Why Luke Skywalker needed to die in 'The Last Jedi' ... and how he should return in 'Episode IX'

Star Wars: The Last Jedi celebrates its monthlong residency in multiplexes this weekend having officially become the highest-grossing release of 2017 … and arguably the most hotly debated Star Wars film of all time. Since its release on Dec. 15, Rian Johnson’s contribution to the Star Wars mythos has alternately delighted and outraged fans, generating Forceful arguments both pro and con. Whether it’s Leia’s space flight, Snoke’s death, the porg-apalooza, or Kylo’s shirtlessness, the writer-director made dramatic choices that he clearly knew would result in some blowback. By far Johnson’s boldest gambit was his portrayal of Luke Skywalker not as the Jedi master Star Wars disciples grew up on, but as a traumatized recluse who stridently resists Rey’s entreaties to join the Resistance fight against the First Order. Even when he does decide to enter the fray in the climactic battle on Crait, it’s as a projection of himself rather than his physical form, which fades out of existence on the remote planet of Ahch-To in the closing moments of the film.

It’s a far cry from the last stand, and grand death, that many imagined for the farm boy from Tatooine. But it was the only logical ending for Johnson. As he explained to HuffPost recently, “I realized this was going to be an emotionally rich arc for him. I was kind of dreading it, but at the same time it felt like the right moment. It felt like the right time in this trilogy.” But was it the right moment for Luke as a character? That’s a question Star Wars fans will likely be debating until Episode IX arrives in theaters on Dec. 20, 2019. In this conversation, Yahoo Entertainment writers Ethan Alter, Adam Lance Garcia, and Gwynne Watkins discuss why Luke needed to die for The Last Jedi to succeed … and our (new) hopes for his return in Episode IX.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in <em>The Last Jedi.</em>&nbsp;(Photo: John Wilson/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Lucasfilm Ltd./Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. (Photo: John Wilson/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Lucasfilm Ltd./Courtesy of Everett Collection)

ETHAN

They say that the seven stages of grief begin with shock and denial and end with acceptance. When it comes to Luke Skywalker’s passing in The Last Jedi, I almost feel like I’m experiencing those steps in reverse. I’ve seen the film twice now, and in each viewing I absolutely accepted Rian Johnson’s choice to have Luke become one with the Force. In the moment, it felt like the right ending in the context of the specific story Johnson set out to tell and also made thematic sense for a film that was all about addressing the sometimes-wide chasm between how we think of our heroes and who they actually are as people. It’s the mature ending to a Star Wars movie that’s all about allowing the franchise to grow up instead of staying forever encased in nostalgia-wrapped plastic.

Outside the theater, though, I have to admit that it’s been harder to keep the nostalgia demons at bay. While I can definitively say that I won’t be joining the dark side of #NotMyLuke truthers anytime soon, I have experienced pre-acceptance feelings like sorrow and denial — maybe not anger, because anger leads to hate and all that — when I try to reconcile the Luke we left on Endor with the Luke we meet on Ahch-To. Maybe part of the issue is that I never filled in that gap with any of the now-defunct Expanded Universe materials. When Return of the Jedi ended, that was mostly it for me and all things Star Wars until The Phantom Menace shook the rust off the feature-film franchise in 1999. So I never saw how other writers imagined where Luke might go next and the defeats he might encounter along the way. For me, his future — and the future of the restored Republic — was eternally bright and hopeful.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out Luke Skywalker on the remote planet of Ahch-To, site of the first Jedi temple. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

Let’s be honest: Almost any version of Old Man Luke would likely have dimmed that rosy Return of the Jedi glow. Even so, the grouch who kicks off The Last Jedi by accepting the lightsaber that Rey offers him and then tossing it over his shoulder almost seemed to hail from a different planet than the Tatooine farm boy I remembered. I take some comfort in knowing that Mark Hamill was similarly befuddled by Luke’s characterization when he first read The Last Jedi script, though I’d never use his initial words as weapons against his performance, which more than suits the story that Johnson is telling. But it’s clear that this wasn’t the life — or death — that the actor imagined for his alter ego, any more than it was what I hoped to see from Luke’s last stand.

