The Paradox of The Force II
The Quest for Revenge in Star Wars
What if Obi-Wan had saved Anakin? Wouldn’t that have been the Jedi thing to do? It seemed cruel (un-Jedi-like) for Obi-Wan to leave Anakin as he lay on the ground in flames, struggling to cling to whatever life was left in him at the end of Revenge of the Sith. To be fair, Anakin was cruel, too, shouting “I hate you,” before Obi-Wan walked away. Still, why couldn’t Obi-Wan have turned around and rescued Anakin, reunited him with Padmé, and helped him rebuild his life as a husband, father, and Jedi?
The practical answer is that this was the way the prequel trilogy had to end so it could (mostly) match the narrative established in the original trilogy (otherwise you’d have a J.J. Abrams Star Trek). We also needed to see the first moment Anakin began wearing (and breathing through) the iconic Darth Vader mask (which was really cool) – we also needed to see how Obi-Wan came into possession of Anakin’s light saber, which he would later pass on to Luke (and we’re hoping Episode VIII or IX shows us how Maz found it before she gave it to Rey).
For George Lucas, the first six episodes of Star Wars were about “the tragedy of Darth Vader,” who is, for Lucas, the hero of the story, with Vader sacrificing his life to destroy the Emperor and bring balance to The Force (until J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens came along a decade later and bypassed the compressor). For Lucas, this ending worked. It did, but perhaps not completely the way Lucas thinks it did.
Obi-Wan couldn’t save Anakin because their duel was about revenge, with each “hero” looking to settle a score. As we’ll see, their battle and the way it ended illustrates an interesting double paradox, if you will, with regard to how the Star Wars narrative deals with the philosophical problem of evil and the issue of revenge: first, the person who pays the most for revenge is the one seeking revenge; second, revenge is about, not hate.
A Tale of Two Jedi
Anakin, thinking the Jedi were the enemy and believing that Obi-Wan had somehow seduced Padmé, didn’t just want to kill Obi-Wan, he wanted to unleash his anger upon him, as if Obi-Wan represented everything Anakin abhorred. Similarly, seeing the aftermath of Anakin’s crimes (especially the slaughter of the Jedi children), Obi-Wan wasn’t just angry, he was pissed off. He may have once felt love for Anakin, but when he left Anakin to burn (after chopping off Anakin’s legs and lightsaber hand), what he really wanted was for Anakin to pay for his crimes.
While Obi-Wan couldn’t save Anakin, he did have the option of mercifully killing him rather than letting him struggle on the ground in agony as he burned to death. After all, the Emperor knew how to bring back the dead and a resurrected Anakin/Darth Vader (Zombie-Vader?) would’ve been interesting. In other words, this would’ve worked for both the necessity of the narrative and for the issue of revenge. Instead, Obi-Wan just walked away, simultaneously disappointed in Anakin and in himself, having failed Anakin as much as Anakin failed him.
The tragedy (with all due respect Mr. Lucas) isn’t just about Darth Vader, it’s about two Jedi (close friends, brothers) who both sought revenge on each other and who both lost. It’s the endgame of revenge – you don’t destroy the other person, you destroy yourself and it’s all done in the name of love. (Ewan McGregor, if you’re reading, please tweet your thoughts – @edwardoperez513)
Obi-Wan didn’t set out to destroy Anakin. His anger stirred when he discovered the extent of Anakin’s crimes. The anger stemmed from Obi-Wan’s love for Anakin and his love for the people Anakin hurt. As torn as Obi-Wan might’ve been (it really is a moral dilemma for Obi-Wan) his love for the greater good (for the Republic) compelled him to act against Anakin.
It’s notable that Obi-Wan tried to reason with Anakin and its tragic when Obi-Wan not only realized Anakin was “truly lost,” but that he’d failed Anakin as a brother and mentor. The contrast between Obi-Wan and Anakin is that the nature of their respective anger is significantly different.
The prequels did their best to set up Anakin’s fall – it begins with his Mom dying, a loss that plants a seed that’s supposed to grow every time he clashes with the Jedi council. But most of what we see reads more like typical teenage hormonal logic. It’s not evil, it’s adolescence (and somewhat annoying). When Anakin actually turns to the Dark Side, it’s more of a knee-jerk reaction to his fear that Padmé is going to die (and once he’s killed Mace Windu, there’s no turning back). Palpatine convinced him that only the Dark Side could save Padmé so Anakin took revenge against the Jedi for something that hadn’t happened yet (because that’s what hormonal teens do). Since Anakin commits one horrible crime after the next, he not only breaks Padmé’s heart, he causes her death.
