Last December, I lined up with dozens of other eager fans to view Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the local theater in Bismarck, ND. It was the weekend before Christmas, the weather was cold, and snow lay heavy on the ground. I was ready, though, to see where director Rian Johnson would take this story after the nostalgia-fueled-overdose of The Force Awakens from two years ago.
I saw the original Star Wars when I was in fourth grade, and I loved every minute of it. I fell in love with Star Wars before I fell in love with epic fantasy, and in some ways, I suppose it was my gateway drug to the fantastical—here was a story with wizards and dark lords, lasers and explosions, prophecies and battles. Star Wars has always been light on the science and heavy on the fiction—science fantasy might be a better classification than science fiction—but what it lacked in the analytical, hard science of its counterpart, Star Trek, it more than made up for with its sense of wonder and timeless characters. Not only did I watch the films time and again, I also read every Star Wars book I could get my hands on—Michael A. Stackpole’s X-Wing series, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, and the seventeen-volume epic of The New Jedi Order to name a few—and these stories, collectively called the “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars, were originally considered an official part of the story’s canon. However, when Disney acquired Star Wars for the small fee of $4.06 billion in October 2012, it did not surprise me in the least that these Expanded Universe novels, written by authors such as Timothy Zahn, Michael A. Stackpole, and Kevin J. Anderson, were subsequently stripped of their canonical status. It didn’t bother me that they’d been “de-canonized”, either; for one, films adapted from novels are rarely as good as their source material (only in one instance have I found a film to be better, in the case of the film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief), and, for another, it made good sense to clean the slate. Far better to make room for a fresh set of adventures away from the Expanded Universe, and it was one I intended to enjoy just as much as the books I’d spent years reading.
The Force Awakens managed to work in spite of—or perhaps because of—the fact that it simply captured all the beats of A New Hope. There was nothing original about that movie, but it nonetheless made for the most fun I’d had in movie theater since watching Return of the King over ten years ago. I went into The Force Awakens cautiously optimistic, and I came away satisfied. Maybe this was part of the problem when I saw The Last Jedi, because my expectations had been greatly elevated by the previous film.However, while many critics raved that Jedi boldly went where no Star Wars film had gone before (I know, wrong franchise, but that’s part of the point I’m making), I didn’t feel the same way. True, The Force Awakens carbon-copied many of the elements of A New Hope, but then The Last Jedi simply carbon-copied The Empire Strikes Back and subverted the results. Evacuate the rebel base, with different results. Jedi pupil meets Jedi teacher, with different results. Dark side cave, with different results. Find out who your parents are, with different results. Gambler betrays rebels, with different results. Ice (fine, salt) planet at the end of the film rather than the beginning. Doing the same things with different results, though, is still doing the same things.
Still, I probably would have been fine with all of this, save for the film’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker. The Last Jedi showed us a Luke who had given up, and maybe this would have been palatable if I’d experienced no other benchmark for who Luke became after the events of Return of the Jedi—but there was another Luke, the formerly canonical Luke Skywalker of the Expanded Universe, the Luke who founded a Jedi Academy, became its Grand Master, and fathered a son who later took up his mantle. True, the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi had some serious meat to chew on: his pupil failed, turned on the other Jedi, and ultimately put Luke in the position of recognizing that he was a flawed man who needed to come to terms with the consequences of his flaws. And there are merits to this portrayal, but the Luke Skywalker of the Expanded Universe faced far more adversity than the Green Milk Hermit ever did. More than one of his students fell to the dark side, too; as a matter of fact, the first one to do so put Luke in a coma, released the spirit of a devastatingly powerful Sith Lord, and Luke’s students and his family united to bring the student back from the dark side and defeat the Sith Lord together. Later, Luke’s entire Jedi academy was razed to the ground by alien invaders known as the Yuuzhan Vong, the New Republic collapsed, and his nephew died on a doomed mission aboard an enemy ship. In turn, Luke gathered his best Jedi Knights, led a strike team into the heart of Yuuzhan Vong territory, and kicked some alien ass. Still later, Luke’s other nephew fell to the dark side, murdered Luke’s wife, tortured Luke’s son, and started a second galactic civil war. In response, Luke and his niece, Jaina, joined forces and brought Jacen Solo’s murderous rampage to an end (for what it’s worth, Jacen Solo’s fall frustrated me, too, but that’s a separate discussion). All I can say is if the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi gave up after a single student’s failure, then he’d have been utterly obliterated by the challenges that Expanded Universe Luke faced and overcame time and again.
Society, unfortunately, has a strange fixation with seeing its heroes fall; one only has to examine the real-life case of Lance Armstrong to see this play out. We’re told that it’s good to see heroes fall in fiction, that it makes them more human, more relatable, and I suppose in some ways that’s true. We are indeed flawed beings, after all, and the best fiction taps into reality. Yet sometimes I fear that this only serves as a way for us to hold ourselves back. It’s easier to accept that I suck at cycling if I know Lance Armstrong was doping. We hold our heroes to impossible standards and then practically will them to make one mis-step, just so we can feel better about ourselves for never having tried. Is that who we want to be, though? One reviewer pointed out that a wise Luke is easy for viewers to accept, but a flawed Luke is not—and that, the reviewer contended, is what make The Last Jedi great. I’ll contend the opposite: a flawed Luke is easy to accept, because if he can retreat into hermitage after a massive screwup, then we’ve decided that we can, too. A wise Luke is hard to accept, because that means we actually have to embrace our failures and grow from them. A wise Luke means those impossible standards we keep toppling our heroes off of may not be so impossible after all. A wise Luke means that when it comes to bettering ourselves, it’s as simple as do or do not, because there is no try. In this tale of two Lukes, then, I’ll take Expanded Universe Luke any day.