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Playing the Villain: Star Wars’ backdrop villains allow for the main antagonist’s development

By Tiger Zhong

Jan. 11, 2018 12:52 a.m.

A movie is only as good as its villain, and a good villain is much more than a monster with maniacal laughter or a sinister-looking entity surrounded by henchmen. From the anarchist Joker to the cunning and brutal Annie Wilkes, countless successful films have earned their iconic status thanks to their antagonists. Each week, columnist Tiger Zhong will discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of the villains from new releases as well as classics, exemplifying the narrative effects of their villainous acts. And yes, there will be spoilers.

Supreme Leader Snoke’s screen time was sliced in half, literally, in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

But why was Snoke, the most powerful villain of the current Star Wars universe, killed off in the second installment in the trilogy? And why did Emperor Palpatine, the biggest threat in the original few films, barely show his face in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”?

Because they’re backdrop villains. The implementation of backdrop villains is apparent across the movie industry. Two-Face in “The Dark Knight” helps situate all of the havoc that the Joker has wreaked on Gotham, providing a distraction for Batman as well as acting as a testament to the Joker’s nihilist plan. Similarly, Dr. Poison in “Wonder Woman” allows the audience to see Wonder Woman’s love for humankind as Wonder Woman decides to spare Dr. Poison’s life in the final showdown.

Now we shift our focus back to the villains from the galaxy far, far away. In the original Star Wars trilogy, the meat of the drama does not center around the fight against Palpatine, but rather around the tense relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy showcases a similar pattern: The focus is not on the most powerful villain Snoke, but rather on the relationship between the protagonist Rey, a Jedi-in-training, and Kylo Ren, a lethal Sith wannabe. Both Palpatine and Snoke, despite being among the most powerful characters in their respective trilogies, act as backdrop villains, in order to avoid diverting the audience’s attention from the main antagonists – Darth Vader and Kylo Ren.

Palpatine, at the time of the release of “The Empire Strikes Back,” was still largely an unknown character, as he had had little screen time. However, he possessed more power than most of the other characters in the Star Wars universe. As a result, the film was able to use Palpatine’s obscurity and absolute power to raise Luke Skywalker’s stakes in his journey to restore democracy in the galaxy.

Using backdrop villains to develop the main anatagonist, “The Last Jedi” kills off Snoke fairly early on to build the complexity of the Kylo Ren character. Since Kylo Ren was best characterized as “emo kid gone wild” in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi” needed to establish him as more of a threatening villain for the concluding chapter of the trilogy. Now, despite his emotional instability and daddy issues, the most recent film in the franchise has successfully positioned Kylo Ren as a determined and ruthless antagonist.

However, though the two backdrop villains take on similar roles of assisting the actual antagonists, Snoke and Palpatine saw different character development in their respective trilogies.

During the entire runtime of “The Empire Strikes Back,” Emperor Palpatine only appears during a video call with Darth Vader. In the original theatrical cut, he exuded evil and mystery behind a face that barely appears in the hologram’s shadows created by his dark cloak. The mystery surrounding the character also builds up tension for the sequel film, “Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi.” The obscurity of the character establishes the authority and power of Palpatine, leaving Luke and his gang with plenty of obstacles within the concluding chapter of the trilogy.

“The Last Jedi’s” predecessor, “The Force Awakens,” continues the franchise’s approach to reveal little information about Supreme Leader Snoke of the First Order. However, “The Last Jedi,” with its audaciously experimental director Rian Johnson, takes a complete 180-degree approach in regard to revealing its villain. Within the first 30 minutes, the movie welcomes the audience into Snoke’s red throne room, granting the audience a proximity that reduces Snoke’s mystery.

Snoke’s death, due to Kylo Ren’s betrayal, does more than to catch the audience off guard. It provides an additional layer of complexity to Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren is a power-hungry maniac who is willing to kill off any part of his past in order to seek authority and self-confirmation. Before Kylo betrayed Snoke, the audience was led to believe there was still humanity left in him, as he refuses to bombard the commander deck where his mother, Princess Leia, directs the entire Resistance fleet.

However, when he skewers Snoke, Kylo Ren establishes himself as a cold-blooded and decisive pupil who seizes the opportunity to manipulate Rey to strike down his teacher and secure his supremacy within the First Order. Although Kylo Ren appears to be saving Rey, his real motives stem from his recognition of her power, which can help him reign over the galaxy.

Palpatine’s lack of screen time in “The Empire Strikes Back” translates into a stronger plot, and Snoke’s removal from the trilogy leads to a much deeper character study of both Kylo Ren and Rey in the ninth episode. Both films, in different ways, control the screen time of their villains in order to enhance the general narrative.

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