Last week Lucasfilm announced that J.J. Abrams, director and co-writer of The Force Awakens, is returning to the Star Wars franchise to direct and co-write Episode IX. Unlike Episode VII, which involved the expansive creative endeavor of generating world-building and characters arcs to define the scope and nature of the Sequel Trilogy’s galactic and personal conflicts, the creative process for the third installment necessarily has a much narrower focus. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi will have defined the character arcs and plotlines driving toward their denouements in Episode IX, and while some new characters may appear – like Jabba the Hutt and Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi, for example – the primary focus of the story will be drawing the ongoing storylines of the Sequel Trilogy to their climactic conclusions.
Although Lucasfilm’s public statement did not expressly state as much, the implication is clear: Abrams and Chris Terrio are starting fresh with a new script for Episode IX, not simply revising or improving previous drafts by other writers. This provides Abrams with the possibility of choosing either one of two bold moves that would have far-reaching resonance for the saga’s central female characters.
Naturally it is difficult to speculate about the character arcs and plotlines in Episode IX before fans have even seen The Last Jedi, and any such speculation necessarily must be cautious. Nevertheless, the ideas already introduced in The Force Awakens, the macro-level public comments from Rian Johnson about the story of The Last Jedi, and the familiar deep themes of the Star Wars saga together provide a reasonable basis for inferring which storylines are likely to remain unresolved in Episode VIII because their intended resolution comes in Episode IX.
The central antagonist of the Sequel Trilogy is Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, and The Force Awakens sets up deeply personal conflicts between the fallen former Jedi and two of the saga’s heroines. One is Rey, whom Kylo Ren pursues, abducts, imprisons, mind-probes, and ultimately duels with lightsabers. The other is Leia Organa, his mother, who believed firmly that good still existed within her son – only to sense the tragic outcome in the Force when Kylo Ren murdered his father Han Solo. While it is true that another vector of conflict exists between Kylo Ren and his uncle Luke Skywalker, whose exile originated from the tragedy and betrayal of Ben Solo’s fall to the dark side, that clash easily could play out by proxy through Rey, with the new apprentice facing off against the fallen former apprentice just as Luke, not Obi-Wan or Yoda, faced Vader in Return of the Jedi.
Regardless of how Kylo Ren’s past with Luke is addressed in the films, however, it seems highly unlikely that his personal conflicts with Rey and Leia will be resolved in The Last Jedi. The precedent of The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones suggests that the middle movie will open even more questions, rather than answering ones from the first film. The nature of the conflicts established in The Force Awakens have tremendous stakes, the kind that warrant trilogy-spanning storylines in the Star Wars saga. And Rian Johnson’s public remarks, generic and vague as they necessarily have been, nonetheless appear to confirm that the key character arcs for Rey, Kylo Ren, and Leia do not wind down in The Last Jedi but rather project forward into Episode IX.
For Rey, my previous post Rey At Risk: Keeping Lucasfilm Accountable to Her Potential highlights the storytelling dangers that exist within the Sequel Trilogy if Kylo Ren is the only next-generation Skywalker descendant in this third trilogy in the Skywalker family saga. Perhaps The Last Jedi will further develop Rey into such a significant and meaningful protagonist in the Sequel Trilogy that her importance to Episode IX could not possibly be undervalued no matter the need to also address Kylo Ren’s lineage. Perhaps The Last Jedi will reveal that Rey is an heir to the Skywalker destiny, too. Without knowing more about Episode VIII, it is impossible to assess the degree of risk present for Rey’s storyline in Episode IX – but fans must continue to assert their voices and emphasize the importance of not allowing Rey’s story to fall short, as her predecessors suffered in Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi.
