The standard line about the original trilogy is that Return of the Jedi is its weak link. It will surprise nobody to learn that I’m suspicious of this logic, which is at its heart rooted in an aesthetic that says that big reveals like Vader being Luke’s father are good and Ewoks are bad, but it’s nevertheless worth recognizing that Return of the Jedi is the one film in the original trilogy that’s markedly improved by the presence of the prequels. This isn’t a new observation - it’s at the heart of the famous Machete Order, which suggests putting the prequels between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and which basically prompted this entire series with its argument for why you should skip The Phantom Menace while doing this, which was the immediate cause of my remarking that prequel criticism was generally worse than the prequels themselves.
The problem that Return of the Jedi has on its own merits is Luke’s constant assertion that there’s still good in Darth Vader, a claim that not only lacks justification in the films but is actively unjustified by the sheer degree that Darth Vader is an ostentatious force of pure evil badassery. As we’ve discussed at length, it’s not that the claim that there’s some good in him is particularly justified by the prequels either, but at least the line is uttered by Padme in Revenge of the Sith, and more to the point, the prequels put significant effort into making Anakin an actual character. It’s difficult to actually imagine the Darth Vader of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back making an abrupt face turn, but while it’s still a bit out of left field, it’s perfectly possible to imagine the Anakin Skywalker of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the SIth doing it. (I mean, hell, he’s so fickle in Revenge of the Sith that it’s basically possible to imagine him doing anything.)
More broadly, the relationship between Luke and Vader is, in the original trilogy, a pure abstraction - it matters entirely because of the basic ideological valences of fathers and sons. Indeed, the fact that it literally only matters because of patriarchy goes a long way towards explaining the weirdly outre status of Leia within this relationship, with her involvement a somewhat disposable third movie reveal in which she gets played as the fool, getting a piece of information the audience already knows and that has no actual bearing on the plot. But as a conclusion to the entire Lucas-governed saga it’s a far deeper relationship, and that gives the film new weight, a fact reflected in Lucas’s decision to replace Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen in the final scene. (Honestly not a bad decision, though he probably should have replaced Alec Guinness with Ewan MacGregor in this and The Empire Strikes Back to set it up better.)
But it’s worth interrogating why this should be the case. After all, it’s not obvious that the solution to an undercooked finale is to go back and add more stuff before it while not actually changing anything about the finale itself save for swapping out “Lapti Nek” for “Jedi Rocks.” Indeed, in most circumstances adding more things that a finale is expected to resolve is the exact opposite of fixing the problem. Part of the issue is what we’ve already discussed - the concerns set up by A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are abstractions based on archetypal relations. But this isn’t a fault - indeed, it’s baked into George Lucas’s basic idea of a Buck Rogers-style serial.
No, the important thing is that Return of the Jedi marks the point in Lucas’s chronological development of Star Wars where the movies start getting a bit weird. I mean, The Empire Strikes Back isn’t without its utter barminess, featuring as it does both the Exogorth and Yoda. Even A New Hope has the Cantina scene. But both films spend most of their time on fairly standard space action serial ideas. By the time of Return of the Jedi, however, Lucas was running out of obvious ideas, and so was forced towards things like, well, Jabba the Hutt’s palace and the Ewoks. This trend only continued over the course of the prequels, and so it’s not a surprise that adding them to the narrative helps Return of the Jedi, in that it becomes a film that balances the approach of the five previous instead of a weird aberration.
Obviously the consensus is not that Lucas running out of obvious ideas was a good thing. As I said, I’m naturally inclined to be skeptical of this. Doctor Who fandom has a famous factionalization into “guns” and “frocks,” with guns preferring action and exploding Daleks and the like, while frocks like stories that are much more like, well the prequel trilogy. And I’ve got a long critical track record of standing up for frocks. All the same, it’s clearly the case that the prequels simply are not as good movies as the original trilogy, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Lucas’s weirder instincts.
The problem, though, isn’t Lucas’s weirder instincts so much as the fact that his weirder instincts lead him away from his strengths. By and large, as sheer weirdness increases, clarity of storytelling has to as well. Lucas, meanwhile, is deeply undisciplined in his storytelling. His plots are sloppy and ill-structured, his characters are bland archetypes, and his dialogue is cornball. And as his more (literally) alienating ideas come to the forefront these failings get less and less room to hide.
The irony of this, though, is that even though his weirder instincts drag him away from his best filmmaking, they’re still on their own merits his absolute best tendencies. Even A New Hope works largely because of Lucas’s propensity for slight strangeness, with much of its texture defined by touches like the Jawas, Chewbacca, or throwaway phrases like “moisture farm” and “clone wars.” The decision to have the initial viewpoint characters be C-3PO and R2-D2 is astonishing in its out-of-left-fieldness, and yet it’s one of the most important in the film, a bold setting of expectations that notably convolutes attempts to pretend the film begins with Luke’s call to adventure and not Leia’s droids. And for all that the original trilogy is better, its overall plot of generic rebels overthrowing generic fascists is far less interesting than the collapse of a corrupt democracy. Indeed, if you want to boil the core argument of An Increasingly Inaccurately Named Trilogy into a single sentence, it’s basically “the movies the prequels are failing to be are much more interesting than the ones the original trilogy are succeeding at being.”
