Return of the Jedi 40th Anniversary

Ricky Church dives into the legend of Luke Skywalker for the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi…

It goes without saying Star Wars has given us some of the most memorable characters in pop culture, from Princess Leia, Emperor Palpatine and Yoda to newer characters like Rey, Ahsoka Tano, Din Djarin and Darth Maul. And while the franchise has made the roughish Han Solo or menacing Darth Vader household names its central hero Luke Skywalker is chief among the series’ biggest characters.

One of the reasons for this is due to the hero’s journey Luke undergoes throughout the Original Trilogy, and specifically how it culminates in Return of the Jedi and eschews typical tropes found in heroic ‘chosen one’ narratives. As Return of the Jedi celebrates its 40th anniversary – and the original closure to Star Wars for decades – it’s important to remember why Luke Skywalker is one of fiction’s best heroes.

When George Lucas originally envisioned Star Wars in the early 70s, which went through many iterations including the title Journal of the Whills and Luke being named Luke Starkiller, he based a lot of his ideas on a sci-fi setting of a Akira Kurosawa samurai film or classic fairy tale adventure involving ancient warriors, evil warlocks and saving a princess. In the film which eventually became A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is a seemingly ordinary farmboy who gets thrust into adventure and begins his training to become a Jedi Knight, an ancient and extinct order that drew on the mysterious Force to use their powers for good.

Luke’s journey initially followed the tropes of the hero’s journey that’s the blueprint of countless films: a hero meets a wise, old master who trains them to become a warrior, the master is lost leaving the hero to fend for himself, then they overcome adversity and triumph in the face of evil, being recognized and rewarded by all as the hero they are. After that though, Lucas pretty much tossed away the hero’s book.

Instead of achieving victory after victory after the high of singlehandedly destroying the Death Star, Luke Skywalker is put through grueling tests. Even at 900 years old, Yoda is no slouch of a teacher and doesn’t go easy on Luke, making us see Luke’s stubborn nature and shortsightedness in The Empire Strikes Back as he’s unwilling to listen to the philosophy of the Force and Jedi ways. Even if he decides to rush through his training for the noble purpose of saving his friends, Luke gets utterly beaten and humbled in his fight with Darth Vader. Granted, Luke shows how powerful and skilled he already is at this point as Vader is “most impressed” by Luke’s power – notice how Vader stops toying with Luke and begins taking their fight seriously when Luke actually starts gaining the upper hand. Still, it is rare to see a hero demolished so badly, both physically and psychologically as Luke learns the horrible truth that Darth Vader is his father.

By the time Luke arrives at Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi, it seems his journey is back on the typical track. He’s older, wiser and increasingly more powerful than when we last saw him. In fact, what makes Luke stand out from other heroes is that we see different versions of him in each Star Wars movie, from young naive farmboy to trainee to skilled warrior. Jabba’s Palace is a perfect example of his growth as he’s not rushing blindly into the fray as he did on Cloud City, but has an intricate plan with several back-up plans in place to rescue Han Solo. Whereas most heroes would fight their way through Jabba’s minions, violence is Luke’s last resort as he gives Jabba several opportunities to end the conflict peacefully and hand Han over.

On that note, remember Return of the Jedi was released in the early 80s. This is coming off of film series like Dirty Harry and Death Wish where the protagonists show little hesitancy in dispatching evil doers through whatever means necessary, even if it means breaking the law or tossing out their code of honour to do it. The 80s film era saw this type of protagonist become more popular as well. The year before Jedi saw the release of the first Rambo film First Blood and its sequels would see John Rambo become a very skilled fighter who showed no qualms about killing bad guys. Arnold Schwarzenegger built his career off playing that type of macho man hero in Conan the BarbarianCommando and The Predator.

Not to mention the start of other franchises featuring tough guys like RoboCop, Lethal Weapon or the continuation of Death Wish throughout that decade. Obviously those are R-rated films and not intended for a younger audience like Star Wars, but even a few family friendly films had there heroes cross the line, like Superman throwing Zod off a cliff with a smile on his face in Superman II or Batman killing The Joker and several of his henchmen in the climax of Batman. It just emphasizes the trend to have heroes and protagonists be grittier and a tad more merciless in film.

It is notable then how Luke’s journey subverts the action hero archetype in favour of something much more personal and moving. One would expect an epic final battle between good and evil in the last Star Wars film and while the Battle of Endor certainly is epic in space and on the ground, the rematch between Luke and Vader is much more character focused as Luke uses compassion as his main weapon and appeals to the man Darth Vader used to be before turning to the Dark Side of the Force. It is much more about the battle of Anakin Skywalker’s soul than it is a no-holds-barred fight between mortal enemies.

It is in that instance where Vader manages to get Luke angry enough to attack him with everything he’s got that it isn’t treated as a moment of badassery, but where we might see the hero actually fall to the very evil he’s fighting against. Everything about the scene screams tragedy, from the feral way Luke fights to John Williams’ score that isn’t an epic fanfare, but sweeping, low choral music reminiscent to Palpatine’s theme.

The look of horror on Luke when he realized what he’s done and how close he came to fully succumbing to the Dark Side speaks volumes and leads to one of the most heroic things Luke does in the whole franchise: tossing his lightsaber away, refusing to fight and play Palpatine’s game any longer in his conviction that he is a Jedi Knight. It is this act, along with Palpatine’s vindictiveness, that spurs the last embers of Anakin Skywalker to reemerge and save Luke from the Emperor’s wrath.

This act of nonviolence is the core of Luke’s entire arc in the Original Trilogy. It’s what Yoda preached on how Jedis only use the Force for defence and the slippery slope it is to the Dark Side. The fact it makes Darth Vader, one of the most evil and menacing characters in all of fiction, slightly redeem himself is itself another huge twist the franchise has provided. It showcases how subversive Luke’s story was as it most certainly did not end with Luke destroying Vader and the Emperor in a one-on-one duel, but using the wisdom he gained form his past failures and experiences to usher in a new age.

Of course, Luke’s story didn’t end with Return of the Jedi but continued into the Sequel Trilogy under the guidance of directors J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson. Though some might bemoan how Luke’s arc was handled in The Last Jedi, it is in line with both his character and the larger themes of Star Wars, specifically that of self-redemption. Luke’s journey even parallels that of his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi with how crushed they both were with the loss of their padawan to the Dark Side, except in Luke’s case he played a much more pivotal part in Ben Solo’s downfall than Obi-Wan did with Anakin.

Whatever role Palpatine played in the shadows to create Kylo Ren, Luke still felt responsible for falling into the same trap he did against Vader as he let his fear get the best of him for the briefest of moments where that was all Ben saw. Even still, his story circles back to Return of the Jedi as Luke comes back to the fight in an ultimate act of sacrifice and nonviolence, preventing the First Order and Kylo Ren from defeating the Resistance without a single swing of his lightsaber. For as much as Luke was a grief-stricken curmudgeon for most of Last Jedi, his final moments saw the return of the Jedi we all know and love.

With Return of the Jedi celebrating its 40th anniversary, its legacy lies in how Luke Skywalker’s arc cements status as a hero. The subversion of typical epic, action, macho heroes in the climax as Luke chooses to practice nonviolence and mercy against his enemy, choosing to believe in the best of Darth Vader, showcased him as one of pop culture’s greatest fictional heroes played perfectly by Mark Hamill throughout the Star Wars saga.

Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.


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