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Never Say Disc: Return of the Jedi

Star Wars Day may have come and gone, but this May has a different significance for the franchise: the fortieth anniversary of the third film, The Return of the Jedi. Not only did this movie bring the original phase of Star Wars to a close, its significant in the lives of the Never Say Dice founders as the both the first Star Wars movie to be released in our lifetimes, and as the series’ ending during our most formative years (Ewok movies notwithstanding). While it’s no longer Star Wars’s cinematic capstone and many of its plot points have been rendered moot in subsequent installments, Jedi remains an important part of our development, both in our relationship to the franchise and in our understanding of what narrative means and is capable of. So let’s venture to the Galaxy Far, Far Away for the final time… or so we once thought.

A: Return of the Jedi is little more than a marketing ploy to get children to buy toys. That's why they put the Ewoks in there. Cute little furry things that the children will want as figures and plush toys. We’ll make a fortune! That's probably what a lot of people think went into the creation of Return of the Jedi. I’m not even entirely sure I disagree with them. After all, I was one of those children the movie was marketed to, and I still have an Ewok action figure from way back then floating around here somewhere. Return of the Jedi is so much more than that though. It's the resolution of the arc begun in the previous two movies. The culmination of a story. (Okay, sure there are prequels and sequels too, but we aren’t talking about those right now.) Beyond marketing, what's the movie even about? Jedi is about relationships. At the end of Empire, we have Luke learning the truth about his father, and then they're separated. Leia and Han finally admit their love for one another in their own iconic way, and then they, too, are separated. Luke’s promise to his new mentor Yoda to finish his training. There's the broken friendship of Han and Lando, which Lando is only starting to make up for. We find out there's another hope to save the galaxy. These are all relationships that are left hanging out there in the void of space as Empire's credits roll. Plot development of much later sequels aside, would the follow-up film's resolution of these story threads have been as satisfying if Lando didn’t get to fully redeem himself? If Leia didn’t go and lead the charge to save her love Han? If Luke didn’t go back to Yoda to try and finish what he started? If we didn’t find out who the other hope for the galaxy was? No... no it would not be the same as the experience of watching Return of the Jedi.

The crux of these relationships, and quite possibly of the movie itself, is the relationship between Luke and Vader. I doubt there's anyone out there who thinks relationships with parents aren’t complicated. Certainly, as a parent myself, I know how complex the relationship with each of my children is. Maybe  I’m wrong, but I think, for many of us, Vader and Luke saving each other at the end really is that "new hope." The hope that no matter how complicated our relationships are with our parents, biological or adopted, really will be okay in the end. That's what Return of the Jedi is about. It isn’t just to sell toys to kids (Would you really want to remove the Ewoks and rob Warwick Davis of his illustrious career?). It isn’t just a marketing ploy. It's the resolution of the original trilogy. The final arc in the story (sequels, again, notwithstanding). It's the hope that’ll we will all make it through, together, in the end. Why would anyone hate that?

B: The relationship people have with Return of the Jedi is a complicated one, just as the process of making it seems to have been. Prior to The Phantom Menace taking on the role, the film seems to have been something of a punching bag for Gen-Xers and early Millennials to show how much they've grown up since they enjoyed the movie as kids. Aside from a conversation in Clerks (the ur-text of nerds trying to understand adulthood through their favorite media), a lot of Jedi hate stems from an article written in the months leading up the release of Phantom Menace by future TV writer Dan Vebber. A lot of it feels performative and, as the kids today might say, "cringe," stating opinions as agreed-upon facts (or, worse, taking the "you know it's the truth, you just don't want to admit it" tack prevalent in teenage arguments) and leaning heavily into the "nerdy but (self-assuredly) cool" vibe of the era. And even if Dan's writing from the viewpoint of a humorous character (which, after all, Kevin Smith was literally doing in Clerks), it ends up saying far more about its author than the film it's supposed to be critiquing. And to think, that article complaining about the childishness of Jedi came out mere hours before Jar-Jar Binks was unleashed upon the world. It's like poetry, as someone once said... it rhymes.

As I've mentioned before, my Star Wars fandom was at its peak in the period when the franchise was decidedly out of favor, and it was certainly assumed that Jedi was the absolute ending of the Star Wars universe. (Even as an obsessed kid, I wasn't able to bring myself to consider the Ewok movies canon, and I suppose today they're primarily only considered as the bizarre missing link between the Star Wars movies and Willow.) Even as a kid, though, and despite Lucas's occasional rumblings about more movies coming out in the late 90s (which might as well have been a million years in the future), I was actually okay with that. Obviously, I would have loved more Star Wars to exist, and would have lost my mind should such a thing happen, but I didn't long for more Star Wars. Jedi, perhaps more than any other media I had experienced, felt like an ending... although I probably couldn't have articulated why at the time

Return of the Jedi is a film replete with endings, of course, most notably the central conflict that had driven all the films to that point. (Although, as every post-Jedi piece of Star Wars media has pointed out, there's no reason for the Empire to have been dissolved with the death of the Emperor. The US didn't cease to exist on the deaths of Lincoln, Garfield, or Kennedy.) Largely, though, the endings are of things that existed before our main characters' time, which is appropriate for the original trilogy's themes of coming to terms with our pasts, both personal and societal, and acknowledging our connection to them without letting them define us. Tarkin may have said in the first film that "the last vestiges of the Old Republic have now been swept away," but it's not until the deaths of Yoda, Vader, and the Emperor that this is really true. Even Jabba the Hutt's demise ties off a loose end that began offscreen, given that Han is in debt and on the run from the gangster by the time the audience first meets him. It's telling that our series ends only when the lives of our heroes begin, with newly-clean slates. But in 1983, this is a story that would be told off-screen, just as so much of the setup for the trilogy takes place offscreen. Before there were prequels, sequels, and all manner of narrative additions, Star Wars asked the audience to perform a significant amount of imaginative labor, and Jedi fading the story back into that space made sense. After all, aside from the handful of hours available on videotape, that's where I engaged the most with the Star Wars universe was through aging comics, books, toys, and, of particular importance, the West End roleplaying game and its accompanying sourcebooks.

