The Force Awakens: Myths Revisited

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

(The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)

You’d be forgiven pointedly pointing at our comic book site’s exhaustive Star Wars movie coverage over the past weeks and months. I could Billy Flynn it and do a bit of a tap dance about the wealth of Star Wars comics out there, how vital they are in the grand scheme of keeping the Force nourished in the years between awakenings. I’d be justified in claiming some jurisdiction, as far as the fine print. But the real truth is we’re fans. And that shouldn’t be so surprising considering our other passion. Comics is so often the stuff of demigods and melodrama. Good and evil.

Myth and iteration.

I’ve just returned from my second helping of The Force Awakens. I appreciated it all the more this time, and was better able to accept my qualms and lean into the elements I already enjoyed. Though much as I relaxed, I also found myself tracking what’s become a popular critical thread. There’s no escaping the parallels between The Force Awakens and A New Hope. I’ve been conceding this point since last Thursday.

Now I’d like to trumpet it.

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J.J. Abrams and the writers room were right to mirror so many moments from Episode IV, and not just for the purposes of fan service. Or, not just fan service as we think of it, so cynically. The iteration of beats and images and motifs from A New Hope is in service to fans old and new, especially if we are open to mythology as vital to tradition as well as progress.

The Force Awakens is, among other things, a light exploration of how we look at the past, and how what we do in response defines our future. Like A New Hope, it is also a meditation of how we tell stories. In a fashion, it also book-ends that earlier story, and proves the thesis.

The Force Awakens characters adore history. Most especially the new ones.

At that first screening, I was struck–like so many were–with the abrasive General Hux and his shrill, zealous speech to the foot soldiers of the First Order. It’s safe to assume we were all thinking about a frenzied Hitler and just how bald a metaphor it all was. I thought about that, a little nervously. But I also thought about Michael J. Fox.

alexphuxI’ve been joking around about this one with friends, but I hope there’s a little more to it than a meme and a chuckle. See, I look at fresh-faced Hux and sullen Kylo Ren as Alex P. Keatons of the post-Imperial era. Alex was a bright, rebellious teenager eager to buck authority. Since his Family Ties parents were flower children once emboldened to protest Vietnam, he looked back a generation in reverence to Nixon. If Ren seeks counsel at the ruined helm of his late grandfather, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hux followed in the tracts of Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s likely he hails from a long line of jack boots, but I could also see his parents piloting Y-Wings or lighting a candle each year in remembrance of Bail Organa and shimmering Alderan. These two look at history and react to it in a very different way than the heroes do. They look at the events of a story we know by heart, and cast the antagonists as role models. They follow their lead, but there’s a huge dramatic irony in their knowing how it played out the first time.

So, a new Tarkin and a new Vader. Critics also point to a parallel or “rehashed” plot. Yes, we’ve got a new take on the Death Star and a daring assault by the resistance. We’ve got heroes garbed in the colors of the enemy. We’ve got a trash compactor. But it’s not a carbon copy. Alan Sepinwall deems The Force Awakens and another recent favorite, Creed–not dismissively–as remakes of the originals. I’d take that a bit further by highlighting The Force Awakens as a unique opportunity to demonstrate how mythology and folklore grows.

The oldest stories–nursery rhymes, images of worlds balanced on the backs of turtles, cautionary tales of wolves in kerchiefs–thrive so that we might grow up with them, too. Just as our grandparents did. But also not at all as our grandparents did. The oldest living stories change, just as they stay the same. They adapt. And that often lends complexity and depth.

It’s why Johnny Cash covering a Nine Inch Nails song is so compelling.

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Luke Skywalker? “I thought he was a myth.”

Who is Han Solo? A general in the Rebellion? A smuggler? Finn and Rey both know about the legend, but their context is weighted differently dependent on individual upbringing, vocation, and personal interests.

It’s not just the characters either. The change of venue forces us to reexamine too. That planet we all initially assumed was Tatooine? That’s Jakku. There’s an exciting blend of variables and controls. Like the handoff from Greece to Rome, some Zeuses become Jupiters, while Apollo is always Apollo.

In questing after a vanished myth, new heroes are tested, perceptions of the past change. It’s all about perspective. Revisiting a myth and not simply running from it reminds us of the fluidity of story. Plus you get to see payoffs like this:

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It’s a remake and a sequel at the same time. In a serial like this, with themes like this, I see that as a function, not a flaw.

Sure we see another trench run on a neo-Death Star. But that’s not the A plot anymore. That’s not the primary concern for us as viewers at that point, right? We’re invested in what’s happening to Rey and Finn just a little more than what’s happening with Poe. Like Maz cranking up the magnification in her goggles and recognizing a familiar gleam in a stranger’s eyes, we’ve already seen Poe’s side of the story before. This iteration of the myth, as told by an apprentice of the former teller, lends more weight to a different thread. By portraying familiar iconography from new angles, the whole shape of the thing changes. We prioritize what was once marginalized. We make headings of the footnotes.

You want a comics example? I’m one of those people who never gets tired of seeing Superman’s origin story. You can bounce a dime off that story, so pan left, right, up, down, or turn around and there are other great stories that build on it. Who doesn’t love an Elseworlds?

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. How Rey offers the promise of seeing Luke’s story all over again, for the first time. How her journey will mirror his, but more importantly how it will diverge. How those who never related to Luke find inspiration in Rey. How Finn’s story, already novel and with only passing comparison to the former ensemble of heroes, will inject even more surprise.

Remember. Every game of Holochess has largely the same pieces. We keep coming back for a reason. Infinite combinations and to test trusted strategies. As to winning and losing, I think there’s a wookiee in all of us. Star Wars, the most potent myth of our times, offers a seat at the table for everybody.

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