If the main heroes were underdrawn in TFA, the villains were doubly so. The First Order’s origins were completely unexplained, as was its power differential: was it the Empire reborn, or was it some insurgent effort? How did it have the means to build a superweapon over twice as large and powerful as either Death Star, which the Galactic Empire could only manage to build twice? How was the First Order managing to stockpile its armies with troopers kidnapped apparently as kids, and yet managing to do this with no one at the Republic noticing a sudden and massive uptick in child abductions? How much territory did they control? If this mission to get the map to Luke Skywalker is that important, why is a rookie space janitor on the away team? And who was Supreme Leader Snoke and where did he come from?
TFA was almost comically deficient in its worldbuilding with regard to its villains, and to add insult to injury it gave us General Hux, who was an annoying enough character to begin with before he was the central figure in what I have decided is, for now, the Single Worst Scene In Star Wars History: the “Space Hitler” speech. That scene was so bad that it actually eclipses the “Jar Jar meets Padme” scene from The Phantom Menace.
The villains of TFA were awful across the board, including Kylo Ren, whose motivations were as unexplained as Rey’s or Finn’s. They were little more than mustache-twirlers, people who were evil just because they were evil. One could answer “Who cares?” to a lot of my questions about their backgrounds and motivations, and I suppose that’s kind of fair. “We never knew Palpatine’s backstory in the Original Trilogy!” one might say. Or, “We never found out why Vader fell until four or five movies in!” Yeah, OK.
When things happen in a story matters. In the first film or two or three, when you were basically in the first part of your story, you can get away with leaving some things for imagination or for Part Two. You don’t have to explain who Palpatine is and why he became Emperor; all that matters at the outset of your story is that there’s an Empire and he’s the one ruling it.
Now, however, we are eight episodes into this story, and what’s more, we’ve been told that after the happy ending of the first part we’re supposed to accept that none of it ended up meaning anything, that there’s a new Empire in town with a new red-lightsaber-wielding dude in charge, and so on. Well, I submit that if you do that when you get to your last few chapters, you need to put some work into explaining it.
Sadly, while Rian Johnson’s script for TLJ has a lot of things going for it, its treatment of the villains is for the most part not one of them.
Let’s start with my favorite, General Hux.
(NARRATOR VOICE: Hux is not his favorite.)
Hux fares a bit better this time out. There’s no embarrassing Space Hitler speech, and actor Domnhall Gleason does a nice job conveying Hux’s arrogant self-satisfaction: the way he smirks a lot and strides about with his hands behind his back. His job is still mostly to act mean and threaten the Resistance with utter destruction, but he does get a few interesting moments. Just a few, though. Mainly Hux is still the guy whose job it is to yell “Fire!” when the Resistance ships line up in the crosshairs. There is some nice development of the tension between Hux and Kylo Ren, including a moment after Snoke’s death when Hux, noticing Ren on the floor, starts to draw his blaster as if to kill Red and take over.
The opening scene uses Hux’s self-inflation to nice comic effect, actually: he is talking on the radio to Poe Dameron, and he’s going into full Space Hitler mode, when Poe breaks in and says something like “I’m sorry, I was waiting to talk to Hux. Is he there?”
Hux is, though, a pretty generic character. We are told nothing about him at all. He’s not much fun to root against, because let’s be honest–at no point does anybody really think that Hux might win.
Next up? Captain Phasma.
All the TFA pre-release publicity made Phasma sound like a total bad-ass…and then she turns out to be utterly useless, a complete waste. She is so staggeringly worthless in TFA that I was frankly astonished that a novel about her earlier “adventures” was commissioned by Disney. Delilah S. Dawson wrote it, and I’ve heard good things about it, but I doubt I’ll read it because I expect I’d have a terribly hard time squaring Dawson’s well-drawn character with the useless mirrored-shades armor character in the movie. In TLJ Phasma doesn’t show up until late. She acts a little menacing, babbling about how executions should hurt, and then all hell breaks loose and Phasma only sticks around long enough to get her ass kicked by Finn and then call him “Rebel scum” before falling through the collapsing deck into a giant rolling ball of fire. (I hope she’s dead this time.) We do get this one nice exchange, courtesy of Phasma:
PHASMA: You’re always scum.
FINN: Rebel scum.
I like that, but to bring Phasma along just to have that discussion seems a little weak to me.
