Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What 'The Last Jedi' ACTUALLY Got Wrong About Luke Skywalker – Part One

There’s no denying that The Last Jedi was a controversial film. And perhaps the most controversial aspect was its portrayal of a fallen Luke Skywalker. The reception of his portrayal has been extremely polarized with some calling it a travesty and others declaring it a beautiful and realistic story of a hero’s fall and redemption. While I think the majority of reactions have been extreme, my opinion was that Rian Johnson ultimately did not achieve what he was hoping for. I’m here to tell you why, and my reasoning might not be what you expect. 

Before we begin, I want to emphasize that I don’t hate the film, I certainly don’t hate Rian Johnson or anyone else involved with making the film, and I do not at all condone the harassment that has been thrown their way. And for fans of The Last Jedi: I do not want to take away your love of the film. If you enjoy it, you have every right to do so. I love seeing people’s passion for media regardless of whether or not I agree on the film’s quality. My only intention is to answer the question, “Why did the portrayal of Luke in The Last Jedi disappoint so many people?” Are Star Wars fans just overly rabid? Can they simply not accept their hero has flaws? Or is there some way we could have had a fallen Luke that would have been better received? Spoiler warning for all Star Wars movies, as well as the novels Bloodline and The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

I want to start off by tackling the question most frequently brought up by fans of the film: are those disappointed by the film simply not able to admit that their hero makes enormous mistakes just like everyone else? Is it simply impossible to write Luke falling from grace without backlash? I believe the answer to this question is no. And for proof, I turn to a fairly recent canon Star Wars novel called Bloodline, written by Claudia Gray. 

Bloodline is a bleak story featuring a deeply flawed Leia Organa. Gone is the young woman with the fiery determination and hope. Gone is the Leia excited to jump into the political universe and bring huge, positive change to the galaxy. Instead, we meet a Leia who is older and…tired. Jaded. A Leia who would rather abandon the people who count on her than continue the fight for change. A Leia who only follows through with her political duties because she’s forced into it. And even the few genuine attempts toward positive change she does make are met with failure. A vein of disappointed hopes runs through the story. Leia struggles with PTSD due to being tortured by her father years ago. Her marriage is slowly dissipating. Her son is falling to the dark side. An old friend of hers is dying. A new friend will soon be led to execution. And her darkest secret is revealed to all the galaxy, leading to her disgrace. The First Order is rising. By the end, Leia tries to gather up what little strength she has left so she can weather the oncoming storm, but the attempt feels more like a gasp than a battle cry. In many ways, the novel’s portrayal of her is even darker and more difficult than Luke’s fall from grace. And though the portrayal is sympathetic, there isn’t much in the way of shining redemption moments like Luke got at the end of The Last Jedi. If Star Wars fans simply can’t accept seeing disgraced versions of their heroes, you’d think the release of this book would have been met with revolt. 

It wasn’t. 

Instead, it became a New York Times bestseller. Star Wars fans embraced Bloodline, particularly praising Claudia Gray’s depiction of Leia, calling it one of the most accurate depictions of her character seen in a novel. Sure, she made mistakes, and it was difficult seeing her in such a dark place in her life. But none of that mattered because it felt honest. So, if Star Wars fans just can’t accept the idea of Luke having flaws, why were they so receptive to seeing them in Leia? Sure, you could blame it on sexism. But I've seen many women who cherish Leia as a strong, feminist icon love her portrayal in Bloodline yet still hate Luke's portrayal in TLJ. There’s obviously more going on here. 

When it comes to writing stories, it’s not what you do but how you do it. A talented writer can make any character do almost anything and still get the audience to accept it. I think it is absolutely possible to write a believable story where Luke has fallen from grace (and for the record, that’s something I would have loved to see. As a long time fan of villains, anti-villains, and anti-heroes, I don’t need my favorite character to be a perfect golden boy). Unfortunately, Rian Johnson failed in swaying a good portion of his audience, and I think I can explain why. But before we can jump into The Last Jedi, I must first give a bit of context by delving into three different aspects of Luke’s character: his personality, his thematic role in the story, and his overall character arc. 

Luke’s Personality:

So, what do we know about Luke Skywalker, based on his portrayal in the original trilogy? Well, we know that he’s adventurous and ready to take on the world. We know he has an old-fashioned, boy-next-door vibe going on – you know, the kind of guy who says corny stuff like “Golly” or “Gee whiz,” as if he’s straight out of Leave It To Beaver. We know that he will always choose to rescue his friends when he can. And we know that he values life and would rather redeem a villain than kill one – especially if said villain is family. He is, in general, a good guy who wants to make the universe a better place. 

