I’ve been hosting a writing workshop recently where we talk about ways to improve writing technique. While I have a lot of fun teaching this class, there are always topics that get away – There are only so many hours in a day, you know?
With that in mind, I’d like to take the time to reinforce a short, seemingly simple lesson: Good writing has consequences, or rather, good writing has the sense of consequence. Let’s dive in:
When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace released in 1999, reception was mixed to put it lightly. While many children (including myself) enjoyed the movie, it sent ripples of anger through the more adult Star Wars fanbase and drew ire from movie critics overall. While many, many, many…many dissections of Phantom Menace have been completed since that 1999 launch – what’s one more?
For my own examination into the film, I want to focus primarily on Jar Jar Binks – a side character who drew particular ire for what many fans saw as his annoying nature or tendency to devolve the film into dirty humor (fart and poop jokes). Let me say this now – this is not intended to be a “hate” essay. I have nothing but respect for Ahmed Best, who has suffered more than enough at the hands of harassing jerks and jackasses claiming to be Star Wars fans.
This article is intended to view only how Jar Jar Binks was written. Let’s examine what kind of character Jar Jar was supposed to be and what function he may have been intended to serve in the story. For those who have seen the film and want a refresher, here is a rundown of every scene with Jar Jar Binks present:
What type of character was Jar Jar supposed to be?
When George Lucas first conceived of Star Wars, he drew a great deal from the past. One of his primary inspirations was Joseph Campbell, a renowned mythologist who had spent years analyzing ancient myths from across the world. Campbell believed in the idea of the “monomyth” or that every heroic tale from the past has a common core and can be broken down into similar elements.
For instance, many heroes begin their journey as outsiders, drawn into a larger conflict rather than being present with it from the very beginning. Going on said hero journey challenges the protagonist, who ultimately returns victorious but a changed person. Lucas used this idea and many others from Campbell in his original Star Wars trilogy, and the themes have been present in the series ever since.
Using Campbell and this idea of monomyth means relying on established archetypes. An archetype is a typical example of certain person or thing, or an idea that has been replicated many times over. For instance, a bully is a character archetype. Every bully shares certain traits – namely intimidation and an abusive nature. The idea of a bully has become so ingrained in society that simply saying the word evokes a near complete image.
When Lucas created his characters for Star Wars, he used archetypes to form the foundation. Luke Skywalker – the heroic outsider, Obi Wan Kenobi – the wise old mentor, Han Solo – the scoundrel with a heart of gold, Princess Leia – the princess in distress: All of these characters came from an already established foundation of traits and personality. When Lucas wrote the prequels, he attempted the same thing. It is easy to read Shakespeare’s Othello in the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker or Oedipus in his desire to alter a prophecy.
Regardless of how well it worked, Lucas clearly had visions of grandeur on his mind. So, what about Jar Jar? Where does he fit in?
Jar Jar as the fool
A popular character archetype that owes a lot to Shakespeare is the fool or clown. This character is, by nature, ridiculous and outwardly very stupid. They are usually of low stature and aren’t doing well in their life. However, they are apart from the situation – no one directly trusts the fool, but the fool is typically present. This can give them wisdom, as they tend not to have subtly. When a fool speaks, they state the obvious, which can include information that the protagonist has overlooked.
A famous fool includes Dory from Finding Nemo. What she may lack in brains, she makes up for in wisdom, directly stating the flaws in Marlin’s parenting techniques.
Is Jar Jar a fool? He is certainly ridiculous enough to qualify on that level. Jar Jar is clumsy, clownish and prone to self-deprecation. However, what wisdom does he bring?
There two scenes that may qualify. The first comes at his introduction, right after he has met Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn. Jar Jar suggests that they seek the gungan city for shelter and to hide from the droid army.
In the second scene, an anxious Padme is reflecting on the plight of her people. Jar Jar happens to mention that his race, the gungans, have a huge army that can challenge the invading droid forces. While Jar Jar never directly states that the gungans can help, Padme uses this information later to make her plan to fight back.
Jar Jar also states that relations between the naboo and gungans are strained but really doesn’t elaborate further. As far as this writer’s recollection, these are the only moments where Jar Jar may fit the mold of a fool.
Jar Jar as the heart
A more recent character archetype is the heart. Born out of many television ensembles, the heart is a member of the team that has no real special talent or skill. However, they serve as a moral compass, helping every other character around them maintain equilibrium and a healthy psyche. Hearts can be smart or stupid, strong or weak – but their primary strength must always lie in their emotional capacity.
The character Bolin from The Legend of Korra is a heart. While never stated, it is implied that he is not as strong a fighter as Korra or Mako, nor is he particularly smart. Instead, Bolin is trusting and giving, always there for friends that need a hand. His primary motivation comes from a desire to help others, a trait common in many heart characters.
The Heart can be similar to a fool, but with more positive intentions.
At first glance, Jar Jar Binks may look like a likely heart. However, there are problems with this fit. Jar Jar is often reluctant to help, oftentimes being volunteered for assignments he didn’t ask for. Also, apart from the Padme scene, Jar Jar is rarely shown comforting another character.
Jar Jar as the unlikely hero
At the heart of Star Wars is a love for the unlikely hero. Anakin, Luke and Rey have all come from humble origins to take center stage in galactic affairs. The same can be said of Han Solo, Finn, and Rose. None of these people began with the traditional, noble heritage of a hero – they instead earned their place through courageous acts or unnatural talent.
Jar Jar Binks definitely fits this bill, at least on the surface. He comes from nothing – an outcast of his own people. By the end of the film, however, he is a victorious general and well on his way to becoming a senator that will represent Naboo on the galactic stage. From a storyboard perspective, Jar Jar fits this archetype to the letter.
But let’s look closer: Is Jar Jar a hero? Does he in fact do anything to really save the day? Jar Jar’s role in the finale is to lead the gungan army against the droids. It is intended as a diversion to allow the other protagonists to act. Jar Jar loses this battle and is captured. Faced with this development, he promptly surrenders.
When Anakin destroys the droid control ship, the droids are deactivated and the gungans saved. Given how he acted, I say it is reasonable to compare Jar Jar more to a character in distress rather than an active hero. He is never looking beyond his personal safety.
Writing exercises: How would you improve Jar Jar Binks?
I personally believe that Jar Jar Binks has elements of all three character archetypes above. I believe his character suffers from poor implementation of these ideas into the script. He certainly has the negative elements of a fool but is not given enough opportunity for the positive. He appears well meaning but is never anyone’s emotional center. And he is given countless opportunities to perform a heroic action but never rises to the challenge.
He, like many elements of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, feels like a rough draft of a competent character.
So, rather than dwell on the failure – how can we fix him? Well, I for one believe that all strong character writing begins at the three scales: competency, sympathy, and productivity. A well written character has a mix of these traits on a scale system. For instance, a character can be very competent but unsympathetic or vice versa. Most writers tend to use middle degrees on these scales rather than turning one all the way up or down.
Fixing Jar Jar begins with looking at his three scales, all of which are too far down (in my opinion). Altering these scales alters Jar Jar. Writers should be careful to keep the original idea in tact. It’s easy to fix Jar Jar by transforming him into someone else entirely, but more challenging to simply make alterations.
If Jar Jar is supposed to be the fool, turn his sympathy and productivity up to have him make more emotional impact. To be an unlikely hero, turn up the competency. However you approach it, keep your archetype goal in mind.
This exercise can be a simple scene rewrite or a full plot makeover. If you’re curious to see how you did, I recommend posting on FanFiction.net. You can use a pen name and the feedback can be helpful.
Jar Jar Binks may have earned the fan’s hatred (not that it takes much) but I believe he is a character built on solid bones. Looking at his failure requires studying character construction and plot development, two things that can only make you a stronger writer. Best of luck!
It’s been a few weeks but the critic and audience reactions continue to come in: everyone is having fun with Thor: Ragnarok. Why they can’t remember the last time they’ve enjoyed watching a movie this much (hint: Spider-Man: Homecoming) and wonder when’s the next time they’ll see a movie this light-hearted again (hint: Black Panther). Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – the Marvel superhero formula continues to turn out grins and box office dollars.
