The Two Lukes: Comparing and Contrasting 'Dark Empire' and 'The Last Jedi'
Released more than 25 years ago, the comic book mini-series Star Wars: Dark Empire by writer Tom Veitch and artist Cam Kennedy is notable for many reasons. It marked the start of a 20-year-long relationship between Dark Horse Comics and Lucasfilm that would result in thousands of issues and countless storylines expanding on the galaxy far, far away. It came out almost concurrently with Bantam Books’ release of Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir to the Empire, itself the first substantial new addition to the Star Wars Expanded Universe since the end of the ongoing Marvel Comics series in 1986. But most exigent is that, although after the Disney acquisition it was stricken from continuity, Dark Empire shares striking similarities to the newest theatrical release, Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, while also taking an almost polar opposite approach to the hypothetical question, “Who is Luke Skywalker in the years following Return of the Jedi?”
Dark Empire is infamous for being the story of Luke Skywalker falling to the Dark Side. Set six years after Return of the Jedi, the capital of the galaxy is under siege by the Imperial Remnant. Han, Luke, Chewie and the gang show up in the Millennium Falcon to try and find Luke, who’s down on the battlefield, only to witness him topple an AT-AT using the Force, and then get whisked away by a whirlwind of energy. Turns out Luke has been abducted by the newly resurrected Emperor Palpatine, who has been using clone bodies to extend his life. With no other option, Luke agrees to be Palpatine’s new apprentice as he goes about re-conquering the galaxy. Luke tries to take this opportunity to sabotage the operation from within, but ends up getting lost in his mission. He is only saved, in the end, by his sister Leia, who also carries a Jedi baby in her womb.
By contrast, The Last Jedi was released in December 2017 and hits a lot of the same story beats, but also zigs where Dark Empire zags. Set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, The Last Jedi picks up where 2015’s The Force Awakens left off, with the Resistance on the run from the First Order. Rey, the young scavenger from Jakku within whom the Force has awakened, ventures to Ahch-To to find Luke, who has been in self-imposed exiled after Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia, fell to the Dark Side and became Kylo Ren. It turns out Luke had his own brush with the Dark Side, after he was briefly tempted with killing Ben to prevent a vision of the future. Overwhelmed with guilt, Luke left his friends and family behind to wait for his own death and take the Jedi teachings with him. Rey finds herself struggling to convince Luke to leave with her and pick up the fight again just in time for a climactic ground battle between the Resistance and the First order.
Both works have proven divisive, though oddly enough embraced by Star Wars creator George Lucas. Reportedly Lucas gave copies of the Dark Empire trade paperback as Christmas gifts to Lucasfilm staff. And after coming away lukewarm from The Force Awakens, a movie he called “retro,” meaning it was just trying to be the old movies, he has reportedly been much more receptive to The Last Jedi. Part of this could be because the relationship between Luke and Rey is one of the few holdovers from Lucas’s treatments for his vision for Episodes VII-IX.
Lucas had been contemplating finally getting a sequel trilogy off the ground before the sell to Disney, and had already hired screenwriter Michael Arndt to craft a screenplay that would eventually become The Force Awakens. In The Art of The Last Jedi, storyboards are shown of the character who was then named Kira meeting Luke on an island. Arndt, during his drafting process, however, found that this dominated the script and decided to save it for the sequel, resulting in it being repurposed by Rian Johnson. In fact, the discarding of his treatments proved a point of contention with Lucas. In an interview he described Disney as being like “white slavers,” and has expressed since 2012 that it’s been hard to let go of Star Wars.
So setting aside this question of authenticity, whether or not Star Wars is really Star Wars without Lucas, is a whole other argument. One can argue that Star Wars always needed collaborators: from Lucas’s friends Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg and mentor Francis Ford Coppola seeing an early cut of A New Hope and ripping it to shreds, and Lucas’s then-wife Martha “saving” the movie in the edit, to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan being the ones that elevated the material with The Empire Strikes Back. But putting aside the question of whether or not Star Wars should continue beyond Return of the Jedi, and without Lucas, and just accepting that these continuations exist, the question is did either Dark Empire or The Last Jedi get it “right,” especially in regards to Luke Skywalker?
