Star Wars VIII: We Need To Talk About Poe

When a movie’s 2.5 hours long, you can sometimes write THREE blog posts about it! (And, uh, possibly more as I think of topics …). There are spoilers if you click in or read further, friends. I know that warning will seem laughable if you’re reading this anytime after, say, March 2018, but remember how it felt when the movie was only a week old? Spoilers ahead.

Here I basically want to pull together three or four thoughts about Poe Dameron.

The first is the film’s very good work about gender roles and expectations of leadership and heroism. For that, I simply want to recommend Vanity Fair’s piece, Star Wars: The Last Jedi Offers the Harsh Condemnation of Mansplaining We Need in 2017. Author Joanna Robinson lines out there the basic articulation: the film takes a fan-favorite male character (Poe) and shows that his reckless behavior and inability to trust female superiors leads to serious consequences. Poe’s story arc is largely one of learning to trust Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, of “Dinosaurs eat man … woman inherits the earth” fame in Jurassic Park) and General Leia, who each inexplicably have a soft spot for the young pilot who keeps getting the people around him killed.

There are critiques to offer here — it might have been a stronger message for our time if a white male character had been subject to the plotting’s various rebukes (including being physically slapped across the face). But we might offer the film a little grace in that it brought in so few new white male heroes in the first place, the only meaningful choices were characters portrayed by non-white actors. And the white male hero learns his own lessons and faces his own shortcomings, as I’ve written in an earlier blog post.

Thought two is that the treatment of Poe (helpfully) breaks down some heroic tropes. His success rate “regresses to the mean” (I mentioned it briefly in another earlier post), which is to say that his glorious success in the film’s opening sequence isn’t an action blockbuster’s usual wink to the audience that the heroes can always get away with beating the odds. Instead of celebrating, General Leia stares at the display of how many have been lost. As the film rolls on, you can look back and recognize that to Leia, each lost life was someone who was supposed to make it to a secret base.

As the Vanity Fair post I mention above notes, that mission was also imperiled by Poe’s inability to keep his mouth shut, assuming he knows not only what people should be doing, but who should know about it. Loose lips sink spaceships … and Poe’s were the loose ones, because he thought his small side-hustle team was going to save the day.

Poe’s plans universally fail when he tries to act like a hero. They do destroy one dreadnaught. But for the first time in a Star Wars film, the script counts the losses on the Rebels’/Resistance’s side, rather than the victory against a Giant Space Weapon. It’s a shift in the storytelling. And in that light, Poe has failed to — in the words of one of the films defining lines (also delivered by a woman) — “win by saving what we love,” rather than “destroying what we hate.” Poe later decides not to trust Admiral Holdo, making a decision informed by his gut reaction to her appearance, rather than the facts that he is explicitly shown to know about her record of success. If Poe had never gone off on his own, Finn and Rose might never have been captured, DJ the Slicer would never have overheard the plan about cloaked ships, and the Resistance would have been safe and secure in their armored and forgotten hideaway.

Conceivably, if you take Poe’s actions out of the movie entirely, the whole squad of bomber pilots would have been there too, along with the entire fleet of transports, and not the mere few who survived the relentless assault before Admiral Holdo saved the remaining small fleet with quick, creative adaptation. Luke Skywalker would not have had to project himself across space, and might be living. The Resistance would have more resources.

You can redeem that description of the story a bit: when Leia sends forth her distress call from the base, no one is willing to come. She declares that the light of hope has gone out in the galaxy. And it is Luke’s return that we see being told over and over throughout the galaxy, not the brave struggle or astonishing survival of the Resistance fighters. The boy who wears a ring at the end has it because Poe sent Rose and Finn on a mission to that planet. Perhaps the galaxy needs some brash heroics to draw us in, even if they aren’t the best military strategy, or the most mature ethics to live by. This is certainly a richer recruiting field for the Resistance than an increasingly despairing Leia, calling quietly to an unresponsive galaxy, would have been, even if Poe had never lost them the pilots or the transports, and all were sitting quietly waiting with Leia.

The third explicit thought is around Poe watching Luke at the end. Action blockbusters are largely dominated by “the myth of redemptive violence,” a term coined by Walter Wink, a theologian who pointed out that a significant amount of mythological storytelling involves a heroic stranger coming in to purge evil with violence. The cowboy who rides into town, Batman surging forth from his cave in his car, A New Hope‘s Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star guided by the moral-endorsement of the Force — these characters are heroes that don’t want to do battle … but will when they must. They might not start the fight, but they’ll finish it, and hard.

But by the end of The Last Jedi, Poe has learned enough to see through what Luke is doing. He understands that the point here is not to “stand in front of all the First Order with a laser sword.” Rather, it is to “save the ones we love.” Poe can pay better attention to his surroundings and find a way out. He’s asking better questions, like “How’d he get in here, anyway?” (though that of course turns out not to be the clue we thought it was).

Poe, like Luke, has released his need to look heroic or act heroically, in exchange for actually leading. He is now doing what is right. He has broken out of the “myth of redemptive violence,” and is now operating in a more mature moral framework.

In some ways, this set of stories represents a growing-up of the Star Wars franchise. They’re not showing us flat good guys and bad guys, a la A New Hope. Or even the stark lines of Darth Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi, in which a previously-bad character is inspired back across the border from evil to good. Instead, we see conflicted Jedi and understandable villains; confused rebels and deserting stormtroopers.

Some fans may experience this as a bait-and-switch of their expectations, and bristle at less dramatic heroes working through a more complicated set of morals, but I think it’s doing the best work of science fiction: holding up the mirror of galaxy-sized ethics and actions to show us ourselves, and invite us to choose how we, too, will grow and live.

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Filed under Growing Edges, Movies, Myths, Stories, and Fairy Tales, Science Fiction, Uncategorized

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