To say that Disney’s Star Wars trilogy has caused debate within fandom would be an understatement. But one topic remains a swirling vortex of frustration, and this topic encapsulates what went wrong with the Sequel Trilogy: Supreme Leader Snoke.
Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?
Snoke is the supreme leader of the First Order, the organization that has replaced the Empire as the greatest menace to the galaxy. Or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe. The reality of who Snoke is, and what the First Order is, seems to evolve with remarkable fluidity over three movies.
Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
We first meet Snoke as a ghostly figure in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s not the main bad guy of the movie – that honor seems to be shared between Kylo Ren and General Hux – but he’s clearly set up to be the all-powerful puppet master – sort of a new Emperor Palpatine for the First Order.
We don’t know anything about Snoke other than he’s a Force user and clearly evil. The film rightly focuses on Kylo Ren as the villain of the new trilogy, but he’s a different kind of villain from what Star Wars has shown us before. He has doubts; he can’t always do what he wants to do; he’s Han and Leia’s freakin’ son! It’s clear that Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo) is no Darth Vader, which makes Snoke even more interesting. Who is this mysterious figure? Is he a Sith Lord? How did he rise to power? Why is Kylo Ren his apprentice? What does it mean when Snoke says he will complete his training?
We have basically nothing but questions about Snoke at the end of The Force Awakens, but we’re okay with that. His story, and his relationship with Kylo Ren, is obviously being set up to be explored further in the next two movies. The fact alone that Andy Serkis was cast as Snoke suggests that he’s going to be a major figure in the films.
Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
As promised, Snoke does feature prominently in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. No longer a distant hologram, we see him in the flesh for the first time, humiliating both Hux and Ren in his first interactions with them. As the story gets going, Snoke’s looking to be a worthy successor to the Dark Side villains we’ve seen in the past: he’s a powerful Force wielder; he’s utterly self-confident; he’s so powerful our heroes don’t stand a chance; he’s disfigured; he’s physically enormous. Great stuff!
We still don’t know much about him. We can see the wounds that suggest he’s endured terrible violence in the past. We see his throne room and his squad of highly trained goons dressed in red – all symbols of a Sith Lord. Clearly out to destroy the Jedi, Snoke is obsessed with hunting down Luke Skywalker. But no-one calls him “Darth Snoke” so we sense that maybe his path in the Force is different from that of Darth Vader or Darth Sidious. All very intriguing…
And then, in one of the most surprising twists in a surprising movie, Kylo Ren turns on his master and cuts him in half with a lightsaber! Some people have criticized this moment, but I think it was epic. Having Snoke struck down at the very moment he’s won is classic drama.
It’s true, Snoke’s origin and purpose are still shrouded in mystery when he dies, but much the same could be said of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. We knew almost nothing about the Emperor when he died on the Death Star – nor did we need to. He was clearly the ultimate villain behind the entire saga and we accepted him as such. In The Last Jedi it’s clear that Kylo Ren / Ben Solo is the real antagonist, and him turning against his master so early in the trilogy is a startling development for his character. By the end of the movie, after Luke Skywalker’s trickery and the escape by Rey and the Resistance, Ren promises to be a truly unhinged and dangerous villain for the finale.
So we still don’t know much about Snoke, but the story is going in an interesting direction. And there’s still one more movie to come…
Snoke in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
And… splat. In the opening, confusing minutes of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, everything the previous two movies built up regarding Snoke is tossed into the garbage. Snoke, we learn, is nothing. He was created by Darth Sidious (who’s not dead – surprise!) as a tool to destroy Luke Skywalker’s legacy. And it appears that everything Star Wars has even hinted about Supreme Leader Snoke’s origins – that he hailed from the Unknown Regions, that he built the First Order, that he even had free will – is mostly bunk. It was all Palpatine the whole time.
Ugh. What a let-down. Despite having spent two movies building up this mysterious, evil, powerful character as an influence on the tortured Ben Solo, he’s dismissed as a non-entity and never mentioned beyond that first meeting between Kylo Ren and Palpatine.
Of all the many criticisms that can be heaped upon Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the treatment of Snoke as a character is one of the biggest, and it encapsulates many of the failures of this film.
What’s the purpose of Supreme Leader Snoke?
