Character Traits, Character Arcs, Throne Rooms and Italian Restaurants
The fallout from The Last Jedi has brought to light a fundamental difference of interpretation among fans, critics and even filmmakers. Interestingly, where you stand on the issue seems to be a reliable indicator of how you respond to the movie as a whole.
In the film we see Luke Skywalker sneaking up to his sleeping nephew – an innocent boy – lightsaber drawn, ready to commit murder. Sensing terrible darkness in him, the old Jedi Master momentarily succumbs to the temptations of the dark side.
At that moment, millions of fans suddenly cried out in horror, “Luke would never do this!”. While countless others shouted back, “Huh? Yes he would, he’s done it before. It’s his character flaw!”
So the question is: are Luke’s flirtations with the dark side a character trait or his character arc?
Yoda was unable to teach Luke Skywalker how to pay attention to the living Force instead of giving in to fear and doubt.
Then Luke goes to Ben Solo’s hut and sees that future all over again. And, as before, his saber ignites. […]
I’ve heard it argued that Luke would never consider this again, but facing the Dark side of yourself isn’t a “one time and it’s over thing.” It’s a constant.
And thus, the Fan Wars began. But which side is correct? How are we to know the good side from the bad? As Yoda says:
“You will know, when you are calm, at peace”
Well, the fandom is pretty far from peace right now, but I’m firmly in the ‘arc’ camp.
Audiences love watching character arcs play out because we get to see a character struggle against a flaw, and ultimately either triumph over it, or succumb to it. The arc serves to permanently – and fundamentally – change them and, (unlike in real life), is usually encapsulated by a single, pivotal, defining moment. In contrast, a trait is an intrinsic part of the character and is unaffected by the arc.
Generally speaking, audiences need neither know nor care about this technical distinction – nor should they: well told stories work on an instinctual level. But certainly the difference is more obvious in some characters than others.
Take Mowgli from Disney’s 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book: he is characterised by a determination to stay in the jungle, despite the animals’ best efforts to safely return him to the the man-village. Much like Peter Pan (another co-opted Disney character), he’s trying to preserve his childish innocence forever. This is reflected in Mowgli’s character traits: he is playful, carefree and independent. He stubbornly rejects his human heritage. However, a chance encounter with a girl collecting water changes everything. Mowgli is transfixed, fascinated, and then happily follows after her into the village. It’s a defining moment which deftly (and amusingly) resolves his character arc. We don’t for a second think Mowgli will always be reduced to a bumbling fool every time he meets a girl; we instinctively understand the event to be transformative for him. Mowgli is entering adolescence and it’s time for him to move on. Much to Baloo’s disgust, he is a man after all.
The Space Trucker
One of cinema’s all-time great character arcs is the one that transforms Ellen Ripley from deep space cargo haulier to gun-toting heroine. It miraculously spans two films (Alien & Aliens) by different writers and directors, while being entirely cohesive. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Ripley battles a terrifying alien creature which wipes out her crew. Her character traits – such as clear thinking, steely determination and an iron will – enables her eventual triumph. While these traits keep her alive, it is also clear that she remains absolutely terrified of the monster. Indeed, in the famous final scene she is literally paralysed with fear.
Likewise, at the start of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Ripley is still suffering from nightmares and refuses point blank to return to LV-426. However, Cameron’s marvellous script gives her a surrogate daughter to care for and protect, and when that child is threatened, Ripley’s maternal rage is so powerful that it entirely consumes her terror. In a brilliant third act reversal the tables are turned: now it’s the monster that is afraid of her. The creature will never again disturb her dreams. But this still isn’t a character trait: it doesn’t mean that Ripley is now a killing machine who isn’t afraid of anything.
Archaeologists, Writers and Regional Managers
Some more examples picked at random:
David Brent, The Office (UK)
Character traits: socially awkward, clumsy, self obsessed, cowardly.
Character arc: at his lowest ebb he finally forms a romantic connection with a woman and then finds the courage to stand up for himself.
Defining moment: in the final episode of the series he challenges the behaviour of his erstwhile idol, the loathsome bully Chris Finch.
Edward Lewis, Pretty Woman
Character traits: fear of heights, shrewd businessman, socially reserved.
Character arc: he finally discovers someone (and something) he loves more than the empty pursuit of money.
Defining moment: he defends Vivian from his abusive lawyer and announces that he’s going into the ship-building business.
Amy (Amy Schumer), Trainwreck
Character traits: career-focused, ambitious, opinionated
Character arc: she overcomes her fear of commitment
Defining moment: she participates in a cheerleading team as a demonstration of her willingness to change and her desire to commit to a grown-up relationship
Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Character traits: adventurous, academic, grizzled, worldly
Character arc: his secular, scientific worldview is challenged by the presence of a genuinely divine artefact and he discovers his latent faith
Defining moment: “Shut your eyes Marion, don’t look at it”
Leave the lightsaber, take the cannoli
In many ways, the closest comparison to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is to be found in another famous – but much more grounded – sequel: Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II (1975). Micheal’s arc, which began in 1972’s The Godfather – as well as its defining moment – exactly mirrors Luke’s, except with the inverse outcome. Both Luke and Michael struggled with the temptation to resolve their crises by doing evil.
