Why is the Emperor striking back?
J.J. Abrams’ upcoming The Rise of Skywalker has a nigh-impossible task: bringing a satisfying conclusion to a 42-year-old saga whose mythology has become an integral part not only of American pop-culture, but also movie-making. The Last Jedi, which, for all its divisiveness, did not move things forward plot-wise or explanation-wise for the new trilogy, has left the characters pretty much where they were in The Force Awakens, minus a few thousand troops and, of course, Snoke.
Back in April, the teaser trailer revealed with his unmistakable cackle the return of Emperor Palpatine.
In the visually-appetizing last trailer dropped on Monday, we hear and see a little more from our old enemy. Rey and Ren apparently visit the old throne room from Return of the Jedi (inexplicably intact after the explosion of Death Star 2.0), another throne (inspired by art from Ralph McQuarrie?) looms on a frigid planet where OT-era Star Destroyers emerge from the ice, and Rey faces a hooded figure looming on some kind of royal hovercraft.
Ian McDiarmid’s iconic voice, in rather Yoda-like phrasing, explains—“Long have I waited.”
(For a really great Star Wars movie? Yes, Emperor, so have we.)
Although many are speculating about how the Emperor will return in this concluding episode of the saga—did he somehow escape the fall into the death star’s shaft? did he find a way to cheat death after all and come back from the dead? Is he a force ghost? A hologram?—a more interesting question to me is why.
Why does Abrams need to bring back the Emperor?
And why now? Why not in his first movie?
I suggest three reasons—though I’m sure I’m not the first to recognize them:
- The vacuum left by Snoke’s untimely demise in The Last Jedi
- The foundational plot mishandling in The Force Awakens
- The need for continuity, a thread that connects us to the entire saga
- The nostalgia factor
The first three reasons have to do with plot; and if there is one critique I’d make of a lot of movies these days, esp. the new Star Wars ones, it’s the thin-ness of the plots, the lack of robust stories.
1. The Vacuum
As neat as it was to watch Kylo Ren use the force to slice Snoke in half during The Last Jedi and (momentarily) join forces with Rey, this decision caused a big plot problem for the next movie. The questions raised by TFA as to Snoke’s origins were simply dropped, rather than explored or deepened.
And, conspicuously, the main enemy of the new trilogy was simply gone, almost as soon as he appears on-screen in the flesh. Kylo Ren, for all of his ruthlessness, is too ambiguous a character to properly provide a dark side “balance” to Rey’s wholehearted commitment to the light. His form of evil is angsty, emotional—like Anakin’s (not Vader’s); and it’s a bit hard to take it seriously. (Imagine Lord of the Rings with a Saruman but no Sauron). Most importantly, as a kind of Anakin 2.0, Ren’s character arc is too bound up with the possibility for redemption to make him the kind of robust bad guy you need for the last movie.
Abrams knows (as we do) that Kylo Ren’s shoulders are too thin to bear the burden of evil mastermind. It’s too late to introduce a new bad guy.
So, where do we get the gravitas we need for that role?
From Palpatine, of course.
His origins in the original trilogy didn’t need to be explained in the same way Snoke’s did (but weren’t) in TFA. In the OT, the emperor is part of the background setting, not even appearing in A New Hope (Vader is sufficiently evil and mysterious for that plot) but introduced in The Empire Strikes Back to provide a deeper look into the nature of the Empire and to contextualize and complicate Vader’s character in time for the big “I am your father” reveal at the end of that movie. But really he is a feature of the original universe Lucas created—he does not need to be explained any more than hyperspace travel does.
In Palpatine, the disturbing opaqueness of evil is preserved, and the void opened up by Snoke (now more superfluous than ever) is more than filled.
2. Plot issues in The Force Awakens
The problem with bringing the emperor back (like many of Abram’s other initial choices in TFA) is that it undermines the original trilogy in rather egregious ways. After two death stars, Alderaan’s annihilation, Obi-Wan’s demise, several lost limbs, and Vader’s conversion, the Emperor is back?
