Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, being a good sequel and subverting the expected to explore the same themes and concepts

Even after its release on home media, the debate around Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker continues — and The Last Jedi by association.

Appearing on the Mission: Impossible podcast Light the Fuse, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey reopened discussions around The Rise of Skywalker. Brandon and Markey are long-term colleagues of director J.J. Abrams, appearing on Light the Fuse in their capacity as editors of Mission: Impossible III. Both worked on The Force Awakens, while Brandon worked on The Rise of Skywalker.

Brandon has discussed The Rise of Skywalker before, acknowledging the film’s rushed production and its status as “fan service.” However, Markey was much more candid in her assessment, citing The Last Jedi as a burden on The Rise of Skywalker, arguing, “It’s very strange to have the second film so consciously undo the storytelling of the first one. I’m sorry that’s what it felt like.”

This is an interesting argument in large part because it crystallizes some of the online rhetoric around the Star Wars sequel trilogy, trying to offload blame for the failures of The Rise of Skywalker onto The Last Jedi. It’s a criticism mitigation strategy, one that effectively sidesteps the problems with The Rise of Skywalker by playing into certain fan narratives about The Last Jedi.

This is self-evidently ridiculous. The Last Jedi significantly outperformed The Rise of Skywalker by any measure. It earned more money. It received much stronger reviews. General audiences awarded The Last Jedi a higher CinemaScore than The Rise of Skywalker. Even George Lucas at least described The Last Jedi as “beautifully made” but has been quiet on The Rise of Skywalker.

It is also not fair to suggest that audiences were turned away from The Rise of Skywalker in response to The Last Jedi. Indeed, The Rise of Skywalker had record-breaking pre-sales. People wanted to see it. It was only once people started seeing the film that the box office collapsed. There was a sharp 55% drop from Friday to Sunday. Despite a more advantageous release calendar, the film lacked legs.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, being a good sequel and subverting the expected to explore the same themes and concepts

However, ignoring the cynicism of trying to blame The Last Jedi for failures on the part of The Rise of Skywalker, it is worth unpacking Markey’s argument. After all, this is a common point of argument and discussion in the modern franchise landscape. In a world where it feels like almost everything is a sequel, reboot, remake, or reimagining, it makes sense to ask what debt they owe to one another.

It is too much to argue that The Last Jedi “consciously undoes” the storytelling of The Force Awakens. It is more accurate to say that it develops the story in slightly unexpected directions, while remaining true to the spirit of Star Wars. The biggest criticism of The Last Jedi is that it doesn’t answer the hanging questions from The Force Awakens in exactly the ways some fans would like.

The Force Awakens sets up the classic Star Wars mystery of the parentage of Rey (Daisy Ridley), only for The Last Jedi to reveal that her parents were nobody important. The Force Awakens introduces Snoke (Andy Serkis) as an obvious surrogate for Emperor Palpatine, the big bad who is not a narrative focus, and The Last Jedi decides to bring the death of that character forward from the climax of the third film in the trilogy to the end of the second act in the second film.

Even the film’s development of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is in keeping with what is established in The Force Awakens. The first film in the sequel trilogy reveals that Luke has hidden himself away from the galaxy in its time of need and even abandoned his lightsaber. It makes sense that The Last Jedi should reveal Luke is disillusioned. Phil Szostak, who authored various official art books for the Disney Star Wars films, stated that the idea of Luke’s going to “a dark place” existed before Abrams or Johnson’s involvement.

There is admittedly a slight difference in how the films approach Star Wars. The Force Awakens is pure and unfiltered nostalgia, effectively serving as a 21st century remake of A New Hope with a new and more diverse cast. In contrast, The Last Jedi is engaged in a more nuanced conversation with the franchise and its legacy. It isn’t simply emulating The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi so much as responding to them.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, being a good sequel and subverting the expected to explore the same themes and concepts

Many truly great sequels thrive on this tension between installments, developing in directions that are at once both logical and surprising. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survives Alien by subverting audience expectations of a female lead; notably, Ripley was originally written as a man. However, Aliens hinges on Ripley embracing a more conventional form of femininity, forming a surrogate nuclear family as partner to Hicks (Michael Biehn) and mother to Newt (Carrie Henn).

