Don’t be fooled by the charlatans out there. Luke Skywalker is not the villain of Episode VIII. Let’s address up front the spurious “evidence” that generated this wild speculation: Luke’s position on the poster and promotional displays. He looms in the background — as his pappy Darth Vader once did — convincing many that he is the villain of The Last Jedi.
Ok, kids. Slow your roll. A poster does not a villain make. Luke’s position, even if historically held by Vader, doesn’t mean he’s going to start Force choking people. That’s a false equivalence.
Luke occupies the most influential spot in the film’s narrative. He is the last Jedi. The film is named for him. The entire plot of The Force Awakens focuses on tracking him down. His central spot on the posters for its sequel makes up for his total absence from Episode VII promotional materials.
Others see Luke’s darker clothing in the trailers and promo photos as a hint that he’ll turn to the Dark Side. But, come on, Luke wasn’t the MacGuffin of The Force Awakens because the Resistance and the First Order wanted to ask him for fashion tips. No, both groups feel that he’s either the single greatest hope or the single largest threat to their vision for the galaxy.
If He’s Not the Bad Guy, What’s the Deal?
Luke has already earned his “Resist the Dark Side” merit badge. I’ve written before (as have our own Brandon Rhea and the luminous beings at StarWars.com), that Luke finally conquered his inner darkness when he threw his lightsaber at the Emperor’s feet.
Odds are that Luke isn’t going to go all yellow-eyed and Force-lightning Rey on the islands of Ahch-To. Instead, he’s going to train her, just like Yoda and Obi-Wan trained him. However, in addition to being her (unwilling) mentor, he may be Rey’s chief antagonist.
But, hold on; surely, “antagonist” is just the AP-English word for villain, right? Not quite, and the difference is important.
Take, for instance, Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive. Gerard is hunting Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) because the police suspect that Kimble killed his wife. That tension reaches a climax when Kimble, desperate and fearing for his life, trains a gun on Gerard and declares, “I didn’t kill my wife.” To which Gerard responds:
Kimble’s assertion doesn’t matter to Gerard, but not because he is certain of Kimble’s guilt. Gerard is an agent of the state trying to get justice for a murdered woman. That means tracking down any suspects, Kimble included.
The villain of the film is the true murderer, the One-Armed Man. By the end, Gerard is helping Kimble to track the killer down. Therefore, Gerard is Kimble’s antagonist, but not the villain. Luke (despite also being a one-armed man) is almost certainly not the villain in Rey’s story. I am willing to wager, however, that he is her antagonist, an obstacle for her to overcome.
Master and Pupil: A Study in Tension
The relationship between teacher and student is the tension between the experienced and the eager. In the trailers, Luke expresses his reluctance to train Rey. Her raw power frightens him. As a result, he may be less forthcoming with information. He could even refuse to train her, ignoring her natural talent and the looming threat of the First Order.
Yoda filled a similar role for Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. He initially resisted teaching Luke and set numerous difficult tasks in front of him. Even while training the young Skywalker, Yoda took pains to show Luke how easy it is to fail. He nudged Luke into the Dark Side-heavy cave on Dagobah, knowing he was not ready to face it. He also opposed Luke’s desire to go save his friends on Bespin, deeming it unwise.
A good mentor knows to pace lessons and responsibilities to the ability of his pupil. That necessitates an occasionally antagonistic role, pushing back against a student’s rush to achieve mastery. The Dark Side, as you recall, is quicker, easier, and more seductive. Following the luminous path and doing things the right way takes time. Of course, literature and cinema are packed with tyrannical teachers who try to crush the will of their students. Yoda, while tough, was not deliberately cruel, and I doubt Luke will be either.
Now, like Yoda and Obi-Wan before him, old, grumpy Luke is the gatekeeper of knowledge that Rey seeks. How much will he be willing to teach her before he decides that the risk is too great? He may turn off the knowledge tap and send Rey packing, especially if she starts asking the wrong questions.
The Call to the Light
Some recent media has finally given us a glimpse of what Luke is up to after Return of the Jedi. The comic miniseries Shattered Empire shows Luke on a quest to reclaim Jedi artifacts plundered by the Emperor. Battlefront II‘s campaign continues that narrative, and makes Luke a key figure in redeeming yet another Imperial agent. Additionally, the recently published The Legends of Luke Skywalker has given us the most prolonged glimpse of Luke’s journey after the fall of the Empire. In those stories, he is a compassionate, wise, and patient seeker, who carefully considers each course he takes. This is not a man destined for dark deeds.
There’s also Luke’s relationship with Ben Solo to consider. His nephew accompanied him on his journeys to rediscover the roots of the Jedi Order. Ben joined that new order, and then betrayed it, leaving it in ashes. If the baggage associated with that family drama didn’t turn Luke to the Dark Side, then nothing will. His one-scene appearance in The Force Awakens — and the few lines we’ve heard from The Last Jedi — show a man deeply affected by sorrow. This is not a man bent on vengeance or stewing in rage.
The Future of the Force
Luke may want nothing more than to die in obscurity. He’s seen the disastrous effects powerful beings can have on the galaxy. Conflict between the Jedi and the Sith (or the Knights or Ren, or any other Dark Force-wielders) has torn the galaxy apart, with plenty of innocent people’s lives destroyed in the process. Freeing the galaxy from the influence of powerful space wizards to let the people govern themselves is a pretty noble goal. Though misguided, and painfully fatalistic, that mindset is not inherently evil.
Right now, only Luke knows why “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” But he’s not going to throw on his blacks, dye his saber red, and go track down and kill the Jedi trainees Kylo Ren and his Dark Side biker gang missed. If, as the theory goes, Rey is going to be the first of a new order of so-called Gray Jedi — striking a balance between the Light and Dark Side — Luke will push Rey to confront his nephew. He might suggest it or forbid it, or he might simply disappear again.
We have to live with this mystery just a little while longer, but I am already breathing easier knowing Luke Skywalker isn’t coming to crush my windpipe with evil space magic.