Once upon a time, Star Wars had an ending. Looking back at Return of the Jedi now, with the hindsight of thirty-five years, it almost seems impossible. Even in the early ’90’s when I was growing up, there was Star Wars. For a brief moment, however, Return of the Jedi was going to be the end of the line for the franchise. As a result, there will never be another Star Wars movie like it.
Like many endings, Return of the Jedi was fraught with uncertainty, both for fans and for the production. This film was set to pick up after the downer ending of Empire Strikes Back and carried the weight of the plot-twist heard round the world. Lucas had all but admitted he wasn’t going to follow up with his planned sequel trilogy. Most nerve-wracking turned out to be that the story itself was clearly not settled on. The final screenplay wasn’t complete until scheduling was completed and a director hired, with George Lucas and credited writer Lawrence Kasdan having a back and forth over the film’s title until well after initial marketing for the film kicked off.
Looking back, it could be argued that the uncertainty of the story helped make Jedi (and Empire), much stronger movies. Lucas won out on the title to the film’s benefit; Revenge of the Jedi didn’t really line up with the film’s overall theme. Speaking of, it was director Richard Marquand and a child psychologist that convinced Lucas to address the truth of Empire’s revelation of Luke Skywalker’s parentage; a necessary choice to help sell Luke’s desire to save Vader rather than destroy him. Lucas also had no expectation to have Harrison Ford back at all (he was only contracted for two films), and it took Kasdan’s intervention to bring both parties around on the idea of Ford coming back. Without that promise, who knows what would have taken the place of Jedi’s opening sequence, which not only gives Luke a “look how far we’ve come” experience, but is easily Return’s most memorable section.
Eventually, the credits did roll and the story of at least this corner of the Star Wars story was told. Lucas was burned out on the franchise and had no desire to jump into making more films, even with the series’ elaborate backstory already written out in his notes. The cast and crew were set to move on as well, their hard work over and done. The fans, they were less than satisfied. They wanted more. Such a response shouldn’t be too shocking. Star Wars famously began as a desire to adapt the classic Flash Gordon serials of Lucas’ childhood-self contained stories designed with timeless characters meant to be consumed weekly ad infinitum, and that DNA still lives within the franchise-just as Lucas was inspired by the science fiction of his youth, he inspired a whole other generation.
Except you don’t see a new Flash Gordon film out every year.
Now, Star Wars is more defined by its longevity than possibly anything else. It’s almost a cruel irony that this anniversary is the release day of Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film I have not seen at this time of writing but feel confident in saying isn’t the critical missing piece this franchise needed. The desire for more Star Wars birthed a massive sub-universe of what is more or less sanctioned fan-fiction, the success of which gave Lucas enough of a push to pull the trigger on his long-gestating prequel trilogy; except this time there was no pressure, not really. Star Wars had ceased being a tricky stunt and became a sure-fire hit, and the prequels show that. Instead of Lucas having to work with various inputs and directors, he was the man in the chair for all the decisions-even when he did try to get different directors on board they just differed to him instead; in an even more ironic twist one of them directed Solo. As for the story, we all knew how that would end. All of that created a brew for the opposite of Return, a film where no one knew when to push Lucas another direction and when to let me run wild. Even so, the weakness of the prequels couldn’t stop the Star Wars juggernaut, leading to the Disney purchase that ensured the franchise will never actually end again.
Taking this long view, does all of this mean Return of the Jedi was actually not a satisfying ending? That’s a possible perspective. Even with being burned out on making a follow up, Lucas himself couldn’t stop thinking about the larger universe, and one of Star Wars’ biggest strengths was that it always felt like there is more going on in the margins. Yet, now that it’s clear we’re actually going to get all those margin stories meticulously revealed to us – if not in films then in TV shows, video games, or books – Return of the Jedi feels far more like a stand out film from the others.
Return was able to use the simplest meta-narrative of “What’s going to happen” to its advantage, taking the gamble on an extended rescue sequence complete with big monster fight, a heist, goofy creatures, and a whole lot of sand. Jabba’s Palace plays out a lot like The Last Jedi’s Canto Bight scene, it’s probably longer too, and yet even people who adore TLJ point to that sequence as its weakest. The Ewoks, almost as contested by fans as Jar-Jar, are also references to the successes of the Vietcong against the United States in the Vietnam War, a topic very much on Lucas’ mind throughout the franchise and one he was never afraid to explain. You know, because Star Wars has always been political.
Most importantly, Return of the Jedi ends. The good guys win, the Empire falls, Anakin is redeemed, and if only for a moment, everything is okay. It’s a cheesy ending, sure, but one that was sorely needed in the moment it existed. Now, Star Wars probably needs to be more-not just because of the major shifts in pop culture that the franchise itself isn’t caught up to despite being in the center of-but also because this ship has to keep sailing. Even if Episode Nine brings Rey’s and Kylo Ren’s story to an end, the films won’t stop. Anyone could get a film, and at least another trilogy waits after the supposed end of the “Skywalker Saga,” if Nine even becomes that. No matter how good the film turns out, the sense of finality can’t be total. The original trilogy isn’t perfect, and the new films are far from bad, but you can only really just watch those classic films and have a full sense of completion.
Except, even as I write this, I start getting reports of a possible Boba Fett solo outing, so maybe we’ll reach a point where even Return of the Jedi doesn’t feel like an ending after all.