The original Star Wars trilogy stands as one of the greatest cinematic trilogies ever made. It spawned a franchise that consists of additional movies, novels, comic books, video games, and even radio dramas. The genius of the Star Wars franchise is in how it created something that feels entirely original, but is deeply indebted to millenia of stories that came before it. Star Wars contains influences from not only space adventure serials and Westerns, but also Arthurian tales, Greek Myth, and even religion.

That being said, the Star Wars movies have not always lived up to their original standard. For years, George Lucas’s prequel films detailing the transformation of Jedi Anakin Skywalker into the evil Darth Vader were reviled as some of the worst films ever made. When Disney announced its acquisition of the franchise and subsequent plans to make new movies in 2012, fans went wild. It couldn’t possibly get any worse than the prequels.

Or could it…?

When The Force Awakens was released in 2015, most fans were pleased. Sure, it was a little derivative, but it was only the first movie in a new trilogy. The characters were engaging, the special effects looked great, and it worked as a story, which is more than could be said for Attack of the Clones.

Two years later, with the release of The Last Jedi, things got a little more dicey. While some fans were pleased, there was a significant amount that loathed the movie. We knew Rey was abnormally powerful, but why does it seem that she can do nothing wrong? Why did Luke become so unnecessarily cynical? Why does it feel like all these mysteries set up in the last movie just got completely derailed?

The controversy became intense, with even some ugly internet clashes between people who worked on the film and disgruntled fans, along with Mark Hamill’s not-so-subtle hints that he disliked the movie.

With the Star Wars fan base growing more and more polarized, would the final movie in the sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, bring the fan base together?

Well, it certainly united them…but not in the way anyone hoped. The Rise of Skywalker was loathed by the Star Wars fanbase, who considered it derivative, disjointed, and lacking in any emotional resonance or even coherence. It was a disastrous conclusion to what was perhaps the most disappointing series of films in the past decade.

Star Wars fans now hate the sequel trilogy as much if not more than the prequels, with some fans going as far as to argue that the prequel films weren’t really that bad after all (they absolutely are, by the way).

So, what happened? Why exactly did the sequel trilogy go from being one of the most anticipated events in cinematic history to such a major disappointment?

While many have given a host of valid explanations: a lack of creative imagination, lack of communication between the various directors of the trilogy, even a too heavy influence of the wildly successful Marvel Movie franchise, the core problem with the sequel trilogy is this: It thematically undermines everything the original Star Wars trilogy stands for.


The Hero’s Journey

Perhaps the biggest influence on the original Star Wars trilogy was the work of Joseph Campbell. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell cycles through a plethora of myths and religions from around the world to demonstrate that every culture in history has their own version of the Hero’s Journey. To summarize, this is an archetypal story where an individual fights a great evil, and in the process dramatically grows and changes, overcoming his own flaws. Examples of the Hero’s Journey are The Lord of the Rings, Arthurian Legends, or The Odyssey. George Lucas, fascinated by this idea, decided to take the core elements of the Hero’s Journey story that pop up again and again throughout history and adapt them to a space adventure serial similar to the ones he watched as a child. We don’t have time or space to go over the whole thing here, but the core element to understand is that the Hero’s Journey is as much about the hero’s personal growth and internal struggle as much as it is about their fight against dragons or evil wizards. In fact, the monsters are often external representations of the hero’s own inner demons. A less central, but still important point to keep in mind is that the hero never succeeds on his own. He is often helped by mentors who are often wiser than he. These mentors usually represent the great wisdom embedded in the spiritual traditions of whatever culture the hero is from. So, for example, Athena, goddess of wisdom, often helps Odysseus in his journey back to Ithaca in The Odyssey.

We can see these two themes in the original trilogy. The protagonist, Luke Skywalker, needs to overthrow the evil Galactic Empire and redeem his father, Darth Vader, from the Dark Side. Along the way, he is helped by both his friends, Han Solo and Princess Leia, but also by the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, two Jedi Knights who are well versed in the mystical ways of the Force.


“The Dark Side”

At the core of the original trilogy is the struggle between good and evil, represented by the light and dark sides of the Force. What’s important to understand however, is that this struggle is not only played out externally in the fight between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, but also within the heart of the protagonist, Luke Skywalker. Throughout the series, Luke is constantly warned to beware the seductive call of the Dark Side. We see his inner struggle throughout the trilogy, particularly in regards to his idealism, Luke’s central character trait.

