Pop quiz: how many fights do Imperial Stormtroopers lose in the first two Star Wars movies (in order of release, meaning A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back)? Going by their reputation, you might think “a lot.” After all, Imperial Stormtroopers are currently the page image for mooks, which is defined as, “the hordes of standard-issue, disposable bad guys whom the hero mows down with impunity… they provide a chance for the characters to show off their flashy fighting skills and can be shot without guilt.”
But if you said “a lot,” you’d be wrong. I got thinking about this question the other day, so I went ahead and re-watched all the shoot-out scenes in those first two movies. There’s not a single one where the Stormtroopers lose, unless you count the part in the first movie where Han and Luke ambush two Stormtroopers to steal their armor (which happens off-screen.) In every single other scene where they’re seen fighting, the role of the Stormtroopers is not to give the heroes a chance to show off how badass they are, it’s to give them something to run away from.
Granted, they still fail to hit the heroes when firing at close range. And while they never hit the heroes in a fight (until Leia gets hit in the arm in Return of the Jedi), the heroes often manage to down a few Stormtroopers as they’re escaping, making the Stormtrooper’s poor marksmanship all the more embarrassing.
Still, the Stormtroopers are treated with far more dignity than the overwhelming majority of nameless fictional villains. That’s true whether you’re talking about orcs in Lord of the Rings, cops in The Matrix, non-named vampires in Buffy, Reavers in Serenity (though not Firefly), or the aliens in the recent Avengers movie. Or the droid troopers in the Star Wars prequels, for that matter.
In all those other cases, the non-named bad guys really do exist solely so the heroes can kick their butts, but Star Wars actually tried to portray Stormtroopers as a threat–even though the portrayal wasn’t as effective as it might have been, and it really falls apart in Jedi when they lose to the Ewoks.
This is an excellent example of why I love the original Star Wars movies. It seems to me that they avoided a lot of the mistakes movies today make, simply because it didn’t occur to anyone to make them. Probably because they weren’t mindlessly copying last year’s summer blockbuster. But unfortunately, Ewoks.