One of Disney-era Star Wars’ most defining traits is its obsession with heroically killing off droids, but the studio actually needs to change how it treats the franchise’s various robotic companions. Over multiple movies and TV shows, the saga has recreated near-identical moments of heroic self-sacrifice, in which droids save their human friends by letting themselves be destroyed. By continually repeating this trope, however, Star Wars is actually moving away from the intention to highlight droids’ heroism and turning these moments into parody.
The obsession with sacrificial droid deaths arguably began in the original trilogy, with R2-D2 being variously blasted and shocked before being repaired. However, more modern entries into the saga have significantly upped the ante. Droids such as L3-37, K2-SO and NED-B all end up being obliterated in an effort to help their human compatriots – sharing remarkably similar fates. Rogue One’s K2-SO, for instance, is killed holding off a band of stormtroopers in the Battle of Scarif, while NED-B performed an identical role in aiding Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Path’s escape from Jabiim. In each case, the droid’s sacrifice is intended to be a somber moment.
Unfortunately, for all the heartfelt emotion around losing a trusted ally, the repetition of this trope is creating serious problems for Star Wars. The biggest issue is probably the unintended impact that repeating the same scenes over and over again can have for a viewer. Not only does it lessen the emotional stakes of a particular moment, but it risks turning what should be a tragedy into a joke. With NED-B’s death in Obi-Wan Kenobi, for instance, a potentially touching sequence instead instigates eye-rolling, as it was almost an exact recreation of several previous Star Wars battles. If the franchise wants to find a way of making its droid deaths meaningful again, it needs to do something other than use them as a forlorn hope to protect the “real” heroes of the story.
Not only does seeing droid companions continually die in exactly the same way become unintentionally funny, it also raises serious ethical questions for Star Wars. One of the key tricks intended to make droids’ deaths more affecting is their humanization throughout the saga. Giving the robots distinctive personalities, beyond being simple tools, helps audiences to empathize with them and mean that their sacrifices elicit an emotional response. Yet by constantly killing them, Star Wars actually continually disregards a group of characters that viewers are encouraged to emotionally connect to. Inadvertently, this has the unintended consequence of making heroes seem heartless and underlines that droids are inferior, despite all the emotional work done to make them relatable.
The heroic droid death has become such a staple of Disney Star Wars projects that it’s almost expected every time a lovable robot appears on-screen. In many ways, it was a pleasant surprise when Leia’s Lola companion made it to the end of Obi-Wan Kenobi without having to serve as some sort of shield. However, the time has now come to move away from this trope and think of more inventive uses for droid companions. Done right, this approach could open up a range of interesting philosophical questions around what it means to be a droid, as well as help create new characters as iconic as C-3PO and R2-D2. If Star Wars continues, however, the result will be that every droid risks becoming as unintentionally ridiculous as NED-B.