In the weeks since I shared my first impressions of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Episode VIII has become the most divisive film in the Star Wars canon. Professional reviewers, who tend to prioritize the acting and themes in a film, have overwhelmingly praised the way director Rian Johnson deconstructs Star Wars tropes and subverts expectations. By contrast, fans, who often care more about the characters and story continuity, have been much more mixed in their response. Some love that the film takes the franchise in new directions, while others complain about the self-aware humor and the slow middle act. The Last Jedi has become a sort of Star Wars Rorschach test in that each viewer’s response says as much about that person’s relationship with Star Wars as it does about the film.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the film is the way it handles Luke Skywalker. Many fans have followed the character for decades and feel emotionally invested in his fate. This is certainly the part of the film that both interested me and worried me the most before its release. To me, Luke Skywalker is far more than a movie character. When I was younger, I saw Luke s a role model, a friend, and even a moral compass. As I’ve grown older, my relationship with Luke has changed, but he has remained a part of me. Fortunately, what The Last Jedi does with Luke works wonderfully in that I feel like the character has grown old alongside me. Luke was the hero I needed as an idealistic youth, and now he’s the hero I need as a (slightly) world-weary adult.
As a child of the ‘80s, I enjoyed playing with Ninja Turtles figures, watching He-Man cartoons, and rooting for DC superheroes, but Star Wars always meant more to me than any other pop culture franchise. I had trouble identifying with Batman, the suave billionaire with an arsenal of high-tech gadgets. I knew I’d never have the superpowers of Superman or the martial prowess of Leonardo. But I could be Luke. As a shy and studious student in middle school, I saw much of myself in Luke. Luke isn’t the strongest or handsomest or most charming character in A New Hope. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s a dork. When we first meet Luke, he is already a skilled pilot and kindhearted person, but also whiny and unsure of himself. He feels like he can’t catch a break. Luke was the hero for those of us who weren’t the “cool” kids in school, who weren’t heirs to a vast fortune, who weren’t star athletes. Ultimately, Luke’s greatest triumph in the film isn’t destroying the Death Star; it’s finding the confidence in himself to take the shot.
I was never particularly religious, but Luke’s journey in Episodes V and VI formed an important part of my moral upbringing. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father – and, in turn, learns that he too has the potential for darkness. Like many younglings, I was deeply troubled when I realized that life didn’t guarantee I’d grow up to be the “hero.” Life presents many opportunities to fail and stray from our childhood ideals. Doing the “right thing” is a choice. At the end of Empire, Luke chose to reject Vader’s overtures, but still hasn’t figured out how to defeat the Empire while remaining true to his conscience.
Most sci-fi and comic book heroes have some special power or weapon that allows them to defeat the enemy. Part of what makes Star Wars special is that, as TOR’s Emily Asher-Perrin argues, Luke’s superpower is his compassion. In Return of the Jedi, Luke appeals to Vader’s better self, his father Anakin Skywalker. Luke even throws away his lightsaber and submits to the Emperor’s torture rather than violate his conscience and strike down an enemy in anger. Luke’s nonviolent protest calls to mind the great social movements of the 20th century, like Gandhi’s Salt March or Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign.
Ultimately, of course, Vader turned on the Emperor and saved his son. The lesson to me was clear: nonviolence and compassion aren’t signs of weakness, but rather signs of strength. True heroism isn’t about having greater superpowers or martial prowess, but rather abiding by deep moral convictions. Striking back at your enemies in anger or hatred only leads to more anger and more hatred. Perhaps most importantly, in a message that echoes my ancestors’ Catholicism, everyone who truly repents is deserving of forgiveness.
WARNING: Major spoilers for The Last Jedi below…
Luke seemed to reach a state of enlightenment at the end of Return of the Jedi, but the release of The Force Awakens in 2015 meant that Luke’s story wasn’t over yet. In Episode VII, we briefly glimpse Luke on the planet Ahch-To. In The Last Jedi, we learn why. It turns out Luke didn’t go to Ahch-To to study the secrets of the first Jedi temple or gain more Force powers. He went there to die. As we learn through flashbacks, when Luke was training Ben Solo, he sensed a powerful darkness in the younger man. When Luke snuck into Ben’s room one night to observe him, Luke admits that he considered killing the boy before he could become the next Darth Vader. That thought quickly dissipated, but not before Ben saw his master hovering above him with an ignited lightsaber. Ben reacted by attacking Luke, burning down the Jedi temple, joining the First Order, and becoming Kylo Ren. Ashamed of his actions, Luke cut himself off from the Force and fled to Ahch-To.
This twist in Luke’s character has understandably upset many fans. The Luke we see in The Last Jedi is a cynical old man who has given up. Paul Bateman, a prominent Star Wars fan and artist, thought it unlikely that the man who saw Light in Vader – “space Hitler” – wouldn’t give his own nephew the same benefit of the doubt. Some YouTubers argue that Luke works best as an ideal for young people to aspire to, and seeing him fail undermines the lesson about compassion. Even Mark Hamill, the actor who has portrayed Luke since 1977, initially had his doubts about where Rian Johnson wanted to take the character. I personally struggled with this depiction of Luke the first time I saw The Last Jedi. What did it mean for my sense of morality if my moral compass didn’t always point true? If my hero Luke failed, do the rest of us have any hope?
