[Mild spoilers for Rogue One follow.]
Midway through Rogue One, there’s a line that’s quite easy to miss, as it’s as bland a truism as one can imagine hearing in a gigantic franchise film. While discussing the threat posed by the recently assembled Death Star, Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma lays out the new status quo now that the Galactic Empire has a world-killing weapon: “It’s simple,” she says. “The Empire has the means of mass destruction; the Rebellion does not.”
It is, indeed, quite simple. Mothma’s framework in that line is a pure expression of the easy-to-swallow politics of Star Wars: The bad guys — the Sith, the Empire, the First Order — are bad because they’re malicious and powerful; the good guys — the Jedi, the Rebellion, the Resistance — are good because they’re benevolent and less powerful. Case closed: The battle lines are drawn, and we know what side we’re on. But the statement encapsulates the problem posed by using Rogue One, and Star Wars in general, as metaphors: The movies present an all-or-nothing argument for political violence onto which any side can map itself.
It’s a relevant topic to gnaw on, as the franchise’s political leanings have been a matter of fervent debate in the run-up to the mid-quel’s Thursday-night release. This kind of politicization was perhaps to be expected, given that everything feels political since November 8, and Star Wars was not immune from the postelection debates that have surrounded Harry Potter and other mass-market pop culture. The immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’ victory saw a flurry of posts and tweets portraying the world of Star Wars as a bastion of liberal inclusivity in dark times. “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization,” Rogue One screenwriter Chris Weitz declared in a now-deleted Twitter missive; “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women,” added fellow writer Gary Whitta in a reply. This reading of the series ran into opposition a month later, when rightist Gamergate types on Twitter announced a boycott of the film, claiming the Star Wars mythology had traditionally been closer to their conception of the world.
Neither chattering group is entirely mistaken. Pick nearly any spot on the political axis and you can declare that Luke Skywalker is standing right next to you. Are the Rebels liberal? Definitely! They’re a racially diverse popular front resisting authoritarian oppression and genocide. Are the Rebels conservative? Of course! They’re a well-armed militia fighting an untrustworthy and anti-democratic centralized government in the name of individual liberty. Just like correct-thinking Americans all across the political spectrum, the Rebel Alliance fights the totalitarian power-mongers on the opposite side. To further muddle the allegorical waters, the Rebels are the ones who stand alongside the Jedi, that noble order of compassionate intellectuals. Wait, did I say compassionate intellectuals? I meant unwaveringly religious soldiers who answered to no one and were ultimately killed for their faith. As with the series’s merchandise, it’s easy to play with Star Wars’ politics and imagine they were made just for you.
Just about the only person who has been unequivocally wrong about this whole affair is Star Wars’ corporate overlord, Disney CEO Bob Iger. Rogue One “is not a film that is, in any way, a political film,” Iger told The Hollywood Reporter this past Saturday. “There are no political statements in it, at all.” One can understand what he’s saying, of course: Iger accurately observed that Star Wars takes no clear position in the battles between the American right and left. But not picking a side is not the same as being apolitical. The dangerous concepts in Star Wars are not ones of political ideology — they’re of political tactics.
To understand, let’s look at the classic sci-fi binary between Star Trek and Star Wars, the former of which very much did take the side of liberal utopianism. From the very beginning, Trek dreamt up a future in which a bouquet of races worked in harmony to peacefully expand a federal government that eschewed commerce and offered — but never demanded — membership into its enlightened polity. More important to the present discussion, in the Trek-verse, violence was a last resort and mutual understanding always preferable. The whole climax of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was Captain Kirk, a guy who spent most of his life nearly getting murdered by Klingons, making sure the Federation signed a peace treaty with those war-mongering, wrinkly-foreheaded assholes.
Contrast that with the appropriately named Star Wars. Though folks can disagree on the political content of the Rebel Alliance’s cause, no one can argue that they pursue that cause peacefully. The group’s leadership longs for the halcyon days of the Galactic Republic, when life was tranquil and consensual, and they’d surely prefer to have such an arrangement again. But until that glorious day … well, hey, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, right? It’s taken as a given from the very beginning of the original trilogy that there is no solution to the Galactic Civil War other than a military solution. Within the universe of the films, that logic makes all the sense in the world: The Empire doesn’t seem particularly interested in negotiation and, as we’re constantly shown, they’re the ones with planet-sized weapons. What alternative do the Rebels have, other than to go full Viet Cong (or, if you prefer, full Continental Army)?
If there is an alternative, Rogue One is especially uninterested in exploring it. “We’ve all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion,” Cassian Andor, the Rebel intelligence officer played by Diego Luna, says at one point, and we are clearly meant to see his guilty conscience as a small price to pay for a better tomorrow. What’s more, Cassian is even more of a believer in the Rebels’ ideology than their leaders, believing the Rebellion is insufficiently willing to take on the Death Star and eventually violating orders so he and his squad can fly off to confront the baddies head-on. Hell, the movie’s even comfortable with outright terrorism, so long as it’s done for the right reasons: We learn that the Alliance has broken ties with an extremist anti-Imperial terror cell run by Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, but the film presents no reason to see his actions as anything other than completely justified in this struggle against impossible odds.
And that’s the heart of the problem in using Star Wars as a political metaphor: If you’re flying an X-wing, everything looks like a Death Star. Even in the Manichean cosmologies of adventure fiction and space opera, Star Wars is particularly galling in its bloodthirsty simplicity. There is no reason to sympathize with the Empire’s malevolence, and no reason to doubt the Rebellion’s righteousness — only total war will bring a resolution of that inextricable clash. Just like in 24, there’s no time to waste with debate; the Death Star is on its way and the good guys could all get blown up any minute. To be fair, that moral binary has been interrogated in smaller Star Wars works — there’s a Rebel/Imperial détente in Kathy Tyers’s spin-off novel The Truce at Bakura, and the Clone Wars narratives feature ethically imperfect clones and droids on both sides. But those aren’t the stories that have captured the popular imagination. As evidenced by the nostalgic content of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, the original 1977 conflict is the one we always return to.
That’s why Star Wars has been used time and again to frame causes both Democratic (MoveOn.org co-opted “Save the Republic” from Revenge of the Sith in 2005) and Republican (Reagan first called the U.S.S.R. an “evil empire” in 1983, the same year Return of the Jedi was released). As Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton recalled in a chilling New York Times essay earlier this year, it’s common for soldiers to watch the original trilogy to get fired up for what they’re about to do. There is no fictional American myth more powerful than Star Wars, and myths shape the way we conceive of what is justifiable, negotiable, and necessary.
Another way of putting it: For 39 years, American children have been learning about the Galactic Civil War before they learn about the Vietnam War. To paraphrase Yoda, it’s hard to unlearn what you have learned. As the past few election cycles have made clear, we’re living with an American electorate that has come to think of most everything in galaxy-threatening terms, where every presidential election is said to be the republic’s last chance for survival, and, for half the voters, whoever gets elected is a mortal threat to all we hold dear.
Therein lies the special danger of seeing politics through Star Wars. The series is a manifesto for anti-incumbent fury, screaming that the good people never have enough power and the bad people always have too much. When you see yourself as definitionally outgunned, purity of conviction starts to seem like your most valuable weapon — hardly the healthiest way to be a citizen. But when you watch Rogue One, you can’t help but assume you’re allied with Felicity Jones’s heroic Jyn Erso, and not the Imperials who want to see her dead. “I’ve never had the luxury of political opinions,” Jyn says early on, inadvertently speaking on behalf of the text in which she lives. We would do well to have the same response as the Rebel officer who’s questioning her: “Really?”