Post Conflict World Building: The Force Awakens vs. The Legend of Korra

When a major fantasy series reaches its conclusion, the viewer is often left with a feeling of optimism. The foes have been vanquished, evil is defeated, and our heroes finally have peace. But what happens when that fantasy series is so popular that viewers demand a sequel? How can the writers continue to build their world after the major conflict is resolved?

Star Wars fans have long been preoccupied with this question. After Return of the Jedi ended there was a slew of media products that continued the stories of Luke, Han, Leia, and the others. When Episode VII: The Force Awakens was announced, fans received some devastating, but also curious news: the Expanded Universe would have no bearing on the story of Episode VII. J.J. Abrams and crew were starting fresh, picking up the story 30 years after Jedi.

However, in throwing out the canonical mythology of Star Wars, Abrams’ team created a huge challenge: how do they make The Force Awakens exciting given that the Empire has been defeated? And how can they possibly top the tension and conflict felt in the Original Trilogy?

I’m of the opinion that The Force Awakens, for all of its strengths, made several missteps in its attempt to continue the Star Wars mythology in the wake of the Empire’s collapse.

But before I explain why, I want to examine the post-conflict world building present in the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel, The Legend of Korra. The creators of Korra faced a similar challenge to Abram’s team, and found a way to make Korra feel fresh, even though the central conflict of Airbender was long resolved.

The Fire Nation and the Hundred Year War

Avatar: The Last Airbender (TLA) is a fantasy martial arts show about a world made up of four people groups: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Each society is centered around one of the four elements. The Avatar’s job is to keep the world in balance. The intro explains it concisely.

However, before TLA begins, the world is thrown into chaos. The Fire Nation declares war on the world. They commit genocide and wipe out the Air Nomads. Then over the course of a hundred years, they wage war on the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom.

Aang, the Avatar, ran away from his duties and accidentally froze himself in ice. There he remained, hidden in the sea, for a hundred years, until two Water Tribe peasants freed him.

The central conflict of TLA is clear: the Fire Nation is on the verge of conquering the world, and the Avatar has to stop them.

In fact, at the end of Season 2 (of 3), the Fire Nation succeeds, finally conquering the Earth Kingdom, by far the largest people group. The situation is hopeless, but Aang and friends manage to defeat the Fire Lord and end the war.

The series ends with our heroes hopeful for the future. They know that the world must be rebuilt, and know it will take a lot of effort.

Korra picks up the story 70 years later

TLA was hugely successful for Nickelodeon, and it’s my favorite animated series of all time. The show is perfect in its execution, from the story to the visuals to the music to the voice acting to the characters.

When Nick announced in 2010 that Avatar was receiving a sequel, I was excited, though I had some trepidation. How could The Legend of Korra possibly live up to the scope of TLA? The original series was about saving the world, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher: a hundred year war, a missing avatar, the destruction of an entire people group, and the conquering of the biggest nation.

The short answer is: Korra could never create a conflict greater than TLA. The creators—Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko—knew this, and they didn’t try.

Korra takes place 70 years after TLA. Aang is dead, as are many of his friends. A new avatar, Korra, has been reborn. She’s now charged with keeping the world in balance.

Korra ran for four seasons, 52 episodes, almost as long as TLA’s run (61 episodes). Instead of having one central conflict, Korra instead has four smaller conflicts. These conflicts never begin to approach the scope of TLA, and that’s okay. By having more tightly focused conflicts, the creators showed us more of the world, and exposed the characters to new challenges that didn’t come up in TLA.

Stories, at their core, are about characters, and DiMartino and Konietzko created an ensemble cast of characters who felt like real people. Just because Korra didn’t have as big of a conflict as TLA didn’t mean the show was automatically lesser than TLA (side note, Korra is a lesser show than TLA, but that has more to do with pacing and story problems, as well as a botched production and release schedule).

The four conflicts in Korra show us new facets of the world and are interesting in their own right. Season 1 is about an anti-bender revolution that believes that the benders, the heroes of the Hundred Years War, are bad people. Season 2 is about a civil war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes about which tribe should control access to the Spirit World. Season 3 is about overthrowing the government and throwing the world into chaos. Season 4 is about the rise of a totalitarian Earth Empire.

