The Last Return of the Force Strikes Back

John Laudun
4 min readSep 9, 2023
Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

I drafted this essay back when The Force Awakens was first released. For some reason, it sat in my Medium drafts folder without ever getting published. Here it is now.

A number of responses to some of the fury over inconsistencies or, in some cases, betrayals of whatever we now want to call the Star Wars, er, multiverse?, have insisted that any attempt at seriousness is silly: the Star Wars franchise is for kids. The impulse to stifle discussion puzzles me: why wouldn’t you want to talk about something? Are we just supposed to consume such things as bits of mental candy, forgetting about it the moment it’s swallowed?

More to the point, the Star Wars films did not start out as children’s films. Rather, with Luke Skywalker at the center, they were quite clearly films about, and for, adolescents. The films resonated across the country, and around the world, because they spoke to an adolescent’s sense that the world was asleep, and we were trapped among the sleepers (aka adults). Freed of somnolence, we would find life’s true calling, which would not only be meaningful to us but meaningful to others.

Like Luke, we longed, as adolescents continue to long, to learn that we are actually already part of something larger and that destiny has been waiting merely to drop a droid in our midst who will set in motion a series of events more exciting than anything we can imagine, especially those of us who grew up in American suburbs and watched our parents pull out of driveways, dozens along any given street, of a morning and back in again of an evening, while we spent our days stuffed into classrooms with too many students and not enough care, including our own. Uncle Owen was the father we had, and Aunt Beru was the mother we wish we had, patient with our own impulses to get off the moisture farm.

Once on our way, we would need only our own desire to learn and to act, and this was what made Luke so powerful in the first film, A New Hope, and which continued to draw us to him as a figure in the movies that followed, despite (or perhaps because of) his tendency to whine, which was also our own.

The fault of the prequels was to take the centrality of will away from us and to turn it into some biological predetermination: a Jedi was not something you willed yourself into becoming; rather, being a Jedi was something you were born into. For those of us lost among the shuffle of the working and middle class, we had had enough of people born into their roles. Anakin was awful precisely because Lucas had lost the plot: he was the kid in our class who had always gotten special privileges because his parents were wealthy or, worse, the teachers had anointed him as special — it didn’t help that Anakin was blue-eyed and blonde. Oof, really? We all had had enough of those kids in our lives. (Why had Lucas not realized that the pairing of dark-haired Hans Solo with blonde Luke Skywalker had worked so well? We could, at least boys, alternate between the two.)

With The Force Awakens it felt like someone at Lucas Films was getting back to basics: we had our lonely adolescent — okay, again on a desert planet because teenagers don’t get lonely on planets with plants? — and she had been literally abandoned by her parents and was left to scrounge for herself. We also had another adolescent who, forced into the adult world, recognizes the wrongness of it and chooses to escape. Fin even, like so many of us, “fakes it until he makes it,” claiming to be part of the resistance so Rey will like him.

So far, so good. And so long as that part of the story remains front and center, we will likely forgive the storytelling combine — it’s hard to call this a team when it feels too often like a machine designed to produce commodities rather than a compelling narrative — its tendency to rehash, well, just about everything. I get that Lucas didn’t anticipate making anything beyond the first film so he went ahead and put the big finish there, so we got Death Stars 1 and 2. But the Death Planet? (And one that sucks the life out of a sun?) Come on!

And while I began this essay in praise of the angsty adolescent, the power of the first film was that we had only one — we are all going to pretend like the angsty adolescence of Anakin never happened, okay? Now we have three: Rey, Fin, and Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. This is one weird triangle. (And, why not make the Kylo Ren figure feminine as well? Anakin 1 and 2 as well as young Luke have given us more than enough “I need a dad hug” for the duration of the franchise.)



John Laudun

Cultural Informatics Researcher focused on Stories, People, Networks