Luke Skywalker is a Fallible Hero and That’s Okay

 

—this piece contains major spoilers from The Last Jedi
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“Luke Skywalker has vanished.”

The opening line of the crawl for The Force Awakens was like a gut punch to Luke fans everywhere. And not only was Luke gone, he’d apparently gone missing voluntarily, as a result of Ben Solo falling to the dark side and becoming Kylo Ren. For two years the fandom theorized not only on why Kylo became evil but why Luke Skywalker, Rebel hero and Jedi legend, has apparently given up. In The Last Jedi, we finally get those answers. Luke takes Yoda’s advice to “pass on what you have learned” to heart, but a split-second mistake on Luke’s part brings the whole thing crashing down. And as a result Luke decides to exile himself on a remote island and leave no trace of his whereabouts. By the time Rey finds him, he’s an acerbic, sarcastic hermit who in so many rude ways tells her to leave him alone and that he refuses to help Leia fight the evils of the First Order.

This seems a sharp contrast to the bright, shining figure we see in the original trilogy. Luke had hardships and made decisions that backfired on him, but he was never one to run away from a problem. So at first glance this seems like a long string of extremely out of character moments meant to create drama and difficulty for Rey and Kylo. However, when taking a deeper look at Luke’s character and personality in the original trilogy, his circumstances in TLJ are a natural extension of his character.

First, Luke has always been impulsive. We see it in A New Hope when he decides to go rescue Leia, in The Empire Strikes Back when he runs off to Cloud City, and even in Return of the Jedi there’s a certain amount of rashness needed to turn himself in to Vader for the sole purpose of trying to convince Vader to renounce the dark side. However Luke, and by extension the audience, was (generally) rewarded for his impulsive nature, because narratively he’s the hero and the hero comes out on top in the end.

Relatedly, Luke has also always dreamed of being a hero. He wants to leave the farm to go out and do great deeds in the galaxy, he wants to be a Jedi hero like his father, he wants to be the hero who saves Anakin from himself. That’s not to say he’s flippant or arrogant about his role in the Rebellion and the Jedi; he knows the responsibility that comes with leadership and he doesn’t brag about it. But he’s also embraced his role as hero.

Third, Luke’s biggest moment in RotJ is when he pulls himself back from killing Vader and falling to the dark side. Immediately preceding that moment is a furious lightsaber duel, where Luke lashes out against Vader out of fear and anger, eventually causing Luke to saber off Vader’s right hand (the same hand he himself had lost to Vader on Bespin).

And finally, family is a running theme for Luke in the original trilogy. Despite his desire to get off Tatooine, he also doesn’t want to abandon his aunt and uncle and is heartbroken by their murder. His love for Leia is what causes him to snap in fury when Vader taunts him on the Death Star. And of course one of his defining character moments is insisting that he can’t kill Vader, that there is still some good part of his father remaining.

So. Keeping those things in mind, let’s take a look at that fateful night in Ben’s hut. Luke senses something dark is growing in Ben, and is horrified to find it’s even worse and more consuming than he realized. On instinct he activates his lightsaber, intending to destroy that darkness in front of him and then instantly regrets it. But by then it’s too late; Ben is awake, sees what looks like his uncle trying to kill him, and reacts accordingly.

Luke’s instant reaction to ignite his saber was an impulsive one, made in the heat of the moment. By the time his rational thought catches up a second later it is, of course, too late and everything goes to hell. But it is an extremely human mistake to make. It is human to see a threat and instantly react in a defensive manner.

But Luke isn’t supposed to be human; he’s supposed to be a legend. And legends aren’t supposed to make mistakes.

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Luke doesn’t exile himself because he failed Ben, but because he made a mistake that (in his mind) completely let down the entire galaxy. And that crushing guilt is what turns him into the cynical man Rey meets on Ahch-To.

