NOTE: The following post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars 7
Despite countless stories centered on Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, it still wasn't clear exactly where the Jedi Knight would pop-up in The Force Awakens. Posters for the film showed nearly every other principal cast member - including some who ultimately received very little screen time and yet, Mark Hamill's face was nowhere to be found in any of the film's pre-release marketing.
Fans speculated, correctly, that a brief shot of R2-D2 and a hooded figure with a cybernetic hand was confirmation that Skywalker would appear in Star Wars 7. However, with nothing else to go on, coupled with rumors that the Force Awakens plot leaned heavily on the search for Luke, it wasn't clear how much of the original "New Hope" fans would actually get in J.J. Abrams' chapter - much less what the hero has been doing the last thirty years.
Now that Episode 7 is open to the public, we finally have official answers - and even though Luke isn't seen in The Force Awakens for more than a minute, his actions loom large throughout the film. As with our other Star Wars 7 explanation posts, viewers will already know the answers to the questions we are unpacking; however, for those who have yet to see the movie - or just want a place to speculate with fellow-fans, we're laying out the key points of Skywalker's Force Awakens backstory.
What Happened to Luke Skywalker After Return of the Jedi?
Even after Luke and Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader) defeated the Emperor, striking a crushing blow to the Empire, the war was still far from over. Years of battling followed, until the Rebels successfully crippled the Empire's fleet - forcing the Dark Side to rebuild within the First Order (an organization that aspired to continue what Palpatine and Vader started).
To prepare for a reemergence of the Dark Side, and power-hungry Dark Force users, Luke began training a new generation of Jedi warriors - attempting to restore the Jedi Order (and share his mantel of responsibility with other heroes). The Force Awakens doesn't specify the identity, or fates, of Luke's students - other than to reveal that Han Solo and Leia Organa's son, Ben, was among Skywalker's padawans.
Why Did Luke Skywalker Go Into Exile?
While Episode 7 refrains from specifics, no doubt leaving material to be explored in future installments, it is revealed that Luke's nephew, Ben Solo, is eventually seduced to the Dark Side by Supreme Leader Snoke, a powerful Force user and commander of the First Order. The Force Awakens does not specify what exactly led to the rift between Ben, who takes the name Kylo Ren, and his family; though, Luke, Han, and Leia each struggle with guilt over Ren's corruption. Instead of facing Kylo Ren, as well as the pain that he caused Han and Leia, Luke disappears entirely.
When questioned by Rey and Finn, Han suggests that Luke left in search of the first Jedi temple - which was rumored to house a powerful Force relic. However, it can also be intuited that Luke decided to live in exile because his fear and insecurity began to get the better of him - and longtime Star Wars fans know that fear is the path to the dark side: "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." If Luke believed he was more of a liability than a help to his loved ones, fearful that he'd make the same mistakes again, or angry that he couldn't save Ben Solo from Kylo Ren, it's equally possible that the Jedi Knight was terrified that he too would be tempted by the Dark Side again - choosing exile instead.
Luke Skywalker Fan-Art by Liam Pickford
Will Luke Skywalker Return for Episode 8?
Since Luke chose to leave a cryptic map to his intended place of exile before he disappeared, it's safe to assume the Jedi Knight knew he would, one day, be needed again. As evidenced by the closing minutes of The Force Awakens, the battle between the light and the dark has once again landed at Luke Skywalker's feet. Still, upon Rey's arrival, Luke doesn't appear anxious to take-up his old lightsaber and return to the fight - which is understandable, especially if Luke has been crippled by his own fears during his isolation.
It's hard to imagine that Luke won't join up with his sister and friends to take-on Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke but that doesn't mean it'll be as easy as flipping a switch either. It's very possible that the Luke Skywalker of Episode 8 is a troubled person - one who will need a major push before he is restored to the iconic hero fans remember.
What, or who, will give him that push? We've got 1.5 years to speculate.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.