“My hero would never do that!” Defending The Last Jedi‘s Luke Skywalker.
Over a month after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and it’s still secured its reputation as the most-debated of the saga. Sure, something like The Phantom Menace had a lot of vocal detractors even as a large portion of the audience expressed enjoyment of the film’s lightsaber battles. Even within that range of opinions, it felt like there was a wider consensus. The film might have actually been better regarded in the first month or so of release, before the spell cast by anticipation had time to fully fade. True, it would fall out of favor soon enough, but at a fairly uniform pace within its audience. There was never a point where it seemed to have equally passionate antagonists and defenders.
This is what makes the division over The Last Jedi even more remarkable. It’s gone on for a month with neither side ceding ground. I won’t deny that at least some of the hatred is coming from an anti-feminist faction that really hates that there’s more than one woman in this feature and that many of them get a chance to rebuke the male characters. Let’s not give this faction any more dignity than they deserve. Instead we’ll leave them to the safe space of their 46-minute “fan edit” that reduces the roles of all the women and spares them from having to see their beloved Poe be demoted by Leia for his reckless actions, among other alterations.
One common complaint from detractors who don’t fall into the above category (though there’s definitely a Venn diagram overlap on a few things the “enlightened” critics hate and what the anti-feminists hate) is the film’s depiction of Luke Skywalker as a broken former-Jedi-in-exile. Years ago, (I believe the new Expanded Universe establishes Luke’s exile as something that happened within the last five years) Luke inadvertently provided the final trigger that turns Ben to the Dark Side, resulting in the slaughter of Luke’s students. Feeling responsible, Luke fled to the original Jedi Temple, not – as some theorized – to regroup and plot an offensive, but to die.
Luke has given up. On his friends. On the Republic. On the nephew he lost to the Dark Side.
And he’s given up on the Force. As Rey discovers midway through the film, he’s cut himself off from the Force entirely. Thus, the angry outcry from “real” fans saying that “Luke would never do that!” They insist that Luke would have never given up, that he’d have fought Kylo Ren at every turn. If he retreated, surely it was merely prelude to a counter-offensive, part of a deeper strategy.
As a writer myself, I both bristle at and am understanding of the line of thought that “______ would never do that!” I don’t think characters should be treated any more rigidly than real life people. In the real world, people act inconsistently. Their views and core beliefs may evolve over time, even drastically. Certainly with long-established characters there may be more defined boundaries. If you’re telling a Batman story, certain behaviors will usually be off limits. For instance, Batman doesn’t kill, nor does he use guns. Unless you’re dealing with a Batman specifically outside the norm, those are two rules you shouldn’t break. The later is a rule you can probably bend under the right circumstances though.
Over 30 years of in-universe time have elapsed between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi. A lot can happen in that time, but I still find one ideological shift from perhaps the most important hero of Star Wars to be so remarkable as to be incredulous.
People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as “when life begins” or “when it should be appropriately terminated,” but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race.
These current defacements are just the beginning. Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control. In order to reconstruct old negatives, many archivists have had to go to Eastern bloc countries where American films have been better preserved.
In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.
That’s George Lucas in 1988, speaking out against the very same kind of rewritten cultural history that he would later enact just nine years later with the Special Editions. That’s a pretty serious shift in values that’s directly related to his core identity as a filmmaker. Is it so difficult to imagine that Luke would undergo an equally profound shift in perspective over three times that chronological span?
When I was growing up, one of my comedy idols was Dennis Miller. In addition to being a proficient wielder of obscure pop culture minutae (a trait I happened to share), he also took no prisoners in speaking truth to power and savagely mocking both sides of the political aisle during a time when they needed it. He’d beat up Newt Gingrich and then have a full lungful left for a rant mocking Bill Clinton. Then 9/11 happened and he decided to throw his lot in with the Republican Party. I’d forgotten this until I researched it, but he actually promised he wouldn’t make fun of George W. Bush on his show. That’s a concession that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, and he soon resembled a less cranky Bill O’Reilly, only with more hair and a sharper wit for comparing John Kerry to a leftover puppet from “Spitting Image.”
That’s just my opinion, of course. I could be wrong.
The point is that our heroes are fully capable of abandoning the values that once made us devoted to them. Yes, it would be comforting to think that Luke Skywalker spend over a quarter-century in the toybox unchanged, just waiting for a story to bring him back to us like nothing happened. But is that realistic? For that matter is it even dramatic?
Consider what happened – Luke, with all his wisdom and the benefit of knowing where Yoda, Obi-Wan and the first Jedi failed, ultimately repeated their mistake. A Dark Side threat grew right under his watch while he remained oblivious. Worse, his Jedi teachings provided the fertilizer that ensured Ben Solo would grow into a powerful Force-wielder indeed. It demonstrated to Luke right away that the Jedi would always have a blind spot for threats amassing before them.
This lesson came at the cost of Luke’s life’s work and the destruction of what he believed was to be his legacy. The thing he spend decades trying to accomplish was erased in minutes. In his grief, he vowed to end that cycle, and that’s what led him into exile. Taking all that as a given, is it such a leap to understand that if this was in his heart, he’d believe in the futility of getting involved again.
Luke’s perspective on the Force won’t be the same after decades immersed in it. When it’s something new that he’s still exploring, of course all he’ll see is the wonder and the promise of it. Is there anything that anyone believes in with the same purity they did when they were young?
George Lucas’s views of his profession changed with the times, and as he began to understand the power he could wield. Luke’s understanding of his own power changed too. He saw only the misuse and interpreted his own failure within the context of the great Jedi failures. Surely we don’t love everything about the original trilogy in the same way today as we did when they were released. The Ewoks were something that many fans liked when they were younger, then rebelled against when it was cool to reject some thing so overtly cute. If our feelings towards Return of the Jedi can evolve, then why not Skywalker’s?
And perhaps Luke’s slight adjustment of opinion towards the climax of The Last Jedi gives us a little hope that one day Dennis Miller will be funny again and that George Lucas will become capable of undoing all the revisions he made to his original version. When we live long enough, our heroes often end up disappointing us. The Last Jedi embraces that over the comfort food of seeing Luke zip around in his X-Wing and wielding his lightsaber in the most incredible combat since “Duel of the Fates.”
Luke Skywalker would never do that? No, the Luke you’ve spent curating in your brain all these years wouldn’t. He became less a character than an ideal. The Last Jedi restores Luke’s humanity to him, ironically after taking away everything else.