For Leia, we have written previously about the storytelling ramifications of Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing. In Leia At Risk: Grief, Nostalgia, and Mythic Storytelling, we expressed our view that her death, unexpected and painful as it was, should not result in an untimely and abrupt severing of Leia from Episode IX, as well. In Why We Support Recasting General Organa, we elaborated on the ways in which the nature of the Star Wars saga, and the values expressed by and embodied in Carrie Fisher herself, counsel in favor of casting another actress to perform the role of Leia in Episode IX. From a storytelling perspective, there is every reason to think that the mythical-scale conflict between the widowed mother and her patricidal son was intended to, and deserves to, find its ultimate resolution in the trilogy’s third film. In our view, it would only compound the tragedy of Carrie Fisher’s loss to deny her iconic character the overdue and much anticipated familial showdown inherent in the Sequel Trilogy’s storylines – a mother/son confrontation as impactful and resonant in the saga as the father/son lightsaber duel in Return of the Jedi.
If anyone has the Hollywood industry heft and Star Wars fandom goodwill to succeed at recasting Leia Organa and directing the actress in a live-action performance that honors the legacy of Carrie Fisher without simply mimicking her portrayal, it is J.J. Abrams. That decision would be controversial, to be sure, but also newsworthy in its boldness. Whether Abrams has the willingness to consider the idea, or whether Lucasfilm would allow him to proceed with it, is another matter – and is not a question for which we currently know the answer. Based on the tone of public statements from various Lucasfilm executives and Star Wars actors involved in the films’ production, including at Star Wars Celebration Orlando earlier this year, at a minimum it is reasonable to conclude that a substantial possibility exists that General Organa will not be recast in Episode IX.
Likewise, then, we must contemplate the implication of an Episode IX script that denies Leia a meaningful onscreen presence in the conclusion to her son’s character arc. Even if Leia’s death is not written into the story, at best her role would be limited to references in dialogue by other characters, or perhaps a brief appearance as a hologram delivering a few lines of dialogue. But if the role of Leia is dramatically reduced, the storytelling necessity to resolve Kylo Ren’s character arc will remain.
It would be a simple, yet deeply unfortunate, choice to shift the familial role previously intended for Leia over to Luke, from mother to uncle. For one, Luke already has participated in a generational family confrontation over the light and the dark; it adds little to the saga or his character to provide him with another. More importantly, Star Wars historically has an unfortunate pattern – in its films, animation, novels, and more – of shortchanging female characters to focus on male characters instead. To take a story role intended for Leia and give it to Luke would deeply erode the progress Lucasfilm has been trying to make at rehabilitating its female characters and repairing its relationship with its female fans. Further into the franchise’s future, when the context of Carrie Fisher’s loss has little personal meaning to new generations of fans, minimizing Leia’s role in Episode IX would only serve as another way Star Wars reinforces the sidelining of mothers in myth. If that comes to pass, that will be the true tragedy of Carrie Fisher’s passing, as her life’s story was one of mothers and daughters.
A bold alternative exists, however: to shift the role intended for Leia in Episode IX to her mother, Padmé Amidala. Whatever the words that need to be said, the lessons that need to be learned, the family bonds that need to be reforged – this role could be given to Padmé in place of Leia, impacting the grandson rather than the son.
Symbolically, Padmé carries much of the same power as Leia in the saga. In the teaser trailer for The Last Jedi, Leia is associated with Rey speaking the word “light,” an association also made in other recent Star Wars materials. Padmé too has a longstanding connection to the light, including as a juxtaposition to the darkness of Palpatine and Anakin. In The Force Awakens, Leia tells Han that she feels in the Force that there is still good in their son, that if he only can be convinced to come home he can still be saved, despite his massacre of Luke’s Jedi trainees and his subsequent dark deeds with the First Order. This deliberately echoes Revenge of the Sith, when Padmé tells Obi-Wan that she believes there is still good in Anakin, even after his terrible deeds in Order 66 and his violence on the landing platform at Mustafar – a belief that is vindicated two decades later by her son Luke, whose Jedi courage draws Anakin back to the light side aboard the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Interestingly, the name Ren, which Abrams helped select while writing The Force Awakens, is also the Japanese word for lotus, recalling imagery associated with Naboo and Padmé, its queen and Senator. With her thematic prominence not only in the Prequel Trilogy, but now by retcon into the Original Trilogy as well, Padmé can stand in Leia’s shoes to confront the darkness in Ben Solo that mirrors the darkness in Anakin Skywalker.
