Courtesy Nerdist/Image by Warner Bros.
The final Leia problem (aka, The Superman problem)
The moment that Leia’s ship blew up in The Last Jedi, my eye caught her being swooped out into space, and I could feel my stomach turn. And it wasn’t because I thought she would die, but because I thought there would be some convoluted way in which she survived.
That convolution was the Force. As Leia, ‘Mary Poppins-ed’ herself back to safety either by ‘using’ or ‘being protected by’ the mystical power, it shattered my enjoyment of the movie. I did not want Leia to die, and the death of actress Carrie Fisher (who plays Leia) before the release of ‘The Last Jedi was heartbreaking for me. But this went against everything in The Force Awakens.
Suddenly, Leia not only displays a Force power, despite the fact that she clearly is not practicing as a Jedi, but she also displays a power that is beyond anything seen on screen before this moment. It is a lazy bit of screenwriting on the part of Johnson to have made this choice. He expanded the Jedi powers to well beyond where they need to be.
This scene was meant to be a nice moment in which the audience feels they lost Leia (and Carrie Fisher in real life). And then, moments later, the audience realizes Leia is still with us (and by extension Fisher will remain with us too). I get it. It’s very poignant. But this entire sequence creates a ‘Superman problem’ for the film.
So, what is the ‘Superman problem’? It is best described by one of the most prolific writers to ever handle the Superman character: Bruce Timm, who happens to be one of my personal favorites when it comes to storytelling and world building. Timm spoke of the ‘Superman problem’ in an interview done for “American Masters: Volume Three” (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2012):
"“Superman’s a hard character to do, period, because he’s so strong. You don’t want to de-power him to the point where he’s not Superman anymore, but at the same time, if he’s too strong then the stories don’t make sense. If he can turn back time and undo anything horrible that’s happened, there’s no drama. If he’s so fast that no one can ever sneak up on him, or so powerful that no one can ever knock him down, then again, there’s no drama, no conflict.”"
Leia’s new power in The Last Jedi destroys the drama of the story. If a Jedi can survive an explosion and float through space without air and somehow live, then what can’t they survive? Johnson expanded the powers so far out that he made the Jedi virtually invincible.
Where is the drama in that moment? The Force essentially turns back time and makes the destruction of Leia’s ship mean nothing in terms of the story. Leia cannot be killed because Johnson takes her power to an extreme.
But, as if this weren’t bad enough, Johnson doubled down with Luke. He expanded his powers as well with this new ‘force projection’ for the final battle of the film. And while this is another example of power expansion, it is also another moment of lazy writing. Luke decided not to go with Rey earlier in the film, and there should have been consequences for that choice.
Instead, this new power allows Luke to help the Resistance and Leia get away, but he doesn’t have to face the consequences of a bad choice – a choice that Johnson wanted Luke to make in the first place. His hesitation, even if he now changed his mind, should have meant sacrificing something.
Yes, Luke’s life is lost (at least by all indications), but the whole Force ghost thing already takes the sting out of it. While dying is a noble sacrifice, sometimes the sacrifice is for the hero to lose something other than their own life.
Luke’s actions should have dealt him a blow much worse than death, which might have been arriving too late to help his friends. Both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi show how important his friends/family are to him. Arriving too late could have been a great failure for the character.
If anything, Johnson did finally de-power Luke by killing him. But if his sister can survive ship explosions because of her power expansion, then it is hard to accept that this form of meditation (the Force projection) ended Luke’s life.
If anything, both Skywalker twins have now shown that they have taken the Force to a new level. Yet the film ends on the note that the galaxy is full of potential Jedi, and the Force will live on – even if Luke (the greatest Jedi) is now dead.
These are the mixed signals that The Last Jedi sends. On one hand, Luke and Leia can do extraordinary things that make them impervious to either death (Leia) or to the consequences of their choice not to fight (Luke). On the other hand, the Skywalkers are being left in the rear-view as characters like Rey are strong with the force, but have no familial connection. A choice that feels more along the lines of corporate greed by Disney to tell more Star Wars stories without any Skywalkers – because they can constantly reset the cast of the films and not have to rely on any particular actor or actress. But maybe that’s just a cynical reading of that choice.