The third film in a trilogy doesn’t only have to wrap up storylines, character arcs, and hanging plot threads. It also has to effectively complete any thematic ideas that have been explored in the first two movies.
Where Return of the Jedi fails in its storytelling (little teddy bears defeating trained soldiers? Really?), it succeeds in wrapping up its themes and messages. We see the completed arc of Luke Skywalker and even the return of his father Anakin. It is really a beautiful movie with the theme of hope firmly at the center, much like most Star Wars films.
The Pull of the Dark Side
The Dark Side has loomed over Luke and Leia for their entire lives. They never met their father precisely because of his turn to the Dark Side. Without their knowing it, a turn to evil dramatically altered the way their lives would turn out before they were even born. It wasn’t therefore a foregone conclusion that the Dark Side would tempt them in their own lives, but it certainly wasn’t out of the realm of possibility either.
Uncle Owen says in A New Hope that he fears Luke has too much of his father in him. This is interesting because Luke knows nothing of the truth about his father, yet Owen wants to save Luke from the fate that befell Vader. There is this ever-present shadow cast by the Dark Side. So then, it should be alarming when Luke first appears at the beginning of this film wearing all black after having nearly completed his Jedi training.
In Star Wars, there are often visual signals to indicate the binary nature of good and evil. “Good guys” wield lightsabers of lighter colors, most often being either blue or green, while “bad guys” always have red lightsabers. Similarly, evil characters are often dressed in dark colors, while good characters have light colored clothing. To see Luke appear in all black then becomes immediately jarring, whether or not you realize exactly why.
The first two films in this trilogy saw Luke dressed all in white with Darth Vader and the Emperor dressed all in black. These two evil characters, though, recognize Luke’s unique abilities with the Force and want to have him brought over to their side, albeit for different reasons. The Emperor always is looking for a better and stronger apprentice, while Vader wants to rule as father and son.
When Luke returns to Yoda on Dagobah, Yoda warns him about the pull to the dark that he will for sure begin to feel. But he warns him not to give in, for once you start down the path to darkness, it is nearly impossible to turn back. It will dominate your destiny.
Amidst all of his conflicting feelings regarding the situation he’s in, Obi-Wan tells Luke that the wise move is to bury his feelings because they could be made to serve the Emperor. There will be endless opportunities for Luke to lose the light and go to the dark.
None of these opportunities will be more powerful than when Luke comes face to face with the Emperor and Vader. He’s flowing with hate, and has the opportunity to use it to strike down Vader and become the next great Sith apprentice. But he chooses not to, which is key.
The whole Star Wars saga is full of ideas about destiny. There are prophecies and proclamations made about what people are supposed to be or do in their lives. All of these ideas are coming to claim that a person has no choice in how their life will end up, but they do. Luke chooses not to kill Vader, even when he has the perfect chance, and Vader chooses to turn on the Emperor instead of continuing to fight Luke.
This serves as a refreshing reminder that no matter how far gone a person seems, there is always the chance for redemption (more on that in a bit). Ultimately, it is our own choices that define who we will become. And by the end, there is finally white showing on Luke’s clothing to show he made his choice to do the right thing.
Possibility of Redemption
Ever since Episodes 1-3, we’ve seen the good nature of Anakin Skywalker. He was beaten down and thrown into bad situations at virtually every turn, and the one person who seemed to show genuine interest and care for him turned out to be a Sith Lord. Anakin was pretty much manipulated into becoming one of the most feared and notorious villains ever.
In a way, looking at it through this lens makes it seem like turning to the Dark Side was the result of something bigger than Anakin. It’s not where he wanted to end up. All he wanted was to help others in the world – to save his mother and his wife from gruesome and brutal death. This is what makes the end of Revenge of the Sith so heartbreaking. There were so many chances to save Anakin, but nobody around him made the right choices, and thus, Darth Vader was created.
