Star Wars and World Building Through Characters, or: Why I’m One of Those Awful Geeks Who Loves the Bounty Hunters

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This is an embarrassing manchild article, so I found an embarrassing photo from my manchild toy collection to use as a header. You’re welcome.

Well gang, a new Star War is upon us, and by the accounts I’ve heard it sounds somewhat mediocre in the way that only a script assembled by a marketing team trying to appeal to as many demographics as possible could be.  More than that, though, the buzz around this movie is so lukewarm and tepid compared to what the buzz around Star Warses used to be – people feel obligated to see it, but not super excited.  It’s just another movie.

Thank Christ, it’s finally just another movie.

The cult of Star wars is so massive and passionate, both from consumers and our corporate overlords alike, that’s it’s kind of terrifying.  The sheer amount of marketing and product that was shoved down our throats in the anticipation of a new Star Wars movie in the past was overwhelming and nauseating.  These movies weren’t just movies, but EVENTS, practically on par with Holidays (I mean, in friggin’ Target they literally gave the seasonal aisle to Star Wars shit for The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi).  There is a literal religion based on the stupid, garbled, mangled atrocity that George Lucas made out of various Asian philosophies, and while the real life Jedi Order seems to be one of those fake “piss off the Fundies” religions like the Flying Spaghetti Monster Pastafarians, the mere notion that these movies could have one day spawned an serious religion based on their poorly constructed mythos will never stop haunting my dreams.  Thank Christ they’re just movies now.

But let’s move away from the negative.  I’m writing this to honor Star Wars, not to bury it.  I want to talk about some things that Star Wars did really well, things that the current movies have kind of forgotten.  I’m also going to expose myself as one of those Cringey Star Wars geeks who likes the Bounty Hunters, so at the very least you can use this article as a reason to point and laugh at me a bunch.  Either way, let’s take a trip to the late seventies and mid eighties, and overanalyze a bunch of glorified background extras together!

When people write about the story-telling in Star Wars, either kindly or derisively, they tend to focus on the Jedi and the Sith or the Empire and the Rebellion, i.e. the factions that make up the main conflict of the movies and the bulk of its main characters and themes.  Which, y’know, makes sense, that’s the meat and potatoes of Star Wars.  However, as meat and potatoes goes, those things are kind of plain once you get down to them.  There is not much to the Empire or the Rebellion – the Empire is comically evil, and the Rebellion is composed of all the people in the galaxy who have problems with murdering millions of people for no reason.  The Jedi and the Sith are complex, but in ways that the plot doesn’t really want you to think about because it treats them as pure good and pure evil (respectively) despite the Jedi doing some really messed up stuff – but, really, at the end of the day that still boils down to “the Sith are comically evil, and the Jedi are a bunch of extremely flawed people with a harmful ideology the series doesn’t want to truly explore who nonetheless have problems with murdering millions of people for no reason.”

(I swear I’m going to say some nice stuff about Star Wars, I promise.)

Luckily, Star Wars is not all meat and potatoes, or at least the original trilogy isn’t.  Star Wars has a side dish, an appetizer, and that is the part that caught my interest when I was first exposed to it as a child.  While the Empire and the Rebellion have their war amongst the stars, there are countless weird aliens, monsters, and dudes in space armor living on the fringes of the galaxy – for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to take a term from one of the many Star Wars RPGs and call them the “Scum and Villainy” of Star Wars.  These are the weird alien customers in the Cantina, the freakish criminals in Jabba’s palace, the many diverse cultures who we only briefly see during the Clone Wars that make up the prequel trilogy, and of course the many bizarre fauna that populate various planets as beasts of burden or vicious predators.

The character designers, puppeteers, and costume makers of Star Wars did phenomenal work in making the world feel not only alien, but rich and alive.  People have written about the “used future” aesthetic of the spaceships in the series, but that applies to the characters as well.  A background alien in Star Wars isn’t just a freaky creature – often it will have a unique costume as well, which looks worn with age.  Their clothes aren’t just strange, but also clearly something they’ve put on several times before and used for whatever weird alien stuff they do.  When you look at a background extra monster in Star Wars, you can feel a sense of history in the character’s appearance – you don’t know what their story is, but there IS a story there.  That is one of the core appeals of Star Wars, and the reason why the franchise has historically been able to sell toys of pretty much all the background extra monsters and weirdoes in the original trilogy – you want to know those characters’ stories.  The world is lived in, there’s more to it than the tale of the Empire or the Jedi – the world was designed to feel like there was more than just one story in it.  It’s Wars, plural, after all.

