It’s that time again. Time for me to talk about Luke Skywalker—Jedi Master, colorful milk enthusiast, champion spear fisherman, galactic treasure—and the multitude of ways that he continues to be generally fabulous while no one notices. Even now, when it should have become pretty darned obvious. When there is an entire film dedicated to the obviousness of this.
And yes, I am talking about The Last Jedi.
Look, I’ve said it all before. Luke Skywalker is not a bland Wonder Bread hero, despite his humble farmboy beginnings and seeming obsession with power converters. He spends the entirety of Return of the Jedi kicking ass in a very personal, understated way. He has his own goals and he sticks to them. This helpfully speeds up the demise of the worst overlord the galaxy has ever known, but also robs him of a father. Such is the nature of the universe, particularly where the Force is involved.
But now that Luke has reemerged decades later for his final bow, some people are crying foul. It’s a betrayal, they say. The boy they knew and loved would never behave this way. Even Mark Hamill himself had reservations about what lay in store for Luke, though he admitted that he appreciated the tale when all was said and done. It didn’t stop fans from creating memes and comments and screeds denouncing him.
As the sort of kid who grew up loving Luke Skywalker, pretending to be him as I vaulted from playground equipment and around sandboxes, the ire is bemusing. This story is not fluffy or comforting, but it is imminently worthy of my childhood champion because it explores the very nature of his exalted and seemingly untouchable status as the Good Man Who Does Great Deeds. The last chapter of Luke’s story is bound up not in mythologizing and enshrining him in that lofty cocoon, but instead turns us toward an ugly, devastating fact: heroes are people.
*dramatic music cue*
Some folks have realized this and are taking it to mean that Star Wars is finally shaking a finger at its fans, deconstructing its place in the cultural zeitgeist and having a little laugh at the terrifying level of devotion it has inspired. But that’s an underwhelming take from where I’m standing. Yes, we get attached to stories that we love, but that’s a common human practice. Craving stories, seeking them out, relating to the characters within them, that’s all as human as learning to walk and getting hungry. But taking on the uncomfortable task of reminding us that our heroes are human? Really, truly messy and complicated and often unworthy of awe? That’s a massive responsibility that no one will thank you for, no matter how dearly they need to be reminded.
This is the central theme of The Last Jedi, one that the film tackles with a violent sort of glee. It’s not merely that heroes can make mistakes or occasionally do the wrong thing; the film is examining heroism as a concept, as a systematic construct that binds the very people it should comfort. “Heroes” come with rules and standards, expectations and meaning. “Legends” are not history, they are the stories we tell to elevate history into doctrine.
Luke Skywalker knows this better than most. His father was sold to him as a hero of a bygone era, then morphed slowly before his eyes into a terrible villain. But Luke did not redeem Anakin Skywalker out of a desire to recapture the hero he once was—he did it to find his father. Heroes are people, and the person that existed beyond the great knight Obi-Wan Kenobi spoke of with such reverence is precisely who Luke hoped to discover when he met Darth Vader on Endor.
Years later, when Rey arrives on Ahch-To, Luke has soured on the concept of heroes and legends. His father was no hero, and neither were his mentors. He has learned enough about the Jedi Order to understand the incredible hubris that led to their demise. He has also taken up the space where they once existed in the galactic collective consciousness, even though it’s the last thing he ever wanted. It’s all well and good to hear those stories and take them to heart, but it’s something else entirely when that hero and legend is you, when your very person is meant to embody symbols and devotion and feelings that you never intended to evoke. When people spin tales about acts you may or may not have committed, when your name is used to create a hush in crowded rooms. When the only resistance standing between the galaxy and total fascist domination is waiting for you to show up and signal that the fight isn’t over.
Being a hero doesn’t stop you from being human, and that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the cosmos… or the greatest joke. Luke can’t decide which when Rey shows up with Anakin’s old lightsaber, but to start, he treats it as the latter. He chucks away the saber. He slams doors in her face. He makes himself and his life as weird and ignoble as possible, harkening back to Yoda’s old method of teaching—be some kooky old guy, see if they scare off. When she doesn’t turn tail and run, and he agrees to teach her a little, he cackles at her understanding of the Force and the Jedi. He tells her that he’s not going to walk out there with a “lasersword” and face down the latest threat to the galaxy because the Force is not a parlor trick for intimidation and clever schemes. He invites her to learn what it is for herself, to sense its presence throughout the galaxy. And as she observes this balance, the light and the dark, Luke offers her the most important lesson of all:
“The Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity—can’t you see that?”
