I finally watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night. And it was really good. From characters to plot, it was both a great nostalgia flick and a neat addition to the canon. But it also reminded me what a huge role class and privilege play within movie universes when it comes to redemption storylines.
(This piece is going to include some mild spoilers, so watch out.)
One of the major subplots in the movie was whether the villainous Ren would reconcile with his parents and reject the dark side. Presumably, upon rejecting the dark side, he would return home, hug his mom, cry in the arms of his parents and then retreat to a Jedi monastery to think upon his misdeeds, or heroically join the battle against the dark side and his evil former mentor.
Mind, this characters screen time included :
- ordering the wholesale slaughter of an entire village,
- running guy through with his light saber,
- torturing a resistance fighter off-screen,
- and colluding in the destruction of three to five heavily inhabited planets.
And this is just what happened during the movie. But his parents love him and want him to come home.
Of course, it’s wholly possible that once home, Ren would find himself standing trial for crimes against humanity (or whatever the intergalactic version of that is) and would be suitably punished. Or maybe the Republic has moved beyond our system of punitive justice and fully believes in the restorative, rehabilitative theories where every person, no matter how terrible their actions, can be brought back into the fold.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that Ren gets the chance at redemption because he is powerful. He is a master Dark Force Jedi (and therefore would be useful if he joined the light side). And because his father and mother are their people’s leaders and are willing to extend this offer of clemency to him.
Because amid scenes of indiscriminate killing of faceless brain-washed soldiers in movies and books, it is the powerful, well-connected villains who get that second chance.
But wait. What about Finn? In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we see average-joe Finn shake off his Storm Trooper conditioning and decide he wants nothing to do with the wholesale slaughter that defines his job for Dark Side. He is walking, talking evidence that a Storm Trooper can be redeemed.
But he redeems himself. No one tells Finn The Storm Trooper that there’s a better life out there. He goes after it on his own.
“Wait, stop! Storm Troopers, listen! I’m fighting to save my friends. Your leaders just destroyed several planets full of innocent people. There’s a better life out there. Instead of fighting me, help me stop your leaders!” shouted no characters ever while ducking behind a crate to avoid gunfire.
Well, of course not. You can argue that these Storm Troopers, with their brainwashing and conditioning, are too far gone. Finn’s the shining exception because he refused to participate in evildoing. He rebelled from day one. He never killed anyone. That, and the Storm Troopers are trying to kill the heroes. It would be useless and dangerous to stop and try to save them…or even spare them.
And yet. And yet. By that logic we shouldn’t even be considering Ren’s redemption. If the average Storm Trooper is too far gone, then Dark Side figureheads like Ren certainly are as well. And if Ren can still be redeemed after all he has done, the Storm Troopers, brainwashed and conditioned as they are, are just as much victims as perpetrators in the violence they are born into and ordered to commit.
Curiously, though it seems it was the death of a fellow Storm Trooper that first shocked Finn into an awareness of how terrible war was, Finn himself never brought up the possibility that there might be others like him among the other Storm Troopers. Thought we, as the audience, learn that “reconditioning” of soldiers is common enough amid the ranks at Camp Death Star, Finn seems to implicitly buy into the idea that all faceless Storm Troopers are evil. I guess the viewer is supposed to as well.
Certainly, a movie is not a medium that allows for a lot of on-screen introspection amid light-saber battles. Perhaps a book would have done better. But in my reading experience, books usually don’t do better.
Ren, and characters like him, are a class apart. There are so few of them that, like with endangered tigers, that you can opt them out of conventional morality for whatever reason. Convenience. Romantic attachments. Family bonds.And their stories are tragic, dramatic, larger-than-life, reality-TV worthy. And so we overlook their patricidal, planet-destroying foibles.
Storm Troopers and faceless henchmen? There are so many of them, and they are all so interchangeable.
These decisions on who to save go beyond the bare facts of a story. After all, Leia and Han Solo can do whatever they damn please. They’re Leia and Han Solo. If they decide to run away instead of fighting the dark side (like Luke did), who are we to say they can’t? If they want to save their son, more power to them. They’re only human.
Thing is, the way these redemption storylines work, the book or movie conspire with the characters to convince the reader/viewer that the villains are worth saving. After Leia’s admonishments to Han Solo to bring their son home, after Ren’s wavering faith in himself, after Ren’s angry temper tantrums, after Han Solo blames Ren’s actions on Ren’s manipulative mentor, we’re almost convinced Ren is just a petulant teen with daddy issues who just needs to reconnect with dad.
Hypothetically, Han could have faced off with Ren and then, when Ren lowered his guard, put a bullet through Ren’s skull. But that’s the wrong story. The audience knows that after all this buildup, Han Solo has to attempt reconciliation. And he does. And, as the audience, we wait with bated breath for Ren to accept (or not).
Whether someone gets the chance at a fresh start usually boils down to them having powerful and prestigious friends or relatives who care, and a sympathetic story that convinces us that it’s worth the effort to try (whether because the hero is the sort who would try, or because the villain is someone who should be given that chance). You can’t save them all, after all. And so, even as the movie sells it to us that Han Solo has to try to save Ren, there are no reminders to us to worry about all the nameless could-be-Finn’s among the Storm Troopers as they are gunned down.
Second chances are reserved for the exceptional few deemed worth saving, and the unexceptional hordes can save themselves (like Finn had) or get crushed by the system (as most do).
And so, while watching that dramatic scene on the bridge between Han Solo and Ren (come on, when has anything good ever happened in Star Wars when a father and son chat on an elevated walkway?), I couldn’t help but see how Han Solo’s attempt at reconciliation is both inevitable within the trope of him trying to redeem the villainous prodigal son, and colored by a kind of privilege.
Does it cheapen the heroes’ benevolence when they offer their equals redemption, all the while mowing down lesser minions in droves? Yes, I’d say it does.
Canaries, what do you think?