How Rogue One Showed Me What I Hate About Epic Fantasy
I love epic Fantasy. I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember—at least since first grade, and probably earlier. But somewhere around junior high, I started feeling this little tickle in the back of my brain telling me there was something wrong with it. It wasn’t enough to stop me from reading and enjoying it, of course. If there was a world I could get lost in, surely it was better than the real one even if it was under imminent threat by the greatest evil of all time. It was just that when the hero saved the universe, it always felt like there was something missing. It wasn’t until I saw Rogue One that I realized what it was.
A New Hope had something Empire and Jedi Lacked
As far as I’m concerned, Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since the original. True Star Wars Fans (TM) will almost universally point to Empire as the best and they have a point, but I don’t really care about movie making and while I care quite a bit about stories, their structure, and what creative people can do with them, Star Wars gets a pass on all of that.
The original came out in 1977. I was six years old when I saw it. When I hear that theme and when I see the crawl, I’m six years old again and all I really care about is how the movie makes me feel. Rogue One made me feel much like the original and I think that’s because it has something the original had that Empire and Jedi lacked.
Empire, for all its excellence as a film, is pretty bleak. We end the movie with Han Solo frozen in carbonite and Luke Skywalker getting his hand replaced while dealing with the worst news he’d ever received. It wasn’t pretty.
Jedi was pretty and a lot of people knock it for that, but it had a bit of hope. After all, the second Death Star was destroyed. Vader and the Emperor were dead. The Rebel Alliance had just achieved a tremendous victory that was going to overturn the power structure of the entire galaxy.
It’s a big hope and, in some ways, a very impersonal one. To be sure, it was personal to Luke and the gang, but they had been joined by a whole bunch of people you didn’t know or care about unless you read the extended universe.
The hope in Rogue One was different, as was the hope in A New Hope and it’s that difference that showed me what I was reacting to in all the epic fantasy I was reading (it was a lot, folks).
No Chosen One, Just Folks
The original Star Wars didn’t have a chosen one. The retconning of one in the prequel trilogy is, was, and will always be asinine and midichlorians can kiss my entire ass.
I have at least two problems with the concept of the chose one. First, I find the notion of destiny to be entirely repulsive. If we don’t have some degree of free will, we aren’t really people.
And while we’re at it, people who present that false choice to the chosen one have a seat reserved for them right next to the people who talk in theaters. You know the false choice I’m talking about, it’s the one where the chosen one is presented with the choice between fulfilling the prophecy or of everything and everyone they love being destroyed.
It’s bullshit. I dare say there isn’t a one of us that would choose to have our entire world destroyed just so we could avoid doing battle with Lord Voldythings.
It’s About the Choices of Ordinary People
But there’s more than that. Epic Fantasy—and despite the spaceships, I think it’s entirely appropriate to fit Star Wars into the genre—is about the entire known universe fighting a tremendous evil, but in much of it, we don’t see the entire universe. There are often references to enormous armies fighting somewhere but it often happens off screen—until the movie adaptation, of course—while we center on the “real fight” which is always a one-on-one between the hero and the villain.
This, too is nonsense. Evil is not someone else’s fight.
The average everyday person is often seen as a bystander even if they take part in the fight. They may have names but they don’t have agency. They are, essentially, sitting around making time and watching the hero do everything.
This is what has always struck me as wrong. Maybe it’s the current political climate that made the issue so stark, but in Rogue One—as in A New Hope—we see ordinary people making the decision to make a difference.
Luke Skywalker is just a moisture farmer dreaming of something bigger. Ben Kenobe is just a crazy old man with memories of being something more. Han Solo is just a smuggler with a pile of debts and a price on his head. Leia—even though she’s introduced as a princess—isn’t very princess-like. We see her give a message to the droids and convince them to abandon ship, but we don’t know it’s her ship unless we’ve read it outside the film. And after those initial scenes, where she hides the plans in R2D2 and confronts Darth Vader, we see her get tortured and her planet blown up. By the time we see her do anything princess-like, we’re minutes from the end credits and she’s not much of a princess anymore.
They were just people. The same can be said of Jyn Erso and the rest of the main (ish) characters of Rogue One. They’re just normal folks who got it in their head that the world should be better than it is and decided to do something about it. Sure, Erso had a connection and the other guys had specific skills, but isn’t that true of everyone?
Two Hundred Thousand People
As I write this, #climatemarch is trending on Twitter as organizers estimate two hundred thousand people marched in Washington DC to draw attention to the problem.
Two hundred thousand people.
Some of them have skills. Some of them have connections. Some of them are just looking for some way to make their world a better place one tiny bit at a time.
And that, ultimately, is the problem I have with Epic Fantasy. They are tremendous, engrossing stories of the battle of good and evil, but they rarely involve the everyman. Sure, sure, farm boy made good and all that, but by the time they’re making a difference, they aren’t a farm boy anymore.
It’s like people took a look at Tolkien and saw how only a simple hobbit could carry the ring to Mount Doom and ignored the fact that all the simple hobbit did was carry the ring to Mount Doom. He didn’t raise an army. He didn’t battle the Dark One. There was no abstruse wand lore that meant Lord Voldythings couldn’t kill him. There was just a guy who wished he could go putter in his garden doing something he felt he had to do and it made all the difference.