In a lot of traditional stories, the fatal flaw of a character isn’t so much the presence of a bad attribute, but the overabundance of a good one. Going back to The Odyssey, Odysseus is a crafty and clever person, but this craftiness leads him to pride and a love of scheming for its own sake. The same is true with Luke and his idealism. Luke dreams of leaving his boring moisture farm and pursuing an exciting career as a fighter pilot for the rebellion. We can admire his aspirations, but left undisciplined, this idealism leaves him impatient, impulsive, and even arrogant. This often gets him into trouble, and Lucas pulls no punches in allowing Luke to make disastrous mistakes. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke ignores Yoda and Obi-Wan’s warnings to complete his training and not rush to save his friends, who are captured by the Empire. In his impatience, he not only fails to save his friends, but also prematurely fights against Darth Vader, loses his hand in the process, and comes face to face with the revelation that Darth Vader is his father, a revelation that he is clearly not yet ready to handle. This is why The Empire Strikes Back was considered so high quality for a standard action movie. The plot was about the hero failing at his task and facing the consequences of his bad decision, an unusual choice for the time.

All this changes by the beginning of the next movie, Return of the Jedi. Luke has clearly learned the value of patience, as seen in his methodical (if somewhat convoluted) plan to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. The audience has seen how he has grown and changed over the course of the three movies, which is what makes the original trilogy so satisfying. Not only that, but Luke learns to put his idealism to good use, as he never gives up hope that his father will turn back to the light, even as everyone around him denies that such a thing is possible.


The Mystique of History

This desire of Luke to redeem his family’s legacy brings us to the second important characteristic of the original Star Wars trilogy: the respect for past history and tradition. One aspect of A New Hope’s aesthetic that made it so different from other science fiction movies of the time is that the world looks lived in. Unlike other science fiction series such as Star Trek, where everything looks unnaturally sanitized, George Lucas purposely prohibited his crew members from cleaning the sets. This added a sense of history to the Star Wars universe that was very innovative for the time. In the scene where Jawa droid traders capture C3PO and R2D2 for instance, the other droids that they are with look rusty and worn. It leads the viewer to speculate about where those droids have been, and what sorts of exciting adventures they have seen. The same thing is done whenever characters make oblique references to the Clone Wars or the Jedi Knights. Sure, now we have entire television shows exploring what those things are, but back in 1977, audience members could only speculate. Once again, this excited people’s imaginations, making A New Hope feel like it was only a tiny window into a fully developed world. Again, there is a certain romanticization of the past. Obi Wan refers to the age of the Jedi as “more civilized.” The worlds that we see throughout the trilogy seem small and dingy compared to what once was, and Luke’s destiny is to resurrect the ancient knowledge of the Jedi order. This echoes many old myths and legends, which claim that the misty reaches of the past were often populated with advanced cultures and great heroes (think of the Ancient Greek writer Hesiod’s idea that the dawn of humanity was actually its most idyllic period).

But the best example of the original trilogy’s respect for the past and tradition is Luke’s decision to accept the legacy of his father and redeem it, instead of running away from it or destroying it. In the climactic scene of Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor gloats that it’s only a matter of time before Luke falls to the Dark Side, Luke confidently responds, “You’re wrong, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” This echoes another important teaching of the great myths: We are deeply attached to the legacy of our pasts, and there is no easy way to escape them. A perfect example is Aragorn’s duty to reclaim the throne of his ancestors in The Lord of the Rings, even though he himself at first desires to reject it.


The Sequel Trilogy as Anti-Myth

So, how does the sequel trilogy differ from the original, and why do these differences cause the final presentation to fall flat? The most important thing to realize is that, unlike the original trilogy, which pulled deep into premodern mythic traditions, the sequel trilogy is thoroughly saturated in modernity.

How do we define “modernity?” The term is obviously very loaded, but for our purposes, it is best to turn to political philosopher Patrick Deneen, who, in his book, Why Liberalism Failed, argues that modernity is defined by the primacy of individual human choice. Unlike Ancient and Medieval society, where one’s family, occupation, religion, and role and society was fundamentally fixed by where and when you were born, Deneen argues that modern society offers the promise of individual liberation from such constraints. This began in the West during the Protestant Reformation, when reformers such as Luther argued that the Bible should be interpreted by the individual’s conscience, not by the official interpretation of the Church. Ever since the Reformation, this promise of individual choice has been endlessly self-radicalizing. In modern society, you can not only choose your own religion, but your own value system, your own career path, and now even your own gender and sexuality. The purpose of one’s life now shifts from an arduous struggle to conform to the given values of any society, to a relentless assertion of the self against the “system.”

