Debates about Star Wars theology have come a long way since kids in the first “Star Wars generation” asked: “Is the Force the same thing as God?”
Later, kids viewing the second George Lucas trilogy faced the puzzling Nativity story of Anakin Skywalker. The future Darth Vader was conceived by bloodstream midi-chlorians -- the essence of life -- acting in union with the Force? His mother explained: “There is no father.”
Now the middle film in the new trilogy -- “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” -- has believers debating whether the mythology created by Lucas has evolved into something more polemical, political and commercial, all at the same time. The big question: Can those who loved the early films trust Disney to protect the true faith?
From the beginning, it was clear Lucas was blending the comparative religion scholarship of Joseph “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” Campbell with dashes of Arthurian legend, samurai epics and Flash Gordon. At the heart of it all was the “monomyth” of Luke Skywalker and his epic spiritual quest, noted Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“A young man (typically) is summoned out of the comfort of his domestic life and compelled to go on a dangerous adventure,” argued Barron at his “Word on Fire” website. “In the process, he comes to realize and conquer his weakness, to face down enemies, and finally to commune with the deep spiritual powers that are at play in the cosmos. ... Usually, as a preparation for his mission, he is trained by a spiritual master.”
Some of these themes remain in “The Last Jedi,” noted Barron, and it’s obvious that Rey is a young heroine on her own quest. The problem, argued the bishop, is what has happened to Luke Skywalker and the rest of the ensemble. The old myths and archetypes have been buried in “an aggressively feminist ideology.”
“Every male character ... is either bumbling, incompetent, arrogant, or morally compromised; and every female character is wise, good, prudent and courageous. Even Luke has become embittered and afraid,” wrote Barron. The females “correct, demote, control and roll their eyes at the males, who stumble about when not provided with feminine instruction. I laughed out loud when Rey, the young woman who has come to Luke for instruction in the ways of the Jedi, shows herself already in full possession of spiritual power. No Yoda or Obi-Wan required, thank you very much.”
The Disney team may be changing some of the vague, but potent, Buddhist and Christian themes woven into the original films. For example, mastering “the Force” once required discipline, humility and careful training.
There was good and there was evil, and heroes knew the difference.
Now, Rolling Stone exults that the new film leads viewers “through so many trap doors and blind alleys that we can’t tell the dark side from the light. Heroes die and villains thrive ... and then it’s the reverse. That’s the point of the movie.”
Disney insiders may be deconstructing the whole idea of what it means to be a hero or a villain, or to act in a heroic manner, said Alex Wainer of Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is the author of “Soul of the Dark Knight,” a study of mythic themes in Batman fiction, and has studied Star Wars films for decades.
“There are so many things in this new film that don’t make sense, or they don’t make sense yet,” he said. “Why are the males suddenly all losers? I get it that Rey is the new mythic hero, and that’s fine. But why is Rey so unusually gifted? Where does her giftedness come from? What does it mean? Will we eventually get some explanations that make sense, in Star Wars terms?”
It’s also possible, he said, that the old Star Wars theology worked for one or two films, but it’s falling apart as Disney’s principalities and powers attempt to extend the franchise into the future -- movie after movie, year after year, world without end.
“Maybe the Force worked for a movie or two and you didn’t have to explain it. Then you added the midi-chlorians and things started falling apart,” said Wainer. “But this saga has enormous meaning for millions of people. It’s become a ritual for our culture. This is personal and people want it to make sense.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)