Years ago, when the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 greatest movie heroes and villains, three Star Wars characters made the cut: Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. There is no disputing Darth Vader. He’s a pop culture icon. As a movie star, Harrison Ford is an icon, too – he also gave us Indiana Jones, the #2 hero on that list. And Sir Alec Guinness is just a legend, plain and simple.

So those are the winners of the high school popularity contest. Those are the Star Wars characters who show up in the senior superlatives section of the yearbook, boasting titles such as “Most Likely to Receive a Spin-Off.” But while I love Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and have been equally charmed by new characters like Rey and Finn, I would argue that there is an even greater Star Wars character, one who is — with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi — about to make his return on-screen as a speaking character for the first time in 34 years. That character is Luke Skywalker, the greatest hero that no one seems to give the time of day.

It seems strange that the hero of a trilogy should in some ways be relegated to the status of an unsung hero. Considering how well he is able to emote with a two-foot puppet as his only scene partner, Mark Hamill does not get enough credit as an actor. The conventional wisdom, based largely on A New Hope, is that his character is somehow less cool, even perhaps annoying at times. But if you trace his evolution through the original three Star Wars movies, his character undergoes the most interesting arc, maturing from a whiny teenager to the galaxy’ s ultimate bad ass warrior.

As a dreamer staring off into the binary sunset, Luke Skywalker contains multitudes. He is the young George Lucas. He is a whole generation of kids. So break out your action figures, and let’s talk about Luke. There are no The Last Jedi spoilers here.


How Luke Rises Above Wooden Whines to Instill A New Hope

With George Lucas handling the directing duties and also serving as sole screenwriter, the first Star Wars film, retroactively called A New Hope, had a purity of vision to it that none of its sequels can claim. This is not always a good thing. Lucas once proclaimed himself “the King of Wooden Dialogue.” By his own admission, then, dialogue was never his strength.

Harrison Ford is well-known for saying, “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it,” and Mark Hamill is also said to have wrestled with his lines, complaining, “People don’t talk like this!” To this day, Hamill still pokes fun at how Lucas’s scripts posed an acting challenge with the way he autographs select Star Wars trading cards. With fewer New Hollywood peers in his orbit circa the late 1990s (no more Brian De Palma, for instance, to help critique and rewrite the opening crawl), Lucas’s tin ear for dialogue would only become more pronounced in the prequel trilogy, as new actors were given the thankless task of performing leaden lines against blue-screen backgrounds.

Just to be clear, A New Hope is one of the greatest movies of all time. But if it could be said to have any major weakness, it is that some of its dialogue does not sound entirely convincing coming from its trio of young stars. Even Ford, who would go on to great things with Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, and The Fugitive, falls into a kind of cynical posturing with Han Solo at times. Older, more experienced actors like Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing are able to elevate the material, bending the dialogue to their mouths, so that it sounds natural, even profound. But for their part, Hamill, Ford, and the late Carrie Fisher had something of an obstacle to overcome in terms of an intermittently clunky script that was nonetheless nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 50th Academy Awards.

Whereas Obi-Wan Kenobi moves through the Death Star in a graceful fashion, a paragon of elegance in his robes, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia are caught up in a cheesier flick, running around on this space station, bickering and cracking wise. You can really see the combination of influences here: Obi-Wan is the samurai, a holdover from the influence of Japanese cinema on George Lucas, while the other characters are off on a different zigzag, one which betrays the story’s Flash Gordon roots.

At this point in the Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker is approximately 19 years old. When we first meet him, before the Death Star is a twinkle in any Millennium Falcon passenger’s eye, Luke is stuck on a moisture farm in the middle of the desert. As his uncle assigns him Droid-related chores, his voice strikes a petulant note, offering up the infamous line of protest: “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”

YouTubers have compiled supercuts demonstrating how “all Luke does is bitch and moan.” In a weird way, the 19-year-old Luke almost reminds me of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. If you compare their voices, they are on a similar wavelength of whines. Both are caricatures of a kind. But the whininess arguably suits Luke’s character as an immature teen, one whose go-nowhere farm life seems to be epitomized by the gripe, “It just isn’t fair!”

This bratty quality seems to be hardwired into the Skywalker DNA, with Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker taking it to the extreme. (“It’s unfair! How can you be on the Council and not be a master?”) Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren shares the same family trait in The Force Awakens, but by then it has become a punchline, with the character throwing temper tantrums to comedic effect, sending Stormtroopers turning on their heels as he regularly destroys First Order property with his lightsaber.

Compared to his father and nephew, Luke Skywalker bears a much nobler spirit. There are moments, even within the same scene sometimes, when Luke goes from sounding annoying and whiny to sounding all too believable and human. Trapped in boring circumstances on his home planet of Tatooine, he tells C-3PO, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” In that moment, you really feel for him. Then he attempts to use the droids as a bargaining chip with his uncle, and you can see that he just wants to get off this farm, and go somewhere and do something with his life. Rather like the young George Lucas, longing to be a race-car driver in his hometown of Modesto, California.

That is what makes Luke’s arc the most compelling, even in the initial stages. Because soon he gets the call to adventure with Obi-Wan, and this sends him off on a series of daring exploits whereby he finds himself swinging across chasms, saving a princess, and being the pilot who fires the shot that destroys the Death Star. For the inner child, it is exhilarating to project oneself onto Luke.

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