For all the great things about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you can't give the blockbuster film points for moral nuance. In the movie's worst scene, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) plays Hitler to a massive crowd of Stormtroopers, who actually raise their fists in response to his bug-eyed speech. If you want to eliminate any shades of gray from the Star Wars universe, turning the villains into space Nazis — and having them subsequently destroy no fewer than five planets in a kind of galactic holocaust — is a pretty heavy-handed way to do it.
The Star Wars universe has always been a place of black-and-white morality, and for better or worse, The Force Awakens upholds that tradition. Finn (John Boyega) — the only Stormtrooper we've ever actually gotten to know — was groomed for his role since he was a child, which spares the movie the messy moral tangle of having a hero who actively supported a regime he comes to believe is evil. In fact, Finn is defined by his total rejection of the First Order, when he refuses to kill civilians on Jakku. (The Force Awakens neatly sidesteps the question of whether he's similarly morally culpable for all the Stormtroopers he shot and killed while helping Poe Dameron escape.)
But if that ugly incident is enough to make Finn give up the only life he's ever known, what's the ideology that keeps the rest of the Stormtroopers motivated? Is there any argument to be made for supporting the First Order — or, failing that, for embracing some aspect of the Dark Side?
I'm certainly not the first person to lament the missed opportunity of introducing nuance and depth into the uniformly cartoonish evil of Star Wars' villains. You can make a case that Kevin Smith built his entire career on an argument over whether the "left-wing militant" Rebel Alliance is morally culpable for the deaths of independent contractors working on the second Death Star. And there's a recent cottage industry of contrarian think pieces arguing that the Rebel Alliance, not the Galactic Empire, is the true villain of the original trilogy.
Look, this is Star Wars, where the good guys have blue lightsabers and the bad guys have red ones, and there's no reason to turn a blockbuster franchise into the Nicomachean Ethics. But there are few franchises as inherently expansive as Star Wars, and moving forward while sticking to a single point of view can only limit the storytelling. Compare Star Wars to Game of Thrones, which forces the viewer to interrogate their perspectives on heroes and villains until the lines between them barely exist. There's no reason Star Wars can't do the same.
In theory, the Star Wars prequel trilogy was an ideal place to tackle the Dark Side with a little more complexity. For Anakin Skywalker's arc to be truly effective, the prequel trilogy needed to make the audience understand how the Dark Side could seduce him away from the ideals taught by Obi-Wan Kenobi and the rest of the Jedi Council. But all that potential was undone by the sheer clunkiness of Anakin's transformation, which boiled down to his idiotic belief that the Dark Side would somehow save Padme from dying. (When your argument literally comes down to "From my point of view the Jedi are evil," it's time to dig a little deeper.)
The problem with Anakin's conversion is that it makes him a dupe. As presented in the prequel trilogy, both Palpatine and the Dark Side are unequivocally evil, eliminating room for any kind of moral argument whatsoever.
Where the prequels failed to explore the Dark Side with any kind of depth, the newly revitalized Star Wars franchise can easily succeed. The galaxy is in chaos, and no political power has achieved enough to be trusted. The destruction of the Empire didn't lead to the universal peace and prosperity the rebels had imagined. And Disney's decision to intersperse the new episodes with a series of spin-offs offers a unique and welcome opportunity to introduce a plurality of perspectives into the franchise.
What Star Wars really needs is a Tyrion Lannister — a sympathetic, politically savvy power player who recognizes that the differences between the Resistance and the First Order aren't quite as simple as good vs. evil. Or a calculating Thomas Cromwell, who recognizes an opportunity to better both his own position and the galaxy in general in the restructuring of the galactic power structure. Or a politically neutral figure who would welcome any end to the decades of war that have claimed so many lives. Or, if you'd rather stick to lightsabers: Why not a Yojimbo-esque former Jedi who rejects fully committing to either the Light Side or the Dark Side, trusting his own internal moral compass to guide him in his wanderings around the galaxy?
Fans certainly want these shades of gray. There's a reason, after all, that the roguish Han Solo is such a fan favorite, and that the backlash to the whitewashing of his rougher edges in the infamous "Han shot first" scene has been so vocal.
There's potential for this kind of nuance in the new villains The Force Awakens has already introduced. Take General Phasma, the chrome-plated trooper played by Game of Thrones alum Gwendoline Christie. Though the character figured heavily on the promotional trail, she's a total cipher in the movie itself. A tie-in novel called Before the Awakening provides a little more context. As she trained Finn, General Phasma discouraged him from rescuing a struggling fellow Stormtrooper, arguing that the unit could only be as strong as its weakest link. It's a cold argument, but a logical one. Isn't it possible that Phasma is not a despot bent on galactic domination, but an ends-justify-the-means pragmatist who believes that order is the proper way to bring peace to the galaxy?
The best option of all may be Kylo Ren, the fearsome new villain played by Adam Driver. If Kylo Ren follows in the footsteps of his idol, Darth Vader, he'll end up in a redemptive arc, with our heroes successfully encouraging him to find the good that's still within him by the end of Episode IX. That would be consistent with the original trilogy. It would also be predictable, underwhelming, and rote.
There's another, more intriguing option on the table. Is it possible for Kylo Ren to backtrack on his full-hearted embrace of evil without returning to the Jedi ideology he rejected in the first place? Is it possible that Luke, in returning to the old ways of the Jedi, pushed his pupils down a different kind of unsustainable path? And is there some way to reconcile the two sides of the force without pitting them against one another?
Call it the yin-yang approach. Fear and anger may not sound as noble as the calm selflessness that marks the path of a Jedi, but they're just as real, and there are things to be learned by embracing them. Come on, Star Wars. Give in to the power of the Dark Side. It is your destiny.