In a few months Avengers: Endgame will be upon us, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be closing out not just it’s third phase but the entire run that began in 2008 with Iron Man. While the movies will be continuing a new arc focused on newer characters – namely, the ones introduced throughout phase three – will begin, which means that this is the end of the line for some and the end of an era altogether. As for Endgame itself, it’s going to join a category of films that often makes people get really weird in their assessments – final chapters. Final chapters trigger all kinds of emotional responses because the people making them have to finally decide what to do with certain characters and plot points – who lives, who dies, who hooks up, who doesn’t, who rules, who serves and how – after multiple movies where they delayed and misdirected in order to fill out the story. And those decisions tear at our very fabric as we watch people we’ve come to know and love meet final destines that we may or may not have wanted for them. Kill off the wrong character and you set off of a firestorm, but if you hedge your bets then you’re a coward of a storyteller. You also have to get your way out of any corners you painted yourself into without losing too many plot points, getting too clever, or messing up some other part of the story. It is inevitable that your final chapter will be judged as inferior to previous parts of the story for these reasons and others. So all in all, we’re talking a pretty big challenge here.
What I decided to do is take another look at some of the final chapter films that I’ve seen over the years and tell you what I think of them. Now I enjoy almost all of them and won’t be taking a dump on any of them (with one or two exceptions) here but I will be frank about where I think a ball may have been dropped along the way. First up is Return of the Jedi. I saw Jedi in the theater when I was nine years old, and it blew me away. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that not everyone shared my sentiments. Several critics considered it letdown from Empire Strikes Back, which is considered one of the greatest sequels ever with one of the biggest plot twists in the history of filmmaking, the reveal of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker’s father. But I was taken aback by the views that a lot of fans had about it – hating on the Ewoks is the biggest one but also that it is a rehash of sorts of the original film (I don’t agree with that one at all), and still don’t hold any of those sentiments. It remains one of my favorite movies ever and I still geek out at several scenes even now. But now it’s time to take a not too serious but more detailed look at how I think George Lucas handled the closing piece of his first trilogy.
At the end of Empire, the good guys have been decimated and are licking their wounds but are still alive. Han is frozen and being taken to Jabba the Hutt on Tattooine, Lando and Chewbacca are headed there to set up the rescue attempt, and the rest of the gang (Luke, Leia, R2D2 and C3PO) have taken refuge with the rest of the Rebellion that is hiding out and plotting their next move after having been run away from their old hiding spot on Hoth. Luke also got his hand chopped off by Vader, is dealing with the reality that Vader is his Dad and the need to improve his Jedi skills for the next time they meet. The Empire meanwhile is riding high but while looking for a way to take out the Rebellion once and for all, while the Rebellion needs to uncover a way to shoot the moon and get the Empire down while they still have a chance. And then underneath all of that there is the budding love triangle between Han, Luke, and Leia; Vader’s conflict between continuing to serve the Emperor or getting Luke on board to take him down and take over, and Luke’s struggle to not succumb to his base urges and embrace the Dark Side of the Force like his father did. A lot of stuff there. But there’s more….
While we were sleeping
As is the case between movies in a series, there are some thing that happened offscreen. In this case Luke built himself a new lightsaber and kept working on his skills, Lando infiltrated Jabba’s palace posing as a guard, and the Empire was building a new Death Star to replace the one Luke blew up in the original movie. And oh yeah, Leia had pretty much decided between Han and Luke. These happenings would all play a role in resolving the major threads and plot points of the movie.
The first act of the movie was about rescuing Han from Jabba, the second about setting up the big confrontations (Rebellion vs Death Star, Luke vs Vader), and third about carrying out the battles. Along the way Luke got confirmation that Darth was indeed his father (I didn’t believe it myself until I saw the movie), found out that Leia was his sister (eww) which settled the love triangle piece, and the rebels found some new allies in the Ewoks, and Luke tried to convince everyone that Vader was not a permanent lost cause. And oh yeah, we got a first real glimpse at how much a lying bunch of liars the Jedi Order could be. Good times!
The Big Decisions
Besides the love triangle resolution, we have a few. What was Jabba the Hutt going to look like? Does the whole gang make it to the end alive? How are Vader and the Emperor defeated? Was Vader redeemable? Would Luke give in to the temptation of power? What’s notable is that Harrison Ford originally wanted Han killed off because in his mind there wasn’t anything else to do with the character. Good thing George Lucas didn’t agree. Anyhow, on to what you really came here for:
The first act was brilliant in my opinion. Getting everyone to Jabba’s palace and in place, having things go sideways, but then the gang all doing their part to pull it victory out of defeat was great stuff. Luke jumping off the plank over the Sarlacc pit, catching it, flipping back and catching his lightsaber after Artoo launched it into the air was and is a jump out of your seat moment for me. Jabba became a disgustingly memorable character, a true triumph of Lucas ability to conceive all kinds of different alien species and depict them on camera along all the other inhabitants of his palace. The whole thing was a great way to showcase Luke’s improved skills, the cleverness and resiliency of the whole gang, and establish which way Leia was going in the love triangle thing. It also displayed the love everyone within the group had for each other that they dropped what they were doing in a war for the freedom of the galaxy to save a friend who could have just been chalked up as a sad casualty.
