A few days ago, Disney CEO Bob Iger said that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is “not…in any way, a political film.” I feel bad for Iger because he has clearly spent the past 18 months trying to find his way out of a remote subterranean cave system, eating glow worms to survive.
Star Wars has always been America’s biggest anti-fascist pop culture phenomenon. Whether it has anything to say about its subjects—the rise of fascism (the prequels) and mobilization against it (the other movies)—is up for debate, but you don’t need to “read into” the movies to find anti-fascist themes. There’s no puzzle to put together. The Empire, Sith, and First Order’s uniforms are Nazi uniforms. Their flags and architecture are Nazi flags and architecture. The bad guys are called “Stormtroopers,” and the good guys kill them. Star Wars is about killing Nazis like The Dirty Dozen, Fury, and Saving Private Ryan are about killing Nazis.
Obviously, the original Star Wars films aren’t known for their partisan bravery. Before the hellscape of 2016, anti-fascism wasn’t a political position we had to think much about. Many of us weren’t even aware that it could still be a political position. The Facebook status “I’m unfriending anyone who is a Nazi or sympathetic to Nazism” would have elicited confusion. So would the Tinder bio “I don’t date Nazis.” But today those sentences make sense, and so does this one: Star Wars, a colorful, fun-for-all-ages megafranchise about killing Nazis, has to walk the walk. It has to add “resonance with the current struggle against fascism” to the list of things that make a Star Wars movie.
Rogue One is in a good position to do so. It’s being marketed as a “war movie” more than any other Star Wars film, though they are all arguably war movies. Trailers sold us on scenes of Stormtroopers dying at the hands of regular grunts, not Jedi. Since WWII wasn’t won by white men who had just discovered Buddhism, Rogue One brings the series’ metaphor closer to reality than it ever has been.
Rogue One is about a group of rebels who join forces to steal the plans for the Death Star. What the trailers don’t tell you is that these rebels butt heads, and not with the witty banter of the Avengers’ personality clashes. Rogue One’s squabbles all stem from the crew’s deep-seated differences in ideology, tactics, and personal stake in the rebellion. The Rebel Alliance, so unified in other Star Wars movies, is a complete spectrum here. From Diego Luna’s devoted spy to Forest Whitaker’s extremist hermit, all the major players have their own understandings of the war and what it demands of the resistance, and the conflicts between these perspectives have narrative consequences. The ethnic (and possibly sexual) diversity of Rogue One’s cast is exciting, and so is the characters’ diversity of ideas. The movie looks like America and talks like Twitter.
I don’t know about you, but lately my social media has seen a lot of drama about the way liberals engage with pop culture. Many advocates of oppressed groups pick apart codified racism and sexism in entertainment, and their pressure on Hollywood to represent all of America has a renewed sense of urgency. Meanwhile, the far left ruthlessly mocks those who thought that the liberal myths of Hamilton and The Hunger Games would save them, and often go after the myths themselves. The two groups aim themselves at a beached-whale liberal mainstream that can’t wait to normalize Trump, but there’s plenty of collateral damage, and pop culture is a huge focal point for the crossfire. It’s a hell of a time to try to build a coalition.
When one of Rogue One’s screenwriters tweets that the Empire is a “white supremacist organization,” it’s impossible to argue that relevance to those dynamics is unintentional. So, does Rogue One make good on its potential to say something about coalition-building and, on a meta level, how culture can facilitate it?
Sadly, it ends up embodying Jacob Silverman’s point that “blockbuster fictions excite cultural anxieties only to soothe them, leaving consumers spent and satisfied.” After a promising two thirds, Rogue One politically disengages and becomes a very good, fun action movie. Ideology divides the good guys, then plot mechanics bring them back together. Someone says something portentous like “rebellions are built on hope,” and the fighting starts. I walked out of Rogue One entertained, moved, happy for all the people who see themselves in its characters, and disappointed that it sidesteps the larger issues it raises.
Lots of recent, well-liked blockbusters pull this bait-and-switch, signifying engagement with the real world before becoming a morass of CGI explosions. Captain America: The Winter Soldier references government surveillance, then a floating aircraft carrier tries to blow up a city. The Wolverine asks what it means to live with guilt, then Hugh Jackman fights a giant robot samurai. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards’ own Godzilla looks at the costs of nuclear energy, then the big G knocks down some buildings. I will continue to pay for movies like these, but I can’t help but hope against my better reason for a blockbuster that doesn’t give easy answers to hard questions.
Episode VIII has a lot of potential. The Force Awakens has less political signifying than Rogue One, but Kylo Ren is a way better alt-right stand-in than any of Rogue One’s villains (you can imagine him shitposting on 4chan and listening to fashwave). In the meantime, rebellions need hope, but they also need work. We have a month left.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510