I have seen all the Star Wars movies when they were in release at theaters (except for Solo, as of this writing, which will be rectified tonight). I was only 4 years old when Star Wars was in the theater, and when I saw it at the drive-in with my family, I got “impressions” of it, rather than absorbing the whole plot.
I think I remember more of Star Wars from storybooks and other products than from the movie itself, which I didn’t see again, in total, until it was on HBO, after I had seen The Empire Strikes Back multiple times in theaters.
If I remember correctly, I saw Empire about 11 times in theaters when it was out. Thankfully, I had two older siblings that would often take me to movies, so between family and friends, it was easy to rack up extra viewings.
I loved Empire, and I absorbed a lot more of the plot when I saw it, but Return of the Jedi was the Star Wars movie that I felt I was most fully invested in at the time of release. By the time that movie came out, I had the action figures. I was part of the fan club. I had the posters up all around my room. I had read the Marvel comics on a regular basis. I was actively participating in my fandom, instead of enjoying what my family and friends also enjoyed.
I still remember the complex thoughts that struck me in that movie. Yoda may have talked about the Dark Side and the Light Side and how they operated in Empire, but Return of the Jedi was the first time I started to internalize more complex moral issues. Sometimes, you need to stop the bad guys, but it may not be healthy to HATE the bad guys. Sometimes doing the right thing for the wrong reasons makes the right thing into the wrong thing.
I remember part of my brain screaming out that Luke should be able to be angry at the bad guys, because they were evil. It should be okay to be happy about taking them out, because they needed to be taken out. Why is this Light Side thing so complicated?
Then, that moment hit me.
“I’ve got to save you.”
“You already have.”
Seriously, I’m having a hard time not tearing up as I type those words. My young brain latched onto the redemption arc hard in those moments. I love that moment so much.
Considering that moment, a lot of Return of the Jedi turns into “Redemption Arc, The Movie.” Han isn’t a reluctant member of the Rebellion anymore. Lando risks his life to save a friend that he had previously betrayed. Hell, even the ewoks go from people eating furballs to heroic allies in the same movie.
The point of Jedi, it seemed to me, was that some evil needed to be stopped, and can’t be redeemed (Palpatine, the Death Star), but sometimes you needed to risk yourself to bring someone back to the light. If you don’t, what you fight for doesn’t mean as much as you think it does.
Return of the Jedi isn’t a perfect movie. In a few places, it swings way to the up side of things to counter the down beats from Empire. That said, I still get a little disheartened when people pile on ROTJ as one of “the bad ones” when it comes to Star Wars. It isn’t a perfect movie, but I think in many ways, it’s the perfect resolution to what the original three movies were trying to do. I will always love it.