I’ve been trying to think of what would have satisfied me: not a last-minute “here I come to save the day” moment where his X-wing touches down on Crait’s salty surface. Not him storming into Snoke’s throne room and slicing the dude in half himself. And definitely not robbing Rey of her big Jedi showcase, moving rocks to rescue her surviving Resistance fighters. No, I think what I was really longing for was some of the hopeful spark that I saw in Luke’s eyes even in the darkest hours of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He was never the most competent warrior or strategic thinker, but his almost pesky earnestness spoke directly to my younger self. In a very real sense, he was just a kid who got caught up in a crazy adventure and had to react to his ever-changing circumstances on the fly. I didn’t see that earnestness in this Luke, even when he vowed that the Jedi would continue beyond his own end or gazed into his final twin sunset. It’s the death that The Last Jedi needs, but I’m not necessarily sure it’s the death that Luke Skywalker deserves.

ADAM

Like you, Ethan, I grew up watching the original trilogy on VHS and probably watched Return of the Jedi enough to wear the tape thin. But unlike you, when I wasn’t pretending to be Luke (which was often), I was wondering what happened to him after Jedi, going so far as to write fanfic about Luke chasing down a powerful Jedi crystal on Endor.

That need to know what happened to Luke led me to collecting all of the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, including some Lucasfilm wishes the world forgot. (Glove of Darth Vader? Yeah. That was my jam.) My first copy of Heir to the Empire is dog-eared, and there was a period of time when the only nonrequired reading I did was Star Wars novels. I followed Luke when he fell to the Dark Side in Dark Empire, built his Jedi Academy on Yavin 4, and fought back the Yuuzhan Vong. Shortly before the new canon was established with A New Dawn, I did a summer-long marathon of the Legacy of the Force series as a farewell tour of the old EU.

I loved those books — even Planet of Twilight, which was just terrible — because no matter what, even when Jacen Solo became Darth Caedus and killed Luke’s wife, Mara Jade, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker never gave up hope.  He was the perfect embodiment of what we wanted our heroes to be.

I loved that Luke Skywalker. I miss that Luke Skywalker. I am relieved he wasn’t in The Last Jedi.

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine in the original 1977 <em>Star Wars, A New Hope.</em> (Photo: Lucasfilm)
Luke Skywalker on Tatooine in the original 1977 Star Wars, A New Hope. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

I’ve have many, many conversations with friends about Luke’s portrayal in The Last Jedi, and while most ultimately appreciated Luke’s final stand, they generally admit that’s not what they “wanted.” And I’ll admit, it’s not what I wanted either. But it’s the Luke Skywalker we needed.

We want our heroes to always be there, to always be perfect, to always come in and save us when we need them most. But that’s not how real life works, and that’s not how Star Wars works.

I’ve seen the movie three times so far, and while it never gets easy seeing Luke fall so far because of a moment of weakness — and good Lord, it’s still hard watching him die — Star Wars has never been about the old guard saving the day; it’s about the new generation finding the heroes in themselves.

If the old EU was about the heroes keeping the status quo, remaining the legend we imagined them to be, what Rian Johnson — and by extension Lucas and Abrams — gave us was Luke a complex, flawed, utterly human character while still being the most powerful Jedi we’ve seen onscreen. Luke became an even greater hero because he fell, because he pushed beyond his own weaknesses to let the next generation win the battles he couldn’t.

GWYNNE

So, you guys are being much more patient than I am with the “Make Luke Skywalker Great Again” movement. Of course, Luke was one of my first heroes. As a child, I imagined that his post-Jedi activities involved forming a sibling super-team with Leia. They would use their combined Force powers to help needy Ewoks and defeat Imperial stragglers. Han would drive the whole gang around in the Millennium Falcon, and when they needed advice, they’d call on Obi-Wan’s ghost.

Then I grew up. And looking back on the original trilogy, I don’t believe for a second that Luke attained perpetual enlightenment between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. Yes, he sacrificed a hand, brought his father back from the Dark Side, and learned to lift rocks with his mind (a surprisingly useful skill, as we learned in The Last Jedi). His growth over the course of three films is dramatic and satisfying.  Still, he has hardly attained the wisdom of Yoda or Obi-Wan by the time the second Death Star bites the dust. Remember, Luke didn’t even finish his training on Dagobah. Even though his deceased mentors can return as Force ghosts, it seems likely that their master’s program in Jedi Studies is no longer on offer, leaving his education forever incomplete.

Not to mention all of that new personal baggage: Luke watched his father die, not long after learning that he was a mass-murdering tyrant. Meanwhile, the people who actually raised Luke were killed, he fought in a war with no military training, and on top of that, he’s experiencing the culture shock of leaving his home planet for the first time. Do we honestly think that Luke has dealt with any of that?  Without the continued wisdom and guidance of Obi-Wan and Yoda, is it any surprise that Luke’s petulant, impulsive childhood self would one day reemerge?