The Terminator features Arnold Schwarzenegger as the villain in a fatalistic time travel epic that suggests the future is inescapable; the destruction of time-displaced T-800 is implied to lead to the creation of Skynet, and John Connor ensures his own conception by sending Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back to protect his mother (Linda Hamilton). In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Schwarzenegger is recast as a hero, and the film insists that there is “no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

There is precedent within the Star Wars canon. A New Hope suggests that Luke’s heroic journey is following in the footsteps of his father, who died at the hands of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones). However, The Empire Strike Back offers a sharp twist, revealing that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. This twist was so shocking at the time that even Jones believed that Vader must have been lying.

However, each of these sequels works because they understand the original films’ core dynamics and approach them from a fresh angle. Aliens understands that Alien is about Ripley’s relationship with gender, so it offers an alternate take on that dynamic. Judgment Day understands that The Terminator is about fate and destiny, so it challenges that idea. The Empire Strikes Back understands that Luke’s relationship to his father is core to his identity, so it expands that idea in unforeseen directions.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, being a good sequel and subverting the expected to explore the same themes and concepts

Indeed, this gets at why The Last Jedi is such a smart extension of The Force Awakens. While the twist in The Empire Strikes Back was earth-shattering at the time, it has since become a cliché. Audiences watching The Force Awakens as a remake of A New Hope expected The Last Jedi to duplicate the surprises of The Empire Strikes Back, even though those replicated twists would have been anything but surprising.

As such, The Last Jedi offered developments that were as surprising to audiences as those in The Empire Strikes Back, precisely because they were different from those in The Empire Strikes Back. As such, The Last Jedi was exactly as faithful a sequel to The Force Awakens as The Empire Strikes Back had been to Star Wars. Even the fan response is similar.

So, what is the difference between how The Last Jedi responds to The Force Awakens and how The Rise of Skywalker responds to The Last Jedi? After all, despite Markey’s argument about the relationship between The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens, it may be more reasonable to suggest that The Rise of Skywalker does try to “consciously undo” The Last Jedi. The difference is that The Rise of Skywalker does not exist as a reversal of The Last Jedi, but an attempt to rewrite it.

The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t represent a thematic or narrative twist on the core ideas of The Last Jedi, but instead a passive aggressive point-by-point attempt to erase it, chiefly insisting that Rey could not use the Force that well without a preexisting relative to explain it.

Imagine if Return of the Jedi had paused to reassure Luke that actually Darth Vader wasn’t really his father. That would be a big ask. Sequels that pull off these sorts of reversals have to acknowledge the work involved. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) resurrects Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in The Search for Spock, reversing the climax of The Wrath of Khan, but he pays for it with the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of his son David (Merritt Butrick).

Indeed, one can trace the outlines of some good ideas in The Rise of Skywalker. By revealing that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, the film arguably suggests that a person’s parentage is irrelevant to who they decide to be. This is how Abrams frames the reveal. Theoretically, there is a way to build that point organically from the suggestion that Rey’s parents were nobodies in The Last Jedi, to treat it as an extension of or a response to that idea. In practice, it is just exposition.

The problem with The Rise of Skywalker is that it doesn’t meaningfully engage with any of the seemingly provocative ideas in The Last Jedi. Instead, it retreats from them entirely to seek comfort in familiarity. Making a good sequel is not about slavish devotion or mindless fidelity to what came before; it is about meaningful engagement with the past. It’s not about always offering answers that the audience expects, but instead properly contemplating the questions that they’re asking.

This is why The Rise of Skywalker fails as a sequel and why The Last Jedi succeeded.

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