Today is my 31st birthday, ad Star Wars has always been a part of my life. I don’t remember when I first watched it, other than I hadn’t started school yet, and it was probably something my mother used to entertain me while my dad worked late that night. And although Luke Skywalker was my favorite character, I never liked his final showdown with Vader and the Emperor. The battles on Endor and around the second Death Star were thrilling. Debating whether Vader still had any good left in him was not nearly as compelling for me. I’d often turn back to my action figures during those scenes before returning to Leia or Lando.
When I rewatched the series to prepare for The Force Awakens, it became instead my favorite of the three storylines. The Ewoks were less interesting, the space battles were still thrilling, but watching Luke and the Emperor wrestle for the soul of Vader was more interesting than either. And what I realised is that in order to save his father, Luke has to stop fighting and win peaceably.
That’s really remarkable, especially in blockbuster cinema. Most action movies are resolved by out-punching or out-shooting the villain. Luke turns Vader back to the Light Side by showing him mercy (the only other example I can think of is Captain America not fighting against Bucky in Winter Soldier). Amidst the wiz-bang fighting, there’s moments of peace and grace where Vader saves his son and then sees him with his own eyes for the first time. Does it redeem Vader from blowing up planets or killing younglings? In the mythic world of Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker is rewarding by becoming a Force ghost.
I loved how Rian Johnson continued Luke’s evolution away from violence. A misguided consideration of killing Ben Solo in sleep caused to exile himself, and even when he saves the day, Luke fights defensively, stalling for time for the fleeing Resistance but not killing anyone himself, even at the expense of his own life. I think what upset fans is that they wanted Luke to be the badass he became in the Expanded Universe, but that would have ignored his progression towards a monastic figure.
It’s no secret that George Lucas drew on Eastern religion and mythology to develop his conception of the Force, and Luke fits with those gurus and monks. He realized there is something larger than simply fighting and killing Vader. The aggressive Skywalker from Empire was humbled and tempered by his duel on Cloud City, and the man who appears at Jabba’s palace is clearly older, wiser, more in control.
It’s difficult to find something new to say about one of the biggest franchises in modern pop culture. So much of how we understand modern franchise films is through the the template it created. But I think this one aspect is often overlooked – that Lucas created a hero who wins by not fighting. Luke recognized his own weakness, and that killing Vader in anger would have continued the cycle of the Dark Side, so he broke it. I wish more blockbusters could end this thoughtfully.