It’s important to start off with why these two works are controversial, and with Dark Empire it’s down to two intertwined things: the return of Palpatine, and Luke falling to the Dark Side. With the former it was believed that this was a cheap plot point that actively walked back Darth Vader’s redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi. This became exponentially controversial when the prequels introduced the idea of Anakin as a “Chosen One” that would bring balance to the Force by destroying the Sith, something he does when he hurtles Palpatine down that shaft and then dies himself. If Palpatine is still alive, how can the prophecy about Anakin be true? And with the idea of Luke going to the Dark Side, many viewed this as a betrayal of the character, who was willing to die at the end of Return of the Jedi before he’d ever betray his beliefs. Consequently both aspects of the story were retconned or flat out ignored, with Palpatine being canonically dismissed as an insane clone (and not possessing Palpatine’s spirit in any form), and Luke's temptation by the Dark Side pretty much being ignored.
The controversy over The Last Jedi is fairly fresh, and again it gets down to two factors: one is, of course, characterization, but another is the fact that Luke never gets to be a “badass” in the movie. In terms of characterization, there’s a few elements that have stuck in the craw of rabid fans. First of all, hiding away on Ahch-To is something fans claim the Luke of the original trilogy would never do. The Luke of The Empire Strikes Back leaves against Yoda’s wishes and advice to go to Bespin and save his friends from Vader, for example. Secondly, there’s the pivotal moment seen from three different perspectives, that owes a debt to Rashomon, when Luke confronts a younger Ben while he’s sleeping. Luke experiences a vision that causes him to ignite his lightsaber. When Luke first tell Rey the story he leaves out the part about the lightsaber, saying that Ben attacked him. When Kylo tells the story, he awakens to see a bloodthirsty Luke standing over him. And when Luke tells the story a second time he admits he contemplated murdering Ben in his sleep, but only for a split second. But in that split second Ben rolled over, and their trust was shattered forever.
When it comes to the question of badassery, it is down mostly to the big battle on Crait and how it is revealed to be a fakeout. Luke arrives and confronts Kylo, but only after the AT-M6 walkers unload a volley of blasts on him that appear to be ineffective. The two square off and duel, although their sabers don’t actually connect. Then the twist: Luke isn’t actually on Crait. He astral projected himself, using a Force ability that had only been hinted at for the first time earlier in the movie when Kylo and Rey “bridge” together, enabling them to communicate across the vastness of space. Luke disappears, but the demonstration proves a rallying point for the Resistance who witnessed it. Word spreads across the galaxy, with an ending that promises hope has been reignited. This is after, however, Luke dies on Ahch-To from the strain of projecting himself, fading away into the Force as he looks upon twin suns in a moment of synchronicity.
The problem is fanboys wanted Luke to have a more physical show of Force, ironically in line with the big moment in Dark Empire of bringing down an AT-AT, but even bigger. The common consensus is Luke should’ve thrown the walkers around like playthings, and then handed Kylo his lunch. The fact that he’s not actually there is bothersome, and also that his death would seem to prevent any future badassery. This is, in fact, a strange thing to get hung up on because Luke never really did anything so grandiose in the old EU, now Legends, with Dark Empire being an outlier and something usually shunned by fans. It never occurred to any writer to have Luke be so blunt in showing off his power, so why anyone expected Rian Johnson to handle it differently is baffling.
The few times in the Legends EU that Luke shows off it’s either in understated ways, or is framed as a slippery slope toward the Dark Side. In Kevin Anderson’s The Jedi Academy Trilogy, Luke “walks” across lava, using the Force to levitate in a way that brings to mind one of Jesus’s greatest hits. Yet this is done to impress upon a potential Jedi apprentice that the Force isn’t all about attack. Then in Troy Denning’s Dark Nest Trilogy, during a time when Jacen Solo has convinced the Jedi Order that there is no Dark Side, Luke cloaks a spaceship with the Force and the effort starts to drain the life out of him. This is one of the first indications that there is, in fact, a Dark Side and it’s not just a person’s intent. Then finally in Legacy of the Force, one of the last series before the Disney buyout, Luke faces Jacen in a lightsaber duel and, before he can deal a killing blow, decides to walk away because he doesn’t want to strike out of anger. That’s pretty much the complete opposite of what a lot of people demanded from the Luke/Kylo fight on Crait, and yet there has never been a version of Luke that would have acted the way they wanted.
Stories aren’t windows into living, breathing, existing realities, even if they may feel that way sometimes. They’re creations of human beings that stem from a series of choices and concerns. Especially after more than three decades away from the character, no portrayal of Luke was ever going to satisfy everyone. Some want the powerful warrior Luke, seen in Dark Empire; others want the sly, cerebral take on the character that is in The Last Jedi. With it almost guaranteed that the character will appear in Episode IX, it remains to be seen what future portrayals will bring.
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