(Note: This article contains discussion of and speculation about the First Order, the bad guys in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Naturally, that means there are some spoilers involved. Reader discretion is therefore advised, but only if you haven’t already seen the movie.)
One of the most difficult things to assess in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the political situation at the beginning of the movie, some 30 years after Return of the Jedi. The Empire is no more, fading away following the defeat of Palpatine during the Battle of Endor. By the time The Force Awakens begins, there’s a new Republic, but it doesn’t have the entire galaxy under its control.
The First Order is the new threat, a military organization very much in the Empire’s image and dedicated to imposing order on what it considers a chaotic galaxy. General Hux says as much in his speech to his forces on Starkiller Base, one that was thick with Nazi imagery.
That’s no accident. Back in interview he gave empire during the summer of 2015, director J.J. Abrams said that the concept for the First Order was directly inspired by the “What if?” thought of Nazis regrouping after their defeat in World War II.
"That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again. What could be born of that? Could The First Order exist as a group that actually admired The Empire? Could the work of The Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr? Could there be a need to see through what didn’t get done?"
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We certainly see that in The Force Awakens. Not only is the First Order committed to ensuring the Republic never expands to cover the whole galaxy, Kylo Ren is clearly looking to follow in Darth Vader’s footsteps. The group also loves their superweapons, going even bigger and deadlier with Starkiller Base (though not enough to ensure one awesome pilot couldn’t lead to its eventual downfall).
What else have we learned about the members of the First Order?
They’re using a lot of the Empire’s equipment and techniques
The First Order has made being a stormtrooper look cooler thanks to their revamped armor designs, but everything else is still more or less the same. From Star Destroyers to TIE Fighters, the tech is the stuff we grew to love from the first three Star Wars flicks.
They have an uneasy relationship between Force users and regular military types
Despite pledging allegiance to a “Supreme Leader” in Snoke instead of an emperor, the First Order recognizes the authority of dark side Force users. Whether that was out of necessity or choice remains to be seen.
What’s more interesting is that while Darth Vader was someone the Empire officers had to obey or else, General Hux and Kylo Ren come off more or less as equals who are vying for the favor of Snoke. This could be due to Ren’s lesser overall power levels and his tendency to take his frustrations out on the furniture instead of just Force Choking the nearest officer, or it could be that to advance to the upper reaches of the First Order, you don’t need to be strong with the Force.
They have no qualms about killing civilians
One of the more grim scenes in The Force Awakens occurs on Jakku, when Kylo Ren orders the stormtroopers to kill all the villagers they’ve rounded up. It’s done in such a fashion that it doesn’t come off as gratuitous violence, and it serves as both an important inflection point for Finn and a way to establish the First Order as unambiguous villains, but it’s still a little hard to watch.
It’s possible that Ren is going off script here, but the scene doesn’t read that way. Both he and Hux seem like “any means necessary” guys, suggesting that it’s the preferred way to get things done in the First Order.
Their stormtroopers are “recruited” humans, but they’ve at least considered clones
Perhaps the defection of Finn will reopen that argument. Regardless, we know they take children from their families at an early age and train them to be stormtroopers. One conversation in The Force Awakens makes it sound like clones were at least on the table at one point, though.
The destruction of Starkiller Base doesn’t mean the First Order is done
Not by a long shot, I suspect. Not only is Snoke still around somewhere else, but Hux survives and has orders to bring whatever’s left of Ren with him. As for their military power, that’s an open question. How many eggs were in the Starkiller basket? Does the group have more Star Destroyers out there, or even a whole fleet?
Indeed, the answers to those last few questions could go a long way toward deciphering what we can expect from the First Order in Episode VIII. Since we don’t know how much of the galaxy is under the group’s influence at the beginning of The Force Awakens — it could be a 50/50 split, 80/20 Republic or somewhere in-between –the First Order could still be a machine or it might be more similar to a wounded animal. Just remember, those are often the most dangerous kind.