This Star Wars article contains spoilers.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker.
So did a lot of kids, I’m sure. I remember, as a teen, talking about whether Luke or Han was better. Most of my friends had an opinion, some proto-territoriality and loyalty when it came to Star Wars heroes. Han was suave and dangerous, but Luke was one of us – the seemingly unexceptional country kid who grew into the confident adult we hoped to become, someone who walked into gangsters’ palaces and dark fortresses and got things done. Leia, too, had an untouchable confidence.
As we grow up, identifying with a character like that doesn’t necessarily go away, but things do change. Aspirations change, and problems become more complex and less direct. People worry about politics, about climate. Our problems are both much bigger and much more self-contained than the ones faced in a galaxy far, far away.
I still want to be Luke, though, still want to touch something in the earnest core of the good vs. evil battle that is Star Wars. In The Last Jedi, Luke’s story changes. Before the Sequel Trilogy began, I asked myself: What does The Force Awakens mean for the fans who admire him? How will this story resonate back to the Original Trilogy, back into people’s childhoods? Now that The Last Jedi is out, some of those questions can be answered.
Along with the conflict of light versus dark, Star Wars is also a story about personal growth and adulthood. A lot has been written about how the Campbellian hero’s journey tracks perfectly with Luke’s story, from farm boy to legend. The Force Awakens portrayed Luke as a mythic figure, his thoughts and actions hidden from Rey, Finn, and Leia even as they searched and hoped for him.
In The Last Jedi, though, we see that Luke’s hopefulness in Return of the Jedi has soured into bitter sadness. His feeling of failure is relatable for millennials who were groomed to succeed before joining a world less organized than a school: people who expected to continue to excel were unprepared for the emotional fallout of failure. I relate to this: as a good student, I was groomed to react positively to praise and anxiously to failure, taking both to heart as an indicator of my true self. Reflection and less high-strung friends have helped me pull back from this attitude, but it’s still there sometimes, preventing me from acting like the calm and powerful Jedi I hoped as a child to emulate.
Therefore, it’s perfect that Luke would also go through a similar disappointment. Once the hero of the Rebellion, the little information we have on him in the canon tie-in novels indicates that Luke led an adventurous life before the Battle of Jakku and then built a Jedi school in peacetime. He was not prepared for his own guilt and horror after he, in a moment of weakness and fear, considered killing Ben Solo while the boy slept. Luke was driven to Ahch-To in part by his own feelings of unworthiness as a teacher. Ultimately, the world of the Jedi was unfamiliar to Luke, at least when it came to handling failure – an aspect Yoda needs to remind him is a very important part of the Order’s history.
The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams has shared in an interviews that it was a question posed to him by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy that convinced him to helm Episode VII. The question was, “Who is Luke Skywalker?” With Abrams returning to the saga in Episode IX and writer-director Rian Johnson taking such an unexpected look at Luke in The Last Jedi, this question may continue to arise even after Luke’s death. He could still come back as a Force ghost, imparting wisdom to Rey as she fulfills her own destiny.
An interview circa The Force Awakens in Rolling Stone suggested that it was Rey (Daisy Ridley) who would be asking that question in Episode VII. The idea of Luke’s story being examined by a young woman resonates more with me than anything else has in the Star Wars universe in a long time. If one considers Kylo Ren as a Darth Vader devotee and Rey interrogates the idea of Luke, The Force Awakens could be interpreted as a commentary on the nature of fandom and on the consequences of a story’s own gargantuan success. This commentary continues in The Last Jedi. We see in Episode VIII that Luke blames his own belief in his “legend” for his actions. Yoda doesn’t deny this, but he does tell Luke to stop focusing on the past, the future, and the dreams of the horizon. Luke’s last lesson is meditative: to live in the moment.
Luke’s arc in the Original Trilogy took him from farm boy with good aim to the man who threw away his weapon when he was offered the opportunity to rule the galaxy. He chose love for his friends over shaping the galaxy in the way he saw fit and getting his revenge on the people had hurt him. Luke had reason to be angry, too – angry at Vader, angry at his own failure, angry at the whole stupid ride that had led him, in handcuffs, to his father.
When I first sat down to write this, I was going to write that Luke’s story was about gaining proficiency. I was going to reflect on the idea of Luke as a person with talent, Luke as a person whose piloting skills won the day.
That isn’t true, though. Luke wasn’t in an X-Wing at the Battle of Endor. His story would have been about proficiency if it had ended at A New Hope, sure – but it didn’t. Discussing the end of The Empire Strikes Back as a final act of a trilogy is impossible, since it was so clearly a middle installment, but it was also a story about proficiency – about Luke’s training, about a lightsaber fight in which he at least held his own after escaping Vader’s carbonite trap.