It’s not just guilt over Ben turning to the dark side. Think about it: we have a man who no doubt feels a huge responsibility for the future of the Jedi Order; after all Yoda tells him he is the last and it’s his duty to pass on what he has learned. That’s an immense amount of pressure for Luke because if he fails, then (again, in his mind) the Jedi fail. And what’s a bigger failure than attempting to kill a boy in his sleep? After all, Luke fought to save Vader from his darkness, and fought to move beyond the failures of Obi-Wan and Yoda, so imagine his guilt when he doesn’t do the same for Ben.

Crucially, that ties into a thought (perhaps fear?) that I’m sure still occasionally lurks in the back of Luke’s mind: What if I end up like my father after all? The horror Luke feels in that moment in Ben’s hut isn’t just that he attempted to kill his sleeping nephew but also that he tapped into that dark side of himself that he works to keep in check. He managed to resist it this time, but what if next time he doesn’t?

And finally, it isn’t just any padawan that he attempted to kill…it was his own nephew. The son of his sister and best friend. Even if Ben had stayed asleep and Luke had left the hut with his nephew none the wiser, do you think Luke would’ve been able to look Ben (or Leia) in the eye, knowing what he’d almost done in a moment of weakness?

And the fact that all of that culminated in Ben burning down the temple, killing most of the padawans and then presumably running off to join up with Snoke was just the final straw for Luke. All his doubts and fears came crashing down on him at once and rather than try to search for Ben and make things right, he chooses instead to exile himself. By his thinking, he failed himself, failed his family, and failed the entire legacy of the Jedi (and thus the galaxy), and since no one else has the knowledge and skills to train future Jedi then perhaps it’s best to just let the whole concept die out. After all, has it ever brought anything other than pain and destruction?

When looking at that all together, is it any wonder why Luke decided to live out his final years as a broken and cranky individual in the middle of nowhere in self-imposed exile?

Fortunately, Rey and Yoda give him the metaphorical kick in the ass he needs. Luke is still a legend, no matter what he tells himself, as the final scene of the movie shows us with heartbreaking sweetness. The root of every legend is a real person, messy and fallible, and while they may fail (and they will fail) that doesn’t erase their heroic deeds and their inspirational power. More than anyone else, Luke exemplifies the main theme of TLJ: learn from your failures. The important thing is not to make the right decision every time, but how you decide to grow from your mistakes—and how you choose to fix them.

10 comments

  1. John says:

    Interesting piece. I agree with the basic premise that it is okay for Luke to be a failure as a teacher. I know not every Star Wars fan agrees, and that’s okay – not everyone has to like the new Sequel material. But having Luke fail in teaching Ben Solo provides an opportunity that the Legends material never did – to have the new generation emerge from Luke Skywalker’s shadow. From a narrative perspective, Luke’s failure allows for the emergence of a compelling new protagonist (Rey) and antagonist (Kylo) for the new trilogy. If Luke Skywalker, Grand Master were still skipping around fighting bad guys, neither Rey nor Kylo would be able to escape the nonsensical story material that Jacen and Jaina were stuck with for much Legends. Luke’s failure opens up new opportunities for stories that Legends lacked.

    On Luke’s split-second decision to attack his sleeping nephew – I still don’t buy it. Luke Skywalker, in the face of Darth Sidious, while the entire fate of the Rebellion hung in the balance, and with a new profound threat revealed to his sister, opted to throw away his lightsaber. That is not a character who in a moment of fear would suddenly consider murdering a sleeping boy. It is a jarring whiplash for the sake of a jarring whiplash, character consistency be damned, and poor storytelling. This is especially the case because there are several ways that this scene could have been earned, if Johnson had wanted to pursue them. On the simplest level, the movie might have actually shown us what Luke saw in Ben – perhaps it was something so horrible that Luke was tempted to violence, but the audience isn’t given the chance to judge that for themselves (this would also have required like, a 3 or 4 second sequence, without adding significant run-time). More elaborately, the movie could have given us some Luke character development, to *show* us the hubris that we hear so much about leading up to that choice. Show, don’t tell is the rule for important things – by showing us so little and relying on telling, the movie suggests that Luke’s motivations in this moment are not all that important. Luke is an iconic character in this franchise. I have no objection to developing his character in a tragic direction, but that would require actual development, and not a cheap surprise.

