The Last Jedi sent a message to the Star Wars fandom that, at least from the filmmakers’ perspective, the Skywalkers’ story was ready to come to a close. It was a bold pivot from the nostalgic direction The Force Awakens appeared to be taking the franchise in, and unsurprisingly, it left many hardcore fans of the original trilogy beside themselves with displeasure.
But for those of us more, let’s say “casual” Star Wars fans, who’ve long felt that the Skywalkers’ overwhelming dominance in Star Wars media is one of the franchise’s more glaring drawbacks, The Last Jedi was the promise of something fresher. Something less encumbered by the larger fandom’s collective emotional baggage.
But then came this year’s Star Wars Celebration, The Rise of Skywalker’s first trailer/title announcement, and that dusty, maniacal laugh suggesting that it’d be in Kylo Ren and the First Order’s best interests to double their efforts.
While there’s sure to be an interesting explanation as to how Palpatine will return to the Star Wars films (Force ghost, recording, clone? Who knows?), his presence in The Rise of Skywalker, much like the implied elevation of the Skywalker name, suggests of larger return to the status quo.
Though Rian Johnson’s spent years addressing countless complaints from fans who felt blindsided by The Last Jedi’s plot, the director recently admitted to being perfectly fine with the idea that The Rise of Skywalker might retcon elements of his film.
In killing off Supreme Leader Snoke so abruptly, The Last Jedi upended a significant chunk of the groundwork first laid in The Force Awakens that put this current chapter of Star Wars into uncharted territory. Though the character wasn’t very well fleshed out, Snoke was Star Wars’ new big bad, filling an important narrative role by acting as the Palpatine to Kylo Ren’s nascent Darth Vader. In Snoke and Kylo’s complicated relationship, you could see the spiritual echoes of Vader’s fall from grace, but their story was further complicated, interestingly, by Rey’s ascendance as the newest, and perhaps most powerful, Jedi destined to bring balance to the Force.
Without Snoke, the newer Star Wars films would, in theory, be forced to continue their story without a convenient, established cinematic parallel within the same universe to call back to, and that would’ve opened up a world of possibilities in terms of new directions for characters like Finn, Rey, and Poe to go in. For decades now, the Star Wars franchise has been telling varied versions of the same Jedi-centric stories within a bigger plot about conflicts between different incarnations of the Galactic Empire and the Resistance. Television series like Star Wars Rebels have done their part in contributing to the big picture by introducing new characters with substantive, pivotal arcs, but that’s important work that the flagship films should arguably be able to do as well.
Bringing Palpatine back has the potential to transform The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi’s poetic rhyming with the original films into something more akin to the pretext for an undeserved, and perhaps strategically conservative, kind of storytelling that would feel like a sizable step back for Star Wars as a whole. Within the universe of the films themselves, it returns the story to a battle that, up until this point, was rather safe to assume was finished. But from a meta perspective, it also reads as a response to some parts of the fandom’s bad faith critiques of the new films. After two installments about Rey’s rise to prominence at the center of a story that was distinctly her own, The Rise of Skywalker, based on its title alone, feels almost like a kind of capitulation to those who bemoaned the fact that Luke hasn’t been the primary focus as of late.
The concept of the Skywalker name becoming a title or symbol of a new type of Force sensitive order makes all the sense in the world, and would be a fitting, clever way of incorporating the character’s legacy into the films now that he’s dead. But one has to wonder, at what point can the baton truly be said to have been passed between the old Star Wars generation and the new?
It can be easy to forget that Star Wars is meant to be read as a space opera, furnished with all sorts of melodramatic plot twists and sleights of hand designed to throw audiences for a loop. But even the campiest, most outlandish of soap operas understands the necessity of letting new characters properly step outside of the long shadows of those that came before them. Hopefully, Palpatine’s “appearance” in The Rise of Skywalker ends being nothing more than a single, well-timed Space Ghost cackle meant to wear on Kylo or Rey’s minds, because bringing him back to the fore as an extant Star Wars power player could inadvertently weigh the film down and keep it from being all it could be.