Even more, permitting Padmé to take the place of Leia in Episode IX would connect beautifully to the meta narrative begun in The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren represents privilege gone dark. Out of a misguided sense of betrayal, likely facilitated by some seductive promises and guileful lies, he turns against his family and everything they stand for. He cannot comprehend how “a girl” who is a mere “scavenger” can possibly interfere with his plans; he believes “that lightsaber belongs to me” not because he has earned it, but simply because of his bloodline. He reveres his grandfather, when the ancestor worthy of heroic admiration is his grandmother. In this way, Kylo Ren embodies much of the fandom and public discourse on Star Wars, too. Vader is idolized as an iconic and powerful villain – some fans cheered aloud at his cameo in Rogue One, as though a ruthless massacre of Rebellion soldiers is an act worthy of celebration – when his actual story is one of tragic decisions, disgraceful choices, and emotional weakness. Due in significant part to the manner in which her story arc was shortchanged in Revenge of the Sith, Padmé has suffered from neglect and inattention from both fans and Lucasfilm alike; even her appearances in The Clone Wars only could do so much to rehabilitate her character. It is not only Kylo Ren, but the Star Wars franchise as whole, that needs reminding where the true heroism in the Prequel Trilogy era Skywalker family is found.
Padmé could not appear in person, of course; she will have been dead for fifty years or longer by the time of Episode IX. But as a space fantasy, Star Wars has many opportunities for allowing Kylo Ren to interact with Padmé. Perhaps he discovers a half-century-old holographic recording – perhaps even a wartime love letter from Padmé to Anakin, expressing concern for his increasingly dark choices in the time prior to becoming Darth Vader. With the lore provided in The Clone Wars Yoda arc and subsequent elaboration in ancillary materials, Padmé could not appear as a literal Force ghost – but Yoda’s dialogue in The Empire Strikes Back remains: “Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future, the past. Old friends long gone.” In meditation or otherwise, Kylo Ren could experience a Force vision of Padmé, whether true glimpses at the past or a guilt-ridden “only what you take with you” projection of his own deepest truths about himself. Nothing in Star Wars prevents Padmé from fulfilling Leia’s role in the culmination of Kylo Ren’s character arc.
And just as J.J. Abrams could be one of the few people with the influence to recast General Organa, he also may possess the ability to lure Oscar winner Natalie Portman to return to the Star Wars franchise. Over the last decade, rumors in fandom have suggested a falling-out between the actress and Lucasfilm over the course of the filming of the Prequel Trilogy. Whatever the truth of those accounts, Portman generally has publicly distanced herself from Star Wars for much of the time since Episode III’s release. More recently, though, she has spoken more favorably toward the franchise, especially as her son has grown old enough to become a fan himself. And for Episode IX she would not be working with George Lucas, well known for his minimal direction to actors on set, but rather with Abrams, who earned accolades from across the cast of The Force Awakens. It might be a long shot to accomplish, but for a relatively small role with a saga-wide impact – one that gives Padmé’s character a truly powerful storytelling climax she was denied in the Prequels – the proposal to Portman might be a persuasive one.
In December, The Last Jedi will reveal the plotlines and character arcs that will shape the course of Episode IX. In the early months of 2018, fans will still be analyzing those ramifications – while Abrams and Terrio will continue to draft the script. The fate of Leia’s role in Episode IX is not yet a foregone conclusion. Nor, despite the distance in time both in-universe and in the real world, is Padmé’s. One thing Star Wars retains is the capacity to surprise us, and either of these bold moves could achieve one of Abrams’ biggest twists ever.
- Rey At Risk: Keeping Lucasfilm Accountable to Her Potential
- Leia At Risk: Grief, Nostalgia, and Mythic Storytelling
- Why We Support Recasting General Organa
- The Life and Death of Padmé – Without Lore, Is It Just Lipservice for the Leading Lady of Star Wars?
- The Power to Save Padmé
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- Review: Obi-Wan Kenobi: A Jedi’s Return - September 14, 2022