This is not going to go the way you think.
I am a tremendous Star Wars fan. Frank(Oz)ly, it’s rare to meet someone who is a fan of the series who is not extremely passionate about it. For me, the Star Wars saga is the greatest story I have ever experienced. Yes, I know about the prequels, and honestly, while I don’t love them or blinded defend terrible facets of them, I certainly don’t hate them and even find much of what they serve to be quite entertaining. Even in the original trilogy films, which for most Star Wars fans are almost critically untouchable, are scenes that are flawed or downright silly, but I love them even more for this. Okay, I cringe every time I watch Leia kiss Luke and see him revel in it in The Empire Strikes Back, but it hardly sinks the film for me. That is still my second all-time favorite movie behind only Jaws, another film that is hardly perfect, but is so to me.
Nevertheless, my opinion as a Star Wars nerd is not the highlight of today’s focus, but rather a justification of a certain expertise if you will. Time has passed, and criticism from myself and others has been digested, and now I have some things to say regarding the latest, and perhaps most immediately and globally controversial of all Star Wars films: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Specifically, I will be addressing my take on the most significant aspect of the movie: the characterization of Luke Skywalker.
Allow me to again call upon my experience as a Force fanatic to say that my personal favorite character in any story in any media, whether it be film, book, television, radio, etc., is Luke Skywalker. I attribute this to many of the same reasons I love the Star Wars saga. For one, I saw these movies at an early age and they made an indelible impression on me (the same is true of Jaws). Like so many others over the decades, first seeing Star Wars in theaters was life-changing. My dad took me to see the release of the Special Editions (versions of Star Wars films with plenty of justified criticism) back in 1997, and I was blown away. No other movie looked like Star Wars, and nothing has looked like it since. Not just from a technical standpoint, but from a story and character level. Thanks to a great cast of characters (played by a great cast of actors) thrust into the space-based adventures of good versus evil, we the world over have been treated to an amazing trio of films that redefined how films were made in almost every way. None of this should sound new as countless people have heard about and experienced Star Wars in a similar way, and I would wager that many have also latched onto Luke Skywalker in much the same way as I did. It makes sense to, as Luke is the modern epitome of the monomythic hero, or the guy who goes on the big adventure in the storytelling structure know as the hero’s journey. Popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell, and altered and updated by many, including Dan Harmon with his Story Circle, the Hero’s Journey is a general outline of how a story’s protagonist gets his/her adventure rolling and changes as a result of it. Campbell explained this in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which after Star Wars was released had a newly designed cover with Luke Skywalker pictured among carvings and paintings of mythological heroes. It is based on classical storytelling from some of the earliest iterations of mythology and rolls the common themes in myths from across the world into one set called the monomyth. The original 1977 Star Wars followed this formula perhaps more apparently than any other film to date with fresh farmboy Luke Skywalker at its crux as – to borrow a term from Altered Carbon – the sleeve through which we, the audience observer, experience the story.
I believe that this is the primary reason why people, especially the most devoted Star Wars fans, had difficulty grappling with what was going on with Luke in The Last Jedi. Now, as should be obvious to anyone who has read this far, I will be getting into spoiler territory from here on out, so continuing to read assumes that you have already watched The Last Jedi. But, c’mon, who hasn’t by now?
Now that you have been warned, allow me to start off this dive into what’s going on with Luke by weighing some opposing views of his role in The Last Jedi. First, we have a well crafted video essay from one of my faves, Nerd Soup, the thesis of which may seem right on or harsh depending on your opinion.
As Beau Oliver likes to frequently reiterate on Nerd Soup’s many Star Wars related videos, nobody hates Star Wars like Star Wars fans. Now, of course he does not hate Star Wars, and certainly did not hate The Last Jedi, a point he makes quite clear in this video. In fact, I find his argument to be far and away the best of the bunch I offer up to you in this post, and I agree with what he says. However, I also agree with much of what the next two guys say as well.
Some good analysis that reminds us that Luke is a human who makes mistakes and has struggles, something that should be apparent in the best protagonists, be they good, bad, or ugly. In The Last Jedi this is most obvious when a concerned uncle peers into his nephew’s darkening dreams (there’s no way that I’m going to make that sound not weird). Basically, Luke checks Ben’s text messages and freaks. He normally would not have done such a thing, but his sister’s son was acting really shady, and he decided he needed to take a quick peek to make sure it wasn’t drugs or something. When it becomes clear that the situation is out of hand more than he could have imagined, he makes a brief, but big bad call. For more on all this, let’s look to the video recommended in the last one.
Some fathier – er, further good points for the film. For one that I particularly liked, Finn finds his groove as a Rebel. His storyline was the weakest part of the film and I’ll never be in love with it, but working with a great new character in Rose, and the always excellent Benecio del Toro plus BB-8 is going to win back some points. In all fairness, this storyline had the most cut from it before the final release, so there was a little more meat on those bones once. Regardless, the result is that Finn, who is still on the run from the fearsome First Order he knows the ruthlessness of better than anyone, finally makes the decision to fight for something more than his own skin and Rey’s.
