I know, it’s a controversial title, but it’s something I very much believe. When people think of Star Wars, of the best that that distant galaxy has to offer, they think of the original trilogy. They think (almost always) of Empire Strikes Back. They think of A New Hope—or Star Wars, if you want to really go by its actual title—but they never, never think of Return of the Jedi. When it comes to this franchise, especially the way it is received and celebrated, Empire dwarfs everything.
To be clear, Empire is a fantastic movie. It is darker and better than the first. It’s no longer about a classic serial “this happens, and then this happens and the evil is destroyed in the third act” kind of structure. The characters are so much deeper, more fully-developed, it kicks off Luke’s journey but casually shifts Han into the lead role because it had become clear that that was what the fans really wanted to see. And then it gave us one of the best twists of all time.
But here’s the thing: Empire had it easy, all things considered. Not that it wasn’t a hard story to crack, but all that film had to do was drop the twist on us. Its job was to say, “No, Luke, I am your father.” Return of the Jedi was the movie that actually had to deal with what that meant. This had to live up to one of the biggest moments in pop culture history in addition to closing the first massive blockbuster movie trilogy. Return of the Jedi had to do the heavy lifting and it had huge expectations to live up to, both from fans of the franchise and even die-hard movie fans after directors like David Lynch and David Cronenberg had been courted for the project.
The thing that makes Return of the Jedi stand out, though, is its completely organic retooling of Luke Skywalker. In the first and second films, Luke is supposed to be our protagonist, but he’s the least interesting of the three main characters. Sure, in Empire he has the more interesting storyline of training to be a Jedi, but there’s no concrete reason as to why. His character lacked focus. All we knew is that his father had been a Jedi and he wanted to be a Jedi because of that, he’s told to go study with Yoda by Ben’s spirit, but that’s a fairly thin reason. If Luke is supposed the be the through line for the franchise, he needs a clear motivation and that’s exactly what Jedi gives us.
In Return of the Jedi, Luke has one and only one motivation from the beginning to the end: he is going to save his father. Everything he does, every decision he makes, is made with that one thought in mind.
From the get-go, we’re treated to the most dynamic and intense openings of the entire series. We’re introduced to Jabba the Hutt, a powerful enemy that Han had alluded to, but one we had never actually seen (special editions notwithstanding). Not only that, we finally get to see our core characters working as a unit. They’re here for their friend and they’re not leaving without him. They have a plan. Up to this point, Leia had always been something of a reactionary badass. She had a sharp wit and an attitude, could prove herself in an intense situation, but she had never jumped in to steer those situations herself.
But here, even when she becomes Slave Leia, this is not about Leia needing to get rescued. In fact, rescuing Han is her plan. She has a role for everyone, she knows what she’s doing, she plans to get caught and even manages to kill Jabba with her own bare hands. That actually seems as if it’s a conscious effort to make up for the fact that she was a prisoner for most of the first movie and needed to be rescued by Luke and Han. In Return of the Jedi, especially once the second familial twist is revealed, Leia stops being simply a princess or love interest and truly becomes a lead.
Other than Leia’s unfortunate costume, there’s nothing in that big, dynamic skiff sequence that goes over as poorly as the death of Boba Fett. People still absolutely love this character. The expanded universe had to bring back Fett to retcon the death because it made people so mad. But that, to me, is completely missing the point—at least as it’s presented in this film. In Return of the Jedi, Boba Fett is a joke.
And I don’t mean that as in “he’s a bad character.” He’s not. He is literally a joke. In Empire, we see Boba Fett as this cold, badass presence. We know he’s intimidating but we’ve been given no reason as to why. He doesn’t actually do anything. When Han Solo spins around and blindly, accidentally knocks Fett into the Sarlacc Pit, it’s a genius punch line. Imagine if the classic scene in which Indy just shoots that swordsman demonstrating his skills in Raiders had been broken up over the course of two films. That’s Boba Fett.
Even the Ewoks, marketing ploy that they were, serve a purpose. They give these characters the first breather they’ve had since this whole trilogy began. They’re not being double-crossed like they were in Cloud City, they’re meeting an alien culture and are completely open to it. The gang’s time among the Ewoks is, ideologically, the best showcase of what an antithesis they are to the Empire. They’re coming into the home of a species entirely separate from themselves and adopting their customs, dressing in the appropriate garb and partaking of their activities rather than invading and pushing their own customs.
