So I wasn't planning to beat my Last Jedi drum any more than I already have. Bottom line, I disliked the movie. Plenty of other people loved it. Their opinions are just as valid as mine. Live and let live, etc.
But my last post on the subject, detailing my feelings on Luke's character arc, led to a thought-provoking Twitter debate with a random stranger. While defending the movie, that stranger posed an interesting question:
You can read the original thread here if you want, but below I'm going to organize and expand on my original response.
As a side note, I want to say thanks to dvader518, whoever they are. They brought up some excellent points, and were never less than 100% respectful. We ended up agreeing to disagree, but the conversation did force me to think about my own position a little more.
That's the kind of honest debate I can always appreciate, regardless of the outcome. As for my answer to the above question:
Yoda is kind of an asshole
I don't consider Yoda cowardly for hiding on Dagobah, because he was never especially heroic in the first place. In fact, upon closer examination, he's really close to being one of the bad guys.
Bear with me a second while I explain.
Yoda's exile on Dagobah can be summed up in five words: "The ends justify the means."
When we meet him in The Empire Strikes Back, he's the very last holdout of the old Jedi ways. He's also playing a long game against the Emperor and Vader. Yoda's plan (which Obi-Wan has aided every step of the way) is to train Luke specifically for the task of fighting and killing Darth Vader.
Yoda doesn't care about Vader's redemption. He also doesn't want Luke to make up his own mind about the subject, which is why he keeps the fact that Vader is Luke's father a secret. In fact, he insists that Luke needs to "complete his training" before he sets out for the final confrontation.
This is an important detail. Why?
Because among other things, fully-trained Jedi are expected to shun all personal attachments.
In other words, Yoda knows damned well that the truth about Luke's parentage will come out when he fights Vader. He just wants Luke to be so thoroughly indoctrinated into the Jedi ways by that point that he won't care, and he'll complete the mission anyway.
All of this is justified in Yoda's mind, because killing Vader will help restore balance to the Force. He's a character that cares more about his chosen ideal (balance) than than the actual people around him. He's basically training Luke to be an assassin, while hiding information that might cause Luke to question his target.
And no, this isn't some weird, alternate character interpretation I'm pulling out of my ass.
Luke's rejection of Yoda and the old Jedi ways is the entire point of his arc in the original trilogy. Yoda refuses to see any possibility that Vader can be redeemed, to the point where he even urges Luke to kill him on his own deathbed. Luke only wins because he embraces his personal attachments in direct defiance of Yoda's teachings.
Sure, Yoda is wise and powerful. But one of the major plot points of the original trilogy is that Yoda's adherence to the old Jedi dogma is wrong. In fact, Luke's first clash with him is one of the most important character moments in the series.
Which leads me to another important storytelling principle.
Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right (But They Do Make For Dramatic Character Moments)
In his screenwriting book Story, Robert McKee points out that characters are defined by their choices. He also points out that the most powerful choices aren't between right and wrong, because that's really no choice at all. It doesn't reveal anything deep or important about the character, because any right-thinking person would obviously make the same choice.
The truly powerful choices, the ones that really show us a character's moral core, occur when they are forced to decide between two wrongs, or between two irreconcilable goods.
An example of two wrongs is the classic "Sophie's choice" dilemma, where a mother is forced to decide which of her children will live and which one will die.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke faces the second kind of choice, between two mutually exclusive good outcomes.
Towards the end of Act II, Luke is training on Dagobah. He closes his eyes, reaches out into the Force, and senses great danger. He has a vision. Han, Leia, and the others are going to die unless he drops everything and tries to save them.
In that moment, his choices are:
It's important to note that, in universe, from the characters' perspective, neither of these choices are wrong.
Completing the training will help to restore the Jedi Order, creating an opposition to the Dark Side's near total domination of the galaxy. With Vader dead, the Emperor's power will be weakened, giving the Rebel Alliance a chance to overthrow the Empire, restore the Republic, and usher a in new era of peace.
And it makes total sense for Luke to want that, and for him to be torn about his decision. After all, he and his friends have fought and suffered for that exact outcome.
But here's the thing.
All of that stuff up there, about balance and the Dark Side? From the audience's perspective, it's abstract. Viewers don't care about it.
Viewers DO care about Han, Leia, Chewie, and 3PO.
That's why Luke's decision is such an important character moment, one that cements him as a hero in the audience's eyes. When given the choice between an abstract ideal and the people he cares about, he chose people.
There may have been no "right" answer from the character's perspective. But from the audience's perspective, there was. Luke made the choice we identified with, and a generation of viewers loved his character for it.
Luke's Karma Ran Over Yoda's Dogma
So why did so many people (myself included) have a hard time seeing that same hero in Rian Johnson's take on the character?
It goes back to the importance of character choices, and how the powerful choices show us their moral center.
In The Last Jedi, Luke faces the exact same choice he did in Empire. Rey, R2, and Chewie land on Ach-to, where Luke lives in self-imposed exile. They tell him the Resistance needs him, that Han is dead, and Leia is leading a desperate fight against the First Order.
Luke's choices in that moment are:
Once again, an argument can be made that, in universe, neither of these answers is wrong. I actually disagree, but that's a tangent that distracts from the point.
For the second time, Luke is given the choice between an abstract ideal and the people he cares about. This time, Luke chooses the abstract ideal.
But where his choice in Empire painted him as a selfless hero in the minds of the audience, this one painted him as the opposite. Most of the audience doesn't care about Luke's need to see the Jedi Order end, and its teachings disappear. We certainly don't care more than we do about Leia, a character we've been following for over 40 years.
Just like with The Empire Strikes Back, in the audience's mind there was only one right answer to this dilemma, and it was the one Luke didn't take. He made the choice we can't identify with.
The results are evident in the divided reaction to the film. Audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes are below 50%, the lowest for any film in the series.
So as a writer, what's the takeaway here?
For me, it's a sort of caveat to keep in mind while applying McKee's principle about powerful character choices. You can give a character a dilemma with no "right" answer from his or her own perspective. Just remember that audiences might disagree. They might see only one right choice.
And like your character, you'll have to choose wisely.
The following is a transcript of the first story meeting between Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm, probably:
JOHNSON: What if we took one of Luke's most heroic moments and changed it? Like, what if he leaves his friends to die instead of helping them?
LUCASFILM EXEC: My God, that's brilliant! This movie will be a universally beloved hit for sure! I think I smell a trilogy in your future, sir!
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.