In Iron Man, the film that began the MCU all those years ago, Tony Stark is a dick. He’s a narcissist, an arrogant billionaire who cares only about himself. Then, through the course of the film, he learns some life lessons and by the end of it he’s...well he’s still a narcissistic dick, but he channels that for good.
At the end of Infinity War, ten years later, Tony is crying as someone he’s known for roughly a year dies in his arms. He does this on an alien planet, where he’s gone to confront the most powerful being in the universe, fully cognizant of the fact that he’s probably never coming back.
Quite the departure yeah?
In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker is the last of the Jedi Knights. After saving his best friend from a dangerous gangster, he sets out to destroy the Emperor and save his father, Darth Vader, from the Dark Side. He succeeded, but at great personal cost. He has saved the galaxy. He is triumphant yet somber. Powerful yet humble. He was willing to die to save his father and Anakin was redeemed - yet the two had only moments before Anakin was lost to the Force.
Triumph and tragedy in equal measure.
In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker is a cranky old man who has left the universe to burn because of...reasons. He sensed the power of the Dark Side in his student and nephew, Ben Solo, and in a moment of madness attempted to murder him in his sleep. Luke Skywalker - hero, Jedi, killer.
Both of these are examples of massive character shift. These characters were established one way and then years later they’ve taken an about face and are radically different. So why does only one of them feel cheap? Why is only one of them bad?
Because one of these characters earned those changes through good storytelling and the other was just hand-waved with poor storytelling.
Stories are interesting things. You can do anything with them, but that doesn't mean you should. There are a lot of rules to storytelling and every single one of them can be broken - if you know what you’re doing.
It’s kind of like speeding - if you know the terrain and where the cameras are you can get away with being naughty. But if you’re someone that doesn’t have a clue what you’re doing, it’s going to cost you.
How did Luke Skywalker go from being the honourable Jedi who believed in family and the power of redemption to the cost of his own life, how did he become this callous dickhead who doesn’t care about anything? Well we don’t know. Because Rian Johnson couldn’t be bothered telling us.
He’s not skilled enough as a writer, and doesn’t think enough of his audience, to actually deliver this character change through prose. So he just spoon-feeds it to you and scolds you for thinking he’s anything other than a genius. Luke was one way, now he’s completely different, get over it.
And that’s how you do it poorly.
So what makes Tony Stark different?
Well we get to see his emotional journey. We get to see him change and grow as a character. We see the events that take him from who he was and turn him in to who he currently is. We actually see that change happen and we can engage and empathise with it.
In Iron Man he learns of the consequences of his choices to that point - his life as a weapons manufacturer and playboy. In Iron Man 2 we see him deal with his own mortality and his daddy issues. The Avengers sees Tony learn “the hero play” when he’s the only one who can save New York from annihilation. In doing that he learns of a bigger threat - Thanos - and this proves to be his new weakness. The “endgame” up there (oh my god they even have the titles keep continuity over several films. Kathleen, you gotta go). Iron Man 3 has him develop PTSD from this. Age of Ultron plays on his god complex and fear of Thanos. Civil War gives us a Tony Stark that has learned the nature of consequence, but also a Tony Stark who cannot control his emotions when it comes to his father - one of his character’s weak points, established years before. This costs him one of his best friends, shatters the Avengers and will be an important plot point when he encounters Peter Quill doing the same thing later.
Civil War also gives us something that will tie all of this together. Peter Parker.
In Peter, Tony sees a lot of himself - a young genius with daddy issues who also happens to have special gifts. However instead of being a jaded cynic, Peter is an enthusiastic optimist who wants more than anything to make the “hero play”. Tony, seeing this sliding doors version of himself, feels an obligation to mentor and protect young Peter. He’s more than a surrogate son, he’s the only thing that would get through to Tony Stark: another version of Tony.
And when Spider-Man dies in his arms after they just failed to save the universe, Tony Stark breaks down and cries.
If you’d gone into Infinity War straight from Iron Man you wouldn’t have a clue who this new Tony Stark was. But because we got to see the character development, because the story earned it, instead of feeling cheated we were left with a powerful emotional moment.
You have to earn it. You can do anything you want with a story, as long as you earn it.
Rian Johnson doesn’t know how to do this. Take the “Holdo Maneuver”. Sure it looked flashy, but it requires that you invalidate all internal and external logic to do so. It violates the rules of its own universe. You can have whatever rules you want in your story universe, that’s one of the joys of writing. But once you establish those rules then breaking them feels like being ripped out of that world and thrown through the fourth wall.
The Holdo Maneuver is a perfect example of this. Relativistic physics tell us that exceeding the speed of light is impossible. But in Star Wars they do it on the reg. How? They have a thing called a “hyperdrive” which allows them to travel in “hyperspace” which is an alternate dimension where you can exceed the speed of light. How does it work? It doesn’t matter, it’s a story. All they need is to set that in the rules.
Then Rian comes along and breaks those rules by using the hyperdrive as a battering ram. He broke the rules. This would also be fine, except he didn’t show us how. He didn’t earn it with storytelling. He just did it. You can break the rules if you earn it, but he didn’t. If he’d put some dialogue in about the Raddus having a special hyperdrive or something - a single line of dialogue, then that scene would have worked. It wouldn’t have invalidated 40 years of Star Wars lore. But he didn’t. Because he’s not a good storyteller.
Remember in Superman II when Superman travels back in time? It’s the same deal. Earlier in the film Superman wasn’t fast enough to stop missiles, by the end of it and with no real reason he can fly faster than the speed of light, travel through time and violate a dozen other laws of physics without any mention of why he was suddenly able to do this and why he didn't do it before. This movie has been mocked for decades because of it, as will The Last Jedi.
Contrary to popular belief, you can have a deus ex machina. As long as you earn it.
My favourite example is in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. At the end of the film our heroes are holed up in the Hornburg, having just lost the fortress of Helm’s Deep. A massive army of Uruk-hai are battering down the doors and it’s only a matter of time before they break in and slaughter everyone. The light of dawn begins to break through the windows and our heroes decide that they’ll meet death on their own terms. They’ll ride out “for death and glory” and they’ll die with swords swinging. As they do so Gandalf appears with an army of Rohirrim and swoops down on the Uruks, saving the day.
So why doesn’t this feel cheap? Because the story earned it. Earlier in the film Gandalf mentions that he’s going off to search for Eomer and his army of Rohirrim, who were also established earlier - as was their fighting prowess. It is mentioned that Gandalf’s horse, Shadowfax, is the fastest in the world. And he also states, with his wizardly ways, that he’ll be return at dawn on the third day. All of the elements were put into place, everything was explained and nothing feels cheap. That’s what it looks like to earn it.
You can do anything you want with a story, as long as you earn it. That’s what good storytelling is all about. Bad storytelling is the opposite. Bad storytelling is about doing whatever you want and giving the finger to anyone who disagrees.
That’s why Infinity War fills you with the emotions the Russo’s were aiming for, while The Last Jedi just fills you with rage.