Jedi, unfortunately, has had some of its narrative edges blunted by subsequent installments. (And not only through character resurrection - after all, people have been bringing Palpatine and Boba Fett back to life since at least 1991). Ending the Star Wars saga here, when the number of known Jedi and Sith could be counted on one (human) hand, mean that the functioning of the Force was largely another of those details left to the audience's imagination, particularly when it comes to the way one is "turned" by the Dark Side. Admittedly, much of it comes from covering for Obi-Wan retroactively lying when Lucas decided sometime during the writing of Empire to include the most famous plot twist of all time, but even before then, it is near-outright stated that, when someone falls to the Dark Side, they become a different person - this is the cost of a Jedi's power, and the reason training must be just as rigorous in Zen-like detachment as it is in the actual use of the Force. (The West End RPG makes this even clearer through game mechanics by having players relinquish their characters to the GM should they fall to the Dark Side, becoming NPCs forever more, and making it a literal loss of agency.) The process by which this happens, though, is not stated, so we're left to our own devices on how long this takes, what it looks like, and even the relationship between a turned Jedi and their previous self. Vader makes it easy with the clear visual signifier of his costume and James Earl Jones-ified voice, not to mention that hiding the twist meant he and the Emperor talk about Luke as if he had not connection to Vader... at least until Jedi, when the audience knows it. And the film uses the audience's limited knowledge to its advantage, drawing tension from the Emperor's machinations by leaving us in the dark about what exactly will happen when he pushes Luke over the edge.

This is something I never see the film get credit for, unfortunately. We know there is something about the way Vader has been reprogrammed by the Dark Side to keep him utterly loyal to his master, and we know that the Emperor's plan involves Luke going through the same process, possibly instantaneously. What's mostly unspoken is Luke's awareness that this is not only what the Emperor wants, but that he, like his father, doesn't have the capability to resist indefinitely. If he fights Vader as Obi-Wan and Yoda want, he will be turned. His solution, correctly deduced by the Emperor, is that they will all be killed in the Rebels' attack on the second Death Star. Whether he's been turned or not won't matter once they've all been blasted to space dust. But learning this was a trap means that would all be for nothing, without his Falcon-in-the-hole, everything rides entirely on how long he can resist the Emperor's barbs and manipulations. And whether he's turned or killed, Leia, with no training to resist, is guaranteed to be next. It's intense and painful, and the film, for all its other fault, plays this perfectly. As a kid, Luke turning himself in with the expectation of (at best) dying had a weight I didn't feel in any other media. It was powerful and affecting, a narrative influence for which I will forever feel indebted.

Okay, so how do the subsequent movies ruin, or at least deflate, this? Some of it is inevitable, they could only go so long without starting to explain the Force, and prequels meant that there would be more Jedi and a lot more Force use. Midicholorians were a dumb and unnecessary de-mystification, even if they did date back to some of Lucas's earliest drafts long before the first movie. (The same drafts gave the Emperor the name "Cos Dashit" and a Fu-Manchu mustache as well, and all that got tossed out without a problem.) The bigger issue, though, is the defining moment, Anakin's (literal) fall and conversion into Darth Vader was no longer the purview of audience imagination the way it had been for almost thirty years. It had to, finally, go onscreen, that was the whole point of the sequels. And it happens through... a series of lies. That's it. Palpatine introduces Anakin to a self-serving ideology and plays on his insecurities, but the fall to the Dark Side involves no change outside a pair of contact lenses, at least until Obi-Wan recreates the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Palpatine has to go with aftermarket parts and a forced (I swear I'm not doing these puns on purpose) makeover straight out of an '80s rom-com. Vader is not a fundamentally new person, the Dark Side has not rewritten him... he's simply fallen victim to the classic techniques of a cult leader. It's fitting that even the definitive Darth Vader look was forced on him (sorry, I'm doing it again) rather than being a thing he chose to embody his transformation. He's no longer an "agent of evil," nor a "more machine now than man, twisted and evil" he's just a guy with goth prothstetics and crappy boss.

And, in the end, I just find that sad. It takes one of my favorite scenes from the entire series, and certainly the high point of Jedi, and undercuts it. There was never a perfect solution, of course, Revenge of the Sith had to compete with the imaginations of millions of people over decades, but it's still a disappointment. But knowing that to be the case, and understanding why, helps me understand the reasons Return of the Jedi got under my skin so early on, and taught me we well the power and importance of the unseen... and the way a storytelling can use it to their advantage, making our own imaginations a valuable part of the storytelling process. For that, I will be forever grateful... no matter how many people complain about the Ewoks.

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