It’s time for a good, old-fashioned nerd rant!
Stormtroopers get a lot of shit. It’s become a fairly widespread public perception that they’re a laughably incompetent bunch for a supposedly indomitable galaxy-spanning military. They can’t shoot straight, which makes the line “Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise” comical. A legion of the Emperor’s best troops get taken out by teddy bears. Obviously, the Rebels were destined to win.
Except all of those things are wrong.
The first time we see stormtroopers, it’s during a boarding action. They blast through into a tight corridor with virtually no cover where armed troops are waiting to ambush them. In a matter of minutes, they capture the entire ship with minimal losses of their own. From this scene, we get a definite sense that these are elite, military commandos.
Stormtroopers are involved in the search operation for C-3PO and R2-D2. They are successful at tracking the droids’ progress, though remain one step behind them. It is during this phase that we hear the “only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise” in reference to the Jawa sandcrawler that had been completely annihilated. So far, they’re living up to their reputation as the Empire’s elite. This continues through Mos Eisley, with the stormtroopers still hot on the trail of the heroes, despite the intervention of a mind-altering super-fighter.
The next major stormtrooper encounter occurs aboard the Death Star. It’s here that people typically start the mocking. On a base containing thousands or even millions of stormtroopers, they can’t apprehend four humans, a wookiee, and a pair of droids? People tend to forget this little exchange:
TARKIN: Are they away?
VADER: They’ve just made the jump into hyperspace.
TARKIN: You’re sure the homing beacon is secured aboard their ship? I’m taking an awful risk, Vader. This had better work.
Which is followed by:
LEIA: It’s the only explanation for the ease of our escape.
HAN: Easy?! You call that easy?
LEIA: They’re tracking us.
Leia, one of the Rebellion’s leaders, recognized how easy it was for them to escape the Death Star, and the explanation for why is explicitly laid out by both her and Tarkin. The heroes were allowed to escape. The stormtroopers weren’t trying to kill them.
Episode V opens with a devastating defeat for the Rebellion at the hands of Imperial ground forces, comprised largely of stormtroopers. Again, the beginning of the movie firmly establishes the proficiency of the stormtroopers as a fighting force.
Things get murky again on Cloud City. Leia and company flee through narrow corridors with poor cover, while stormtroopers proceed to miss them and get gunned down. One could make an argument about Lando knowing the station better or some such, but that does little for the stormtrooper’s competence. Until, of course, you look at the larger context.
The entire Cloud City ploy was aimed at luring Luke to Vader and then turning him. The entire thing. The stormtroopers apprehend the Rebels immediately, without a shot fired, and it’s only when ye olde Jedi wannabe shows up that things go berserk. Vader has zero interest in a dead Luke, and has expressed prior interest in apprehending both Leia and Chewie alive. Again, we’re talking about a situation in which the stormtroopers were almost certainly under orders to not engage in lethal firefights.
This brings to light a point worth mentioning: stormtroopers are, we may suppose, ruthlessly conditioned for their role. If their commanders instruct them to engage in a course of action that will probably get them killed, they do it without hesitation. A stormtrooper will think nothing of firing suppression-only shots while his foes fire shots back meant to kill.
And now we come to the mother of all affronts to stormtroopers: their defeat by teddy bears. An “entire legion” of the Emperor’s “best troops” is defeated by a small strike team of commandos and an army of…teddy bears. Clearly, not the elite soldiers we’ve been led to believe they are.
First point of interest is that while, yes, the ewoks get the jump on the stormtroopers, we never see any stormtrooper taken out by one. We see them knocked over when large stones are thrown at them, and we see a few of their armored vehicles taken out by carefully laid traps, but for the majority of that battle, the stormtroopers are annihilating the ewoks. They’ve turned a sneak attack by superior (if primitive) numbers into an out-and-out slaughter.
Until Chewbacca commandeers a walker. Don’t believe me? Go watch the battle again. The Empire is winning the fight until Chewbacca commandeers a walker and starts using it to attack the Imperial forces. It’s only once the two forces achieve a technological parity that the tide starts to turn. Once all of the walkers are defeated but Chewbacca’s, the Imperial forces find themselves in a completely untenable situation: they have no armored vehicles to defeat their opponents’ and they are vastly outnumbered. Even if the stormtroopers were to slaughter every single remaining Ewok, that one walker would still be the deciding factor.
Like Empire, this scenario also brings up a point worth mentioning. People often make noise about how pointless stormtrooper armor is, since the blasters seem to kill them anyway. A few points here worth noting. First, blasters blow chunks of concrete apart, as witnessed in the escape from Mos Eisley. We never see a stormtrooper with an exploded torso, though to be fair we also see both Luke and Leia take blaster hits in Episode VI. Luke’s a Jedi; we’ve seen Jedi fight practically on lava and not burst into flame as would necessarily happen, so I’m going to afford that entire scenario a whole bunch of slack. Leia’s trickier to explain, but Han’s immediate reaction suggests that her fate is not exactly normal for getting shot by a blaster.
Think about kevlar. Kevlar vests stop bullets by, essentially, spreading the impact. Bullets penetrate through application of pressure, which is force applied over an area. In this case, the area is very small: the tip of the bullet. Kevlar vests spread that pressure back out, turning a lethal, body-penetrating bullet into little more than a really solid punch.
Why should we assume stormtrooper plastoid armor works any differently? Instead of diffusing force, it diffuses heat. Instead of massive, explosive chunks, we see small black scorch marks. We only ever see stormtroopers drop; rarely do we see them long enough to confirm they’re dead, rather than out of the fight. That stormtroopers are checking on their fallen comrades post-shootout in Episode IV is a testament to this notion.
So, when all is said and done, we have three actual engagements (Tantive IV, Hoth, Endor), one series of engagements of which we see the aftermath (Tatooine), and two actions meant to corral and deceive (Death Star, Bespin). In all but the two instances where the stormtroopers are actively avoiding killing, we see them soundly defeat their opponents or get defeated after a protracted battle in which the opposing side has gained a tactical advantage.
Stormtroopers. They will end you.