This is the final part of a series on the psychology of Star Wars, beginning with Episode I: How the Jedi Created Darth Vader and Episode II: May The Relationship Be With You. Like the previous two parts, this one contains spoilers.
To briefly recap Episodes I and II: Anakin turned to the Dark Side because he could not handle his emotions. There was no one to help him, so he became numb and was easily led astray. Luke had a more solid emotional foundation and the people in his life used their positive emotions to help him walk the path of the righteous. When Anakin experienced loss, it destroyed him. When Luke faced grief, it made him stronger.
This theme of dealing with emotions appropriately is a solid one. You see it in other immensely popular works (the Harry Potter saga comes to mind), yet nobody seems to make the connection for us on a cultural level. For example, I don’t think it was an accident that George Lucas did the story backwards. He started with Luke’s journey in 1977 because A New Hope was a fun and easily digestible romp. It needed to be in order to succeed.
The cultural zeitgeist of the late 70s was one of wanting to move forward from the emotional turmoil of the previous decade. Americans wanted to see Good triumph over Evil without thinking too much about complexity. We just wanted to laugh and feel good about ourselves. Popular culture reflected this mood. Television shows that debuted in that year included The Amazing Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Eight is Enough, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, CHiPs, and Circus of the Stars. Superheroes, comedies, love, good cops and fun celebrities sound pretty light-hearted to me. In film, the top five grossing movies of the year were, in order, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Smokey and the Bandit, The Rescuers (animated) and Saturday Night Fever. We saw Good triumph, friendly aliens, a merry outlaw, courageous mice and a dancer. Nothing too dark there.
The first Star Wars trilogy wrapped up in 1983, and it took Lucas 16 years to find a suitable time in which to show us the rest of the tale. In 1999 when Anakin’s story (The Phantom Menace) began, Americans were in a very different place than they were when Luke first showed up on the scene. The United States was coming off a tough year in which we were embroiled in political scandals (President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky — seems almost quaint now, doesn’t it?) and international upheaval (Iraq, Iran and Pakistan testing scary weapons; the bombings of U.S. embassies abroad). It was becoming clear that context matters, good people aren’t always pure, and evil sometimes comes with a pleasant face.
Popular culture mirrored our attempt to recognize that we cannot deny the darkness. Television shows that debuted that year included The Sopranos, Judging Amy, Once and Again, Shocking Behavior: Caught on Tape, The West Wing, Angel, and Third Watch. We got to see the complexity involved in organized crime, the ups and downs of the legal system, the difficulties of divorce and remarriage, people behaving badly, the trade-offs in governing, vigilantism, and the complicated criminal justice system. That’s a far cry from what we were watching 16 years before. In film, the top five grossing movies of the year were, in order, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2 (animated), The Matrix and Tarzan (animated). We were entertained by a world on the edge of revolution, a child dealing with dead people, a kidnapped toy, an apocalyptic world run by computers and an orphan raised by animals. All of those topics, even the animated ones, are pretty dark.
On the surface, Anakin’s first journey was just as fun as A New Hope, yet there was a Menacing shadow cast over it. Because we knew the outcome of the story — that there was no happy ending for Anakin — the enjoyment was a little bitter. It hurt to watch this gifted and scared little boy flounder in his new life because there was such promise, yet we knew where he would eventually end up. As viewers, we didn’t want to identify too closely with Anakin (because clearly, there’s more of Luke in us), but as the series progressed, Anakin’s story reflected more and more of our reality. Anakin’s fear and sadness that he wasn’t all he could be and that even someone as powerful as he could not save those he loved morphed into rage and then numbness.
Likewise, by the release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in 2005, the United States was a different place. The reality that for all of our resources and might as a country, we could not prevent those who hate the United States from attacking us, changed our emotional landscape. The emotional darkness within ourselves — the difficulties of dealing with complex emotions with which we were already struggling — became stronger. Like Anakin, we started living in absolutes (“You’re either with us or against us.”), and anger became our go-to emotion.
It’s only gotten worse as we’ve started becoming more like Darth Vader than ever before. However, like Luke after his last fight with Darth Vader, we now stand on the edge of a precipice. We can deal with our sadness and fear appropriately, allow our loved ones to help us and find our own New Hope — or we can let ourselves become cold and uncaring, numb to any emotion beyond anger and lose everyone we love. In other words, we can Return like Luke or enact Revenge like Darth Vader. A new hope or revenge? Which will it be? I know which one I’ll choose.