When people learn that my older son dressed up as Anakin Skywalker for Halloween this year, with a six month old Yoda for a sidekick, they inevitably smile and say: “Of course, you had nothing to do with that, right?”
The truth is, I really didn’t. It all stems from his little friends at preschool playing Star Wars on the playground together. Of course, their Jedi-play is categorically different from mine at a similar age. This generation’s “Star Wars” is a TV show, not a series of movies, arriving not after glacial three-year waits between episodes, but weekly on Cartoon Network in the form of Lucasfilm’s animated Clone Wars.
I am not sure how I feel about this new entry into the franchise. It hardly seems fair that from 1980 to 1983 I had to endure a cliffhanger lasting a full 25% of my life so far to learn whether Darth Vader was truly Luke’s father and if Han Solo could ever be defrosted. What kind of skin do these kids really have in the game if they can just wait a week for resolution and kill time watching recent episodes online. Real Star Wars fans didn’t even own VCRs until the third film came out!
I guess, in that sense, I’m keeping it real by not even having a TV in the house today. Still, I can’t leave my son pop culturally hobbled amongst his peers, so I opted to break him in slowly with a couple of the films. As much as it pained me, I opted not to start with the classic films of my youth (now known as Episodes IV, V and VI) but rather with the more recent prequel films (now officially Episodes I, II and III, despite being filmed twenty years after the original hit the big screen). As much as I wanted us to leap together into a shared experience of my original trilogy, in the end I committed the blasphemy of accepting George Lucas’ revisionist stance on my childhood, allowing him to start his story where he sees fit, not with a teen-aged Luke Skywalker but rather a full generation earlier with his father Anakin as a child.
As a geek Dad, this was a controversial decision, involving the sci-fi equivalent of swapping faiths. There is no greater joy than sharing beloved childhood experiences with one’s own children, and Star Wars is clearly one of the cultural milestones of many dads of my generation. Its unapologetic embrace of archetypal myth in the trappings of sci-fi movie serials of the director’s youth bridged the gap between us and our fathers, and probably rescued an entire generation of boys from a society nearly stripped of the capacity for wonder by the massive cultural shifts of the generation before. Given how strongly kids are wrapping the Star Wars mythology around their playground imaginations again, I couldn’t in good faith deny my son that same experience. But like it or not, his experience of Star Wars has to feed into the story and characters he shares with his friends, which is a larger one than mine was. So my controversial viewing strategy is to show him only Episodes I and II leading into the Clone Wars cartoon he and his friends act out… and just letting it ride until he sees fit to ask for what comes next. No Luke. No Han Solo. No Ewoks. Just Anakin, Samuel Jackson, Yoda and a whole bunch of clones and foreshadowing.
This nags at me both as a grown fanboy and as a dad. Even though I am one of the few who can see past the ballyhooed flaws of the modern prequels and enjoy the sweep of all six films in their proper sequence, it is a change I am not sure how to embrace.
Largely because… well, the hero of his story is the villain of mine.
For those of you magically sheltered from the whole Star Wars experience, the character of Anakin Skywalker, Jedi knight and the greatest star pilot in the galaxy, hero to my son’s generation… will one day become Darth Vader, the defining face of evil to mine. These prequel films are all the back story to the characters I knew and loved. Sure, he’s a swashbuckling hero now. But I know he will eventually be corrupted by his anger and resentment, used as a pawn by the very politician he idealistically supports to betray and facilitate the murder of every member of his religious order in his rise to power before his surrogate father and mentor, the Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts him in a climactic duel that leaves him hideously disfigured and confined to a life support suit for the rest of his life. The stories my son and his friends thrill to are all set in the liminal years right before his fall, showing his heroism to kids like my son, while foreshadowing his moral ruination to all the wincing dads in the know watching it alongside them.
What to do? How do I pave the way for that story? It was so much easier when he was just Darth Vader, before Anakin was an admirable character in his own right. In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II decried the dehumanizing influence of our culture:
This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable “culture of death”. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.
Within the secular context of the Star Wars story, these are the very qualities Anakin as Darth Vader comes to embody. He is the face of that culture of death, right down to the dehumanizing and symbolic facade of his infamous black breather mask. His isn’t the hero’s journey. It’s a cautionary tale about the Dark Side of the Force, the perversion of the natural order, an expression of what the soul will serve when it denies a reality that “surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.” Is that really the story I want to share with my sons? I find it is easier to hate a villain than to watch one being made.
Which brings us back to Halloween. And election day.
