The Stormtrooper Paradox: The Human Behind the Mask

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Every time a stormtrooper dies, we laugh, say, “Ouch! That must have hurt,” and quickly forget about their existence. 

Stormtroopers are one of the most recognizable icons in pop culture. Wearing bulky white helmets paired with white body armor and boots, carrying around a gun, and notorious for their bad aim, stormtroopers have found themselves at the butt of the joke, acting as disposable foot soldiers for the evil Empire and the First Order in the Star Wars universe.

What happens when a person takes off their mask? Instead of a faceless individual shooting at the heroes or having dramatic deaths, there is a face looking at the audience, asking them to realize that they are a person, too. 

Something changed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens when Finn (John Boyega), or FN-2187, took off his helmet after watching his friend die during combat. Pop Culture Detective believes that this moment should fundamentally change how we view stormtroopers in the Star Wars universe, even if the filmmakers are unaware of it. 

The profound implications of humanizing a stormtrooper create "the stormtrooper paradox." Are they indisposable killing machines or are they capable of change? Check out Pop Culture Detective’s video highlighting the paradox in a galaxy far, far away.

A Brief History of the Stormtrooper

Stormtroopers are a military force synonymous with space imperialism and oppression. In Star Wars: A New Hope, stormtroopers are said to be brutal, precise, and loyal soldiers who have undergone extensive military training to serve the ruling Empire.  

These footsoldiers get their names from a special division of German soldiers during World War I called sturmtruppen or “stormtroopers.” These handpicked men were heavily armed and specially trained for close combat. These troops would later become a paramilitary rank in the Nazi SS under Adolf Hitler. 

Geroge Lucas’ prequels establish the predecessor to the stormtrooper in the form of the Republic’s clone army. Cloned after the former Mandalorian-turned-bounty hunter Jango Fett, an army that shared Jango’s genetics and biological makeup was created to obey the Republic’s orders. They were indispensable, being recreated to up the army’s numbers.

By the time the original trilogy rolls around, the clone soldiers have been phased out, and the ranks of the new imperial stormtroopers are made up of conscripts and volunteers. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens still uses stormtroopers, but states that these soldiers are taken from their families when they are children and brainwashed to become loyal fighters. Essentially, they are child soldiers fighting a war by force. Every stormtrooper has no face, no name, and no individuality. The mask robs them of this, and they will become another casualty that is forgotten by the end of the war. 

'Rouge One: A Story Wars Story'Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Behind the Mask

Star Wars uses the motif of removing the mask to expose someone’s humanity constantly to show us that what we once thought was the embodiment of evil is still just human. Those who are evil are overtaken by hate and fear but eventually change in the end because someone sees the good in them. 

But what happens when that mask is never removed? 

The Star Wars filmmakers never asked that question before until The Force Awakens. In the opening scenes, a stormtrooper is with another stormtrooper as they die. The dying stormtrooper smears his bloodied hand across the other stormtrooper's white mask, leaving him with an unforgettable mark. For an intergalactic war, there is rarely any blood shown on screen. When blood is shown, there is a strong significance connected to it. 

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The bloody fingerprints on his helmet changed the trajectory of stormtrooper FN-2187’s story. A short time later, that stormtrooper takes off his helmet to reveal a human face traumatized by the events in the village. 

We have seen thousands of stormtroopers before in the Star Wars franchise, but we have never seen their faces until FN-2187 takes off his mask. It is a strange moment when FN-2187’s face is revealed because the audience is struck with the realization that underneath the armor is a person with emotions and can feel both physical and psychological pain. 

Suddenly, the stormtrooper is humanized. We remember that these soldiers were once children, and in some ways still are. They are afraid of death and look for small moments of intimacy with one another. When the stormtrooper dies in FN-2187’s arms, grief runs through him as he comes to the terms that his peer is dead. 

Who Is Allowed to Change? 

So the stormtrooper can be humanized. Great! What’s next? 

Instead of diving deeper into this intergalactic military crisis of mortality, the filmmakers throw away the idea of humanizing all of the stormtroopers once it no longer serves their story. Finn’s traumatic awakening is tossed to the side in favor of repeating the same beats in Star Wars: A New Hope. 

Why even make Finn a stormtrooper, then? Finn seems to be the only stormtrooper to become a defector who joins the Resistance. He is funny, emotional, and filled with personality, although these are not the characteristics you’d expect from someone who was kidnapped and brainwashed from an early age. The story seems to tell the audience that Finn was the only stormtrooper out of millions who developed a conscience, yet does nothing with this information. 

Now, Finn being the only stormtrooper to defect to the Rebellion seems unlikely. Other soldiers can reject their conditioning. The First Order has a protocol for this exact kind of non-compliance, which is performed on Finn after the mission in the village. Instead of being concerned about the morally complex questions that come from Finn’s desertion, action scenes are built around blasting more mindless troopers and played for in-universe jokes. 

Sixty-eight stormtroopers are stabbed, blasted, and launched into oblivion on-screen throughout The Force Awakens—even more off-screen—and Finn is one of the people killing off the people he grew up with. The same character whose entire morality was questioned when a stormtrooper peer of his died in his arms. The film doesn’t acknowledge the underlying tragedy of their circumstances because it doesn’t want to deal with emotions. Instead of finding clear ways to work in the trauma to the larger story while still making it family-friendly, the filmmakers opted for the easy way out. 

Sure, stormtroopers are not the foreground villains or heroes of Star Wars, but don’t they deserve to be humanized? The clone soldiers were allowed to be humanized through the animated TV series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and the embodiment of evil was Darth Vader transforms back into Anakin Skywalker, then his body disappears into the light side of the Force.

Good can still exist in someone who has been influenced by the dark side, and every stormtroopers' demise is the death of redemption. 

Anakin Skywalker's death in 'Star Wars: Return of the Jedi'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Star Wars' core messages have always been that people can change. Once that idea is accepted, then the possibilities must extend to each person, no matter how big or small of a role they play. A stormtrooper defecting could have been an interesting view into what the Star Wars universe looked like after the defeat of the Empire. 

In the end, the filmmakers missed the opportunity to expand the universe in favor of the familiar. The masks stay on, the stormtroopers’ personalities come out for a brief moment for a laugh, then they are blasted away by a hero from another laugh. It's the formula that the stormtrooper must live in until someone decides that they are people, too. 

What do you think about the humanized stormtrooper? Let us know in the comments!      

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