Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi below.
Return of the Jedi has its flaws, but it does a remarkable job of upping the ante in the villain department. By the time the orchestra hits and the logo appears atop the void, the audience has already seen two movies in which Darth Vader is established as the baddest mother in the Galaxy. We catch a glimpse of the mysterious Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back and Vader kowtows to him, but the wrinkly overlord doesn’t seem nearly as scary as his apprentice. Then, in Return of the Jedi, we actually spend time with Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor and learn that, however frightening Vader might be, he’ll never be quite as satanic as the boss of the Empire.
I was prepared for The Last Jedi to perform a similar leap forward. Much like the Emperor in Empire, we’d seen a holographic glimpse of First Order Grand Poobah Snoke (Andy Serkis) in The Force Awakens. His existence raised all kinds of questions: How could such a powerful Force user have hidden himself from the universe? How ancient was he? Did he pre-date the Emperor? Was he a Sith Lord, a fallen Jedi, or something we’d never seen before?
There were fan theories galore. Perhaps Snoke was Darth Plagueis the Wise, the Sith genius whom Palpatine told Anakin Skywalker about in Revenge of the Sith, the one who was implied to be Palpatine’s old master. Maybe he was a deformed clone of Palpatine. Maybe he was Mace Windu, somehow. A guy at my synagogue said he was convinced Snoke was Leia, though he couldn’t explain how that would be possible. The trailers had hinted at a beefed-up role for him in The Last Jedi, or at least an appearance in the flesh. Surely, at least a few answers would be forthcoming.
Instead, we saw Snoke yell at some people and then get killed. It’s hard not to be a little disappointed. It’s even harder not to be a lot confused.
Now, there’s an argument to be made in favor of offing the Supreme Leader without explaining his whole deal. For one thing, it’s a clever subversion of expectations on the part of writer-director Rian Johnson. Rather than take the obvious path of giving us the information we crave, he makes an abrupt left turn and throws us off balance. Afterward, everything is up for grabs: Who knows what other significant players in the dramatis personae might get dispatched by the filmmaker in an unpredictable moment?
But is there much of an added value to such subversions? Johnson seems to think so, deploying them again and again. The Force Awakens sets up an array of elements that The Last Jedi’s director discards, in defiance of what we anticipated. There’s Kylo ditching his helmet, or there being no explanation as to why Maz Kanata had Luke’s lightsaber, or the lack of any mention of the Knights of Ren (whither the guy with the big anime sword?). A general air of “Betcha didn’t see this coming, didja?” pervades the movie.
It’s possible that such twists were part of the blueprints all along, and that we’re laying too much blame on Johnson here. After all, this is a franchise picture — the writer-director was playing with other people’s toys. It could be that Snoke was always supposed to die in the second installment of this particular trilogy. Maybe J.J. Abrams laid that down as the plan when he and the rest of the creative (and executive) team behind The Force Awakens rolled the character out in that film. However, it seems odd to suppose that Abrams et. al. set this guy up with the intention of never giving us anything to work with beyond the basics — and it calls into question who makes and approves these kinds of major creative decisions, and at what stage of the process.
A more interesting interpretation of the Snoke situation is as a commentary on the way we talk about evil. By the time Kylo Ren murders Snoke, we’ve established that Snoke has spent years grooming, manipulating, and abusing him. We’re anticipating a rich backstory for this menace, one that will elucidate his motivations and nuances. But Johnson denies Snoke the chance to explain himself, which one might see as a plus. Rather than humanize a malevolent dictator, Johnson puts the spotlight on Kylo, Snoke’s most intimate victim, and lets the apprentice have his revenge.
But the flip side of a lack of humanization is a lack of differentiation. Snoke is practically a paper cutout of sinister intent. He snarls and wants to rule the galaxy, and there’s nothing else to him. He’s like a third-rate James Bond villain. At least with the Emperor we got McDiarmid’s brilliant idea to have the guy be hilariously condescending and snotty, not just generically mean. That delight is nowhere to be found with Snoke. Meanwhile Kylo is vividly illustrated and compelling, making Snoke’s by-the-numbers badness all the more apparent by contrast.
All of those questionable elements come together to produce a Big Bad who commits a cardinal sin for Star Wars: He doesn’t make the movie’s world feel expansive. We don’t even get tiny tidbits to work from. There is no detail given about Snoke, so it’s hard to construct our own dreams about him. As Tegan O’Neil pointed out in their indispensable essay on the franchise, what made the original trilogy so cool was that it made you want to learn everything you could about the characters. With those flicks, we got just enough information to get our engines roaring, but not so much that we couldn’t fantasize about how they lived their lives.
With Snoke, we have nothing to work from. I suppose that opens the door for us to come up with something totally original, unconstrained by canon. And I suppose a future novel or comics series or cartoon could tell us his background. But at the end of the day, this is a franchise built around the movies, not the tie-ins; and it’s one where we don’t usually have to do all the work of imagination ourselves. Snoke’s mysteries don’t feel tantalizing. They just feel like a blank page where a brainstorm should have been.