The story of TLA also continued in the comics. We see the struggles of Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang as they annex land from the Earth Kingdom to make Republic City, a place where people of all nations can live. We see the creation of Toph’s metalbending school. Each new arc in the comics explores consequences of the fall of the Fire Nation.

The creators of TLA found meaningful ways to continue the story, world building, and characters in both a sequel TV series and comics. So far, the Avatar mythology hasn’t tried to top the central conflict of the first story, and that’s for the better.

With that background, let’s look at how The Force Awakens struggled in its execution, namely in trying to make a conflict bigger than the Original Trilogy in a way that didn’t make logical sense.

Star Wars’ post-Empire challenge

When Star Wars: A New Hope begins, the stakes are set incredibly high, and it’s very clear from the opening scene what they are. The Empire is a massive, all-powerful operation. The Rebels are a ragtag group of freedom fighters with dirty, substandard ships. Midway through the movie, the Empire demonstrates the height of their power: they can blow up entire planets.

The Rebels have a brief victory in the destruction of the Death Star, but in The Empire Strikes Back their base gets destroyed, and in Return of the Jedi the Empire has already rebuilt their planet-killing machine.

By the end of the movie, all the conflicts are resolved: the Emperor is killed, Darth Vader is redeemed, and the second Death Star is destroyed. Similarly to TLA, the viewer is treated to an optimistic few minutes of denouement. Leia and Han fall in love, Luke mourns his father and sees the ghosts of his trainers, and the galaxy celebrates the fall of the Empire.

The viewer feels good: all the conflicts are resolved, right?

Well, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thought to realize that ROTJ doesn’t definitively end the conflict. Sure, the Emperor is dead and the Death Star is gone, but the Empire is huge. There are millions of soldiers spread across the galaxy, and countless Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters. And as anybody knows from history, toppling a dictator isn’t the end of any country’s struggles. All it does is create a power vacuum.

The Expanded Universe understood this. The first EU novels I read were Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, which concern Grand Admiral Thrawn, who attempts to pull together the last vestiges of the Empire to resist the New Republic. When I read those novels, the storyline of the EU instantly made sense: the Rebel’s actions at the end of ROTJ did not fully defeat the Empire. It would take years to recover from a generation of tyranny.

The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after ROTJ. Just as the Legend of Korra couldn’t replicate the magnitude of the conflict in TLA, there’s no way that the new Star Wars trilogy could replicate the magnitude of conflict in the Original Trilogy.

But that didn’t stop Abrams and team from trying.

The Force Awaken’s missteps

Star Wars is a series where you have to suspend your disbelief in many ways. It’s not science fiction: the way spaceships jet in and out of hyperspace like it’s no big deal wouldn’t actually work.

So it might be reading into it a bit too much, but researchers have calculated what the cost of building two Death Stars would be, and the amount is staggering. One estimate is $419 quintillion (billion billion). I’m not exactly sure how big the galaxy of Star Wars is, but even if there were thousands of systems containing intelligent life paying taxes to the Empire, this is an awfully large sum of money.

And the Rebels blew up both projects! The result should be a galaxy-wide economic depression, one that would take generations to recover from.

Considering that, how did the First Order manage to rise up in the first place? Sure, there would’ve been a power vacuum after the defeat of the Emperor. It’s reasonable to conclude, as the Hand of Thrawn series did, that splinter groups would arise.

The First Order, though, isn’t made up of the leftover parts of the Empire. Their ships are new, the stormtrooper armor is new, and somehow they found the resources to create an even more powerful weapon than the Death Star, one that can destroy not one planet at a time, but multiple planets and/or moons! And it also destroys suns in the process.

Our hero Finn says that he’s been raised since birth to be a stormtrooper. He looks about 20 in the film, so considering that The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Jedi, that means that the First Order must have arisen very near the beginning. How else would they be so organized that they are already raising babies to be stormtroopers?

