In most fantasy films, and most films in general, there’s one guaranteed story beat sure to please everyone in attendance: the evil is vanquished, the world is saved, and the hero or heroes win their time in victorious splendor. Unless it’s an installment in the Star Wars saga, in which case the heroes have a serious tendency to be defeated, lose handily, and otherwise be forced back into hiding against a superior enemy. Despite that fact, the next chapter in the new trilogy continues to hinge its success on shoulders far better suited to failure: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.
All things considered, the title isn’t all that shocking (someone even suggested it on Reddit one year ago), adding the Jedi to the likes of the final Starfighter, The Mohicans, Samurai, Witch Hunter, and Dragon, to name a few. But where those other heroes succeeded in making their mark on the world, our confidence in the space monk order trusted with peacekeeping the galaxy far, far away isn’t as certain. After all, the Jedi are gifted in losing like few other activities.
Think we’re being a bit too harsh? Let’s take a look at the Star Wars: Episode titles and see if a pattern doesn’t start to emerge…
The Phantom Menace – ‘Jedi Get Intensely Played’
Since audiences didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time, and given just how much it was critically slaughtered as the years rolled by, many Star Wars fans may not stop to consider the actual title of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Especially not when it reveals that the movie’s “threat” was nothing more than an elaborate charade, and the Jedi failed to recognize any part of it. Even with the gifts of The Force that allowed them to show more acrobatic and telekinetic skill than any of the original films, and sense a growing darkness tied to Anakin Skywalker, the galaxy’s most adept Force Users couldn’t sense one of their greatest enemies in their midst.
It may have been the Galactic Senate that was most directly duped by the “phantom menace” posed by the Palpatine-backed Trade Federation, but the title still marks one of the most colossal failures of the Jedi in the lead up to the Galactic Empire. Since the Jedi were never followed for their military or combat experience, but were respected as the peacekeepers safeguarding the Republic, one would think that gathering intelligence, weighing suspicions, and seeing into the truth of things would be their greatest skill. But as much as Ben Kenobi made the Jedi sound like a noble, respected order in the first Star Wars, the prequel showed the rise of darkness based purely on their inability to uncover a plot that Kenobi succeeded in unraveling in a matter of days.
Palpatine may have been a Sith in disguise, but only a phantom menace was needed to bring the galaxy to its knees, since the Jedi were unable to protect it.
Attack of The Clones – ‘Galactic Peacekeepers Had One Job’
Episode II – Attack of The Clones isn’t going to win any awards for its place in the larger series, since the titles itself is something of an oddity. For starters, even the idea that the Clones “attack” is a bit controversial, since they are only deployed to rescue peacekeepers of the Galactic Senate who have been captured, imprisoned, and forced into gladiator games by Separatists. But even if you allow that rescue to be seen as an “attack” (the Separatists didn’t declare all out war), the title implies a perspective and opinion not strongly shared by our heroes – and more befitting one of the attacked parties.
Whatever the case, the title itself makes one thing clear: the Jedi aren’t even in the spotlight anymore. Had the title been something closer to The Clone War Begins, then one could argue that the conflict led by the Jedi – and referred to in the original film – would be the real message or even being alluded to. Instead, the Clones are made the agents of this chapter, and specifically, their first deployment into combat kicking off war with the Separatists. In short: the shattering of peace not just despite the actions of the Jedi charged with keeping it, but because of them.
We’ll skip over the profound idiocy and shortsightedness of the Jedi stumbling upon an army built for war, not peace, and deciding to lead it, and simply say that if the first prequel’s title hinted at the Jedi’s gullibility, the second is an encapsulation of their failure.
Revenge of The Sith – ‘Jedi Get What They Had Coming’
After being duped along with rest of the galaxy by choosing not to be proactive in their safeguarding and defense of galactic peace, and leading an army in the death of countless enemy combatants, betraying their peaceful ideals, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Jedi Order fall. What makes the “revenge” in the title – the total defeat of the Jedi at the hands of their historic foe – so significant is that it implies, from a neutral third-party perspective, that the Sith suffered at the Jedi’s hands, and are paying them back in kind. Honestly, if Anakin Skywalker and the Emperor didn’t become glowing-eyed, cackling monsters, it would be hard to know if the films themselves viewed the collapse of the Jedi as a tragedy or a balancing of the scales.
Aside from abstract claims that the Jedi ‘defeated the evil Sith’ centuries in the past, the films show a different story, including their subtitles. Given how easily the Jedi stray from their ideals, grow complacent and oblivious to manipulation, and singular in their hatred and condemnation of those who value emotion, passion, and love, it wouldn’t take much to cast them as the villains. If that were the case, then it would be a tragedy of a different sort, with billions of lives being bandied about in an ages-old, unending feud between factions.
Instead, the Jedi can only come off as colossally disappointing failures. They were fooled, they were fouled, and they were finished.
A New Hope – ‘Our Greatest Traitor’s Son Will Save Us’
Unfortunately, the subtitle of Episode IV is an oddity in the sense that the original film didn’t actually have one. Even so, if we stick to the idea that the film’s titles communicate a removed commentary – of which the repeated failures and blindness of the Jedi are the subject – then A New Hope doubles down on the idea. It may not have been George Lucas’s intent, but with a healthy sense of humor, the fact that a whiny, moody teen is turned to as the last hope of the Jedi speaks volumes about their unwillingness to learn from their mistakes. Since that description also applies to the recruit responsible for ending their existence… who also happens to be, you know, the father of the newest savior.
