When Disney bought Star Wars there was a great disturbance in the fan base. Some thought it was a good move, bringing the power and creativity of the Mouse House to a beloved franchise that had been struggling. Others worried that Disney would run roughshod over everything George Lucas had lovingly created in the name of crass merchandising.
A decade or so later, I’m still not sure who was right. For the record, I started out in the optimist camp, and after Rogue One was released I felt my hopes were vindicated. But after The Rise of Skywalker and a few missteps, I’m no longer so sure.
And it’s hard to be sure, because the question “Is Star Wars better under Disney?” is difficult to answer. Star Wars as a franchise was already vast before Disney, but it’s truly colossal now, often with confusion over what’s “real” and what isn’t. Instead of trying to examine the franchise as a whole, let’s take a look at a single character who encapsulated the problem: Resistance pilot Poe Dameron.
Who is Poe Dameron?
I’m sure anyone familiar with Star Wars will know who Poe Dameron is, but answering the question “Who is Poe Dameron?” isn’t straightforward – and thus an ideal proxy for the identity of the new Star Wars.
Poe is touted as one of the three main characters in the Sequel Trilogy. He appears in the opening scene of The Force Awakens receiving a partial map to the lost Luke Skywalker from the mysterious explorer Lor San Tekka before being captured by Kylo Ren and First Order stormtroopers. He’s interrogated by Ren and then rescued by renegade stormtrooper FN-2187, whom he names Finn before they crash land on the desert world Jakku.
Poe is thought lost and Finn’s story continues with Rey, until Poe reappears at Takodana in his X-wing starfighter to chase off the First Order. Reunited with Finn at the Resistance base, they plan an attack on Starkiller Base, with Finn joining Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon to take down the shield while Poe leads the starfighter attack. Proving why he’s the best pilot in the Resistance, Poe dominates the battle, destroying tie fighter after tie fighter, and scoring the critical hit that destroys Starkiller base. Huzzah!
Poe’s controversial portrayal in The Last Jedi
Poe Dameron comes out of The Force Awakens as a pretty simple fella – a crack starfighter pilot and heroic leader of Black Squadron. But things get more complicated as The Last Jedi gets underway. The opening battle is classic fighter jock stuff, with Poe’s courage, sass and piloting skills on full display. But then Star Wars takes a different tack, focusing (frankly, for the first time ever) on the tremendous losses suffered in support of his bold plan. Yes, his plan succeeded, but as General Leia Organa points out, at what cost?
If, at this point, Poe realized that Leia was right and changed his ways, there would have been no dramatic conflict. But Poe reacts in a very believable way for a young, hot-shot pilot – with disbelief at the criticism, with self-righteous anger and with a stubborn refusal to listen. Things get worse when Leia is badly injured and Vice Admiral Holdo takes command of the Resistance fleet. Poe argues with his new boss, refuses to follow orders, authorizes a secret mission for Finn, convinces other officers to mutiny, and then actually carries out a mutiny. I mean, dang – that’s messed up.
This was a turning point for the Star Wars franchise, in my opinion. It was the first time our heroes had ever weighed the human cost of their actions, and it was the first time a supposed hero had done something so reprehensible. And the good thing is, he was caught and stopped – by Leia herself who stuns Poe and puts down the mutiny.
Ultimately Holdo’s plan is revealed to be a good one – using the cruiser as a distraction to let the crew slip away in cloaked shuttles to the site of an old Rebel base in order to send a distress signal – and Poe gains new humility and wisdom when he sees how Holdo sacrificed everything, including her own life, to give the Resistance one last chance at survival.
Some fans have railed against this story, crying and gnashing their teeth about “political correctness gone too far” but I disagree. This had the potential for seriously good drama – and I think both Oscar Isaac and Laura Dern (as Holdo) did a great job at bringing believability and nuance to their characters – but because it was Star Wars it didn’t dare to go all the way. Poe isn’t actually held accountable for his actions, and while he does grow as a character by the end of the movie that change isn’t given enough screen time to really flower.
The wasted opportunity of The Rise of Skywalker
There are far too many things wrong with Episode IX for me to list here (but trust me, I’ve devoted entire articles to the subject) so let’s keep the focus on Poe Dameron. We first see Poe doing what he does best – crazy flying to escape a desperate situation – but there have been changes in his character. True, when Poe returned a flaming Falcon to an outraged Rey he came across as less than apologetic, but overall his character displays more wisdom and restraint than in the earlier movies.
He heads up the desperate mission to retrieve a Sith dagger, and when he takes the team to black market droidsmith Babu Frik for translation of the Sith writing, we learn that Poe was once a member of the Spice Runners under Zorii Bliss. More on that later.
Poe Dameron: a better character than you might think
All in all, although Poe Dameron clearly takes a back seat to Rey and Finn, by the end of the Sequel Trilogy he’s a pretty decent character. He can fly any ship in the galaxy, he loves his droid BB-8, he’s won many battles and he’s risen to be co-general for the last stand against the Final Order. There was a lot of potential for growth that the writers decided not to pursue (Poe being punished for his mutiny, the potential for a romantic triangle between Poe, Rey and Finn or, if they really wanted to be daring, a romance between Poe and Finn) but all in all Poe Dameron does change and grow as a character over the three movies.
