(*** major spoilers for The Last Jedi are ahead ***)
In August, Daisy Ridley told Entertainment Weekly about Rey’s relationship with Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi: “She’s so hopeful to everything. And obviously there’s a hint of, ‘What the hell?’”
Following the release of The Last Jedi, some have had the same reaction to seeing this portrayal of the beloved Jedi: what the hell? There has been a (seemingly small but influential) percentage of fans furious with The Last Jedi, and there are many reasons for this. Perhaps the most common and pervasive issue people have, however, is with Skywalker’s story arc.
In many ways, that’s understandable. In the old Expanded Universe (the death of which some fans have never recovered from), Luke Skywalker was the pinnacle of a hero. He was the Jedi Master who revived the order and who possessed god-like power and wisdom. That was the escape from reality that many wanted, but it wasn’t what The Last Jedi set about to give us – instead, it gave us a stark dose of reality: heroes grow old. Heroes fail. Heroes are broken. Heroes disappoint. But nevertheless, through it all, there’s something that makes them heroic in their own right in spite of the failures.
While I get why some people are upset with The Last Jedi‘s decisions regarding Luke Skywalker, I think Rian Johnson told a rich story filled with plenty of depth, meaning, and heart. It might not have met expectations, but I think if one looks beyond that, there’s a beautiful story to be found.
Obviously, spoilers for The Last Jedi are ahead, so proceed at your own risk.
The story of Luke Skywalker had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning was A New Hope, in which we meet a young farmboy thrust into the role of a hero. The middle was The Empire Strikes Back, where we see just how much this boy has to learn as he trains under the wise Master Yoda and confronts Darth Vader, losing a hand and finding out the truth about his father. The end was Return of the Jedi, which saw a mature and wise Luke triumphantly overpowering Vader and resisting the Emperor’s sway, becoming a true Jedi. It was a happily-ever-after type ending, with our heroes celebrating their victory on Endor, having dealt a crippling blow to the Empire and essentially winning the galactic civil war.
See, the sequel trilogy isn’t the story of Luke Skywalker. He got his hero’s journey; he got his beginning, middle, and end. Everybody lived happily ever after… or so we thought. No, instead, the galaxy far, far away isn’t all too dissimilar to our own, one in which happily ever after doesn’t always last forever. Even after a victory there can still be defeat. Even after success there can still be failure. Even after hope there can still be despair.
In the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the galaxy’s new hope lost hope. Luke spent years studying and learning about the Jedi while recovering artifacts, and somewhere along the way he found the location of the first Jedi temple on Ahch-To. He kept that filed away, taking Ben Solo and a dozen other students and training them in the ways of the Jedi. But Ben was seduced by Snoke to the dark side, and for a brief moment Luke contemplated killing him before he could succumb fully and destroy everything. That momentary hesitation had consequences, however, and it completed Ben Solo’s fall to the dark side. He rebelled and left with a few other students, killing the others and leaving the temple burning. Luke had failed. He left and went into exile, heading to Ahch-To to spend the rest of his years, ready to die and let the Jedi die with him. That’s where Rey finds him at the end of TFA/the beginning of TLJ, as Luke doesn’t want anything to do with training another generation of Jedi.
It’s a version of Luke Skywalker that we haven’t seen before, and one that Mark Hamill had trouble with initially. In fact, as he tried to get himself into Luke’s mindset Hamill came up with a tragic and dark backstory: Luke had previously left the Jedi Order and taken a wife, who was a widow with a young child – and the child eventually got ahold of Luke’s lightsaber and accidentally killed himself. That’s not canon, but it gives you a sense of just how dark Luke’s mindset is at the time of The Last Jedi. He feels that he failed. He feels that the Jedi have done more harm than good. He’s lost hope.
That theme of hope is one that runs throughout the entire movie. Holdo, Leia, and Poe each speak about “the spark” that will reignite the Republic and burn down the First Order. It’s this spark of hope that the Resistance is desperately fighting to cling on to, and it’s this spark of hope that Supreme Leader Snoke is attempting to snuff out. Even the opening crawl makes it clear: Leia and the Resistance are hoping Luke will return and provide a spark of hope.
When we first meet him, he’s hopeless and his failure haunts him. By the end of the film, however, Luke has not only regained hope but provides that spark of hope for the Resistance and the rest of galaxy.
In his first conversation with Rey, Luke said, “you think I’m going to walk out with a laser sword and take on the whole First Order? What did you think was going to happen here? You think I came to the most unfindable place in the galaxy for no reason at all? Go away.” By the end of the film, Luke walked out with a laser sword and stared down the whole First Order. As Luke (who, it turns out, was only a force projection) walks out to face the First Order, you can see the hope and amazement trickle through the Resistance forces, as everyone rises and stares at this larger-than-life legend. Luke buys the Resistance time to escape, and his exploits become known across the galaxy – including in a stable on Cantonica, where the story of Luke taking on the First Order is told and inspires a young boy named Temiri Blagg. There are no doubt countless other similar stories across the galaxy: Luke Skywalker provided that spark of hope that the entire film was talking about.
The galaxy’s new hope lost all hope, but he eventually regained that hope and provided the spark of hope to the Resistance and to the galaxy. The boy whose first heroic act was rescuing the princess years earlier spends his last heroic act rescuing that same princess. The man who mocked taking on the First Order with a laser sword did just that. The Master who lost hope in and tried to end the Jedi regains his faith, reopening himself to the force and affirming the perpetuity of the Jedi. The hero who was wrecked with guilt and failure finds peace and purpose, becoming one with the force.
It’s a beautiful progression in the film, even though it’s jarring at first to see this version of Luke Skywalker. One of the main reasons it works is because Mark Hamill delivers his best performance as the iconic figure, beautifully portraying a broken hero. But the story is also a wonderful one of honesty, failure, and hope. Even our heroes aren’t perfect. They’re flawed, but they’re heroes not because they never fail but rather because they rise above it. Because they take a stand for what’s right. Because they didn’t back down but seized their opportunity to make a difference and to fight for good. As the old novelization for A New Hope says, “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, they became heroes.”
Luke’s story in The Last Jedi is the story of a broken legend overcome with guilt, but through the events on the island with Rey, R2, Chewie, and Yoda, Luke lets the past die and gets back into the fight. The galaxy’s new hope lost all hope, but this movie is in one sense about him finding that hope again. When you look at it that way, it’s really a beautiful, challenging, realistic, and refreshing tale of the beloved hero.