Geekdom is abuzz; Star Wars will be reborn. Out of nowhere, Disney snatched up the rights from Lucasfilm, simultaneously announcing sequels to Return of the Jedi. After the disastrous prequel trilogy, a new director and proven screenwriter will attempt to jump-start the stalled franchise.
Fans are already speculating wildly about the new trilogy’s likely story. What conflict will drive the films? How long after Return of the Jedi will the movies take place? Will we re-join familiar characters—Luke, Leia, and Han—or will a new cadre of adventurers steal the spotlight?
To me, one question looms largest of all. How do you tell a good story when the main character is dead? According to Lucas, Star Wars (Episodes I-VI) centered around Anakin Skywalker: his mysterious origins, his fall from grace, his ruthless rule, his ultimate redemption, and his tragic death. With Vader gone, what’s left to tell?
Of course, you could simply shift the focus from Vader to the characters who survived Return of the Jedi. What are our old friends up to? Luke likely spends his time scouting wunderkinds for a Jedi Academy. Leia wades through Galactic Senate bureaucracy. Han Solo gives up smuggling and starts his own shipping company.
Hardly spellbinding stuff. In fact, a Vaderless Star Wars sounds insufferably boring. Who wants to eavesdrop on Leia’s interminable Galactic Senate hearings? Or watch Han Solo chair Kessel Transport board meetings? Or look over Professor Skywalker’s shoulder as he revises the syllabus for Jedi Mindtricks 101? “Happily ever after” reads well on paper, but in practice proves sadly dull.
Even introducing some replacement villain seems fraught with downsides. How do you top Vader’s menace? All due respect to Darth Whoever or Admiral Thrawn, but Ol’ Helmet Head automatically trumps any newcomer. The Dark Lord of the Sith is a tough act to follow.
So what can you do? ROTJ painted the franchise into a corner. Lucas killed off the lead, burned him on a pyre, and turned him into a ghost. Everything revolved around Vader—the prophecy, the conflict, the heartbreak, and the biggest stakes. How do you move on from that?
Simple. You don’t move on. You stay with Anakin Skywalker; you make his legacy the central conflict. Focus your films on the one character who can’t shake Vader’s shadow.
In short, Luke Skywalker must turn to the Dark Side.
In fact, we’ve already seen Luke start down that path. Watch his Return of the Jedi entrance again. Skywalker strides menacingly into Jabba’s palace, cloaked in black and brooding. He chokes Jabba’s guards (to death?), then threatens to destroy Jabba himself should the Hutt fail to acknowledge Luke’s power. The transformation takes us by surprise; these aren’t behaviors we expect from the blasé Jedi.
We begin to wonder if the Emperor might have been right about Luke. “I have foreseen it,” Palpatine crows, predicting Luke’s downfall. “It is your destiny,” he insists later. And Luke does eventually give in. When Vader threatens to corrupt Leia, Luke lets love crowd out the detached, Zen-Jedi mindset. Hatred flares up, and Luke rages against his father, the machine. For a while, at least, Luke indulges the Dark Side of the Force, before that same compassionate streak prevents him from finishing off Vader.
That brings us to the end of Jedi. In the wake of Vader’s death (and his own flirtation with the Dark Side), Luke must face serious questions about the Force. “How can the Light Side be truly good,” he must wonder, “when it demands that I ignore my deepest feelings, my love for family and friends?” Kenobi and Yoda endorsed a sterile, calculated approach to the Force. Meanwhile, the Sith embraced the full breadth of human experience: desire, yes, but also compassion and love.
As the decades pass, Luke attempts to forge a middle way—to “bring balance to the Force,” as his father did. To check cold logic with compassion. Skywalker’s syncretism slowly corrupts the Jedi way. Eventually, some impossible scenario pits his heart and head against one another. Maybe Leia is put in harm’s way, and Luke vows to protect her—by any means necessary.
Whatever the particular details, Luke falls. The filmmakers would probably save the big reveal for Film Two—echoing the original trilogy’s major revelation in Empire Strikes Back. Just imagine the gasps when the audience sees Luke Skywalker, that archetypal movie hero, finally turn. How heartbreaking would it be to watch a bewildered, elderly Han Solo die at Luke’s hands? And think of the conflict in Film Three, as Leia must plot to end her brother’s life.
The story would be deliciously controversial. Fans would debate, berate, and celebrate the plot twist, just as they did when Vader declared himself Luke’s father. Hopefully, J.J. Abrams and Co. have the guts to take such a risk—to sully the reputation of Star Wars’ golden boy. Handled well, it would do more than just pay homage to the early films’ central character. It would rescue Star Wars from years of neglect.