Retrospective | ‘Return of the Jedi’ Signaled Star Wars’ Impending Ambivalence

Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!

Previously: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Gave Star Wars Its Saga

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Who is Star Wars meant for?

George Lucas has long been pretty clear on his answer:

It’s a film for 12-year-olds. This is what we stand for. You’re about to enter the real world. You’re moving away from your parents. You’re probably scared, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Here’s what you should pay attention to: Friendships, honesty, trust, doing the right thing. Living on the light side, avoiding the dark side.

As it turned out, however, its appeal was much broader than that. Audiences young and old flocked to the original picture, in countries all around the globe. Its construction was consciously simple, but universal.

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When The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, it deepened and enriched Star Wars’ mythological underpinnings, which resonated with those fans well into adulthood. But some of Episode V’s more unsettling moments were tough for younger viewers to handle.

When I was very young (six or seven), I watched A New Hope hundreds of times on VHS, but I avoided Empire altogether. I was self-censoring. I knew the plot of the movie and what people had to say about it from all the Star Wars magazines and books I read, but something about it just spooked me a little too much. I finally went to go see it with my parents during the 1997 Special Edition theatrical release, and I can recall asking them to take me to the water fountain multiple times late in its runtime because I needed to step away from the movie — I was just a little too overwhelmed by all its negative vibes. Years later, I would learn that Lucas had, in fact, been concerned during the making of the movie about whether his enterprise was going too far — he consulted with a child psychologist to determine whether there was harm in seeing their beloved heroes subjected to such emotional torture at Vader’s hands. I think that for Lucas, it was important that the third act of his trilogy retreat, psychologically, into more upbeat territory — to paraphrase Patton Oswalt, Star Wars would take you into Mordor with Empire, and bring you right back into the Shire with the trilogy’s conclusion.

Consequently, Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi saw the stresses of this question — was Star Wars fundamentally meant for children, or ought it be allowed to grow beyond that? — begin to cleave at its creative identity.

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In Episode VI, the overtly whimsical, comic relief elements feel less holistically integrated than they did in the previous two films. They’re a little safer, and a little more indulgent. The cantina in A New Hope had been full of wild characters that fired kids’ imaginations, but it also felt squalorous, dangerous. Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi is a far more elaborate setpeice than the Mos Eisley cantina, with a rich assortment of imaginative and gross creatures filling every frame, but it feels more akin to its Jim Henson Company contemporaries, The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.

Here’s the thing about that, though: I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of those movies (and the excellent 2019 Dark Crystal Netflix series Age of Resistance, which I highly recommend if you’re into this kind of stuff). I don’t think that Return of the Jedi being halfway to a Muppet movie is necessarily a bad thing— but it has consistently turned off some in the broader audience in the thirty-six years since its release.

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Based on anecdotal accounts I’ve heard over the years (just give a listen to the Return of the Jedi season of the Star Wars Minute podcast), the people most critical of Jedi might have been the teenagers who had once been the perfect age for Star Wars and Empire when those movies had come out — and by “perfect age,” I mean the age where seeing Owen and Beru’s smoldering corpses unflinchingly rendered on screen, or seeing Ponda Boba’s lopped-off arm bleeding on the cantina floor, felt like it was putting hair on your pre-pubescent chest. Unlike their elders, who might’ve enjoyed Star Wars and Empire as light fare, those movies were Serious Business for them, because they were too young to know any different. The sudden appearance of the teddy bear-like Ewoks in Jedi — which, admittedly, feel aimed at six-year-olds more than Lucas’ stated twelve-year-old target — must’ve felt like an indignity to those who were nearly old enough to get their learner’s permits. Return of the Jedi was a realization that it was time for them to put away their toys, steal a cigarette from their mom’s pack, and start getting really into Def Leppard.

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As a grown man who can see that all of these movies are fundamentally tailored to have a broad appeal which, yes, chiefly includes children, I don’t need to put up some artificial wall between this movie and the prior two. Hell, I like the Ewoks; they’re teddy bears that eat human flesh and kick the Empire’s overconfident fascist thugs in the teeth! My sense of maturity or masculinity is not tied to how “badass” something is in some Zach Snyder-esque way, and being able to comfortably embrace the lighter side along with the dark feels closer to a holistic definition of actual maturity.

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Don’t be fooled by the fur: Wicket will eat your young.

