Few pieces of media are as ubiquitous in western culture as the original Star Wars trilogy, and few endings are as well known as the climax of The Return of the Jedi. The hero Luke Skywalker, bruised and apparently beaten, is saved from death by the erstwhile villain, his father Darth Vader. Doing so fatally wounds Vader, who is finally able to reconcile with his son before he tragically dies. It’s an age-old story; however, even as a child watching it for the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if Vader had survived? What would it be like, to see such a terrifying villain attempt to make amends for his wrongdoing and reintegrate back into society? Would it even be possible, after such a legacy of hurt and destruction?
Most of my excitement for the Disney-produced sequel trilogy hinged on my hopes for this imagined alternative ending. With the new protagonist Rey sharing a tenuous relationship with the villainous Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, I could see glimpses of his eventual turn back to the “good guys” as early as the first movie. As the child of original trilogy heroes Han Solo and Princess Leia, he seemed poised to come back as a galactic prodigal son, tail between his legs after squandering his privileged upbringing.
Imagine my disappointment upon the release of The Rise of Skywalker, the final film in the sequel trilogy, when the newly redeemed Ben Solo sacrificed his life to save Rey, dying minutes after he had finally decided to turn back to the light side. Some may consider it poetic, repeating the actions of his grandfather Darth Vader while treating the audience to an eye-candy team-up fight with the protagonist; however, I found it derivative and ultimately unimaginative. It was a cheap climax in a film full of uninspired storytelling, where millions of dollars of CGI attempted to compensate for a boring plot with copy and pasted emotional beats that tried to replicate the poignancy of the original trilogy, and ultimately failed to deliver anything more than clunky lightsaber battles and diluted tragedy.
SAVING THE VILLAINS
The Rise of Skywalker is only the most recent offender. Many modern blockbusters employ the same “newly redeemed villain sacrifices their life to save the good guys” storyline. Notably, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, villain Loki does it twice in the same franchise. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, initial villain Quicksilver also dies to save a hero and the small child he rescued. In 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, evil henchman Nux sacrifices himself for the group of protagonists. It gives the plot some tragedy, that spark of hope for the audience where good overcomes evil, only to be struck by pathos when a character they were just starting to cheer for sacrifices themself for the greater good.
The lackluster and predictable ending of The Rise of Skywalker is made more frustrating when compared to the film’s poignant moments. Most touching is a scene proceeding the climax, where Kylo Ren, despondent and abandoned by Rey, has a heart to heart with a spectral version of his father, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who he had murdered in the first film. Han forgives Kylo who, in turn, throws his weapon into the ocean and abandons the heavy costume and mask of his former villainous self, essentially becoming Ben Solo again. Another hopeful scene is a brief moment after the climax of the film, when Ben saves Rey from death and, for the first time in the trilogy, cracks a smile after they share a kiss. It’s small, but such a heart wrenching display of hope and happiness that’s immediately dashed when he falls down dead immediately after. Instead of being welcomed home, the franchise’s prodigal son dies immediately after turning back to the light.
For me, the viewer response to scenes like this is what makes the trope even more infuriating. Audiences and reviewers alike spout sentiments like “it made sense, because he deserved it”, “he was too far gone”, “the good guys wouldn’t be able to trust him”, and “at least he was happy in the end.” It’s so simple, to reduce a character’s fate to the sum of their actions. The sad truth behind these statements is that we, as a society, have run low on stories of true redemption, where the story doesn’t end at death but continues through forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s counter cultural storytelling, and a theme that finds its roots in God’s love for us, our Father who loves us despite our shame and wrongdoing, who runs down the path towards us and welcomes us with open arms.
This is not to say that the aforementioned films should ignore a newly reformed villain’s previous misdeeds in favour of a simple happy ending. Ultimately, forgiveness and reconciliation are messy. They require naming wrongs, apologies that may not be immediately accepted, and tough conversations. It is this messiness that’s missing from these blockbusters. Imagine scenes of Darth Vader making amends for the destruction he’s inflicted. Imagine him reconciling with his daughter, whose planet he destroyed and whose adoptive family he killed. Imagine Ben Solo showing up at the victory party in The Rise of Skywalker. How would the other heroes react, and what would they require from him in order to accept him into the fold? Some would argue that these former villains don’t deserve a happy ending, but deep down we all need to realize that none of us deserve a happy ending. Real people make mistakes, some with very serious consequences, and it’s what comes after those mistakes that matters.
Pop culture is a mirror, reflecting our values as a society as well as instilling those values into new generations. While I don’t believe the media is wholly to blame for all of our societal ills, I do think that having very few portrayals of redemption and reconciliation in the most popular and consumed media franchises of our time stymies our public imagination and demand for such things in the real world. In the same way Star Trek inspired countless future engineers to shoot for the stars, seeing reformed villains make amends and work to re-integrate themselves into society may inspire us all to extend a hand of forgiveness to those who have wronged us. The Rise of Skywalker’s biggest mistake is that it attempts to retell a story that’s already been done better, instead of giving this generation a story of true reconciliation and hope for the future.
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