Before the Internet, it was very clear to me that Luke Skywalker was the hero of the Star Wars films. He was the one imbued with special powers, the only good guy with a lightsaber, the one who blew up the first Death Star and who, in a sort of oblique way, was responsible for the end of Emperor Palpatine. I did not realize that while I was naming Luke my favorite character, just about everyone else favored Han Solo. (The “Han shot first” controversy was my awakening to this phenomenon; like all other right-minded people, I also aver that Han shot first, but it’s not because it makes Han less BA.)
Of course, when I was little – little enough to not know that The Phantom Menace was coming – The Empire Strikes Back was far and away my least favorite Star Wars movie. It had no space battle, which was what drew me in most as a viewer under the age of 10. Hand-to-hand combat (lightsaber duels included) and shootouts were simply not as interesting as ships flying at high speed, blowing up other ships and flying through narrow paths en route to blow up the biggest ships. Luke does plenty of that in the first movie; I found myself pulling for Wedge a bunch in Return of the Jedi. Han does virtually no flying in pitched battles, and the Millennium Falcon never spoke to me like the X-Wings did. Meanwhile, Han seemed deeply involved in the romantic subplot that early elementary school me just really didn’t want any part of; Luke spent more of his time talking to Obi-Wan, or barking at R2-D2, or whining at Yoda, or pleading with Darth Vader. (I realize that I am ruining any chance I ever had at being cool in a single paragraph.)
Watching The Empire Strikes Back again, and admittedly, probably only for the sixth or seventh time in one sitting, is an object lesson in why Han Solo is “cool” and why Luke Skywalker is the original trilogy’s most important character.
It wouldn’t be a Star Wars post without talking about how bad the dialogue is, but ironically, The Empire Strikes Back is probably the most quotable movie of the series. “No, Luke. I am your father” is a cultural touchstone. (I wish I could have been in a movie theater in 1981 to experience people finding that out for the first time.) “Do or do not; there is no try” is less catchy, but probably more ubiquitous in normal conversation. But Han Solo still has, arguably, the line of the entire franchise, thanks to a killer Harrison Ford ad lib.
Leia: I love you.
Han: I know.
Han Solo’s legend begins in the Mos Eisley Cantina, when he shoots down a bounty hunter in cold blood, and it builds when he saves the Rebel Alliance with a timely intervention at the Death Star, and it grows greater as he breaks the odds twice – first by cutting open a tauntaun and stuffing his buddy inside, second by piloting his ship through an asteroid field – and for good measure woos a princess in the belly of a space slug. Of course, by the end of the movie he has been frozen in carbonite and is en route to Tatooine to be displayed as a trophy in a fat gangster worm’s palace. Meanwhile, Luke has been hopping around a swamp getting gnomic advice from the personification of Time circa 1935, i.e. “backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” While there are some bravura moments in that space – Yoda raising the X-Wing from the swamp, Yoda doing his best impression of someone who has escaped from an old folks’ home, Luke fighting some representation of Vader in a cave – Luke is not much more than a prop as we learn how the Force works. Han seems to be perpetually in active voice, always doing something. Luke spends most of the movie letting things happen to him. It’s no wonder that Han is the cool one; he flies, he shoots, he scores.
Yet Luke is far more important – so much more important in this movie, actually, that Han has to be taken out of the action entirely to ensure that his hijinks don’t impinge on the conclusion of the film. (One gets the feeling that Han’s death in Episode VII opens the door for Luke in Episodes VIII and IX, assuming that Luke doesn’t get the chop himself.) It is Luke who comes to rescue Han and Leia (and Chewbacca, who seems to be less important in Luke’s plans, sadly). It is Luke who the trap at Cloud City is set for in the first place, and Luke who faces Vader in the film’s climax.
Perhaps most important of all is the fact that Luke is the first humanizing influence on Darth Vader. Before Vader lets Luke in on the secret, Vader is quite literally faceless evil. He murders people left and right through Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. (The death of Captain Antilles is shock treatment in the beginning of Star Wars; alternately,Admiral Piett meets his destiny as sci-fi Jim Halpert.) He may be more machine than man, yet he is more muscle than either in the first two films; that is, up to the point that he encounters Luke on Cloud City when, for the first time, he sees his son face-to-face. Before that, he is alternately Grand Moff Tarkin’s bulldog and then the Emperor’s, almost singlehandedly preventing the destruction of the first Death Star and then commanding the Imperial flagship, the Super Star Destroyer Executor. He is always doing someone else’s bidding: the man who rates as the third greatest villain in American film history, per the AFI, does not act on his own. He is very much under the control of others, a subtle distinction which I think the prequels mirror with an underrated skill; part of the reason I think people tended to like General Grievous, even though he didn’t seem particularly good at anything and didn’t have much screen time was, just like Vader, he is the mechanized warrior with the strange voice under Darth Sidious’ thumb.