That being said, he is definitely not free of faults. He has a habit of neglecting work at home so he can drive off to Tosche Station (even though the people there don’t even like him, according to the official novelization of A New Hope), showing he’s extremely extroverted. Not that there’s anything wrong with being an extrovert. But he seems to become restless, needy, and often selfish whenever he’s forced to be away from people for any extended period of time. He’s often whiny and sulky. He’s immature and plays with toy ships like a boy half his age. And I’m sure we’re all familiar with the moment he aimed his lightsaber straight at his face. In other words, he’s not always the brightest bulb in the box. He’s curious at all the wrong times. His “adventurous spirit” is more a nervous energy than it is courage. Even his sense of humor typically stems from a passive-aggressive, faux naïveté that allows him to ignore people who are cross with him. Take for example this passage from the canon novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker, where Luke and a scientist companion are sailing through a stomach-acid lake after being swallowed by an enormous beast:

     “I’m getting used to the smells,” said Luke. “Wonder if we can tell if something is edible by our noses…I really wish I knew more about biology…Maybe you could give me some lessons as long as we’re in here.”     I wanted to scream at him to shut up. His relentless patter was driving me crazy. We were going to die, and he was talking about eating and biology lessons!     “You should stop the raft here, and I’ll just roll into the lake,” I said. My voice sounded dull, already dead. “Would be quicker to go that way rather than waiting to starve slowly after days of wandering around in this place.”     “Sure,” Luke’s voice was calm, as if my suggestion was perfectly reasonable. “But you should probably strip off your suit first. I’m not sure that the synthetic materials would be healthy for our host. Might give it indigestion.”      I was outraged at this suggestion.

As much as I love Luke, I have to admit it requires a lot of patience to deal with him. 

But out of all Luke’s qualities, the one I want to emphasize is one that is often idealized: his tendency to “never give up!” Whenever a problem arises, Luke is right there, giving his all to try to remedy the situation. Most fans assume this relentless drive comes from a place of hope and positivity. But if you really pay attention to his reactions and motivations, it paints a much different picture. When Han is unsure about their offer in the cantina, Luke immediately jumps in to save the day…by arguing with Han and almost losing them the deal. When danger appears after they board the Millenium Falcon, Luke steps forward – What’s that flashing?” he cries, pushing random buttons he knows nothing about, which could potentially crash the ship. Obi Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel and Luke steps up to avenge him…ignoring the desperate cries of his friends and delaying their escape. Luke prepares for danger by arming himself…before entering a cave made to test him, after Yoda explicitly told him not to bring a weapon. Luke hurries to rescue his friends…even though Yoda warns him this is the last thing his friends want him to do and that it could lead him to the dark side. When Vader threatens to kill Luke’s sister, Luke comes to her rescue…by giving away his hiding spot and attempting to kill Vader – even though Luke’s goal is actually to keep his father alive and redeem him. In the original Star Wars novelization, there’s even a scene where Luke almost runs over an old woman with his landspeeder. He sees her there but doesn’t bother slowing down – after all, he’s got places to go and nothing’s going to get in his way! 

It’s true that Luke is driven by action and that he never stops moving in the face of danger. But how often does it actually feel like a positive thing?

People seem to assume the original trilogy shows Luke at his healthiest – that this is how he reacts when things are going his way and he’s the hero – while TLJ shows, for the first time, how he reacts to real trauma. What they forget is that, in the original trilogy, Luke is already deeply traumatized. Think of what he goes through over the course of the films: his home is destroyed, he finds the charred bodies of his family members, he’s immediately thrust into a dangerous world he knows little about, the fate of the galaxy rests on his shoulders even though he has little experience or knowledge of how to handle such a huge responsibility, he and everyone he cares about are in constant danger, his mentor dies in front of him, his best friend dies beside him in battle, he loses a hand, and the father he’s idolized for years – the man who is the very reason Luke wanted to become a Jedi in the first place – turns out to be the force of evil he’s been fighting all this time. Yeah, Luke is no stranger to trauma in the original trilogy. As it turns out, “never giving up!” (even when he really should give up and let someone more experienced handle it) is how he responds to trauma

