Star Wars Celebration was full of big news for Star Wars fans. While the news cycle was originally dominated by the bigger stories, like the trailer for The Last Jedi, smaller pieces of news have a chance to trickle down in the days since Celebration ended, now that they aren’t living in the shadow of the big trailers and star-studded panels. One such announcement is that Captain Phasma, played by Gwendoline Christie in The Force Awakens, will be getting her own comic mini-series starting in September as part of the road to The Last Jedi. The four-issue lead-in will explain how Phasma escaped from the destruction of Starkiller base after being trapped in a trash compactor by Finn, and, presumably, how she finds her way to rejoining the First Order’s efforts against the Resistance.
As one of the breakout stars of The Force Awakens, many fans felt her time onscreen was altogether too short. Despite Christie’s casting being treated like something of a big deal after she rose to popularity as Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones and Phasma featuring prominently in promotion of Episode VII, her role was ultimately minor, with only a couple of lines and a few minutes of screen time. Nonetheless, fans gravitated towards her, enthused by the mystery surrounding her role and history within the First Order. She’s since been compared to Boba Fett from Return of the Jedi as an antagonist whose limited screen time granted them an instant cult following, selling toys and generating speculation en-masse
While a comparison to Boba Fett is no bad company, Phasma was one of the failures of The Force Awakens. In her first scenes, she’s a daunting commander of the First Order, a high-ranking officer whom one could sense has done terrible things in the name of General Hux and Supreme Leader Snoke. Then, she gets kidnapped and tricked by the protagonists, all her presence and grandeur reduced to a punchline for Finn, trapped in a garbage compacter never to be seen again. She started as potentially the most interesting antagonist of the movie, and she ended off-screen, only Christie’s confirmation she’d signed on to do Episode VIII confirming her presence in the sequels.
She deserved better, and The Last Jedi should be where she’s given the attention she deserves. Not just because Christie herself is a legitimately great performer, but because Phasma presents a chance for Star Wars to explore territory the films have previously shied away from. Star Wars has never shied away from exploring its villains – arguably the whole original trilogy is about Vader – but the lion’s share of screen time tends to go to the good guys. It’s a formula that works and, hey, there’s no argument here that Darth Vader isn’t one of the greatest cinematic antagonists because of how straight-up evil he’s presented.
Part of this new trilogy is de-constructing that paradigm. The Last Jedi‘s first trailer is very focused on letting us know that the Jedi and the conflict of the light and dark side are being challenged and somehow dismantled over the course of Episodes VIII and IX. It’s even hinted in the poster that Rey will somehow unite the force, finding a balance between the light and the dark. In doing this, there’s a lot of room for these films to look at the discord ideological unification causes between both sides as soldiers and generals and believers resist living with their previously lifelong enemies in order to find peace. It’s dense and forward-thinking ground for the series to cover.
Between Rey, Poe, Finn and new addition Rose, there’s a lot of protagonists with different backgrounds and points of view to look at this from. But if the grand moral is going to be about finding middle-ground and criticising and discussing both sides of deep-rooted ideological conflict, similar attention needs to be paid to the bad guys outside from just Kylo Ren. Antagonists that can represent how the anti-ascetic emotionality of the dark side and pseudo-fascist militarized following it spawns can be so appealing, and how quickly recruitment and radicalization become blurred within active, ongoing, belief-driven war. Captain Phasma is an ideal candidate from which to look at these hard questions.
She and the First Order don’t need to be sympathetic, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be complex and have depth. They were, too, once kids to whom the great battles of Hoth and Tatooine were the stuff of legend, and at least some of them, like Finn, were kidnapped by the First Order to join the effort. Wars are complicated things in which people so often and so easily get drawn into battles they never intended, and it’d be to the credit of something called Star Wars, that’s now in its generation of characters, to delve into that. Maybe Phasma was a child soldier, maybe she joined willingly – neither need distract from how willing she is to kill swathes of innocent people at a moment’s notice.
This doesn’t mean she can’t be a mystery, either. Obviously part of her charm from a marketing standpoint is that fans respond to an intriguing but under-utilized character with money on merchandise and spin-off material to fill in the gaps. The reason her presence was so widely criticised, however, is that lowering the screen time is a cheap and hollow way to create that mystery. It serviced swift gratification over long-form story-telling. Being a bold part of the narrative doesn’t exclude being an enigma – Lando Calrissian and Han Solo both managed to be staple characters with mysterious pasts well enough.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi already looks like it’s going to challenge a lot of what we know and expect from Star Wars, and in doing so right some of the wrongs from The Force Awakens. Among those mistakes was how little time we got with Captain Phasma. If the powers that be at Lucasfilm are looking for a poster villain aside from Kylo Ren to really show off the darkness of the First Order, they need look no further than the one they already made, they just need to actually acknowledge her.