As is often the case, Yoda’s words of wisdom helped make sense of the situation. Halfway through The Last Jedi, Yoda appears to Luke and reminds him that “the greatest teacher, failure is.” Luke failed, but he should learn from his failures rather than run away from them. As I pondered his words of wisdom, I found that this message was exactly the message I needed to hear in my older age.
Kids need help differentiating between right and wrong, which is why the Original Trilogy’s moral clarity proved so profound to millions of kids in my generation. However, like Luke, we hadn’t lived enough to fail. As an adult, I have failed more often than my 10-year-old self would have anticipated. Too often in pop culture, failure is often depicted as something that the hero overcomes quickly and then forgets about, often within the runtime of a 2-hour film. The Last Jedi reminds us that failure is inevitable and stays with us. We need to work every single day to make sure we live our lives according to our morals, and even then we will occasionally fail. None of us can be the 1983 version of Luke Skywalker year in and year out. We need to learn from our failures and move on, as Luke eventually does by the end of the film.
The Last Jedi doesn’t invalidate Original Trilogy’s lesson about compassion, but it does build upon it. In Return of the Jedi, Luke chooses to show compassion toward another person who has failed. Through pity, Luke becomes a better man, and so does his father. This is an important lesson for children, who often have difficult with theory of mind, the ability to understand what other people are thinking. However, as we get older, we are confronted more and more by our own failures. The one who has fallen is no longer the Other, but rather the Self. And as we all know, it’s sometimes more difficult to forgive oneself for serious failings than to forgive others. This is why The Last Jedi is so powerful: Luke has to do for himself what he did for Vader all those years ago.
I do sympathize with Fanboys director Kyle Newman’s point that we only learn about Luke’s failure through flashback scenes and exposition. We never really get a sense of Luke’s relationship with young Ben or what could have scared Luke so much that he considered murder (however briefly). Part of me thinks The Last Jedi would have been better served by giving Luke a more specific motivation for fearing Ben. For example, in the pre-Disney – and no longer canonical – Expanded Universe, Han and Leia’s son Jacen Solo kills Luke’s wife Mara Jade. After that, Luke knows he cannot confront his nephew without giving in to anger and hatred. Perhaps if Luke had a vision that Ben Solo would kill his wife, or even Han or Leia, that would have helped viewers understand why this icon of compassion considered killing his nephew.
On the other hand, failure isn’t always logical or neatly explained. Failure isn’t always “in character.” Sometimes people simply fail live up to their high standards because avoiding temptation is hard. Making Luke’s failure more rational, more understandable, or more justified might have comforted fans who idolize the 1983 version of Luke Skywalker, but might also have reduced the power of his character arc in The Last Jedi. Because Luke is our childhood hero, it might have been too easy to forgive him had Ben threatened Luke’s wife or friends. His failure is meaningful precisely because he failed to live up to his best ideals. I do hope we learn more about Luke’s relationship with young Ben at some point, perhaps in a future book, but the ambiguity works for the story told in The Last Jedi.
Ultimately, this is why, I am glad Disney and Lucasfilm made the Sequel Trilogy, despite some reservations about the films. Too many pop culture stories end with some version of “… and they lived happily ever after.” The characters never have the opportunity to grow old and make mistakes. How does the world rebuild after the damage wrought by war? How does a couple keep the romance alive after the fair-tale wedding? The Force Awakens suggests that in the Star Wars Galaxy, just as in our own world, social strife and tragedy do not simply end after a single victory. These new films have forced us to think about the possibility that Han Solo would become a deadbeat dad, or that Leia Organa’s dream of a New Republic would collapse, or that Luke Skywalker would fail to show his nephew compassion. There’s something inspiring about knowing that my childhood hero couldn’t rest on his laurels. He too had moments of doubt and failure and pain.
Fortunately, by the end of The Last Jedi, Luke is able to forgive himself and play the role of hero once more, even if he doesn’t feel like a hero. Like Mark Hamill donning the role of Luke Skywalker, Luke plays the part of the Jedi Master and confronts the entire First Order armada with his laser sword. He does this through a Force trick that allows him to project his image on the planet Crait while remaining on Ahch-To. He even finds a way to save the day while remaining true to his pacifist ideals. Luke never actually fights Kylo Ren; he just distracts him long enough for the Resistance to board the Millennium Falcon. The effort ultimately kills him, but in sacrificing himself to save his friends the film makes clear that Luke still has his sense of compassion and selflessness, albeit tempered by age and experience. This is still Luke, but older.
The coda at the end of the film shows a young boy in a Canto Bight stable reenacting Luke’s last stand with homemade toys. Perhaps more than anything else in any of the Star Wars saga, this moment captures what Luke Skywalker means to me. From destroying the Death Star to lifting rocks on Dagobah to saving Darth Vader and even drinking green milk on Ahch-To, Luke has experienced much in his life. But perhaps Luke’s most important function as a character has been to inspire others, both on screen and off screen. In A New Hope, Luke inspired Han to join the Rebellion. In Return of the Jedi, he inspired his father to return to the Light. For me and countless other kids around the world, a young Luke inspired us to view compassion as a form of heroism. For me and countless other adults around the world, an older Luke inspires us to view failure as another opportunity to learn and grow.