I have this problem—because I’m not a kid anymore, I am expected to admit straight-up that Han Solo is far and away a better character than Luke Skywalker. And... he’s just not. Look, I love the guy: he is a scoundrel and that is sexy and his sarcasm is welcome among the many do-gooders in his universe. But I feel like his slingshot retorts blind people outright to what anyone else is doing in the Star Wars trilogy.
Like the fact that Luke Skywalker spends all of Return of the Jedi being a complete badass and we never talk about it.
And everyone is rolling their eyes because so many people don’t even like Return of Jedi, but I don’t care, okay? I’m not interested in talking about furry bears versus stormtrooper armor, or even the fact that Han spends a good portion of the movie tied up. (He’s funnier that way anyhow.) I’m interested in addressing Luke’s final sequence of character-defining acts, which are so subtle in their execution that they seem to slide past even the most diehard fans.
We have to start by breaking Han out of Hutt prison, so let’s do some recapping. Luke sends his best droid buddies in to set the stage and put key elements in place. He doesn’t bother letting Threepio in on the secret for obvious reasons, but he strategically lets everyone in there ahead of himself; Lando is already present, then the droids, then Leia and Chewie. They are each there to have a separate shot at freeing Han, though Luke likely knows that Leia is the only one with a real chance. Once she is captured, he swings into action all by his lonesome. Or to put it another way, Luke sets himself up as the last line of offense. When all else fails, he approaches.
And do you remember what his first move is?
Obi-Wan Kenobi might have tried to mind trick them into a game of pinochle, but Luke doesn’t have time for that crap. As a definitive first action, that is a dark place to take us. It’s a move Vader uses, not Luke’s mentors. Yet it isn’t ascribed any villainous overtones—we’re meant to go along with this in good faith.
He continues by getting his audience with Jabba; one that he had requested by way of the message he sent with Artoo, a request that the crime lord ignored. So by barging right in, Luke isn’t just moving their plan forward, he’s being deliberately rude to Jabba. ‘Oh, you won’t bow to my polite desire for a meeting? Fine. I guess you’ll have to take that meeting when I set it.’ His cocky suggestion that Jabba realize what he’s up against falls on deaf ears, but Luke isn’t bothered by it—he’s enjoying the game. (He spends practically the whole conversation smirking like some jerk teenager.) “Wormie” little Luke Skywalker, the farm boy no one ever took seriously, now has the chance to stand toe to toe with monsters and criminals and he’s not even breaking a sweat. In fact, he doesn’t show a bit of concern until he falls through a trap door and comes face to face with a rancor. Which he dispatches in short order.
“You should have bargained, Jabba,“ he tells the Hutt later. And then as he is dragged off to a dungeon cell to be held there until his public execution: “That’s the last mistake you’ll ever make.”
Do you recall that glimmer in his eye while he says it? It’s cold, son. Gleefully cold.
I should point out that we’re meant to side with Han in all this. Over the course of this opening act he says multiple times that Luke’s lost it, that they’re all gonna die, and we snort at Luke’s assurances that he has it all under control the same way the ex-smuggler does. And he’s not the only one; Jabba’s court laughs aloud in unison as Luke is poised over the mouth of the Sarlaac. So do I really need to say it? Do I need to point out that despite everyone sniggering and telling him he’s nuts, Luke does exactly what he says he’s going to do? Moreover, that he does it in a manner as flash as possible? He could have signaled to Artoo for that lightsaber whenever it was most convenient, but he waits until the crowd is cheering for his imminent demise, uses the plank that would have led to his death as leverage for a flip through midair, then goes to town on his captors.
It’s not just that he carries out the plan—he carries it out with extreme prejudice. He doesn’t merely rescue his friends, he slaughters Jabba’s whole entourage. He slices people open left and right, he knocks them into a pit where they will be slowly and painfully devoured, then directs Leia to a gun turret that will blow the sail barge sky high. It doesn’t seem very Jedi-like does it? So why would he do it? Why would he so callously murder all those (admittedly not very nice) people? It’s true that they were complicit in the capture and humiliation of his friends, but there’s more going on here:
“I used to live here, you know.”
Let’s give this a good long think. Luke lived on Tatooine, and knowing that, we can also know for certain that Luke grew up with Jabba’s name on his mind. That he grew up knowing better than to cross the path of anyone who worked with or for Jabba, that he heard about what happened to innocent people on his planet who did. Luke knew exactly who Jabba the Hutt was, how he hurt people, how he ruined their lives. He had a chance to eradicate the world of Jabba, and he took his shot. He didn’t want to be nice about it—he wanted to be efficient.