We live in a Halloween town, you see. Where many neighborhoods go all out with Christmas decorations in the Winter, ours embraces Halloween in the Fall. Each year, there are complex homegrown horror displays with lighting and sound effects. Neighbors build temporary facades onto their homes to turn them into haunted castles and pirate ships. On Halloween night, one whole street nearby shuts down to make trick-or-treating the ultimate block party, complete with roaming demons and animatronic zombies.
The funny thing about zombies is how many layers of symbolism they have absorbed over time. Originally, “zombie” evoked not an image of the restless dead but rather of Haitian voodoo. The zombie threat in pulp fiction and early horror was about falling prey to a supernatural power enslaving victims and binding their will to the service of a powerful zombie master. Like in the classic 1932 Bela Lugosi film, “The White Zombie,” it carried inescapable overtones of race-baiting. It was George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968 that gave us zombies as we know them today, the sci-fi threat of inexplicably reanimated corpses hungering for the flesh of the living. To his credit, Romero turned the inherent racism of prior zombie fiction on its head by removing the supernatural element and making an African-American man one of the heroes of the film. In today’s post-HIV world, films like Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” make a zombie apocalypse the result of an uncontainable viral outbreak which, in keeping with the fast pace of our information age, results not in Romero’s shuffling horrors but rather quick-footed predators that can chase you to ground. Clearly zombies are big business. A high-profile AMC series based on Robert Kirkman’s comic series “The Walking Dead” premiered this week making high-horror the stuff of family drama. All of this speaks to the power of the zombie to give a face to our fears of the unknown and the culture of death that would exploit it in us.
This is why Halloween is one of my favorite religious holidays. It teaches us neither to fear death, nor to let it define our culture. Though largely a secular harvest celebration in America, it is still literally “All Hallow’s Eve,” the vigil before the next day’s Feast of All Saints where the Church traditionally commemorates all who have died and entered into the Divine presence. Extending the celebration further, the next day, November 2, is the closely related Feast of All Souls, when prayers are traditionally offered for all those who have died so that their souls may be embraced by God. Since this day in the United States is also election day, I can’t help but see a convergence of symbols across these celebrations: death as the face of inescapable change, uncertainty, and fear of an unknown future.
Sound like anyone you know?
This week, a nation responded to its fears of the ongoing economic downturn by turning over control of the legislative branch to the very party that was removed from power not two years ago. President Obama is now the third president in a row to have entered power with a majority mandate, and to have it taken away at the first midterm election. Closer to home, California chose to return one of its most influential yet unpopular former governors to office rather than elect his well-funded private sector opponent who personally financed (at over $140 million!) the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in U.S. history. Meanwhile, despite increasing productivity, job growth remains weak heading into 2011 and the Federal Reserve opted to buy $600 Billion in U.S. Debt to cut rates in a bid to spur growth.
In the language of corporate communication, our very culture is targeting us with messages that sow fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). In public relations or politics, FUD tactics are the weapon of choice for unseating an entrenched competitor with a superior advantage. You saw it in every campaign season attack ad: lead with a litany of terrifying outcomes and failed endeavors, then cast their shadow on your opponent’s record. Instant FUD. Yet this is the environment, the story which we and our children inhabit. The FUD factor surrounding us is the result of our culture at large, not some carefully sculpted campaign. Still, I wonder: what is the competition the culture of death is working so hard to unseat through this campaign?
I think the answer lies in my son’s choice of Halloween costume.
It is no mere irony that the identity my son would choose on a feast challenging the supremacy of death is in fact a premature Darth Vader. With three new films and a TV show showing the early heroism of the villain, I can see the Star Wars story in a different light. At the end of the story, Vader himself is unmasked and redeemed. After all his villainy, he chooses solidarity with his son over life in thrall to his dark master. In fact it is only through these inferior prequels, exploring his early years as a hero heading for a fall, that the full potential of his final chapter can be fulfilled. “The Return of the Jedi” (Episode VI) is no longer just the defeat of Darth Vader. It is the return to virtue of Anakin Skywalker, knight-errant on the hero’s journey out of the culture of death. In the end, it isn’t about villainy at all, but knighthood. Not death, but the return to life.
Isn’t that the story to tell our children, that even villains aspired once to be heroes? That the heroic journey can in fact lead to the Dark Side if one gives in to fear, uncertainty and doubt? In a culture of death that would make zombies of us all, choose therefore the path of the knight, even if it seems too late. And perhaps, most important of all, don’t be afraid of the dark.