A People’s History of the Jedi

A galactic Howard Zinn, Luke Skywalker finally exposes the truth about the Jedi Order: They’re responsible for much of what has gone wrong.

by MATT STOKES | DECEMBER 26, 2017

“For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.” Obi-Wan Kenobi gives this history lesson to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars film, but it also serves as an introduction for viewers of the film to what the Jedi represent: peace and justice. It’s an idea that sticks throughout the rest of the series. And while the movies pay lip service to the idea that moral grey areas and alternative perspectives exist, the idea went largely unexplored prior to the release of The Last Jedi. “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view,” Kenobi tells Luke in Return of the Jedi, but the rest of the film provides little evidence that anything the Empire does is morally just.

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker yelps that, “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” This is his justification for joining the Sith and exterminating the Jedi, but again the text of the film provides no evidence that the Sith are anything other than the embodiment of pure, italicized evil. This comes after we’ve seen Anakin help orchestrate the genocide of Jedi Knights and murder children—there is no complicated moral calculus required. But the Star Wars movies (especially the prequels) provide abundant evidence of the Jedi Order’s calcification, rot, and failure. It took nine Star Wars movies for a character to finally point out the obvious: While not themselves pure evil, the Jedi nevertheless abetted the destruction of democracy, enabled the rise of the Empire, and allowed evil to prosper.

“Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure.”
-Luke Skywalker

 

 

That the character who finally points this out is Luke Skywalker is, it appears, one of the principal reasons for some of the fan backlash to The Last Jedi. Our first real look at Luke since 1983 shows him as bitter, disenchanted, and resigned—he has rejected his own legacy and gone into exile to wait for death, hoping to minimize whatever damage he may cause while still alive.

Mark Hamill himself primed this backlash when, seven months before the film’s release, he told Vanity Fair that he didn’t initially agree with Last Jedi director Rian Johnson’s plans for his character in the film. Hamill later clarified his comments, explaining that he came to agree with Johnson, but the Vanity Fair piece set off a wave of panic among Star Wars fans online. Before the film’s premiere, Hamill again analyzed his character’s direction: “I’m just saying, what could have happened between the last time we saw him and now for him to be that way? Even if it was the worst thing in the world, I said to [Rian Johnson], ‘Jedis don’t give up.'”

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Says writer Joseph Choi in his essay, “On the Character Assassination of Luke Skywalker,”

This film is a big middle finger to anyone who grew up believing in Luke Skywalker. Without any good reason, it completely destroys his established character and turns him into a terrified and cowardly old man committed to dying alone wallowing in regret.

Countless people grew up believing in Luke Skywalker. In the original movies Hamill plays him broadly, as an archetype much more than an individual, which is probably what explains his appeal to younger children. Chuck Klosterman contrasted Luke with Han Solo, saying that,

I kind of had this theory that when you’re a very young person, the character in Star Wars you care about the most or like the most is Luke Skywalker, who’s this, you know, wholly good, heroic, almost naively pure kind of character. And then you become, you know, 12 years old, a teenager, and you gravitate toward Han Solo, who seems like a bad person, but ultimately he is good. And when you’re kind of going through adolescence, you sort of like the idea of being perceived as a dangerous individual, even though you still sort of identify as being good.

What Klosterman describes is the exact arc I experienced as a young Star Wars fan. I dressed up as Luke for Halloween, hung his picture on my bedroom wall, and held him up as not just a pinnacle of heroism but of what movie characters should be. Then, as a teenager, I decided that Luke was kinda lame, kinda whiny, and that Han Solo is the real hero. After all, the path toward heroism is laid out flatly for Luke, but Han experiences real growth and decides to go against his self-interest, helping Luke destroy the Death Star rather than take his money and go home. Han’s last-minute save at the end of Star Wars is still my favorite moment from any movie.

Still, the admiration for Luke is not easily shaken from me or from millions of other people who grew up loving the Star Wars franchise, and the thing that excited me most about the Disney-era films is the prospect of seeing Luke Skywalker again. Even without new Star Wars films, I could always watch Indiana Jones or any number of Harrison Ford movies to get an approximation of what an older Han Solo would be up to—but Mark Hamill didn’t have that kind of career, so it was difficult to imagine an older Luke.

After more than three decades apart, it’s understandable that fans were ready for an intravenous shot of pure Skywalker goodness. What we got instead was Luke telling us that he is a fraud and that the Jedi legacy is not worth preserving.

