Spoilers for The Force Awakens, and all the other Star Wars movies, too…
Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters just over a month ago. While only time will tell where the movie ultimately places in the pantheon of Star Wars films, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of moviegoers greatly enjoyed it.
The Star Wars saga has had plenty of ups and downs over its 30-year history. The prequels have been notoriously divisive, and George Lucas’s Special Editions have been widely derided. But Episode IV revolutionized the modern blockbuster, and The Empire Strikes Back became one of nerd culture’s most beloved movies ever.
What about Return of the Jedi? Many would argue it’s the weakest of the Original Trilogy, with most complaints centered around the Ewoks. Another belabored negative? The arc of Han Solo. Many have argued, Harrison Ford among them, that he should have died in the movie.
The over-arching accusation here is that Return of the Jedi saw the beginning of trends that harmed the franchise — broad comedy, kiddie-fication, and overly complicated climaxes — poor decisions that would (arguably) be fully realized in Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Star Wars has long been lauded as an adaption of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” That journey requires there to be the dark chapter of self-discovery, but also the chapter of returning to the light. A three-act structure demands increasing tension right up to the very end, with the events darkest right at the middle. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi all play their roles. Han Solo dying would not have meant anything in this story because Return of the Jedi was not trying to tell a story of defeat and despair. It was a story of success, hope, and victory. That’s why Return of the Jedi is awesome.
The opening at Jabba’s Palace is Star Wars at its most weird and wonderful. The Battle of Endor remains the greatest and most impressive space battle in the history of cinema — it hasn’t been topped after three decades of advancements in special effects.
There are speederbike chases, the Rancor, the Sarlacc Pit, Jabba the Hutt, and yeah, Ewoks are there too. And even if the Ewoks were the worst things to ever grace the silver screen, which they aren’t, their presence is evened out by Lando just barely escaping the exploding Second Death Star, a climax worthy of any bag of popcorn and soda.
Return of the Jedi is true to its characters, and true to the spiritual journey that underpins the Star Wars story. That’s all that matters.
For instance, Han Solo: His death or survival is generally inconsequential in the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire. He does not have some special skill or ultimate power that can defeat the Dark Lords — that’s Luke. Indeed, Han does not have much to do in the movie other than hang around his friends and offer up a few well-timed quips. But what’s wrong with an upbeat adventure? The heroes are finally back together, and their united strength has already been enough to destroy one Death Star — there’s no reason it can’t destroy another. As importantly, saving Han in the film’s first act is a virtue in itself. The war must be put on hold, because Han Solo’s life is worth protecting — it’s the right thing to do.
Then there’s the ultimate climax around Luke and his father. In the years since Empire, Luke has accepted the truth about Vader, and used that to refocus his efforts on becoming a Jedi. Luke is now standing before Emperor, seemingly putting the future of the Jedi and the Rebellion at risk. He’s there to save his father, a figure he’s idolized his entire life.
Luke soundly defeats Vader. But instead of slaying him and killing the Emperor, Luke stops himself. He throws away his lightsaber.
“I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” This line awakens the lost soul of Anakin Skywalker inside Darth Vader. Luke has chosen his path, and he is willing to die for it. The only question is whether Anakin can follow him, or allow even greater darkness to prevail. The war for the galaxy ends right here — the particulars of military battles are mere asides.
Return of the Jedi ends with documentary-like footage — a “wrap party” of characters hugging and laughing joyfully while John Williams‘ epic score plays. And yeah, the Ewoks are there, too. But they’re cute. Admit it.
It’s not yet known where the new Star Wars trilogy will take us, but the original Star Wars trilogy was a tale about family coming back together. Now, the Skywalker family is again broken and divided. But even Kylo Ren, though he appears lost now, can find his way back to the Light.