People react to trauma differently depending on what kind of personality they have. It’s true there are some people who respond by withdrawing. But there are others who react in the opposite way, through action – transforming into workaholics, becoming impulsive and restless, leaping before they look, and overwhelming themselves (and those around them) with their need to constantly get out there and “make the situation better” (even though it usually ends up making it worse). Saying this tendency comes from a “positive attitude” is like saying a person who struggles with OCD is just “neat, organized, and conscientious” or that a person with an eating disorder is just “trying their best to stay fit.” It’s not a positive thing. It’s a reaction to anxiety and trauma. For this reason, we shouldn’t be saying “Luke would never make huge mistakes because he never gives up!” We should be saying “Luke will definitely make huge mistakes because he never gives up – and that’s his problem.” 

Luke’s Thematic Role:

Protagonists tend to fall into one of two categories. There’s the static hero with a flat arc. These are the kind of characters that already believe in the main moral or theme the filmmaker is trying to convey. By the end of the story, they bring change to the world around them rather than changing themselves. Then there’s the “unlikely hero” with a dynamic arc. These characters don’t yet believe the main theme the filmmaker wants to convey (in fact, they often believe the opposite) and the story conveys their journey toward the truth. 

So, what kind of character is Luke Skywalker? To determine this, we must first figure out what the overall theme was that George Lucas was trying to convey. Many assume the theme of Star Wars, like most adventure fantasies, is just to go out and do your best to save the world. Under this interpretation, Luke would be a static character. He already believes at the beginning that the right thing to do is go out and save the universe, help his friends, and redeem his father. And by the end of this film, he’s done all those things. So he’s a static hero with a flat arc, right? 

Wrong. While the story does condone doing good in the universe, the way in which you try to achieve that good is even more important. Star Wars is ultimately a conflict between acting vs. standing still, passion vs. peace. And in a story about jumping in vs. letting go, the narrative is decidedly on the side of letting go – letting go of fear and anger, letting go of need, letting go of attachments, and learning to accept loss. We see this illustrated very clearly in Anakin’s story. Anakin is a person of passion, fiercely protective of those he cares about. There’s no length he won’t go to save someone he loves. All of this might sound great to us, but in the context of the Star Wars universe, they are considered flaws. This is why the Jedi Council was distrustful of Anakin as a child when they sensed he missed his mother, why Yoda urged adult Anakin to just let go of Padme rather than try to save her, and why Anakin’s frequent attempts to help those he cared about ultimately led to his downfall. 

Luke’s story in the original trilogy is essentially a retelling of his father’s story but with a happy ending. Luke, much like his father, is a person of passion who will do anything to save his friends (including, to Yoda’s disappointment, abandoning his training). He’s an unlikely hero whose trauma has made him restless and easily attached to others, living in a world where restlessness and attachment are pathways to evil. This is why Yoda and Obi-Wan have so little faith in him and start placing hope in Leia instead (“No, there is another”). Luke wants to redeem his father, but before he can do so, he needs to prove that he is not like his father – that he would not fall to the dark side for the sake of rescuing people as Anakin did with Padme. The ultimate purpose of his story is to learn that jumping in isn’t always the right choice when people are in danger, even when those in danger are people he cares about. This is why he almost loses when he fights Darth Vader over a threat to his sister. This is why he wins when he throws his lightsaber aside, choosing not to fight. For Luke, learning to hold back and embrace inaction is ultimately the path to heroism. 

Luke’s Character Arc:

Now that we know what type of character Luke is and what lesson he’s supposed to learn, it’s important to figure out where he is in his character arc at the end of Episode VI. Some might assume that since it was meant to be the last story in Lucas’s original trilogy, he’s at the end of his arc. But I would argue that’s not the case; instead, Episode VI leaves Luke’s arc in a place that’s ripe for a sequel trilogy, regardless of whether or not Lucas planned to make that trilogy himself. 

All dynamic character arcs, regardless of who’s writing them, follow a certain roadmap. Even among creators who dislike formulas in general, you’ll find this is a formula that’s been pretty universally embraced to ensure good pacing and realism (after all, when writing a character who learns to embrace a quality he’s always hated, you don’t want him to fully embrace it so quickly it feels unnatural or so slowly that his struggle becomes stale). This is a formula that you will find in any professional writing course, and it goes something like this: 

• Introduction to the protagonist, their normal world, and the lie they believe (though it may not have the chance to really come to the surface yet). 
In Episode IV, we’re introduced to Luke and see how he lives before he’s whisked away on his adventure through the stars. At this point he already believes a lie – that action is always the answer when people he loves are in trouble – but he’s never really had the opportunity to think much about that. His normal world is far too uneventful for his beliefs to have been tested yet. 

