It’s surreal to me that every little drip of Star Wars-related production gossip is now front page news after I used to get such grief for caring about the franchise as a kid, but I understand the palpable anticipation at this week’s announcement. Lucasfilm has revealed that the character of Princess Leia will be back in the forthcoming and as-yet-untitled Episode IX. Further, it’s been revealed that she’ll be portrayed by the late Carrie Fisher, using previously shot footage and without any digital necromancy as the studio had earlier promised.
This strikes me as a mix of good and bad news with a side of uncertainty, and I know I won’t be the only person who feels the same way.
Star Wars’ First Hero
It’s reassuring to know that, at minimum, we’re going to be getting some kind of conclusion to the story of an integral and beloved character in a series that some people have been following their entire lives. It also would have been a total disservice to the story itself not to. Leia’s been in the thick of it since before the very first scene. Right from that series-defining opening crawl, we’re informed she’s leading a rebellion and sneaking stolen intel to freedom fighters.
You know, of course (because I told you) that Star Wars is Luke’s hero’s journey, and that this often requires there to be some kind of imperiled damsel for the hero to aid. Part of the beauty of Star Wars as a modern take on an old way of telling stories is that it presents a conflict in two parts. Luke is on a mystical quest, taking up arms in a fight of good against evil. Leia, who functions as his literal call to adventure, has already taken up arms in the other part of the conflict, which is the brass tacks, real-world political struggle.
Which is to say, Luke is doing battle with the insidious evil force that is behind that awfully familiar-looking Empire. Leia, it’s illustrated right from the start, has been on the front lines fighting those goose-stepping morons for years. To the great credit of the movies, they never once forget that Leia’s sole guiding motivation is to pick a fight with the bad guys and win it hard and dirty.
Is it true that she gets captured (sometimes more than once) in every one of the original trilogy movies? Sure. But let’s look at her rap sheet.
Episode IV: Captured while transporting critical intel and only after going down guns blazing, she is incarcerated, made to watch her planet get blown up, and nonetheless holds out under torture until she is rescued, whereupon she gets a gun, shoots a bunch of her captors in the face, and directs a retaliatory strike that blows up the prison that was holding her.
In Episode V, her capture occurs only after she supervised the evacuation of a military stronghold and led the enemy forces on a costly quagmire of a chase, during which we witness them losing what might be billions of dollars in military hardware and senior staff. Again, she stays captured right up until she gets free, whereupon she again shoots her captors in the face.
She is captured no fewer than three times in Episode VI, once for the admittedly somewhat ditzy reason of wanting to rescue her boyfriend, but loyalty to loved ones is as heroic a quality in a person as playing chicken with a space gangster using a nuclear grenade is a badass one. The infamous Slave Leia outfit has been looked at askance by critics. Yes, it’s lurid and exploitative. It also was explicitly put on her against her will by an asshole villain. And, as Carrie Fisher herself once said in response to a father questioning her about what he should say to his daughter regarding it:
“Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it,” she said. “And then I took it off. Backstage.”
Her second and third captures in that same film feature getting held at gunpoint by stormtroopers, which happen because she happens to be in the midst of directing a guerrilla sabotage operation on an enemy jungle base. It doesn’t go well for her captors either time.
Holding her up next to Han and Luke, her character reads as just as determined, just as resilient, just as if not occasionally more competent, and isn’t ever depicted as brought low by emotion or weakness any more often or any more severely than her male co-stars (who both also get captured and tortured because they are also both in the midst of daring adventures).
The marketing for the movies understood it. “The strength of a leader!” one 1982 trailer for Return of the Jedi declared, right before showing off some of Leia’s action beats.
I always end up going far deeper into the old Expanded Universe of Star Wars novels than I’m sure anybody cares about, but it’s worth mentioning that authors like Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson took her character and ran with it. She gives birth to three li’l Jedi babies, but motherhood doesn’t stop her from continuing on as a major political figure in the New Republic and even taking a couple levels in Jedi under her brother’s instruction. Fans of the property over the past four decades have had just as much delightful drama from her storylines as they have for the rest of the family.
Star Wars has, right from the beginning, been a story that invites fans not just to enjoy the movies, but to play around in the world like it’s a galaxy-sized sandbox with endless opportunities for adventure (and buy the lunch box). Hand any kid a Princess Leia action figure and see if it’s any less a catalyst for “pew pew” noises than a Luke or a Kylo Ren.
Hollywood’s Rebel Princess
That’s why, painful as it would have been, I might have been able to accept the series casting another actor to portray Leia for the express purpose of finishing her tale on a high note. I can’t even suggest who might be up to the task and also willing to undergo the various and sundry indignities of starring in blockbuster action properties whose very, very worst fans harangue people into hiding.
I also know that I’m in the minority on that by somewhat more than 12 parsecs. Carrie Fisher had, over the years following her most visible role, time and again made a public reckoning with its effect on her life. Her public struggles with drug abuse, mental illness, and the burdens of fame turned a page in the history of the phenomenon that is Hollywood celebrity. She eventually came around and enthusiastically owned the role as a part of her personal identity.
By then, having become a sort of elder stateswoman of Hollywood, she had also become the best part of following Star Wars news as the series ramped up for revival with 2015’s The Force Awakens. Fisher knew the significance of her character to young people and, like that character, had no time for haters.
A Figure of Triumph and Tragedy
Knowing that Fisher will be posthumously returning in her role is, for that reason, welcome news. To generations of fans, there simply will never be anybody else who can portray her—at least not in the bounds of this discrete continuity. What concerns me is whether, using the surely limited material they have available, they can do both the larger-than-life actor and her larger-than-life character the proper justice.
A lot of people, me included, felt some pangs of disappointment at the reveal that the role of her character in The Force Awakens was as a military commander up to another hopeless war rather than somebody who had risen to her hereditary destiny as a Jedi—something she did a bit more in the books but didn’t really fully embrace there, either. I’ve come to accept it in part because, like her brother, there’s an element of epic tragedy in her tale, as well: A hero fighting on against the very shape of the world itself, unable to bend it. Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is as much a failure of her parenting as it is of Luke’s training—her unanswered call for aid is as much a valiant last stand as Luke’s phantom dueling gambit.
But she’s also the one who’s arguably fought the hardest and lost the most, and seeing her overcome in the end would be a crown atop nine movies and half a century of storytelling. The circumstances of Fisher’s untimely death, the inseparable nature of the actor from the character, and the respectful and right-minded decision not to use her likeness as a digital puppet mean we can’t possibly expect to see her putting boot to ass at the head of a fleet or bringing the central drama of the series to a close through a tearful tête-à-tête with her wayward son.
I’ll be alongside the legions of breathless fans waiting to see her final bow in the role nonetheless. It’ll be another reminder that though everybody surely knew Fisher’s character would outlive her, nobody ever thought it would happen so soon.
Kenneth Lowe recognized your foul stench the moment he came onboard. You can follow him on Twitter or read more of his writing at his blog.