, they backtracked. Even worse, they over-corrected, and made the assumption that audiences wanted nothing new. That, for whatever reason, they only wanted Star Wars as it used to be. So, instead of taking advantage of the new, unique status quo setup by The Last Jedi, JJ Abrams instead chose to fall back on the same villain from both existing trilogies: Emperor Palpatine. Yes, the creatives behind the film were so scared of challenging audiences, and risking angering whiny fanboys across the internet, that they revived an existing villain, with little to no explanation as to why, just so the saga could end with a familiar face. This would be fine if there was any sort of setup for this whatsoever in the previous two films, but there isn’t. It’s done for nothing more than blatant fan appeasement. It would be the equivalent of dropping Thanos after Infinity War and making Loki the main villain of Endgame. It’s ridiculous to allow a small minority of fans that degree of control over your decisions as filmmakers. Frankly, it’s cowardice.

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Even within the events of this film as a discreet unit, it’s clear that the filmmakers were trying their very best to actively avoid churning the waters in any way. This leads to an incredibly sterilized plot, which plays out in perhaps the most predictable fashion imaginable. There are three or four moments in the film that lull you into a sense of false security, and make you think that it’s actually treading into uncharted territory. It actually manages to surprise you. And then, every single time, it immediately back-tracks, and basically says “Just kidding! We would never actually do that!” As a result, there’s little-to-no sense of consequence in this film. We’re told that the stakes have never been higher, but nothing happens to back that assertion up. It’s like Abrams was so scared at inciting the same nonsensical rage that The Last Jedi spawned that he refused to try and aim for anything interesting. So by allowing fan backlash to derail a story that was already in motion, The Last Jedi falls short of offering anything new or fresh to the saga.

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Another major consequence of this last-minute attempt at course-correction is that it derails any ongoing character development that may have been happening under the original story progression. The Last Jedi set up some amazing, unexpectedly brave developments for the trilogy’s characters, challenging the audience’s image of who they were and how they operate. By the end of that film, they were set up to go in some fascinating new directions, and I was excited to see where they ended up in the end. But these same characters in Rise of Skywalker end on the most boring, predictable notes that they possibly could have. l feel like if you watch their introductions in The Force Awakens, and if you’ve seen literally any other Star Wars film in the past, you can pretty safely guess where they’ll end up by the trilogy’s end. Which, again, is a shame, because they’re operating almost as if the events of the previous film never even happened. Honestly, you could watch The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker back to back, and it would feel more cohesive even with a missing film in between than if you were to watch all three in order.

I think the thing that bothers me the most about The Rise of Skywalker is that it just didn’t make me feel anything. An ending should have a sense of finality, obviously, but should also leave the viewer feeling bittersweet at the thought. It needs to be satisfying and gratifying, but also make you wistful, reminiscing about the journey as a whole. Most importantly, it should connect on an emotional level. If you don’t feel joy or sadness at the fate of the characters, or over the direction of the story, then it wasn’t an effective conclusion by any stretch of the imagination. With Avengers: Endgame, for example, I proudly cheered for the triumphant moments, was on the edge of my seat for moments of greatest suspense, and I mourned for the deaths at the end. It didn’t feel like a discreet unit. It felt, as it should, like the end of a long journey that I had been on with these characters. For 23 films, I watched them take shape and grow, alongside the expansive and ever-developing world in which they inhabited. To say I was invested was an understatement. And when the final movie was over, as the credits rolled, I found myself taking stock of everything that had come before it, like a period of my life had just come to a close along with it. I understand that Marvel films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and even that some of those who do enjoy them were disappointed by Endgame, but for me, it was everything I could have asked for in a final chapter.