Similarly, The Last Jedi shows us character growth in the other new crew members like Poe learning to be a leader and realizing sometimes you’ve got to lose the battle to win the war (Holdo totally should have told him and everyone else of her plan though). Rose goes from a mechanic working on the sidelines who gets starstruck by seeing Finn, to a badass on the frontlines working alongside him while also helping to teach him more about how the galaxy works and why the Resistance matters. Most prominently of all, Rey gets some schooling in what the Force truly is (I’ll talk more on this later), why it’s not entirely black and white, a crash course in trusting too much, and a harsh dose of reality regarding your heroes.
This final point is what makes and breaks The Last Jedi. As is the case with the entire film from start to finish, we have our expectations thrown back in our faces. Expecting a “can you hear me now?” schtick to open the movie? You sure weren’t. Did you call Leia and the other leaders getting blown into space in the first third of the film? Probably not. Did you think Luke was going to walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order? In all fairness, he pointed out how crazy it was to think this would ever occur when he asked it aloud. In all further fairness though, he later did this. But did you see him projecting his image from lightyears away to offer closure to his sister, escape to her comrades, and the ultimate “how you like me now?” to his nephew? Furthermore, did you expect him to die?
Expectations rarely come to fruition in our favorite films, especially Star Wars (watch one of my absolute favorite YouTubers/film critics, Filmjoy – formerly Movies with Mikey – serve up some stellar stuff in his two-part series “How We See Star Wars” if you have not already for more on this). Look at how George Lucas expected so much more out of his initial movie in the series. He desired better effects, better acting, better support from the studio (yeah, all this), but the only thing that lived up to his lofty expectations, and actually far exceeded them was the incredible score from the amazing John Williams. This is the only constant that we can and should expect from movies in the Star Wars saga. The music will be excellent – the greatest ever among any film scores – as long as John Williams is composing it; all other bets are off. With that being said, allow me to get into the nitty gritty of my take on The Last Jedi‘s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, and remember what he told you in the film and I told you at the start.
This is not going to go the way you think.
Mark Hamill is a true professional. He was understandably not crazy about his character’s tonal shift and the finality of this role, but he set that aside and brought his A-game to every scene. Director Rian Johnson asked a lot of Hamill, and he got way more than he could have anticipated because Hamill recognized that his desires were not as important as making something great. Included in the bonus features of The Last Jedi is a documentary, The Director and the Jedi, that chronicles the making of the film with an emphasis on Johnson and Hamill’s relationship. We see Mark Hamill explain how he told Johnson that he disagreed totally with the direction of the character… but that he would do everything he could to give the best performance to bring Johnson’s vision of the character to life.
I would also recommend that you watch another bonus feature (I’m just generally assuming that everyone purchased the same steelbook that I did) called The Balance of the Force (which is shorter at around 10 minutes) where Rian Johnson explains that the Force is not a superpower, and he wanted to remind everyone of this fact while simultaneously presenting a new generation of fans with the realization of what the Force really is. To reiterate for the sake of not simply assuming all know, it is an energy that is created by and connects all living things. Channeling this energy is what allows Jedi and Sith and others to enhance their amazing abilities, but it does not magically bestow those abilities onto a select few. At least that is how it is supposed to work. As Mikey recently expressed in his two-part “How We See Star Wars”, there is a major canonical issue that spoils so much of the mystique of the Force: midichlorians. Check out his segment on The Phantom Menace here, and take a surprised trip down memory lane to realize how many people straight up loved this movie when it came out. (Props to the music intros to each film with a song that was prominent during the release of each.) As Mikey points out, the explanation that midichlorians make people sensitive to the Force – the all-living-things-are-connected energy that is felt by all and manufactured by all – is a problem. No longer, do we have the aspiration that we could be the next Luke Skywalker, for our fate with the Force is determined by bacteria in our blood or some such nonsense. Fortunately, this notion has generally been cast aside by one of the unexpected resolutions regarding Rey’s parentage being nothing special. If Rey is not from one of the dynastic Force-sensitive bloodlines we know of, and neither is that boy we meet on Canto Bight, then genetically-inherited midichlorians, like size, matter not where the Force is concerned.
Now that that is addressed, let’s consider a reason why Rian Johnson did not want Luke walking out in the flesh to face the First Order and Kylo Ren: it would open up a need for him to have a superpower. If Luke went to Crait (the salty sit-in for Hoth) why wouldn’t he just push aside the gorilla walkers with a wave of his hand? Sure, he probably is not the most agile swordsman anymore compared to Kylo Ren, but why duel him directly when you could fling him around the way Snoke was doing with Rey? The story could not have Luke confront Ren and his regime in person because he would be too much for them to handle and we would wonder why he could not simply handle them if he did not, but we would not be entertained if he did. It’s the Superman paradox of how do you make Superman interesting and relatable if he’s unbeatable both physically and emotionally. We need to see Luke’s humanity and his continued growth in order to care for him (and to have a ninth movie that isn’t just him mowing down the bad guys with ease).
