February 3, 2018 (original post date)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Leia, rather than Luke, is the true hero of Star Wars...
Alright, maybe not so universally, but I think there's a strong case for Leia. Before you pull out your torches and pitchforks, hear me out.
In 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 had 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 our true 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.
There's also something to be said about Leia's indirect involvement in Luke's duel with Vader on 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, that means The Empire Strikes Back is Luke's movie and it is, very much so. 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 installment was no doubt 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.
Facing off against Vader again and influencing him to kill Palpatine? The last thing.
Taking Kylo Ren head on? The last thing.
Hell, he's even the last character to show up in Force Awakens!
It's worth noting that in most of these last-minute arrivals, Luke needed rescuing. Without Han's intervention, 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 in The Last Jedi - in my opinion, 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.
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. For the frist time, he was in the driver's seat - or pilot's seat, as it were.
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. 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. 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?
My answer to that is Luke is... just Luke. He is a Jedi, a pretty kick-ass pilot, a son, a brother, and a friend. It's only when Luke is seen struggling with his identity and his past in The Last Jedi that his true inner turmoil arises. It was the very identification of Luke Skywalker, the Hero - one crafted by public opinion and the mystique of Jedis at a time when Jedis were considered myths - that led him to exile himself to Ahch-To upon his perceived failure to resurrect the Jedi Order. Luke felt the pressure to live up to the legacy of his father, before his fall from grace, as well as the legacy that falsely attributes the death of the Emporer solely to Luke, thereby painting him as a hero while Anakin died a pariah. I don't believe for a second that Luke ever considered himself a hero, especially knowing the truth about his father and the truth of what happened the day the Empire fell, and this is evident by the great lengths he went to hide from the world and his hesitancy to assist the Resistance when called upon in the sequels.
Now, if you believe in fate, or - as it is more commonly referred to in the Star Wars universe - the will of the Force, then everything happened the way it was meant to happen and Luke was precisely where he needed to be at all times, regardless of his "choices." But if this is true (and who am I to say that it isn't?), why would Yoda and Force Ghost Obi-Wan try to convince Luke to stay on Dagobah if where he needed to be was Bespin? Why would Anakin spend a majority of his career as Darth Vader in the comics directly defying Palpatine if he needed to be his apprentice? Why did a young Obi-Wan feel the need to fight and potentially kill his friend and brother to stop the dark path he was on in the prequels if that's exactly where Anakin needed to be? Did they not believe, or know about, the will of the Force? If so, they then must have believed that it is our choices that decide our fate and not the other way around.
Regardless of what you believe, from a writing standpoint it's 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?
The answer to that is the crux of my argument: the hero of Star Wars really depends on your perspective. I fully expect a good portion of readers to vehemently disagree with me and insist that Luke always was and always will be the hero of Star Wars, and that's okay. That's their perspective and I fully respect their right to feel that way. However, I respectfully disagree with them.
The true hero of Star Wars always was and will always be Leia Organa.
To start off, Episodes IV and V open with Leia (Leia being captured by Darth Vader while she hides the Death Star plans in R2-D2 and Leia defending the Hoth base while her Rebels evacuate, respectively), and while Episode VI doesn't open with Leia, she's the first of the main trio to physically appear on screen and starts off the action when she, disguised as the bounty hunter Boushh, rescues Han from his carbonite prison. Beyond that simple fact, in order to understand Leia's importance to the film series, we have to closely look at the film series as a whole.
The central theme of Star Wars is the common "good vs. evil" story we all know and love presented to us in uncommon ways, but this theme materializes in two distinct but intrinsically linked plotlines; the political drama of freedom fighters facing off against a massive oppressive force and the more ideological battle of Sith versus Jedi. The Skywalker twins each auspiciously represent one side of the coin, with Leia neck deep in overseeing freedom and peace reign across the galaxy while Luke battles his inner demons in his quest to oversee the light side of the Force defeat its dark side.
Maz Kanata very eloquently pointed out in Force Awakens that the light and dark side of the Force has taken on many forms over the millennia, and each time they must face each other in a battle for control over the galaxy and all its inhabitants. It began with the ancient Jedi Order and the Sith (back before The Rule of Two) and was then followed by the Galactic Civil War between the Galactic Empire - controlled by a Sith Lord - and the Rebel Alliance, whose main players were Force-sensitive twins who fought for the light. Before the fall of the Republic and the destruction of the Jedi, the two sides of the Clone Wars followed a similar pattern: the Confederacy of Independent Systems - also known as the Separatists - was being led by Count Dooku, a Sith apprentice called Darth Tyrannus, while the Republic had the unified backing of the Jedi. The lines begin to blur in the sequels, which makes sense considering Luke Skywalker, master Jedi and the last of his kind, was mostly legend by the time the New Republic was up and running, and calling Supreme Leader Snoke a Sith would be a remiss, although he definitely dabbles in the dark side. Being two sides of the same coin, do Luke and Leia each represent one side of the Force? If so, which is which? To determine this, we have to examine each character's actions and motivations.
