Monday, 4 April 2016

The Secret To Background Badasses - Why We All Remember Boba Fett

Nerd culture really is an odd thing, especially when it comes to our more obsessive traits. 

If a director opts to emphasise a minor point enough or make it stand out, fandoms can end up building entire worlds around them. You can think of no small number of these from the "calibrations" jokes of Mass Effect to the endless examples provided by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but few have been so effective as Boba Fett. For a character who did little more than largely stand in the background in silence, Star Wars fans enshrined him, using him to build up the entire Mandalorian culture and gradually turning his people into a force which could rival the Jedi. The obvious question is why we did that though. For someone who fired less than a dozen shots across two films, what was the secret to his success? The answer stems not from what he did, but the tantalizing suggestions of what he was capable of.

The Empire Strikes Back introduced him as a specialist. Gathered alongside some of the worst killers the galaxy had to offer, he had been personally called in by Darth Vader once his troops failed. Directly briefed on his mission by Vader himself, the bounty hunters were established as effective murderers merely from how the Lord of the Sith treated them. While hardly regarded as equals, he cited incentives to bring his captives in and coerced them into taking the job rather than merely ordering them about as he would Stormtroopers. It's short and subtle but enough for the audience to pick up on as they look at the bizarre array of professional murderers among them, but then the scene emphasizes Fett himself. Mid speech, Vader turns and directly addresses Fett with one single, very direct, command:

Fett's sheer killing power and capacity for ruthlessness is so great even Vader himself needs to pause and personally speak with this bounty hunter. Given how the Rebels have only survived encounters with him via sheer luck or avoiding him entirely, the fact the Emperor's right hand would address him in such a manner speaks volumes about Fett's capabilities. Then we have his response though:

"As you wish."

Yeah, Vader's own officers and even ranking Admirals will get Force choked just for disagreeing with him on a subject, and outright murdered for failing him. Fett offering a flippant nod like this though? Vader doesn't even blink or try to rebuke him over it. In little more than five seconds this establishes the fact this guy is a force unto himself. Combined with his awesome appearance (not to mention the subtle mental connection with Vader a-la faceless space armour) this exchange establishes him as someone the audience to keep their eyes on. In all honesty, it does a better job than most displays of rampant annihilation ever would, and it's a rare example of telling rather than showing done right. How so? Because it's so brief and it leaves anyone watching and waiting for the moment this guy fully proves himself.

Any lingering doubt over Fett's skills are quickly put to rest in the very next scene. While still trailing watchers along, waiting to see what he's capable of, he manages to pull off a trick the entire Imperial fleet failed to do - Tracking Han Solo. 

Not only does he immediately pick up on exactly what Solo has done to evade capture, but he manages to tail them undetected all the way to Bespin. Just to put this in perspective - Leia praises Han for his improvised tactics and innovation, and Fett is just there waiting for him having predicted his every move. This stunt is promptly followed up by a one man job of predicting their movements to Cloud City, alerting his employers, strong-arming Lando into obeying them, and laying in wait with a trap. As awesome as the moment Vader is revealed is, it's the arrival of Fett right behind him which shows how truly screwed the protagonists in this bleak chapter of the trilogy.

Now, from there on most would argue that Fett doesn't do much for the rest of the film. Once again though, seriously consider his presentation and how he is treated. Often standing in the background or to one side, he's continually shadowing or keeping one eye on the protagonists. That continual presence keeps the audience on edge, as does the contrast between his treatment and those of the other characters.

When Vader deals with Lando, someone who has been actively helping them and was willing to even betray his lifelong friend to please the Imperials, we get this immortal line: 

“I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.”

Let's contrast that to how he deals with Fett once the Mandalorian hears that his bounty might be harmed or possibly killed. In the first instance, Vader doesn't challenge him at all, and simply responds that Fett can have Solo the moment Skywalker is captured. Even after Fett has the brass balls to announce that Solo is "no good to him dead" Vader merely retorts that there is no permanent damage. Later on, once they discuss this subject again, Vader even goes so far as to promise compensation should Solo not survive the freezing process they are subjecting him to. Yeah, a man in charge of a small nation? Vader will back stab him without a second thought. Fett though? He values the bounty hunter's skills enough to actively try and keep him on his good side. It's certainly not fear which is driving him, but perhaps a quiet respect.