    Having failed, though, I actually like Luke’s decision to hide on the island. He’s obviously feeling guilty, but like you I see his decision to hide as at least in part a principled stance: Luke has concluded that taking a stand against evil just makes things worse, and so has decided to remove himself from the equation. This is not a new concept for Star Wars, which has always struggled with the question of how to confront evil without becoming evil. Luke’s solution – to avoid all confrontation – is an extreme position, and one ultimately proven false, but it is not totally bonkers, nor is it entirely out of character – after all, Luke is the one who at the end of VI threw away his lightsaber and trusted in the goodness of others to save the day. I see his decision to isolate himself as this lesson of non-violence and trust taken to the extreme. The best part is, he’s not entirely wrong! Given his extremism, Rey naturally ignores his advice, and runs off to save the day, lightsaber swinging, only to fail utterly when Kylo uses her to rise to the top of the First Order. Turns out, running in lightsaber swinging doesn’t actually solve all that many problems. Of course, Luke has to (re-)learn from Rey that the solution can’t be total non-engagement, either. But the critics of the movie who wanted Luke Skywalker to show up in Act III and kick some First Order ass are missing the larger point. Unlike a generic superhero movie, the challenge isn’t to overwhelm the bad guys with power; Luke’s basic insight about the need to avoid compromising oneself is more or less correct. The weirdness of the flashback sequences aside, this was a *great* Jedi story.

    • Jamie says:

      In total agreement with you that the general direction of Luke’s development is fine – it’s that lightsaber scene in the hut that’s problematic and everyone who seems to stick by it refers to it as a “split-second mistake” or a momentary lapse of judgement.

      Luke igniting his lightsaber there is the real-world equivalent of loading a gun and pointing it at a kid’s head as they sleep. That is not a small mistake. That is something a monster does. Whatever his actions were to take down Vader and the Emperor, they were absolutely undone by his creation of Kylo. I find it hard to even describe him as an infallible hero, or a hero of any kind.

      If a Force-vision can immediately make you consider murdering a child in their sleep, maybe Jedi shouldn’t be allowed to carry weapons of any kind.

      • John says:

        After a second viewing, I have more problems with the scene’s execution than concept. On the plus side, Luke has auditory hallucinations of terrible things happening in the future. On the minus side, Luke draws his lightsaber slowly, considers activating it, and then very deliberately turns it on – the whole sequence lasts too long for it to be a knee-jerk reaction. I maintain that the easiest fix would have been adding a visual hallucination, perhaps of Kylo in his mask, lightsaber drawn, coming at Luke, and to have Luke draw his lightsaber quickly and instinctively, rather than slowly and deliberately. The rest of the scene could play out the same – Luke is still a failure for acting out of fear, Kylo still hates and resents his master, and Rey still feels sympathy for Kylo at having been driven away by Luke. Otherwise, we are left with a too-deliberate premeditation of cold-blooded murder, which I maintain is totally out of character with previous portrayals.

      • Ben was 23-hardly a child. Which is not to say what Luke did wasn’t wrong, but framing it as him thinking about killing a child is inaccurate.

      • John says:

        I maintain that the comparison is apt. Ben is not just some 20-something that Luke considers killing in his sleep (as you note, already a startling proposition). Ben is Luke’s apprentice, his star pupil, and his only nephew, entrusted to Luke’s care by his beloved sister. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that while Ben may not be *a* child, he is effectively *Luke’s* child, whatever his age may be. For Luke even to consider murdering Ben is out of character absent serious character development work, which the movie does not attempt. Johnson would have done better to portray this scene as a tragic Force-vision-induced misunderstanding, rather than a deliberate impulse to murder.

  2. Eric J Brown says:

    “shame… and consequence.”

    While I know plenty of folks who are drastically upset over the arc of Luke’s story, it makes perfect sense to me. Shame shuts people down – it’s destructive. It makes one hide. When we feel shame we close ourselves off from our friends, our family, our neighbors. We hide, if not our whole self at least part of yourself.

