Luke Skywalker: Surrogate Self to a Generation of Dreamers

When I was younger, Return of the Jedi was always my favorite Star Wars movie. I thought the ending wrung great pathos out of Luke’s whole quest to redeem his father. Pre-Internet, pre-prequels, I could never understand why people compared it less favorably to the first two installments in the series. I have since come around to genuinely feel that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the franchise, if not the single greatest motion picture ever made. Yet I also realize that I am now viewing the Star Wars movies through the prism of adulthood.

I can read interviews with people involved in the making of the original trilogy. I can note the departure of key collaborators Marcia Lucas and Gary Kurtz, and how that might have adversely affected Return of the Jedi’s plot, particularly the part at the end involving an assault on “a new armored space station, even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star.” To be sure, the decision to end the trilogy this way had long-ranging implications, inasmuch as The Force Awakens recapitulated the same idea yet again with its derivative assault on the “thermal oscillator” of Starkiller Base, a.k.a. Even Bigger Death Star.

In a 2010 interview with Hero Complex, the pop culture arm of The Los Angeles Times, Gary Kurtz had this to say about the ending of Return of the Jedi:

We had an outline and George changed everything in it. Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.

When I read quotes like this, I wonder what it would have been like if Return of the Jedi had given us “a more emotionally nuanced finale” to the first phase of the epic adventure that is Star Wars. No doubt the infusion of cute and cuddly Ewoks, however tactile those teddy bears might look, can be viewed historically as a foreshadowing of Binks to come. There are indeed hints laced throughout The Empire Strikes Back that the plot of Return of the Jedi could have followed a very different course. Based on some of the things Yoda says, turning to the Dark Side might have actually been a logical progression for Luke’s character.

At the end of the day, however, I grew up with Luke Skywalker. He was the good guy. I came of age with him. That euphoric ending, the “teddy bear luau,” nurtured my inner child. In college, it inspired my best friend and me to write mock-rock songs.

Really, if I had to cut out all the other noise and boil the essence of my pop culture love down to one thing, there would just be Luke and that inner child of mine.

Who knows? If they had killed off Han Solo and sent Luke “walking off alone like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” my young mind might have developed differently. As it is, I grew up believing in things, thinking anything in this universe was possible because good had triumphed over evil and Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, Lando and Artoo and Threepio all lived happily ever after, just like in a fairy tale. I think on some level I probably owe a large part of my youthful optimism to Star Wars.

There is now a whole new generation of fans who are probably having the same experience with Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Rey’s “hypercompetence” may have earned some criticism, but if you look at the Wikipedia definition for “Mary Sue,” as quoted by Indiewire, it reads like something that could just as easily be talking about Luke Skywalker:

An idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities. Often but not necessarily this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.

It remains to be seen how Luke’s character will further evolve in The Last Jedi. In interviews, including one with our own Peter Sciretta, Mark Hamill has talked about how Star Wars is not his story anymore. George Lucas already tried to re-frame the Star Wars saga as Anakin Skywalker’s story, only to succeed in showing how Anakin’s story paralleled his own later artistic career. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, the older Lucas “ceased to be Luke and became Anakin.” Or, as one Reddit user put it, “George Lucas is Anakin Skywalker — the gifted young rebel whose fear of losing what he loved eventually led him to the Dark Side, down a path of good intentions.”


Much has been made of how Star Wars follows the template outlined by Joseph Campbell for the Hero’s Journey or “monomyth.” When the Star Wars films finally came out on iTunes in 2015 and I re-watched them as a 33-year-old who had not seen them in several years, I was surprised by how they seemed to just tell this light adventure tale. I think part of what made them feel so much deeper to me when I was younger was because the story continued off-screen for me as I immersed myself in my own kind of expanded-universe mythology, acting out scenarios on the floor of my bedroom with a collection of action figures gathered from discount racks and garage sales back in the mid-1980s.

Luke Skywalker is a great character. On the eve of The Last Jedi, let’s recognize his worth. This is a character who undergoes dramatic change, yet who is often unjustly dismissed by secular Star Wars fans (by which I mean those who are still on the fence about all this religious fan mumbo-jumbo, like Han Solo once was). As a vivid manifestation of the collective unconscious, whiny young Luke will outlive us all.

Whatever else he becomes in The Last Jedi, however sad, broken, or isolated he is, the Luke Skywalker of the original trilogy will always be the Hero With a Thousand Faces whose journey from innocence to experience — starting on the desert planet of Tatooine and ending on the forest moon of Endor — launched a multimedia empire of dreams. In his role as a protagonist, he is every kid or kid at heart who ever imbued Star Wars with his or her own flights of imagination: every toy collector, every comic book reader, every cosplayer, every dancing Stormtrooper, and yes, every mock-rock singer.

Luke Skywalker is the heart and soul of Star Wars.


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