• The protagonist’s normal world is shaken up and, in the ensuing chaos, the lie the protagonist believes becomes more apparent to the viewer. 
Once Luke is placed in dangerous situations, we start to see what kind of person he is. Specifically, that he leaps before he looks and acts when he should stay still. 

• The lie the protagonist believes hinders them from growing into the hero they’re meant to become, causing them to need help from an outside source. 
Although Luke has good instincts, his tendency to always jump in doesn’t mesh well with the Jedi philosophy of peace before passion. There’s much about the Jedi ways he has yet to learn. So, in Episode V, Luke goes in search of Yoda. 

• The protagonist is finally shown the truth that flies in the face of the lie they believe…and they reject it. 
Yoda tries to teach Luke Jedi principles concerning peace and inaction, but Luke trusts his own instincts more than his teacher. At one point he openly rebels against Yoda when, after he’s told to go unarmed into a mystical cave, he chooses instead to bring a weapon so he has the power to act if any danger arrives. In the cave, he’s confronted with the image of himself going the same path as Darth Vader. But even this does little to sway Luke to Yoda’s mindset.  

• The protagonist’s continuous rebellion against the truth leads them to disaster. 
When Luke senses danger, Yoda advises him to leave his friends to fate. But Luke instead abandons his training to rescue them. This leads to him walking into a trap, facing Vader before he’s ready and losing an arm. 

• Forced to accept the fact that their way isn’t working, the protagonist admits the truth has some merit to it. They accept the truth – but only part of it, and only on their own terms. Their partial acceptance leads to reward. But they still have a long way to go. 
After his recovery, Luke devotes himself more seriously to learning the Jedi way. He gains some self-control and learns how to act calm and peaceful (on the outside at least). He is not, however, at a point where he’s at peace with whatever fate the Force has in store, as a Jedi is meant to be. He would not, for example, be at peace with the idea of Darth Vader dying unredeemed. In fact, Luke embraces these Jedi teachings merely to use them as a tool to achieve his original goal – to remain in control, to have the power to influence fate and save people he’s attached to, such as his friends and, more importantly, his father. During a confrontation with the big baddie, Luke recognizes the Emperor’s attempt to use his emotion against him. He throws his weapon aside to ensure he stays on the good path. Luke is rewarded with the redemption of his father, who then defeats the Emperor. Luke, however, is still fixated on hanging on to people he’s attached to, to the point that he almost willingly dies unnecessarily on the doomed spaceship just to spend a few more minutes with his dying father. He’s embraced enough Jedi teachings to get what he wants but not necessarily enough to always be at peace with what the Force wants. This is where the original trilogy leaves him. 

• The protagonist attempts to live life embracing both the truth and the lie, essentially trying to have their cake and eat it. 

• The protagonist’s plan to have the best of both worlds does not go as planned, and circumstances ultimately force them to choose. If they choose the truth, they become whole and the story ends happily. If they choose the lie, it ends in disaster. 

• (optional) If the protagonist chose the lie, bringing disaster upon himself, this is the part where he picks up the pieces and finally embraces the truth…or stubbornly clings to the lie and wallows in self-pity. Either way, this is the final scene for character arcs with bittersweet or tragic endings. 

As we can see, the original trilogy does not end Luke’s character arc. Though it does leave it in a place that’s good enough for a satisfying ending for one trilogy, the pieces are in place for another. There’s still plenty of room for an interesting story involving Luke, and we can see exactly what path that story should travel. The only question remains is: have the new filmmakers taken the time to carefully study Luke’s character? Do they understand his personality, themes, journey so far, and where his journey should go from here? Or do they simply view him as a good heroic guy who is, otherwise, a blank slate with whom they can do whatever they please? 

Despite my dislike of their portrayal of Luke in The Last Jedi, I would argue the filmmakers had a complete understanding of his character, themes, and arc. And the reason I believe this is the promotional material they released for the film. In order to create a full multimedia experience (*coughMakePeopleBuyMoreMerchcough*), all Star Wars writers – from those who write the new books to those who create the films – worked very closely together so that the new EU could become “required reading,” setting the stage for the films as well as filling in the gaps those new films would leave. To set the stage for Episode VIII, they released The Legends of Luke Skywalker, which tells what happened to Luke between Episode VI and his fateful incident with Kylo. 

