One evening, while geeking out with my daughters I decided to share a theory I had with them about Star Wars — specifically Return of the Jedi: Luke Skywalker turned to the Dark Side at the end of the trilogy.
I shared this story with them because I think my theory is reinforced by the trailer for the new movie:
It’s pretty exciting stuff, and to me, rather telling. Especially after you watch the first preview again. There’s been a lot of speculation on Kylo Ren and the Bad Guys in general — if you haven’t heard any of it you surely will. As my friend Mike Moore put it:
This, for me, is righting something that has never sat well with me: the oddball and underwhelming ending of Return of the Jedi.
Update, November 2016
Quite a few people have asked if I was going to retract my thoughts here, that Luke turned into a bad guy. My response has been, and continues to be: we saw him for all of 5 minutes at the end. We don’t know what’s transpired for Luke just yet, however he is indeed wearing the lighter garb of the good old nice guy Jedi. As was Anakin at the end of ROTJ…
Update, May 2018
We have two new Star Wars movies out that further illuminate Luke’s Story and, I suppose, dilute my theory. However, we still know nothing of the time period following ROTJ. I’m going to hang on to the dangling thread of this theory for a while…
I’ve had this argument with friends so many times; some think as I do, others remain convinced that Luke ended the original trilogy as a Good Guy.
I say he, in fact, had turned to the dark side and we watched it happen in blissful ignorance, choosing to believe that he would always be The Good Guy. Lucas wanted it this way so he could sell more toys. But there’s way more to this story.
Seeing these previews I think my theory might be correct: Luke gave in to the dark side to save his friends and defeat Vader and the emperor. We don’t know what will happen after that, and hopefully we’ll find out in December and we’ll see if I’m right.
Here are my arguments, in no particular order…
“The cave… remember your failure at the cave…”
Yoda knew the whole time that Luke was on the same path as his Anakin. He was reluctant to train him and said flatly that Luke would give in to the dark side if he left Dagobah to save his friends. The most striking part of this whole sequence (Luke’s training with Yoda) is The Cave.
Many people (my friends included) put it off as foreshadowing Luke’s discovery that Vader is his father. I think it’s foreshadowing that Luke will become his father. Of course you don’t know Vader’s his dad at this point — but at the end of the film, when I thought back to the cave… it made perfect sense. It’s good, solid Plot Juice. Becoming your parents (or trying not to) is a huge motivator.
And Luke failed, according to Yoda. More than that — Yoda issued this warning which Luke completely ignored:
Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally, will conquer Vader and his emperor. If you end your training now… if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did… you will become an agent of evil.
There it is: Yoda said it point blank. How many times has Yoda been wrong in the first six films? He knew Luke was on a path to become his father and, by leaving, he failed at preventing it.
Told you I did, wreckless is he… now… matters are worse.
This is the start of Luke’s slide.
The Original Ending
The original ending of Return of the Jedi is incredibly hokey, but there is a poignant scene where Luke burns his dad’s body and you could feel his tension and anger. None of this was supposed to happen according to this 2010 LA Times article (emphasis mine):
“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy...
The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.
This is where story and solid plot development separate from building a franchise designed to sell toys. It’s widely known that Lucas favored toy sales over character and storyline. Again, from Kurtz:
I could see where things were headed,” Kurtz said. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.
The first film and ‘Empire’ were about story and character, but I could see that George’s priorities were changing.
I so wish I saw the Return of the Jedi that Kurtz wanted. It would have made so much more sense. Empire built on the mythological core of Star Wars and worked on the natural tension that exists in the way we perceive Good and Evil. Luke thought he was doing Good by racing to rescue his friends. Anakin thought he was doing good by confronting the Jedi Council and destroying the Order itself. A very blurred matter of perspective: trying to do Good can be incredibly destructive.
Mark Hamill himself thought that Luke as a dark jedi was the natural turn of events (thanks to Bertrand LeRoy in the responses below):
As an actor that would be more fun to play. I just thought that’s the way it was going from when we finished [Empire]. I figured that’s what will be the pivotal moment. I’ll have to come back, but it will be I have Han Solo in my crosshairs and I’ll be about to kill him or about to kill the Princess or about to kill somebody that we care about. It’s an old cornball movie, like World War II movies.
Again: solid Plot Juice. One has to wonder if Hamill played Luke this way despite what Lucas wanted, recognizing the need for Luke to have a clearer bit of motivation. I think he did just that.
Indeed, there is a clear change of character as we move from Empire to Return of the Jedi. Luke becomes more serious, a little more sinister, and rocks his black robe.
Remember the scene from Jabba’s palace? The one where look strolled casually in, force-choking the guards like the Jedi typically do?
Does this look like a Jedi to you?
Nevertheless, I’m taking Captain Solo and his friends. You can either profit by this or be destroyed. It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my power.
Was that a threat? A touch of arrogance perhaps? No — Luke would never!
As a token of my gratitude, I present to you these two droids. Both are hard working, and will serve you well…
One second. Hold on here — was that a lie? Why yes, it was. Luke is giving in, he’s drawn to the dark side. Wow… Luke lies. Keep that in mind.
You might be thinking nah, no way. Why would he do that? The answer is that he was destructively trying to do Good and his training is not enough to allow him to see this. As Yoda warned, he is becoming an agent of evil.
Don’t freeze Luke’s friends in carbonite otherwise he’ll find you and destroy you and all your friends. That’s called revenge people — a not so Jedi trait.
Which actually comes in handy later on, because the only way he could beat his dad in a fight is …
Luke Turned, We All Watched It
The emperor was working Luke pretty hard, and croaked in his guttural monotone
Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete
And guess what? Luke tried.