J.J. Abrams, the director of The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, has admitted recently that the Sequel Trilogy suffered from a lack of overall concept. Last Jedi director Rian Johnson has also revealed that he wrote the script for his movie without full knowledge of how The Force Awakens was coming together in its final form. None of this is surprising to Star Wars fans who were used to the single, guiding hand of George Lucas – whatever criticisms we might have about the Prequel Trilogy, there was clearly a unified storyline from beginning to end.
So let’s step back and look at the Sequel Trilogy big picture. If the three movies were three acts of a larger play (much like the Original Trilogy was), how would Snoke fit into the narrative?
Snoke as the new big bad guy
The simplest solution would be for Snoke to take the place of Palpatine – who was quite clearly dead at the end of Return of the Jedi – as the evil puppet master. Much of the drama would take place around his dastardly minions Kylo Ren, General Hux and Captain Phasma (another utterly wasted character, but that’s for another time) but it would always have been Snoke in the background.
This seemed to be the way the story was going after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with Snoke clearly in charge, and clearly pursuing a bigger agenda than what Rey, Finn et al knew about. Introducing him and making him an all-powerful, in-person villain in The Last Jedi made sense, upping the ante of danger for our desperate heroes. Having him killed off by Kylo Ren was a bold move, but it didn’t need to be the end of him.
Reimagine, if you will, a different Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker where Snoke is physically dead but not gone. Through the power of the Dark Side his spirit lives on, having achieved the immortality which forever eluded Palpatine and therefore making Snoke even more dangerous than Darth Sidious. Just as the Jedi need to end, so do the Sith, and Snoke could represent new, darker powers that continue to influence his increasingly dangerous apprentice Kylo Ren as he hunts down the last of the Resistance.
Snoke as the corrupter of Kylo Ren
Or let’s take another angle, which is touched upon in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi but never really explored: Snoke as the corrupting influence on Ben Solo. This could potentially have changed the entire trilogy, starting when Ben was still one of Luke’s apprentices at the new Jedi Academy. Then, instead of seeing all those dramatic scenes in flashback, we could have lived them in real time alongside the characters. This wouldn’t have changed the storylines of Rey or Finn in The Force Awakens, other than perhaps to make Ren’s interrogation of Rey his first as a Dark Side wielder.
This storyline could have brought the Knights of Ren to center stage in the first movie, possibly with Finn in attendance as a stormtrooper who decided to turn his back on the First Order because of what he saw Kylo Ren and his goons do. Having Snoke as the corruptor of Ben Solo would also have given us much more information about Snoke’s origins in the Unknown Regions, and it might have better explained where the heck the First Order came from. I mean, who builds a freakin’ planet-sized weapon without anyone in the New Republic noticing?
Making the fall and redemption of Ben Solo / Kylo Ren the centerpiece of the trilogy would have made it familiar territory for fans who’d watched Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall in Episodes I – III. Indeed, there are many of us who think the Prequel Trilogy botched what could have been a brilliant story – having Disney take another, darker, savvier go at it might have been very satisfying.
The surprise death of Snoke at Ben’s hands, as we see in The Last Jedi, was epic enough that it could have been the finale of Episode IX, but only if the story had been built up to lead inexorably to that point. Then it would have combined the story of the entire saga from Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi in a new fable for 21st century audiences.
I would have enjoyed that trilogy.
Snoke as an embodiment of the Dark Side of the Force
Yet another possibility for Snoke would have been to take the story really big. Instead of just retreading the same ground as the previous movies, the new movies could have dug deep into Star Wars lore and brought to light the many legends of Sith and Jedi. Snoke could have been the embodiment of ancient evil, possibly Darth Plagueis (the master of Sidious) or even the monstrous Darth Bane, somehow returned from the dead.
The corruption and redemption of Ben Solo could still have been a major part of the story arc, and Rey rising as the last hope for the Light Side of the Force would have made perfect sense. Or, even better, Rey and Finn rising as joint hopes for the future.
The Rise of Skywalker dabbled with this idea, of all the Sith and all the Jedi coming together into a single person each for a final, titanic battle. That could have been good, if Snoke had been free to stretch his own evil wings instead of being dumped in a tank of formaldehyde to make way for the return of Palpatine.