Nevertheless, Jedi is in fact disappointingly blunted, too safe to reach the heights of its predecessors for reasons that have nothing to do with teddy bears or an excess of rubberized puppetry. Gary Kurtz, executive producer on the first two films, stepped away from the series because of creative disagreements between himself and George about where to take the story after Empire’s shocking cliffhangers:

“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”

The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it. (It’s worth noting pretty much all of those ideas would wind up in the 2010s sequel trilogy, after all.)

Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy bear luau.

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Kurtz and Lucas before their split.

This difference of opinion between Kurtz and Lucas previewed decades of Star Wars’ Goldilocks dilemma: everyone thinks they know what Star Wars is supposed to be, what it’s supposed to feel like, and how it’s supposed to end up. There’s an almost unparralleled sense of creative ownership among its opinionated constituencies. Yet that platonic ideal remains mostly elusive. This is something that’s only gotten more apparent as the years have ticked on, and the breadth of what constitutes Star Wars has continued to expand in scope.

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In many ways, Episode VI is a sign of things to come, tonally, with regard to the Special Editions and the prequel trilogy which would follow —George’s tastes were moving away from a consistent tone that mixed light-touch humor and drama, towards more extreme channel-switching. From scene to scene in Jedi, different tonalities butt up against one another, not always successfully. There’s the bodily humor of alien critters burping and Stormtroopers’ slapstick defeats, mixed in with the Shakespearian drama of Luke’s reconciliation with Anakin. Lucas would persist down this road of heightened, discordant elements in each of the prequels, to largely negative response.

This tonal dissonance has remained a stubbornly present part of Star Wars in the years since, except for when it hasn’t — evidence of the decades-long disagreement over what the real “feel” of Star Wars is. Dave Filoni’s “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” animated series took Lucas’ vision to heart, but perhaps because those are cartoons, and folks are both more accustomed to gags in that medium and pleasantly surprised to realize how much thematic depth “mere” cartoons can hold, the audience for those doesn’t seem to mind it as much. On the big screen, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Solo largely ditched the corny gags, replacing them with a quippier, more contemporary and sardonic concept of comic relief. Of all the writer and directors to step into George’s shoes in the 2010s, only Rian Johnson seems to have stayed true to the desire to go big and campy with the tonal shuffling, which earned him no small amount of ire from certain corners. But Johnson didn’t skimp on the weighty operatics or the sincere character work that the original trilogy achieved at its best, offering up the most holistic successor to Lucas’ ideal of Star Wars.

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Bodily humor and happy endings aren’t the only questionable creative decisions at hand with Jedi, though. After Irving Kershner’s meticulous touch directing Episode V, Richard Marquand’s directorial style here is flat and unassuming. It’s serviceable, but nothing more special than a 1980s television movie on a giant scale. In fact, the whole movie has a kind of “A-Team” via Dino de Laurentiis vibe, which has its nostalgic charms, but which in no way measures up to its predecessor’s high bar. In Marquand’s defense, his job was to bring the picture in on time and on budget, with Lucas as executive producer standing over his shoulder all the while.

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Richard Marquand blocks a scene with Sir Alec Guiness and Mark Hamill.

The decision to return to familiar territory with regard to Tatooine and a second Death Star also hems this movie in, making it feel less creatively ambitious than the previous two. George, chronically embarrassed by what he perceived as the technical shortcomings of the first Star Wars, seems to be working through some things by using Return of the Jedi as a second take for that movie’s vision, now equipped with a bigger budget and somewhat more advanced tools.

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Despite its shortcomings, however, Return of the Jedi still has its high points. As with Revenge of the Sith some twenty years later, many of these have to do with the episode’s privileged position within the macro-narrative: the plot lines of every previous chapter in our chronological rewatch come to a head here, and as a result, the final act is deeply satisfying as some of the most elementally pure Star Wars there is.

I’ll always love how Star Wars’ macro-narrative developed in reverse-order. It’s just really interesting to get a scene filmed in 1982 between Luke and Vader on the AT-AT docking bridge where Luke mic-drops the “Anakin” moniker to Vader’s face — the whole thing is both setup and payoff at once, depending on which order you choose to watch these movies.

