SPOILERS! If you haven't seen The Last Jedi yet, you should do that. It's been a few weeks. The crowds have probably died down. Don't read this before you've seen it though. It'll ruin a lot. Go see the film then please come back and read my humble musings. May the Force be with you!
Since the end of the classic trilogy, fans have looked to one moment more than any other as the quintessential Luke Skywalker moment: when he throws his lightsaber away and declares himself a Jedi. We fanboy and fangirl out about how brave (and possibly foolish) this was. We talk about how this act and Luke’s compassion led to Anakin’s deathbed return to the light. Much more than his miraculous Death Star shot, this moment encapsulates who Luke is for many people. It’s weird then that in the weeks following the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi there has been a massive backlash against the film and its treatment of Luke, especially since so many parts of Luke’s character in the film seem to come from this beloved, classic trilogy moment.
From the beginning of Luke’s appearance in The Last Jedi, he subverts some fan expectations by committing the same act he did on the second Death Star. He throws away his lightsaber and refuses to fight. Later on in the film, we even see that Luke’s green lightsaber lies discarded on a hill acting more as a porg hazard than as a weapon. While the action of throwing away his lightsaber is the same, fan reaction has been drastically different. Some fans have called for The Last Jedi to be stricken from canon because (in addition to some other things) they feel like Rian Johnson and crew failed in their characterization of Luke. If the basic action of throwing down his weapon and refusing to fight is the same, why do some fans have such a vitriolic reaction to The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke?
Let’s take it back to the Emperor’s throne room for a second. In a scene that is also referenced in The Last Jedi, Palpatine taunts Luke with the potential destruction of both his friends and the Rebel fleet. After a brief moment’s hesitation, Luke pulls his lightsaber to him and attempts to end the Emperor with an over the shoulder strike that’s always stuck in my mind. What’s Palpatine’s reaction? Oh, he just laughs what may just be the creepiest, most chilling laugh in cinematic history as Vader blocks Luke’s strike and the battle of Skywalkers begins.
Jumping back to The Last Jedi and what may be the most controversial Luke scene in the film (aside from the one showing his intense love for green milk), Luke ignites his green lightsaber and contemplates ending the life of his nephew while he sleeps. While Luke’s version of this moment differs (and we’ll get to that in a second), Ben Solo’s recollection of it features a mad-eyed Luke demonstrating a pretty distinctive move: an over the shoulder strike that looks pretty similar to the one seen in Return of the Jedi. While there could be many out of universe explanations for why it looks similar, Rian Johnson’s a big enough Star Wars fan that I have to believe he knew it looked similar and chose that shot purposefully.
While Kylo’s memory is clearly faulty and has been embellished by his hate for Skywalker, Ben’s right in one way: like in the Emperor’s throne room, this moment in Ben’s room was a moment where Luke walked dangerously close to the Dark Side of the Force. He considered playing thought police and killing his nephew for the potential evil within him. You can almost hear Palpatine’s tortured spirit prepping a cackle as he waits to see if Luke will strike down his nephew because if he does, his “journey to the Dark Side will be complete.”
Luke’s recollection of the same moment has similar connections to his throne room drama from Return of the Jedi. After his father threatens that he may have to attempt to turn Leia if Luke will not come to the darkness, Luke loses it. His body becomes a conduit for his anger as he viciously hacks and slashes at Vader. Luke strikes again and again eventually cutting off Vader’s hand. As the Emperor continues his laughter (talk about a twisted sense of humor), he tells Luke to strike his father down and take his place at his side. In response, Luke looks at his father’s missing mechanical hand before looking down at his own. He throws his lightsaber away. Like in the cave on Dagobah, Luke has looked into the dark mirror, seen himself, and pulled back.
When Luke tells Rey what happened during that shameful night in Ben’s bedroom, there’s a moment where he describes his struggle. As Luke once again finds himself on the precipice of the darkness, Rian Johnson gives us a point of view shot of Luke looking at his hand holding his ignited lightsaber. I’m not sure if its his mechanical hand, but the fact that Johnson chose that specific shot and action makes a clear connection between these two moments. In that passing moment of weakness to the darkness, Luke looks to his hand and remembers another time when he had the chance to kill a family member whose future may have held darkness. He refused to kill his father then, and he refused to kill his nephew, too; unfortunately, a scared, young Ben looked up, reacted in fear, and started his journey to the darkness that night. Luke pulled back from the darkness, but he did it too late, and it had devastating consequences.
Given all the explicit connections Rian Johnson gave us between Luke’s refusal to kill his father on the second Death Star and his actions in The Last Jedi, I don’t think Luke’s end in The Last Jedi could have been better. He confronts Kylo Ren on Crait, but where Ren’s Dark Side saturated brain could only imagine conflict, Luke has imagined peace. He refused to attack Ben. He would not strike down his nephew. He was never even there. His lightsaber would remain in the grass of Ahch-To because a Jedi’s way is to use the Force for “knowledge and defense, never for attack.” Luke defended and inspired the galaxy using what he’d learned throughout a flawed life well lived. He made mistakes. He was like us in that way. He’s a more relatable hero for it. He saw that a Jedi was not meant to be a warrior with a laser sword. A Jedi was meant to use the Force to protect others, and he did just that when he protected Leia and the other few remaining members of the Resistance using only the Force and the knowledge gained from his mistakes. As the twin suns of Ahch-To set just like those of Tatooine so long ago, I can think of no better end for Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master.
Want to have a respectful conversation about the ideas in this article? Reach out to me through Twitter at @mapplebee7567!