For all the flaws that the Prequel Trilogy had, one thing they did well was show how Palpatine slowly, over the course of a decade, set all the pieces in place for the rise of his Empire. We see in Attack of the Clones that Palpatine was already planning the creation of the first Death Star, something that wouldn’t be complete until some 25 years later.

The First Order, then, would’ve had considerably less capital to work with than Palpatine did, given that the galaxy would likely be in an economic depression (not to mention the political chaos caused by the formation of the New Republic). And yet somehow the First Order was able to achieve dominance faster, and to a greater extent, than the Empire before it.

Abrams and crew, by the end of The Force Awakens, have somehow created a threat greater than the Empire ever was, but in a way that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

How the Force Awakens should’ve approached world building

The EU was on the right track with the understanding that the Empire wouldn’t completely collapse overnight. Others would attempt to fill the power vacuum, using the remnants of the Empire’s force.

And the New Republic, while its goals were certainly noble, would have a difficult time actually establishing a galaxy-wide government. How exactly could one government somehow maintain control of so many disparate systems? In The Phantom Menace, we saw that the Old Republic couldn’t even handle a simple trade dispute on a backwoods planet.

The Force Awakens should’ve began with both the fledgling New Republic and the resistant First Order each vying for power. And there would be no “Resistance” separate from the New Republic. Why would the New Republic be financing a secret organization that shares their same goals for peace in the galaxy? Why exactly didn’t the New Republic have an army, considering that many people would remember how well it worked out for the Old Republic when they didn’t have an army?

The Prequel Trilogy was criticized, rightfully so, for having far too much politics, far too much talking and legislating. Those criticisms have been well-voiced the past 15 years.

The Force Awakens, however, shows us absolutely nothing about how the New Republic functions. The viewer is treated to about 10 seconds of footage about the New Republic. We see a new planet and a new city that we know nothing about. We see dozens of people standing on a balcony, presumably the leaders of the New Republic? And then there’s a flash of light as the planets are vaporized by Starkiller Base.

It’s like Abrams wanted to reset the Star Wars universe as quickly as possible, to return us to the classic conflict of the Underdogs vs. a repressive Empire. The Legend or Korra recognized that it couldn’t top a Hundred Years War, so it didn’t even try. The Force Awakens did try, and hurt itself in the process.

The Force Awakens actually succeeded the most at world building in the first few minutes that we meet Rey. We see her scavenging through a deserted Star Destroyer and selling the parts. As she speeds into town, we see several downed Star Destroyers, the artifacts of a war a generation removed. Rey even lives in a broken down AT-AT!

Downed Star Destroyer in The Force Awakens

Those first few minutes with Rey are my favorite part of the movie. They provide a glimpse of how far the galaxy has to go in healing itself from the Empire. And isn’t that how military conflicts in real life resolve, after decades and decades of rebuilding? After all, the Great Wall of China was designed to protect the country against invaders. Post-World War II Germany was segregated into Eastern and Western sections for two generations. Many countries in Asia still have landmines buried from the result of wars long past.

And many nations around the world, including the United States, are still using military equipment that’s several generations old! The First Order shouldn’t be outfitted with shiny new black Star Destroyers. They should be using equipment from the Empire days that’s visibly degraded. You know how Han’s Millennium Falcon is always breaking down? Why aren’t the TIE Fighters doing the same thing?

The Force Awakens should’ve opened with a scrappy New Republic, struggling to keep everything hanging together. And the aggressors should’ve been the remnants of the Empire, jury rigging whatever equipment they could find just to keep their army functioning.

The citizens of the New Republic should be frustrated with the lack of progress that the galaxy’s made in recovering from the Empire. And the First Order should step in to show them a clear alternative, a group of people who believes they can return the galaxy to the glory days of the Empire.

There’s a scene right before the Starkiller Base fires when General Hux, dressed in black, gives a stirring speech about the majesty of power to crowds of assembled troops. Abrams was clearly drawing off Nazi imagery, and I think the Nazis provide a useful, albeit clichéd, lens for understanding the First Order. That’s fine, but Abrams misstepped by paralleling the Nazis at the height of their power: he should’ve paralleled the Nazis during their rise to power.