The Legends of Luke Skywalker shows us a Luke much closer to the man we meet in The Last Jedi. He’s older, bearded, but he still has his intense, youthful energy and desire to rescue others. In fact, the story emphasizes that jumping in to help rather than standing still is his main weakness, and one he still has little mastery over. He still sees inactivity – and even the Force itself – as a tool to get what he wants rather than an end in itself. His main goal is still to act, to help, to be in control of every situation, with the Force boosting his ability to get things done. Of course, this attempt to have the best of both worlds isn’t helping him fully grasp the Jedi way, and he travels to a remote island to seek counsel from the inhabitants there. The inhabitants, according to legend, possess rare knowledge of how the Force (or, as they call it, the Tide) works. The advice they give, however, is not what Luke expects (or wants to hear): 

 [Luke said,] “Some have turned to the dark side of the Force and wish to drown the galaxy in a rising tide of suffering. It is up to those of us with knowledge of the Force to stop them, to restore balance. But the deaths of the Jedi have caused much knowledge about the Force to be forgotten, and that is why I seek your knowledge, so we can defeat the dark side.”     “I’ve already told you: there is no ‘light side’ or ‘dark side,’” said the elder. “The Tide is beyond the power of anyone or any group. It is those who seek to master it, to control it – whatever excuse they make up for themselves – who bring suffering. Our knowledge is not to be shared.”     “Knowledge can be used for good or ill,” [said Luke.] “I study the Force not to gain power but to bring balance and justice back to the galaxy. You’re pacifists, but evil must be confronted, and you can help. My teacher’s last words to me were, ‘Pass on what you have learned.’ It’s a duty.”     The elder sighed. “We will never convince each other.”     […] “Then why teach your children about the Tide at all? Why not let the knowledge sink into the abyss of oblivion?”     “We don’t teach anyone about the Tide until they have proven themselves to be free from the desire to master it.”

     She could tell that by reaching out into the strands of the Tide, [Luke] was channeling and shaping the Tide‘s currents and tributaries to accomplish these feats. His ability to manipulate the Tide in this way both fascinated and horrified her…“Why do you not trust in the Tide?” asked Aya. “Why do you always try to use it?”     “I don’t understand,” [said Luke.] “How can I accomplish what I need to do without calling on the Force’s help?”     I’ve never seen anyone so sensitive to the Tide,” said Aya. “I don’t think even Grandmother is your match. But you stand apart from the Tide. You don’t let yourself be immersed in it.”     “The Force is my ally.”     Aya shook her head, frustrated. “That’s not what I mean. You can’t let go. You want to be in control. But you must trust in the Tide; you must let it uplift you and push you where it already knows you must go.”

To see if he’s worthy of their knowledge, the island’s inhabitants put Luke through a series of tests. Though he does learn a lesson in patience during one of them, he “wins” the rest of the tests by, essentially, cheating – doing things his own way so he can accomplish each mission while still maintaining his own beliefs on how the Force should be used. In the end, Luke decides he doesn’t need the tribe’s knowledge after all, as he believes the lesson in patience is enough. Luke leaves the island with a reinforced belief that action and jumping in to help is almost always the answer, though having the patience to wait for just the right moment to act can be a useful tool to achieve his ends.  

Luke has always been, without realizing it, something of an anti-Jedi. He follows the Jedi religion not because he agrees with its philosophies, but because he grew up believing his father – someone he looked up to as a hero – was a Jedi. And he never stands still and thinks about it long enough to realize his personal philosophies conflict with theirs more often than not. Luke simply takes for granted the idea that surely they must believe as he does, since they are good, and his beliefs are good too, right? But one day he will have to take a good look at his ideals and the religion he claims to follow and confront the reality that they contradict. And then he will need to finally decide who he really wants to be. From The Legends of Luke Skywalker, we can see that the filmmakers understand all this. Not only do the filmmakers understand it, they’re using it in their marketing to show that this is where The Last Jedi is going to go. 

But is that where it went? That’s what we’ll figure out in Part 2 of this article series. Join me here next week to continue! And feel free to leave your thoughts so far in the comments below! 


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