This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Some of the fan complaints about Star Wars: The Last Jedi have more substance than others—if you’re annoyed about bombs dropping straight downwards in space, I have some bad news for you about the sound explosions make in a vacuum. But one of the most persistent is that the movie is just too funny, or, more precisely, that it’s funny in the wrong ways. Even the notoriously stodgy prequels had their goofy moments, but they tended more towards kid-friendly slapstick than the kind of contemporary gags with which Rian Johnson enlivens The Last Jedi. The movie opens with a scene in which Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron taunts Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux by pretending to have trouble with his communicator, deflating an ominous monologue of the kind so familiar from past Star Wars movies, and although it’s presumably still set a long time ago and far, far away, its characters are well-versed enough in current slang for Poe to remark that the Resistance stronghold on Crait is protected by a “big-ass door.”
This kind of modestly self-aware humor should be familiar to Star Wars fans as much than anyone, since George Lucas’ original movie cemented it as a part of the sci-fi/fantasy lexicon. The “holding for General Hux” bit is in some ways a mere remix of Han Solo’s desperate “Everything is under control” improvisation on the Death Star, and it extends the kind of wry in-genre critique that Carrie Fisher brought to the original trilogy.
But the specific complaint with regard to The Last Jedi is that the way the movie treats General Hux reduces a fearsome First Order office to a striving buffoon, outwitted by Poe Dameron and outmaneuvered by Kylo Ren, repeating the latter’s commands during the final battle on Crait in a futile pretense of maintaining the illusion that he’s still in control of his troops.
The Force Awakens’ Hux was already unstable, but he was more in the vein of a “rabid cur,” as Snoke describes him in The Last Jedi.
In the new movie, he’s often a figure of fun, almost pitiable in his attempts to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies and his allies. But it’s a mistake to conclude that Hux’s pathetic side makes him any less dangerous. When he gives the order to fire, the Resistance’s ships explode just as they would if they’d been attacked by a man with a more secure sense of self-worth. Sure, Hux and Kylo Ren’s insecurities eventually provide just enough of a hole for the last remnant of the Resistance to slip away, but tens of thousands have died by then, killed by an overgrown boy with his finger on the universe’s biggest trigger.
One of the hardest lessons of the last year has been that being laughed at is one of the greatest weapons an enemy can wield. Donald Trump went from running gag to Republican frontrunner while Jimmy Fallon was still mussing his hair, and the “style guide” for the Nazi publication The Daily Stormer revealed that couching racist ideology in “LOL jk” terms is a deliberate strategy used to disarm their opponents. The Trump administration has played out as a near-unceasing comedy of errors, but those errors have profound and long-reaching consequences, and rolling your eyes at them doesn’t lessen the damage. Supreme Leader Snoke dismisses Kylo Ren as “a child in a mask,” but that only leaves him open to counterattack; when Snoke senses Kylo’s resolve has stiffened and his doubts vanished, he never considers the possibility that the course of action he’s decided on is to cut him in half.
For all his evil bluster, the Star Wars character General Hux most resembles is Rogue One’s Orson Krennic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, the Imperial equivalent of a mid-level bureaucrat trying to make his way up the corporate ladder. But when the organization in question is as powerful and ruthless as the Empire or the First Order, even a bumbler can cause serious destruction. Bullets don’t care if you take them seriously.