At the beginning of RotJ, Vader mentions to an Imperial officer that the Emperor will not be as forgiving as he is. This hints at the fact that Vader still has the ability to be forgiving, while the Emperor does not. Vader always has had that sliver of good left in him, even if he is more machine than man now. His nature still seems to be one of mercy, even though he has put up countless walls to make it seem as if this isn’t the case at all.
As a result of this, Luke’s intention is never to kill Vader. Luke has grown in his knowledge of the Force, so he knows that there is still good in Vader. He wants to confront his father and try to bring him back to the light – to remind him of something he once knew, but has buried away deep within himself. Even when they fight at the end of the film, Luke is parrying attacks, and not attacking himself. His intention is to save, because he sees the light in him.
The Emperor tries to convince Vader that Luke’s compassion will be his undoing. But nothing could be further from the truth. Luke’s compassion saves himself and his father. In refusing to even fight, the spark of truth is relit inside Vader, which allows him to see clearly. This is a fire that needed to be lit, because Luke was correct when he said Vader had simply forgotten his true self. “Darth Vader” is just a moniker made up to mentally distance him from his true identity of Anakin Skywalker.
But Vader legitimately feels like it is too late for him to come back to the light. He seems resigned to living his life as Darth Vader – living a life he doesn’t actually want to live. After he killed Mace Windu, he knew there was no going back to the good side. He knew that for better or worse, he had made his choice and that the Jedi were now his enemy. But this isn’t a choice he was actually happy about. Being a Jedi was all he ever wanted. He finally made it all the way to being on the Council, but lost it all due to disillusionment. As I talked about in the deep dives on the Prequels, the Jedi themselves effectively created Darth Vader. Vader even refuses to even acknowledge that there is any conflict within himself. If he only acknowledged it, there would have been a greater chance of a turn back to good at an earlier time.
Vader is obviously in the wrong on so many things in his life. There is simply no forgiving many of the atrocities that he has committed (killing a group of younglings is chief among these). But the fact that he turns against the Emperor to save his son shows that there is always a chance to turn back. You are never too far gone. All it took is Luke’s persistence and adamant belief that Vader isn’t totally evil. It takes one person to believe in you. “You were right about me,” Vader tells Luke. It is immensely satisfying to see him admit something like this. His son didn’t give up on him and he didn’t give up on himself.
When Anakin tells Luke that he has already saved him, he obviously doesn’t mean his physical body. In The Shawshank Redemption, the biblical passage, “Salvation lies within” plays a large role. It is similar here with Vader/Anakin. There is no physical salvation, but a spiritual, ethical, and personal one. The persona of Darth Vader was destroyed, while the reality of Anakin Skywalker was saved.
What it Takes to be a Jedi
When Luke goes back to Dagobah, Yoda says he doesn’t need any more training because he now knows everything he needs to know, but that he won’t officially be a Jedi until he confronts Vader. In the final trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, we hear voiceover from Luke himself saying, “Confronting fear is the destiny of the Jedi.” There was for sure an amount of fear in confronting Vader.
Additionally, out of all the talk of destiny, this idea is one that makes perfect sense. To succeed in life, everyone needs to confront the things they are most afraid of. You can’t grow unless you make it past the things that scare you or are difficult to overcome. This isn’t any less true for the Jedi.
Manipulating a People Group
One of the more distressing actions taken by heroes in all of Star Wars is for Luke, Han, and Leia to use C-3PO to manipulate the Ewoks into entering a war that did not involve them. When the Ewoks notice Threepio, they see him as a sort of deity. Unfortunately, our heroes use this to their advantage and get the Ewoks to fight for them.
This is a sort of baffling move, as it never seems to be addressed through an ethical lens. Any time you are dealing with a people group’s way of life, especially when that way of life is being threatened (see: Tusken Raiders, Attack of the Clones), you need to grapple with the morals of it.
The closest the movie comes to doing so is by showing an Ewok mourning his dead comrade in battle. You feel for the survivor in this instance, having just lost someone who was presumably a friend to a war they should never have been involved in in the first place. Ultimately, this is treated as a small part of the movie, but when given extra thought, it deserves consideration for its morals.