Return of the Jedi: What Makes It So Divisive?

To many, Return of the Jedi is a classic, but some Star Wars fans don’t like it. Why?

Last Updated on August 15, 2023

One of the great things about the movies we love is that they continue to evolve the more we watch them. You may notice details you hadn’t before; perhaps certain elements that flew under the radar in previous viewings now stand out more. The more you know the sights and sounds of the picture, the more you can quote the dialogue as the characters say it, the closer your relationship with it becomes. 

That relationship can change over time too. Movies that you still hold affection for might seem a little off, a little dated, not quite as remarkable as they once were. The rose-covered glasses might slide down, if just a little. You still love the movie, but not in the same way you once did. Of course, all this preamble is my way of revisiting Return of the Jedi, the final film in George Lucas’ ambitious “Star Wars” trilogy. “Jedi” is surely the most hotly debated of the original trio, the one where fans – especially fans of different generations – might finally diverge. No one is likely to argue that “A New Hope” is just wonderful, and an excellent way to kick off such an ambitious series of movies. And “Empire” is routinely in the discussion of the greatest films ever, which I wouldn’t argue with for a second. But “Jedi” isn’t a perfect movie, even as it does contain plenty of magnificent moments and indeed works as a satisfying capper to Lucas’ masterful trilogy. For this writer, it was the greatest thing ever for a little while. In my early days as a budding film fanatic, you couldn’t get me to watch a movie more than I watched “Jedi.” I wore out all of the “Star Wars” movies as a child, but “Jedi” was my favorite – and what’s not to like about it when you’re, say, six or seven years old? Monsters, space battles, seemingly limitless action. The movie has it all. But when you get a little older and your relationship with the movie evolves, you can’t help but notice that the wondrous elements you clung to as a little kid may not hold up quite as well under the gaze of a more discerning eye. 

So what does Return of the Jedi look like to an adult who, yes, has seen it dozens of times but attempts to view it with fresh eyes as best he can. Is it still as thrilling and infectious as it was thirty-plus years ago? Or is it, as Dante in “Clerks” infamously put it, just “a bunch of muppets?”

To be fair, Return of the Jedi has a very tough act to follow. Not only is Empire Strikes Back a superb film, it has one of the most memorable third acts ever. Add to that the pressure of pleasing the masses with the finale of a tremendously successful franchise and “Jedi” has a lot on its shoulders. Everybody in the world now knows Darth Vader is Luke’s father, Luke’s had his hand chopped off, Han’s been abducted so he can finally pay his debt to Jabba the Hut, and Lando and Chewie are in hot pursuit to rescue their friend. How will Lucas, his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, and director Richard Marquand wrap it all up?

Well, the first matter of business is getting Han back, which brings our protagonists back to Tatooine, where it all began. Han’s paying his debt by decorating the wall of Jabba’s palace, and hapless C3-PO and R2-D2 are on the scene to set things in motion. Meeting Jabba is quite the spectacle, and his den of iniquity is something we haven’t really seen in Star Wars before. We’ve been to the Cantina, of course, but that looks like Studio 54 compared to Jabba’s unpleasant abode, filled as it is with an assortment of odd and ugly creatures whose only purpose appears to be standing in thrall  of their slug-like dictator, occasionally chortling at his morbid sense of humor, and wondering if they’re going to survive the night. Jabba’s palace is an unseemly place alright, and I don’t mind telling you that this writer was freaked out by the whole creepy atmosphere at the tender age of three. At least, that’s the story my mom always told me. And it still is rather creepy, a word you don’t necessarily associate with the “Star Wars” pictures. 

return of the Jedi 1983, Luke

Jabba himself is a gloriously grotesque creation, and as a character he’s disgusting yet utterly fascinating. As was the case with Yoda in “Empire,” we instinctively know Jabba is a puppet, the culmination of countless hours of ingenious hard work by the wizkids at Industrial Light and Magic. But he’s also immediately convincing because his personality shines through so clearly right off the bat. We register that he’s fearsome and gluttonous, pleased as punch with himself and the nasty menagerie he’s constructed. While not likely to hurt you on his own physically, his very presence is so intimidating that you know any number of his brain-dead groupies would be willing to kill for him just to gain his favor. 

That he’s a perv and a sadist comes as no surprise, that lecherous expression on his face says it all. Even as we’re grossed out by him, we’re just as drawn to him as the rest of the weirdos in there. How often is it that we can delight in a character so distasteful?

The first act of “Jedi” is like its own mini-movie. Plot-wise, it simply serves as a means to get Han back into the fold, but it allows Lucas to indulge in his own playful darkside, where he introduces us to some nasty sideshow horrors like the merciless Rancor and the truly upsetting Sarlaac pit – which, by the way, looked way more disturbing pre-special editions. The Jabba section of the movie only lasts roughly a half-an-hour, but the “Star Wars” series taking a break from storm troopers and talk of rebellion to treat us to this freaky visual feast is absolutely appreciated. 

After Jabba and rogue’s gallery are extinguished, “Jedi” gets back to the more serious business of wrapping up all loose ends. A thoroughly haunted Luke Skywalker now must confront his father and the Emperor, with a little pit stop along the way to see his dying mentor Yoda, who informs Luke he’s got a sister. And it’s Leia. As if this guy didn’t have enough going on. But he takes the news pretty well, you know, considering… (“Empire” kiss.)

If there’s a major complaint to be lodged against “Jedi,” it’s that so much of the second half of the movie feels like one scene of exposition after the next. Characters come together to share details of their plans, and there’s precious little time for the fun back-and-forth that made the first two films more than just standard science-fiction. After Jabba’s demise, “Jedi” feels a bit like it’s business-first, wonderment second. 