You can find dozens, probably even hundreds of articles on the internet where people make fun of the Star Wars fandom for obsessing about minutiae – I’ve read the joke about background extras like Max Reebo having longer biographies on Wookipedia than (insert real life historical figure here) has one Wikipedia a thousand times.  And while there is something absurd about fans dedicating so much time to characters who don’t even do anything in the plot besides adding to the scenery, I would argue that the fact that people actually want to know the stories of goofy aliens like Max Reebo is perhaps one of the series’ greatest strengths.  Those background characters aren’t burdened by the mythos of the Jedi and the Sith,  or locked into the black and white conflict of the Rebellion and the Empire.  They’re free to live entirely different lives, to have entirely different problems, to be messier and stranger than the fairly simplistic tale of good and evil that the story of Star Wars has spent nine movies telling and retelling.

And again, I want to emphasize that this is at least somewhat intentional.  Many of these minor background characters get moments – brief moments, but moments – that show us a window into their own tales.  Why does Return of the Jedi linger for a few seconds on the fat Rancor handler as he cries in the arms of one of his co-workers over his dead pet?  It has nothing to do with Luke’s story, or the greater Empire vs. Rebellion conflict.  It never comes back in the plot, we never see the Rancor handler again.  Why is that moment there?  It’s there to show us that there are other stories in this world – that while the Rancor was just one of many obstacles Luke overcomes in his journey, to this man, that monster was something worthy of affection, something to grieve over.  And you have to marvel at how easily and quickly the movie gets that point across – we aren’t shown, say, a flashback of the man raising the Rancor.  We don’t have a minor character stop and chastise Luke, pointing out that he had killed the handler’s special monster friend.  Instead we just get one small interaction – the man seeing his dead monster and weeping into the arms of his co-worker – and that conveys a second story to us, that to this minor character the death of the Rancor is an entirely different story than it is to Luke.  The original trilogy is filled with tiny moments like these, small portions of scenes that reveal a galaxy of tales despite us ultimately only focusing on one of them.

The original Star Wars trilogy is marvelous at upholding the show, don’t tell rule.  One example for you to consider: in one of our earliest scenes with Darth Vader, we see him at a meeting with several other high ranking Imperial officers.  They discuss the power of their new weapon, the Death Star, and Vader warns them that they shouldn’t get too awestruck of its power, as there are still things that dwarf it in scope – namely, the space-magic called the Force.  Another Imperial officer sneers and mocks Vader’s space-religion, at which point he uses the force to space-magically choke the officer until Peter Cushing tells him to stop.  In that brief interaction, we are shown several aspects of Vader’s character – that he is more aware of his limitations than his peers in the Empire, that he is not completely respected by said peers, that he responds to challenges to his authority with swift and often deadly force (heh!), that he is high enough in the chain of command to not be penalized harshly for murdering an underling, but at the same time low enough in the command chain to obey when Peter Cushing calmly tells him to stop.  No one has to tell us Darth Vader is The Most Powerful Murderer In the Galaxy like, say, the MCU’s Thanos – we are shown that he is a cunning and lethal threat.

While the dialogue in Star Wars is rightfully criticized for generally being, well, bad, the characters in the original trilogy are nonetheless so strong that they’ve become iconic.  And an added benefit of having such well defined characters is that they can then be used to develop other characters by shorthand – which brings me to those “overrated” Bounty Hunters.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader, a character who by this point has been shown to be a ruthless and dangerous man several times over, gathers a group of menacing individuals together to hunt down our heroes.  These Bounty Hunters all have unique and iconic appearances, like all the great background extras in these films.  Each one looks like they have their own story, from the lizard man in the ill-fitting orange spacesuit, to the bug-headed alien with a bug-headed C-3P0 knockoff, to the bizarre robot with dozens of eyes and a bunch of knives and guns strapped to its reedy, rusting body, to the human man covered in armor and bandages, and finally, to a man in cool green and yellow armor that’s covered in dings and scratches from countless battles.  Each hunter’s appearance hints at a different story and personality – they all could have been generic bad guys, but instead they feel distinct and fleshed out.  That’s reason number one for their inexplicable appeal – each is a glimpse of a different strange story we may never see.

