Luke Skywalker returned.
After several years of complaining from Star Wars fanboys, everyone was ostensibly thrilled by the surprise appearance of a de-aged Mark Hamill in the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, titled “The Rescue.”
While it’s almost been a full year since this episode aired, Disney+ just dropped a special behind-the-scenes episode, of Disney Gallery: Star Wars: The Mandalorian, focused on how the big Luke Skywalker moment happened.
Short answer: CGI techniques were combined as those working behind the scenes endeavored to bring a post-Return of the Jedi Luke back into the Star Wars timeline. Secrecy around this mission was so hardcore that director Peyton Reed referred to the character as Plo-Koon (a Jedi from the prequel era) even during filming. But there’s a bigger question here: To what end was all this work undertaken? Where does the Mandalorian Season 3 go from here?
To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, just because the makers of Mando had the technology to bring back a digital “young” Mark Hamill, should they have? The new Disney Gallery episode wants you to believe that bringing back Mark Hamill was a brave move. But wouldn’t it have been braver to simply recast Luke? Spoilers ahead for Mandalorian Season 2. Speculation for Season 3 follows.
Luke Skywalker was a “device”
The technical savvy with which Lucasfilm combined Mark Hamill’s performance with that of actor Max Lloyd-Jones takes up the lion’s share of this behind-the-scenes special. If you’re interested in the intersections between deep-fake technology, motion-capture, and basic de-aging CGI effects, everything about this special will be illuminating and captivating.
But if you’re interested in Luke Skywalker as a character, and what might be next for him in either The Mandalorian or a future live-action Star Wars project set in a similar time frame, this behind-the-scenes special doesn’t reveal much. In fact, Mandalorian director Peyton Reed says outright that in terms of Luke’s involvement in this episode, Master Skywalker wasn’t a character so much as a means to an end.
In speaking about finding the “balance” of “how much Luke was enough” for The Mandalorian, Reed says in the special:
“Weirdly he’s a device...none of the characters are sitting there in awe of [him]...that’s not where they’re coming from. He is a Jedi. He’s this mythical figure...because none of them have ever really encountered a Jedi.”
This comment is odd. You get what Reed means, but factually it’s iffy. Bo-Katan has encountered several Jedi. Also, Boba Fett, who conveniently dropped everyone off and then jumped away, knows Luke very well (and probably doesn’t like him).
In terms of the tone the episode was trying to strike, Reed is correct about the role Luke played. But this also reveals what’s so bothersome about his inclusion. “The Rescue” was not about telling a story so much as evoking a feeling from the fandom. And everything about this behind-the-scenes special hammers that home.
Why not recast Luke?
At the top of the special, Reed says, “We knew we wanted Mark Hamill front-and-center because you can’t bring back Luke Skywalker without Mark Hamill.”
Says who? In 2018, audiences accepted that Han Solo and Lando Calrissian were recast, with Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover stepping into the roles originated by Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams. Solo might not be everyone’s favorite Star Wars movie, but in terms of artistic integrity, it now scans retroactively as approximately a billion times braver than Luke’s cameo in The Mandalorian.
Within the context of Grogu’s story, it makes sense that Luke couldn’t outshine Din Djarin. This is what Reed means by saying Luke is a “device” in this episode. And, that comment is defensible to a point. The problem is that, by using complex (and arguably incomplete) CGI tech, Luke’s cameo had the opposite effect.
Instead of the focus being on the story, Mando shifted toward the audience scratching their head and wondering what kind of CGI fakery had occurred to bring back this pseudo-Tron: Legacy-looking Luke. Now, Hamill is a national treasure and did nothing wrong, but at such a point as he’s training a younger actor to act like him, why not just recast the role?
In fact, the existence of a behind-the-scenes-special about this process negates its premise: The people making The Mandalorian — Jon Favreau, Peyton Reed, Dave Filoni, et al. — all claim that the story isn’t about Luke, and yet here they all are talking about CGI Luke Skywalker at length.
Had Luke simply been recast (again, Solo exists) the focus could have remained comfortably on Din and Grogu. Instead, the existence of the CGI Mark Hamill takes the audience out of that “reality” and makes the entire episode (and series) a metatextual statement about Star Wars, rather than just simply being Star Wars. This undoes the great work of Mando Season 1, which pulled away from canon-obsessed fan service and embraced naturalistic storytelling. Luke Skywalker’s CGI entrance in Mando Season 2 throws all that out the window and sends the opposite message: Star Wars is always about nostalgia.
Mando Season 3’s biggest problem
All of this leads to the obvious question for fans who do care about Grogu: How the hell will Mandalorian Season 3 address Luke Skywalker? Should we be prepared for more de-aged CGI? Or will Luke simply exist off-camera?
Either choice is distracting, never letting the audience forget about the real-world constraints of making Hamill’s Luke appear in this way. Sure, you could argue that having a new actor would be also distracting. But the fact is that this era of Luke’s life had been unexplored, and so the Luke of this time period is fundamentally a character we’ve never met.
Over and over again, the talking heads in the new special mention that they wanted to capture the look of Luke “at this time,” but they’re really just talking about how Hamill looked circa Return of the Jedi. The Mandalorian is set five years after those events, meaning Luke could be going through changes, which could allow the creatives to take artistic license and cast a new actor.
Imagine that Luke is recast for Mandalorian Season 3. Imagine it's Sebastian Stan, just how everyone’s always wanted. Imagine Luke has grown some stubble and is wearing something different than his exact same outfit from Return of the Jedi. All of these things would add up to a continuation of the character’s story. And that’s just superficial. Who Luke is at this time is what’s interesting on a narrative level. What he looks like is secondary.
Instead, the powers-that-be at Lucasfilm seem risk-averse. Instead of recasting Luke, and challenging fans to accept it (which works in other fandoms; take a look at Captain Pike in Strange New Worlds) the Star Wars brand seems hell-bent on preserving what it once was, at the expense of evolving. The story of how Luke moved from this moment in Mando and became the person we met in The Force Awakens could be amazing. In fact, that narrative could drive its own Disney+ series. But Luke would need to be more than a “device.”
If Luke’s adventures are to continue in live-action, he needs to be a dynamic human being. As it stands, Star Wars has trapped Luke like a dragonfly in amber, content to deliver lesser copies of him in perpetuity.
Disney Gallery: Star Wars: The Mandalorian is streaming on Disney+.