In the 1930s, Hitler arose to speak to the needs and desires of the German people. He promised a return to glory. He spoke to people who were fed up with the economic depression they were experiencing, caused in part by crippling debt from World War I.

I don’t think Starkiller Base was the correct plot device in the Force Awakens. It should’ve been something much smaller scale—after all, how can the Star Wars team possibly top this conflict by Episode IX? It would’ve been wise, though, if the First Order, by the end of the movie, managed to destroy, or at least significantly damage, the fragile New Republic.

Then, in Episode VIII, we’d see a shift in power. The New Republic and the First Order are no longer co-equals. The First Order clearly has the advantage, and the collapsing New Republic becomes the seed of the new Resistance.

The Force Awakens has already succeeded in introducing several new lovable, human, relatable characters. The Legend of Korra proved that if you have strong characters and strong relationships, you can still have a successful story, even if the scope of the conflict doesn’t match the level of the previous series.

If only the Force Awakens had shown similar discretion.

~Dennis

Feminists are giving Rey from the Force Awakens far too much credit

Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is universally loved by critics and moviegoers. Finally, a female lead in Star Wars!—so the praise can be boiled down to.

I’ve seen Episode VII twice now and I agree, Rey is a great character. I have no complaints about her, unlike some, who think she’s “too good” at the stuff she does.

However, women critics are absolutely gushing over her portrayal, as if Rey was the female sci-fi heroine we’ve been waiting all of human history for. And now she’s arrived, ushering in a new area of equality on the big screen.

But are these praises justified?

Let’s look at what women are saying about Rey.

Rey cleans parts on Jakku

Patricia Karvelas’ column in The Guardian, headlined “Star Wars is a game-changer, awakening the feminist force in little girls everywhere,” speaks of Rey in prophetic tones. Karvelas writes (emphasis added):

[Rey] never doubts herself, the scenes of her flying the Millennium Falcon are the most empowering scenes the Star Wars machine have ever produced. The dialogue between her and Han Solo finally provides the feminist punch-the-air moment we’ve all been desperately waiting for.

She goes on to say:

The character of Rey is a game changer for the little girls around the world who have been disgracefully ignored by the Star Wars empire for decades.

While it’s true that the Star Wars movies don’t have a lot of female characters (ignoring the wide Expanded Universe), is Rey really the character we’ve been desperately waiting for?

Rebecca Carroll describes Rey as “a next generation badass boss bitch that we and Princess Leia can be proud of.” I’m not even sure what that means. Rey isn’t really a leader in Episode VII.

Meg Heckman wrote for the USA Today:

The Force Awakens is, in many ways, a feminist reinterpretation of the original Star Wars movie that wowed audiences nearly 40 years ago.

Tasha Robinson wrote for The Verge:

We may have reached peak Strong Female Character with Rey. Yes, she should be an extreme outlier, not a model for every female character to aspire to, just as not every male character in the movies should be Captain America or Ethan Hunt. But she should also be allowed to be as unquestionably superlative a protagonist as they are.

So I guess Rey is as good as female characters will ever get. There’s no possible way they can be improved. Should storytellers pack their bags and go home now?

Casey Cipriani wrote for Bustle, in a piece entitled “Why Rey in ‘The Force Awakens’ is the feminist hero we’ve all been waiting for”:

Thanks to its passing of the Bechdel test, its group of significant female roles, and, most majorly, its lead character of Rey, this newest Star Wars installment is doing wonders for women in film.

While the most vocal supporters of Rey, for good reason, are women, men are also falling over themselves to praise Rey. Shawn Binder wrote for Distractify:

Rey, played with aplomb by Daisey Ridley, is a tour-de-force of feminism and general badassery. Sure, there were other women in the Star Wars universe before her who were tough and powerful in their own right, but Rey is the first complex hero of the franchise that just happens to be a woman.

When Rey lit up the screen for the first time, girls everywhere finally had a major player in a blockbuster they could relate to.

Notice how the great female characters of the Star Wars universe are so quickly pushed aside. Princess Leia is great, but she wasn’t the main character. Complex heroines like Mara Jade or Ahsoka are glossed over because they didn’t appear in the main Star Wars movies.