I was going to write that becoming a Jedi Master is the ultimate mark of Luke’s proficiency and that it would be empowering to see him continue in that vein. This is, partially, true. (From a certain point of view?) Luke being justified feels like the fans being justified in their optimism, in their hope for friendship and victory and, yes, a sort of predestined power.
But really, Luke’s story isn’t about gaining proficiency and power. It’s about laying down one’s life for one’s friends, about being willing to say no to injustice even when there is no hope of a future without a yes.
The Last Jedi showed that Luke can be powerful, but also that his real power isn’t violent or aggressive. In the spirit of Yoda’s playfulness, his last act is a trick, a misdirection used to save people. Like Rose Tico says, Luke isn’t fighting what he hates – in fact, he apologizes to Kylo Ren without suggesting any mercy in that apology. He is fighting to save what he loves.
I’m fond of the idea of Luke building a functioning Jedi Academy, but I’m also happy with the way The Last Jedi showed that he still had a lot to learn and that Luke passing on his teachings to those specific students was not the end of his story. Instead, he teaches Rey to access the Force in his own way. She also has her own The Empire Strikes Back moment of disobeying her teacher: like Luke, she rushes off to face her enemy before she’s entirely ready, playing into Snoke’s plan to manipulate both Rey and Kylo Ren.
I wrote before seeing The Force Awakens that “If we see a new Jedi Order in the Sequel Trilogy, one founded more on goodness and altruism and less on appeasing a galactic government and preventing attachments either platonic or romantic, we’ll know that Luke has succeeded. He will have made something new out of the Jedi Order and brought it to a different kind of glory – not a full circle, but an ascending spiral.”
Clearly, this has not happened in the Sequel Trilogy, but nor has Luke fallen to the dark side. At first I was skeptical that The Last Jedi would even introduce this conversation in the saga: after all, it is hard to admire a man who draws a weapon on his sleeping nephew, hard to want to grow up to be an angry and dangerous teacher around unsupervised students. But The Last Jedi insists that Luke is still admirable, still powerful – he just needs to learn to step away from his own feelings of guilt and see that he needs to fight, to end the evil Kylo Ren has chosen, by his own volition, to do in the galaxy.
Some fans want to see the old Jedi Order blamed for Anakin Skywalker’s fall, to see Luke remake the Jedi entirely. The conversation between Luke and Yoda in The Last Jedi directly addresses this, but does not linger on blame. Instead, it’s about Luke moving forward and helping create something new – or at least light the spark of change.
I dreaded Luke’s death in The Last Jedi. It would have been painful for this hero, who was so aspirational to me, to end in failure. But Episode VIII made his death gracious, peaceful, and meaningful. It also showed, both explicitly in dialogue and metaphorically, that failure is okay. It’s hard for over-achieving students to see that, I think, and on the other hand it’s also hard for people who feel that they have rarely failed to identify with heroes who do. I suspect that some readers are also unwilling or unable to confront their own failures or to label them as such. In that case, one might ask, what kind of story beat is failure? Why build plot points around that?
The answer is because failure happens to people. The Last Jedi tackles reaction to failure as a human emotion, not a win/loss state. It is as worthy a topic as any other on the spectrum of human emotion. It’s rarely portrayed so explicitly, with a beloved character surrounded by and staring into the evidence of his own failure. The Last Jedi does this without reducing Luke’s power or casting him as a villain.
After all, Luke is the ultimate audience surrogate. And, ultimately, sometimes people need to see the character they identify with succeed after their failure. Fandom, just like the rest of the world, isn’t without its fights and aggressions. People who seem dedicated to stories in which good triumphs over evil attack other people, snipe at them in person or on the internet. The Jedi need to inspire us to be better people, serving as the saints and holy relics of this secular interest group. Luke’s victory in Return of the Jedi is a victory for hope. Not necessarily peace, but hope for a peaceful day in the future.
As an adult, part of me still wants to be Luke Skywalker.
Because, in the ways that matter most, Luke is Star Wars. Sure, there are other characters who serve as the face of the merchandising. Kylo Ren adorns many of the toys, and as of the release of The Last Jedi, Rey has been freed from her secrets and finally taken her place in the marketing.
A lot of us want to be Luke Skywalker – or Han Solo, or Leia Organa. With the Sequel Trilogy in full swing, I can’t help but feel that, for me, its success rests partially on how it’s handled Luke. Now, he has graciously passed that story on to Rey. Fans need to be able to believe in Luke, and in The Last Jedi, we saw that Lucasfilm still believes in him too.