May 4 has earned the honorary holiday title of “Star Wars Day,” according to StarWars.com. The sci-fi series is celebrated on this date due to its popular mantra, “May the Force be with you,” which sounds like “May the 4th.” The franchise often cleverly plays with morality.
When it comes to the Star Wars franchise, it’s hard to get past all the pizzazz. Lightsabers, spaceships, robots that ooze personality, the Force, epic outer space battles, and adorable creatures abound in virtually every scene. However, behind that, the story—which takes influence everywhere from Dune to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress—often makes interesting statements about morality. Some are subtle; others, not so much.
The light side and dark side of the telekinesis-inspired Force are just the beginning of how series creator George Lucas and his successors wove tales of good, bad, and all points in between for the last 43 years.
Bending one’s moral code has served as a vehicle for a lot of great storytelling over the years, but the first three Star Wars films kept things pretty cut-and-dry for the most part.
“The original Star Wars trilogy is notorious for its lack of moral ambiguity—for being painfully black-and-white,” said Dr. David K. Johnson, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “Luke, dressed in white, and the Rebel Alliance are obviously good; Darth Vader, armored in black, and the Empire are obviously bad. Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader’s master, is cartoonish and almost comically evil: a grotesque wrinkled figure hidden under a cloak who cackles as he reveals his plans.”
Dr. Johnson added that many Star Wars fans are quick to point out that Han Solo, bounty hunter and overall rascal, is more of a morally ambiguous character. Han’s main motivator, for some time, is money. However, even by the end of the first film in the original trilogy, when young hero, Luke Skywalker, is on a mission to destroy the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, Han Solo returns to save Luke and to facilitate the galaxy-saving mission—free of charge.
Overall, the original Star Wars trilogy is plain as day.
Moral Ambiguity in Rogue One
Star Wars: Rogue One, released in 2016, does a far more thorough job of muddying the lines between right and wrong than the original Star Wars trilogy did. Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebels in the original Star Wars film got the secret plans for the Death Star.
“An imperial pilot defects to bring a message to Saw Gerrera, an old ally of the rebels,” Dr. Johnson said. “Saw Gerrera himself, although he fights the Empire, engages in guerrilla tactics, many of which endanger innocent lives—like the little girl that Jyn Erso rescues during the street attack on Jedha. He even tortures the pilot bringing him the message to make sure he’s not lying about it.”
Dr. Johnson pointed out that despite all this, the Rebels still try to ally themselves to Saw Gerrera. One character, Cassian, even admits near the end of the film that all of the characters have “all done terrible things” for the Rebellion, including spying, sabotage, and assassinations.
“All this might make one think that the Rebels are essentially terrorists,” he said. “They are fighting a fascist regime, sure, but they use terrorism to do it.”
Questions like this definitely cause us to wonder if it’s time for another visit to a galaxy far, far away…
Dr. David Kyle Johnson contributed to this article. Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma.