With roughly a month and a half left until the premiere of The Force Awakens, promotion is ramping up and speculation is running wild. And while there’s more BB-8s than you can shake a stick at, one character has been conspicuously absent so far: Luke Skywalker.
J.J. Abrams is well known for keeping movie plots and key characters close to the chest. He loves to talk up the “mystery box” concept and is a proponent of the idea that the mystery is more exciting than the revelation. And all this secrecy has led many Star Wars fans to wonder if perhaps Luke didn’t become the Jedi Master we all expected but perhaps…fell to the dark side instead.
There would definitely be a certain poignancy in having the Big Bad of the sequel trilogy be the former celebrated hero of the original trilogy. The story of Star Wars is about the struggle between good and evil; more specifically it is about how everyone has the capacity for both good and evil and that it is your choices that matter. Anakin and Luke both follow the hero’s journey but come to wildly different endings, one tragic and one heroic. They act as foils to one another and show how little choices eventually build up into something good or something evil. But to say that Luke will be evil in The Force Awakens is, I think, a misunderstanding not only of Luke’s character development but also a misunderstanding of the type of hero Luke Skywalker is.
The relationship between Vader and Luke is vital to the story of Return of the Jedi. Luke is struggling with conflicting duties: duty to defeat the dark side and save the galaxy versus a duty to save whatever part of Anakin Skywalker remains within Vader. But he’s also struggling with the fear that he is destined to end up falling like his father, a worry that is made abundantly clear during their final duel when Luke severs Vader’s right hand, then realizing he has done to Vader what Vader did to him in the previous movie. It’s at that point he makes a conscious decision to pull himself back from the dark side and refuse to give in to his fear and anger. It’s a hugely powerful moment. By explicitly choosing not to fight (in fact, he actually throws away his lightsaber), Luke ends up redeeming his father and winning against the Emperor.
Luke often gets a bad rap in fandom and pop culture for being the “whiny kid,” as immortalized by the infamous power converters line in A New Hope. Especially when compared to the swagger of Han Solo, Luke is, at best, considered the boring one of the trio. And so a lot of his character development is overlooked, especially when it comes to Return of the Jedi.
But this is an unfair judgement of Luke Skywalker as a character, and I think a lot of Luke’s reputation has to do with the fact that by Return of the Jedi he is not your stereotypical male action hero. He’s emotional: his faith in and love for Anakin Skywalker is enough to turn Vader back to the light. He wins not by being physically stronger than Palpatine but by throwing away his lightsaber and trusting in the Force. He doesn’t run in, lightsaber blazing, to take down all the bad guys and get the girl in the end while spouting one-liners the whole time (that’s Han’s job). The last time Luke tried that, he ended up short a hand and hanging from the underside of Bespin.
Luke starts out as a kid who wants to have grand adventures and be the big hero who saves the day but quickly finds out the galaxy doesn’t quite work that way. By the time we get to Return of the Jedi, we have a main character who is thoughtful, doesn’t rush into things without at least twelve steps of a plan in place (seriously, rescuing Han took some serious planning), and is in touch with his emotions and can recognize when they’re getting the better of him (and consciously pull back). Basically, he has the power of Heart. Because that’s not quite as exciting as Han “never tell me the odds” Solo running screaming after stormtroopers on the Death Star, Luke’s character development gets overlooked, and I think this is something that’s informed a lot of his post-RotJ portrayals
An issue I always had whenever I read EU material heavily featuring Luke was that it just didn’t feel like the character I knew from the movies. Most of the time he felt like a stoic Jedi statue spouting platitudes and swinging around a lightsaber. Maybe he’d flirt with or openly embrace the dark side (hello Dark Empire) but that never felt like natural character progression. Instead it came across as an attempt to make Luke “interesting” by making him evil.
When we last saw Luke Skywalker he was celebrating with the Rebel Alliance, having just found a way to redeem his father and in doing so save the galaxy from the evils of the dark side. Balance was restored to the Force, the light had won, etc. He’s reached the end of his hero’s journey, having found the freedom to live, is ready to take on the next challenge the galaxy throws at him, and things are looking up.
I’m not saying that Luke can’t be evil in The Force Awakens; we know basically nothing about what Luke’s been up to since the victory celebration on Endor’s moon and I have a feeling it’ll stay that way until December. But based on the kind of hero Luke is and where his character journey left off at the end of the original trilogy, I don’t think a dark side Luke Skywalker would be a natural character progression, at least not without something big happening in the intervening thirty years. Lucas made too much of point of showing Luke deliberately choosing the light over the dark; I would be disappointed to see that characterization reversed.