For that matter, I find the depiction of Vader particularly compelling in this movie. He started out as a silver-screen movie monster, like Frankenstein or something, in the first film. In Empire, his ascended status (both within the narrative, but more importantly, within popular culture) turned him into a bona fide supervillain. But here, we come to see him as a pathetic figure, a man forever in bondage to the Emperor. His tough-talking caped theatricality is revealed to be the compensation tactics of a frightened, regretful shell of a man imprisoned by deep cognitive dissonance.

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Whatever happened to Vader’s proposition to Luke at the climax of Empire, that he should join him and together overthrow the Emperor? It seems that after Luke proved willing to die rather than join his father, Vader abandoned his ambitions and retreated to his role as the Emperor’s lapdog. He doesn’t even try to win Luke back in Jedi — not really. He just keeps repeating how he must obey his master as rhetorical cover, and says it’s too late for Luke to save him, anyway. He’s utterly defeated (until he’s not). For Lucas, once he figured out Vader’s backstory, the series’ villain became not just a tragic figure, but a pathetic one. In terms of cleavages in expectation of what Star Wars is to deliver, I think this was another big one: there remained a contingent of the audience that always just wanted to watch Vader kick ass. They wanted to see Anakin in Episode I start out a little Damien, and to relish that villainy, rather than succumb to it. These people misunderstand a lot about Star Wars, and about the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Yes, I thrill to the scene of Vader hacking down rebels left and right at the end of Rogue One, but not because it’s a chance to “finally” set the record straight and show him being a black-metal power fantasy killer at the height of his powers. It’s a great scene because we see Vader the icon, the figure of terror, the one so many people hold in their imaginations, and which therefore stands in sharp relief to who we find him to be underneath the armor. Those divisions, that incongruity, the straining of the wolf-snouted mask against the scarred, fleshy bit of man remaining subsumed behind it aren’t to be reconciled with one another. Star Wars’ tradition of broken, fascinating pop villains will continue in a big way in the next episode, but for now it’s time to say farewell to one of the most iconic characters to ever hit the screen.

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Post-script: “The Mandalorian” and Star Wars’ Goldilocks Problem

Because the internet is so abuzz with talk about “The Mandalorian,” and because this is where the new Disney+ series falls within our chronological rewatch, I also wanted to offer up some initial thoughts on it as a counterpoint to my words on Return of the Jedi. Compared to Episode VI, the prequels, or any of the Disney-era feature films, Star Wars’ first live-action television series has so far seems to have pulled off the impossible, in that almost everyone is happy with it!

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The Star Wars fandom can be awfully noxious, and that’s nothing new. I’m trying to stay away from getting sucked too much into meta-discourse about the state of Star Wars fandom, but as I’ll be talking about The Last Jedi in a couple weeks, there might be no more getting around the issue. Suffice to say that The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and Solo have energized or antagonized various constituencies within the vocal audience without any one of them managing to be all things to all people. Yet “The Mandalorian” has been received remarkably well within the fandom.

Everyone loves “Baby Yoda,” in a way not everyone loved the Ewoks, or the prequels, or our Sequel Trilogy heroes. If it isn’t real Star Wars without a marketable, cute mascot character to plaster on merchandise, writer/producer Jon Faverau and executive producer Dave Filoni have knocked this one out of the park. But beyond that GIFable co-star, the warm reception might be due to this project’s setting with all-new characters in a relatively unmapped part of the timeline, so “I liked the version in my head better” is less of a factor. It might be — I hate to say it — that so far there haven’t been many prominently featured women in its cast to anger the regressive corners of the “anti-SJW” crowd, although for the first time, a live-action Star Wars project has had women in the director’s chair.

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But it also illustrates the power of simple, clean storytelling that’s remarkably true to the formula of A New Hope: bring together disparate cinematic influences into an imagined world where those tropes can live side-by-side, juiced with some imagination-firing fantasy elements, and let the whole thing just breathe on its own terms.

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There’s lots of lore nuggets in here for fans to find, but nothing that feels overbearing or like it’s trying to force this project into a larger transmedia effort (so far, anyway). It’s quintessential old-school Star Wars, but it’s not afraid to bring new stylistic elements (particularly its textural score, courtesy Black Panther’s Ludwig Göransson) to place these familiar things under a new light.

It’s too early to say for sure where this is all going or how effective it will be, but so far, it’s off to a very promising start.

Next week: A new generation grapples with the mythology of its past in The Force Awakens!

And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’:

Media producer, director of the movie "West Coast Gothic," and author of the Bridgetown series. Sans-serif fonts have ruined my last name.

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