The trailers for The Rise of Skywalker suggest that the Star Wars franchise is still grappling with the legacy of Return of the Jedi. While the cultural cachet of The Empire Strikes Back has only grown in the years since its release, Return of the Jedi has not aged especially gracefully.
At its core, Return of the Jedi represented a conscious retreat from the complexities and ambiguities of The Empire Strikes Back to the moral simplicity of the original Star Wars. The teenage angst of the first sequel is abandoned in favor of a more childish sensibility that’s perhaps most obvious in Luke Skywalker’s central arc. In broad strokes, Return of the Jedi represents the culmination of Luke’s journey during the original trilogy. Luke embarks on a mission to redeem his father’s soul and rescue Anakin Skywalker from the power of the Dark Side.
This intimate struggle is mirrored in the epic Battle of Endor. As the Rebel Alliance goes head to head with the Galactic Empire, Luke faces his own existential struggle. Naturally, goodness prevails. The Empire is defeated and Darth Vader sacrifices himself to save Luke. Return of the Jedi treats this as a moment of triumph. The characters celebrate with the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor as fireworks light up the sky. In the remastered editions of the film, celebrations are also seen on Tatooine, Coruscant, and Naboo. Luke even gets to see the ghost of Anakin reunited with Yoda and Obi-Wan.
While it produces a happy ending, Luke’s desire for catharsis endangers the entire Rebel Alliance mission since Vader can sense his presence. George Lucas fudges Luke’s selfishness by subsequently revealing that the Rebel mission was always doomed because of a trap set by Emperor Palpatine, but Luke had no way of knowing this. Luke even reveals the fact that Leia is his sister to Vader, giving the Empire another potential advantage. “Obi-Wan was wise to hide her from me,” Vader taunts. “Now his failure is complete.”
All of this might be worth it if Luke did redeem Anakin. While he does assassinate Emperor Palpatine to save his son’s life, it’s clear that Vader has wanted to kill his master for quite some time. In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader argues that it is Luke’s destiny to destroy the Emperor so that they can rule the galaxy as father and son. Vader’s decision to act against the Emperor is hardly selfless, coming just moments after Palpatine urged Luke to murder his defeated father and replace him.
Return of the Jedi isn’t interested in whether Vader is redeemed. It only matters that Luke’s idea of Vader is redeemed. Vader never faces any justice for the crimes that he has committed. But Luke is able to convince himself of his father’s decency rather than confront the reality of what he’s done. The Star Wars franchise has always been about generational strife, with children inheriting a world scarred by their parents’ mistakes. Return of the Jedi retreats from that concept and betrays the franchise.
One of the most refreshing aspects of The Last Jedi is the way in which it calls out this moral blind spot. Late in the film, Rey embarks upon the same journey that Luke undertook in Return of the Jedi. Rey comes to empathize with Kylo Ren despite the horrors he has committed. She surrenders herself to the First Order to attempt to redeem the soul of a mass murderer. Luke begs her not to go down the same path she did, telling her, “This is not going to go the way you think.” She ignores his advice, saying, “There is still conflict in him,” echoing arguments Luke once made about Vader.
However, The Last Jedi has learned from Return of the Jedi. The onus for a character’s redemption can only lie with themselves. The climax of The Last Jedi plays out similarly to that of Return of the Jedi, right down to the framing and set design with Snoke standing in for Palpatine. Kylo kills his master to protect Rey, and the pair of old enemies reconcile. However, Kylo survives the encounter and it quickly becomes clear that he has not been redeemed.
“We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy,” Kylo tells Rey, evoking Vader’s promise to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. In that moment, Rey is confronted with the lesson that Return of the Jedi denied Luke: People are responsible for their own redemption, and wishing for somebody to be redeemed is not enough. The trailers for The Rise of Skywalker suggest that the franchise will bring its characters back to Endor to fight amid the ruins of Return of the Jedi. It will offer the series another chance to redeem its mistakes.