The second act had a lot of question answering going on. First there was the confirmation the Vader was indeed Luke’s father, and that Obi Wan was a no good lying dog about it (which makes for an important foreshadowing for the prequel trilogy). The stakes being set for the next go round of big fights was also laid out here, as was Luke’s belief that Dad was still redeemable. Luke learning that Leia was his sister made a bunch of stuff that happened in earlier films pretty weird, but if you want to keep things as kid friendly as possible then you had to do something like that if you weren’t going to kill Han or Luke off and make the choice easy. But watching it as an adult, you end either critiquing it from a writing standpoint or just thinking that those Skywalkers aren’t up for the whole ‘find out you’re not related before you kiss each other’ thing. Especially when Luke tells Leia and she’s like ‘yeah I kinda always had a hunch..’ Really? Yikes. From there, we get to the true polarizing stuff. Ok, not really that polarizing outside of the ‘MY MOVIES MUST BE SERIOUS!!!!!’ circle, but you know what I mean. And that is the Ewoks. Some people apparently have a problem with cute, teddy bear looking creatures helping the good guys win. To that I say, get a grip already and go read some George Orwell or something.
So then comes the third act where all accounts must be settled by film’s end. Luke goes off to face Vader and the Emperor on the hope that Dad will see the light and not just serve him up on a platter and the Rebellion takes the fight right to Death Star’s doorstep to take advantage of what is probably their last chance to strike a fatal blow. Lots of things happen, big fights all around, things go sideways across the board, you name it. All leading up to the pivotal moments of truth – Luke deciding to give in to or reject the temptation of the Dark Side and Vader’s decision to embrace the light again or stay where he is at the Emperor’s side. And while the execution was simple it got to the point and worked just fine. Luke reaches his decision point and of course chooses correctly but when it looks as if that cost him his life Vader finally makes the choice to turn against his evil master. The way that shook out was pretty cool when I saw it the first time but after becoming a father it really resonated. A son in dire straits calling out to his father to please do something, and then the compromised father being forced to choose between the life he thought he was stuck with and breaking free, spurred to action by refusing to let his son (and the only one who believed in him) die.
That decision encapsulates a major recurring theme throughout all the films: whether or not you let your current circumstances, and the events that formed them, stop you from moving forward and doing better. Vader was stuck as the Emperor’s servant with seemingly no way out until Luke desperately reached out to him. Previously Han had to choose between sticking with the smuggler’s life or joining the rebellion, and Luke had to decide between staying home and sticking his head in the sand or going off to do something about the evil forces in the galaxy. Another big theme is about the temptation of power and how it can corrupt even the most well intentioned. Vader is the cautionary tale of what can happen in the pursuit of unlimited power, but even the Emperor who has gained the power but ultimately cannot prevent his own demise speaks to the futility of said pursuit. And then there’s Luke who true nature is to reject all of that but sees learning how to use the Force as a means to an end more than a goal in itself, and in doing so brushes up against how even possessing access to power can bring one to the brink of evil. Lucas runs through this stuff in pretty simple fashion, which makes it easily understandable but also takes away from his work being taken seriously.
Most everyone makes it. The Emperor gets the death that someone in his role deserves, and Vader dies in sacrifice to save Luke. Yoda died of natural causes during the second act. All the rest of the A and B level good guys survive. Han and Leia get together as she tells him Luke is her brother so he’s in the clear to make a move. I think they did a good job here. There wasn’t any convoluted bet hedging, nothing that said ‘we need this around in case we do more movies one day!’. This was before the days of endless speculation like we’re getting for Endgame, so it’s likely that this wasn’t any gut wrenching issue for Lucas once he decided on Luke, Han, Leia, etc. The only relationship question was around Leia and that got resolved at the end, albeit weirdly. The only major loose end was not saying what happened to the Empire at large after the Death Star was destroyed. We don’t see them all being destroyed Lord of the Rings style but there isn’t any indication given that they were still out there in multitudes to be dealt with. Had this been the last movie ever then it’s a non factor but knowing now that the story continued it is a little puzzling.
This is one of my favorite movies ever so don’t expect a bad grade on that front. But as far as how it plays as a final chapter, I give it an A-. They tied up what needed to be tied up, didn’t give us any WTF? endings for anyone, did everything in spectacular fashion, and never took the coward’s way out to save anyone. The only convoluted solution was to the Luke/Han/Leia triangle, and that’s largely because of how far Luke and Leia went in previous films. Thank God there wasn’t any, ahem, consummation activity or that would have been totally unfixable by the pathway Lucas chose. While Lucas gets dinged as a simple storyteller one advantage of that is that you paint yourself into fewer corners trying to be edgy or clever; not having any intractable situations going in was a major part of getting this right. This is pretty much what you’re looking for from a final chapter. And because this was before the era of leaving everything open for more, even what’s supposed to be the end, you’re left with a feeling of satisfaction when the credits roll as opposed to wondering what’s coming next.
Now in the years since this came out, and especially these times where everyone with a keyboard or a cameraphone can fashion themselves a movie critic, the entire original trilogy has been picked to death by a lot of different people. And I just have to say that this movie, like most of it’s kind, were not built for that kind of scrutiny. It isn’t turn your brain off stupid but it isn’t the opposite either. The answer to a lot of your probing questions is probably either ‘we had to wrap it up’ or ‘it’s a kids movie, stupid, let it go’. George Lucas is a California kid who went to film school and loved spaghetti westerns and Kurosawa films. He always wanted to a space western with an ensemble cast that was suitable for families to go see. That was always the goal, not recreating The Godfather. So to that end I say he succeeded spectacularly. This final chapter gets high marks from me all around.