Not that the movie doesn’t have fun in mind for its audience. In fact, it’s preparing to introduce us to an entirely new species of creature for us to revel in, hopefully fall in love with, and eventually purchase likenesses of… “Jedi” sends us to the critical moon of Endor, where the Empire has set up an energy shield to protect its second Death Star. Naturally, the rebels have to destroy this shield, and unbeknownst to them they’re going to get a lot of help in that regard, whether they like it or not. The Ewoks arrive as if out of a different movie altogether; furry, goofy, adorable and yet incorrigible, the fluffy mischief-makers immediately come across as the most manipulative of Lucas’ many creations. You can picture them lining toy store shelves, but how much of a service are they going to be to the story? As it happens, they’re quite integral, as our heroes would be woefully incapable of completing their quest without them. So yes, they’re useful from a narrative perspective, but there’s no denying they feel at odds with most everything else that’s happened in the movies, save for maybe the brief appearances of the Jawas. Lucas has stated in the years since that the “Star Wars” movies were always aimed specifically toward children, but that thought is very far away in the midst of the grand, fun-for-all-ages adventure of “New Hope” and “Empire.” It does feel perfectly clear while watching the bouncy, chittering Ewoks, however, and they now remain a fine example of something that works well enough when you’re just a kid, but feels out-of-place and distracting when you’re an adult… Still, without them we wouldn’t have John Williams’ classic “Parade of the Ewoks” theme, which is so wonderful that you’ve no choice but to smile whenever you hear it. 

return of the Jedi ewoks

To “Jedi’s” credit, it has so much going on in its second half that the Ewoks are only a part of it. The movie relentlessly slings us around as several crucial set-pieces are happening: the Ewoks and the rebels battling the Empire on Endor, the Rebel alliance’s battle among the stars lead by Lando and Admiral Ackbar – which is especially breathtaking to watch – and the somber meeting between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor. While the bouncing back and forth between these monumental sequences can be a bit jarring, there’s no question Marquand and his team have filled things to the brim with so much action and high-stakes drama that you’re fully on edge during “Jedi’s” final act. 

The battle of wills in the Emperor’s Throne Room is no doubt the most pivotal and memorable thing happening during the movie’s busy end-stretch. Luke attempting to deal with his father on human terms while the Emperor pokes and prods at the two of them is very fine drama indeed, and the Emperor himself is a great villain, especially considering his screen-time isn’t even all that plentiful. Insidious, patronizing and colder than ice, he weaponizes anger and self-doubt like an evil puppeteer, and you for once see how Darth Vader could become such a ruthless bastard under his tutelage. A hat tip must be given to Ian McDiarmid for his stellar performance; peering creepily under his hood with demonic eyes, McDiarmid nails every aspect of the character; from his evil laugh, to the condescending manner in which he addresses those around him, even the way he hits those consonants in the Emperor’s carefully-chosen statements (“your pitiful little band!”); they’ve creating a truly distinctive bad guy for the ages with him. 

It’s a stand-out performance in a movie that needs one. While we’re not going to agree with Dante on his muppets remark, the characters who make the biggest impressions in the film are indeed all cleverly-crafted aliens and one incredibly evil sorcerer. That’s no diss on the acting from our returning stars, but the truth is, Luke, Leia and Han aren’t quite as entertaining as they were in the first films. While Mark Hamill does everything he’s supposed to do, Luke is certainly a bummer, and even as we’re rooting for him, his glum, humorless demeanor makes one yearn for that gung-ho kid who was so magnetic in “New Hope” and “Empire.” Obviously we recognize he’s got the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders, what with having to topple an Empire and confront his father and all, but this solemn version of the character simply isn’t very enjoyable to watch, however necessary that portrayal may be. 

Han and Leia feel more like supporting characters than they did the first two rounds, and as they’re more on the same page as they’ve ever been, the spark that made their will-they/wont-they romance so infectious is missed. We’ll always be fans of these two, but it can’t be ignored that the magic between them is gone a bit, and they’re mostly relegated to helping move the plot along as opposed to standing out as the remarkably engaging characters that made us love them. Again, the actors are doing their part so you can’t blame them, although you can’t help but catch a little second-hand embarrassment watching the great Harrison Ford interact with those screwy teddy bears. 

return of the Jedi mark hamil

Whereas the narratives of first two films felt like they sped forward with momentum created by impulsive decisions, happy and unhappy accidents, and just pure destiny, “Jedi’s” story ultimately feels manufactured, or preordained. Perhaps that’s inevitable with the final film in a trilogy like this: after all, the bad guys must lose, the good guys must accomplish all of their goals and breathe a long sigh of relief, the audience must walk out happy that their time invested in this years-long journey has been well spent. And “Jedi” does those things, and you can’t argue that the film doesn’t pack a ton into its swift 130 minute runtime. If it’s the least astounding in the original trilogy, perhaps that’s just more a testament to the undeniable excellence of the first two, as they literally brought us into a galaxy unlike any we’d seen before and populated it with characters and events both charmingly familiar and refreshingly original. “Jedi” carries the burden of being perhaps the most predictable of the three, just a bit of that enchantment having worn off. 

But tell that to the little kid who watches it with eyes wide open, consuming with glee everything from Jabba’s palace to the wild chases on Endor to the dire events in the Emperor’s Throne Room. That little kid actually still exists somewhere in this writer, and hopefully in you too, which is why “Jedi’s” faults feel rather minor when you’re in the moment. Don’t be afraid to slide those rose-colored glasses back up as Lucas tosses the kitchen sink your way, because there’s still so much to appreciate here. The Force is still strong with this one, and it always will be. 

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.