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And say what you will about the final episodes of Game of Thrones, they certainly elicited an emotional response. It just probably wasn’t the response that the showrunners had hoped for. I have never seen such outcry from a fanbase before. The rage, the confusion, the sheer incredulity of what was happening. Never has such a show risen to such great heights, only to be thrown so far down to the ground again and violently crippled. I’m stretching really hard here to make a Bran Stark reference, but you get the idea. People were pissed. I was pissed. And rightfully so. Again, like with The Avengers, these were characters that people had watched grow up and change over a span of almost ten years. And even moreso than with the MCU, we had gotten incredibly invested in the deep, intricate plot that had been woven before us, only to see it casually cast aside for an angry woman with a dragon in the end; Sure, it made people angry, but at least that was something. It was almost cathartic, in a sense, to be able to share in mutual, unanimous hatred of something.

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But with The Rise of Skywalker, I got none of that. Because of the choppy, inconsistent nature of the sequel trilogy, I wasn’t attached enough to its characters to really care about their fates, one way or another. What this trilogy was supposed to be about, what its greater themes were, and what direction lit was headed in varied so much from film to film that l was never able to really invest myself in what was happening. I went into The Rise of Skywalker with a lot of questions, and left with far more than I started with. As a final installment which promised to “reveal everything,” it left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t the grand, epic, profound final that Return of the Jedi was, nor was it a sweeping, tragic requiem like Revenge of the Sith. It made absolutely no impact whatsoever. It was about as safe and stale as a film could be, yet it was technically competent enough to still be considered perfectly adequate when taken as a single entity. I can’t even have the catharsis of hating it, because it wasn’t necessarily a travesty. It was simply underwhelming, in every possible metric.

I wanted so much to love the The Rise of Skywalker, just like I wanted to love the other big swan songs that came before it this year. But I had more hope for this film in particular, despite all prior signs that all but guaranteed it would be a disappointment. I grew up with Star Wars, and it will always hold a special place in my heart and mind. It’s the first work of fiction that truly captured me, fueling my imagination more than anything else I had encountered before. From the moment I first saw a lightsaber ignite, or heard Darth Vader’s iconic, labored breathing, I was hooked for life. Even to this day, I still feel the excitement of watching the assault on the Death Star, or Obi-Wan Kenobi desperately duel Anakin Skywalker on Mustafar. And, perhaps more crucially, those films, in turn, sparked my obsession for science fiction and fantasy as well, starting a chain reaction that led me to becoming the massive geek that I am today. I owe so much to those films, and the legacy that they’ve left behind in both the film industry as well as pop culture as a whole.

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And that’s the greatest tragedy of this film. What many writers, filmmakers, and creatives don’t seem to realize is that how their creations end inevitably affects how the public views the work as a whole. The legacy of a thing had more riding on its conclusion than perhaps any other part of the journey. I know I’m not alone when I say that the Game of Thrones finale was so offensively bad that it’s pretty much soured my opinion of the show as a whole. I would love to go back and rewatch the earlier seasons, because they’re brilliant, intelligent, mature pieces of media that deserve to be remembered and studied. But knowing how it all ends, I can’t bring myself to do it. Every character arc and every plot thread just annoys me know, knowing that it all eventually leads to disappointing nonsense. Conversely, I honestly enjoy the previous installments in the MCU even more now, because Endgame was such an emotionally and thematically satisfying resolution to what they all have been building to.

My love for Star Wars will always persist. The original trilogy is so amazing, so groundbreaking, and so influential that I think it would be impossible for me to ever grow to dislike them, regardless of where the characters may eventually end up in the sequels. Likewise, despite their varying quality, the prequels will always hold a degree of nostalgia for me, as they were the Star Wars films for my generation. But I don‘t know if I’ll ever really love the new trilogy, not in the same way. It’s still Star Wars, of course. It just lacks any of the charm, the excitement, the originality, or the risk of the previous films. The prequels may not be great films, but they had a clear vision of what they were trying to be, and where they ultimately wanted to go by the time they were finished. The sequels just wandered aimlessly, floundering without purpose out of the fear that someone, somewhere might hate it if they tried something legitimately fresh. Maybe time will be kind to The Rise of Skywalker, and some of the disappointment will dull with age. But for now, Star Wars still ends, for me, with Return of the Jedi.

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