Guest Talker: Michael J. Miller
“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side,” Vader promises Luke during the climactic scene of The Empire Strikes Back. As Luke struggles to survive his encounter with the Sith Lord, both physically and emotionally, we see the central struggle of the Star Wars Saga once again – the struggle between the Light and the Dark…and the Dark looks like it’s winning. We see this play out through all six films, in Anakin, in Luke, and across the galaxy as a whole. It’s a struggle we share, and one that often gets the best of us. That is one of the most important parts of Star Wars as a modern myth. It’s meant not just to entertain us but to teach us as well.
We’re meant to connect to the myth, just as it masterfully connects to itself. With this in mind, a thought struck me as I read the first issue of Marvel’s (brilliant) Darth Vader comic. Whether this connection was intentional on the part of the author Kieron Gillen or not isn’t the point (although I’m pretty sure it was). The revelation hit regardless. The comic opens with Vader entering Jabba’s Palace for a negotiation. The whole thing feels very familiar, calling to mind the opening of Return Of The Jedi and Luke’s entrance to Jabba’s Palace. The gate raises. Vader decapitates two Gamorrean guards. He then forces an audience with Jabba where the Hutt warns him not to attempt any mind tricks.
But a deeper connection came a few pages later. Jabba tells Vader, “Oh Jedi…always making everything so difficult.” Without hesitation Vader immediately cuts apart Jabba’s forces with brutal efficiency. Vader then proceeds to Force choke Jabba while warning, “You called me Jedi. You know nothing. Mind tricks are not of the Dark Side. We prefer force. Do you understand?” When Luke appears before Jabba to bargain for Han’s release four years later, Bib Fortuna confidently affirms, “He’s no Jedi.”
Yes, this is a condescending swipe at Luke. But, as with so many moments in Star Wars, this serves multiple purposes. Bib Fortuna is stating a very real truth. Luke is no Jedi. He has fallen quite far from the path and the opening pages of Darth Vader #1 illustrate that in a new (and brilliantly connected) way. Darth Vader shows Jabba, in no uncertain terms, the difference between the Jedi and the Sith. When Luke appears in the same spot years later, he acts as a Sith does. He is no Jedi.
In A New Hope, Obi-Wan taught Luke (and the viewer) much about the nature of the Force. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda teaches Luke (and the viewer) what it means to be a Jedi. It is interesting to note that “Yoda” is Sanskrit for “warrior.” The diminutive Yoda is not what one would traditionally picture when you think of warrior. Yet, with his name, he is meant to symbolize the model in the Star Wars universe for the ideal warrior. This ideal warrior chides Luke for craving adventure and excitement. He tells Luke that “wars not make one great.”
On Dagobah, Yoda teaches Luke, “A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the Dark Side. Anger. Fear. Aggression. The Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow. Quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will. As it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”
Anger. Fear. Aggression. Easily they flow…yet they will consume you. The Dark Side offers power – quick, easy, and strong. But it will take and corrupt you as payment. It is impossible to use the Dark Side without sacrificing all that is good in you. It seems like it can be helpful, that it can even be used to good ends. But that is an illusion, the seductive allure of the Dark Side.
We live in a culture where the Myth of Redemptive Violence reigns. We are taught, by the silent (and often sinister) voices of our culture that we can solve our problems, right wrongs, even defeat evil by using violent means. It is a challenge to even consider rejecting the Myth of Redemptive Violence, much less committing to and living out that rejection. It’s scary to reject the norms of culture. It’s also difficult to believe we can triumph over the forces of darkness in our world without violence and retribution. Luke poses the same questions to Yoda as they train.
Luke—“Is the Dark Side stronger?”
Yoda—“No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
Luke—“But how am I to know the good side from the bad?”
Yoda—“You will know when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never attack.”
Luke—“Tell me why I can’t…”
Yoda—“No, no! There is no ‘why.’”
Yoda refuses to even entertain the idea of using the Force for anything other than knowledge and defense. Anything else is of the Dark Side. Luke, like all of us, wonders why we can’t use it – from time to time – if our motives are pure and our cause is just. Why can’t we, to quote singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, “kick the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”? Because, Yoda would answer (traditionally with far more inverted syntax), that’s the Dark Side. Yet Luke can’t see this, as we learn when he reaches the cave.
Luke—“What’s in there?”
Yoda—“Only what you take with you. Your weapons…you will not need them.
Ignoring Yoda, Luke straps on his weapons belt and (quite symbolically) descends into the cave. He also takes in his anger, fear, hate, and self-doubt, illustrated (again, symbolically) by his weapons belt. These emotions take the form of Darth Vader because he is of the Dark Side and the Dark Side gets its strength from those very same emotions. This vision of Vader doesn’t draw his weapon or attack until Luke does so first. Therefore, Luke fails the test in the cave because he becomes the aggressor. He attacks. He gives in to the Dark Side.
Once Luke kills Vader he sees his greatest fear—his face in Vader’s helmet. This symbolizes what Luke may become. (It also symbolizes something Luke doesn’t know yet, that Vader is his father and they are both susceptible to the pull of the Dark Side.) Despite his failure at the cave, Luke still draws his lightsaber first when he’s confronted by Vader on Cloud City.
Vader toys with Luke in combat, goading him to let go of his hate as it’s the only way Luke can hope to defeat him. With Luke physically beaten, Vader reveals he is Luke’s father, breaking him spiritually and emotionally. He takes Luke’s hand as well as any sense of self Luke had.
This all leaves Luke balancing on the precipice of the Dark Side – a place his father has stood before. So when Return Of The Jedi opens, it’s no surprise that Luke is acting as Darth Vader did in Jabba’s Palace. Vader is no Jedi. And, at that moment, Luke isn’t either. The struggle at the core of Star Wars continues to play out, in Luke as it did in Anakin a generation before…as it plays out in each of us every day.
Fear. Anger. Aggression. They feel omnipresent, in our world as well as in Star Wars, and they can often seem impossible to overcome. But they aren’t, as Luke shows us. Luke transcends the seductive pull of the Dark Side. He shows us what we are meant to be. We are called to so much more. “Luminous beings are we.” But if we believe that it’s impossible to transcend these violent forces, well that is why we fail.
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