(Note: This post contains a ton of spoilers for important stuff in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” [Yoda voice] At your own risk, you read.)
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens with four cutting words for a “Star Wars” fan: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”
Wondering what happened to Luke then became a years-long endeavor. “The Last Jedi” is finally here to answer the questions of what became of the farm boy turned Jedi Knight, and the return of Mark Hamill to the role three decades later has been a big deal. “The Last Jedi” is nothing if not interesting, and even a bit daring, in the way it deals with the character largely at the center of “Star Wars.”
But the answer to what happened to Luke — that he exiled himself to die after his nephew, Ben Solo (Adam Driver), fell to the dark side because of Luke’s failure — doesn’t track with the character who was at the center of “Star Wars” for years. We watched Luke’s development into the man he became over the course of three full movies, and selling his transition into an angry, fearful hermit needs more than a flashback and a few quick lines of dialogue.
Luke wasn’t just a war hero to the Rebellion; he goes through a whole lot of personal growth and tragedy during the original “Star Wars” trilogy. By the time he becomes a Jedi Knight, Luke has lost his best friend Biggs and his literal right hand, and found out his father was a murderous, hated villain. By the end of “Return of the Jedi,” Luke has seen the limits of the Jedi, saved his father’s soul minutes before his death, and basically realized that his teachers have failed him.
But Luke is also the kind of guy who marches into certain death for his friends on multiple occasions. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” he abandoned his Jedi training, despite all warnings from Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and headed to Cloud City to save Han, Leia and Chewie from Darth Vader. In “Return of the Jedi,” he knowingly got himself captured by Jabba the Hutt for his friends’ benefit, and then did it again by surrendering to Darth Vader in order to distract him and the Emperor while the Rebellion mounted its final offensive against the second Death Star. Luke chooses to throw down his weapon in “Return of the Jedi” rather than fight using anger and hatred; he goes to the Death Star in hopes of saving his father, but fully expecting to die for his friends.
So finding Luke in self-imposed exile at the end of “The Force Awakens” was surprising. And finding him an angry, disappointing old man in “The Last Jedi” is jarring. When his friends needed him, Luke abandoned them. He headed out into the middle of nowhere, according to his words, “to die.”
That’s not the Luke we left three decades ago. To see a hero broken by his own failures isn’t hard to imagine — but seeing him abandon his friends is.
Through the course of “The Last Jedi,” we see a bitter Luke as he deals with Rey, who has come to ask for his help. Luke sees himself as a failure, but what’s more, he sees the Jedi religion as a failure. He’s not wrong about the second part, since we’ve seen the Jedi fail time and time again, often helping create the super-powerful bad guys who ravage the galaxy in the process.
Exploring the character of Luke after having suffered such a loss as failing Ben Solo is an exciting one. It’s realistic that heroes are fallible, that people change over time, and that Luke doesn’t finish out his war in perfect shape. But at the same time, the particulars of his failure don’t really feel like Luke. And because of that, Luke’s return doesn’t sit quite right — as a growth of his character, it becomes hard to buy.
As Luke changes in “Star Wars,” he becomes defined by his willingness to see the good in others, as well as his capacity for self-sacrifice for the sake of others. We see those two traits defined in “The Empire Strikes Back,” where Luke learns that good and evil aren’t as black and white as he thought. First, he drops what he’s doing to save his friends, knowing it’ll mean facing Darth Vader and possibly dying — or worse, becoming what he hates. Second, he discovers that he has more in common with Vader than he realizes, and decides that despite the fact Vader is an extremely bad dude, he isn’t beyond saving.
Both those elements play through in “Return of the Jedi” as well. Luke explicitly chooses love over hate, and trust in his father over anger.
So to see Luke standing over Ben Solo while he sleeps, and even in a moment of fear, ignite his lightsaber to kill him, doesn’t track with where we left Luke’s growth as a person. We’re used to a Luke that sees darkness in people and looks for ways to get past it, specifically in family members. His bond with Ben, the son of his two best friends and his nephew, would undoubtedly be even stronger than the pull toward Vader, the father he never knew as anything but a murderer and tyrant. By the end of “Return of the Jedi,” Luke isn’t a guy who sees darkness in someone and fires up his blade to strike them down; he’s a guy who sees darkness in someone, and reaches out a hand to help them.
That’s not to say that Luke can’t or shouldn’t change, specifically over the 30 years of his absence. The idea of mentors failing their students is a recurring theme in “Star Wars,” after all. But we missed these changes in Luke — they happened off-screen and get explained to us in broad strokes. All we’re stuck with is an angry, slightly mean Luke, ruled by his fear in way he never was when we spent time with him. To present audiences with this version of the character and without having been present to watch him wrestle with those fears and failures creates a shock to the system.
This big change to Luke happening without anyone around also feels like an invalidation of what he learned and went through in the original trilogy. Really, Luke already ought to know better about the hubris and personal pride of the Jedi, because nobody has been failed by the Jedi like Luke has. His most trusted mentors lied to him and held back key information about him and his family, in order to manipulate him into killing his father. Luke ends “Return of the Jedi” disillusioned by his elders, and spends most of that story in pain. Even after redeeming Vader, Luke seems nearly broken by his loss. The ending of “Return of the Jedi,” with his father’s quiet funeral, is a distinctly downbeat moment, during a party no less, because we see a pained Luke struggling with everything he’s seen and experienced.
Luke Skywalker knows better than anyone the failings of the Jedi, because he lived them. To see him repeat the same mistakes of Yoda and Obi-Wan feels like a backstep. The man we watched Luke become and the man he is in “The Last Jedi” are out of sync. We missed what could have made him this way, and a few short lines of dialogue in which Luke explains a moment of weakness seems insufficient when set against three movies of character development.
The new “Star Wars” trilogy often seems overly concerned with “passing the torch” and “sending off old characters,” and in Luke’s case, it feels like that concern informs the need to hustle him to his grave. He has a moment with Yoda in which Luke learns how he might move past his failure as a teacher and a man, but the movie ends with Luke’s sacrifice, rather than a chance for him to apply the lesson. Luke never gets a real chance to come back from his stormy personal hell, even in his final moment of sacrifice.
At least, Luke’s ultra-pacifist battle with Kylo Ren is easily the most “Luke” moment in “The Last Jedi.” That Luke would choose sacrifice over killing, that he would engage in a lightsaber battle while never using his blade, and that the entire thing would actually be a colossal effort he knows going in will kill him — a last effort to save others — pays off everything we’ve ever seen of the character.
“The Last Jedi” gives Luke a hell of a send-off, but in some ways it’s a dissatisfying one. Despite having spent so much time with Luke, elements of “The Last Jedi” makes us feel like we didn’t really know the character. It’s a pity we’ll never see what more Luke and Rey could have learned from each other, and the ways their relationship could have reshaped “Star Wars” as a result.