But for some reason – likely partly due to the fact that Thor: Ragnarok was the fourth superhero film I saw this year – I walked out frowning. Before I dive in, let me say a couple things: This film is much better than the dull Thor: the Dark World. Second, I applaud director Taika Waititi for making a genuinely funny movie. But overall, I feel like Thor: Ragnarok missed the mark, leaving it an almost success, which can be more infuriating than a failure.
Comedy and Death
When crafting a story, it is vital to pick a tone and stick to it. Tone can be described as the “attitude of a writer toward a subject or an audience.” Usually a tone is determined by the story’s content. For example, if I were to be writing about a mother struggling to feed her family, I would probably go darker than if I were writing about two young children experiencing a first crush at the carnival. There’s wiggle room in every scenario but general rules apply. Death = darker, sex = more adult, clowns = horror. You get the idea.
Let’s look at the main events in the plot of Thor: Ragnarok (warning – spoilers)
Thor loses Jane (the woman he gave up the throne for).
Loki abducts Odin, effectively killing him.
Odin’s death frees Hela, who bashes Thor and Loki across the galaxy before murdering most of Asgard – including three of Thor’s best friends.
Thor is broken and made to fight. He meets a fellow Asgardian struggling with alcohol abuse and PTSD and his friend, Bruce Banner, who has been a mental prisoner of the Hulk for years.
Thor escapes his bonds and returns home.
Thor loses an eye.
Thor is unable to stop Hela without completely destroying Asgard (which he does), banishing the survivors to wandering uncertainty amongst the stars.
(BONUS after credits scene) Thanos shows up and looks to butcher the remaining refugees.
Sweet mother of Mary, that’s a lot of heavy stuff. The tone: WACKY IRREVERENT COMEDY! Seriously, there is a joke is almost every scene of the movie and nothing is off limits. Odin being forgotten to die – joke. Valkyrie’s alcoholism – joke. By the end of the movie, I was surprised Thor didn’t do some weird pantomime with one of the Warriors Three’s corpses.
The problem with setting such a bizarre tone (apart from its strangeness) is its effect on the sense of consequence. You would think Loki killing Odin would be, at the very least, an evil act but Loki is regarded as at his most heroic in this film. That’s a larger disconnect than no one pointing out that Tony Stark was responsible for every death in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Serious, depressing events unfold in Thor: Ragnarok but we’re made to laugh and smile. Only occasionally does the movie ever try to be dramatic and even when it does, you know the scene will climax in a joke. This works fine for a comedy or even a dark comedy but Ragnarok isn’t trying to be just those things (it isn’t trying to be a dark comedy at all… for some reason), it’s going for the typical Marvel bundle of laughs, action and drama, only none of the drama works. It simply is not allowed to.
Too Many Plots
When I structured Thor: Ragnarok, I focused on the main plot – mainly Thor’s banishment and return to Asgard but the movie has more going on. Subplots are fine in films if they meet two criteria. One – there aren’t too many of them. Two – they all exist in service to the story’s central idea.
Buried under all the jokes and laughs of Thor: Ragnarok is actually a really compelling commentary on the evils of imperialism. Asgard’s dark secret past is exposed, capped off in a wonderful line by Hela that was something like “where do you think the gold for this throne room came from?” Thor is stripped and made an immigrant, a refugee at the whim of those in power – much in the same way Odin and Hela must have done to countless civilizations in the past.
That’s all great…but it’s not all there is. We also have a very brief arch involving Dr. Strange and his introduction to Thor and Loki. We also have Bruce Banner battling with the Hulk for control of one body. We also have Valkyrie struggling to come to terms with the loss of her girlfriend and battling her alcoholism/PTSD. We also have Loki searching for some new material/purpose. We also have a slave uprising on a gladiator planet. We also have Scourge struggling with his sense of loyalty. We also have Heimdall struggling to keep the survivors of Asgard safe from Hela’s tyranny.
There’s a lot going on and some of these plots work better than others. One which definitely gets short-changed is Valkyrie, who seems to pull herself out of complete human mess very quickly. Another is Hela who strangely has no subplot of her own (more on that later). People can praise the progressive nature of Ragnarok ‘s anti-imperialism all they want but… how come the women really had no time devoted to them?
