It's been four years since Rian Johnson's Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi was released, and split the Star Wars fandom in two. Rian's feature is quite possibly the most polarizing entry in the franchise. A film that fans either loved or loathed. Some liked the bold choices he made with the characters and direction of the story, while many others felt betrayed by Rian's depiction of Luke Skywalker. Some might even argue that our hero is out of character in the film. But now that we have the complete picture (ie; the addition of Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker, a prequel comic about Kylo Ren, and The Mandalorian), it's important to look back at this polarizing film within the new context in which it exists.
Star Wars has always worked backward to fill in gaps. Once Episode IV - A New Hope mentioned the Clone Wars and Obi-Wan's involvement in them, George knew that was going to be the central conflict of the next trilogy. He created a backstory, and then years later filled it in.
The prequels received... mixed reviews to say the least. Upon release, each of the films received more negative reviews than positive from critics and audiences alike (with the exception being Episode III - Revenge of the Sith). Fans felt betrayed by the new films; disliking the lack of character, hollow acting, digital effects, and childish humor. In fact, many fans responded to Episode I - The Phantom Menace in a strikingly similar to the way modern fans reacted to The Last Jedi. Don't believe me? Check out this video that looks at actual internet forums and critic reviews of the time.
So Lucas created Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated television series, to address many concerns about character development and fill in (the many) plot holes left in his prequel trilogy. The show is fantastic and goes a long way to creating nuanced and well crafted characters. Viewing the prequel films in tandem with the series is now imperative to fully experiencing the impact of the Clone Wars and Anakin's fall to the Dark Side. So yet again, Lucas is moving backward to fill in gaps in his story.
The same goes for the sequel trilogy. When we look back at the films with the complete story in view, we can see where things connect and link into one another. Before you say it, I am completely aware that this sequel trilogy was not written like the prequels. Lucas had a complete plan in place and knew every beat of the overall story before he did anything. He had a bird's eye view of everything. This was an asset to him, but also a detriment; because certain important plot points were not addressed until years later in The Clone Wars. He left holes to fill in later.
The sequels in comparison, were not fully planned in advance. Instead, they opted to use a more traditional franchise writing style, with each film building off the previous; addressing plot points left over, and then telling their own story. The good news is that both Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams picked up the right story threads and were able to link together dialogue, character motivation, and even thematic shot choices. Watching the sequel trilogy as a complete story is now a completely different experience than watching each film as they came out, a year apart from one another.
So, with all that said, how does Rian's darker depiction of Luke stand up within the overall context of the Skywalker Saga?
In this humble writer's opinion, it was the correct move.
Rian Johnson was right in depicting a Luke who had truly lost in The Last Jedi. Not only is this the only side of his character that we had never seen before, but it makes this the most emotional return for him. Throughout the original six films, Luke never truly loses.
Think about that for a moment.
In the original trilogy, Luke never suffers a traditional "All is Lost" moment (the moment in a story when the character is at their lowest point and is about to give up). The closest he gets is arriving too late to save Han in The Empire Strikes Back (who is none-the-less rescued in Return of the Jedi). Even when Luke loses his hand in the duel to Vader, what he actually gains is a father because we see at the end of that movie and in the beginning of Return that his attitude towards Vader is one of hope that says “yes, he is my father and there is good in him. I can feel it, I can turn him”.
He’s like James T. Kirk (yeah I know Star Wars and Stark Trek are like oil and water, get over it) in Episodes IV-VI because he does not believe in a no-win situation. He is filled with hope. So how does someone who is filled with hope react to a truly devastating failure? I’ll tell you from personal experience, because I am exactly like that hopeful Luke: we go dark. Darker then usual. Because we spent all our energy on hope; so when it goes wrong, we have nothing left and we feel that all that hope was for nothing. This is why Yoda comes back in The Last Jedi to remind Luke that he never truly learned his lesson about failure, and how important learning from failure is to growing as a person.
That is what Kylo Ren is to Luke: his greatest failure.
When Luke made that singular decision (that one mistake) which affected everything since, he accomplished his greatest failure as a Jedi. The Kylo Ren prequel comic and dialogue in The Rise of Skywalker, adds context and reveals that Luke was aware that Palpatine had returned (which we see the beginnings of in The Mandalorian) and worked his way into Ben Solo’s mind. So think about that: this evil that Luke was destined to defeat, an evil which he rid his father of, has taken hold his own nephew. And he’s powerless to stop it. In fact, his one act of “power” made it infinitely worse.
Luke feels responsible for the creation of Kylo Ren. But not just that. He feels responsible for the creation of the new Vader, for the failure of not fully defeating Palpatine, for the destruction of everything he’s worked for since A New Hope, for the destruction of the new Jedi Order… everything. Luke destroyed it all with one singular mistake. So all he sees is failure because he never truly understood what failure was, and how to grow from it. Because he never gave up until now. That is why Yoda's return is so important and why this moment of realization is Luke’s greatest victory. Because he learns his lesson about failure.
This is why Luke’s characterization in The Last Jedi is so powerful. We’ve never seen Luke so low. But looking into his character in the original trilogy and comparing it to this darker take shows how we in our old age can still learn from mistakes and grow from them. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Luke all suffered terrible failures and went into hiding because of it. They all redeemed themselves by teaching the next generation to succeed where they failed. The only difference is because Luke had a personal stake in why things went bad, he took the extra step and personally helped the Resistance; which makes his redemption arc even stronger. Luke does learn his lesson, and redeems himself with one of the MOST Jedi acts ever put on screen.,
Check out some of his final lines of dialogue:
"Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong. The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi."
Those are the words of a man filled with hope again.
And then, in the The Rise of Skywalker, he returns in the Force to fully help the next generation. Just as his Master did before him.
Now THAT is a completed character arc.
The decision to show Luke at his lowest moment gives the character a much stronger emotional reason to return to the story, aside from a generic “leading the good guys to victory” arc. By doing this, Luke learns that he shouldn’t give up hope just because of a past failure. And we the audience learn the importance of learning from our own failures. And that is a powerful lesson to learn as we get older (maybe even more so).