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Make Stormtroopers Great Again

‘Rogue One’ is largely excellent, but it fails to provide a comeback for the franchise’s favorite cannon fodder

(Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
(Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Welcome to Rogue One Week! With the release of Rogue One, set in the years before A New Hope, we finally get our first stand-alone Star Wars movie. This week we’ll be analyzing the greater Star Wars universe from every conceivable angle — the storytelling, the merchandising, the mythology, and the fandom. May the Force be with you (while you read).

For the first 43 minutes of Star Wars, Imperial Stormtroopers earn their iconic status. A New Hope barely begins before a battalion of white-armored enforcers blast through the bulkhead of the Tantive IV, scaring its crew of middle-aged, ruddy-faced rebels who look like they were plucked out of pubs around Elstree Studios. The Stormtroopers are perfectly capable of clearing the ship, so Darth Vader hangs back and delegates the dirty work.

The next time we see Stormtroopers, they’re conducting a search straight out of CSI: Star Wars. One observant Stormtrooper, Davin Felth, spots a small piece of metal and somehow deduces that droids — as in, more than one — were in the escape pod that left the Tantive IV. He and his squadmates track both droids — who had walked in different directions — to a single sandcrawler, which they blow up to establish their bad-guy bona fides, even though the droids have already departed. Then they disguise the atrocity as a Tusken Raider attack, masking their movements adeptly enough to fool Luke Skywalker, a native of Tatooine. (In fairness, Luke is an idiot at this stage of the story.) It takes no lesser authority than Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi Master and former Republic general, to see through the Stormtroopers’ ruse, and even Obi-Wan pays them a pretty nice compliment: “Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise.”

After all that, the Stormtroopers still have two tricks left. First, they turn Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, who’d bought the droids from the Jawas, into smoking skeletons, again for no real reason except that they’ve gone an hour or two without killing a noncombatant. And second, their Mos Eisley dragnet snares the very two droids they set out to retrieve. Almost halfway through A New Hope, then, the Stormtroopers seem to be everything a Galactic Empire would want. They’re ruthless, efficient, fear-inducing symbols of the Emperor’s power, and they’re hot on our heroes’ trails.

And then this happens:

Surrounded by Stormtroopers, Obi-Wan mind-tricks several of them at the same time. (Either that, or he mind-tricks the leader and no one else notices.) We could dismiss that as something Jedi do to everyone, if not for Obi-Wan’s explanation: “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”

Wait, why are they weak-minded? Aren’t they highly trained soldiers and members of the galaxy’s greatest military machine? You’d think. But maybe they’re weak-minded because they’ve been bumping their heads on doors.

The mind trick is the start of an embarrassing performance spiral that robs the Stormtroopers of their early value as villains. In addition to the door collision, they suffer an uninterrupted string of rebel escapes and lopsided shootouts marked by abysmal Imperial aim, culminating in the ultimate indignity: the defeat of “an entire legion” of the Empire’s “best troops” at the soft, sticks-and-stones-wielding paws of Wicket W. Warrick and Co. The armor that couldn’t stand up to Ewok weaponry was no match for the plot armor that protected the rebels, which sent fans scrambling for elaborate in-universe explanations for why Stormtroopers sucked. (Maybe they were stupid on purpose!)

As the Star Wars franchise entered its days under Disney, the Stormtrooper cried out to have its reputation restored. And the news that the first Star Wars “anthology” film would feature the theft of the Death Star schematics and would adopt a darker, grittier tone seemed to presage the shot at redemption that Stormtroopers deserved. These would be old-school Stormtroopers — not their First Order descendants from The Force Awakens or their Old Republic predecessors from the prequels, but the same ones who ruined their credibility by missing almost every open shot at Han, Luke, or Leia in the original trilogy. And with director Gareth Edwards going for a more “realistic” Star Wars, one modeled on photography from real-life conflicts, it seemed certain that the bad guys would have to be bigger threats than they had been before.

We’ll have much more to say about the (mostly excellent) latest installment of Star Wars, but for now, know this: Rogue One doesn’t make Stormtroopers great again. It doesn’t even make them mildly competent. Rogue One is a Stormtrooper slaughterhouse that makes the original trilogy’s kill counts look comparatively tame.

In an early Rogue One flashback scene, we see a loose-limbed Stormtrooper toy that belonged to a young Jyn Erso.

(Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
(Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The scuffed-up doll just dangles, its legs and arms akimbo. Even so, it might have the most backbone of any Stormtrooper who appears in Rogue One. No single Star Wars movie — maybe not even the entire preexisting series combined — has shown us so many Stormtroopers biting it in so many painful ways. Bashed in the head by a droid? Check. Battered by the bodies of other unconscious Stormtroopers? Check. Poked and bonked by a staff wielded by a blind man? Roger roger.

Whether they’re being ambushed and beaten in brutal hand-to-hand combat or picked off from afar with perfect precision, the Stormtroopers’ losses keep coming. And that’s not counting the frequent scenes of explosions engulfing large groups of Stormtroopers, or the many shots of Stormtrooper mobs being mowed down by the dozen as a rebel with a big gun sprays them indiscriminately. It all adds up to an almost Alderaanian Stormtrooper casualty count, accompanied by the doomed soldiers’ processed voices making innocent small talk or reacting too slowly and quizzically to whatever disaster is about to befall them.

The Empire isn’t a pushover in Rogue One. This is our closest look yet at the Empire at the peak of its military might, and between the Death Star, swarms of TIE fighters, and a familiar array of walkers, the rebels’ odds seem sufficiently long. But the Stormtroopers aren’t responsible for any big breaks that go the Emperor’s way. To add insult to almost unceasing injury, they’re even upstaged by the black-armored Death Troopers, a special-forces alternative to the Stormtroopers who act as guards for important personnel. Unlike the Stormtroopers, the Death Troopers sometimes hit their targets. That unremarkable accuracy qualifies as “special” only underscores how decidedly unspecial the Stormtroopers are; the Death Troopers fight like the entry-level troopers might if Star Wars took Stormtroopers more seriously.

Rogue One portrays the rebels in a murkier moral light than the original trilogy did; this time, some of the good guys have behaved badly. But the rebooted rebels have something in common with the ones we’re used to: When they attack, the Stormtroopers still never know what’s hit them. Rogue One could have been a comeback for the franchise’s favorite cannon fodder. Instead, it brings back the same iconic armor, and the same old complaints about the soldiers inside.