One of the most popular (and my personal favorite) fan theories about Supreme Leader Snoke is that he is Ezra Bridger, the young Force-sensitive character from Disney XD’s Star Wars Rebels. Proof? When has an Internet fan theory ever required proof? But something something Dark Side something something similar scars was enough for the argument to gain traction among the most devoted. Thankfully, The Last Jedi debunked this theory, along with a host of others.
Ah, The Last Jedi. This film contains some of the most divisive and polarizing moments in the saga since The Phantom Menace revealed that young Ani Skywalker loved podracing. (Yippee!) Back in 1999, nothing in the Expanded Universe could have prepared us for that. If only Rebels had existed back then, since the animated series has already addressed some of the contentious thematic elements of Last Jedi.
The disillusioned former Jedi
Some folks cringed at Luke’s characterization in The Last Jedi. The former last hope of the Rebellion is reduced to a daily routine that has some cardio and also some sucking down on warm thala-siren milk. Fearing that his split-second betrayal of Ben Solo revealed something darker within, Luke cuts himself off from the Force so thoroughly that his twin sister can’t track him down. He is no longer the fresh-faced kid who was called to adventure so long ago. He is a Luke who uncovered the Jedi Order’s hubris and arrogance. This Luke wants nothing to do with Rey or the Resistance. It takes Rey’s dogged determination and a nudge from R2-D2 before Luke is coaxed back into action.
Like Luke, Kanan Jarrus is a man caught between two worlds: the isolated and idealistic world of the Jedi Order, and the harsh reality of life under the shadow of the Empire. When the Emperor issued Order 66, Kanan was still a padawan, and since that moment, he’s turned away from everything the Jedi stood for. He packed away his lightsaber, picked up a blaster, and never looked back. When Ezra shows up, Kanan finally figures out that he should pass on the ways of the Jedi. Or at least show Ezra how to wield a lightsaber without getting himself killed. As he teaches his headstrong apprentice, Kanan reconnects with that past aspect of his life. He’s not a Jedi, but that doesn’t preclude him from passing on what he’s learned.
Neither Luke nor Kanan is the same person he was when they began their journeys as Jedi, but both of them realize that they need to cultivate a connection with the Force that will survive for future generations.
The struggle reaches much further than just spaceships shooting at each other
The Last Jedi places a spotlight on a group of individuals that the saga hasn’t focused on before: the arms dealers and war profiteers who toss their credits around Canto Bight while exploiting the most vulnerable for entertainment and sport. This setting most resembles the prequels, where everything seemed overly clean and shiny, even as the galactic government eked toward collapse while the most potent peace-keeping force in existence ignored it all. Canto Bight reminds us that there are people out there, influential people to boot, who care nothing about ideals or which -ism comes out on top. They’re just in it for the cash, a forgotten sentiment because the Saga has traditionally focused on the frontlines. It’s called friggin’ Star Wars, after all.
Rebels sets the stage for this by focusing on an Outer Rim planet called Lothal, which wouldn’t even be on the Empire’s radar if this world didn’t have resources for the Empire to exploit. Ezra gets caught up in the Rebellion only because he wants to see his home free of the Empire’s influence, and it just so happens that the planet was, in ancient times, a Jedi outpost. The Force does connect all things. Ezra’s personal family history illustrates how thoroughly the Empire exploits its people.
Most of the action happens on the front lines of the war, but both Canto Bight and Lothal reveal that there’s much more to conflict than strategy and weaponry. It all boils down to the suffering of people. Sometimes, when we watch the zero-G dogfights and the pew-pewing of blasters, we need reminders that there are real lives at stake. Not just in the middle of the conflict, but lives who yearn for stability and freedom throughout the galaxy.
A multi-planet menagerie
The Last Jedi introduces audiences to an entire menagerie of meme-worthy critters. Puffin-like porgs, the exploited fathiers on Canto Bight, the crystalline (and undeniably Pokemon-inspired) vulptexes, and, yes, even those dang thala-sirens are enough to show that the galaxy is populated by animals who are also affected by the war.
In Rebels, Ezra, thanks to his Force sensitivity, is repeatedly shown having a deep connection with animals. He hears the song of the purrgil (space whales that have the power to travel through hyperspace) when no one else can. A white loth-cat appears to him whenever he's in need of guidance. The gigantic and elusive loth-wolves show up to aid in Ezra’s quest to find his destiny with the Jedi, and also to help protect Lothal. The loth-wolves lead Lothal’s rebel cell to safety after a debilitating siege, and it’s hard to shake off the similarities between this scene and the Last Jedi scene with the vulptexes on Crait.
The Force is more than just the Jedi and the Sith
One of the things that Luke desperately wants to explain to Rey is that the Force connects all things, and as such, it doesn’t belong to the factions that would exploit it. The Jedi Order, in their arrogance, failed to see the rise of the Emperor, and the Sith took advantage of that imbalance in power. Both the Jedi and the Sith seemed obsessed with the Light Side and the Dark Side, which upset the balance. What Luke saw in Vader (in Ben, and lastly in himself) is that Light and Dark exist in all things, for good or ill. It’s the balance, the middle ground that should be important. The Jedi ideologies should die, and the Force should be used by everyone. It’s that moment when the stable boy on Canto Bight Force-grabs his broom. It’s the “every girl is a Slayer” moment in Buffy. It’s empowerment and possibility and hope.
But The Last Jedi is not where this idea all started. Sans a Jedi Order, Kanan cobbles together Ezra’s teachings from the remnants of what he can remember as a padawan. Decades spent outside of the Jedi Order taught Kanan that the Jedi weren’t always right, and Kanan forges a path for his padawan that no other Jedi has followed in a thousand generations. It’s a new path not shackled by the past but formed by circumstance. It’s a powerful statement, a reminder that the Force exists even without the Jedi or the Sith. It’s so much bigger than the factions that seek to understand it.
In The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata admits, “I am no Jedi, but I know the Force.” The Force is not beholden to the Jedi. As it connects all things in the galaxy, all things are connected to it as well. In Rebels, main character Zeb Orrelios is a Lasat, an alien race who have all but died out. In the episode “Legends of the Lasat,” Zeb attempts to find a new home for some of the last of his species. He uncovers a piece of long-lost Force-sensitive technology that his ancestors used to navigate through gravitational clusters on their way to their new home planet.
And if there’s still any doubt about the counterproductiveness of the struggle between the Light and Dark Side of the Force, Rebels introduces a creature that called itself the Bendu. “I’m the one in the middle.” Neither Light nor Dark, the Bendu acts more like the personification of nature. It owns its own kind of morality and only cares for self-preservation. Just when the Empire threatened its own home does the Bendu finally help the Rebels protect their base, but only because the Empire threatened its own planet. Rebels already illustrates that the Force can flow through everyone and everything because it is everyone and everything.
The birth of the galaxy’s greatest leader
The Last Jedi provides an unexpected but incredibly fond farewell to everyone’s beloved space princess, Leia Organa, and Rebels manages to offer up the beginning bookend to her illustrious career as a senator, humanitarian, military general, and rebel badass. “A Princess on Lothal” offers up an in-depth look at one of the princess’s “mercy missions,” which covered for her support to local rebel cells. If there’s only one episode of Rebels that a newbie should watch, it has to be this one, if just to see what Leia’s been up to since she was old enough to act as her father’s representative.
There is one way in which Rebels improves on The Last Jedi, though
Look at this suave jerk.
I miss him ...
Bring him back, J.J.