This article contains major Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers.
There is a moment late in the second act of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi that is the definition of grim. While it is hard to describe the fairly light and often mercurial touch Johnson brought to the galaxy far, far away as “dark”—it is in fact quite a bit softer in tone than, say, The Empire Strikes Back—there is likely not a gloomier image than a ragged and haggard Luke Skywalker staring up at his rejected apprentice, Rey. She has rather easily disarmed him and now, with his own lightsaber, the heroine threatens to strike the original Star Wars hero down. And he more or less appears ready to let it happen. After all, he failed his former apprentice Ben Solo, the son of his sister, the heir to the Skywalker mantle, and a beloved pupil turned to the Dark Side, not least of all because Master Luke almost slaughtered the child in his sleep.
There is not a more challenging moment in all of the Star Wars lore. And I suspect it gets to the heart of the division about this movie. Luke Skywalker, the golden haired optimist from the original trilogy, has given into despair and self-loathing, and did so after being understandably disgusted with his thoughts of murdering a nephew. It is a point of contention among fans who’ve taken to the ranks of the intergalactic civil war called social media. Even Mark Hamill, the man who is Luke Skywalker, disagrees with the inherent premise of the scene. It is so bleak that it underscores just about every non-Canto Bight critique of the picture, which despite being the bravest Star Wars movie in decades is being heralded in some circles as the second coming of The Phantom Menace.
Personally, we think it is a marvelous twist and development for Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi, and it gets to a bigger sticking point among fan communities: Folks rarely like to see their heroes grow old, or even simply too far away from where they were first introduced. And they almost certainly do not want to see them die. Luke Skywalker does all of the above in The Last Jedi.
Admittedly, this broad generalization does not apply to all fans, but it is fair to say at least a large and vocal minority would agree with what was Stan Lee’s mantra for Marvel Comics’ bullpen in the 1970s: Create the illusion of change without ever really changing anything. Indeed, after passing the responsibility of writing characters like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four to the next generation of comic book writers, Lee stressed the need to make readers (or audiences) believe they are experiencing a major shift in the status quo of their protagonist, even though everything pretty much remains in place about the hero’s personality, motivations, and foibles. Peter Parker might graduate college and go to grad school, but he’ll still end up with money and girl problems after dropping out and Mary Jane refuses his proposal. It is the conceit that character development goes in a circular, 360-degree arc as opposed to one that rises in an upward motion with age and wisdom.
Of course not all comics have kept to this modus operandi. Even Spider-Man was matured by later writers to the point that he eventually married Mary Jane Watson and, depending on the continuity, has a daughter. It’s also a marital feat that other comic book editors who worship at the “illusion of change” have tried to erase time and again. So while this type of circuitous storytelling has mostly been in the realm of comics, increasingly we are seeing that sort of thinking seep into big screen cinema and the larger pop culture.
With superhero movies becoming the dominant form of Hollywood entertainment in the 21st century, like the Western and musical of decades past, that kind of narrative vernacular becomes ubiquitous in at least mass audience franchise films… which are usually about heroes. And few are more heroic than Luke Skywalker. The farmboy who grew into a cool Jedi with ice water in his veins, Luke embodies the definitive Campbellian hero’s journey across the original Star Wars trilogy. He goes from naïve youth who at first shirks the call to action (“I can’t get involved; I’ve got work to do”) to the kid who save the galaxy from the Death Star, and then saves his evil father from himself. It is a romantic tale of the young hero in the most classical sense.
However, it’s incredulous to think that a Luke Skywalker in his 60s would still be the idealistic youth of boyhood. He was in fact already quite a bit different by Return of the Jedi, dressing in his father’s black and using the Force-choke on enemies, a technique avoided by every other Jedi in the canon. He actually was never quite the pure light to Vader’s dark either, considering that before he saved the father, he also almost killed him while the Emperor cackled in the background. So it is an open question about who this Luke might grow up to be if faced by the challenges that overwhelmed his mentors in a previous generation.
Consider that Ben Solo was named after Ben Kenobi, the first father figure Luke ever truly knew. Ben was of course Obi-Wan, the Jedi who trained Luke’s father Anakin and failed to prevent Emperor Palpatine from corrupting the lad and turning him into a monster. Luke’s next mentor, Yoda, also took responsibility for failing Anakin, as he also taught both the child and the child’s teacher. Further, the Star Wars prequels show Yoda not only banish himself to exile on a swampy planet named Dagobah, but do so after believing he failed to save the Republic from being corrupted by the insidious force of Palpatine.
Failure begetting self-imposed banishment and a monastic lifestyle is not only echoed throughout the Star Wars saga, but are the examples set for Luke by his only mentors. Now, as the new movies beginning with The Force Awakens placed Luke Skywalker in the same exact trap of Obi-Wan wherein his apprentice turned to the Dark Side—and worse it was his sister’s child he promised to protect—it is not hard to imagine he’d have the same momentary lapse in horror he had when he almost killed Darth Vader at the Emperor’s behest decades ago… or would feel a shame even greater than that what drove Yoda into hiding.
This is a fascinating development for Luke Skywalker, one that takes him away from the boy we knew, but embraces him becoming a man, a flesh and blood figure who can have greater depth or insight into what the lifestyle of a hero has wrought. As a filmmaker who had no interest in utilizing the “illusion of change,” Rian Johnson followed Ben Solo’s words about “kill the past if you have to” and burned down much of the illusion created by J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. Emperor Palpatine’s uncreative doppelganger, Supreme Leader Snoke, was dispatched in the most unexpected and satisfying scene of the film; the line between good and evil was blurred; and the cycle of Star Wars running in a circle ended. It also concluded its hero’s final journey in the most profound of ways.
Luke Skywalker, embittered as a man who has endured failure, chooses as his last act to embrace the legend and myth around him. He dies to cement that illusion by literally projecting himself as a Jedi-god who cannot be killed by the entire might of the First Order. Throughout the movie, a very human Luke Skywalker stood as the antithesis of the fan-servicing hero who rarely changed in the Expanded Universe of Star Wars novels, but by The Last Jedi’s end, he has embraced that fantasy with his dying breath to inspire the next generation, both on and off the screen.
It is a tremendous moment, but one informed by a deconstructionist examination of Luke’s life, as opposed to the much more fan-serviced version of an older Han Solo, who despite being gray and a father, is ever the scoundrel from the original films. As Han tells Leia in Abrams’ previous movie, “I went back to the only thing I was ever any good at.” He might be a father and estranged husband, but he is still the lovable rogue and space pirate who’s cheating space gangsters with Chewbacca by his side and looking for home on the Millennium Falcon.
It is a comforting notion that our heroes never changed, but it is a more cinematic and daring idea to examine what happens when they do. Rian Johnson’s choices regarding Luke Skywalker are not even that different than Christopher Nolan’s own developments of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, a film where the hero overcomes the childhood trauma that made him Batman and outgrows the unhealthy need for a mask. That too sees its hero made more human and give up the trappings of adolescent fantasy at an older age. It also smacks in the face of “the illusion of change” and what a vocal subsection of the fan community demands.
The Last Jedi is a box office and critical sensation, but if the online reaction is any indicator, the future of keeping Star Wars fans happy is to make sure the heroes never grow up.