The treatment of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi has sparked no shortage of controversy. Some people hate the movie because of it. Others mostly like the movie, except for it. And then there are others, like me, who love the movie in large part because of it.
I’m not intending here to re-litigate the drama accompanying it (much to the chagrin of internet trolls who thrive on click-bait negativity), but as The Last Jedi celebrates the five-year anniversary of its’ release in theaters on December 15, 2017, I though it appropriate to re-visit why Rian Johnson’s bold decisions about Mark Hamill’s character are brilliant and beautiful.
I’ve written about this often. For example, I explained it in an article on five things I love about The Last Jedi. I’ve written about it in the context of what I view as the most important moment in the whole franchise (more on that later). I’ve written about it in connection to Luke’s appearance in The Mandalorian, in response to certain aspects of how The Book of Boba Fett was received, and in its similarities with Obi-Wan’s arc in Obi-Wan Kenobi this past summer.
First, though, let’s establish this up front: much of the decision about Luke Skywalker was made by J.J. Abrams for The Force Awakens. It was that movie which established so many of the major beats: Luke failed in training Ben, ran off into exile on a remote island, didn’t show up to save Han, etc. What Johnson did was take those decisions and turn them into a beautiful story about failure, redemption, and hope.
What makes a hero?
And it’s a message that is important and relevant for each one of us. Every one of us deals with failures and disappointments. We don’t succeed like we know we should, and we deal with the limitations of our own frailty. We get caught up in the hubris of our own abilities only to come crashing down to earth when we remember otherwise, or we get despondent in despair over our own failures only to need picked back up with hope that our life isn’t yet over. This is the most real and raw Star Wars has ever been, the most relatable to real life it’s ever been. Some people want their movies and fantasy to stay far away from that, providing a way of escape from the realities of life, but what if a story could do both? What if a story could both provide the entertaining escape while also providing motivation to keep going?
Because all of those kids who grew up idolizing Luke Skywalker and hoping to become a hero just like him will sooner or later discover that they don’t always get it right, that they don’t always blow up the Death Star and save their friends and overthrow the Emperor and redeem their father. They make mistakes, let people down, and grapple with their own weaknesses. What then?
In this film, Luke Skywalker becomes the hero for those people once more. Because what if being a hero isn’t so much about never getting anything wrong, but about how you respond when you do? The Last Jedi gives us a look at that through two legendary heroes: Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa. The Skywalker twins who saved the galaxy. Both of them failed Ben Solo, and both of them still carry that grief, the burden of family and the burden of time, when we find them in this film. Yet their responses are quite different: Leia doubles-down on the fight, while Luke runs away from it. Both are reasonable and understandable responses in light of all that has happened. Yet it is Leia’s response that is most needed, because the challenge is to find the hope to keep fighting.
There’s a time, during the middle act of the film, where both Luke and Leia are removed from the fight. Luke’s off on a remote island somewhere, and Leia is unconscious in a coma after a First Order attack. All of the sudden the Resistance is forced to fight on their own, yet the legends of both Leia and Luke inspire them to keep going. Because that’s what heroes do, after all: they keep going, even when the odds are stacked against them and all hope feels lost. Of all the characters in the Star Wars saga it’s no surprise that Leia is the one most strongly tied to hope, because she never loses it despite unfathomable losses and insurmountable odds.
And it is that hope that, throughout The Last Jedi, Luke comes to rediscover. Rey, R2, Yoda, and Leia help him see a way out from the failures of the past and a way forward to bring hope for the future. In all of this, we’re seeing a true hero; not the one-dimensional figure who never gets it wrong, but the nuanced character who learns to overcome it when he does.
What makes a Jedi?
And the way Luke embraces this heroic destiny once more is through the greatest moment we’ve ever seen for a Jedi. I know that’s a big claim, but allow me to defend it and explain why I think The Last Jedi nails the heroism of the Jedi in ways beyond what the franchise has found before or since. Let me introduce several pieces of evidence here from the Star Wars films that this one was building on.
Evidence #1: The first thing we ever hear about the Jedi, in A New Hope, is said by Ben Kenobi to Luke: “For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.” So the first thing we ever learn about what a Jedi should be is a guardian of peace and justice.
Evidence #2: In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tells the strange creature he’s just met that he’s looking for a great warrior. This creature, Yoda, tells him, “Wars not make one great.” It is an interesting theme of Star Wars, often overlooked, that a franchise about wars doesn’t actually celebrate war. It celebrates victory over evil, yes, and it teaches that there are times where we must fight against oppression and tyranny, but it doesn’t celebrate war itself. Violence is not the path to victory, especially for a Jedi.
Evidence #3: Later in Empire, Yoda teaches Luke about the Force, saying that “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” A Jedi possesses a remarkable connection to the Force, but as someone else said, with great power comes great responsibility. There is a responsibility to use the Force appropriately, and that means using it to defend and preserve life, but not to attack or take it.
Evidence #4: In Return of the Jedi, Yoda warns Luke ahead of the coming encounter with Vader, saying, “But beware: anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” It reminds us of what he says in The Phantom Menace as well, released later but set decades earlier, when he says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. … fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering.” It’s a warning about the path of the dark side. Giving into fear, anger, and hatred will lead to darkness, like it did for Luke’s father.
Evidence #5: In Attack of the Clones, Mace Windu tells Chancellor Palpatine that if it comes to war, the Jedi won’t be able to protect the Republic, saying, “we’re keepers of the peace, not soldiers.” Yet by the end of the film, they’ve become soldiers in a war. It’s the subtle brilliance of Palpatine’s plan and George Lucas’s storytelling, that the Jedi had no choice but to fight the way, spurred on by trying to protect Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme – yet in fighting they already lost. As Matthew Stover brilliantly put it in the epic Revenge of the Sith novelization, “The Clone Wars were the perfect Jedi trap. By fighting at all, the Jedi lost.”
So in light of these five pieces of evidence, we’ve come to see that the Jedi are not supposed to be warriors, but defenders of the peace. In the storyline of Star Wars, then, we reach a point that I consider to be the most pivotal and important in the whole saga: Luke throwing his lightsaber away at the end of Return of the Jedi. It’s ironic, on the surface, but it’s the key to understanding the whole rest of the saga. Luke defeats Vader, but only by embracing the fear, anger, and hate that Yoda warns about… meaning that he’s very close to defeat even while it looks like he’s won (again, the subtle brilliance of Lucas is on display). So the truly heroic move that Luke makes is to throw his saber away, refusing to fight any longer and refusing to give into hatred and darkness. Only then can Luke say, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Luke regains his composure and maintains his goal: it’s to save his father, not kill him. His fight is one of salvation and defense of all that is good, not hatred of what is not. It is this moment that, I’m convinced, is a pivotal point of Vader’s turn, and is the pivotal point in the franchise. Luke has won, saving his father and defeating evil, but not fighting.
Fast forward to The Last Jedi, and we see Luke build on this in stunning ways. In doing so, I think Luke shows that he has become the greatest Jedi to ever live, because he has managed to find a way to embrace what a Jedi should be in the deepest of ways, even deeper than his victory in Return of the Jedi. As Luke marches out to take on the whole First Order, he does so with one purpose: saving the Resistance. Luke halts the entire enemy army in their tracks, saves all the heroes remaining, and doesn’t need to so much as lay a finger on anyone.
Luke is the greatest Jedi we’ve ever seen, and he is the hero that we need. In this, The Last Jedi inspires us deeply and gives our hero his most triumphant moments yet.