Luke Skywalker Was Always the Galaxy’s Most Overachieving Screwup
There are a lot of viewing options this May the 4th. You could celebrate Star Wars Day by watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which is newly available on Disney+. Or you could sample the new documentary series about the making of The Mandalorian, Disney Gallery. I suspect, though, that the Star Wars to watch this Star Wars Day is The Empire Strikes Back, which was released 40 years ago this May.
With the “Skywalker Saga” now concluded, it’s an interesting time to look back at The Empire Strikes Back. So much of the anger directed at Disney’s recent Star Wars trilogy focused on their treatment of the series’ legacy characters, particularly Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. To a small but very vocal segment of “fans,” the depiction of Luke in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi — the only one of the recent Star Wars films where plays a central role — amounts to an act of “character assassination.” A widely circulated social media meme comparing the Luke of the first and last Star Wars trilogies says that while the old Luke was “a true hero in every sense of the word,” The Last Jedi “attempts to overwrite six films-worth of arcs of the main franchise characters.” It alleges that Johnson “tears down the hero, fails to restore his honor, then kills him.”
“This character,” the mini-essay concludes,“ is NOT Luke Skywalker.”
And yet rewatching The Empire Strikes Back recently, all I could think was: Man, Rian Johnson nailed this Luke Skywalker. This is the exactly who we see in The Last Jedi — a perpetual screwup who looks at his Force abilities as a burden as much as a gift. While you can certainly point to some great things Luke Skywalker did in the original Star Wars trilogy — blowing up the Death Star, helping to defeat the Emperor — it’s not like he has a flawless record of unblemished heroism.
That’s never more true than in The Empire Strikes Back, one of the few movies that all Star Wars fans — even the ones that hate the new trilogy — agree on. And yet, the entire film is one Luke Skywalker mistake after another. Literally Luke’s whole storyline in Empire is just him messing up one situation after another. Here’s a list of all the blunders, missteps, and full-on f—ups Luke commits in The Empire Strikes Back alone:
I don’t provide this extensive list of flubs, gaffes, and goofs to make fun of Luke Skywalker, or because I think he’s a crappy character. Quite the opposite. Part of what makes Luke so appealing as a protagonist — the very part that Rian Johnson got so right in The Last Jedi — is how often he bungles things. It’s not that the guy in The Last Jedi is a shell of the classic Luke. It’s that the classic Luke was always the galaxy’s biggest overachiever. His true heroism came not from his successes but from his mistakes, and his ability to eventually overcome them.
Even some of those that agree with that assessment of the Original Trilogy Luke disagree with that assessment of Sequel Trilogy Luke — because in their eyes he didn’t overcome his worst mistake: Nearly killing Ben Solo and helping to put his student on the path to becoming Kylo Ren. After the destruction of Luke’s new Jedi Order, he banished himself to the Ahch-To and lived alone as a hermit for years. He gave up, the folks quoted above argue. He abandoned his friends and the galaxy. The “real” Luke Skywalker would never do that.
There’s two problems with this argument. First, the “real” Luke does do that — in The Empire Strikes Back, when he abandons his friends in the midst of a perilous escape from the Empire at Hoth in order to find Yoda. Yes, Luke does eventually cut his training short to save Han and Leia — but that leads to the second problem with the argument: The Luke of The Last Jedi returns to save his friends at the end of that film as well. He confronts (and outsmarts!) Kylo Ren. He allows the Rebels enough time to escape. Sure, it takes him longer this time. But he still dies a hero.
Luke’s death is problematic for some as well, because (the argument goes) even if Luke of The Empire Strikes Back was fallible, he at least had the chance to redeem himself in Return of the Jedi, where he helps his father destroy the Emperor and finally reject the Dark Side of the Force. Luke dies in The Last Jedi, so he never gets the chance to fully right the wrongs he committed in the past, like almost killing Ben and ignoring his responsibilities.
Even if that was the case in The Last Jedi, that reading now must ignore the events of The Rise of Skywalker, where Luke’s latest student Rey helps Kylo Ren defeat the Emperor (for real this time!) and finally reject the Dark Side of the Force. His sacrifice was not in vain. (Nor was it truly a sacrifice; he still lives within the Force, and helps Rey one more time on her journey to her final confrontation with the Emperor.)
In Mark Hamill’s final full scene as Luke Skywalker, he gets to correct one more of Luke’s mistakes — he finally uses the Force to lift his old X-wing. In The Last Jedi, when he’s trying to talk Rey out of training with him, he tells her that “if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure.” This, too, is a tough argument for some Star Wars fans to swallow. For 45 years, the Jedi have represented good in their galaxy and ours. They are constantly aligned with the brave Rebels, who despite enormous odds, stand up against the tyranny and fascism of the Empire. How could they be failures?
Easily — because, as Yoda tells Luke in his big The Last Jedi scene, “the greatest teacher, failure is.” Luke failed occasionally in Star Wars, and then repeatedly in The Empire Strikes Back. It did not make him less of a hero. And just because Luke rejected the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi doesn’t mean the Dark Side was permanently gone. Temptations and desires don’t vanish forever because we’ve rejected them today. Ask any drug addict; these are endless struggles. To assume otherwise, is naive. And to defeat something easily is not heroic.
Certainly Luke Skywalker’s lineage suggests he was destined for great things from his earliest days on Tatooine. But it’s important to acknowledge that while he may have been blessed with certain talents, Luke was never perfect. In fact, in most people’s favorite Star Wars movie, he was almost completely imperfect. He still carried on. That is what makes him a true hero in every sense of the word — and certainly a relatable one.
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Gallery — Awesome Star Wars Concept Art: