We know what Han Solo’s up to in The Force Awakens: He’s hanging out in the Millennium Falcon and talking about the Force. And we know what Princess Leia’s up to, too, at least a little bit: She’s wearing a vest and hugging Han! But what about Luke? He’s absent from the film’s poster, and has only made a brief faceless appearance in one of the film’s trailers. Could this be because, in the 30 years since Return of the Jedi, Luke has turned to the Dark Side? The theory’s been battered around the internet almost since Force Awakens was announced, and it got even more digital traction when footage emerged of Mark Hamill talking about a potential Luke heel-turn in 2005 on a Dinner for Five panel that just so happened to include none other than J.J. Abrams. What’s the evidence supporting such a theory? As usual with these kind of fan theories, it’s a lot of clutchable straws, but here’s your guide.
Warning: Major spoilers below!
As Hamill explained, he tried to convince George Lucas that Luke should turn evil between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, mostly because he thought it would be more fun to play. But though Jedi went in a different direction (unless you agree with this guy), the appeal of evil Luke never faded. In 1991, Dark Horse Comics published the critically acclaimed Dark Empire series, in which a clone of Emperor Palpatine turns Luke into his Sith apprentice. Though Leia eventually saved Luke from the Emperor’s thrall, the seed remained planted in some fans’ brains: How cool would it be if Luke Skywalker, who saved his father from the Dark Side, succumbed to it himself?
In an interview with EW, Abrams revealed the question that got him to sign on to Force Awakens instead of following his dream to make smaller, more personal films. That pivotal question was posed to Abrams by Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, who asked him, “Who is Luke Skywalker?” (It may have also been “Who is Luke Skywalker?”) If Luke stayed good throughout the sequel trilogy, that question would have a pretty boring answer: Luke is who we thought he was. But if Luke, the last Jedi, turned to the Dark Side after the Sith were seemingly defeated for good, wouldn’t that make it a question worth exploring?
Elsewhere in the interview, the Force Awakens team made more remarks that hinted that not all of the series’ heroes would stay firmly on the side of the light. “We’re looking, obviously, for aspiration, for characters who are conflicted between good and evil, dark and light,” Kennedy said. “George [Lucas] spoke often about that tension in everybody between what’s good and bad. He always felt that it was easier to be bad than good.” Given how much of the original trilogy centered on the possibility of Luke being drawn to the Dark Side, doesn’t this seem like a hint we’ll see his same struggle in the new one?
If there’s one thing you need to know about J.J. Abrams’s storytelling philosophy, it’s the idea of the mystery box, a box of unknown contents that provokes a sense of “infinite possibility” in all who encounter it. (Abrams owns a literal mystery box, but he mostly uses it as a metaphor for the magic of stories.) In Lost, the whole island was a mystery box; in Cloverfield, it was the monster; in the last Star Trek, it was Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. In the run-up to Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker himself is the mystery box: He’s not on the main poster, he doesn’t have a character poster, and his only appearance in the teaser was a brief split-second shot of his hooded form. Clearly, we’re meant to be asking ourselves, What’s up with Luke?
This squares with rumors that much of the film’s plot will be devoted to a journey to find Luke. What if, when our heroes finally find him, he’s not what they expect? What if he’s (say it with me) turned to the Dark Side? Why, that would be almost as big of a twist as the ending of Empire!
As with any fan theory, a number of counterarguments exist, and we would be remiss not to mention them. First, there is the fertile wellspring of rumors that offers a different, very specific prediction for Luke’s role in the film: After an incident with the Force years earlier, the Luke of Force Awakens has turned into a Yoda-like recluse, “somewhat deranged” by the vast power that flows through him. This rumor may be completely bunk, but it squares with much of the evidence above, and it’s a slightly more nuanced scenario than “Luke has joined the Sith.”
Then there’s the matter of this behind-the-scenes photo of Hamill in his Force Awakens costume. It’s just one photo, sure, but the Obi-Wan vibes are strong with this one.
And finally, there’s this astute point from Slate’s Forrest Wickman, about Abrams’s mystery boxes:
But the not-so-well–kept secret of Abrams’ mystery boxes is that they tend to contain … pretty much exactly what you expect. In the run up to Star Trek Into Darkness, the marketing team refused to confirm the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, and in fact Abrams and others lied directly to journalists, saying he wasn’t who everyone thought he was: Khan. It turned out he was Khan. In the lead up to the release of Super 8, viral teasers showed a sort of literal mystery box, in this case the car of a freight train, from which something was trying to escape. Everyone assumed it was an alien creature. It turned out to be an alien creature. I’m not going to bat at the hornets’ nest that is the ending of Lost, but arguably the same thing is also true of that show (which Abrams helped create) as well as Cloverfield (which Abrams produced).
Of course, that argument goes both ways. Luke, as Wickman concludes, could “just be … Luke” — or, as in the rest of Abram’s films, the most obvious fan theory could turn out to be the correct one. In the absence of any concrete evidence, search your feelings: You know it could be true.