As we count the days until Disney’s latest creative atrocity is inflicted upon us, I thought this would be a good time to defend the reputation of one of the most unjustly criticized movies off all time: Return of the Jedi, aka Episode VI of The Trilogy that Didn’t Suck.
In the 36 years since its release, it has been the target of unrelenting criticism, damned for having “teddy bears” and being the weakest of the original trilogy. I will demonstrate that far from being weak, it was the strength of this film that allowed the franchise to endure as long as it has, even managing to weather three horrifically bad prequels followed by Disney’s extended death by torture.
IMPORTANT CAVEAT: I am referring throughout this piece to the original theatrical release. By order of the Geek Inquisition, as all copies of the “Special Editions” have been consigned to the flames.
Heroes, Not Superheroes
Before I begin, I need to make a point about the characters. One of the salient features about the original trilogy was that none of the characters were superheroes. The Force was a powerful ally, but it did not by itself convey invincibility. Darth Vader was a good pilot, but even he could be blind-sided in a dogfight.
Thus, when the heroes are gathered at the start of the film, there remained about them a profound sense of vulnerability. Han was encased in carbonite, Luke had lost a hand. These weaknesses are what made the characters feel genuine.
They were also emotionally vulnerable as well. The story of Return of the Jedi isn’t simply a bunch of action sequences with lightsabers, it’s also about a group of friends learning about themselves. This is what makes the ending of the film so emotionally satisfying.
Completing The Circle
The plot structure of Return of the Jedi is excellent. From the opening credits we know we are going to see something familiar, and that’s great. In the many years since 1983, the ‘Death Star II Gambit’ has come under considerable criticism for being a re-hash of the first movie, but it actually wasn’t. It is the story returning to its beginning. As Darth Vader memorably said in 1977: “The circle is now complete.”
This is a mainstay of the adventure tales that inspired Star Wars. Stories often require the heroes to go back to the beginning and restart the cycle. Lord of the Rings does this (I mean the book, not the lousy movies). The story could have ended in Gondor, but instead goes all the way back to the beginning and ends the tale where it started, in Bag End, in the Shire. Literally the last line of the epic is: “Well, I’m back,” he said.
Thus having the Rebels go back to Tatooine and then face a second Death Star is very much in that storytelling tradition.
Yet is it not the same story. Our heroes are now older and wiser. They’re no longer chance acquaintances, but trusted friends. The clash with Jabba the Hutt is there to demonstrate how much they’ve grown and it does so brilliantly.
(Also important – the slave girl outfit. For kids of a certain age, this caused revelations of a rather different sort. The Boomers had Annette Funicello, but the Gen Xers had Slave Girl Carrie Fisher.)
While I’m on the subject of Jabba’s Palace, I’m sick to death of people bitching about Boba Fett’s death. Seriously, the guy had two lines in The Empire Strikes Back and was literally a bit part who got blown totally out of proportion by fandom. I find it amusing that the same people who think Ewoks are the most crass commercial creation known to man can turn around and gush over Mandalorians who are entirely a marketing exploit.
Boba Fett was such an afterthought that that he didn’t even get a unique actor for the role; one of the Imperial dudes just put on the suit. Bit players get goofy death scenes. Deal with it. But I digress…
Here We Go Again
By the time our heroes are ready to begin their mission, their emotional growth is clear. Luke knows he must redeem his father, risking himself in the process. The rebellion has also changed Han and Chewie, who volunteer to take leading roles in the dangerous mission. Even Lando – a very reluctant ally in The Empire Strikes Back – has decided to go all-in on the Rebel cause. Leia was always committed to the cause, but she is now closer than ever admitting her admiration for Han.
Do I even need to point out how different this dynamic character development is from the later prequels and sequels?
The subsequent encounter with Darth Vader’s sentry ship is not only a source of iconic dialogue (“I don’t know, fly casual!”) but emotionally resonant. These are not happy-go-lucky adventurers with nothing at stake. Their conversation is witty, but also shows the audience that characters are openly wondering if they may be pushing their luck too far. That’s a very human reaction that brings the characters alive.
About Those Ewoks
I freely admit that I liked the Ewoks. I saw it in the theater and immediately got the point so many seemed to have missed: a small, seemly harmless people can rise up and shake the counsels of the Wise and Great. They’re hobbits in fur coats.
Yeah, there’s some emotional manipulation going on but so what, it’s a lot of fun. While some people have complained how awful stormtroopers must be if they could lose to these little guys, I will note the following factors in the Battle for Endor:
- The Ewoks knew the terrain and had been planning their rising for a long time
- The stormtroopers are outnumbered and taken by surprise.
- The Empire has no discernible center of gravity to attack. They’re literally reduced to wandering around shooting the place up with no idea how or when to make the uprising stop.
- The Ewoks by contrast have a clear goal: help their allies gain access to the shield generator.
These factors are not enough for victory, however. Our heroes will give the Rebels and their furry friends a decisive edge. One point really sticks out in retrospect: R2D2 doesn’t save the day with yet another gadget. In fact, just when the droid is needed most, he’s taken out, allowing the rest of the group to improvise and show their stuff.
It’s a great way to “subvert expectations” without resorting to plot holes or Mary Sue-isms.
The Redemption Arc
The other emotionally-satisfying element of the story is of course Luke’s confrontation with the Emperor. I found this a little boring as a kid, but now it’s one of my favorite parts. What it really comes down to is revenge versus forgiveness. Luke essentially decides that he would rather martyr himself than kill his father. In the process, he redeems his father and destroys the Emperor.
I saw the movie many times in the theater that fateful year, and every time Vader switched sides, the audience cheered. It is one of the most emotionally satisfying events in the history of cinema. Not bad for a supposedly “crappy movie”.
The Verdict of History
Perhaps the strongest argument for the greatness of Return of the Jedi is that the franchise continued to exercise a powerful and enduring influence on geek culture. Star Wars fandom supported an Expanded Universe, role-playing games and a phenomenally successful card game that was introduced more than a decade after the movies left the theater.
Can the same be said for other properties? Game of Thrones totally botched its ending and left HBO with a vastly diminished fan base. The only thing anyone remembers about The Matrix is the red pill/blue pill thing.
The point is that we know what a failed series ending looks like. We see them all the time – the plot thickens, anticipation grows and then…meh. The property fades into irrelevance as the tie-in products hit the clearance shelves.
Four decades hence, their merch will be stacked next to the Space: 1999 toys at the nostalgia shop.
It is my firm conviction that much of the criticism directed at Return of the Jedi was merely affectation, people trying to seem cool by ripping on a movie that they didn’t want to admit they enjoyed.
You can dispute the plot points, condemn the Ewoks, but in fact the movie as a whole works, and despite the odds, Lucas managed to stick the landing.
Too bad he subsequently burned it down 17 years later.
And speaking of the prequels, if you want an alternate take on the story of a galactic commonwealth wracked by civil war, you could do worse than my books.