The other Imperial officers scoff at these bounty hunters at first – “We don’t need these scum!” – only to flinch when one of them growls at them seconds before Vader addresses the lot, telling the hunters what their job is.  The hunters, notably, stand at attention and listen respectfully when Vader addresses them – they don’t take shit from the Empire, but they listen to Vader, reinforcing his status as a villain of a higher class than most of the rank and file in the Empire.  When Vader notes that he wants the heroes brought in alive, he singles out the guy in the green, scratched-up armor and says, “No distintegrations,” to which the armored man says, “As you wish.”  And that, right there, is the shorthand explanation for who of these hunters is the biggest threat: among the six, there is one that Darth Vader specifically told not to be too brutal – again, a hunter that Darth Vader felt needed to be reined in.  Who do you think is the one who actually catches our heroes?  Yep, it’s the guy in green.  Who of the lot was then mythologized as not just a good bounty hunter, but the best in the galaxy and one of the most dangerous mercenaries ever to exist?  Yep, it’s Boba Fett, the man Darth Vader felt needed to be singled out and told to tone down the ruthlessness a bit this time.

There’s a fucking story there!  What the fuck did Boba Fett do to make Darth Vader feel that this was a guy who needs to be told to chill out sometimes?  Why, out of all these weird space monsters and thugs, was Boba Fett the one that got singled out instead of, say, the slathering lizard man, or the guy who’s being held together by space bandages, or the ramshackle robot covered in knives?  Why does one of these guys have a C-3P0 body – i.e. the body of a robot that’s built to basically be a space butler – and a bug’s head?  Where’d all the other guys go once Vader dismissed them – what adventures did they have when Boba Fett was capturing our heroes?

There’s a story here.  There are MULTIPLE stories here.  And we don’t know what those stories are, which means they can be whatever we can imagine.   There is a GALAXY of stories here.  Hell yes I want the toys, I want to tell those stories.

I’m bringing up toys to illustrate my final point, which is that Star Wars has sort of forgotten this aspect of itself in recent years.  When I was a kid, the Star Wars section of the toy aisle was filled with a wide variety of weird characters – not just Lukes, Stormtroopers, and Darth Vaders, but Boba Fetts, Greedos, Max Reebos, Hammerheads, and countless other aliens and monsters.  All those background extras were brought to life in plastic, and that made playtime great because it allowed the little kid version of me to create the stories that Star Wars showed me mere glimpses of.  I didn’t play much with my Luke Skywalker, but the Bounty Hunters, the Cantina customers, the denizens of Jabba’s Palace, and all the weird wildlife that populated the galaxy.  If you look at the Star Wars section of a toy aisle now, though, there’s almost none of that.  You’ll see lots of stormtroopers, sure, lots of Rebellion Resistance members in brown. gray, and/or beige clothing, and a good number of Darth Vader-knockoffs in black robes.  But there are few if any weird aliens and robots, and it’s not because Toy Companies are lazy – there aren’t that many aliens in the recent movies either.  The Force Awakens homages the Cantina in a surface level way, but spends almost all of its time there with just the protagonists, giving us little time to actually observe the background extras.  The Last Jedi gave us humans (and one or two aliens) in tuxedos and little else.  Rogue One mostly just gave us aliens that had been seen before, and even then spent little time with them.  Even Solo, a movie ostensibly about the non-Empire, non-Rebellion side of things, had a cast made mostly of humans in brown, gray, and/or beige clothes.  For a long while now, Star Wars has neglected its Scum and Villainy.

I kinda understand why – the Empire and the Rebellion, the Jedi and the Sith, they’re the meat and potatoes of Star Wars, so it makes sense that the franchises’ corporate overlords would focus on them.  It’s why every Transformers reboot starts with Autobots and Decepticons instead of, say, Quintessons and Nebulans.  But the side dish – the Scum and Villainy – that’s important to the appeal of Star Wars too.  It may not be the main ingredient, but it’s a vital one all the same.  We need the freaky aliens and monsters.  We need to see those windows into the other stories.  Hell, given how tired the meat and potatoes feel, we need them now more than ever.

Luckily, we might finally be getting them back.  I haven’t seen The Mandalorian – I think Disney Plus is a scam and that all the new streaming services popping up right now should crash and fail as the miserable exploitative Capitalist bullshit they are – but from what I’ve read, it seems to finally be shining a light on those weird corners of the galaxy, giving us a tale of bounty hunters, space criminals, and lots of freaky aliens.  Here’s hoping they roll with it – I may struggle to give a shit about the Jedi ever again, but I’d always be down for more weird tales about space thugs, bizarre aliens, and killer robots.

This entry was posted in Creepy Columns, Monstrous Miscellany. Bookmark the permalink.

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