|| One of the first movies I saw in theaters was Star Wars when I would have been around 4. I don’t remember much of that first viewing, but I knew enough of the movie (and the toys!) to instantly recognize the commercial for Empire Strikes Back. I remember watching the Millenium Falcon dodge around asteroids, and when it was over sprinting with my brother to see the parents and tell them another Star Wars movie was coming out. Before Empire came out in theaters they showed Star Wars again and I most definitely do remember watching it this time around, and spending a lot of time drawing sand crawlers. And, when they came out on VHS, I watched them over and over and over again and can still quote almost all of the original trilogy. All of which is to say, that I grew up with Star Wars, its mythos is an ingrained part of me, and I have been a fan for, literally, 40 years. So I was incredibly excited for The Last Jedi coming out, and saw it just after finishing Phasma. The two of them got me thinking more about the Star Wars’ Universe in general, and Forciness in particular. Beware as I talk about these though, because I’m not nearly clever enough to write about them without including SPOILERS. I realize that enough time has passed to render this warning more or less moot, but all the same…
So I noticed almost immediately that both Phasma and The Last Jedi were different. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were also different but the changes were gaining momentum. I’ve read several of the EU’s novels, both graphic and traditional, and while I enjoyed them, I never felt the connection to the universe that so many others have. In Phasma I realized a little bit of why that was, as its characters weren’t flat archetypes against a huge, grandly wrought backdrop, but deeply nuanced against a smaller, more intimate one. Delilah Dawson deftly added a level of grey I’d never encountered in the EU by giving all of its characters varying degrees of both good and bad elements instead of almost wholly of either extreme. Brendal Hux truly does see the First Order as a necessary means to eliminate the localized warlords and petty officials who so willingly oppress their own people. Indeed the removal such tyrants is in and of itself a noble goal, but not to just be replaced by the rigid authoritarianism of the the First Order- especially since doing so garnered Hux a life of luxury and power.
Most of SW has seen its antagonists as evil for the sake of evil. There are shoutouts to deeper motivations, such as Vader telling Luke he wants to bring “order” to the galaxy, but we’ve already seen what that means to the empire, so it feels more like a hollow afterthought than a true motivation. In Phasma though, Dawson graphically illustrates how the world is not simply defined by good and evil, but that evil can take many forms, can fight amongst its various incarnations, and that “saving” the oppressed is more often than not an exercise in trading masters than finding peace and prosperity. It is disconcerting, but also compelling, and adds a grit to SW that has been easily glossed over in the past. No longer are there just Villains, Victims, and Heroes, there are rich characters encompassing different admixtures of each.
While ambition, ruthlessness, and wanton sociopathy readily describe Phasma, Dawson adds layers of grey to the equation, showing her to be a product of the furnace in which she was forged. Phasma also introduces Cardinal who is a True Believer® in the First Order, the most dedicated of dedicated soldiers, and Phasma’s nemesis. It is not until he is forced to question the reality of the First Order that he sees how thoroughly he has been used and manipulated. Cardinal is important because he illustrates how, without outside intervention, he would have never seen past the First Order’s propaganda, and he would have happily continued churning out child soldiers for the rest of his life. As much as Phasma is the title character, and the story revolves around her history, it is Cardinal who changes the most as a character because of those layers of nuance, and reflects the difficulty in bringing someone back to reality when their world is wholly shaped by carefully chosen lies.
The final layer Dawson adds to Phasma is the telling of Phasma’s story through the rebel spy Vi to her captor, Cardinal. Vi herself is far from a wholly altruistic Rebel either, and while she believes in the cause, she believes in getting paid too. At first the interaction between Vi and Cardinal felt like an unnecessary layer inserted between the reader and the story. It reminded me of Assassin Creed in that sense, (a video game in which instead of just being the damn assassin, you’re reliving the assassin’s life through a distant relative vis-a-vis a technobabble machine that recreates the memories in Virtual Reality), so I was initially disappointed. As the story progresses though, Vi and Cardinal show the same struggle as individuals that pervades the Galaxy and its struggles between the First Order, Rebels, local tyrants, and all the rest of the people who just want to be left the hell alone. It’s a subtle, eloquent reminder that we aren’t all good or bad, and that it’s our choices that make the difference- if we know we have them.