Thus, Anakin destroyed not just himself but everything he loved – it was his love for Padmé that clouded his ability to see the Emperor for what he was, it was the same love that caused him to hate the Jedi, and it was his burgeoning love of power (Force power and political power) that propelled him on the path to the Dark Side. Thus, as Obi-Wan eventually explains to Luke in Return of the Jedi, “He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed.”
As Francis Bacon cautions in his essay On Revenge, “That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore, they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters.” Anakin’s revenge doesn’t just resonate with Bacon’s observation it amplifies it, as Anakin labored in past, present, and future matters – his mom, the Jedi, and Padmé – wrestling with himself as he descended further and further into darkness, as if he needed to repeatedly convince himself he was doing the right thing, that he was the hero the Empire needed.
Of course, no one ever thinks of themselves as a villain. Those seeking revenge aren’t villains, they’re victims. This highlights another difference between Obi-Wan and Anakin: Obi-Wan was eventually able to let it go. When he walked away from Anakin, whatever anger he felt, he left it on Mustafar. In the thirty years that passed between Episode III and IV, Obi-Wan isolated himself on Tatooine. He didn’t search the galaxy on some endless quest to hunt down Darth Vader (for surely Obi-Wan knew Anakin hadn’t died) and when he finally faced Vader again in A New Hope, he let Vader win.
Where Anakin represents the path of vengeance that leads to the Dark Side, Obi-Wan represents the path of vengeance that leads to the Light Side. Yes, he was driven to seek vengeance, but he was also wise enough to not let vengeance consume and destroy him – it’s also worth noting that Obi-Wan’s exile perhaps served as a penance for Obi-Wan, an acknowledgement he’d committed a wrong (failed Anakin) and an atonement for committing it. It may not be as severe as the punishment Anakin endured, but isolation (especially by choice) is still a form of self-destruction.
Anakin, on the other hand, let vengeance and hatred take over. He stayed corrupted and remained on the Dark Side, spending the next thirty years in perpetual pain, like a galactic Captain Ahab searching for his White Whale (it would certainly be an interesting analysis to equate Moby-Dick with Star Wars – after all, Star Trek’s Wrath of Khan isn’t the only sci-fi narrative that relates to Melville’s classic). Anakin may have ultimately made the right choice in killing the Emperor in Return of the Jedi but, it should be noted, he did this only after Luke nearly killed him (and delivered a little payback by slicing off Anakin’s light-saber hand – that’s twice!).
In other words, Anakin had nothing left to lose. So, was he really the redeemed hero of the story like Lucas maintains? Or was he just paying the ultimate price for his pursuit of vengeance. The topic of redemption will have to be explored another time, but it’s worth asking whether or not Anakin really earned his ticket back to the Light Side. Still, who didn’t cheer when Anakin (as Darth Vader) finally tossed the Emperor down the Death Star shaft? Let’s face it, revenge is a great story, one most of us instinctively understand.
As Ronald B. Tobias observes, revenge is “a visceral plot, which means it reaches us at a deep emotional level. We bristle against injustice and we want to see it corrected.” This echoes Bacon’s observation and it’s easy to see how justice and revenge become equated. Anyone who’s ever been wronged (especially in deeply personal ways) wants the person who wronged them to pay. Perhaps the relatability of the plot is why so many films utilize its structure – such as The Godfather, Mad Max, Unforgiven, Braveheart, Gladiator, Kill Bill, Taken, Gone Girl, John Wick, and The Revenant (five of those films were nominated for Best Picture; four of them won).
On Sith Lords and Jedi Masters
The Emperor may have eventually been killed, but it’s worth noting that the duel between Palpatine and Yoda in Revenge of the Sith – which is intercut between scenes of the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel – mirrors the Anakin/Obi-Wan battle in many ways, as both Palpatine and Yoda not only seek revenge on one another, they share the same fates as Anakin and Obi-Wan, reinforcing the double paradox of revenge: self-destruction from love.
For Palpatine, it’s his love of power, a precious commodity he doesn’t want to share with anyone – not Darth Plagueis, not Count Dooku, not General Grievous, and especially not Yoda and the Jedi – that eventually leads to his downfall. Of course, he’s a Sith. So, it’s not in his nature to share (on the Lego Star Wars cartoons he even steals Darth Vader’s Imperial March theme). Yet, given how much time he spent nurturing Anakin and turning him into Darth Vader, it’s a significant window into Palpatine’s soul that he tells Luke to kill Vader and take his place in Return of the Jedi.
Palpatine, like Anakin, is willing to trade whatever semblance of humanity is left in him (if he ever had any) for the sake of power (even if it means getting horrifically deformed in the process) – not for nothing, but it would be really cool to see a Palpatine origin story featuring Eddie Redmayne as a young Palpatine and Javier Bardem as Plagueis, with Alicia Vikander as the female Jedi Master they both loved (because everyone in Ex Machina deserves a role in a Star Wars film).
