Imperial Stormtroopers get a bad rap

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.

  • eric

    But unfortunately, Ewoks.

    Yeah, that kind of says it. In some ways, Lucas’ problem is pretty classic: he creates a piece of art which catapults him to stardom. Once he’s a famous artist, he starts thinking about audience appeal far more than he ever did for his first piece(s), and the result is Ewoks and Jar Jar.

    • Sas

      An alternate (and likewise unflattering) view I’ve heard is that Lucas was never exactly a genius artist, but people working on the first movies were more willing to challenge him on stupid ideas and push for improvement because he wasn’t a powerful Hollywood god. By the time the prequels came around, he was such a big name that even studio execs wouldn’t disagree with him. Red Letter Media’s prequel reviews went into that some when they looked at the “making of” bits.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com tommykey

    Let’s not forget their victories required overwhelming numbers.

    One of the things I really hated about ROTJ is that after wounding Leia, the Stormtroopers try to take her and Han prisoner. C’mon, this is supposed to be the battle to wipe out the Rebellion once and for all. You don’t waste time taking prisoners. You exterminate.

  • naturalcynic

    Yeah, but they can’t seem to find the right droids when Obi Wan is around.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    There’s a reason for the poor aim of the Stormtroopers, it actually lies in the gun than their skills.

    See, the Empire may be in control of the entire galaxy, but there’s not much money in keeping everything going and in actuality a lot of their credits go to trying to fix up the problems with the different planets: a little welfare here for the victims of the Fexic Plague on Bantorin V, a clean-up project for the radiation leak on the 3rd moon of Calon Delta. While they’re running low on funds, they’re forced to take cuts in certain areas – public welfare is dropping as well as funds to be spent on defense.

    In the drop in defense budgets, the Empire is forced to use their weapons for as long as possible before they can replace or repair them. The Stormtroopers fire repeater rifles, which have a small crystal element to focus the energy beam towards its target. Repeated firings of the weapon cause minute cracks in the crystal element and over time this causes the weapon to lose calibration more easily.

    So when the Rebellion begins to fight against the Empire, there’s a serious problem with the crystals in the repeater rifles, they can only maintain calibration for a very small number of shots. Thus trying to fire not only at moving targets, but repeated at moving targets results in a serious aiming problem.

    • Jeff

      Is that canon? I know there’s a VERY thorough collection of Star Wars lore that goes far beyond anything in the movies, and this seems like the type of detail that would be part of it.

      • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

        I pretty much made that entire thing up. Eheh.

        The only part that’s possibly canon is the crystals are poorly calibrated, I remember seeing an entry on the Star Wars wiki (can’t remember the name) that mentioned the crystals as the likely problem.

        In addition if you play Jedi Outcast, you get the repeater rifle as a weapon and it has really shitty accuracy, so it’s not the skill of the user, it’s the weapon.

      • Jeremy Shaffer

        If you want a more canon answer for why Stormtroopers were lousy shots, I think it would come down to the helmets and Imperial policy more than the weapon or skill.

        It’s hard to tell from the movies but the Empire had an army that was separate from the Stormtrooper Corp, which were supposed to be elite soldiers as opposed to standard military. However, the Empire strongly pushed uniformity, as one could imagine, that would include the equipment used by its military*. The armor and helmets used by the Stormtroopers would be mass- produced and cheap models with all the problems that could include, such as design flaws that would hinder vision and aim. This is also one possible interpretation of Leia’s “a little short for a Stormtrooper” comment to Luke, as standardized equipment would require a certain range of troop height and weight.

        The Tarkin Doctrine, where the Empire kept the various systems in line through fear rather than actual force (with a serious scorched earth policy if such force was ever deemed necessary), might have also been a factor. Outside of the movies this has been said to have worked to the extent that if a system showed any signs of unrest all that was needed was for a single Star Destroyer to show up and that was that. Given this, even lack of skill to hit the broadside of a sandcrawler wouldn’t matter to put down a small, localized uprising, especially if you had enough troops to compensate. Any survivors would be unlikely to ever mention how crappy a shot the Stormtroopers were, if they weren’t too scared to even notice.

        *Evidently, this also made it easier to hide the expenses and manufacturing of all the superweapons, such a both Death Stars, Palpatine had made during his reign and, along with the all Dark Jedi that were a result of Luke’s crappy teaching, gave the New Republic loads of adventures for a few decades after Return of the Jedi.

        • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

          I love how geeks can have loooong conversations about minute details in movies and TV shows, and how they actually make sense.

        • Valerie C

          They also had orders not to actually kill the heroes. The bad guys want to capture them alive or force them to flee somewhere. So to the stormtroopers were under orders to not kill when heroes where shooting back at them. I say that level of fanatical loyalty makes them a threat.

          As for the ewoks, plot happens. Very few bad guys, much less minions, have ever overcome the use of the trump card called plot by heroes refusing to fight fairly in the endgame. Still, they Empire got their revenge on the ewoks with the following Apocalypse.