Luke Skywalker watches as his new Jedi Temple burns, torched by his nephew and former pupil, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. (Photo: Lucasfilm)
Luke Skywalker watches as his new Jedi Temple burns, torched by his nephew and former pupil, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

I mean, we want to believe that Luke Skywalker can rise above all that, because he’s our hero. But even heroes have demons. One of the things I love about The Last Jedi is how Rian Johnson smudges a big gray line through George Lucas’s black-and-white concept of good and evil. I keep thinking about how when Anakin turned to the Dark Side in Revenge of the Sith, it was like he’d flipped a switch from “Jedi who wants to do good things” to “Sith Lord who slaughters children.” In the real world, such transformations are more complex, involving a web of choices that eventually strangles the good intentions at its core. That’s what we’re getting with Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi.

And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s what we’re getting with Luke. That moment when he considers striking down his own nephew is a moment all great leaders have faced. It’s the choice to send troops to war rather than risk another nation falling to tyranny. It’s reconciling the greater good with personal agony. It’s the opportunity to kill baby Hitler, the moral quandary that gives even ardent pacifists a moment’s pause. What kind of hero would Luke be if he didn’t face that choice head-on?

Without that momentary failure, the lapse of judgment that caused him to remove himself from his own story, Luke would have no character arc in The Last Jedi. Johnson understood that, which is why he began his story with Luke as traumatized veteran. Luke’s journey to that final stand against Kylo Ren, and his ultimate sacrifice, are deeper and more rewarding because he had to relearn how to be a hero.

The idea that characters shouldn’t change, or that Star Wars shouldn’t change, is a Sith mind trick of the highest order. Star Wars was ahead of its time, a trendsetter and a game-changer, in 1977. In order for Star Wars to stay true to itself, it still needs to have its eyes on the horizon — and that horizon has moved a lot in 40 years. Luke comes to realize that he can still be a hero in a more complicated era. The audience needs to catch up.

I wouldn’t change a thing about Luke’s story in The Last Jedi (except maybe restoring that third, deleted challenge for Rey — looking forward to the Blu-ray, Rian!). I only wish Leia had gotten the opportunity to have a similarly satisfying journey in Episode IX.

ETHAN 

Gwynne, I’m hoping that Star Wars franchise minders Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams have your terrific article about how Episode IX can deal with Leia’s legacy framed and hanging on their wall as they plot out what will almost certainly be the final episode of the Skywalker Saga. And, like you, I’m happy that Johnson challenged George Lucas’s notion that Star Wars has to be perpetually pitched at 12-year-olds, demonstrating how to mature the franchise without betraying any guiding galactic principles. That fact that there’s so much intense debate about the characterizations in a Star Wars movie — not just Luke, but also Holdo, Poe, and Finn — feels like a giant leap forward after years when most conversations focused on the larger mythology or why Jar-Jar needed to exist.

On the other hand, I also can’t help but wonder how actual 12-year-olds might feel about The Last Jedi and Luke’s death specifically. As you point out, his journey in this film both resonates with and challenges those of us who grew up with him. I’m not certain whether it has the same power for younger audiences, who are going to be the franchise’s future after all. My 10-year-old son liked the movie a lot but overall seems to prefer the simpler pleasures of The Force Awakens. (At least for now; I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes to embrace The Last Jedi in a bigger way in a few years.)

Something that film did very well — and something that Abrams has been heavily criticized for since, both fairly and unfairly — is using a more traditional Star Wars narrative template as a way to get audiences reinvested in the remnants of Lucas’s saga and newly invested in the galaxy’s next phase. He gave himself a “get off Hoth free” pass for having to write anything substantial for Luke, but I suspect his version of the character would have been closer to the Jedi master fans remembered, at least initially. And he would probably have come up with a kind of concrete idea for the kind of the transitionary moment that eluded me earlier: a scene that more definitively illustrates who Luke was then before Johnson takes us to where he is now.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke in <em>A New Hope.</em> (Photo: Lucasfilm)
Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke in A New Hope. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

There’s a strain of thought out there that Johnson specifically set out to destroy everything that Abrams built up in The Force Awakens, leaving him an impossible situation for Episode IX. I couldn’t disagree more: If anything, Johnson has teed up Abrams to do what he does best: deliver a crowd-pleasing mixture of heroic character moments and fan service. Johnson has cleared the board of a lot of mystery boxes — like Snoke’s backstory — where the answers will inevitably disappoint while also putting the characters through a long, dark night of the soul that leaves them stronger, not weaker. That includes Luke, who has now become the legendary Jedi master the galaxy wants him to be. When he inevitably returns as a Force ghost in Episode IX, Rey and the audience will know what he’s been through to get there, but his personal baggage won’t have to weigh down the final confrontation between the Resistance and the First Order.

