Since the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, much has been said about how the film subverts expectations, be that in a positive or negative way. But few have really defined what that means or how the film goes about it. Well, the latest video essay from Pop Culture Detective does just that, taking a deep dive into how The Last Jedi subverts three particular archetypes of male protagonists.
First, we have the cocky hotshot hero, exemplified by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). This character type is typically brash, makes impulsive, risky decisions and ultimately wins the day. When we start the movie, Poe is exactly that, defying Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) orders and attacking the First Order Dreadnaught. His daring move pays off, as the Dreadnaught is destroyed, but as the video points out, this victory has a cost. Poe is responsible for the destruction of a good portion of the Resistance fleet, and the lives that were lost with it. As the movie goes on, Poe learns how to be a responsible leader, a lesson learned from the wiser female authority figures around him.
Next is Finn (John Boyega), a character who at the start of the movie is solely interested in reuniting with his friend, caring not for the cause of the Resistance. He’s caught trying to escape by Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a dedicated believer in the cause who ultimately steers him on the right path. After a visit to a world of greed and war profiteering, Finn finally learns the importance of standing up for what’s right, despite the personal cost. But as the video says, the movie doesn’t end his arc there, instead having him learn the wrong lesson and pushing him to make a foolish suicide run. Ultimately, Finn is denied his big macho self-sacrifice (which would have accomplished nothing), as Rose knocks him off his path and stresses the importance of saving what you love to get by.
Finally, we have the trope of the wise old master, a male protagonist who’s grown more powerful in age, having long ago worked out his personal demons. However, as the video states, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) fails to live up to this idea, giving him an arc that perfectly compliments his character in the original trilogy. When we meet Luke, he’s shut himself off from the force and is obsessed by a single failure in his past. But with the help of Rey (Daisey Ridley), Luke is able to reclaim his sense of purpose and be his best self again. Luke’s story is not one of an all-powerful god, but a human being with believable flaws.
The video is a fantastic look at how conventional genre tropes are subverted by The Last Jedi, wherein men have to get off their destructive paths and listen to a woman in a position of power or moral authority to win the day. This is all accomplished by the film, while still giving the central female characters their own turmoil to work through.
But the video got me thinking, what about Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)? What does his inability to evolve as a result of the women he comes into contact with say about him as a character? And does the film close the door on him being a redeemable person?
When we first meet Kylo in The Last Jedi he’s a conflicted man. Killing his father brought him no peace, and he’s still struggling to define his place in all this, much like Rey and Finn. He still wears a mask that he doesn’t need in an attempt to live up to his grandfather’s legacy, but Snoke sees right through him. After being mocked, Kylo destroys the mask and hops right into his ship, ready to go on the attack.
But when the time comes, and he’s faced with killing his mother, he cannot go through with it. Suggesting that there may be hope for Ben Solo yet. And as the film goes on he begins to form a bond with Rey, who in the absence of a mentor in Luke, thinks she can turn Kylo. Everything is set up for him to come good: he kills Snoke and joins forces with Rey to defeat the Pretorian Guards. But he refuses to call off the attack on the Resistance. Instead, he asks Rey to join him on his violent path, revealing the truth about her parents. He’s learned all the wrong lessons from her and is too stubborn to go through any real change.
She rejects his proposal and he’s ultimately made a fool of on Crait, being distracted long enough to allow the remaining Resistance fighters, including Rey, to escape. And even Leia and Luke have given up on him by this point. So while the film’s protagonists each learn a valuable lesson from a woman, Kylo single-mindedness stops him from doing so, cementing him as an antagonist. This also prevents the movie from falling into the trope of a violent man just needing a woman’s affection to bring him around. As the film makes clear, Kylo is a destructive person with an inability to see things from anybody else’s perspective. One who feels no remorse for all the suffering he causes, unless it affects him personally.
In the end, a door is closed on him, in what’s been described as the film’s “Godfather shot,” and he’s left angry and alone, having failed to learn any valuable lessons over the course of the film. Kylo may be conflicted as ever, but his inability to change or grow leaves him beyond redemption. Unlike Darth Vader, Kylo can’t be redeemed by simply killing his master, he must actually make the effort to evolve. And by proving he can’t do this, the film pulls off another clever subversion.