This is an essential lesson on multiple fronts, but it is also in indictment of heroism and the power granted to those who achieve that designation. The Jedi do not own virtue or good deeds or the key to balancing the galaxy. They are not the arbiters of these things, they do not speak for the Force in any capacity. The stories that grew up around them—the legends—made them believe that they were and they could, and this is ultimately what led to their destruction. Calling yourself a “servant of the Force” at the same time that you are working as the long arm of a government to aid only one side in a gruesome war is well beyond a contradiction, and Luke is in the perfect position to see this long arc for what it is; he caused the same devastation on a smaller scale when he tried to follow their example, losing his temple and students when Ben Solo fell to the dark side.
He frames the failures of the Jedi the same way he frames his own: vanity at believing that the ancient religion and framework was so needed that the universe couldn’t be without them. After being groomed to take up the mantle of a dead Order, Luke discovers that his impetus behind this decision was misguided, his execution deeply flawed. Thinking as the Jedi did requires thinking in terms of legacy—his fear of Ben turning to the dark side isn’t merely the fear of an uncle for his nephew, it is the fear of the Jedi being wiped out all over again, of his tutelage resulting in another Vader, of more devastation caused by heroes and legends who should be beyond such mortal mistakes. But heroes are people. And Luke’s split-second of weakness precipitates the very terror he was trying to keep at bay.
Shutting himself away in an unknown corner of the galaxy surely seemed like the most satisfying option. Go find the origin point of the Jedi and just crumble away there, like all the other relics. Divorce himself from the Force and wait to die. Unfortunately, vanishing acts only fuel legends. Luke Skywalker tried to forget the galaxy, but the galaxy wasn’t about to forget him.
When Rey arrives, the fight for that galaxy is well underway, and this mysterious young woman from nowhere is in desperate need of instruction. Luke wants no part in another gargantuan mistake that puts the galaxy at risk, but he does need someone to take ownership over what he’s learned in this ruin of a religion because knowledge is always of value. Rey seems up for it, though she has very little time… echoing his own education to a tee. He gives her a baseline, some philosophical mores to cling to as she moves forward, but his wisdom is only a small measure of his usefulness to her. Rey needs a count of the missteps that came before, of course, but most important of all—she’s looking for confirmation that she belongs in this story. By taking her desire to learn about the Force seriously, Luke gives her that. And as Yoda later tells him, that’s pretty much how it’s meant to go: “We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters.”
Rey alone doesn’t need a careful guiding light, but the galaxy needs Luke Skywalker. The tragedy of heroes is that they are people whose lives ultimately aren’t their own—heroism of the legendary kind exists to serve others. It doesn’t matter that Luke Skywalker is hurting, that he’s frightened, that he has made mistakes he has decided he cannot atone for. He tried to cut himself off from the Force, to hide away from everyone who would put him on a pedestal, and now he recognizes the choice was never his. He opens himself back up to the Force. He connects with his sister. He is pulled back into the fight.
When he sees Leia and apologizes for his failures and his fear, she forgives him and tells him that she knows it’s time to give up on her son, that he’s gone for good. Luke replies with his finest kernel of wisdom yet—“No one’s ever really gone.” And it’s important to clarify, he doesn’t mean that he’s going to drag his nephew back and forcibly turn him to the light side with hugs and a batch of homemade soup. Luke understands that aspects of people—the good, the bad, the forgotten, the hidden—don’t disappear just because they change. That people who die and fade away leave pieces of themselves behind. That they are all one with the Force, and so they are never truly diminished. And at those words, he prepares to unleash the Luke Skywalker of years past. The Good Man who once blew up a Death Star, who defeated an Emperor without ever laying a hand on him, who believed he could train the next generation to be better than the last.
He steps outside with his lasersword to take on the whole First Order.
