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Star Wars needs more moral ambiguity

If Star Wars really believes in redemption, then we deserve more Benicio del Toro

Benicio del Toro as DJ in THE LAST JEDI. Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.
Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

The Star Wars franchise is constantly producing a stream of profitable new merchandising and material, including video games, novels, comics, and animated shows. But the film and TV side of Star Wars feels like it’s struggling. Over the past five years, Disney has repeatedly announced plans for new movies, then unceremoniously canceled them or just kept them silently back-burnered. Disney Plus’ recent Star Wars live-action shows keep promising new directions for the franchise, then pulling back and mixing messages. There’s no clear vision or coherent narrative direction for the screen versions of the franchise, even though they’re the most visible and mainstream part of Star Wars. Everybody seems to want something different out of this grand, sprawling story.

So Polygon is gathering some thoughts about the franchise’s future under the loose banner of What We Want From Star Wars. These opinion essays lay out what we love about the Star Wars universe, and where we hope it’ll go in the future … or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars is filled with people who lose everything only to pick themselves up and fight back. From Luke standing in front of the smoldering wreckage of his family’s Tatooine homestead to Rose losing her sister in the opening minutes of The Last Jedi, the franchise is built on the backs of people who righteously refuse to give up in the face of tragedy — or even really take a beat to process what just happened. Times may be tough now, the Star Wars movies suggest, but you too can head straight to a local Resistance recruiting office and enlist to turn that pain into something more.

But after literal decades of watching the Star Wars universe, there is exactly one vibe I want from future outings into The Galaxy Far, Far Away, and it isn’t about noble suffering. It’s Benicio del Toro’s vibe in The Last Jedi. His master hacker (or in Star Wars lingo, “slicer”) DJ is magnetic as he deals with the film’s earnest protagonists. He folds in on himself like a snake, confident enough to lie in wait for his moment. In DJ’s brief foray onscreen, he captures the future Star Wars needs — namely, moral ambiguity.

DJ’s arc makes good use of quick time: After Rose and Finn fail to make contact with the codebreaker recommended to them, they run into DJ in jail, looking like he’s just wandered off an intergalactic Dickensian production. He’s more impressed with their droid BB-8 than he is with them, and though he eventually comes to their aid, he constantly presses them to see the bigger picture. “Good guys, bad guys … made-up words,” he lectures Finn. “It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.”

Benicio del Toro in The Last Jedi in close-up looking up as he hears something interesting
DJ in The Last Jedi, smelling a payday
Image: Disney

We’ve seen this act before. DJ wouldn’t be the first hard-scrapping swindler out for his paycheck, only to get sucked into the orbit of the Rebellion. When he takes Rose’s necklace, then returns it to her (he only wanted it for its conducting powers!), his heart of gold shines almost too bright, and a new hero for the series seems to snap into place. Then Captain Phasma appears, Finn and Rose’s slapdash plan crumbles, and DJ is offered his reward for betraying them.

In a movie full of broad, simple, noble hoping and nefarious villainy, he’s slippery, sliding out of any clear categorization. The best part of DJ is that we get so little explanation to justify his actions. He tells Finn that he expects the Resistance and the First Order to continue waging war. Then he’s gone with his bounty. There’s no third-act karmic retribution, or worse, a triple-cross where he veers back to the good side. He’s allowed to stay self-serving and sneaky, rather than joining Team Black Robes or Team White Robes.

Characters like DJ are the mortar between the building blocks of the Star Wars universe, the real people who can’t do much of anything to shift the balance in a perpetual galactic war that mostly happens far above their pay grade. DJ may not be the best the universe has to offer, as he assures Finn, “They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow.” But he’s also a far cry from blowing up an entire planet to prove a point. The problem for the Rebellion isn’t that he’s evil, it’s that he’s cynical.

Benicio del Toro shrugging and saying “maybe” in The Last Jedi

That nuance is sacrilege to a certain interpretation of Star Wars. The franchise has, after all, always been fairly straightforward in its good-vs.-evil storytelling. But in the battle for what Star Wars is, there’s always been a glut of gradation in terms of the kinds of characters and stories people are interested in. And the people telling Star Wars stories should take so much more advantage of that.

Morally gray characters like DJ are splattered throughout the cosmos. In Rogue One, Saw Gerrera fights for the good guys, but he also readily tortures a man to make sure he can trust his information. Meanwhile, his militia uses civilians as cover for their insurgency on Jedha. The ever-stoic and intrepid Admiral Ackbar takes a beat after blowing up an Empire ship in Return of the Jedi, knowing that he’s just killed everyone on board, and that it can’t fully be processed as a simple act of heroism. His pause in the battle is a small moment that speaks volumes about his philosophy of war. Treating Star Wars characters’ actions as unequivocally simple and good makes their choice to fight seem easy, even as the writers clearly want to remind you that it isn’t.