Part of me does worry that Abrams will feel obligated to appease the more hardcore #MLSGA crowd, but I think he’s also a savvy enough reader of fan tea leaves to recognize that most of us already feel that Luke Skywalker is pretty darn great, whatever quibbles we may or may not have with his portrayal in The Last Jedi. As a lover of mythology anyway, he’ll likely seek to reinforce Luke’s myth so that it can live beyond Star Wars in its current feature film form. My own hope is that he keeps the Force ghost participation to a minimum in the actual heat of Episode IX‘s big battle, allowing the current Resistance fighters to achieve victory on their own terms, spurred on by the guiding force of dearly departed general Leia Organa. But I’ll also be shocked if there’s not a scene where Luke is surrounded by the phantoms of Force-users past — Leia, Anakin Obi-Wan, Yoda, heck even Qui-Gon — and they all collectively pass out of spectral form into legend. Adam, you would know this: Is there an Expanded Universe story that’s ventured there?

ADAM

We got our first EU glimpse of Force Ghost Luke in the Dark Horse comic series Star Wars: Legacy. Set 137 years after the Battle of Yavin (A New Hope), Luke tried to talk to his great-grandson Cade Skywalker, who had left the order, and much like Luke in The Last Jedi had to deal with the “Legend of Luke Skywalker.” Probably the biggest “Force ghost vision” was in the multigenerational comic crossover Vector, which featured characters from the Knights of the Old Republic era, the Dark Times era (i.e., post-Revenge of the Sith), the Rebellion era (the original trilogy) and, finally, Legacy.

One thing I think it’s important not to lose sight of is that the Luke we got onscreen wasn’t too different from to the Luke Skywalker George Lucas envisioned when he started work on Episodes VII-IX. Long before Johnson or even Abrams was brought on to direct a galaxy far, far away, Lucas planned a version of Episode VII that featured an older Luke who had not only gone to a “darker” place but had also retreated from the galaxy and lived alone in a Jedi temple on a distant world. He would have been found by Kira — the character who would eventually become Rey — about midway through the film and coax him into training her. Abrams, to my mind, correctly chose to push finding Luke to the end of the film, giving fans the chance get to know the new cast, because if The Last Jedi is any proof, the moment Luke appeared onscreen he dominated the conversation surrounding the film.

Luke ultimately realizes it’s not time for the Jedi to end. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

There’s no way of knowing if the Old Luke Skywalker Lucas originally envisioned would have been as complex as the version Johnson gave us — I’m guessing not — but I’m sure he would have been closer to what fan’s envisioned for the character. I am, however, certain he would have died in that version of Episode VII or some other version of Episode VIII, because that’s kind of what old Jedi masters do in Star Wars: they show up, try and help the new generation correct the mistakes they made, and then they die. To a degree, it’s what happened to Qui-Gon, and it’s definitely happened to Obi-Wan and Yoda.

I can’t help but feel like fans’ demand or desire to have their “mythic” Luke is partially because they refuse to accept that this Rey’s story now. Not because she is a woman — though I know that is the case for a subsection of the fan base — but because for the first time fans are really being presented with a meta-narrative that this beloved series will continue on without them.

GWYNNE

Ethan’s vision of the departing Force ghosts got me a little misty-eyed just now; I would love for Abrams to earn a moment like that. Adam, I think you’re absolutely right that certain fans hate the idea of Star Wars outliving them. Personally, I dig the idea of an ongoing Star Wars universe where we watch our heroes grow old enough to mentor the next generation, without losing what made us love them in the first place. It’s a Hollywood fallacy that people, especially women, “age out” of roles. In life, our stories don’t stop when we reach middle age, or have children, or experience something that profoundly changes us. How amazing would it be if Rey is able to live out her Star Wars adventure long after Daisy Ridley is out of her 20s? Sure, Ridley has other options — and she should pursue them! — but if she revisited that role from time to time, audiences would get to see a beloved screen heroine grow older and wiser before their eyes, and that would actually be revolutionary.

There’s that beautiful moment in The Last Jedi when Yoda tells Luke, “We are what they grow beyond.” My childhood memories of playing with Star Wars toys will always be treasured, but they’re what I’ve grown beyond. There’s a whole universe out there waiting to be explored — and as the films taught us, when Jedi masters depart, you can still feel their presence.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in theaters now.

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