After seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi back in December, which was, to my mind, one of the best Star Wars films in recent years, it inspired me to comprehend the nature of change in our cinematic heroes, and how this change affects and colours our views of them. Most of the controversy surrounding The Last Jedi centred on the depiction of Luke Skywalker and his apparent extreme change of personality; indeed, there was even a Twitter movement, heralded by an interview with Mark Hamill in which he said that this iteration of Luke wasn’t “his”. But what engenders change in protagonists though? And more importantly, do we need it?
First off, it’s imperative to understand that change is life’s big catalyst. It drives everything we do, everything we see, and everything we understand. Death is fuelled by change, as is life; love and hate react to it, as do male and female, and so on, all the way down to the concept of plurality itself. If there was no change, there could be no life itself, for evolution itself grasps its own existence from the very notion of change; no evolution, no us.
But when we are talking about fictional characters in fictional situations, displayed and paraded through thousands of years of myths, legends, tales, novels, poems, and now most recently film and video games, there is a marked change in the way we intercept and interpret these changes. In literature, it is easier to accept changing characters: we spend every page with our literary heroes, with no breaks, even when there is a time jump or break in the narrative, there is far more time to spend with characters like Victor Frankenstein, Heathcliff, or Lizzy Bennett. With film protagonists this is a little trickier; we only have two hours (or three maximum) with which to acquaint ourselves with our heroes, and further complications like sequels and the time between films helps to make them more complex.
The answer as to why cinematic heroes change is therefore simple: because life goes on. In The Last Jedi Luke exhibits changes in character we didn’t experience in the previous films he was in; he’s grumpy, disillusioned, broken, and flippant, not caring who or what Rey is or what she represents, and definitely not caring about the progress the First Order has made in conquering the galaxy. Compared with his original trilogy evolution from of a plucky young pilot who destroyed the Empire’s greatest weapon in A New Hope (1977), to a cocky, arrogant, and ultimately defeated young man in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and ultimately, the confident, intelligent, and compassionate Jedi we see in Return of the Jedi (1983), this latest change can be quite hard to digest at first.
But after I’d read all the vitriol and poison on the internet about how this film had ruined lives, and how people were finally ‘done’ with Star Wars now (how many times I’ve heard that statement is beyond me, but that is a rant for another time), I came to realise a fundamental truth about his change: that it was one hundred per cent, twenty four carat necessity. Of course he has changed, why wouldn’t he have? Over thirty years have passed since Return of the Jedi and what did we expect Luke to be like? Still dressed in black, mourning the death of his father and dancing with Ewoks? No, and the reason this is so is down to the notion of change itself: cycle.
In all heroic journeys throughout history and culture, the one thing that defines a hero is his journey’s effect on him (or her) and the cycle of events that precede, travel with him, and ultimately shape him long after the journey ends. Mythographer Joseph Campbell called this hero’s journey the Monomyth in his 1949 study The Hero With a Thousand Faces, showing that just one such mythic journey can be seen in literature and mythology the world over for the plain and simple fact that it is universal, its themes primordial. Most humans dream of being more than they can be, of being heroic, saving our home and our friends and family, and defeating evil to return home to those we love. Notice something familiar about this heroic journey with regards to Luke? It was indeed this very structure that George Lucas intentionally and deliberately used when creating the world of Star Wars (Lucas was in fact a student of Campbell, so his use of the professor’s work is of little surprise), and one that still functions as a road map when applied to any film with a relatively heroic journey. It can even be flipped to serve as a formula for a villain’s journey, if indeed they did start out as a hero at some point.
The point is that journeys engender change; change that is so wide-ranging and far-reaching that there is literally no way it couldn’t affect its protagonists. In the world of Star Wars this change is evident in each trilogy: in the original trilogy it is Luke’s journey; in the prequels, his father’s; and in this new trilogy, it is most certainly Rey’s. Each journey counterpoints another: Anakin made the fatal mistake of trusting the wrong person and betraying his friends and loved ones; Luke avoids this through his tutelage from Obi-Wan and Yoda and his final overcoming of his father and the Emperor; and Rey must avoid the mistakes Luke made in the establishment of his new Jedi order. Each trilogy is about the re-allocation of archetype and role, and it is here that I made my mind up about what they were trying to do with Luke: he has ascended to the role of Obi-Wan.
It is the only logical direction in which his character could have gone, given the circumstances. Yes we could have had a badass scene where Luke faces off against Kylo Ren and beats him, all the while destroying every vehicle the First Order has, but, other than looking cool, what purpose would this have served? Ultimately it would have been what everyone wished for, but it wasn’t what we needed. It would have ignored change.
With his reserved and gruff appearance, and his ability to bend the truth, Luke has become what he initially encountered at the start of his journey all those years ago: the master. In sacrificing himself for his friends at the end of the film via his force projection, Luke repeats what his old master did back on the first Death Star, and saw that the greater good relies on but a few individuals to change things, and not on the words and deeds of one old man.
I think ultimately this is why protagonists who are under the wing of a mentor, often older or wiser, always feel distanced from them, apart from their knowledge and experience. They feel there is too much difference between them to ever consider they could be like them; the same is true of tragic villains, who feel the one they are corrupted by could never one day be them, until it is. This is the important role change plays in the nature of protagonists all across the film spectrum, not just in Star Wars; I only chose Star Wars because it was in this film that my mind stumbled upon its justifications for these changes. Ultimately, they can be applied to any film franchise: Harry Potter changes dramatically throughout his seven year life at Hogwarts; Indiana Jones became his father in the fourth installment, made nearly twenty years later; even our Marvel and DC superheroes are governed by the changes their characters engender and the situations they deal with.
I think the best way to end this brief foray into change in protagonists is to go back to The Last Jedi, to the scene where Luke encounters Yoda’s ghost after trying to destroy all the ancient Jedi texts. After Luke admits he has failed Rey and that he could never hope to get her back, Yoda hits us all with the emotional bombshell that defines any protagonist/mentor relationship, and defines the change from a character’s original state to their current one: “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Luke and Yoda are the end of every journey of change we take, or should endeavour to take, old age and wisdom left in the open, exposed for all to see.
So, is The Last Jedi representative of the real image of change in our lives? And does it communicate the idea that not only can our favourite protagonists change and remain relatable, but that they should as well? Absolutely; it is what all film can and should do.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download.