But then there’s Return of the Jedi. A film where Lucas’s weird instincts have the moderating force they so desperately need in the form of Lawrence Kasdan, who dutifully makes sure the film remembers to actually be about something most of the time. Sure, Lucas’s weird instincts also just aren’t on full blast yet (notably he blatantly can’t think of anything other than “the Death Star again maybe?”). But there’s also a clear arc with narrative purpose to the strange sequences. The Jabba the Hutt opening is even more cut off from the rest of the film than Hoth is in The Empire Strikes Back, with the film all but restarting with Mon Mothma’s appearance. But it still has a clear arc of demonstrating how much the events of the previous film have changed Luke and a nifty gimmick of sequentially reintroducing the characters as the rescue scheme unfolds. As a result the weird bits are delightful instead of simply alienating, and the sequence is a classic.
But even better are the Ewoks. Jabba, after all, is grotesque, but his sequence is decidedly not frock, and Carrie Fisher’s got the metal bikini to prove it. The Ewoks, on the other hand, are an absolutely bonkers turn that clashes gloriously with the operatic grandeur of the three-way showdown on the Death Star. And yet they’re handled with just as much attentiveness as the Jabba the Hutt sequence. Everyone involved is clearly committed to making the Ewoks work as a concept, and is hell-bent on taking them seriously. The Ewok death scene is very possibly the most brilliant thing in the entire saga, a rare moment in which the story decides to just go for it and really push an idea as far as it can go. Sure, the battle for Endor hasn’t got the visceral thrill of Hoth or the trench run, but it’s an utterly gonzo notion played with skill and conviction, and I think that’s a fundamentally better thing to be.
Like most of Return of the Jedi, though, the Ewoks really shine in the context of the whole saga, where they more clearly provide a sense of thematic resolution. As mentioned, taken on its own the politics of the original trilogy are not particularly complex. And this poses something of a problem for the saga as a whole; Revenge of the Sith ends with a complex network of moral and political concerns that it inadequately resolves before ostentatiously punting them onto the next generation. The original trilogy, however, does not pick any of them up. One can divine interesting answers, and the saga’s not over yet, but it’s simply not the case that A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back are particularly interested in the questions asked by Revenge of the Sith.
But the Ewoks do. They’re another iteration of the prequel trilogy’s most fascinating thematic concern, namely the practice of considering groups as subhuman, whether the droids, the Tusken Raiders, the clones, or the practice of slavery. The Ewoks are filling the classic pulp adventure role of “the savages,” but avoid the crass racial stereotypes that characterize a lot of the prequel trilogy’s alien species. Indeed, they’re one of a handful of successful ways to incorporate the trope of savages into adventure fiction that don’t involve ugly racial implications.
More than that, however, the Ewoks finally provide something of a resolution to the longstanding issue. They form an entirely functional rebellion of their own, not only rising up against their oppressors but clawing out a place within the human-dominated social order. It’s easy to make too much of this; the Ewoks are, like R2-D2 and Chewbacca, left untranslated, which makes it difficult to ascribe much depth to anything they do. But the fact that the Empire’s climactic downfall is fundamentally down to a subaltern indigenous population rising up against oppression is valuable - a significant statement that makes editing Naboo into the closing montage sensible in spite of the fact that we’ve not spent any significant time there since Attack of the Clones, just because the Gungans are one of the most obvious parallels to the Ewoks (though not quite as blatant as the Jawas). This is in many ways a more meaningful sort of closure than anything character-based could possibly be - one rooted in what the saga has been about instead of in its raw iconography.
And so the saga as Lucas envisioned it comes to a close. It is worth noting, this would have been enough. Either as a trilogy or a sextet, Return of the Jedi would have made a fine conclusion to Star Wars, a series that was always grounded more in George Lucas’s desire to see his daydreams realized on a movie screen than in anything else. Star Wars has always been more than just these six movies, yes, but as a statement of artistic vision in science fiction they are peerless. Even as they acquired countless imitators, Lucas remained singular, strange, and at times downright baffling. On some level quality seems no more interesting a question to raise about Lucas’s work than it is about Henry Darger’s. The only difference is that somehow Lucas’s mad visions got made into multimillion dollar movies instead of drawings abandoned in a Chicago apartment.
But, of course, the consequence of that is that his vision was never going to remain his own. There was always too much money in allowing it to be otherwise. This is not some suggestion that Lucas’s vision was somehow compromised by his tendency to keep one eye on the toy market. There is no “Lucas’s vision” separate from the commercial concerns, a fact that does not detract from its delightful weirdness in the slightest. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that this vision could never endure as the untouched center of Star Wars. It was always going to become a franchise, not a saga. This has its merits - Jack’s done a stellar job of illustrating how interesting Rogue One is over the last few weeks, and I’m going to have plenty of nice things to say about The Force Awakens next week. But there’s still something that even I, who, twelve thousand words into this thing still don’t actually like Star Wars very much, find poignant about seeing Lucas’s vision pass into history within it.