Oscar Isaac sure helped
Casting Oscar Isaac was certainly a stroke of genius. Mr. Isaac is a talented actor who brought sincerity and passion to what could have been a very shallow character. Star Wars is notorious for wasting the talents of great actors with terrible dialog or poor character arcs (Natalie Portman and John Boyega leap to mind) but thanks to The Last Jedi Oscar Isaac had some serious character meat to sink his teeth into – and he delivered.
What is Star Wars canon these days?
But the talent of an actor only extends to the film renditions of a character, be it movie or TV. With Star Wars consciously developing a multi-media approach to storytelling these days, what about everything the novels and comics say about Poe Dameron?
Who cares? You might be saying to yourself. I don’t read Star Wars comics or novels.
Fair enough, except that Disney has made it clear that all Star Wars stories they produce are equally canon, so the comics and books matter a lot more than they used to for continuity. And since we’re just sticking with Poe Dameron, let’s take a look at how this has caused a significant contraction in who Poe is.
The first revelations of Poe’s backstory come from the comics, where he’s portrayed as a pretty straight-laced son of two Rebel soldiers who gets recruited early into the Resistance. But then The Rise of Skywalker says that he was a spice runner and totally contradicts what the comics say.
This sudden inclusion as a spice runner into Poe’s backstory seems to be a rather transparent attempt to retcon his character into the Han Solo mold of reformed rogue – which strikes me as an unnecessary pander to that group of Star Wars fans who want everything to stay “as it should be” with no new dramatic ground covered.
Disney tried to correct this contradiction with a recent young adult novel, Poe Dameron: Free Fall by Alex Segura, that describes how he joined the Spice Runners in a moment of pique after an argument with his father, thus tying in his straight-laced upbringing from the comics and his connection to the Spice Runners in the movie. It’s not a perfect solution, however, as the new account still creates a contradiction about how Poe joins the Resistance. But it’s a good try.
Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the “most” canon
I disagree with Disney’s rule that all content is equally canon, simply because Star Wars is so big and there are so many people contributing these days across so many media. I’d suggest that, while every attempt should be made to ensure continuity across all media, there should also be an order of canon priority:
1) movies / TV
2) novels / comics
3) holiday specials
Now, before any of you irate novelists or artists burn me effigy, please remember that I’m a novelist myself. But I recognize that pretty much every Star Wars fan will watch the movies, and a huge majority will watch the TV shows. A much smaller minority will read the books or comics. So it’s just a recognition of numbers. If a fact appears on film, then it trumps whatever a novel or comic said previously.
I’d like to think that any film producers would carefully check the existing canon novels and comics to ensure continuity… but let’s be real.
Finding Poe Dameron amidst the heaps of slag within the Sequel Trilogy
Let’s also hope that the creators of Star Wars have learned from the chaotic disaster that was The Rise of Skywalker. There’s a lot of cool information about Poe Dameron from other media that could have been drawn upon – both the novels and comics, and even how both he and his loyal droid BB-8 were in the animated show Star Wars: Resistance – but even ignoring all that, there’s still some great character stuff in the movies. He has some classic lines:
“Go straight ahead and don’t let these thugs scare you!” (Force Awakens)
“We are the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn down the First Order.” (Last Jedi)
His tear-down of General Hux in the opening scene of Last Jedi is epic and his ability to fly rings around any First Order fighter is truly fun to watch. And he does actually grow as a character, unlike Finn. He’s definitely the third most important of the three characters to the overall story, but there’s a lot to uncover if you look.
Poe leads the pack in wasted potential
It can be hard to spot Poe’s nuance, to be sure, when we’re overwhelmed by the absurdity of the First Order’s ties to a suddenly alive Palpatine, or the irrelevance of the New Republic to, well, anything, or the fact that there’s suddenly an ocean moon of Endor called Kef Bir (I mean, really, do people hate the ewoks so much that we had to create a whole other world for the Death Star wreckage to fall to?)
Maybe, in Disney’s new Star Wars, we’re meant to embrace all the media to fully appreciate the characters. In other words, we have to buy the novels and comics in order to get the complete picture. Again, as a novelist I’m willing to get behind the idea of people reading more, but I can just picture trying to talk casual fans into picking up an entirely new media just to “get the whole story”. In a way I marvel at Disney’s ambition.
So I guess it comes down to this. If you want to fully appreciate Disney’s Star Wars, you have to invest yourself into everything: movies, TV, books, comics, video games (yep, some of the games are possibly canon) and whatever else the Mouse House might decide to produce.
Does this make the franchise better? Well, as a fan I appreciate having more content than just a single movie every three years, so… maybe? We probably need to see how the next few years go and then talk more on the subject.