Luke Skywalker vs. Han Solo: Who Wins the Fight? (Answer: Luke)

Again, I love Han Solo, but for the sake of argument, I think it’s also worth pointing out how Luke and Han are on alternate trajectories in the original Star Wars trilogy. At the beginning, Han is the cool kid, whereas Luke is every other kid who ever dreamed of adventure. Even in A New Hope, when his character sometimes grates on the nerves, Luke still serves as a refreshing contrast to Han, his wide-eyed optimism cutting through Han’s jaded, self-serving bull, like when he balks at the price Han demands for smuggling rebels, or when he chastises Han right as Han is about to take the money and run, abandoning the rebels in their hour of need.

It is interesting to note how Han’s character, the skeptical space pirate, verbally reduces the other characters in A New Hope to archetypal forms, more than once referring to Luke and Obi-Wan as “kid” and “old man,” as if to drive home the point of what this movie is – a fairy tale populated by stock characters. Perhaps that is why so many people latch onto Han as the coolest character, because he functions as another kind of surrogate for the audience, deconstructing and disbelieving, until finally, he becomes a believer, too.

By the end of the trilogy, Han has lost his edge. The Solo who goes into that carbon-freezing chamber in The Empire Strikes Back is not the same one who comes out in Return of the Jedi. You could argue that his romance with Leia and the experience of being frozen in carbonite mellowed him out, but whatever the case, Han’s seen-it-all attitude gives way to a slightly neutered, dopier version of the character, prone to long, adoring looks at Lando Calrissian. When not functioning as a source of comic relief, Han remains clueless about the true nature of Luke and Leia’s relationship. He also shows an ignorance of Luke’s abilities, dismissing the intimations of Luke’s Force sense as him being “jittery.”

Luke, on the other hand, has come into his own as an almost fully formed Jedi. In The Empire Strikes Back, we still see glimpses of his old restless self, the impatient farmboy. On a swamp planet, he enters the mud hovel of a wizened green gnome. It turns out this gnome (for all intents and purposes, a Muppet, brought to life by Frank Oz, the voice of Miss Piggy and numerous others) is oh-so-much more than he seems. Revealed as Yoda, the legendary Jedi master, he calls Luke out on his failings, telling him that “all his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon, never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.”

Training with Yoda is the first step toward Luke becoming a mature figure. The second comes after his impetuous decision to race to Cloud City leads him into a trap, where he ends up squaring off against Darth Vader. The movie reaches the height of all despair with the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father, at which point a despondent Luke literally flings himself into the abyss of the city’s central air shaft.


The Luke that we see in Return of the Jedi has grown more hardened and zen-like from the trauma of this experience. Confident in his abilities, dressed in all-black and sporting a cybernetic hand, he’s like some space-fantasy version of Toshiro Mifune’s character in Yojimbo. The honorable ronin comes wandering into Jabba the Hutt’s palace under a hood; once unhooded, he kills the Rancor and leaves Jabba’s sail barge exploding over the sand dunes as he flies off in his X-wing to embark on other space-faring adventures.

In the same way that a person might eventually come to have their trust in authority figures shaken once they grow up and realize how flawed adults really are, Luke must next come to terms with Obi-Wan’s white lie, that “certain point of view” BS he spouts as a justification for not revealing Luke’s true parentage to him (though of course, this may have just been a clever retcon designed to tie up loose script ends, similar to the retcon of making Leia Luke’s sister). With Master Yoda having faded into nothingness, Luke is now the last Jedi. In this guise, he goes to face the combined might of Vader and the Emperor on his own, embarking on a final pacifist suicide mission of sorts. Yet the Force is strong with Luke. He carries an inherent goodness with him, and in the end, however precariously, he does prove up to the task.

The ascension of Luke is sort of a meta-commentary on how geeks have inherited the Earth. If Luke can be seen, in some sense, as the young George Lucas, then by Return of the Jedi, Lucas had outgrown his mentors to become a self-made millionaire (later a billionaire). One of those mentors was Francis Ford Coppola, who took Lucas under his wing, only to wind up later being eclipsed by him. In the 1970s, a string of four cinematic achievements, The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather, Part II, and Apocalypse Now, crowned Coppola king of the decade. During this time, when he was still at the top of his game, Coppola’s swagger is said to have inspired Han Solo’s personality. But if you look at the turn Coppola’s career took after Apocalypse Now — if you consider all the financial troubles he had in the years after — it is almost like he and Han Solo both followed the same track of peaking early.

In The Force Awakens, Solo reverts to roguish type as a debt-ridden space smuggler. Only now it is no longer cool because after all that happened, after all these years, Uncle Han doesn’t outwardly show any real growth in the way he’s living. That growth is there, of course, insofar as the guy who once said, “There’s no mystical energy field controls my destiny,” is now forced to confess, “It’s true, all of it. The Force, the Jedi. It’s all true.”

It took him over 30 years, however, to get to a place where he was able to say that. In Return of the Jedi, Han Solo still had a long way to go. He was literally fumbling around blind from carbon sickness as events of larger importance played out around him. It had gotten to the point where even Harrison Ford was no longer interested in the character and was begging for him to be killed off, so that the character could have some meaning in death (which is why it was not all that surprising when Han died in The Force Awakens, since that was probably the only way they could get Ford to sign back on for the role in the first place).

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