The Ewoks are, for the Empire, the ultimate oversight. The reason they work in this movie is because they are literally the least threatening creatures imaginable and they have a huge role in bringing the Empire down. They’re cute and cuddly teddy bears and, yes, that’s great for marketing. But that also works incredibly well for demolishing everything the Empire represents. The Ewoks work because they’re not a threat. The Empire is powerful and they, by themselves, really aren’t. On one level, they’re the underdogs. The Ewoks are the Goonies of the Star Wars franchise. They’re the Monster Squad. But more than that, they represent the pure and unwavering arrogance of the Empire. Because they truly believe that they cannot be defeated, they open themselves up to being taken down by the smallest possible threat.
Not only that, the Ewoks allow C-3PO, a major character in both of the previous movies, to have something he’s never had before: an arc. For the first two features, C-3PO is mostly the butt of the joke. He’s not even necessarily comic relief, he’s just that annoying worrywart character everyone just wants to shut up, even though all he’s ever trying to do is effectively and efficiently keep them alive because that’s literally what he’s programmed to do. Nobody takes him seriously. Nobody cares. Threepio probably doesn’t even realize just how undervalued he is until he meets the Ewoks. These little guys don’t give a shit about how cool or tough Han or Chewie are. They only care about C-3PO, they literally worship him as a god, and this bizarre side-arc gives this integral member of the team something to do for the very first—and honestly last—time in the series.
But the best thing about Return of the Jedi, the crux of the entire film, is the relationship between Luke and Vader. As mentioned, redeeming his father is the only thing Luke has set out to do in this film. At the end of Empire, he learned the truth. Now he has taken the time to ingest the truth, accept the truth, and he has decided what he needs to do. This gives Luke a confidence we’ve never seen from him before, as well as an intensity we didn’t even know he was capable of. Luke truly believes that there is still a good man buried deep inside the monster his father has become and he is perfectly willing to die to bring that man back to the surface.
All of the meandering Jedi threads Luke undergoes in New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are fixed by a single line, that’s how good this movie is. Taken as a young man’s journey from a farm boy into becoming a hero, accepting himself and his family and his place in the universe, this is a trilogy that builds to a single line: “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
It’s almost brutally simple. And it should be. This is a series that operates on a mythological, larger-than-life scale. This is a space opera and acting as the concluding chapter, Return of the Jedi strives to make everything as appropriately operatic as possible. But it works. Luke’s showdown with Vader and the Emperor takes up nearly half the film and it never drags because it’s what the entire movie is about. Luke’s here for Vader. Vader’s here for Luke, but he doesn’t necessarily know what to do with him. His loyalties are tested from the very beginning, made clear by the fact that he offers Luke the chance to help him overthrow the Emperor in Empire.
Jedi plays on Vader’s stoicism perfectly because he’s dealing with major questions of faith throughout the course of the movie and we can’t even tell what he’s thinking up until the end. But that climax is shot so brilliantly that even though this is a solid, unmoving mask and he doesn’t have a single line during the scene we realize exactly what he is about to do before he does it. When Vader kills the Emperor, he knowingly sacrifices himself for his son. He recognizes this as the last chance he is ever going to have to do a good thing and he takes it.
The final scene between Luke and Vader is what we’ve been building to from the moment Vader uttered the words “I am your father,” and putting that twist in context, is really what we’ve been building to from the moment Anakin Skywalker was first mentioned in A New Hope. This is an impactful, heartwrenching moment because it’s earned. The road has been paved for a redemption arc, but the only thing Vader has left to do—literally the only thing he can do—is give his life so that Luke can live.
What makes this scene work so well is that Luke is still trying to get his father back, still trying to make everything right and after being a stoic knight for the whole film he becomes a child again in an instant. He will carry Anakin out of here if he has to. He is perfectly willing to die with his dad if it comes to that. The moment that helmet comes off is nothing short of brilliant because it destroys every illusion about Darth Vader audiences may have still had. One look at that frail, old face and it’s clear that Vader’s life was never going to be saved. This suit is not an armor, it’s a life support system. It’s a temporary solution that managed to work for twenty years, but the truth is that Vader was already dying. He’s been dying from the moment he put this “armor” on for the first time.
For just one moment, Vader is allowed to be a father to Luke. He has to make Luke realize that this has never been about saving his own life, only his spirit. He’s going to die, but he’s going to die a decent human being and, all things considered, that’s nothing short of a miracle. This is a beautiful moment. For the purposes of a trilogy, it’s the perfect ending for both characters. The hardest thing any trilogy has to do is stick the landing. Most of them don’t. Return of the Jedi had so much heavy lifting. It deserves way more credit for managing any of that weight as well as it does, let alone nearly all of it.