In the late spring of 1977, a small time science fiction film hit movie theaters for the first time and took the world by storm. That summer, after droves of people rushed to the box office to catch this singularly unique movie, Star Wars has been called many things: an out-of-body experience; the biggest possible adventure fantasy; universally loved. The rest is history. If you, dear reader, happen to be in the minuscule percentage of people who have never seen a second of any Star Wars film (not to mention its two animated TV shows, several comic book runs, and various novels), a percentage with more zeros than Harrison Ford's net worth, here is a quick synopsis: a young (white) man from a desert planet escapes with a smuggler, saves a princess, and destroys a planet-killing machine the size of a small moon... I know, right? Great stuff. And that's just the first movie. The name of this young hero is Luke Skywalker, a fact that has permeated the pop cultural zeitgeist so deeply that even non-watchers of Star Wars know his name. I don’t think anyone would ever disagree that Luke Skywalker is the hero of Star Wars, but I am here to convince you that he is, in fact, not our hero or indeed, our protagonist.
I am working on the assumption that most readers are very familiar with Star Wars, but if that’s not the case then fair warning: spoilers and info dump ahead. And for you Star Wars purists, yes, I do bring up the prequel series. Read at your own risk.
Many would argue that A New Hope is Luke's movie and I can understand why. Luke has the most screen time, he is front and center on the film's marketing materials, and he is the one to deliver the final blow to the Death Star that brings the movie to its epic conclusion. However, when you strip all that away, is the narrative really driven by him? Subtract that final blow to the Death Star, the one that only a Force user could make (convenient), and does Luke really drive the narrative of the movie? I would argue that he doesn't. Granted, the movie does it's best to make sure Luke's pals have important roles to play as well; it's no coincidence that the film opens with, not Luke, but Leia's storyline.
However, each film has a character at its center and in the case of A New Hope, I would argue that Han Solo is the at the center of the film's overarching story. For example, without Han, would Luke have even found a way off Tatooine? In fact, once you break down Luke's involvement in the film's narrative, you begin to realize he was orchestrated down his path by other characters' more deliberate actions and more concrete motivations. Had Leia not sent out a message to Obi-Wan for help with R2-D2 and C-3PO, who Luke only came across by sheer dumb luck, would Luke have found his motivation to finally leave Tatooine? Had the combined efforts of Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers not resulted in the incinerated deaths of Owen and Beru, the only thing keeping Luke on Tatooine, would he have ever toughened his resolve to follow Obi-Wan to Mos Eisley and right into the Millenium Falcon in its rag-tag pilot duo? Han Solo and his Millenium Falcon are the tools that carved the path to making Luke and Leia's story possible; he got Luke and Obi-Wan off Tatooine, he helped Leia escape the clutches of the Empire, and he gives Luke his window of opportunity to blow up the Death Star by blasting Vader off his tail.
|If you don't think this is the best damn scene in the movie, then we can't be friends.|
Meanwhile, Return of the Jedi chronicles the Battle of Endor, the Rebellion's final blow and the eventual overthrow of the Empire. Being the politician that she is, Leia is instrumental as a leader of the Rebellion and, therefore, her actions become the driving force of the narrative here. I know that's an unusual claim given that Leia is put in a compromising position as Jabba's newest slave, but Leia didn't get the moniker "Huttslayer" for nothing; she saved herself in that situation and single-handedly killed one of the most powerful creatures in the Outer Rim. And while many find the Ewok's role in the Battle of Endor ridiculous, we have to live with the fact that teddy bears saving the galaxy is canon, and it was Leia who made that possible. She appealed to the natives of Endor and enlisted their adorable help and knowledge of the terrain (that is their home, after all) to take down the second Death Star's deflector shield. I am particularly fond of this move on Leia's part because very much in George Lucas' "poem that rhymes" storytelling style, Leia garnering support from the Ewoks is reminiscent of Padme's plea to Boss Nass, the leader of the Gungans, Naboo's native aquatic species, in her final stand against the Trade Federation in Phantom Menace.
There's also something to be said about Leia's indirect involvement in Luke's duel with Vader in the Death Star hovering above Endor. When Vader invaded (no pun intended) Luke's mind and discovered the existence of his twin sister, Vader threatened to try and turn Leia to the dark side instead. This unleashed a barrage of hate-fueled blows that ultimately incapacitated Vader and opened Luke's eyes to the dangers of the dark side, thus strengthening his resolve to save rather than kill his father. This was yet another instance of Luke feeling the pull of the dark, but it was the threat of extinguishing Leia's light that drove him there, solidifying her importance not only in this film but in the series as a whole, a topic I will explore in-depth later.
So if A New Hope is Han's movie and Return of the Jedi, despite its name, is Leia's movie, which one is Luke's? Easy! The Empire Strikes Back is very much Luke's movie, which is good for Luke fans because it's almost universally considered the best of the original trilogy. Each film in the original trilogy is driven by one if it's central trio of characters, a pattern that is repeated in the subsequent trilogies. In fact, the sequel trilogies follow this pattern to a T; of the original trilogy characters, Han is the driving force behind The Force Awakens, Luke is in the driver's seat in The Last Jedi, and the final as of yet untitled third sequel was supposed to be Leia's film (although questions about how that is going to be possible with the advent of Carrie Fisher's tragic passing still linger).