    And there you have Luke Skywalker. Jedi Master. Everyone knows him, everyone loves him. And he’s going to restore the Jedi Knights… and SHAME hits. The new order destroyed, and worse than destroyed. And sure, maybe a few people might accept that Snoke took it down somehow (maybe) – but wherever Luke went there would be that shame.

    Shame has to be hidden, it has to be covered somehow. How can you cover that shame if you are Luke Skywalker?

    You can’t – not around anyone else. You have no choice, as long as there is shame, but to run and hide.

    Of course – I also find it interesting that Luke only starts to move past his shame (and fear – shame and fear go hand in hand) once Yoda shows up and starts toying with him… and then treats Luke as what he is. You’re still a master, Luke. Your shame hasn’t changed that – it hasn’t change us and how we react. Your shame didn’t bring the destruction that you feared.

    Shame is a horrific thing to live with.

  3. Sarah says:

    All jedi ever seem to get is slaughtered and all the remaining survivors ever seem to do is go hermit. I don’t feel like asking for something better and breaking the cycle is asking for much. The goodwill from the critics towards this movie is weirder to me than the hate. If you are going to make pointless sequels, they better be magical to justify their existence, and they ain’t.

    • Eric J Brown says:

      I’m thinking things through here, so bear with me. One of the the things that made Empire Empire when it first came out was how… gut-punching Vader’s reveal was. There was disbelief, shock, anger… all that.

      I’m not wondering if The Last Jedi isn’t going to… grow in popularity and esteem, because most of the hate is because of gut-punches that we thought couldn’t be true, that had to be impossible.

      A failed Luke – gut punch to the Skywalker fans and the Jedi fans in particular.

      Rey’s a Nobody – while I still hope this is deception on Ben’s part, it was a gut punch to the audience – my wife is still somewhat ticked by it.

      Poe and Finn’s adventure that basically kills 90% of the Resistance…. Should have listened to the lady Admirals, gents!

      Ben’s almost turn — I took my six year old to see it the other day, and in the middle of it he was cheering loudly in the theater, “Kylo Ren’s becoming a good guy, he’s becoming a good guy daddy!” Then not…. Again, another gut punch to another angle.

      All of these… work. They work just as well as “I am your father” – even if they aren’t what we expected. And once we let go of our expectations and ride with it… then it can be beautiful. Who expected Vader to die saving Luke? Sometimes the flipped expectations with their initial gut punches are the best of Star Wars.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        I honestly wonder if it might surpass Empire‘s reputation ten or twenty years from now. It was challenging at first but the more familiar I become with it the more I find to appreciate.

      • XToad Sannom says:

        To the webmaster : too long an answer and the “post comment” button disappear below the screen’s line and there is no way to scroll down. Could you look into that?

        “A failed Luke – gut punch to the Skywalker fans and the Jedi fans in particular.”

        Jedi fans already got one hell of a gut punch when the PT revealed them in all of their failings. Another one is extraneous. And gut-punching Luke’s fans by making him a cold, distant, unconcerned asshole is not gut-punching, it’s kicking them when they’re down.

        “Rey’s a Nobody – while I still hope this is deception on Ben’s part, it was a gut punch to the audience – my wife is still somewhat ticked by it.”

        I don’t think this is as much of a gut-punch as people believe, because a strong contingent of fans probably expected that she had no special lineage, not to mention that Snoke’s speech about the Force sending someone to counter Kylo’s darkness pretty much spells it out : she’s a new Chosen One, except that this time, Snoke was the only one aware of the prophecy.

        “Poe and Finn’s adventure that basically kills 90% of the Resistance…. Should have listened to the lady Admirals, gents!”

        And yet they bungled it by having Poe perfectly set up for an arc that Finn ultimately got. What were they thinking?

        “Ben’s almost turn — I took my six year old to see it the other day, and in the middle of it he was cheering loudly in the theater, “Kylo Ren’s becoming a good guy, he’s becoming a good guy daddy!” Then not…. Again, another gut punch to another angle.”
        Everyone could have seen this coming, there is no way this was a gut-punch to anyone but children, who aren’t yet aware of tropes and how they are subverted.

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