The Last Jedi seems intent on burning down the archetypes of the heroic past. When the hero fails to be a hero, and furthermore denies his own status as a hero, what is the rationality behind such postmodern disenchantment?
Moviegoers have loudly lamented the Luke Skywalker they encountered in Rian Johnson’s newest episode of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi—and there is a reason for this reaction that is as old as the hills. Traditional myths are the backbone of the Star Wars mythos. The rage of Luke Skywalker, and the rage it has caused in his fandom, has been seen before in other heroes with similar effect. As the Star Wars saga continues to draw with postmodern clumsiness upon the schemes and tropes of classic tales of antiquity, so now has the trending hero Luke Skywalker become a new iteration of the timeless hero Achilles—but motivated by strangely new purposes than that equally-polarizing hero of old.
Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s with Luke Skywalker recall him as a fresh-faced, blaster-slinging, lightsaber-swinging farmboy-rebel, whose derring-do, devil-may-care impetuosity raised him to the rank of war-hero and Jedi Knight. But we have had a shock as to what has become of Luke in the latest installment of of George Lucas’ celebrated Star Wars series. Now an old man, he is dejected, jaded, and dead-set against engaging in the battle to save his family, his friends, and the galaxy. But his reasons are personal. His utter failure to train his nephew in the ways of the Force caused him to renounce his vocation, his religion, and his order. He withdraws from the war for the stars forever because he no longer believes in the worth of his own actions or the worthiness of heroism. Luke Skywalker becomes cynical and hangs back due to a loss of faith.
When heroes become humanists, expecting the weakness of humanity before anything else, it is hardly surprising that they experience existential letdowns. Luke Skywalker is one of these, which makes him suddenly interesting, but not very inspiring. Human beings are naturally imperfect, and thus it is natural that those who dwell on that imperfection are suspicious, even contemptuous, of idealism. This attitude degenerates into the mindset of questioning man’s sincerity of motive, his rectitude of conduct, and traditional mores. This is the faulty vision of the cynic and the ultimate crisis in Luke Skywalker’s story arc. Such retirement and disillusionment is not unfamiliar in the legends of heroes, though the motivation we see in The Last Jedi is imbrued with a postmodern perspective when compared to the original ancient paradigm for such a heroic crisis—namely, the rage of Achilles.
Achilles was among Greek’s greatest heroes, famed for his fighting prowess, his invulnerability, and a nature that was like a god’s. His involvement in the Trojan War was essential if the Greeks were to carry their campaign to avenge the abduction of Helen, the queen of Sparta, by the Trojan prince, Paris. After nearly a decade of fighting before the walls of Troy, the commander of the Greek forces, Agamemnon, was forced to release one of his concubines to appease the wrath of Apollo. In spite and insecurity, he seized a slave-girl of Achilles to compensate his loss. Enraged at this insult, Achilles refused to fight, abandoning his comrades and his country in favor of his own honor—a decision required by his godlike nature, for when the gods rage, they withdraw their assistance out of justice, and, as a result, nations perish.
Like Luke Skywalker, Achilles’ reasons for not fighting are personal. But his reasons are rooted in the opposite of cynicism. Achilles believes so firmly in the superiority of his own nature and his status as a hero that he will let those dearest to him die to uphold that belief. Skywalker has so lost belief in himself and heroism that he would let those dearest to him die along with his dead faith. The similarities run along parallel lines, echoing each other in the context of their respective eras. Even as Achilles sends out a chimera of himself in allowing his friend Patroclus to wear his armor into battle to stave off the Trojans from the Greek ships, so, too, Luke sends out a chimera of himself to buy more time for the resistance fighters—but these chimeras are motivated differently, in one case by divine principle and in the other by the denial of principle.
The world has always been divided about the rightness of Achilles’ action, as audiences are now divided about Skywalker’s behavior. This divide is indicative of differing concepts of the notion of heroism with which mankind has wrestled for ages. On the one hand, the hero is a paragon of glory who exists only to exalt himself. On the other hand, the hero is one who lives to serve others and offer his own glory for the glory of others. This difference is captured in the historic shift between the primary and secondary hero, between Homer and Virgil, where the latter introduced a new and radical concept of the hero who shoulders trials that others may live free of trial. Some have rejected Achilles because they reject the strict nature of God he symbolizes, while accepting Aeneas because of he compassionate nature of God he personifies. Taken together, these reactions comprise a whole vision of divinity, one of justice and mercy, and one that cherishes the course of human salvation. The problem with Luke Skywalker is that the culture that created him, even as an echo of past heroes, has lost the past’s vision of the whole which heroes upheld.
The world has changed in the last few thousand years. The muddy cynicism in Luke Skywalker was once a golden heroism in Achilles, but the hero remains. Today there are differences in the understanding of reality, but the principle retained is that good should overcome evil. People still uphold heroes to idealized standards, though the standards are not the same, nor as high. And they still struggle with heroes who struggle. As olden audiences questioned him, Achilles questioned the merits of personal glory in his tent before Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax to the point at which Aeneas redefined it. As current audiences question him, Luke Skywalker questions the merits of heroism on his island before Rey to the point at which moviegoers everywhere are reconsidering its definition.
Cultural representation through imaginative creations should not be taken lightly—even if they are wielding lightsabers. Societies have ever established a catalogue of heroes, and their mythologies have ever been diagnostic and didactic. Our mythology reflects our world. Star Wars and its ilk may be the closest thing that we have as a culture to the classical myths, but, truth be told, they are representative of a people that have lost the fullness of truth. The hero Luke Skywalker is, by his own admission, not the same hero as Homer’s. Neither is the postmodern saint the same as the saint of old. There remains a need, however, to encounter the world as it is. Whether or not things like Star Wars hold a key to redemption is to be seen. There is cause, however, to be wary. The concepts of right and wrong—of heroism and anti-heroism—of good and evil, for that matter—are growing confused in the postmodern galaxy because they are confused in postmodern society. The running theme of The Last Jedi is spoken by Kylo Ren when he says, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” The Last Jedi is intent, in some way, of burning down, or restructuring, the archetypes of the heroic past. Be wary.
In the end, old traditions can make the world young again, especially when they are strong against cynicism, infused as they are with an ancient optimism. Optimism is the only antidote to cynicism, for the cynic is blind to value. The Devil’s Dictionary by satirist Ambrose Bierce defines a cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” It is this faulty vision that causes people to fall upon the sword of the present disease rather than find the lost cure. With Luke’s refusal, as the once-daring hero, there is an eschatological question with which the Star Wars saga flirts… and a cynical point of view. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the hero never failed to dare and never failed to succeed—and there exists a plot that has satisfied the ages, especially when it is the daring in and of itself that many cultures have hailed as victorious. But when the hero fails to be a hero, and furthermore denies his own status as a hero, what is the rationality behind such postmodern disenchantment? Where is the old hope in that, let alone a new hope?
The Last Jedi is correct in positing that there is a time for retreat, for circumspect self-preservation instead of reckless self-sacrifice. Life is not a Flash Gordon serial and not all Death Stars can be simply blown up. Even with its dark take on tradition, the aged Luke Skywalker delivers what audiences asked for with a continuation of a worn-out family story. There is always something sad and sobering about getting old. These stories and characters are old, and their age must show as they make way for a new set of fresh-faced heroes who are more energetic and idealistic. That Luke Skywalker wanted the Jedi to end is understandable, given his age, even though his devotees may object to his philosophy. Achilles was, after all, still young enough to hang up his spurs with conviction when he did.
People have struggled with the hero for centuries. The saga continues.
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The featured image is an image of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), courtesy of IMDb.