Anyway, I don’t think anyone would have guessed in 1980, a year before the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, that Darth Vader would be a major character in six movies, more than any non-droid, much less that he would be arguably the most important character in the Star Wars universe. That “more machine than man” comment that Obi-Wan makes back when he was Alec Guinness is double-sided, both very literal and indicative of Vader’s heartlessness. But after The Empire Strikes Back, after he’s convinced the Emperor that Luke Skywalker would be a “powerful ally,” and once he has fought his son down to an amputation, we see something like human feeling. Granted, it comes out more along the lines of “Let’s rule the galaxy as a budding hereditary monarchy,” but it’s a shift. It’s a new Vader, with all of the ruthlessness we’re used to aligned with a surprising spirit. He is as brutal as ever, but he is acting on his own when he reveals himself to Luke and when he tells him that they could overthrow the Emperor if they so chose – not just as partners or as master and apprentice, but as father and son. Perhaps, in a sick sort of a way, this is conscience speaking; he understands the Emperor’s evil and believe that he and Luke could bring better, more humane government to the galaxy. We remember in that moment that he was the guy who went to the Dark Side because he was afraid Padme would die in childbirth, and because he was still grieving for his mother.
It makes Luke’s choice in Return of the Jedi not to kill his father – and again, who would have thought in 1977 that Luke would hold back from striking down Vader? – particularly stirring. It’s not because there’s some “Jedi way” that would have forbidden Luke from finishing off a notorious mass murderer, but because Luke genuinely does not want to kill his father. Burning the armor is another thing entirely, as symbolic a moment as the original trilogy has, but Luke has come to recognize that his father’s self is still in the broken body. There’s a reason he lugs that thing halfway across the Death Star to a shuttle: having just met his father, he’s not ready for him to die. As a cinematic moment, it’s always been anticlimactic. Return of the Jedi, anticipating superhero sequels twenty years in the future, is overcrowded. Luke is returning the Jedi. Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids are hanging out on Endor, meeting Ewoks and beating up stormtroopers. Lando, Wedge, and Admiral Ackbar are fighting what has to be the most intricate space battle in film history up to that point and blowing up the second Death Star. I’ve listed those three plots in order of importance, but in reverse order of interest. I remember being so impatient the first times I watched Return of the Jedi; what was happening on the Death Star or on Endor just seemed so dull compared to what was happening above the forest moon. Some of the most impressive camerawork of the original trilogy happens in those sequences, eliciting this feeling of claustrophobia tied up with tremendous excitement as X-Wings and A-Wings swooped around Mon Calamari cruisers, as one snubfighter vaporizes another, as the Millennium Falcon loses its radar dish in a moment of careless piloting, and as it tries to outrun the flames filling the superstructure of the second Death Star. Compared to Ewoks crushing AT-STs or Han Solo doing a really bad job at hotboxing Imperial headquarters, or even compared to the final lightsaber duel of the series, nothing quite stands up in terms of visual spectacle to what Lando and Wedge get up to. That spectacle – which would have been far less impressive, incidentally, if it were CGI – dims the actions of the central characters. It’s hard to imagine Return of the Jedi without it, but it’s possible that losing this second Death Star battle keeps the focus where it really ought to be in the final half hour of the final movie of the trilogy.
Return of the Jedi does have a reasonably close kinsman in film history; what it reminds me of most is a similarly named and placed movie, The Return of the King. Like Return of the King, which felt obligated to tie up every subplot (to the tune of an extended edition which is a consciousness-altering 4+ hours), Return of the Jedi takes us back to the places and concepts we knew the best. Another Death Star is the best, most lampooned example, but consider how much time is spent on Tatooine in the early going, or how we get one last look at Yoda on Dagobah. We have to ensure that Leia and Han prevent the Great Incest of the Galaxy (Long Ago and Far, Far Away edition), and we have to make Luke a full, competent Jedi. All of these and more have to be wrapped in a movie that is not any longer than its two predecessors, and it’s why this film is the least of the original trilogy. It has obligations in the way that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back simply didn’t, and while it’s satisfying in the end to bear witness to a series of handshakes and hugs and smiles set to the indelible tune of “Yub Yub,” the two previous hours just don’t hold up as well. It’s the individual moments, the well-cast images and memorable sounds of Return of the Jedi that shine and which make it, despite its structural deficiencies, one of my all-time favorite movies: Palpatine’s evil laughter behind crossed lightsabers, the Shuttle Tyderium shuffle, the low grumbling roar of Jabba’s voice, Wedge’s stern look of concentration, Ewoks chattering bemusedly among each other, the Executor plunging into the Death Star, the reveal of Luke’s green lightsaber, “It’s a trap!”