In the past few years – decades maybe even – Return of the Jedi has gained something of a reputation. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin – likely it was bolstered by the release of the prequels. But somewhere along the line, Return of the Jedi became widely seen by Star Wars fans as the worst of the original trilogy. I’ve even seen arguments that have gone so far as to label it worse than one or two of the prequels – and The Force Awakens as well.
(Quick note: I like The Force Awakens – more than I do the prequels; but I strongly disagree with the assessment that it could be better than any of the original trilogy films.)
There’s a large degree to which I find that assessment perplexing. I understand the derision of the prequels I think in large part because there’s a goofiness and an immaturity at play through much of the experience – from everything involving the Gungans, the romance between Anakin and Padme, and really much of the character of Anakin himself.
But Return of the Jedi? It’s a far cry from all of that. It was always my favorite of the three films when I was a kid – and that’s only become more pronounced as I’ve gotten older.
Here are the reasons why.
When you finish out a trilogy, you want things to come together in an appropriate and exciting climax of events – especially when all three films are linked into any kind of centralized plot. There’s often a perception that the third film is always the worst in the trilogy – something I hardly agree with. But given my feelings about Return of the Jedi, that’s probably not too much of a surprise. (I also offer the counter-arguments of Return of the King, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, among others.)
Finishing out the story of the original films is exactly what Return of the Jedi sets out to do – and it does so spectacularly well.
The narrative is neatly divided into two parts: the first to resolve the cliffhanger left at the end of The Empire Strikes Back; and the second is to finally bring to a head that conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire.
The plotline regarding Jabba the Hutt – with Han’s unpaid debts to him – had been hanging in the background in the first two films. Empire Strikes Back put the series in a position to needfully resolve this, and Return of the Jedi is gainfully on board for the task. After two films of buildup, we finally get to meet the mobster himself. And in perfect fashion: surrounded by his minions, a bloated king atop his throne, seemingly impervious to anyone with conflicting goals. It’s into this situation that Luke, Leia, and the others stroll with the goal of rescuing Han.
As a micro-narrative, it escalates incredibly well. Pacing builds slowly into the reveals – letting us get to experience the life and world of the Hutt crimelord. We see each of our heroes in turn take their hand at resolving the situation, including Leia finally freeing Han from the carbonite. Then Luke enters as the very final player, and things fully come to a head.
The action setpiece of bringing down Jabba’s sailbarge is one of the best the franchise has ever produced. The absolute thrill when Luke – at the very literal last moment – turns the tide against them, and we get the joy out of watching the good guys (for so long seemingly at the disadvantage of the bad guys) finally triumpgh. It’s every bit as exciting as what we come to expect from Star Wars.
It’s also during this sequence that we see Luke at his absolute best. It’s a disservice to classify the character solely by the naiveté of the early first film – especially given what he transforms into in this one.
The concept of a Jedi Knight is built on the principles of peacekeepers who are also unparalleled warriors. As Obi-Wan describes them, guardians of peace and order. Using abilities with the Force not for selfish gain, but only instead for the good and righteousness of others.
And no other Jedi in no other film at no other point in the franchise has better epitomized what it means to be a Jedi than Luke in the opening half of Return of the Jedi.
He exudes calm and serenity, doesn’t allow himself to be baited. He’s confident without being arrogant. And he’s utterly, utterly capable.
But the best part of all isn’t just seeing him almost single-handedly bring down Jabba’s sailbarge. It’s also the importance of the context – of his decisions leading up to that moment.
Over the course of the early film, Luke essentially tries every possible avenue besides violence to free Han from Jabba. Offering the droids as a gift, sending in Lando, Leia, and Chewie. Finally going himself, making every offer he can to resolve the situation. The first time watching, the audience is as of yet unaware of his full capabilities, so his attitude may very well seem like arrogance. But once you see it come to the climax, it’s abundantly clear it is not.
Essentially, Luke has the capabilities to take down Jabba almost entirely on his own through violence – what’s more, he knows it. And his seeks every other option available to him, only falling back on it as a last resort. He strives for peaceful resolution above all else – and only uses violence when there’s literally no other option.
It is the ultimate epitome of everything a Jedi should be.
The latter half of the film does just as well, similarly forcing the conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire into a spectacular climax. It takes advantage of the third-in-the-series placement to divide narrative focus; something that would’ve been far riskier in the franchise’s first outing. We spend time on Endor for the ground battle, with Lando for the space battle, and with Luke, Vadar, and Palpatine for the psychological battle.
They represent three of the different arenas that epitomize Star Wars at its best. The pacing and anticipation building as we cut across the three different theatres of war. Made all the more thrilling as the Rebels are finally able to turn things back on the Empire and score substantial victories. They’re the kind of cheer-worthy moments that were three movies in the making, and the film earns every single one of them.
And if the ground and space battles are the big action setpieces we all know and love, the psychological battle is also the core of what the series is best known for. The battle for Luke’s soul, as he faces the ultimate test and temptation in a classic good vs. evil contest, trying to stay to the good, trying to save his father, and trying to ward off the lure of the dark.
Plus, the redemption of Anakin is hard to top. And his death scene is arguably the most poignant and profound in the entire franchise.
Return of the Jedi had to end out the series in spectacular fashion, and it does so in all the right ways. It epitomizes everything Star Wars is about, and brings with it all the joy, psychological complexity, character evaluation, and cheer-worthy action moments that the franchise is known for. It is the best of the best when it comes to Star Wars. And that’s why it will always be my favorite.