The retired hero being reluctantly pulled back into action one last time is not exactly new territory. But what The Last Jedi does is so much more interesting. Luke, in his old age, has become philosophical about his own failings and the history of the universe he inhabits. “At the height of their powers the Jedi allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out,” Luke tells Rey. He is exactly right, and this fact is maddeningly obvious to anyone watching the Star Wars prequels—the supposedly wise and venerable Jedi Masters don’t see what is obviously happening and become unwitting pawns in Darth Sidious’s takeover. Darth Vader emerges from the Jedi Order, mishandled in every way by people who should have known better, who could have prevented his turn to the Dark Side by extending some compassion and understanding. Luke crucially says that the Jedi do not own the Force, that the Force exists independent of the fallible people who practice its ways. We could substitute in the word “good,” and reflect that the Jedi do not have a monopoly on good. Disenchanted Luke is not a nihilist; he holds out hope that things could be better if things were different.

Your heroes are not infallible, and the assumptions you have about right and wrong should always be questioned. Again, these are not revolutionary ideas, but within the Star Wars universe, they are revolutionary, and necessary.

History is not just a recording of facts, it’s an active assessment and analysis of what has happened, why it’s happened, and what it means. In The Last Jedi, Luke has conducted an honest reckoning of his own history and the history of his people, and concluded that both are net harmful. This is a vital process for any serious person. Maybe my being alive has made the world a worse place. Maybe pursuing my best self has left a damaging wake.I)Like Rey practicing her lightsaber moves, slicing a boulder that then falls down the cliff and destroys the island natives’ wheelbarrow, ruining their day’s work. Our actions reverberate downward in ways we can’t possibly understand. When we acknowledge that, what do we do? Americans who become aware of their country’s history of Galactic-proportion evil can become invigorated and determined to build a better country and world, or they become defiant and delusional.

But the genius of The Last Jedi is that it is not enough to #wellactually the history of the Jedi. Withdrawing completely is not an option, because it creates a void that will inevitably be filled in. That’s why Rey’s devotion to building a better world than the one left behind by the previous generation is needed. There is a place for idealism and optimism, even in the face of insurmountable odds. What if this isn’t our story? What if we’re only here to make things marginally better for those who will replace us? We need the energy of the young, and maybe all we can ever be is, as Poe Dameron puts it, the spark that will light the fire—the thing before the thing.

One of the best pieces written about The Last Jedi is, “The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, and That’s Exactly Why It’s Great,” by Rob Bricken. Bricken writes that the new Star Wars movies show that the victory won in Return of the Jedi was not permanent, and that this, in a way, invalidates the whole effort:

My childhood heroes had won their war against the Empire in the original trilogy, but TFA showed that they didn’t bring peace to the galaxy. The New Republic Leia fought so hard to establish was broken even before it was destroyed. Luke’s attempt to bring back the Jedi ended in such tragedy that he had been living in self-imposed exile for years. Han Solo not only failed to keep his son from the Dark Side, he was murdered because of it. I hated learning that their hard-won accomplishments in the original trilogy were for naught, that after the end credits of Return of the Jedi their futures would be filled with disappointment and pain.

He goes on to wrestle with his own reaction to the film, acknowledging that Star Wars no longer belongs to him but to the next era of fans. Older viewers of these films are asked to go through exactly what Luke Skywalker goes through.

But we are so much more than where we end up. We are who and what and where we are over the course of a life. We got to experience our Star Wars, and those memories (and DVDs) will always exist—they cannot be erased. And Luke Skywalker got his victory. As he says in the film, “There was balance in the Force… for a time.” A movie series set in the many years after Return of the Jedi during which things were good would have shown that world. But it wouldn’t have made sense to show a universe free of conflict and stakes, and nothing can last forever. In 30 years, Rey will likely have to reckon with her own mixed legacy. Between it all: balance.

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DECEMBER 15, 2017

We recorded a bonus episode of the podcast devoted entirely to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The first movie we ever discussed on the podcast was the original Star Wars, so the occasion of a new Star Wars movie seemed like it warranted a podcast update.

DECEMBER 14, 2017

We started doing our movie podcast earlier this year, and the first movie we covered was the original Star Wars (A movie I stubbornly only refer to as Star Wars.). Laci had not grown up with the Star Wars films, and while she had seen them once as an adult, she admitted she wasn’t paying close attention or giving them much of a chance. But this time, she was going to try to get invested in the story and the characters, and see what all the fuss was about.

MAY 12, 2017

What do you think of when you hear “Star Wars”? Most people think of a franchise, but I think first and foremost of a single movie—a movie from 1977 directed by George Lucas.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. Like Rey practicing her lightsaber moves, slicing a boulder that then falls down the cliff and destroys the island natives’ wheelbarrow, ruining their day’s work. Our actions reverberate downward in ways we can’t possibly understand.