On the other side of The Force, Yoda’s love is really no different than Obi-Wan’s, as our favorite green Jedi Master seeks to avenge his fallen brethren. As Yoda says, “Destroy the Sith, we must.” And like Obi-Wan, Yoda becomes an outcast Jedi, forgoing vengeance, having lost everything he loved. As Yoda tells Obi-Wan and Bail Organa, “Into exile I must go. Failed, I have.” Flash forward to The Force Awakens and we see Luke (in what amounts to a silent cameo spot at the very end of the film) fulfilling the exiled Jedi Master role and it’s not too dissimilar from what Obi-Wan and Yoda encountered, for Luke as failed, too.
Luke, having seen all the Jedi he’d found and trained (in the thirty odd years between Episodes VI and VII) slaughtered, isolates himself on the planet Ahch-To until Rey finds him (at least he got a sweet ocean view, way better than the deserts of Tatooine or the swamps of Dagobah that Obi-Wan and Yoda confined themselves in). While it could be argued that Luke pursued some level of revenge in the original trilogy (in the same heroic way Obi-Wan and Yoda did), The Force Awakens suggests Luke hasn’t sought any sort of payback – yet. It is clear, however, that Luke has paid some price, not just his isolation but the loss of those he loved.
The Force Awakens also presents the relationship between Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren as being similar to the relationship between Palpatine and Anakin and it seems as if Snoke bears some sort of grudge against Jedi (which is just as vague as Palpatine’s grudge). Kylo Ren’s motivation, however, is clear – he’s got father issues and he gets his revenge when he kills his father Han Solo (in the used-to-be-canon expanded universe, this is how Palpatine turned to the Dark Side under Darth Plagueis).
While the new trilogy is still evolving (we’ve only had one film so far and the canon is being completely reimagined) it’s fair to say that as things stand, Snoke has clearly paid some price for his efforts, given his grotesque appearance. Similarly, Kylo Ren clearly pays an immediate price for killing his father. His pain is visible the moment Han falls and Rey nearly kills Kylo in their subsequent duel (he’s failed big time).
At this point we can surmise that those on the Dark Side who pursue revenge end up destroying themselves and everything they’ve loved, while those on the Light Side end up isolated, seemingly have to spend alone time atoning for their pursuit of vengeance. Either way, being driven by love isn’t a good enough reason and Light or Dark doesn’t matter. Revenge doesn’t discriminate or play favors, it demands a price on every person seeking it. But these paths are not the only two options the Star Wars saga shows us. As Yoda might say, “there is another …”
Of Scoundrels and Rogues
Han Solo and Jyn Erso are not Force warriors like the Jedi and Sith. They’re ordinary, flawed humans who haven’t always made the best life-choices – Han is a smuggler and Jyn is a delinquent. Yet, both end up giving their lives in service of the Rebellion. What’s significant is that their sacrifices fit the same pattern of revenge originating from love and they fall prey to self-destruction, but this is what makes their path different, as their self-destruction requires the ultimate sacrifice.
Han’s revenge is against Snoke, who seduced Han’s son, Ben, and turned him into Kylo Ren. It remains to be seen how this happened and what role Han may have played – certainly, husbands and wives have disagreements, but it seems strange that Han was portrayed as an absent father in The Force Awakens, given his pattern of dedication to his friends. He came back to save Luke in A New Hope, he stayed with Leia in Empire Strikes Back, and after what happened with Jabba between Episodes V and VII, he returned to the Rebellion as a general rather than return to his former life – in other words, he always comes back. So, why would he leave his own son and return to being a smuggler? (This better get explained Rian Johnson in Episode VIII or in Episode IX, Colin Trevorrow – please tweet).
It’s fair to say that up until The Force Awakens, Han essentially let things go without even trying to avenge anyone – if anything he was always trying to pay his debts. He didn’t seek revenge against Jabba or Boba Fett, they just happened to die when Luke rescued Han. He didn’t seek revenge against Darth Vader, Vader just happened to die when Luke “redeemed” him. And he didn’t intentionally seek revenge against Snoke, Leia simply convinced him to bring back their son. But here’s the key: once he decided to find Ben, Han knew (perhaps like Obi-Wan did in A New Hope) that the only way he could help his son was to give his life for his son – he says as much to Kylo Ren just before Kylo Ren uses his lightsaber to impale Han. (I know, it’s a bit tricky, but stay with me for a moment – and Harrison Ford or Adam Driver, if either of you are reading, feel free to tweet, too).
I think Han knew his mission was a suicide run, that the only way he could bring his son home was to reach his son on a level that Snoke couldn’t – it’s one thing to be mad at your father and nurture that anger into Dark Side force abilities, it’s another thing to kill him and then have to live with that pain, which, for Kylo, was immediate (even though he tried to mask it).