If the takeaway from the prequels was that the Jedi and Sith had each inflicted harm on the other, and had condemned the population of the galaxy due to their bickering, one would think they would have evolved as a result. You know, put the whole ‘eye for an eye’ thinking behind them upon realizing it would only leave everyone blind. But then, these were also the people who had driven their enemies to extinction, but still wished to eradicate them from existence. As Obi-Wan put it in Episode III, Anakin Skywalker was supposed to “bring balance to the Force.” How? By “destroying the Sith.” Which, when you think about it, is a fairly horrifying military doctrine.
So the Jedi hoped to wipe every shred of their defeated political, philosophical, and military rival from the galaxy, and the one chosen to do it wound up seeing things differently. Where else would their “hope” lie, if not in that man’s flesh and blood, given the exact same charge without the slightest bit of renewed perspective?
The Empire Strikes Back – ‘We Forgot The Empire is Good at This’
It’s remembered as one the greatest sequels in movie history, and with good cause. After saving the day in a truly fantastic journey of self-discovery, defeating the Empire’s superweapon and sending their top attack dog running, the Empire has rebounded. By the end of the film, the so-called villains have struck several decisive blows to the Rebellion, with Luke Skywalker disillusioned (and dis-armed), having learned that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s first words to him were a complete deception. Oh, and Han Solo captured.
Specifics aside, the subtitle – originally the actual title – directly undoes the progress perceived to have been made in the first Star Wars movie, stating that the Empire’s return salvo will be a significant one. Our case for this film framing the Jedi as a struggling, if not outright failing order in the eyes of the films themselves is easiest here, since Empire is famously known as the movie in which all heroes are left in a worse place than when the film opens. Yet it still manages to suggest, no matter how subtly, that the Rebel’s recruitment of Luke and the deception used to drive him against Vader was an attack, not a response.
The Jedi have waited years for the chance to mount some kind of attack against their enemies. Once they accomplish it, losing one of their last surviving Knights in the process, the Empire ‘strikes back’ in devastating fashion.
Return of The Jedi – ‘The Hero Wins… The Old One, Technically’
The title of Episode VI – Return of the Jedi also possesses a few possible interpretations (seriously clouded by the fact that George Lucas originally wanted to call it Revenge of the Jedi), but the most obvious one is… well, obvious: Luke Skywalker completes his training to become a Jedi Knight, and enters the conflict against the Empire as renewed warrior. But fans have also weighed the possibility of a second meaning: a reference to Anakin Skywalker’s turn from the Dark Side back to the Light. Since he was corrupted from Jedi to Sith, but eventually kills the Emperor in a moment of moral clarity, the act of murder might actually be seen as “a return of the Jedi” inside Anakin. The murder thing, we suppose, is ruled a necessary evil.
Regardless of which interpretation you think works best, the film’s closing scenes make its stance clear. The Sith have been wiped out at last, leaving the Jedi the only ones standing – their unique definition of “balance” and “peace.” No matter how morally questionable the stance may be, the Jedi have returned, and the extended universe novels and comic books spent years telling the tale of Luke’s new Jedi Academy, pumping out new members of the ancient order to restore the peacekeeping force’s place in galactic politics.
It seems, for once, that the Jedi actually did win the day, beat the odds, and start taking steps in the right direction!
The Force Awakens – ‘Even After Winning, Jedi Somehow Lost’
This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of the film itself, even though some fans did take issue with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens for essentially re-telling Luke Skywalker’s story in new clothes. Aside from its originality, the reboot from J. J. Abrams sought to return the feeling and universe fans loved so much… which meant that the Jedi needed to become a forgotten, defeated, terribly-misguided organization once more. Honestly, even after winning the war by eradicating their opposition, the Jedi still found a way to defeat themselves.
That defeat was no less tragic than the fall of Anakin Skywalker’s surrender to temptation, fear, and the Dark Side, with it now being his grandson who surrendered to temptation, fear, and the Dark Side. We can’t really blame Luke for making the same mistakes of Anakin’s Jedi Masters – removing Ben Solo from his loved ones and attachments, showing him a glimpse of the powers granted by the Force before giving the tools to wield it well – since he couldn’t have known them (Obi-Wan or Yoda probably could have given some advice, but who’s to judge).
In the end, the failure can probably be chalked up to Luke’s own teachings. He will no doubt claim that he failed Ben, and helped remake him into Kylo Ren, but he was only working with what he was given. Lest we forget, Luke’s own Jedi Master was in charge of galactic peace for eight centuries, only sharing his concerns about the Sith’s return when they were literally sitting on the throne and commanding he be executed. That’s the Jedi mold Luke was built in, and he, too, failed to see the darkness before it was too late – a uniquely Jedi phenomenon.
The Last Jedi – ‘Maybe This Time, a Jedi Will Save Us?’
The mystery of the upcoming Star Wars Episode has finally been solved, with the official title revealed to be Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. We’ve spun some of our own theories on just what the title could mean, including the idea that ‘the last Jedi’ may not be who audiences might expect (not just them, at least). Taking a look back at the narrative conveyed in the subtitles alone, it would seem the minds behind Star Wars are either driving home an old joke, or still keeping up the illusion that the failure-prone space monks might actually get things right this time.
Forgive us if we’re a bit pessimistic, but at this point, we can’t help but view The Last Jedi as a confirmation that the movie saga will finally put an end to the Order’s continued humiliation.