Rey and Finn in the Millennium Falcon

Again, this post isn’t designed to take anything away from Rey as a character. She’s a great character in her own right. But a revolutionary, transformative character? Only if you define the parameters for “revolutionary” so narrowly that she’s the only character who can meet the criteria, namely, that to be revolutionary, a female character has to be the main hero of a Star Wars movie specifically.

But what of all the other female characters in fantasy and science fiction? Feminists aren’t looking hard enough if they believe that Rey is the character we’ve all been waiting for. As David French wrote in the National Review:

But for the feminist Left, the past is a yawning abyss of sexism. It’s almost like they haven’t actually watched the last 40 years of science fiction.

Over the last month, I’ve witnessed the praise for Rey with disbelief and confusion. Maybe I’m getting something wrong. Was there really no good female character before Rey? Is Rey really a game-changer for little girls? Have we really “arrived” at a utopia of equality?

I can think of scores of strong female characters, from a variety of media, who were trailblazers long before Rey was conceived. Ripley from Alien. Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop. Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. April O’Neil from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cheetara from the ThunderCats. All the Sailor Scouts from the Sailor Moon series. Melfina, Aisha Clanclan, and Suzuka from Outlaw Star. Kagome from Inuyasha. Terra and Celes from Final Fantasy VI. Tifa from Final Fantasy VII. Yuna from Final Fantasy X. Lightning, Fang, Serah, and Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, and Bayonetta from Bayonetta.

The list goes on. Whether the medium is film, television, animation, comics, or video games, there are plenty of likable female protagonists for girls and boys to look up to. Are there as many strong female characters as there are male characters? Probably not: the Lord of the Rings is very male-heavy. Our fictive landscape still needs new female characters that speak to a modern audience, just as we still need new male characters that speak to a modern audience.

Humanity is incredibly diverse, and storytellers haven’t yet exhausted the well of character possibilities.

Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What bothers me most about the excessive praise of Rey is that feminists are erasing the accomplishments of previous female protagonists. I’m not sure why. To perpetuate this narrative that women are criminally disadvantaged compared to men in all measures of success, including representation in sci-fi and fantasy media? I don’t know why they are doing this.

Remember back to May 2015. Mad Max: Fury Road was released to near universal acclaim. And for good reason: I think the movie is every bit as awesome as people say. One of the most surprising aspects of the film was the depth of the female co-lead Furiosa, who was proclaimed as a feminist hero. Women media critics everywhere praised Furiosa. They spoke of her in the same prophetic tones now reserved for Rey: we finally have the female action hero we’ve been waiting for!

So what happened between the release of Fury Road and the Force Awakens? Did equality take a step back in six months? Of course not. They’ve simply forgotten their own history of progress.

The evidence for game-changing female characters goes back decades. For a useful point of comparison (not that this character was the game changer, but simply a game-changer long before Rey), look at Sarah Connor from the Terminator series. Released in 1984, the Terminator gave audiences a very strong character in Sarah Connor. She’s an everyday woman, down on her luck, but through her strength and courage, she faces and triumphs over a robotic threat.

In 1991, we return to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. She’s gotten even stronger, and she has a conviction that the world is ending, even though nobody believes her. Integral to Sarah’s identity is her status as a mother, something that should not be overlooked.

Some feminists believe that having a female action hero who simply beats up a lot of people isn’t enough, and is actually sexist. That’s the argument Celina Durgin makes in the National Review about the new Supergirl TV show. A female character who is simply strong is just a male character in female clothing. That essence that makes women different than men is lost.

For Sarah Connor, her femininity is tied to motherhood; she’s the protector of John Connor, the leader of the resistance against the machines. But she’s also a herald and prophet of the end-times, doing anything she can to prevent the machines becoming self-aware.

She’s was game-changing feminist hero—30 years before Rey graced the silver screen.

To conclude, Rey is an excellent character and a worthy addition to not only the Star Wars pantheon of heroes, but the pantheon of sci-fi and fantasy heroines. Critics could do well to remember the long, transformative history of female characters in sci-fi and fantasy media because Rey is hardly breaking new ground.

~Dennis