This is clearly what is done with Rey’s story arc in the sequel trilogy. If you really pay attention, you notice that there is virtually never a single point in the entire trilogy where Rey needs any outside help when she gets into trouble. When Kylo Ren captures Rey and brings her to the First Order’s secret base, Rey escapes completely on her own, being able to use a Jedi Mind trick out of nowhere, even though we have no indication she has even seen it in action. She can fly the Millenium Falcon better than Han Solo can, which is ludicrous relative to the original trilogy. In A New Hope, the movie presents Luke as an almost supernaturally gifted pilot, but he still has to ask Han how hyperspace works. Rey’s also able to somehow understand BB-8’s robotic language, even when no one could understand R2D2 without the help of C3PO or a translation computer.

This gets even more ridiculous when you compare Rey’s relationships to her mentors to Luke’s. In the original trilogy, Luke really depends on Obi Wan and Yoda to help him learn the ways of the Force. There are serious consequences when he disobeys them in Empire and rushes off to save his friends. And, even though he proves both of them wrong about the ultimate goodness of Darth Vader, the audience comes away with a clear respect for both Obi Wan and Yoda, understanding that Luke could never get to where he needs to be without their help.

Contrast that with Rey’s relationship to Han and Luke. In A New Hope, when Vader kills Obi Wan, it means something, even though we’ve only known Obi Wan for less than an hour. This is because we were expecting Obi Wan to act as a protector and mentor throughout Luke’s journey. When he dies, it introduces a lot of drama, because our protagonist has lost his biggest sense of safety. In The Force Awakens, when Kylo Ren kills Han, we feel bad because we’ve gotten to know Han as a beloved Star Wars character, but as regards to Rey, why does it really matter? We’ve established that she can pilot the Falcon and outrun smugglers better than Han can, and she rejects Han’s offer to become a part of his crew earlier in the film, closing off any idea that he would give her the sense of belonging that she so desperately craves. Han’s death seems more to develop Kylo’s character than anything else, but it means absolutely nothing to Rey.

Rey’s relationship to her mentors gets even more preposterous when she meets Luke Skywalker. Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion, the founder of the New Jedi Order, and indefatigable optimist…is revealed as nothing more than a broken, cynical old man that Rey takes down in a matter of seconds.

Can you imagine if Luke pummeled Yoda to the ground in The Empire Strikes Back? We would have completely lost lll the mystique of Yoda as a famed Jedi Master. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why Rey needs to go see Luke except to prove him wrong. She barely needs any training before she becomes a lightsaber wizard and can use the force to do almost impossible feats. Luke could barely lift an X-Wing when he was first starting out, but Rey can lift an entire cascade of rocks that are blocking Resistance members from their escape. What’s more, the teacher/student relationship is completely reversed. Rey shows up to tell Luke why he’s wrong about Kylo Ren and the failure of the Jedi Order. Of course, Luke does something really similar with Yoda and Obi Wan in the original trilogy, but only after months of arduous training and a serious inner confrontation with the revelation that Vader is his father. He doesn’t just show up on Dagobah and lecture Yoda on why he’s wrong.

So… does Rey have any weaknesses throughout the series? Well, according to everyone, she just needs to “believe in herself” more.

I’m serious…

Now, a hero becoming more self-confident can make an engaging story, but only if it compliments a larger struggle against a protagonist’s own weaknesses. Throughout this story, we get the impression that Rey is perfect just the way she is, she just needs to have more self-confidence. If only life were that simple.

There’s literally a scene in The Rise of Skywalker where Luke’s Force Ghost tells Rey to not be afraid of who she is, immediately after Rey has had a vision of herself as the new Emperor.

Is anyone going to inform Luke of how supremely un-Jedi like this is? Can you imagine if Yoda told Luke to not fear his inner darkness after Luke confronted the dark vision in the cave? Or if Mace Windu simply indulged Anakin’s every whim and desire despite Anakin’s blatant arrogance and impatience? Luke’s speech to Rey sounds more like a domesticated version of what Palpatine tells Anakin to seduce him to the dark side rather than anything a Jedi would say.

But why should we have to worry? Confronting one’s own inner darkness? That’s just what the man says to keep you down. After all, Luke himself admits that the Jedi Order was simply an aristocratic organization of arrogant fuddy duddies who were keeping the magic of the Force from everyone else. Training and self discipline? That’s so last year! The new thing is just being able to pick up a lightsaber or magically fly through the vast reaches of outer space simply by believing you can.

The single most revealing line of the sequel trilogy’s newfound attitudes towards the Jedi is when Yoda’s Force Ghost sets the ancient Jedi texts on fire. Luke asks why Yoda would burn such precious documents, as they would be of help to Rey in her journey. But, our delightfully kooky Jedi Master simply chuckles like an idiot and says that the books possess “nothing that Rey does not already possess.”