After retrieving the gun hidden for him in a restaurant bathroom, Michael returns to his table and wrestles with his conscience as he tunes out of the conversation. It is a battle he is fated to lose. When he looks up he is a changed man: cold and resolute. He calmly stands and guns down his enemies, and so begins his downward spiral into the abyss. By the end of the second film we are left in no doubt that he has fully descended into hell; the internal conflict has long since been resolved.
To demonstrate just how far Michael has fallen, the sequel shows us a replay of his original sin, as he orders the killing of his own brother. This time there is no struggle, no hesitation. The killing of Fredo is horrifying because we are watching evil incarnate at work. The full, terrible consequences of Michael’s actions at Louie’s Restaurant have been realised.
In his turbulent youth Luke Skywalker could’ve gone that way, for sure. His existential crisis played out not in an Italian restaurant but in the Emperor’s throne room on the Death Star II, in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Taunted by the prospect of the final defeat of the Rebel Alliance and the death of his friends he struggles to keep his composure.
Luke is trapped in a devilish paradox: to save the galaxy he knows he must kill the Emperor (and perhaps his own father), but Yoda’s teaching is crystal clear:
“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, NEVER for attack”
The Emperor also wants Luke to go for his weapon, to choose the quick and easy path and condemn himself to the dark side.
As the tension builds and the walls seem to close in, Luke’s resolve crumbles and he makes a desperate lunge for his lightsaber. He is teetering on the precipice; his father, Darth Vader knows just how to push him over. [Don’t let the teddy bears fool you, this is as dark as children’s filmmaking gets.] Finally, as Vader threatens to go after Leia, Luke’s composure evaporates and he launches a frenzied attack, easily overpowering and maiming Vader. Hate has made him powerful indeed. We are at the defining moment of not only Luke’s arc, but that of the Star Wars saga itself. Everything has built to this moment. Will Luke give in to hate the way his father did? He looks between Vader’s severed robotic limb and his own mechanical hand. With a monumental effort he pulls himself back from the edge, switches off his lightsaber and throws it away. The internal battle is finally over.
“You’ve failed, your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
“So be it, Jedi”
Luke had been trying to convince himself he was a Jedi for three movies, and each time Yoda told him, “Not yet”. Now, he no longer needs to ask the question: he is a Jedi.
Luke experiences a spiritual transcendence and achieves a kind of enlightenment, an inner calm (reminiscent of the protagonist’s arc in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha). Luke finally understands what Yoda has been trying to tell him; that the Jedi Order is about attaining inner peace, not magic tricks, levitating rocks or lightsaber skills. Like Michael Corleone, Luke Skywalker’s struggle is definitively resolved – but in the opposite direction.
Luke is still courageous, reckless, and willing to risk everything to save his friends, but his character arc is done. His battle with the dark side is won, and – like Harry Potter’s scar after the vanquishing of Voldemort – it will not trouble him again. All is well.
Sadly, the one person who evidently didn’t understand any of this, is also the one person who really needed to:
“It’s that glimpse of… and Luke has never been… it’s not like Luke is a Superman who’s impervious to that. Having just, even the brief moment of temptation of it,” Johnson said, “because that’s what that moment is. He doesn’t give in to the Dark Side, it’s a moment of temptation to the Dark Side.”
Johnson continued, “It reminds me very much of when Vader is tempting Luke, when Luke is underneath the stairs in [Return of the] Jedi, lit with that very beautiful half-and-half, the duality of these two sides of him being pulled. And that’s really what that moment is for me, it’s a moment of temptation to the Dark Side for Luke.”
Nor was he prepared to listen to anyone who did get it. Even some guy called Mark Hamill, who was apparently involved with Star Wars in the past:
“I at one point had to say to Rian, ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character.’”
When Star Wars fans say Johnson ‘ruined Luke’s character’, or that this Luke ‘bears no resemblance’ to the character they know and love, it is the literal truth, not sour grapes.
Not only has Luke’s arc been reversed, his traits are also now different: he’s resentful not courageous, reclusive rather than reckless, and won’t risk anything to save his friends. He’s just going to sit on his rock damnit. He has also become an unreliable narrator and a liar. This Luke Skywalker (Luke Skywalker!) is definitely not someone you’d trust around your kids – or Princess Leia’s kid. The only connection to the character we know is that Hamill is playing the role again (which he agreed to on trust, without being given the opportunity to read the script in advance, unlike Fisher and Ford).
Once again, The Godfather: Part II is the touchstone. Michael’s decadent descent is brilliantly contrasted with his father Vito’s scrappy rise to power 40 years earlier. A much younger Robert De Niro takes over the role from Marlon Brando, posing a real danger that audiences would not be able to connect the two performances. However, the writers took pains to ensure that Vito’s character traits were fully present and correct (i.e. he is cunning, loyal, ruthless, honourable and devoted to his family), and so the magic trick was pulled off with aplomb.
For Hamill, the situation was very different: there was nothing left of Luke to hook on to or reconnect with:
“I almost had to think of Luke as another character. Maybe he’s Jake Skywalker. He’s not my Luke Skywalker.”