It’s not entirely fair to blame Rian Johnson’s abrupt execution of Snoke and the subsequent void created, either—the underlying structure of the problem is something Abrams set up for himself. In TFA, he essentially copied and pasted the state of the galaxy from A New Hope, but gave the actors and entities new names: The First Order replaced the Empire, the Resistance replaced the Rebellion, Rey replaced Luke, Ren replaced Darth, Snoke replaced Palpatine, Starkiller base replaced the Death Star.
The problem with that approach is that it renders rather null the sacrifices and plot development of the original trilogy even without the return of the Emperor. You get ten minutes into The Force Awakens and realize that everything that happened in the OT essentially doesn’t matter. The galaxy is no better off now than then. And though certainly, in the real world, history has a tendency to repeat itself, you can’t say that the world was in the same place it was after WW2 as it was before, or after the Civil War as it was before, or after The Revolutionary War as it was before.
Not so in Abrams’ rebooted galaxy. Nothing has really changed. You see this pattern in a microcosmic way with Han and Leia’s defunct relationship—Ren, as their son, the fruit of their love, is simply a new Anakin at the very beginning of the new trilogy who has already destroyed almost everything his parents built. Instead of watching the process of Ben Solo’s demise, or the challenges of establishing a New Republic, or the rooting out of old Empire holdouts (in other words, a NEW plot), Abrams has merely dressed up and repeated the old one.
With the return of Palpatine, necessary as it now seems, the undermining of the original story has become fully explicit—The Emperor wasn’t defeated at all by Vader’s sacrifice. In fact, he’s been in the shadows this whole time.
3. The Need for Continuity
Continuity, I think, is the most robust reason to bring back Palpatine, and would be an essential factor no matter what the first two movies did or did not do: Abrams needs establish that all three trilogies are somehow part of an overarching story. The Emperor was an important presence in the older two, and in that way it does make sense to have him be the antagonist for this one as well.
But the main reason Palpatine, rather than someone else, has to be that principle of continuity for the last film in the new trilogy is that all the other possibilities have already been excluded, usually by the plot issues of the first two:
Luke can’t be a principle of continuity (a symbol of the re-established/renewed Jedi Order) because he was killed off in The Last Jedi (in a rather superficial kind of last battle–he wasn’t there) and, more importantly, rejected the Jedi teachings of the older movies altogether.
Leia, unfortunately, can’t preserve continuity either (as a symbol of the Republic), although I suspect she was originally intended to, because Carrie Fisher died in 2016. Although I’m glad Abrams is trying to make her presence felt as much as possible in this last film, I doubt that any amount of unused footage from The Force Awakens will be able to make her an essential part of the plot.
Han, though important to the OT, doesn’t have connections to the prequels. Also, he’s dead. (And, more importantly, I don’t think Harrison Ford would agree to be in another Star Wars film.)
What about Darth Vader? As a force ghost?
This is a possibility—and I think it’s likely we will see Hayden Christensen appear—but since his role in the sequels was so divisive, he can’t really be a principle of continuity. He seemed to symbolize the fundamental break in tone between the prequels and the originals.
The droids, perhaps? C3PO and R2D2 have functioned more like furniture in TFA and TLJ than real characters, though judging by the latest trailer it seems that Abrams has devised more important roles for them now, at least for 3PO.
Who are we left with? Palpatine. And, if it weren’t for the issues discussed above, I would be more on board had his influence (rather than Snoke’s) been hinted at in the earlier movies.
3. The nostalgia factor
Rian Johnson’s TLJ was so divisive amongst long-time fans that some good ol’ fashioned nostalgia might be the only thing that can bring us all together in the last film; and there’s nothing quite like the feeling brought back by Ian McDiarmid’s laugh.
I suspect that Abrams will backtrack quite a bit from Johnson’s postmodern critique of the light/dark side mythos. I could be wrong. But I hope he does, in a way that acknowledges the failures of the Jedi past without rejecting it altogether.
To be honest, even with the problems I suggested above, I think the Emperor striking back is the best chance the new trilogy has of ending on a resounding, triumphant note.
Palpatine is a great bad guy because he, like evil in general, is ultimately not that interesting.
What is interesting is how our heroes respond to him. Perhaps his unadulterated evil presence will allow this movie a deeper and more meaningful exploration of Rey’s character, and a real possibility of redemption for Ben Solo.