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 rather than a royal title determined by blood.
Leia's political career began at the ripe old age of 14 when she became a junior legislator, and she was already fooling and working against the Empire by 16 years old when she met the crew of the Ghost in Star Wars Rebels. Then at 19, she replaced her father as Senator of Alderaan and proved herself to be quite the humanitarian during her time as an Imperial Senator before the Empire finally managed to dissolve the Senate. Even after the tragic loss of her home planet, Leia continued to fight the Empire in any way she could. No longer forced to work in the shadows, Leia openly joined the Rebel Alliance and quickly rose among its ranks. Later in her career, after the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic, Leia continued to work as a diplomat and politician. She experienced two tragedies in this later part of her life; her fall from grace in the political theater when she was revealed to be the biological daughter of Darth Vader and the loss of her son, Ben Solo, to the dark side of the Force. Yet, despite these hard hits, Leia refused to bend to oppression and injustice. After learning of the formation of the First Order, Leia gathered freedom fighters once more and, like her true father before her, formed the Resistance as General Leia Organa.
Luke, unfortunately, has never demonstrated his sister's resolve to keep fighting and not much initially motivated him to start fighting. As a moisture farmer on Tatooine, Luke's ultimate goal was to get off Tatooine (who can blame him?), but his original plan was problematic: Luke was intent on joining the Empire as an Imperial pilot. He says this while simultaneously admitting that he's fully aware the Empire is, and I quote, "terrible." Then there is his dramatic leap to his death when he discovers that Darth Vader was his father, and he probably would have died had he not reached out to Leia through the Force. Let's not forget his equally dramatic reaction to his failure to resurrect the Jedi Order when he very briefly considered taking his own nephew's life, an act that would drive Ben Solo down the path that Luke was intent on preventing in that exact instant. Distrustful of Luke and already being seduced by Snoke, Ben morphed into Kylo Ren and wiped out what would have been the next generation of Jedi, a moment reminiscent of Anakin's own slaughter of younglings at the Jedi Temple on Coruscant in Revenge of the Sith.
Regardless of whether or not the Force plays a role in the way these events play out, Star Wars sends a clear message: actions have consequences. And while Leia rises to meet the occasion (no doubt she felt responsible for the destruction of Alderaan and the deaths of rebel fighters after each mission), she refuses to stay down because she is always remembering the innocent lives she is fighting to preserve. Meanwhile, Luke's response is to exile himself in abject humiliation. It took a visit from Yoda's Force Ghost for Luke to learn his lesson, forgive himself, and finally live up to his legacy. While I accept and respect Luke's instrumental role throughout the story, I would categorize him as a more reluctant, dark hero than the traditional hero archetype. And there's nothing wrong with that; a flawed hero makes for fascinating storytelling.
Just as the dark and light side of the Force must work in tandem, so must Luke and Leia. If Luke represents the pull of the dark then Leia, the other side of the proverbial coin, must represent the glow of the light. This comparison is, I think, supported by their actions and reactions to the paths they've led in life.
In The Clone Wars, series creator Dave Filoni introduced the Son and Daughter characters, members of a powerful family of Force users who exiled themselves to the planet Mortis, where they live to keep the Force balanced. The Daughter, embodying serenity, compassion, and love, is the personification of the Light Side; the Son, angry, violent, and selfish, embodied the Dark Side. While the implications of Filoni's decision to personify the Light Side as female and the Dark Side as male go beyond Star Wars, I don't think it's a stretch to look at the Son and Daughter as analogous to Luke and Leia and their role in bringing balance to the Force. So, if the Light Side of the Force is synonymous with "hero" in the Star Wars universe, is it not then logical to look at Leia's efforts and her role in the story as the true hero's journey? Leia may not be the Force user her brother is, but she has shown herself to be more than an adept, if casual, Force user, especially in those more subtle uses of the Force.
In defense of Luke - a character I don't by any means hate, by the way - it's only responsible of me to point out that I am not an unbiased party when it comes to Star Wars' favorite twins. Then again, you're unlikely to find an unbiased party anywhere regarding Star Wars. To know the franchise intimately is to love the franchise. For my part, it's difficult to not love Leia considering my relationship with the various female characters that came before and after Leia, particularly her biological mother, Padme. While I wasn't super fond of her portrayal towards the end of Revenge of the Sith, my overall love for Padme as a character is something words cannot describe. Star Wars has also never shied away from portraying their female characters fairly and humanely; among their many excellent female characters are Ahsoka Tano, Hera Syndulla, and, more recently, Rey, the heart and center of the sequel series (whether you like it or not). But Leia's influence on the series goes beyond what she represented as a woman; she was unmatched in her compassion, indomitable in her leadership, and unwavering in her determination. She was, to me, the very embodiment of a hero.
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 explicitly stated why (aside from the obvious fact that he's her brother and she's worried about him). 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. 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.
TL;DR - 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.