*Warning: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If you have not seen the movie, proceed at your own risk*
When I was 10th grade, I had an excellent English teacher who really supported me writing about pop culture critically, and she was even my advisor for my 12th grade capstone where I wrote about the evolution of action heroes from Achilles from the Iliad to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This all started when she showed the 1988 Bill Moyers PBS documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth that laid out the idea of the Hero’s Journey and used the original Star Wars trilogy as a metaphor it. I thought this was super cool because I was a big Star Wars geek complete with my own homebrew Revenge of the Sith RPG and would spend time free time between classes editing Wookieepedia in the computer lab. And one thing that drew people to the original Star Wars films (And not the prequels so much) was its archetypes and dependable structure of good versus evil, plucky underdog heroes, and musical leitmotifs. Plus Han Solo is still the epitome of cool. (RIP)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens continued that theme by keeping similar elements from the original trilogy like a plucky underdog (Female this time) hero from a desolate desert planet, a masked/red laser sword wielding antagonist with loads of daddy/mentor issues and the possible hope of redemption, and of course, a big space station blowing up at the end. And with its thinly drawn characters, Rogue One was only emotionally resonant or exciting when reliant on nostalgia for previous movies like the Darth Vader scene. However, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, replaces the Hero with a Thousand Faces with cynical asshole Luke Skywalker and a battle between good and evil with a tale of war profiteering, Pyrrhic victories, and yes, a casino heist. Also, Snoke is a joke, and Rey‘s parentage doesn’t matter.
In an early, not-really-a-training-montage scene, Luke calls Rey, “Rey from nowhere”, and later on in the big not-really-a-reveal, Kylo Ren tells Rey that her parents were just scavengers that sold her for extra drink money. (This second one could be a lie.) The other three leads have almost equally as humble roots as Rey. Finn was a Stormtrooper janitor, bright new cast member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) had a maintenance job on a Resistance bomber, and the most conventionally heroic Poe Dameron gets a demotion after losing almost the entire Resistance bombing fleet to destroy one First Order flagship. They aren’t Jedi apprentices, royalty, or the scions of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Anakin Skywalker, but regular people who have lived the legends and legacy of Star Wars and geek out about Luke Skywalker or Han Solo much like the fans of the movies. In fairy tales and myths, often ordinary people ended up being secret princes, but with the exception of Rey’s Force abilities, this doesn’t really happen in The Last Jedi.
In probably its most controversial move, The Last Jedi also deconstructs and humanizes the larger than life Ur-hero Luke Skywalker, and Mark Hamill is up for the task. The quirkiness of the planet Ahch-To with its Porgs and sassy alien nuns is a definite callback to Dagobah, but Luke is no great motivator like Yoda was in Empire Strikes Back and spurns Rey for most of this segment of the film beginning by tossing his old lightsaber into the sea. He avoids training her for most of the film, and when he does train Rey, he berates her and compares her raw power to Kylo Ren. The big twist with his character is that in a moment of weakness he ignited his lightsaber, thought about killing Kylo, and Kylo saw this moment and truly fell to the Dark Side. It’s cool to see this flashback from both Luke and Kylo Ren’s POV and shows both characters’ weaknesses as Kylo spends most of the film trying to destroy all the structures of power, both good and evil, and trying to bond with Rey along the way. However, Rian Johnson doesn’t cop out and redeem him just yet and continues to portray him as very powerful, yet childish man who decides to renege on an easy victory for the First Order so he can settle his grudge with Luke and the Jedi order.
As well as Luke, Rian Johnson deconstructs the scoundrel with a heart of gold (and by extension, the late Han Solo.) through the character of DJ, an enigmatic smuggler played by Benicio del Toro. Johnson and del Toro play up the heart of gold aspects for most of his storyline by having him forge an unlikely friendship with BB-8 and rescue Finn and Rose when they fail badly at finding someone to hack First Order security. The biggest heartstring pulled is when DJ takes Rose’s dead sister’s necklace presumably for collateral, but actually because the metal it’s made of is a great conductor. However, this is all for naught as DJ got a better deal from Captain Phasma and the First Order, and Finn and Rose are captured and sentenced to death. Sometimes, scoundrels are just scoundrels, and the highest bidder wins the day. (Unless they get a last minute save from BB-8 in an AT-ST walker.) DJ gets some of the smartest lines of the movies like, “It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.” DJ isn’t a great guy, but this is some good advice. In the real world, there are no good guys and bad guys; even the most decent people have flaws. This is basically the takeaway from The Last Jedi too.
Throughout The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson doesn’t just find the cracks in character archetypes. It examines and tries to correct the weaknesses in Star Wars plots and makes them more relevant to the real world than quests and space battles. The previous Star Wars films have super been into one warrior’s heroism saving the day for everyone whether that’s Anakin blowing up the Trade Federation ship in Phantom Menace, Luke destroying the Death Star in A New Hope, or Han, Finn, and Chewbacca blowing up the shield generator for Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens. However, the big opening setpiece where Poe goes mano a mano with a Dreadnaught ends in heavy losses, and his plan to break into a Star Destroyer and destroy their hyperspace tracker fails too. Rian Johnson is establishing a new Star Wars status quo where the big picture of the rebellion is more important than individual heroics even though that can come in handy like Luke’s astral form inspiring a little boy on a First Order occupied planet to pick up a broom and fight back against his masters in the final shot of the film. Sacrifices will be made, like the brave strategist Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), flying at light speed into the First Order fleet, but they are for the survival of the rebellion and of hope.
Rian Johnson uses the Star Wars storytelling devices of space battles, heroic last stands, and lightsaber duels while also poking holes in these things. This is wisdom tempered with a pinch of callbacks to earlier films (See the Yoda cameo.) and a lot of real world relevance. The Last Jedi breaks the mold of a kind of Manichean fairy tale battle between good and evil and instead critiques power structures whether that is the presumably good Jedi Order (Some of Luke’s best lines are throwing shade on their actions during the prequels.) or the evil First Order.
In both Johnson’s approach to Star Wars things like The Force and in his characterization and storytelling in The Last Jedi, he chooses balance and thoughtfulness over nostalgia and a slavish adherence to aging archetypes like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And I think Campbell himself would be okay with this as he said in The Power of Myth, “The virtues of the past are the vices of today. And many of what were thought to be the vices of the past are the necessities of today.”
To remain vibrant, stories and myths have to evolve and reflect the society in which they were created, and The Last Jedi does this through the diversity of their main cast and their focus on regular people striking a force for good instead of some Chosen One with a hallowed destiny and blah blah blah midichlorians stuff.