          • Kierra

            Except we know the blasters have a stun capacity (Leia is captured this way in A New Hope). If they were trying to capture during the other fights, their blasters should have been set to stun the whole time.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    But unfortunately, Ewoks.

    That, in a nutshell. Followed by

    Even more unfortunately, Jar-Jar

  • Trebuchet

    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.

    Or the Native Americans in hundreds of Westerns.

  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

    Huh. Interesting thought. I may have to rewatch the original trilogy again and pay attention to that. I’m somewhat divided on the idea of mooks: Sometimes it’s just awesome to see a powerful hero mow them down, but on the other hand, if you make them too weak or incompetent, it makes you wonder how the villains conquered anything.

    I’ve been watching a Let’s Play of X-Wing Alliance and spent a bit of time at Wookieepedia last night looking at variants of the TIE fighter. It pretty much illustrated the imperial attitude of quantity over quality. It’s handy when the clone factory can keep churning out pilots. I didn’t look up anything about the storm troopers, but cheap blasters does sound like the sort of thing they’d do.

    And yeah, Ewoks. I’m not deep into the lore, but I think the decay in Star Wars quality was mostly about Lucas gaining protection from editors. He’s got good ideas bouncing around in his head, but as he got successful, people ended up underestimating how much the rest of the writing and directing teams did in polishing those ideas.

  • http://ogremk5.wordpress.com ogremk5

    My understanding is the original intention was that the Ewoks were going to be Wookies. Instead, ole George liked the Wookies so much, he made one a secondary character instead of just a horde of guerrilla troops (get it… nevermind).

    Now that would have been a final battle I could respect, hundreds of Wookies ripping the arms and heads off of stormtroopers.

  • leftwingfox

    I’ve considered doing a comic about an Empire-sympathetic historian doing a documentary on the Ewoks. His thesis is that the Ewoks were savage, clever warlike creatures on a planet full of hostile megafauna similar to Imperial machines. The human-centric empire dismissed them as a credible threat, and simply wiped out enough of them to plop down a base. This united the tribes and gave them a common enemy.

    By the time the rebels showed up, the Ewoks had been studying Stormtrooper tactics and formations for years, and had adapted their defences against big creatures to the lumbering terror-weapons of the Empire. The only reason they hadn’t attacked yet was because they realized that these invaders were coming from above, and could easily retaliate even if the entire ground force was destroyed. When the rebels arrived and inadvertently explained their plan to destroy the Death Star, the Ewoks sieved the opportunity to do what they did best: war.

    Perhaps we could have been safe had the Death Star’s destruction wiped out Endor once and for all. But no, the rebels rescued as many of they could, then set them loose on the galaxy via the technologically-savvy wookies on Kashyyk.

    Palpatine help us all…

    (I can suspend a lot of disbelief in sci-fi and fantasy. They don’t have to explain it fully, as long as _I_ can come up with a reasonable backstory, and it’s not internally inconsistent. ALso part of the reason I’m a skeptic now, because I know how easy it is to create plausible explanations out of nothing.)

    • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

      Somewhere in storage, I have a Star Wars book that has illustrated chapters about various locales. One of them is a very snarky, generalized report about the forest moon of Endor written by an imperial officer who doesn’t understand the point of building a base in the middle of nowhere on a moon inhabited by filthy, savage teddy bears.

      “Illustrated: The forest moon of Endor orbits, obviously, Endor.”

  • left0ver1under

    Don’t just think Star Wars. Lucas and Spielberg did that in the Indiana Jones movies far more, German soldiers faceless as they were mass murdered.

    Unlike most war-era films which sought historical accuracy and differentiated between the Nazis and the Wehrmacht (e.g. “The Great Escape”), Lucas and Spielberg dehumanized anyone in a German uniform. They attempted to make mass murder “funny”.

    I have no doubt that at least one individual reading will try to infer that I’m “defending the Nazis”….

    • left0ver1under

      That should read, “making German soldiers faceless…”

  • Coryat

    Like the Imperial Guard of Napoleonic France, quantity has a quality all of its own.

  • Annatar

    I always thought the most plausible explanation for poor marksmanship was that most shots are just cover fire. I don’t remember the actual statistic, but something like 95% of shots fired in real life war situations miss. They aren’t supposed to hit anything, they are just cover fire to keep the opponent(s) on their toes.

  • http://ogremk5.wordpress.com/ Kevin McCarthy

    Annatar@12

    It’s more like 12,000 – 250,000 rounds fired per hit. These are WAG numbers, but they are very common in military publications. Maybe one of the military guys at FTB can speak to this more accurately. I regularly hear 50k rounds per hit for the world wars through Vietnam and I’ve heard (not reliable, but it came from a newspaper) of 250k rounds fired per insurgent killed in the Middle East.

    On the other hand, those battles weren’t inside metal hallways in a space station either. I would think that would tend to focus the fire a little better. Of course, no one in the back rank of troopers would be able to fire without accidentally hitting the guys in front in the back… not good for moral.

