Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Popes and Padawans: Good & Evil in Star Wars

Photo credit: Doug Walters

The unveiling of the most recent Star Wars film The Force Awakens has fans flooding the box office with high hopes as the next generation of Jedis is unveiled. It was almost universally praised, until Vatican writer Romano came out with a less than favorable review in L'Osservatore.  The Pope doesn't watch movies, and the words of Vatican writer Romano are not the official teachinsg of the church, but Romano brings up a great point regarding the antagonists in the film.  Romano argues there is a lack of evil in the two antagonists -  Snoke AKA The Supereme Being, and Kylo.  With increased frequency, modern cinema is blurring the lines between the good and bad, and to the detriment of the films they produce.
This said, I don't agree that the antagonists in The Force Unleashed lack evil, rather I think they lack both power and effectiveness, and I think that will change in the next two films.

Years ago, a priest was asked about the wisdom involved in allowing young children to view superhero films. His response was that as long as the bad characters were clearly bad, and the good characters were clearly good, the films generally were fine. It was good for children to have heroes - characters who exemplified in a large way what it means to be filled with the virtues we want our children to develop - Patience, Kindness, Self-control, Goodness, Love - to mention a few.  Similarly, it was good for them to have characters that exemplified the embodiment of evil, and the destruction that comes from such evil. Characters can be complex and still be either purely good or purely evil.

Anakan Skywalker in particular struggled with Self-Control and Patience, and it led to his downfall.  Luke Skywalker on the other hand, struggled with Patience, but was able to overcome it.  Luke was filled with a Goodness and a sacrificial love and by Return of the Jedi was not only an admirable character, but also rather effective.  Although Luke too, lacked individual power in A New Hope, he was surrounded by Han Solo, Leia, Obi-wan, Yoda and a host of other really good guys who wanted to do good, and who were powerful together. The new Jedi, Rey, is filled with the Light side. Devoid of any official training she can fight, pilot anything, resist the Sith mind tricks, pull her own Jedi-mind tricks on her guard, use the force to move objects, and defeat the Sith in a lightsaber battle.  She is amazing.  She is also filled with Goodness, Hope, Peace, and Self-Control. We even see a little Joy in her when Han asks her to join his crew. She is awesome. Like Luke she is surrounded by self-less (although not perfect) characters who are willing to sacrifice for Love and the Goodness.

Up until The Force Awakens, the Antagonists in the franchise - Darth Maul, Darth Sidious/The Emperor, Count Dooku - were great examples of evil embodied. They were not complex, but rather exemplified the banality of evil and it's totality, devoid of motivation. They hungered for power, but also hungered to corrupt others. Darth Vader was a little more complex, but his path to the Dark Side in Episode 3 provided a great illustration of how a character's willingness to give into his desires above the greater good, will lead to his corruption and open him up to the corrosive nature of the evil that surrounds him.

Evil is different than simply making poor choices, but poor choices separates the individual from God.  No one is beyond saving, but when one completely gives into evil, he removes himself from God's saving graces. We see this in Kylo Ren's standoff with his father, which is a juxtaposition of the standoff between Luke and Darth Vader at the end of Episode 6. Kylo Ren is offered an opportunity for redemption and he chooses against it, surrendering to the Dark Side, and further exemplifying the evil within.

With the old Emperor gone, the new franchise presents three prime antagonists - a Nazi like General Hux, Kylo Ren, and Snoke. The problem with these three characters is their lack of power, not their lack of evil. Kylo Ren, Master of the Knights of Ren is explosive and immature. He spends time lamenting and 'praying' to Darth Vader's mask for the power to stay on the Dark Side, as he recognizes the pull of the Light. He is also somewhat ineffectual as he is bested by Rey, an untrained young female who is filled with the force. He certainly is not of the same caliber as his predecessors.

Snoke, is the Supreme Leader of the First order and is only presented as a computer generated image.  He is a little goofy looking and we are provided with no sense of his power or ability, expect that we know he is the boss. The other characters do not appear to fear him in the way the emperor was feared. At the end of the film, Snoke notes that Kylo needs to continue his training (you think?), and we are left with the impression that the next Episode will feature a much stronger Kylo.

And I do hope that it does. In this one way, the franchise can improve over this film. Having characters who are purely good and purely evil helps our our next generation of young padawan viewers to see the true nature of good and evil. Having powerful characters makes the distinction between the good and evil all that more prominent.

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