What does any of this have to do with Luke's role as the non-hero of the films? Well, I've been able to whittle down Luke's action in all of his films to a single phrase: "He did the last thing."
Destroying the Death Star? The last thing.
Facing off against Darth Vader? The last thing.
It's worth noting that in most of these last-minute arrivals, Luke needed rescuing. Without Han's intervention in A New Hope, Luke may not have had the opportunity to deliver the killing blow to the Death Star. After Luke's first duel with Darth Vader and the very dramatic reveal of Luke's true parentage, Luke reached out to Leia through the Force for a rescue assist after leaping to his death. During his second duel with Darth Vader and follow-up face-off with Emporer Palpatine, Luke needs rescuing once again, this time by Vader himself. The final last-minute arrival, while the worst offender, is the only one in which Luke does not need saving. However, his actions on Crait and his Force projection strategy resulted in his death.
|We still love you, Luke!|
To be fair, I did say The Empire Strikes Back is Luke's film, so even though he does the last thing in that movie, he also does other things; he helps defend the rebel base on Hoth, he trains with Yoda to be a Jedi, and leaves his training to save his friends on Bespin. The reason this is Luke's film is that he finally comes into his own as a character and is seen making his own choices for the first time. He ignores Yoda and Force Ghost Obi-Wan's words of warning and leaves Dagobah of his own accord because his friends matter more than any Chosen One prophecy these old masters love to wax poetic about. This is significant in Luke's evolution as a character because, for the first time, he wasn't just along for the ride, he was in the driver's seat.
If you look back on Anakin Skywalker's story, part of what drives him to become Darth Vader was his inability or unwillingness to makes his own choices and do what he felt was right. Despite all of Anakin's abilities and clever banter, he was very much restricted by the Jedi Order and his sense of loyalty to it until he felt ultimately betrayed by them, and by then, it was too late. Even his choice to join Palpatine at the end of Revenge of the Sith was him being manipulated and devoid of agency. As Darth Vader, the only time we see him decide for himself was when he chose to save Luke from Palpatine, thereby bringing balance to the Force and proving he was the Chosen One all along. However, to give credit where credit is due, it's unlikely that Darth Vader would have made this decision without Luke's influence.
It's important to note that Luke is NOT his father, and the galaxy is probably better off for it. However, Luke's decision on Crait in The Last Jedi is the culmination of a series of poor decisions since he turned his back on Yoda's training on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. If Anakin's story is a cautionary tale of indecision through manipulation, Luke's is a cautionary tale on poor decisions.
So if he's not the hero and he's not the villain, then what is he?
Regardless of what you believe, from a writing standpoint its difficult to use something as abstract as the will of the Force as the driving force behind your narrative, especially in the case of the original trilogy, which was filmed before fans began speculating on just how wide-reaching and influential the Force is. So that leaves only one question: if Luke isn't the hero of the story, then who is?
|For all your awkward space mom needs!|
Throughout the films and beyond, Leia has shown herself to be a dedicated politician, expert diplomat, and fearless freedom fighter, tirelessly fighting for the lives and freedom of the people and never seeking glory. This is no surprise, considering who her birth mother is. Leia's adopted father, Senator Bail Organa, was not only a friend and ally to Padme Amidala but one of the founders of the Rebel Alliance. From birth, Leia was raised to be fair, compassionate, and pragmatic, and her father did an excellent job teaching her to always fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. As future queen of Alderaan, Leia's life was set out for her and she accepted her responsibilities with the grace of the princess that she was. But Leia was no Disney Princess, despite the company's recent acquisition of Lucasfilm; the term "princess" was a political title for a future heiress.
|Son vs. Daughter. Dark vs. Light.|
However, not unlike what Gary Oldman's Commisoner Jim Gordon says of Christian Bale's Batman at the end of The Dark Knight, Leia is the hero the Star Wars franchise deserves, but she's not always the one it needs. In Force Awakens, much time and effort is spent trying to track down Luke, and Leia is among those eager to find him, but it's never explicatley stated why. By the end of The Last Jedi, it's all too clear why Luke matters; the Galaxy needs hope. Leia understands more than anyone what her brother represents, and she knows that if the Resistance is to grow strong enough to take down the First Order, they need a hero who represents the hope people felt during the Galactic Civil War and Luke is that ray of hope. Hope gives people a reason to fight and that reason motivates them to join the fight. Leia is humble enough to take a back seat if it means lives can be saved and if it gives peace a chance to reign again. She can be seen doing this over and over again.
|Yes, Phasma, too!|
But let's be honest here: if you don't believe Leia is the hero, then you must think Luke is. And if you don't think Luke is the hero, then you must believe Leia is. Those are the only two real options, and some people may even seek that happy medium and claim they're both the hero of Star Wars. However, being two sides of the same coin does not equal sides make; the dark and light side of the Force are two sides of the same coin but no one would argue that they're equal in scope and importance. So when considering who the one true hero of Star Wars is, it ultimately depends on your perspective.