Every hero has a superpower, even the ones who don’t exist between the pages of comic books. Some have words, some have technical know-how. Some are very strong, others are wise beyond measure. The thing that makes Luke Skywalker the guy who can get this done is his possession of a particular superpower. But it’s not his ability to use the Force, or fly an X-Wing, or talk jovially with astromech droids.
No, Luke Skywalker’s superpower is—has always been—compassion.
All of his strengths, and indeed his foibles, are bound up in compassion. When Luke makes mistakes it is because he cannot put his concern for others aside and still function—rushing off to Cloud City and accidentally confronting Darth Vader before he’s fully trained, or fearing for the galaxy at large when he looks into his nephew’s mind and sees what he has become. And when he does what is needed, it is that same compassion guiding his actions—insisting on rescuing a princess he has never met in the midst of an enemy battle station he has just boarded, or leaving the Rebels on Endor to try and convince his father to turn away from the dark side.
Luke Skywalker’s greatest asset was never his desire to become a Jedi—it was his desire to look beyond outward appearances and access what lies beneath. A lost sister behind a fearless rebel leader. A dear heart behind a sarcastic space pirate. A lonely old man behind half-truths told from a certain point of view. A trapped soul withering under layers of machinery, anger, and sorrow. That he can use the Force is entirely secondary; Luke Skywalker became a hero because of his heart.
Compassion is one of the greatest attributes a person can possess. It is the antidote to shortsightedness and cruelty. But we should never make the mistake of thinking that compassion is synonymous with niceness. Kindess, too, is not niceness. But audiences expected Luke to be nice in The Last Jedi. He’s the hero, after all. Heroes are supposed to behave, to show courtesy, to model the attributes we associate with goodness and civility. Ergo, Luke Skywalker should be nice to Rey. He should be nice to Ben Solo. He should shake hands with each member of the Resistance and smile until his face hurts.
But heroes are people, remember? And niceness has never defeated demons.
When the time comes, Luke Skywalker faces Ben Solo with clear and enduring compassion. But not niceness, because that wouldn’t turn Ben’s heart in any case. While Luke failed him years back by surrendering to a moment of sheer panic, it doesn’t change the fact that the boy he trained was headed down this path with or without his input. Snoke leads Rey to believe that Ben had a different possible future, that he has always been conflicted, but the truth of the matter is far simpler and more painful to stomach.
You see, Anakin Skywalker never wanted to be Darth Vader. It was a mantle that he was strapped into against his will. But Ben Solo wants to be Kylo Ren with every fiber of his being.
Luke knows he cannot use the same script here that he used on his father, cannot chip away at a facade born of lies and unimaginable pain. Ben chose to be here because this is the destiny he longed for, and so Luke can only tell him the truth: that killing the people you love doesn’t erase them from existence. That one petulant temper isn’t enough to bring down the Resistance. That Rey has all the knowledge she requires to pick up where the Jedi left off, and do it better than Luke ever could. He shows his nephew compassion by offering closure, but also by refusing to placate him. He isn’t nice—but he is kind.
And at the same time, he shows compassion for the whole galaxy by giving them what they need: the sight of Luke Skywalker joining the fight one last time to save the Resistance. Leia always understood this best, raised as a princess and mired in symbols her entire life. She knows what legends are, what heroes are for. She didn’t call on Luke because she thought he could fix this terrible mess—she knows better than anyone how tenuous hope can be and what revives it. The names, the history, the stories…
“General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars.”
“The Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.”
“This is the ship that made the Kessel Run in fourteen parsecs?”
Luke Skywalker is the greatest hero the galaxy has to offer because he understands better than anyone that heroes are people. That being a legend isn’t really about what you do, but why you do it and who you do it for. And that is exactly what I expect from the character I spent years trying to emulate, to learn from. Luke Skywalker is still and always my hero because he knows that is his explicit role in the universe—to be what I need. To give me hope. To soothe my fears with his unflappable presence. To face down monsters and brush imaginary dust from his shoulder and keep my friends safe from harm.
Heroes are people. But it takes a very special sort of person to uphold that status for others when you are called upon. The Last Jedi is not an assassination of heroism—it is a treatise on why heroes have such power over us. And it answers that question by giving one of our greatest heroes an ending worthy of his name.
Emily Asher-Perrin is apparently not done crying over Luke Skywalker yet. (She’s kidding, she will never be done crying.) You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.