Warning: major spoilers ahead for The Last Jedi.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi asks viewers to throw away a lot about what they thought they knew about Star Wars. Early in the film, during the First Order’s assault on the Resistance flagship, the bridge of the ship explodes, and almost all the senior leadership is killed, save for General Leia Organa, who survives with the aid of the Force. As we learn in a later throwaway line, everyone’s favorite Mon Calamari space captain, Admiral Ackbar, is among the dead in that attack.
Over the past few days, there’s been a recurring thread of outrage over Ackbar being unceremoniously murdered in a throwaway moment. Some fans claim that such an important, beloved hero didn’t deserve such a callously presented death. The people making this argument tend to feel it’s emblematic of Last Jedi’s larger disrespect for the Star Wars franchise and characters. But while there’s been plenty of valid debate about how the The Last Jedi subverts series expectations and fan theories, Admiral Ackbar dying doesn’t rise to that level.
The sad truth about Ackbar is that he isn’t actually a significant character in the Star Wars franchise. At all. The venerable admiral gets roughly two and a half minutes of screen time in Return of the Jedi, nearly all of it devoted to narrating the ongoing space battle.
He gets a similar appearance in The Force Awakens as a fan service-y Easter egg. He’s a one-line character. He’s paper-thin. He doesn’t have motivations, relationships with other characters, goals, or personal conflict. He doesn’t forward Star Wars’ themes or stories. He’s a flat, two-dimensional prop who people only remember because he looks like a funny fish-person, and because he’s become an internet meme involving shouting about things being traps. Put aside the character’s lengthy (now largely removed from canon) history from supplementary novels, comics, and games, and you’re left with an impressive practical costume effect and a couple of unintentionally funny lines.
What exactly did people want from Ackbar’s death? A huge, heroic moment? A gravely quip about how he’d like to see the First Order “repel firepower of this magnitude?” The fact that Rian Johnson did not spend the same amount of time on Ackbar’s death as he did on Luke Skywalker’s is not a flaw in the story. The Last Jedi is already plenty long enough.
There have certainly been arguments that Vice Admiral Holdo “stole” Ackbar’s big moment by taking down Snoke’s Star Destroyer, that since Ackbar was already an established character, he should have been the one to go out fighting. But Holdo is an actual character with agency, plans, and opinions. Last Jedi spends time on establishing her personal history, and her sacrifice actually means something in the greater context of the film. In particular, it informs Poe’s ongoing journey about heroism and leadership, and contrasts with his earlier notions of what those concepts mean. And letting Holdo — a new character — fill that role instead of Ackbar helps solve some of Star Wars’ economy-of-character issues, where it seems like almost everyone has to be directly related to or involved with everyone else. Plus, as a newcomer, Laura Dern is able to bring far more dignity and drama to that particular plotline without Ackbar’s one-note meme-guy baggage. (It’s not a bad thing for Star Wars to have another significant female character in the mix, either.)
But there may be another reason Ackbar doesn’t have more of a presence in Last Jedi. Erik Bauersfeld, the voice actor who played him, died in April 2016; just two months after The Last Jedi started filming. And given the widespread backlash against resurrecting Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin through a CGI stand-in in Rogue One, and Lucasfilm’s promise that it won’t digitally resurrect Carrie Fisher in the same way for Episode IX, the company may not have wanted to disrespect Bauersfeld by instantly replacing him to give Ackbar more screen time.
But it might help to understand that the upset over Ackbar’s death isn’t about lamenting a central, significant character. It’s lamenting the death of a meme, of the mythos fans have invested into him. It’s similar to the outrage of the fans who are complaining that Snoke turned out to be a red herring of a villain, or that Rey’s parents turned out to be no one of any importance. They’re raging because their feelings aren’t being respected and prioritized by the people behind the actual Star Wars canon.
More than anything, mourning over Ackbar’s death in the The Last Jedi feels like mourning over fan-made canon. It’s mourning over hypotheticals and a childhood nostalgia that remembers Ackbar as something bigger and better developed than he was. And that’s fine! Nostalgia, memories, and in-jokes are a big part of a fandom. But there’s a weird dichotomy where those stories and meanings start to take precedence in people’s minds over the actual canon. For better or for worse (probably for the better), Star Wars isn’t a democracy — we don’t ask for a show of hands to plot the movies, we put our trust in the creators who make more of the thing we love. And yes, sometimes that means the particular character or plot point we love doesn’t make the cut. But personally, I’d rather have new and controversial choices that advance what the series can be, instead of an endless loop of safer, fan-pleasing decisions that tirelessly recycle the same handful of characters.
It’s like Kylo Ren says in the movie: Star Wars needs to “let the past go.” Killing off the Ackbars of the series to make way for the Vice Admiral Holdos seems like a pretty good place to start.