We Need to Talk About Captain Phasma and Boba Fett
We’ve all seen the memes. We’ve all seen the articles called “X Things Wrong with The Force Awakens” and the rebuttals that point out what should have been obvious to anyone with an iota of awareness. If you genuinely use ludicrously meaningless and inappropriate words like “emo” and “weak” to describe a nuanced character like Kylo Ren, then none of your fellow humans will be able to drag you from your miasma of foolishness, no matter how well intentioned they are in trying to do so.
But in a lot of these rebuttals there’s a section that does its vague best to defend Captain Phasma. They come free with reminders that, hey, everyone just loved Boba Fett, didn’t they? And he didn’t do a damn thing either, right? All that guy did was look badass and people loved him. Phasma totally deserves the same treatment! After all, she didn’t even go out like a punk, a la Fett’s embarrassing demise. Right? Right!?
Well, no. Dead wrong.
I have no particular love for Boba Fett (and holy shit, did I ever want to love Captain Phasma) but people didn’t just love Fett because he looked cool, people loved him because they responded to the excellent way he was portrayed in the movies. Captain Phasma, by comparison, came across as clumsily presented at best and grossly misused at worst. This wasn’t Gwendoline Christie’s fault. This was script, pure and simple.
I loved The Force Awakens. It sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise (I’m not! I swear!) when I say it was exactly what it needed to be, a wonderful soft reboot/sequel for a new generation, a whole freaking mountain of fun, and it felt like raw, undiluted Star Wars again. I loved the new protagonists in Rey, Finn, and Poe; I loved the new antagonists in Snoke, Hux, and Kylo Ren. I was all prepared to love Captain Phasma, not just because she looked great and a Stormtrooper elite officer is such a good idea, but because it’s blissful to see more women in Star Wars and Phasma happens to be played by one of the raddest actors working right now. I’m not even a huge Game of Thrones fan, but as far as I’m concerned Gwendoline Christie can do no wrong.
I’m aware she’ll likely be a big deal in the next two movies. I’m also aware her role in the marketing and press tours seemed to be hugely amped up in response to the very fair “Why are there hardly any women in this movie?” backlash when the cast was first announced. And, frankly, if you’re one of those folks who judge her late casting as unfair pandering when almost all of the characters in the movie are still male, then go fuck yourself.
We were even treated to direct comparisons, such as in this very quote:
So, I get it. She was caught between a rock and a hard place from the start: heavily marketed for obvious reasons, and with great expectations because of her casting. What would’ve been a comedic and/or throwaway character had far higher expectations because of the info released surrounding her. And yes, there’s surely great stuff to come. But that quote is sort of key to the whole deal. That part about impact.
So let me tell you why Captain Phasma isn’t TFA’s Boba Fett.
For the sake of fairness, we’ll ignore Return of the Jedi. We can ignore his sleazy-cool underworld flirting with Rystall and Lyn Me in the Special Editions. We can forget the cool way he jetpacks into the action right when things kick off above the Sarlacc. Similarly, we can ignore the hilariously awesome pulpy death inflicted by a blind Han Solo. I don’t want to ignore them – and a lot of his Jedi moments, brief as they are, only add character to him anyway, further making my point – but it’s not fair to give him two movies.
Let’s ignore everything in the old Expanded Universe, too. Let’s just stick to The Empire Strikes Back, where Fett first shows up to the majority of the world. (This doesn’t count, and even if it did, we’re ignoring it for the purposes of fairness.)
Phasma gets one movie where she’s introduced. Let’s do the same for Fett. Fair’s fair. People loved Boba Fett after Empire – his Jedi appearances and all the stuff he does in the EU are irrelevant.
Like I said above, the reason Boba Fett became such a beloved character was his presentation. It was a bit of a masterclass in how to write and present secondary characters. Several characters (characters we already love and/or respect) treat Boba Fett like he’s very serious business. That’s crucial. No one smack-talks him. Similarly, he directly affects the movie’s plot in brief but significant ways, and in ways no one else has the skills to do. That matters just as much.
That doesn’t sound like much, really. And yet, it’s everything. This is some core stuff to how to write believable characters. How other characters relate and react to them. What influence they have on the events of the plot. Super-crucial stuff that informs the reader and viewer about that character’s place in the story – and within the setting itself.
Let’s be specific, though.
- Captain Phasma sees one of her stormtroopers showing signs of deviancy and either does nothing about it, or fails to fix it. The first time we see her interacting with another character, we see her fail at the thing she’s attempting to do, either because Finn escapes too soon or the reprogramming/punishment doesn’t stick. That’s fine! The bad guys can’t win them all. But in context, it doesn’t do her any favours given that this is how she’s introduced.
- We see several ground battles involving stormtroopers, none of which really show her doing anything at all. Imagine if Phasma had been the one to duel Finn instead of TR-8R, only to be hurled back from the killing blow at the last minute. She’d be significantly more dangerous, having nearly killed Finn. But I digress. We rarely see her actually being any good at her job – at what she’s supposed to be excellent at in the story. When presenting characters, that matters a hell of a lot.
- She gets captured by Han and Finn with a hilarious lack of effort. They pull a gun on her, and that’s that. Nothing in that scene infers or shows anything of particular competence or capability, either. Her job is to be one of the top-level (possibly brainwashed/psycho-conditioned?) elite soldier officers of the First Order. And yet…
- She capitulates to Han’s demands with no resistance at all, selling out Starkiller Base’s defence codes without putting up even a modicum of a fight. Not even resisting. All while Finn is smack-talking her in his charmingly funny way.
- She then vanishes off-screen, apparently disposed of (no pun intended) in a particularly Star Wars-esque comedy fashion: a trash compactor.