There’s actually a deleted scene from TLJ where Finn taunts Phasma by pointing out that she deactivated the Starkiller Base shields, so really, that defeat is on her. I can see why they cut it–it’s nice and all, but it’s not needed. Phasma isn’t interesting enough to constantly show up. She’s kind of this trilogy’s Boba Fett…although Fett actually did get something done, back in the day.
Ultimately I find it telling that the only Imperial character who strikes me as being especially competent is the Captain of the Giant Death-Dealing Star Destroyer in the first scenes, and he gets blown up for his troubles.
And now to Snoke.
Snoke, Snoke, Snoke.
You know, you’d like to be able to hate your villains and hiss when they show up on screen, but Snoke is just…a giant nothing. That’s all he is. There is literally nothing there. We are still told nothing about where he came from, how he rose, what his motivations are, where his powers come from, whether he considers himself a Sith…none of it. Snoke is a complete cypher, a giant fill-in-the-blank, and it bugs the hell out of me.
Some, again, have argued that it doesn’t matter. After all, in the Original Trilogy we knew nothing of Palpatine–in fact, we didn’t even really know that his name was Palpatine. But again, so what? We’re not in the Original Trilogy now. We’re eight episodes in, and the sixth episode ended on a note of triumph that the seventh episode completely negated, without explanation. This is not good storytelling, and to the extent that a great deal of Star Wars relies on its villains, it’s not good worldbuilding either. I’m not saying that we need a complete backstory on Snoke, but something to go on would help. As it is, he’s merely the Star Wars equivalent of one of the lesser James Bond villains. (Quick! What was the bad guy in Die Another Day trying to accomplish? You don’t know, do you?)
Snoke’s rise could play into one of this trilogy’s apparent thematic concerns: that the Force need not be eternally separated into Jedi and Sith. Surely there are Force-users who have naught to do with the orthodoxy of either group, and surely there are some who are enormously powerful and evil. The Prequels hinted at this when they had the Jedi initially refuse to train Anakin even though he was clearly very special. These movies are hinting at Force-use that goes beyond the simple Jedi-Sith spectrum, but they are also somehow deeply hesitant to really explore that angle. Kylo Ren pays a bit of lip service to the idea, but note that despite his whole “Kill the past!” thing, his entire support structure is The Empire 2.0, with stormtroopers and star destroyers and AT-ATs and TIE fighters.
Of course TLJ has Kylo Ren kill Snoke in a shocking twist (I really was surprised), but this would have been even more interesting if we had the slightest idea who Snoke was. As it is he’s just an obstacle for Kylo Ren to overcome on his way to whatever it is that he wants, and that’s a problem too–but more on that another time. Besides, is Snoke really dead? Who knows? If Luke could cast a physical projection of himself across the universe, who’s to say that Snoke couldn’t do the same thing? Maybe, maybe not. For now it remains the case that Snoke, for all his tall height and nifty-looking guards (in red, echoing Palpatine’s–quite the break with the past there) and his incredible-looking throne room, is just paint-by-numbers, and barely that. I expect we’ll get Snoke’s story at some point, but it’ll be in a novel or comic or something–not in the movie where it belongs.
Which brings us to the actual most interesting villain in TLJ: DJ, the hacker-thief played by Benicio Del Toro. For the first time since Lando Calrissian we have a Star Wars character who is genuinely motivated by little more than self-interest. DJ openly points out that his main concern is money, and he displays virtually no moral compass whatsoever. He steals a ship to rescue Finn and Rose, and he agrees to help them in their scheme to deactivate the First Order’s hyperspace-tracker thing, but he also points out that the owner of the ship he’s stolen profited by business dealings with both the First Order and the Resistance.
It’s all business to DJ, so when he finally betrays them for money, it’s not the least bit surprising. He just shrugs and tells them that some days you win and some days you lose, in the most nihilistic claim in a Star Wars movie since Han Solo’s “I’m not in it for you, I’m in it for the money” all the way back in A New Hope. But there’s no last-second redemption for DJ, no last-minute heroics to show that his heart really is in the right place. He takes the money and goes, never to be seen again (at least in this film). The addition of DJ and his neutral morality is a fascinating thing for Star Wars, and it’s interesting to note that of all this film’s villains, we know the most of DJ’s motivations and character.
It will be interesting to see if DJ returns in Episode IX–maybe the Rebellion finds itself with no choice but to roll the dice on him again. Or maybe he just goes away, never to be heard from again, except for when he inevitably turns up in a novel or comic.
This all brings us to the main villain of TLJ, but…more on Kylo Ren next time. Tune in, Star Warriors!