Although Luke Skywalker is, arguably, the main character of the Star Wars Original Trilogy, he is also one of the characters that receives the most flack. From the moment Mark Hamill mentioned power converters and Tosche Station, Luke Skywalker seemed doomed to be the whiny kid. Personally I believe this to be complete mischaracterisation and I will explain why below.
I’m going to start where Luke starts, on Tatooine. When A New Hope begins Luke is living with his aunt and uncle, an existence he is rather unhappy with. He is a farm boy, living on the peripheries of the Galaxy, aware but not involved with the events occurring in that larger world. Luke has dreams, even if those are limited to going to the Academy with his friends, but feels incredibly stuck where he is. This is, I believe, the reason that so many people identified with that beautiful moment when Luke looks at the two setting suns. Luke represents the teenagers and young adults who want life to begin but don’t know how to make that happen. This beginning doesn’t allow for Luke to be anything but a little bit ignorant and very enthusiastic. Is the Tosche Station-line a little bit whiny? Yes, in the way that we all are about things we care about at the age of 17. Does he know anything that is really relevant to the larger Universe? Not really, but he’s very willing to learn. From that moment during sunset Luke goes on a major journey of character development which doesn’t end until the final scene in The Return of the Jedi.
As a quick aside, how does this development take place? Key to understanding the journey Luke Skywalker makes in all three Original films is the idea of the Hero’s Journey, also known as the Monomyth. This concept was introduced by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces which George Lucas was a big fan of. The Hero’s Journey describes the basic narrative pattern that most stories follow, whether they’re novels, myths or films. Luke Skywalker fits the description of hero perfectly here. If you just look at the graphic on the right, it is quite easy to ascribe certain stages to Luke’s experiences throughout al three films. The mentor is clearly Obi-Wan Kenobi, the two helpers Leia and Han. The Revelation, followed by the transformation is the discovery that Darth Vader is his father, etc. Now, if every hero goes through these stages why does the label of whiner only really follow Luke around? I believe an explanation for this is that rather than Luke going through this whole journey in just one film, as many characters are forced to, he gets to experience it in a trilogy. ANH only covers the first third of the diagram, allowing Luke to slowly take steps towards growing up and becoming a hero in his own right. His development isn’t forced into two hours, but rather extended over six, showing him have his ups and downs, his victories and failures. As such, George Lucas was able to actually spend some time working out the emotional growth of a young man, something that, ironically, is often largely skipped in coming-of-age films because it’s not always appealing or aspirational.
Luke as a character is usually very considerate, thoughtful and relatively emotional for a leading man. His openness with his emotions is largely what has has led to him being described as everything from a loser to a wuss to worse. Whether it’s a heart-broken Luke asking Leia why Ben had to die or an absolutely horrified Luke who finds out his father is the number one killer in the Galaxy, George Lucas never shied away from allowing Luke to visibly portray the emotions he is feeling. There is no shoving emotions away and posing as a bad boy who don’t need no heart. And this, I believe, is at the very core of why so many fans, mainly men, seem to dislike Luke Skywalker to a level that almost equals the Jar Jar hate. Luke isn’t a typical hero in the swashbuckling ways of others but is instead very much like us. He starts of small, slightly ignorant, slightly annoying but with a good heart. He points lightsabers at his own face, is impatient and thinks he can tell Han Solo how to fly his ship. If this is not a description of a young girl or boy entering the big world then I don’t know what is. He reminds us a little bit too much of what we are like, of how we may come across and it is much easier to avoid this by focusing on relatively one dimensional characters such as Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back. Now there is a man. Silent, taciturn and bad, but he looks great in his armour. I could write a whole post about how damaging these kind of male stereotypes are for the idea masculinity that young boys are growing up with, because much of the mockery and disregard directed at Luke comes from the fact he isn’t a pure hunk of muscle who kicks his way through life. It is this very openness that makes Luke so fascinating and an example for young boys. I also believe that it is the people who dislike Luke are also the ones who refuse to see the growth Han Solo goes through in the three Original trilogy films. If you think he is nothing but a scoundrel you might need to rewatch The Return of the Jedi.
People tend to forget how much of the stuff they might find annoying about Luke takes place in the first twenty minutes or so of A New Hope, when Luke is still, quite literally, a farm boy with no experiences and no future. People also seem happy to forget that in those moments Luke shows himself to be dutiful towards his family, kind to two random robots and willing to put himself in danger to find his aunt and uncle. As ANH continues Luke shows himself to cope relatively well with pressure, to believe in his own powers and to be willing to fight for something bigger than himself. How is that for a heroic character? Luke in ANH, much like the vilified Jar Jar, is not your immediate go-to hero, but is a character with a good heart who will do his very best to help others. As the trilogy continues, Luke goes through some major character development. In The Empire Strikes Back we see him take on the role of Jedi apprentice, deal with Darth Vader’s revelation and with the loss of a limb. He continues to willingly step into danger for his friends, to face his own fears and even ask for help (from Leia) when he needs it. The jump he makes from ESB to The Return of the Jedi is one which seemingly has gone unnoticed by many but is very obvious when one looks at ANH. The calm assertiveness with which Luke walks into Jabba’s Palace is a complete turn around from the nervous boy on Tatooine. Does that mean everything is now comes easy to him? No, of course not, because that’s not how life works.
The Return of the Jedi was the film in which all of Luke’s work comes together and this shown beautifully in his fight against Sidious. A moment many seem to misunderstand is his refusal to keep fighting, which they see as a defeat. Rather, Luke is here claiming his heritage and his own interpretation of it. He is a Jedi, not a soldier. He is willing to die, but it is going to happen on his terms. He does not give in to the temptation that Sidious presents but remains himself. Would Arnold Schwarzenegger have done this? Highly unlikely, but Luke has never aspired to be a Terminator. From a young and ignorant farm boy Luke grows into a self-assured man who is willing to die for his friends. If what you want to see is a male character that doesn’t require any development there are plenty of films out there for you. If you want to watch a complex character grow and develop over time, Star Wars is the franchise for you.
Luke might not be the hero you think you need, but he is the hero you deserve. As a character Luke never stops developing and learning, going from no one to a man who can look death in the face and realize he doesn’t need his weapons to win. The vitriolic response to Luke that you can easily find all over the Internet is, I believe, not an actual response to Luke but to people seeing themselves reflected in him. We all start out in desperate need of help and someone to kick us into action. No one rolls out of the womb as James Bond, not even James Bond himself. Throughout his saga George Lucas has always dared to show there is more to stereotypical characters than we may think there is and although at times this may be uncomfortable, it makes for much better story-telling.
For another great take on Luke’s character in ROTJ, check out Emily Asher-Perrin’s article for TOR.