“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!”
Much of criticism slung at J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars films, and especially The Rise of Skywalker, has to do with his fixation on the past, his reliance on the original trilogy in crafting his own Star Wars films. Even George Lucas has reportedly expressed dissatisfaction at Abrams’ lack of adding “anything new,” with the return of Palpatine perhaps being a high point for detractors who feel the same. The director grew up with a passion for the franchise, and approached the new movies with the mindset of both director and fan. I’ve personally enjoyed his vision for the most part, though the popular immediate response has, at least, not been as encouraging.
Supporting works in the Star Wars universe, however, are far more free to revisit the past, sometimes to great success. Viz Media’s recent release, The Legends of Luke Skywalker: The Manga, based on the novel by Ken Liu, relies heavily on the classic stories. An anthology of four different tales about the Jedi Master, they not only focus on themes emphasized in the original trilogy, they bring in images and characters from the movies, and in one of the stories, even retells a large portion of Return of the Jedi.
At first, the volume smelled like a cash grab to me, especially since there’s such a heavy emphasis on the past and on fan service. For whatever reason, that feels absolutely okay—even creative and exciting—with the written word, but in manga or comic form, revisitation can feels like cheap imitation. However The Legends of Skywalker is aided by some really fun imagery and detailing: the news that it’s a symbiote that makes monkey-lizards laugh maniacally; the image of C3PO wielding a lightsaber (well, sorta); a quick revisit with Cassian and Jyn; and especially the final story, which takes place almost entirely within an exogorth. The differing art styles (four different mangaka produced this adaptation) was fun as well, as was the re-envisioning of Luke as a typical, shounen lead: full of hope but lacking in brains.
It’s that hope, actually, that’s most impressive about the manga. Of course, that one word is foundational for the entire Skywalker saga, permeating every piece of it. In the most recent film, Abrams set his site fully on the theme, but it palpitates strongly even in Johnson’s previous movie.
Oftentimes in Star Wars, the idea of hope runs side by side with the franchise’s spiritual aspects. While having confidence in your friends is a completely secular notion, hope in the thread connecting all living creatures through the Force is something spiritual. However, Abrams movies seem to separate hope and religion entirely; very little time is spent on the latter at all.
That’s why it’s particularly interesting that The Legends of Luke Skywalker, a manga that lives both in the original trilogy and in the years afterwards, once again blends the two.
The first two stories in the trilogy more subtly emphasize hope, with the original focusing on Luke saving an imperial soldier (in more ways than one) and the second involving a droid rebellion. The third, however, goes full shounen: Luke is strongly portrayed in all his original trilogy glory, a boy with ambition and excitement and few brains. The myth propagated here is that it’s a symbiote flea who was really responsible for the escape from Jabba’s imprisonment, advising Leia and later speaking with Luke, who assumes that the voice he hears in the force (Yes, this now canon).
The flea has a view of the universe that would make sense of one in his position—as someone very small, he feels able to accomplish very little. However, Luke’s perseverance and confidence changes this little being’s life, even as he’s the one most responsible for the rescue. “I had given him smarts, but he had given me hope. I counted myself ahead in that deal.”
The unrelenting optimism of Luke from the flea’s perspective is a nice counter to a different kind of Luke in the final story, “The Big Inside.” It’s a more gentle tale for a more gentle Luke, one that’s older, with the tale taking place between Episodes VI and VII. He and a traveling partner find themselves trapped inside an exogorth with rescue improbable. Luke, however, remains continually hopeful, an encouragement to his young companion.
That hope is fulfilled when the duo find signs of civilization within the exogorth, and then statues of wise and powerful beings who have frozen themselves in time. The cavern in which they hibernate is considered by Luke’s partner as “spiritual place…a refuge.” And indeed, a metaphysical event occurs that is religious in nature. Luke takes everything in stride, never getting too down or too excited; he simply trusts that the best will happen.
Of course, that’s a definition of hope: an expectation that the best will occur, one that’s based on something or someone. In the Christian religion, it’s based on the promises of God. Luke’s trust is not in a god, however—it is in the Force. And yet, both have a remarkable similar ending: Whatever happens is okay, because the result will be good.
It’s interesting, then, that this Luke is nothing like the Luke we see in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. That Luke is grizzled, with a worldview to match his face. He has abandoned the Rebellion and the Jedi, too, for the most part. He demonstrates neither the innocent energy of youth nor the calm wisdom of middle age shown in the manga. It’s a good characterization, however. Years of pain and conflict, and especially his own failure at a critical moment, leave him angry and bitter.
He has lost his hope and, seeing both his own shortcomings and those he perceives in the Jedi, his faith as well.
As I age, I see how this can easily happen even to those who were previously joyful and strong. Our own failures, and those by others around us, create an experience that tells us that perhaps there is no hope. If Emperor Palpatine is the Lucifer of Star Wars, then we should also consider that Christianity’s devil is using failure to try to defeat Christians in the long game, and that the fall of a once-hopeful man or woman is a great victory.
But in The Last Jedi, we get to see an response, that there is goodness in the purity of the Jedi’s belief (if not in all its practices), and that camaraderie remains, with friends both old and new. Luke is brought back from the verge of defeat by truth, and he’s able to fight back. He’s able to rebel against what the Emperor (we can now deduce) wanted, against what his own heart has become.
Faith and religion is a long game—take a look at most anyone’s life, and you’ll see peaks and valleys in spirituality, decisions and commitments made and undone. From a Christian standpoint, life can be seen as rebellion against God again and again and again—we are the Israelites who see the miracles of God, and still clamor for chains.
But perhaps Luke Skywalker can help us see a different kind of rebellion, one against the callousness that disappointment and the experience of age can create, and we, too, can have a change of heart. Perhaps we can shout a response, one like Luke made as his final act of rebellion, against his own bitterness, a call from our hearts both whispering and screaming: “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!”