The Evil Empire Isn’t Fun Anymore

By J.J. Ulm

The other day I noticed a pin had fallen off my bag — because I am the kind of dork who ruins her expensive messenger bag with pins, but who is also clumsy like a YA heroine and snags then on everything. It was one of my The Force Awakens ones, a First Order sigil I'd gotten along with a Captain Phasma pin — because I am especially a dork for Gwendoline Christie. I had one more I'd left at home, with a simplified Kylo Ren mask, but as I fingered the hole in the canvas on the bus ride home, the thought of putting another First Order pin on my bag turned my stomach.

It's all just a little too close to home these days.

For a long time, the increasing silliness of merchandise with Darth Vader on it — from toasters to charming picture books — has struck me as, well, silly. I mean, despite how hard George Lucas tried to woobiefy him in the prequels, he's scary, and he should be. The whole Empire is. They're fascists. But there’s still something fun enough about them to inspire fans to dress up as them, to want Darth Vader’s mask on their toast. Because they may be fascists, but they’re not real, and in that gap lies a vaguely harmless fantasy.

Maybe I'm just showing my age, but in contrast, the First Order seems to be run by children. Kylo Ren and General Hux are slashfic fodder. And they're trying to rebuild something they never knew first-hand, but which they know will give them the power they feel they're entitled to as… well, as descendants of people who used to be in power. They idolize a past the rest of the galaxy rightfully fears.

If only Steve Bannon was an emo wannabe Sith and Reince Priebus was a delightfully uptight redhead. I’d ship it if I wasn’t genuinely terrified of it all.

And it's not just Star Wars. There’s a running storyline in the Transformers: Lost Light comic about an alternate universe where Megatron was never “born” and, left unchallenged, the Cybertronian government evolved into a Functionist dystopia where what you turn into determines your role in life, the government culls those it considers obsolete, and all other life in the universe is declared The Enemy in the name of consolidating power for a holy war. It’s a good story. It’s also a scary one.

Given the time between writing a comic and the thing actually being published, it’s no big surprise Lost Light’s writer is British. They were the first to fall. I like to call that alternate universe the Brexit Timeline.

And none of this is to say that these stories become less valuable when they change from warning to direct metaphor, when what they warn against is no longer hypothetical. But the evil empires stop being fun. They stop being something you want to dress up as, something you want toys of. Kylo Ren has stopped being sad-puppy slashfic fodder and become something that hits just a little too close to home as we watch a generation of young men who were specifically targeted for radicalization because they were sad they couldn’t get dates rise to positions of actual power with the aid of the Russian government — Putin as their Snoke.

In a way, these stories are more valuable now, even when they’re not as fun, even when they’re scary in a way they weren’t before. The Kylo Ren figure on my desk has been replaced by Rogue One’s Jyn Erso. The villains were fun when they were only a fantasy. Now we need the heroes.