And that’s that. At no point do we see characters actually displaying any fear of her – with the exception of Finn, who’s already in mid-nervous breakdown when she warns him he’s being a bad boy. Her threats lose a lot of gravitas there because Finn’s already emotionally engaged in his own issues, and he doesn’t show a huge amount of concern beyond the fact he’s already freaking out.
Ultimately, at no point does she really affect the plot except through her failures and her incompetence at her job. She doesn’t do anything. She’s passive. Things happen to her.
Boba Fett (who, as so many memes are saying “never did anything”) was the exact opposite of that. Look at how he affects the plot, and how other characters react to him. Look at how good he was at his job (and his role in the story). He does a bunch of things – some subtle, some off-screen and inferred, and some on-screen and obvious – that just bleed character.
Look at how those elements come together to show why he was so beloved:
- This is a character that Darth Vader – Darth fucking Vader – has to warn about not being too violent. Vader wants the Falcon’s crew alive, and he singles out Boba Fett from all the bounty hunters, to say the classic line: “No disintegrations.” The fact Fett was already there with the other bounty hunters ready to be hired by the Empire’s big cheese to chase some of its most important prey, well, that says a lot. But this is the one guy out of all those scum with the darkest reputation, the one that gets singled out. This is a man that Darth Vader (who, lets remember, everyone is terrified of) has to tell to calm the fuck down. That establishes character.
- When the Empire loses track of the Millennium Falcon, and when Han Solo has just pulled off his awesome trick that even Princess Leia honestly compliments (after spending the whole movie teasingly mocking him), Boba Fett is the one to outfox them. The Falcon drifts away in the Star Destroyer’s garbage… then flies away unseen. Except for the fact that Boba Fett played the same trick, and follows the rebels. That’s how fucking good at his job he was. Han Solo pulled one of his coolest tricks, and Boba Fett was waiting for it.
- Oh, man. What a moment. That awesome moment when we see Darth Vader has been waiting on Bespin for the rebels, and they’re now well and truly fucked. “I had no choice,” Lando says as he’s selling Han and Leia out, right to their faces. “They arrived right before you did.” Vader performs his rather cool dinner conversation “We would be honoured if you would join us…” and who should walk out from stage right? Why, that would be Boba Fett. The man who led Darth Vader to the rebels. The man who told Vader not only where the rebels were going, but he worked it out before Han and Leia arrived, letting the Empire get the drop on our beloved heroes. In case it needs spelling out again, this is called Being Good At One’s Job, as well as Affecting The Plot. Fett is the architect of why the protagonists are fucked in the darkest part of the second act of the trilogy.
- As already mentioned, part of what makes Boba Fett work in how he’s presented is in how other characters react to him. It establishes his presence in the story and place in the character hierarchy, so to speak. On Bespin, there are two characters that argue with Darth Vader. One of them is Lando Calrissian. Lando is frustrated by being humiliated and deceived by Vader (whom he calls “Lord Vader” with respect at all times.) Vader couldn’t care less. “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.” The other is Boba Fett. Vader gives Fett exactly what he wants. “You may take Captain Solo to Jabba the Hutt after I have Skywalker.” Fett argues back: “He’s no good to me dead.” Vader assures him that Solo won’t be permanently damaged. When it looks like Han might not survive the carbonite freezing process, Fett again calmly challenges Vader about it – and Vader assures him “The Empire will compensate you if he dies.” The difference in how these two characters treat Vader, and are treated by Vader, is immense.
- What was Boba Fett’s goal, as a character in the movie? To capture Han Solo. Here’s a picture of him saying “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold”, which are words I find way more inspiring militarily speaking than “Mission Accomplished”.
- When Boba Fett is leading Han Solo, in carbonite, towards Slave I, Luke Skywalker is sneaking through the hallways of Cloud City, ready to undertake a rescue. There’s a moment when you see Luke watching Fett, several Cloud City staff, and a few stormtroopers walk past – and (still in hiding) Luke quietly unholsters his pistol. Boba Fett turns his fucking head at the sound. Fett keeps walking and Luke thinks he’s undetected. He sneaks up a little further once the parade has gone by, and hushes R2 who’s being a jerk. Just when Luke’s peeking around the corner again and everything’s silent, Boba Fett springs back and starts blasting. He knew Luke was there. He doesn’t want to kill Skywalker – he doesn’t give a shit. He’s bailing now he’s got what he came for. But Luke’s stealthed around just fine so far, until Boba Fett opens up on him.
- And then, of course, there’s this classic moment. Boba Fett, whose patience for bullshit is so monumentally thin, that when Chewbacca starts showing any resistance at all he decides to murder the poor hairy fucker. This is a character who – again – Darth Vader, that guy who cuts old men in two, tortures Han Solo without asking questions, and strangles his own allies with magic – tells to settle down. This is a legendarily violent and dangerous dude.
And that’s the difference, more or less. Christ, it pains me to defend Boba Fett. Has there ever been a character so heartily and heavily fanwanked in the history of geekdom? Admittedly, a chunk of that rose from his endless, endless EU appearances, but still. It doesn’t change the facts, Jack: people who say Fett doesn’t do anything are wildly missing the point. Fett doesn’t need to posture or pose or run around blasting endlessly. He comes across as dangerous and intriguing and competent because of his role in the story, what moments in the plot happen directly because of him, and the way other characters react to him. That’s good characterisation.
Captain Phasma has almost none of that.
But, y’know, she probably will. At the very least, she’s been set up for a hell of a rehabilitation after that poor showing. I’m sure vengeance is on the cards. That’ll be awesome.