Later in the sequence Luke loses it completely when Vader finds his soft spot (caring about his friends) and squeezes hard…
Saving friends, and now family. Vader has just threatened his sister and Luke gives in. This doesn’t make sense if Luke has been a Good Guy the whole time. It makes perfect sense if he has indeed failed his training (which he did) and doesn’t have the ability to withstand his dad. Whom he idolized and wanted to be just like, all of his life.
Easy to see. Easy to believe.
When I first saw this scene as a kid I remember being completely confused. I thought that of course Luke turned — but only a little bit. After all, he needed the power from the dark side to beat his dad … right? And he acted like a complete maniac but it was only temporary and phew! he came back from the edge!
This, people, is a plot hole. It doesn’t make any sense in terms of the story and also Luke’s character. Good Guys don’t turn Evil temporarily to defeat evil itself. They turn Evil because they want to; they give in.
Staying Good doesn’t follow Luke’s motivation at all because, frankly, he would have lost and his friends would have died unless he gave in to the dark side.
Your Hate Has Made You Powerful
Luke confronted and defeated his father only by giving in to his fear and hatred — driven by a desire to protect his sister, whom he loved dearly and who (basically) set him on this whole damn deal to begin with (help me Obi Wan Kenobi…). You can see this clearly as he swings away at Vader violently, beating on him with all the fear and rage that is swelling up in him… fired by a desire to protect his sister and friends.
This next scene is one of the most telling. When I first saw it I thought that Luke was realizing that he gave in and that’s Bad. What I think really happened was that Luke was filled with blood lust and a surge of satisfaction at his victory. Staring at his fist… marveling at his power. And why wouldn’t he be? He just kicked Vader’s ass. Come on, tell me you wouldn’t feel that too!
The emperor sees this as well. He thinks he has won Luke over— he even gloats a bit:
Good…. Now, fulfill your destiny… and take your father’s place at my side
From the emperor’s perspective it seems like this is all wrapped up, no? Vader is lying there on the floor, Luke just turned, let’s close the deal! But…
You can watch what happens next in two very different ways. The first, most obvious, is that Luke looks at his mechanical hand and then at his dad’s severed limb and realizes what could happen — oh no! Let’s make sure we come back from this ledge and stay on the Good side. This makes no sense in terms of Luke’s motivations.
Or, what I think, is that Luke looked at his fist — his FIST, clenched in a victory pump — and realized the effectiveness of his new power. Soaked in the revenge (the movie was entitled Revenge of the Jedi originally, I think this is why) and let the hatred indeed fill him… indeed make him powerful.
Now, watch as he turns, rises, and faces the emperor full of arrogance and brimming with dark power. I think Hamill played this scene brilliantly:
Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed your highness, I am a Jedi, like my father before me…
This would seemingly blow a hole in my story. Luke just flatly said he would never turn. He monologs for a bit about why he’ll be a Good Guy, always. He’s also lying through his teeth (like he did to Jabba, above). But why would he lie? Because he has to take out the emperor, and he knows his dad (Vader) is weak and vulnerable.
What happens next is a bit of deja vu. The emperor has realized that he has created just a little bit more than an apprentice — he’s created a rival. Why else would the emperor stop with the taunts right then? The emperor has Luke exactly where he wants him — it doesn’t make any sense to stop now!
Unless the emperor fears Luke. As he should — he just took Vader out of the equation.
The emperor tries to destroy him with the old shock treatment in the same way we saw in Revenge of the Sith (facing off against Mace Windu). In that scene, Palpatine played on the sympathies of Anakin to cut Windu’s hands off so he could toss Windu out the window.
In this scene, Luke plays his dad in the exact same way to toss the emperor into the abyss. Ahh symbolism.
That shock treatment? He basically brushed it off. Luke is a badass. It’s the only way this whole scene makes any sense at all.
Watch Those Scenes Again
Watch Luke’s eyes as he watches Vader die. Now, rather than the obvious thing (that Luke is thinking about a lost relationship with his dad) — consider that Luke is upset about not being able to “rule the galaxy as father and son”.
It might not seem plausible, but it’s the only thing that ties up this gaping plot hole.
Consider Luke’s story arc: young kid wanting adventure and to find a father that he never knew. He wants to be the hero so badly throughout and he finally does — and doesn’t like what he ends up with. An evil dad, a dead mentor who lied to him, a lost hand and the fair princess he fell in love with turns out to be his sister!
He was betrayed by the person he trusted most (Obiwan not telling him about his dad) and Yoda dies right in front of him just as he was trying to get his Jedi life on track again.
Nothing seems to work out for this kid, so when confronted with The Choice between saving himself or his friends/sister, he does the obvious: in order to save them (and now his dad as well) he must sacrifice himself and give in. Nothing has seemed to work out for him up to this point — this is the least he could do. Destructively doing Good just like Anakin in Revenge of the Sith.
Vader has been redeemed, the emperor defeated and the Force must stay in balance. So Luke turns for the good of all; a nice little plot-hole filler.
Quite a few people have suggested to me that this doesn’t fit the Hero’s Journey/Monomyth that the story was predicated on. In fact I would suggest that the original ending doesn’t fit the Monomyth — this ending does.
In a typical fairytale ending the Good Guy overcomes all odds at the end and he wins some type of reward — a “gift from the gods/goddess” or maybe the throne or the hand of the princess. Luke received nothing. Nothing … unless he maybe took over where his dad left off? Super Evil Badass of the Galaxy? Which ending fits better? You might not think that’s a reward at all — but then again it’s all a matter of perspective isn’t it?
Watch Return of the Jedi again, but this time with the idea that Luke is actually drawn to his dad’s power and doesn’t have the ability to resist using it to destructively do Good. His demeanor is a little more serious throughout and he has a very palpable dark edge.
Jabba the Hutt found out what happens when you cross Luke… which reminds me of something…
I guess we’ll know in December.