Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
So much of the fun with these things is the build-up. And among these things – Avengers, Lord of the Rings, and whatever the next generation’s will be – Star Wars is both author and perfecter. It is the reason we make trilogies. And in many ways, it is the reason we have build-up.
In the fall of 1998 I sat in yearbook senior year and watched a trailer on the internet. Whatever you believe about The Phantom Menace, know that two minutes and twelve seconds of it were the greatest thing you’d seen in your entire life in the fall of 1998. The fact that you could watch any trailer online back then was amazing. The fact that it was Star Wars, for the first time in 15 years, was even better.
Six months later and just days from graduation, a bunch of us packed Funscape in West Town Mall on opening night.
Sixteen years later, some of us came back:
(…more or less. RIP Funscape. All hail Turkey Creek.)
(Shout to to my friend Josh Webb under the “T” there for these photos, who has loved Star Wars with more passion than anyone I know.)
If you’re still reading, you might have a story like that. And the beauty of the stories we show up for, the tales we remember, is often finding some of our own story in there too.
This weekend, at least some portion of the Star Wars story will close. The Rise of Skywalker has the gargantuan task of providing a proper ending for a tale that originally ended 36 years ago. The prequel trilogy from 1999-2005 had its moments, good and bad, but given the nature of prequels could do little to upset the balance of the original three films.
When George Lucas sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney in the fall of 2012, their stated intention to make more films made all of us at least a little uneasy. “Do no harm,” is still the first rule of business. But then this photo arrived in April 2014. It’s still an incredible visual: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill together with J.J. Abrams and a brand new cast.
There’s so much hope in that photo, a childlikeness to it. I’m not the only one who thought so: Avengers: Endgame now owns the worldwide box office crown, but in the United States the undisputed champion is still The Force Awakens by nearly $80 million.
The Last Jedi sparks more divisive opinions, but for the original trilogy, “Do no harm,” is still intact. And now, a journey that began with that photo more than five years ago comes to an end.
I will miss the build-up; I’m not sure what in my own life could match it, though I enjoy trying to figure out what my children might anticipate in the years to come. And maybe the anxiety – “Will they screw up something I love?” – is a necessary part of this kind of anticipation.
There is one piece of this particular build-up that generates the most anxiety for me. In some form or fashion, Emperor Palpatine – the last boss of the original trilogy – has returned. And this now becomes the biggest question for the last film: can they stick the landing without knocking all the good of Return of the Jedi off the runway?
Whatever you believe about The Last Jedi, I find one of Luke’s lines of great importance for the entire franchise:
You think, what? I’m going to walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order?
When I was a kid, one of my favorite parts of Return of the Jedi – still my favorite movie in the entire canon – was Luke leaping out of the darkness to confront Darth Vader one final time, defeating him in combat and cutting off his hand. It seemed like the young Jedi at his most heroic.
As an adult, though, it’s easily the moment when he is closest to darkness. What comes next didn’t make sense to me as a child; I was too busy being terrified of the Emperor sending Luke to the brink of death by lightning bolt. But what makes Luke a Jedi, by his own admission, isn’t killing Vader or even fighting the Emperor. In fact, he throws his lightsaber away just before he says it: “I am a Jedi. Like my father before me.”
There’s a childlikeness to, “Good guy takes sword, beats bad guy,” as well. It’s simple. Maybe there’s a part of it we still want.
That’s just never been Star Wars.
Every climactic lightsaber duel in the entire canon comes at a cost. Every one. It is never as simple as good guy walks in, cuts down bad guy, says catchphrase, walks out.
There’s something true about the nature of violence in that. But there’s always been far more than violence at the heart of these films; “So uncivilized,” Obi-Wan might say.
When I think about myself as a person of faith, sometimes I still wish I was a little more like Obi-Wan. There’s so little personal gain or even preference in the choices he makes; a life in surrender to the will of the Force. It’s this surrender that serves as a critical moment in the original film. And if Obi-Wan’s sacrifice sets the tone in A New Hope, it is mirrored in those climactic moments of Return of the Jedi: first Luke, throwing away his lightsaber. Then Vader – Anakin – laying himself down in response. And here we find the story we tell on Sunday mornings in this text as well: the Emperor is not defeated because Luke bests him in single combat. It’s not a sword that wins the day. It’s a sacrifice.
Among all the hopefulness in Star Wars, this theme – sacrifice begetting sacrifice – might be its most valuable. This is the spark that lights the fire: Obi-Wan for Luke, Luke for Vader, Vader for Luke. And all those years later, Luke for the resistance, setting the stage for one more story.
I cannot wait to see it. And I hope its most valuable truth still beats at its heart.