Let’s look at Luke in each orig trig film according to Mikey from his great videos. He shows a snippet from each movie with a caption.
Star Wars: “Look at this precious boy”
The Empire Strikes Back:”Look at this struggling boy”
Return of the Jedi: “Owns entire Hot Topic catalog”
We need something different from older, weary Luke in The Last Jedi. But where to go from the Skywalker kid who grew up to save the galaxy? The classical hero has finished his quest; how does he grow up more? How does he even begin another quest without repeating his earlier adventure beat by beat? The solution is in updating his archetype.
In my post from last week, “Hit Me!”, I expanded upon similar scenes between Batman and the Joker in the 1989 Batman and 2008 The Dark Knight films after watching Just Write and his adorable Canadianly way of saying “out” in his videos “What Kind of a Hero is Batman?”. In the two-part series (which my YouTube faves are big on lately), he elaborates on how Batman has the unique distinction of having represented six of the main character archetypes over his many characterizations. Batman is a comic book character, so it is no surprise that he has seen a shift in style over the decades, but it is a testament to a character to be able to fit in more than one mold for the sake of his stories. Batman is my favorite comic book character thanks partly to this chameleonic ability, but mostly I am a fan of his time spent as a tragic hero, which Just Write goes into a good degree of detail of in his first video. He explains how the tragic hero must be relatable and not all powerful (using Superman as a foil example), but also has to be the reason for his own undoing. The moment at which Batman experiences his fall, his hamartia, in The Dark Knight is the scene I covered last week with the Joker staring down the barrel of a street with Batman rocketing toward him on his Batpod. Batman swerves, and sets in motion his fall from grace and more deaths, including the woman he loves, because he cannot bring himself to kill. Did Batman mean for this to happen? Certainly not. Should he be blamed for not killing the Joker? No. However, it cannot be ignored that his refusal to take down a man who has been a monster in his city perpetuates the events that unfold as a result of his inaction.
Similarly, Luke must have a hamartia in order for the Star Wars saga to grow beyond itself. This was set up in The Force Awakens as the instance where Ben Solo rebelled against his uncle, left him for dead, destroyed his temple and followers, and absconded with those loyal to him to don the moniker Kylo Ren. It comes as a shock to us to see a moment where an older Luke panics and contemplates, however briefly, murdering his nephew. Beau Oliver brought up the point that Luke has seemingly less of a connection to Ben Solo his nephew than to Darth Vader when he learns he is his father which makes their interaction and this moment come out of nowhere for us observers in the audience. I definitely don’t disagree with this, and I doubt that it will ever sit well with me as a huge fan of Luke from the orig trig, but it is worth noting that we do not see what leads up to this probably due to time and directorial desire to keep us in the dark. Rian Johson not only upended all of our predictions and expectations, but he crafted Luke as a tragic hero in a way that aided Rey’s arc as well. Rey, and the rest of us, discover that our hero is man after all. We’ve seen the great work that Luke has done, and we expect that ship to keep right on sailing without stopping, but that is not how life works, and Luke’s troubles with Ben create a new set of troubles to tackle, but he hung his helmet up a long time ago. We and Rey together realize how hard it is to see your heroes as anything but once they reach the level of legend.
Yet Luke’s story does not end entirely in tragedy. His shift into a tragic hero serves as a revival of his classical hero. Rey arrives with a call to action, but he refuses. Nevertless, with the help of an old mentor (in the greatest Yoda scene in the entire saga), Luke is provided with the push and guidance he needs to return to his sister and friends before confronting the new threat in a novel way, and receiving his reward of peace through that purpose to become one with the Force. His last act amplifies his status as a legend at a time when the galaxy needs it most, and provides the call to adventure that the heroes of tomorrow will answer.
The Last Jedi is not a perfect movie, and its characterization of Luke Skywalker is not perfect either, but it will endure for its effort to strike out in a new direction and burn the conventions of the past in order to reawaken the greatness we saw in the beginning of this magnificent series while continuing to make its own path throughout the galaxy far, far away.
Props again to Mark Hamill, the consummate professional and humorous presence who always excels at being honest and bringing joy to people. He may not be awash in film credits like his costar Harrison Ford, but his roles in his body of work is solid (something that honestly cannot always be said of Ford). Thanks to his talent, work ethic, and the happiness he brings, Mark Hamill is one of my favorite actors. He recently received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, along with some nice, heartfelt speeches of appreciation from Ford and George Lucas. Hamill himself thanked his fans for their support on a fantastic ride that has taken him “from Jedi to Joker and back again”. It is understandable why people love his characters so much when the man himself is so loveable. No matter what your feelings on The Last Jedi and the final hurrah of his most popular character, you’ve gotta love the man behind the lightsaber no matter who you are.
Thanks for reading and watching! Be sure to revenge- uh, sorry, return back here next week when I’ll take a closer look at the latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees officially being christened in this Saturday April 14. As always, you can keep in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May the Force be with you,