Making this all about Palpatine fell pretty flat – the old Emperor just wasn’t scary enough. What this trio of movies needed was a new, bigger, badder villain to really scare us. Killing off Han, Luke and Leia would have shown just how dangerous this new threat was, and the emotional poignancy would have been brilliant. Yes, Ren could kill his father in The Force Awakens at Snoke’s insistence. Then maybe Luke would die in an epic fight with Snoke himself to make Star Wars: The Last Jedi live up to its name. And then Leia sacrifices herself to give Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren what they needed to finally defeat Snoke once and for all.
That would have been amazing.
Snoke represents the whole problem with the Sequel Trilogy
Of course, none of that happened. Or it happened in such a half-baked way that it didn’t resonate emotionally with audiences. George Lucas created something wonderful in that galaxy far, far away, but he didn’t just breathe life into it and walk away. Yes, he made up stuff as he went along, but it pretty much fit into what had already been set down as canon (except Leia kissing Luke, ewww…). Looking back at six movies created out of chronological order, there’s not much that really doesn’t fit together.
So why are the three latest movies such a poodoo show?
Snoke and the “Magic Box”
J.J. Abrams has famously told the story of the magic box he bought as a kid, which promised “$50 worth of magic tricks for only $15”. As a kid, he was filled with wonder at what might be in that box, and the best part of it was the anticipation – and apparently he never actually opened the box because it was more fun to wonder. He says how he’s taken this approach to movie-making, often introducing fantastic ideas that he has no intention of ever explaining: they’re just there to add wonder. Anyone who’s seen The Force Awakens knows what I’m talking about – that movie leaves a list of questions as long as your arm, most of which are still not answered even after The Rise of Skywalker.
Nobody gave any thought to Snoke’s origin
Snoke is one of the most obvious “magic box” items. Actor Andy Serkis has claimed that Snoke does have a backstory, despite none of it ever appearing on film. Again, a major villain can be successful without revealing the source of his power or giving us full knowledge of his character history, but to make an effective story the movie creators need to at least have an idea of what motivates the major villain. A lackey like General Hux can remain one-dimensional, but when the entire conflict of the film is ultimately driven by Snoke (after all, every single character is reacting to what he does) the story will risk falling apart if nobody knows Supreme Leader Snoke’s motivation.
And don’t tell me he was just a puppet to Palpatine. That BS idea was created long after the project began.
The lack of overall vision is painful
Last Jedi director Rian Johnson clearly didn’t agree with the “magic box” style of film-making, and tore down a bunch of things Abrams had set up in the first movie. I still don’t disagree with his decision to kill Snoke off. It was a great moment for the apprentice to turn on his master, using his grandfather’s own lightsaber to do it. It potentially sent the tale on a wild new path, but one where it was still possible to do what George Lucas did and tie all the loose ends together in a rollicking third installment.
But then Abrams came back, dumped a bunch of things Johnson had set up and made Snoke irrelevant. The very title “Supreme Leader Snoke” gets dropped and forgotten, and suddenly the First Order has an “allegiant general” who outranks Hux and seems to know more about the true power behind the First Order than Ren.
It’s all, quite frankly, a complete mess.
Lucasfilm needs to learn from the failure of Snoke
Supreme Leader Snoke should have been amazing. Sitting there in his throne room with unrivaled powers in the Dark Side of the Force, his young apprentice growing into a new Vader, physically imposing and voiced by Andy Serkis. What’s not to love?
The problem of Snoke: Star Wars now has too many heads
It appears that Lucasfilm has created a very big problem for itself by handing power to too many creators. Don’t get me wrong: diversity is what brings life to an art form, and Star Wars is such a big canvas that we should be free to explore in many directions. But The Rise of Skywalker has proven that too many cooks killed what could have been a fantastic final section of the Skywalker saga.
Call me Palpatine, but Star Wars needs a single, strong leader
I realize that Star Wars is all about resistance to authority, and many fans would rather take death by lightsaber than see a single figure on the throne of Lucasfilm, but Snoke’s wasted potential just proves to me that there are too many competing visions and we, the fandom, suffer.
And there is a solution, which I think fans would get behind. After George Lucas, there’s one person who has consistently produced tight, consistent, epic and moving storylines and characters for this saga: Dave Filoni.
If Dave Filoni had been in charge of the final three movies, they would have been amazing. Supreme Leader Snoke would have been the best villain ever, and The Rise of Skywalker would have been a triumph.
Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning, best-selling author and ghostwriter of science fiction and space fantasy series. His newest novel is coming in Spring 2024.