The question has lingered for nearly a year, ever since Star Wars fans got their first glimpse of C-3PO in The Force Awakens: What’s the story with the red arm?
A new Marvel Comic one-shot, C-3PO: The Phantom Limb, finally answers the question unequivocally. But… we’re not answering it here. The question we’re going to tackle avoids spoilers: Not how C-3PO got his red arm, but why.
If you want the solution, you’ll have to pick up the book by writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris, which tells a story set in The Force Awakens era of the golden protocol droid escorting a captured Imperial droid back to the Resistance so he can be interrogated on the whereabouts of a kidnapped Admiral Ackbar.
The starship crashes on a remote, hostile world where the rain is acid and ferocious spiders and swamp creatures lurk in the shadows. The human crew is killed in the collision, and C-3PO sets out on a quest to locate the homing beacon he detects on another crashed vessel on the planet. Joining him are five other droids:
• the prisoner, OMRI, a mantis-eyed Death Star droid.
• PZ-99, a towering blue security droid, serving the Resistance.
• CO-34, a construction droid who can transform into useful devices, but only recites its own name.
• 2-Med-2 (or Toomedtoo), a medical droid.
• VL-40, a smaller security droid — just an eye and guns on treads.
Reading the book by Robinson and Harris, I found my mind wandering to another story of five travelers facing deadly circumstances: Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. That novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, is about a rope bridge that snaps over a canyon in Peru in the early 1700s, sending five people to their deaths.
A young monk who witnesses the accident sets out to explore the lives of the victims. Was there significance in their demise, a purpose to their existence and sudden ends? Or is the universe random and meaningless?
I won’t spoil the C-3PO comic, but consider the final words of Wilder’s novel (I think the spoiler statute of limitations is up on that): “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
It may seem like a stretch — or literary heresy — to connect The Bridge of San Luis Rey to a Star Wars comic book, but consider this existential discussion of memory data between C-3PO and the captive OMRI, and tell me you don’t see the link, too.
C-3PO: It clearly bothers you, OMRI, that our memories are in the hands of our makers. You’ve raised the subject more than once.
OMRI: It’s the curse of protocol droids like you and I, See-Threepio, that our tasks require an extra degree of sentience.
He goes on…
OMRI: I think that added awareness causes us to question. Flashes of past events — were they grand events, or nothing to speak of? How important have I been? These questions nag at me. You, on the other hand, See-Threepio, blindly and eagerly obey your orders. I assume you recall nothing.
C-3PO: That’s not entirely true. I see flashes…
This triggers glimpses of the golden droid’s prequel adventures, which were wiped from his databanks before the events of the original Star Wars. It could also apply to the Star Wars Expanded Universe of stories, which were de-canonized to make way for different stories as the new series of films was launched.
I like to think that Robinson and Harris are exploring bigger existential questions. Yeah, this is about robots fighting for survival on a monster planet, but the reason Star Wars has resonated for nearly 40 years, still generating enthusiasm from generation to generation, is because it taps into enduring, universal questions — and stories are our way to try an answer them.
Who am I? What is good or evil? Are we incidental and alone, or is there a larger, unseen power guiding us?
The Phantom Limb asks these same questions in a fresh, funny, and compelling way. It’s a story of random individuals, common bonds, coincidence, sacrifice, and the desire — when it’s all finished — to not just endure, but find meaning in the survival. Why does C-3PO have a red arm? This book also answers, in its final frame, why he doesn’t change it later when he has the chance.
Now for the cynical answer: C-3PO has a red limb in The Force Awakens for the same reason the Millennium Falcon has a rectangular satellite dish now: branding. It’s a simple way to make characters or objects distinctive at first glance, since they otherwise wouldn’t change much from the original trilogy.
Yes, the Falcon knocked off its circular dish during the Death Star run in Return of the Jedi, but that’s just the storytelling justification for the change. The practical reason for the change is that a rectangular dish helps with merchandizing and helps with marketing by signifying which Star Wars era it’s from.
The same goes for C-3PO’s red arm.
Knowing that shouldn’t diminish your interest in the story. We tell stories not just to answer questions but to smooth over the crass and cynical forces that shape our lives. We tell stories to make ourselves happy.
It’s not random. There’s meaning in that, too.
For more Star Wars philosophizing and whatnot, follow @Breznican.