  • Art

    Villains, and underlings of villains, aren’t the only expendables. Star Trek had the ‘red shirts’, security guys. Their purpose seems to have been to highlight the seriousness of the situation, the danger of the opposition, and to establish a reason for JTKs objection.

    Pretty much all the heroic stories create a halo of death and destruction around the protagonists. Being a secondary character, particularly if you had a serious romantic relationship with one of the main characters, with the possible exception of the implied relationship between Spock and Kirk, you were at risk.

    Of course the kiss of death is forming a committed relationship with anyone named James Bond.

  • andyman409

    I heard that Lucas always wanted the empire to be toppled by something primitive. That’s why he originally put wookies in, to serve as that primitive empire destroyer, to show the superiority of man and nature over technology (or something like that). Unfortunatley, he preferred teddy bears to big, arm removing wookies. Still, at least he killed some of the ewoks onscreen. I can’t recall a single scene where a gungun was killed onscreen in the battle of naboo.

  • penn

    Don’t the stormtroopers get credit/blame for letting the good guys break Leia out of the Death Star or at least letting the heros escape the Death Star? When the heros are running for the Millennium Falcon, the objective of the heros is to escape, and the objective of the stormtroopers is to stop them, and the stormtroopers lose. The escape from Cloud City is similar. The only battle that the stormtroopers win in the first two movies is the Battle of Hoth, and that was due to very superior numbers and technology, and they still fail the primary objective of keeping the rebels from escaping.

    I agree that in the first two movies the stormtroopers are treated somewhat differently then other mooks, but their still 1 hit point expendable baddies. A single stormtrooper is not a threat to the heros, the threat is in their numbers, which is pretty standard for mooks.

  • leftwingfox

    When the heros are running for the Millennium Falcon, the objective of the heros is to escape, and the objective of the stormtroopers is to stop them, and the stormtroopers lose.

    Remember, at some point on the Death Star, Vader planted a homing beacon on the Falcon to find the Rebel base. It could be argued that the stormtoopers were not supposed to stop them, only look like they were trying to stop them.

    The escape from Cloud City is fair game though. :)

  • mnb0

    Completely off topic:

    I liked your previous picture better.

  • cato123

    I’m confident that all Stormtroopers on board the Death Star perished when it exploded (both instances).

    For this reason I conclude that Stormtrooper history will not record an ‘aw shucks, they got away’ motif.

  • Aliasalpha

    Oh come on, its not like the ewoks themselves really did much of anything, they took down around a dozen stormtroopers & imperial army troopers, a few scout bikers and I think 2 ATSTs.

    Beyond that they were a mass distraction to take the heat off the rebel commandos & the protagonists. If anyone won the ground battle on the sanctuary moon it was chewbacca jacking the ATST, I think he did more damage than the rest of the combatants combined

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Two out of four ATSTs, by my count. Taking out half of the Imperials’ most dangerous combat vehicles is “much of anything” by my count.

      Well, most dangerous-looking. How dangerous can something be if it gets taken out by some logs?

      At any rate, it makes the Ewoks’ contribution roughly equal to Chewbacca’s (he jacks one ATST, and uses its weapons to take out another.)

      • Aliasalpha

        They definitely killed one by actual combative action with the logs on ropes, the other they just tripped. Much the same with the scout bikers, they strung up ropes & let the bikers kill themsleves

  • http://ogremk5.wordpress.com/ Kevin McCarthy

    I’m confident that all Stormtroopers on board the Death Star perished when it exploded (both instances).

    I’m not sure if it’s canon, but at least one of the novels has three people escaping the first Death Star. One of them was the commander of the main gun firing unit, who faked an illness to get out of blowing up the rebel base after he personally flipped the switch to blow up Alderan.

  • Draken

    I just learned a lot more from Star Wars than I ever cared to.

    Anyone want to comment on the perceived increase in erectile dysfunction under stormtroopers as a consequence of their weird plastic pants?

  • birgerjohansson

    By contrast, the security forces of the Federation (the “Blake’s Seven” narrative universe) are quite crappy shooters who only perform well when massacring civilians.

    The most effective baddie I know is Giger’s “Alien”. I have never counted the average kill ratios of the various films, but it must be phenomenal.

  • StevoR

    My fave line formthe whole Star Wars series :

    “..and these blast points too precise to be anything other than the work of Imperial Storm-troopers.”

    Or suchlike by Obi-wan in the first / fourth movie after which, naturally, those well trained and equipped military clones seem unable to hit a barn door with a shotgun from a foot away! ;-)

    Interesting to read their excuses but, nah, not buying ‘em.

    For starters, there’s that opening scene in the original movie (ep IV) where R2D2 and C3PO wander right throught he crossfire and come out unharmed.

    ‘Course if Han and Leia and the droids had just been gunned down in their backs early on it would’ve been a whole different and much less fun franchise..

  • Pingback: Were the Stormtroopers under orders to let the heroes escape?