“And will I tell you that these three lived happily ever after? I will not, for no one ever does. But there was happiness. And they did live.”
They say that happily ever after only exists in fairy tales. It is easy enough to see Star Wars, a film that begins with the phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” fitting into that genre.
One of the most powerful takeaways from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it shatters the pleasant fiction that some fans had in their mind following Return of the Jedi. Sorry to fans of the Ewok dance party, but the Stormtrooper BBQ did not continue on for all eternity.
In The Force Awakens we see the big three (Luke, Han, and Leia) from the original trilogy return and as much as this new film echoes the original trilogy, it is distinctly different. Our heroes are damaged, worn, and weathered, and they never unite as they did in the original film and never will.
As glorious as their adventures were and as important as their victories over the Emperor was, these three heroes are not perfect. In the 30 years between the Battle of Endor and the destruction of Hosnian Prime, our heroes have all failed and been damaged by that failure.
Of the big three we spend the most time of the film with Han Solo. When we meet Han he is a smuggler and freighter captain with his trusty Wookiee co-pilot by his side. Very much like Han in A New Hope, he is in debt and in trouble, this time instead of having the agents of one Hutt after him he has two entire gangs wanting their 50,000 credits and a pound of flesh from him.
How did this hero of the Rebellion, this General, this reformed scofflaw, and presumed husband to a Princess end up going so far backwards in life?
Our first clue is shown to us symbolically in the film as well as explicitly in the dialogue. Han is a character who has lost his identity, and nothing is more symbolic of this than his loss of the Millennium Falcon. This ship–its speed, recklessness, and pendulum swings between reliability and unreliability–embody some of the very same traits that Han possesses.
As the Falcon returns to Han, some of the life comes back into the scoundrel, yet there is a brittleness to Han. When questioned about his identity by Finn and Rey, he even says that he “used to be” Han Solo.
As the film develops we learn just why Han is so far gone. The fall of Han and Leia’s son Ben to the dark side broke Han personally, as well as his relationship with Leia.
Shame, guilt, and self-doubt all lead to Han abandoning his wife and plunging back into the underworld. How could he leave her? Why would he run? Did Chewie try to stop him?
The truth of the matter is far too often people make the wrong decision, particularly when they do so in the heat of emotion. As cheerful and excited I felt seeing Han and Chewie in the film’s trailer, once you reflect on the full film it is a much more bittersweet return for Han Solo.
The last Princess of Alderaan is probably one of the few people in the galaxy still alive who witnessed the destruction of her home planet and murder of her subjects by the Empire through the Death Star.
As a leader in the Rebel Alliance, Leia’s decisions no doubt cost untold numbers of Rebels their lives for the cause of destroying the Empire. At the same time she has to deal with the guilt and acceptance of the idea that her own son betrayed and murdered an entire generation of new Jedi.
Leia no doubt experienced some very high highs to balance these lows. She discovered and was united with a brother she didn’t know existed, she learned she had the potential to be a Jedi, she fell and love and married Han, she had the joy of having at least one child. She even had the joy of victory first over the first Death Star and more importantly, the ultimate defeat of the Emperor and destruction of the second Death Star.
When we meet Leia in The Force Awakens, she has suffered a terrible reversal of fortune. The brother that she discovered is missing, there is no indication that she became a Jedi, her husband has left her, her child has fallen to the dark side and left her, and in the New Republic (which she helped birth) she is discredited.
The trials that Leia has endured speak to the strength of her character and are to me probably the most psychologically compelling of any of the big three.
The hero of the original trilogy has always been a bright light dragging the shadow of tragedy behind him. In the original trilogy Luke learned of his Force powers, left Tatooine, met his mentors, earned victories in battle, and redeemed his father. Each one of these victories came with a loss and pain.
Luke doesn’t leave Tatooine but for the loss of his Aunt and Uncle, he learns of his Force abilities at the same time he learns that his father was betrayed and murdered by Darth Vader, he begins learning from Ben only to see his mentor struck down, he destroys the Death Star but loses his best friend in the battle, he learns the truth of his parentage only to lose his hand and have his faith shattered, he returns to complete his training with Yoda only to have his new mentor die, and he defeats the Emperor and redeems his father, only to have a single moment with Anakin before he dies.
In The Force Awakens we see Luke twice: briefly in Rey’s vision and in the final shot of the film. But we do know that Luke has failed. He attempted to pass on his knowledge to a new generation of Jedi only to be betrayed by his own student and nephew Ben Solo. His friend and brother-in-law died because of his failure to save or stop Ben. He has been alone at the first Jedi Temple for an extended period of time as the shroud of the dark side extends across galactic events.
It is important to remember at the Star Wars series’ core, it is a set of stories for kids and adults to share. For kids it holds an important lesson that is safely told through fiction. In life there is no such thing as a happy ending. Life is full of ups and downs. Life isn’t about maintaining happiness in perpetuity; it is about constantly striving to overcome your failures and your losses, and embrace those moments of happiness no matter how fleeting.
In The Force Awakens we see but a brief snapshot of the life that Luke, Han, and Leia have lead over the past 30 years. As Episode VIII and IX unfold and in coming months and years we will get the back story of those 30 years filled in. We will get to explore the moments of happiness that we missed and as fans of these characters we will get to live these small victories and joys, and that is enough for me.