Star Wars doesn’t always get moral ambiguity right, even when it’s ostensibly making space for it. But the difference between The Mandalorian’s success and Boba Fett’s abject failure to tell a coherent story is that the former show is interested in wrestling with its character’s duality, and the latter squirms at the mere thought of it. Mandalorian protagonist Din Djarin has become a better version of both Boba Fett and Master Chief because his soft-spoken gunslinger is ambiguous without being pessimistic. His people are a bunch of heavily armed religious extremists, and he’s a sincere believer in their code. From the glimpse we get in “The Prisoner,” Din has not done inspiring work up to meeting Grogu.

But after deciding the moral line he isn’t willing to cross is “selling a baby to people who want to dissect him,” the story lets him actually reconcile where he does fall on the continuum of good and evil. He doesn’t always play nice, but he isn’t a villain. He’s complicated, as he should be. By contrast, seven episodes of Book of Boba Fett undid decades of lore, opting to give us a Fett who’s mostly interested in being a feudal lord, but without any of the thorny menace or power to give his story heft.

the mandalorian in tight close-up with a shiny helmet and gun sticking out of frame Image: Lucasfilm/Disney
Boba Fett puts on his helmet in the Book of Boba Fett Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens stormtroopers 1440 Image: Lucasfilm/Disney

If Star Wars indulged the messy ambiguity it’s already sowed the seeds of, it could redeem its biggest missed opportunity yet: dealing with the legacy of an army of stormtroopers, and what it means when a faceless army starts to develop faces.

Though George Lucas originally proclaimed that he built the Empire around anonymous, interchangeable adversaries so he could have a “nonviolent movie” while also “having all the fun of people getting shot,” the stormtroopers took on a menace of their own in their spooky white space armor. While our heroes got the drop on them more than once (sometimes literally, in the case of Ewoks simply throwing rocks), the stormtroopers always cut a striking figure in the movies. Their first canonical appearance in Attack of the Clones is equal parts ominous and suggestive, visually twisting our built-up hostility to them and foreshadowing the Republic’s doom.

And yet, for all that Lucas and the prequel trilogies wanted us to think of them as indistinguishable, the Star Wars universe repeatedly underscores their dubious complicity with the Empire’s fascism. In Rogue One, Jyn tells Cassian that following orders “when you know they’re wrong” makes him indistinguishable from a stormtrooper, emphasizing that within the world, at least, they see each soldier’s action as a choice. We know that stormtroopers have been conscripted somewhat forcibly in various ways throughout the series, first as clones literally created for the job, then later as child soldiers, in Finn’s case.

That certainly suggests a more menacing indoctrination as part of their enlistment. But aside from a few jokes in The Mandalorian or stray bits of dialogue in A New Hope, Star Wars never really wrestles with what stormtroopers’ sentience actually means, for them or the Resistance that calls them the enemy. And by the time Rise of Skywalker gets to its stormtrooper rebellion, the potential for stormtroopers’ moral ambiguity is such a half-assed undercurrent that it doesn’t even merit mentioning in the film’s Wikipedia plot description.

Though the humanity of the First Order’s army may seem like a small thread — particularly in a franchise where at least three of the films actively want us to think of stormtroopers as no more than a faceless horde — it’s representative of Star Wars’ increasing unwillingness to engage with the values of empathy, humanity, and connections between “all living things” that it’s constantly peddling. If the stormtroopers’ complicity with fascism is the heart of their story, they mirror the principles that brought about Han Solo’s climatic return to the fight against the Empire in A New Hope or Anakin saving his son Luke at the end of the original trilogy.

Rogue One - stormtroopers

In their own way, stormtroopers could promise the same redemption. The Rebellion’s gift (and curse) is that they always want to believe they’re dealing with a Finn who wants to do the right thing and doesn’t know how, rather than facing a Phasma, who fanatically doubles down on the First Order’s belief system. The Force’s redemptive belief is in always aiming for a better tomorrow. Part of that might be acknowledging the messy truth that a lot of the people we’ve seen getting mowed down by the heroes weren’t pure evil.

But you can’t have that if you don’t risk anything. Like so much of Disney’s live-action oeuvre, Star Wars too often flirts with complexity and depth, then doesn’t actually engage with it. Staying on the extremes makes it easier to explain who’s a space fascist and who isn’t. And as we all absolutely know, only a Sith deals in absolutes.

That’s why characters like DJ provide promise to the future of the franchise. They’re an actual middle range of morality to ground the stories in and grow the universe from. DJ represents everyone who’s been worn down by the constant battle for the heart of the universe, and he challenges both the audience and the characters around him to reflect on what makes them so different from him. In the battle between light and dark, he’s called it a wash, and let the colors turn to gray. And as he points out, he isn’t the only one like him out there. Rose and Finn may see DJ as part of the problem, but they (and we) might be better off asking why he isn’t part of the solution.


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