In other words, Han used his own death to plant two seeds – one of regret, one of doubt, both just as powerful as The Force. If they grow (depending on what happens in Episodes VIII and IX), they’ll end up saving Kylo Ren and destroying Snoke (are you listening Rian and Colin?) Whether or not this happens, Han’s death – an act of love from father to son – still serves as a meaningful sacrifice, adding a new dimension to the concept of revenge in Star Wars, as its effect saves those you love and destroys those you hate. What’s more, this actually fits Han’s character if we look at it as Han choosing to pay the debt he owed for being an absent father. But again, what’s different is that this choice comes with a steep price: you have to be willing to die.
The sacrifices made by Galen and Jyn (and Jyn’s team) in Rogue One are similar. Galen isn’t trying to save Jyn because she’d turned to the Dark Side like Kylo, he’s trying to avenge his wife’s death and he’s trying to make sure Jyn grows up in a peaceful world. Like Han, Galen plants a seed – the flaw in the Death Star design – and it grows when Jyn and her team are able to steal the Death Star plans and transmit them (eventually into the hands of Princess Leia). It works (at least to the point that the original Death Star gets blown up), giving meaning to the sacrifice made by the entire Erso family. The catch is that all of them have to die, for love of each other, for love of The Force, and for love of the Rebellion and the galaxy they’re fighting to save.
Thus, in these types of revenge arcs, we see how the character seeking revenge endeavors to destroy their adversary and save the ones they love. Like the other two types, revenge is predicated on love and the one seeking revenge pays a price. Yet, the difference is that they don’t lose their loved ones through their own actions (like Anakin) and they don’t have to live a lifetime in isolation and regret (like Obi-Wan and Yoda). Instead, what Han, Galen, Jyn and her team show us is that revenge through self-sacrifice isn’t taken just for the sake of revenge, it’s also for the sake of love. As the lesson states: there is no greater love.
Choose, You Must … The Path You Take
What remains, then, is how all of this relates to the problem of evil. It seems axiomatic that we’d characterize revenge as evil, given its primal, instinctive nature – it’s a raw, brutal, intentional act designed to make those who wronged us suffer. Though, since we like most of the characters who seek vengeance in Star Wars (because most of them are heroes) we don’t want to say they’re evil, right?
As Psychologist Leon F. Seltzer explains, “I’ll not critique the instinct for revenge, for I regard such a predilection as pretty much innate, or universal. The real problem, however, is what happens when this inborn tendency is actually executed.” As Seltzer adds, “Although it may be impossible not to experience hostile emotions in the moment you’re feeling ridiculed, cheated, or betrayed, with sufficient self-control it’s altogether possible to talk yourself down from reactive rage and refuse to act in ways that could easily culminate in further defeat.”
Okay, but if extraordinary heroes and fully trained Jedi Masters have difficulty controlling their reactive rage, what chance do we ordinary humans have? And if revenge is a universal instinct, can we really say it’s evil? Aren’t instincts programmed in us to help us survive? Can we really be blamed for seeking vengeance, no matter what choice we make?
In philosophy, the problem of evil examines God’s omnipotence, suggesting that the presence of evil in the world is paradoxical to God’s power. Most answers appeal to Free Will, letting God off the hook. (We’re responsible for our actions, not Him). But what about instincts? If they’re innate, something we already know how to do, then they can’t be learned. So, do they come from God, and if so, would he give us evil instincts? Or do they relate to Free Will and he’s off the hook again? And if vengeance belongs to God alone, then why give us the instinct? Confused yet?
There is no perfect answer to this paradox, that’s why it’s called the problem of evil. It’s why philosophers have wrestled with it for centuries and it’s what makes the Star Wars saga so interesting in its illustration of the paths of revenge – it’s the ending both trilogies work towards in Episode III and Episode VI and if the pattern holds, we’ll see something similar in Episode IX (right Colin?).
So, which path do we take? The choice seems to depend on how deep our pain is, how deep our love is, and what we’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of our pain and our love. We’re either able to eventually let it go and proceed to the Light Side (which requires some form of self-isolation and atonement), we unleash it and go to the Dark Side (and destroy ourselves and everything we love), or we focus it to save those we love by destroying those who hurt them (by willingly giving our life for both).
No matter what we choose, we’re guided by love – maybe that’s our saving grace. So, we ask ourselves: Do we love what we love enough to avenge it or let it go? Or do we do both at the same time? What price are we willing to pay for the choice we make?
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Bacon, Francis. The Major Works. Ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: Or. The Whale. Penguin Classics, 2010.
Seltzer, Leon F. “Five Biggest Problems With Revenge and Its Best Remedies.” Psychologytoday.com. 22 Jan. 2014.
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