Again, this sounds more like it comes from the atmosphere of modern American culture than any of the great mythological and spiritual traditions that Lucas pulled from for the original trilogy. Who needs any external authority (the Bible, the Pope, the Qur’an, Confucian philosophy) to guide you and keep you on the right path when you can just rely on yourself! If you just believe in yourself really… really… reallllly hard, you’ll be all set!

What’s really fascinating about Rey is that we first meet her in a barren desert, alone, and without any parents. Throughout the first and second films, Rey’s biggest desire is to find out who her parents really are. The Force Awakens makes a real mystery out of this, leading the audience to believe that her parents are important people. At the end of The Last Jedi, however, Kylo Ren tells her that her parents were just nobodies, practically shaming her (and the audience) for even wanting to care about her own parents. “Let the past die, kill it if you have to,” Kylo Ren tells Rey. “That’s the only way you can become what you are meant to be.” Again, the path to self-actualization is not through a submission to external authority and values, but by a complete rejection of one’s past and traditions as the ultimate act of self-liberation. The story is giving a very clear message here: Family ties don’t matter. Reinforcing this message is the vision Rey has in the cave during The Last Jedi. She sees a blurry reflection, hoping that it will be her parents, but instead she only sees endless reflections of herself. When reflecting on the vision, Rey says that she “Should have felt trapped…but she didn’t.” Again, the message is clear: your only point of certainty is yourself. Contrast this with Luke’s vision in a cave in The Empire Strikes Back. He sees and confronts Darth Vader, who, unbeknownst to him, is his father. When Luke kills Darth Vader, he sees himself under the helmet, symbolizing Luke’s need to confront the darkness within himself and foreshadowing his connection to Vader.

But perhaps the strongest contrast between the original and sequel trilogies is the relationship between our protagonists and the evil in their families. In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. This heart-wrenching revelation stunned audiences back in 1980. How would Luke face the fact that his father was one of the most evil men in the galaxy? When Luke holds on to the belief that there is still good in his father, everyone, including Obi Wan and Yoda, think that he’s crazy. “He’s more machine now than man,” Obi Wan tells Luke despondently before the final confrontation. But Luke never gives up on his father, and is able to turn Vader back to the light at the final moment, saving his father’s soul and restoring his family’s legacy in the process.

The power of this moment is that Luke faces his family’s dark past, accepts it, and redeems it. This reveals a fundamental truth found in many myths and spiritual traditions: we cannot escape the darkness within ourselves or in our past, so we must confront it and redeem it. Luke understands the darkness of his family history, and so must accept it and change it for the better. He knows that it’s wrong to just kill his father or run away from the confrontation. He has an obligation to his family legacy.

The complete opposite is true in the case of Rey. In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey learns that Emperor Palpatine is (er… somehow?) her grandfather. So, does Rey do what Luke does and try to redeem her family legacy? Nope! She simply kills her own grandfather, rejects her entire family line, and chooses to call herself a Skywalker.

Notice again the emphasis on choice. Luke is bound to the obligations of his past and decides to redeem it. Rey sees herself as fundamentally disconnected to that past and decides to violently destroy it, choosing for herself what her family will be. Obligations? What are those! All that does is hamper Rey discovering who she truly is!

In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen describes liberalism (here defined as the general American system of individual rights and capitalist economics, not just registered Democrats) as creating a sort of Anti-Culture. Liberalism’s radical commitment to individualism destroys the centuries of local customs and traditions that define distinctive cultures around the world. Instead, it absorbs everything into a bland, homogenized, and manufactured corporate consumer culture.

If we extend Deneen’s argument, you can argue that the sequel trilogy is the Anti-Myth. For centuries, myths were the fundamental ways that human beings connected to their respective cultures. Through story, it connected them to their culture’s history, spiritual outlook, and the customs and behaviors to which they needed to conform to be successful. Myths brought their hearers out of themselves and their own selfish interests, and connected them to a wider story. For all its flaws, the original Star Wars trilogy (and even the prequels!) deeply understood this. By recreating the classic Hero’s Journey with Luke, millions of viewers felt a deep emotional connection to the films. They resonated with Luke’s journey to battle the darkness within himself and discipline himself through the tradition of the Jedi Order, bringing light to the Galaxy and conquering Evil.

With the sequel trilogy, the thematic core of the original trilogy, and by extension all mythology, is completely subverted. Instead of a young man subduing his own passions and redeeming his family’s dark legacy, we have a young woman, born completely liberated from all constraints, needing seemingly no external help, and choosing entirely for herself what her destiny will be. Instead of placing one within the bonds of culture and community, it liberates the individual to create an atomized self. It is, in short, the anti-Myth.

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to… that’s the only way you can become who you are meant to be…”