It’s not just the ladies though. I’m really not sure how Banner’s struggle resolved itself. He became the Hulk again and then turned back into Bruce soooooo I guess it’s all good now? The inclusion of characters like Dr. Strange and Scourge took away from time that really could have been better spent elsewhere.
Especially Scourge – who the hell is Scourge and why do I care?
After Avengers came out, I started to hear how Joss Whedon had ruined Marvel dialogue forever. His love of Bathos and Buffy Speak seems to have infested every Marvel superhero film since. Truth be told I never minded and I will tell you why: not everyone was witty. Not everyone had a one-liner waiting in the wings. I think back to the first two Avengers films and look at them as comedy compositions.
Iron Man was the wise-cracking sarcasm guy. Captain America was clueless in a hilarious way. Bruce Banner made often uncomfortable jokes about how he could kill everyone. And Thor was the straight man – he didn’t try to be funny or see the humor in his actions.
Well not anymore baby! This new Thor quips! He has one-liners galore and is always happy to diffuse tension through some snarky observation. In other words: he is much more Star-Lord than Odin-son. I know people found this new Thor funnier (I did too) but it came at the expense of his identity. If I wanted to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, I have two (soon to be three) films to choose from. I’ve got my snark fix. Thor was supposed to be my superhero Shakespeare and that is now completely gone.
Hela and the continuing Marvel villain problem
Before I go any further, let’s go back to Hela. Man does she make an entrance. First she breaks Thor’s hammer and then she murders the Warriors Three and takes over Asgard. Hot damn! What’s next?
Oh…oh that was it, I guess.
Hela is evil – for some reason? We’re never really told why other than she is very ambitious and aggressive. A conveniently hidden mural later helps flush out her backstory by essentially saying “See? This happened!”
Her grand plan is to use some magic fire… to bring back an army of the dead and a giant wolf… then sit in Asgard for a bit before eventually leaving – I think?
We don’t care and that’s a real shame. Last time Thor had a sibling he turned out to be Marvel’s most compelling villain. We’re repeatedly told how powerful Hela is and early on we see it – she smashes the hammer but then… she makes pointed sticks.
Increasingly large pointed sticks and she can shoot them very fast. Yes, she is a super-charged evil version of Spyke from X-Men: Evolution. Cool.
Hela didn’t need a lot of character to be effective. Heck, she could have enhanced the imperialism commentary if she went on about divine right and acted more racist/xenophobic but all we get is the generic “I’m evil!”
She’s the goddess of death, did she mention that? Someone should have told her that death is not innately bad – also she has no specific death powers so I call bullshit. At the end of the day, Hela is poised to take her place alongside the whip-guy from Iron Man 2 (not worthy of me remembering his name) and Red Skull from the first Captain America. Oh well, at least she was better than Dark Elf Man!
An Honest Question
If I were ever to meet Taika Waititi, I’d ask him this question: Did he ever really care about/like Thor to begin with?
The callous end to the Warriors Three, the complete rewrite of Thor’s personality, the dismissal of Loki to just comic relief, the immediate removal of Thor’s hammer for a recycled plot exercise (it’s just a more dramatic repeat of the first film), the inclusion of the Hulk – all of this, to me, says “I don’t really get this Thor guy but I know how to make an entertaining movie!”
Often times, when a director takes over a project they don’t care about, it goes badly. Think Godzilla (1998) and X-Men: The Last Stand levels of failure. Here we avoided that but I think it has less to do with Waititi’s love of the character and more to do with his skill as a comedic director.
Thor: Ragnarok, to me, ultimately feels like a much better version of Thor: the Dark World. It’s still a product, but this one was put together by somebody who knows what they’re doing. Kenneth Branagh remains the only director who seems to approach the material with love and a seriousness that comes from knowing it can be good as it is.
Sadly, I have given up hope that we’re ever going to see a Thor sequel that understands and respects the source material in its entirety. I can understand why Natalie Portman wanted no part of this bombastic, uneven mess of comedy.