Do not forget that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is here to tear out your heart and stomp on it.
Do you like Poe, Finn, Rey and BB-8? Do you think Rose is real cute and want to see her achieve her goals in life? Do you want nice things to happen to Leia, after her family was murdered by a guy who turned out to be her biological dad, and then her newly found family was destroyed when her son decided to worship her biological father who was a party to the murder of her adopted family?
Well, too bad.
Because Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the second movie in a trilogy. It’s the second act.
And by the laws of three act structure, it must tear out our hearts and stomp on them.
Like the Pirate’s Code, three act structure is more of a series of guidelines than a set of rules. But the reason writers talk about it so much is that it’s a very useful set of guidelines. Adhering to three act structure produces a story that has a familiar rise and fall of tension and emotion. It resonates well with audiences because it’s like a song they can already hum along to.
And three act structure is especially crucial to franchises whose stories are as deliberately archetypal and elemental as Star Wars. Good vs. evil. David vs. Goliath. Compassion vs. avarice. (It can also be easily observed in virtually every animated movie made for kids.)
From the moment the first act begins, the narrative tension of a three-act story rises steadily until a final climax in the third act, followed by the falling tension of a denouement in which dangling plot threads are resolved. The second act is usually the most rhythmically complicated, because it usually contains the second act crisis. This is the point in which the hero, seemingly closer to their goal than ever before, has their hopes dashed. More than that, they are now in a worse position than when they began their adventure — very often, this is a point where the hero momentarily gives up entirely.
At least, that’s how it goes when the structure is confined to a single installment. It behaves slightly differently in a trilogy of stories. In a story broken into three installments (as distinct from three related stories that happen to be labeled a trilogy, like the Indiana Jones or Back to the Future franchises), the second story definitionally cannot be one where the heroes achieve their goals, or there would be nothing left to do. And if the heroes wind up in relatively the same standing in which they entered the second act — well, then, it feels like nothing really happened, didn’t it?
We’re left with one outcome: The heroes wind up defeated, or at least having been dealt a significant setback. It’s an attractive narrative trick, not least because it means that when the heroes do climb out of the narrative pit they’re in, it lends all the more weight to the conclusion. It helps ensure that the final victory feels like a bigger, more accomplished deal than their first — even if it’s functionally the same thing.
But I don’t need to convince you by explaining guidelines of narrative structure honed by a century of storytellers. I can show you by example. I can point out how at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke had apparently ruined his Jedi training by dashing off to save his friends. What had he gotten in exchange? He’d been completely unable to save Han and Leia and in the meantime had lost his hand and his rosy impression of his father, after finding out that the dashing starfighter pilot hero of the Clone Wars was actually the murdering, torturing Darth Vader. Leia and Han had realized that they were in love at almost exactly the moment that Han was frozen in carbonite and handed off to a bounty hunter to be delivered to one of the most powerful mafia bosses in the galaxy.
And then there wasn’t another Star Wars movie for three years.
Other examples include Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games, in which Katniss’ manages to destroy the Hunger Games arena — only for the Capitol to destroy her home district and capture Peeta in retaliation. Then there’s The Dark Knight, in which the Joker is eventually defeated, at the cost of Batman morally compromising himself by using privacy-invading technology — but his true victory is the corruption of Harvey Dent, Batman’s last hope for escaping the duty of protecting Gotham. And I know we don’t want to talk about it, but The Matrix Reloaded leaves off in a pretty dark place as well.
So I’m not saying that Rey’s gonna lose her left hand in The Last Jedi, or that Finn’s gonna wind up frozen in carbonite, or that Poe’s gonna... watch Finn get frozen in carbonite as BB-8 bleeps in anguish. But Rey is gonna get tempted by the dark side. The First Order is likely to score a major victory over the Resistance, maybe even gaining a significant footing in galactic politics. If somebody doesn’t get their hand lopped off, I’m going to be very surprised.
So go ahead and grab your tickets for The Last Jedi. But steel yourself. Basically the only thing in this movie that’s going to be cute and nice is the porgs.
If anything happens to a porg in this movie, I will send a strongly worded letter, and I encourage you to do the same.