As fans of genre media, especially the science fiction and fantasy side, we are no strangers to the constant struggle between good and evil. It is a dichotomy that permeates the works of fiction we consume, whether we are fans of blockbuster films, cable TV shows, comic books, or young adult fiction. In all of these cases, there is a hero, there is a villain, and there is a struggle between the two. Sure, the specific makeup of these forces varies with the story in question. Sometimes the hero isn’t quite so nice. Sometimes the villain is much more interesting. Sometimes they are two sides of the same person literally vying for control. Regardless of the what or the why, however, it is never in question who is good and who is bad, and while on occasion the bad guys may take the upper hand and all may seem lost, ultimately, good conquers evil and the hero is victorious.
But what if we dared to make it just a little more interesting? What if it wasn’t a question of good or evil, light or dark? What if the goal was more about neutrality, more about balance?
Two properties in recent years have attempted to thrust their young protagonists into the terrifying space between good and evil to see how — and perhaps whether — they come out the other side. Neither has been able to completely land the ship in the gray, in the in-between space, but in both cases, the characters in question struggle with fears, not of some nefarious foe out to conquer the world (though both also face that very thing) but of themselves and the darkness they know lurks just below the surface.
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for both Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Marvel’s Runaways season 3.
Back in 2017, writer/director Rian Johnson led Rey down a path the Star Wars franchise hadn’t really ventured into in its 40-year history on the big screen. While training with Luke during the events of The Last Jedi, Rey willingly walked into what was essentially a manifestation of the Dark Side, both of the Force and of her own nature. This moment was meant to mirror Luke’s own Dark Side vision on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, but with a twist. Luke was sent there as part of his training. Rey, on the other hand, went willingly and against Luke’s explicit instructions. The darkness called out to her and she answered — not with fear, but with curiosity. In fact, it was Luke, more than anyone, who feared what embracing the Dark Side of the Force would mean for a young Jedi. Further, it can be argued that the fear which led both Anakin Skywalker and Ben Solo to embrace the Dark Side and become Sith was instilled by the Jedi Masters meant to be teaching them.
Fellow FANGRRL Clare McBride summed this up quite well when she explored what it was about a potential Dark Rey that drew us in as an audience. In addition to the fact that we don’t often see female characters offered an opportunity to exist in a moral gray area, Dark Rey also represented an opportunity to explore what happens when a novice Jedi was not threatened and rejected for exploring their inner darkness.
With The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams and company were in a prime position to explore that very thing. Can someone embrace and accept the Dark Side — with all its messy emotions like fear and anger and hate — without allowing it to control them? If the ultimate goal of more than 40 years and nine feature films was to bring balance to the Force, it stands to reason that balance would be found not in one side ultimately defeating the other, but with one Jedi mastering the powers and abilities inherent in both, becoming a big-screen representation of what Star Wars fans have long referred to as a Gray Jedi (they’ve existed in expanded media but haven’t been explored in the main franchise).
Unfortunately, The Rise of Skywalker did not choose to continue down the path begun by Johnson in the previous film. Though they did venture further into the questions surrounding Rey’s darkness, forcing her to struggle with the idea that one’s lineage (in this case, her being descended from the Emperor himself) might dictate one’s inherent nature, this is not altogether new territory. In many ways, it is a heightened version of Luke’s discovery that Vader was his father all along, that the great Jedi Knight he envisioned was actually the fascist enforcer of the Empire. In the end, Rey does not win by accepting her heritage and her darkness, but by rejecting it wholesale. She is not a Palpatine, she is a Skywalker. She draws her power not from her Sith ancestor but from the Jedi who came before her. It’s a powerful story about choosing your path, certainly. But it is not as nuanced as it could have been.
At the same time that Rey was learning about her identity and her role in the grand design of a galaxy far, far away, another young woman was also struggling with the darkness inside herself, this time on television. Nico Minoru, one of the six main characters of the Hulu original Marvel’s Runaways, arrived in the third season of the series with a newfound ability to tap into some seriously scary magic courtesy of her own power and the way it was twisted and enhanced by The Staff of One. At the end of the show’s second season, Nico discovered that the Staff had the ability to tap into her powers without her intent in order to wreak some havoc and ultimately kill a number of people. As that power came from within Nico herself, she feared what it meant, that it, perhaps, meant something inside her was broken and bad.
While the end of the second season of Runaways forced Nico into a position to fear herself and her power, the third was almost entirely devoted to overcoming that fear and learning to control it. In order to do that, though, Nico has to learn that darkness doesn’t have to mean evil. Perhaps it can be easily corrupted, control easily lost. That kind of power can be intoxicating, exhilarating, seductive. When you have the ability to bend reality to your will, it takes a strong force of that will to keep from going over the deep end. Nico’s fear of her power allows the Staff of One to control her in the beginning, but as she comes to understand that it is simply a tool that can be wielded in whatever manner the user may choose, she comes to understand that darkness too has a balance. It’s not all good and evil, dark and light. You need at least a few shades of gray.
For Nico, that balance is her friends, and more specifically her relationship with Karolina, which itself was tested by Nico’s flirtation with the dark side. Both of them had to learn to accept Nico’s darkness and trust that it wasn’t going to consume her, that Karolina’s unrelenting optimism and light could be a beacon to guide her home when she got off track. In the flash-forward episode at the end of the season, we see the kind of power that Nico can wield when she allows herself to find peace within. But despite that peace, the advice the older Nico gives her teenage self is to find it with her friends, rather than trying to go it alone.
One of the lessons The Rise of Skywalker attempts to impart on its audience is that evil wins by convincing us we are alone. In the third (and sadly final) season of Runaways, Nico and her friends learn this lesson in some of the toughest ways. Fear and darkness are no match for them as a group, even if it can take them all down one by one. Ultimately, Runaways wasn’t able to show Nico growing into her abilities in future seasons as the show was cut short, but the set up made for a fascinating journey of hope and fears and finding balance within oneself — and solace and strength in those around you. My strongest critique of The Rise of Skywalker is that Rey wasn’t able to walk as intriguing a journey, bringing balance, true balance, to the Force once and for all and perhaps doing so with a little help from her friends.