Minor moments also follow throughout the film, often either working off of Vader or upping his skills in comparison to the Imperial forces. Along with drawing his gun on Chewbacca once the wookiee tries to make a break for freedom, causing Vader - AKA the go-to guy for killing just about any damn thing in the known galaxy - to force him down; he's the first to pick up on Luke Skyalker's presence. Really, re-watch the scene where Luke breaks into Cloud City and keep an eye on who is doing what. Luke sneaks inside and upon seeing the Imperials marching by, ducks back into cover while unholstering his blaster. As he does, Fett's head turns towards him, picking out that he's there just from that slight movement. So, the moment Luke thinks no one's picked up on his presence and moves out of cover, Fett immediately comes out firing.

We previously discussed the mysterious habit of Stormtroopers to miss when the villain's plot requires it, and this moment is one of those examples. Vader wants Skywalker alive, and Fett and those with him know it, so they're shooting to miss. They're keeping up the appearance of opposing him, but Fett isn't just about to let him advance unnoticed or without some suggestion of opposition, so he looses a few shots. Then, he promptly turns to leave. While he might be willing to stage a fight against Skywalker, his job is done. Really, think about it, he's been paid to track Solo, he has him captive and no part of his assignment required him to take out the rest of the Rebels. So, rather than sticking around to fight them in a pointless and likely wasteful delay, he heads off to get paid.

Every action here feels natural, and it's one of the few minimalist examples to date of building up a distinct personality with few words and no fight scenes. While we'd later see more of him in Return of the Jedi, and countless awesome moments in Expanded Universe stories, Empire Strikes Back established him as a no-nonsense skilled killer with his eye on the ball. It was this impression which made audiences wanting to see more of him and his people, and it's a moment of subtlety that the franchise has rarely recaptured. Darth Maul, General Grievous and Jango Fett himself suffered from a lack of direction or being overexposed to the audience, lacking the same precise moments which had benefited Boba here. Even in the most recent film the chrome clad Captain Phasma - the one character JJ Abrams boasted about being the "new Boba Fett" -accomplished nothing aside from repeatedly failing at her job.

As overly-glorified as he often is these days, Fett is the quintessential example of creating a background dark horse character. It's the script's surprising subtleties and quieter moments which help emphasize him more than anything else. Really, he succeeded because the director offered us just enough to know shreds of information about him, and engaged us enough to have our minds make up the rest of his story. Perhaps once future directors of this franchise remember this fact while they're milking it dry in the name of Disney, we might end up with another badass worth becoming invested in.


  1. very similar article on ADBs website

    1. Well damn, wish i'd read that before making this otherwise I would have just cited that article and written an point surrounding a connected subject. Still, can't agree with him on everything there, especially his argument that The Force Awakens was actually a good film.

    2. I'd like to point something else out as well, despite that I really liked The Force Awakens, I have to agree on Phasma, and something you didn't bring up is their appearances. We can see how Fett's armour has actual battle damage on it, so we know he's been in several fights, whereas Phasma's armour is pristine. It comes across as less "badass" and more "special snowflake."

    3. Thinking about it, yeah that definitely didn't help. Fett's armour has character and history thanks to its damage, and many scars or personal choices speak much about his history and skills. However, i'd personally argue that her armour could have worked unblemished were it not for two elements of its design: It's basically shiny standard trooper armour.

      As it's no different from common or garden trooper armour there's no character, no personality or qualities to it to help truly make her stand out. She just looks like a colour swap and little else. In the past, even prior characters wearing standard issue armour tended to be singled out by wearing rarer variants or a specific version of it (Alpha-17 for example) so they could stand out on their own. The fact it's chrome and glowing though just robs the character of any sense of being a threat, as it makes her look as if she's constantly on the parade grounds, constantly dressed for ceremonial duties and basically serves as a toy soldier.