I’m sorry, that sound you hear over in the corner is the prodigal son weeping for not measuring up to Luke Skywalker.
Once he’s done with that, he goes back to complete his training only to find his master knocking on death’s door. So at the end of a triumph, he immediately suffers a great loss, only heightened by the knowledge that he’s meant to kill his own father. He takes it in stride and hurries back to his friends, volunteers for a dearly important mission to the Alliance.
As soon as they turn up on Endor they run into trouble, but he darts after Leia and hops on the back of her speederbike without hesitation. Kid’s reflexes have stepped up a notch, along with his technical know-how; he has no problem directing her toward the most painless manner of dispatching highspeed Scout Troopers. Then Leia goes missing, and on the search for her, he and the gang find themselves captured by tiny bears who seem to think that Threepio is worshipful. Han wants him to use that status as a Get Out of Jail Free card, but Threepio has programming that prevents it. At the point at which Han is losing his temper over this setback, Luke is on the brink of laughing his ass off. It might be one of my favorite things he ever does.
You little punk.
They get tied up and hauled off to Ewok Camp, and while Han is busy trying to blow out the roasting torches with his lungs, Luke is forming a plan. All of Solo’s placations and Leia’s diplomacy are useless, but Luke commands his golden pal to threaten the furry guys with magic. It’s not nice, but again, it gets the job done. At this point in time, Luke should be teasing the crew about having to get everything done all by his onesies, but there’s that niggling Vader problem. So after a brief goodbye to his sister, he walks directly into the arms of one of the most evil and powerful beings in the universe with nothing but a “Come away with me, I’m incorruptible,” on his lips.
The nerve of this guy.
And yes, Luke is a little surprised that Vader doesn’t immediately turn over a new leaf once he blinks those baby blues, but he takes a deep breath and keeps his chin high when he’s introduced to the Emperor of the galaxy, the one directly responsible for his lack of childhood family memories. I would like to point out that none of these things were penciled into Luke Skywalker’s weekly planner. He’s just winging it.
He keeps his cool despite some expert needling for a good long while, and once he finally freaks out (because a lot of his friends are dying out in cold, cold space), he pulls it back together quickly. This despite the fact that dad is telling him he has no problem killing his progeny if they don’t pass their dark side exams. He tries to hide, to remove himself as a target, because someone has just shot his sister and he can feel it. (This is an actual plot point of the ROTJ novel; Luke is trying to hide from Vader in those final moments because he can feel Leia’s injury through the Force and is trying to protect her and himself from Vader’s invasive mental-probing. That is ostensibly why Vader finds out about Leia at all.) But Papa Darth susses out the truth about his other kid—
—and Luke goes off the reservation, seemingly for good.
It’s a perfect parallel, in a way; Luke almost turns to the dark side as a bite back for having his mind plundered, but also to protect his sister, much in the same manner that Anakin was trying to protect Padmé. What no one was counting on is simply this: Luke Skywalker is nothing like his father. Not one iota (whatever that is). Luke is loving for unselfish reasons, he is constant and stable, he is not there for glory or even to save the universe. He’s there to prove to himself that he won’t turn.
He’s there because he wants his father back.
But Luke doesn’t simply stop thrashing Vader and roll over. He rubs it in the Emperor’s face. He could have just said no, he could have disengaged and backed into a corner. Instead he stands up, realigns his spine, and tells the Emperor “You’ve failed, Your Highness.”
Who in their galaxy has ever had the gall to utter words like “failure” to that hooded robe since Palpatine took power? Any variation on them? Man, you can see that burn from another star system. For that he is unsurprisingly rewarded with unimaginable pain and near vanquishment. And then the unthinkable happens—ol’ dad comes back to the party. Better late than never, I guess.
And while Han and Leia are enjoying a kiss and rebellious triumph, Luke gets to say goodbye to his father. They’ve only just met.
Luke Skywalker has to rearrange everything he knows and wants for his life in, what, a week? But he gives his father a hero’s funeral and walks to the Endor celebration with a smile and collected calm. He gives out handshakes and hugs to every friendly face he sees. He waves to some ghosts who are literally glowing with pride.
And I am still supposed to nod and smile dumbly when everyone goes on about how Han is just the best character in all of Star Wars? Because, I’ll be honest here—I never wanted to grow up to be Han Solo. I never wanted his debts, his disbelief, his wiseguy exterior born out of years of distrust.
But the one who walked onto the second Death Star with no idea what he was doing and achieved what everyone told him was impossible? On my best days, I’d like to imagine you could hear a little bit of Luke Skywalker’s resolve lingering in the back my voice. Even if I can’t do a flip in midair whilst catching a lightsaber.
I’m still working on that part.