The climax of the original Star Wars trilogy, and perhaps the most important moment in all of pop culture, happens in the Emperor’s throne room when Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader in single combat.
But wait, Luke defeated Darth Vader in single combat? How could that have happened, given what we know about the power of Darth Vader? It shouldn’t have, and it didn’t. Here’s what really happened.
A few months before the events of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader defeats Luke Skywalker easily. However, at the time, Luke had not completed his training. Between Empire and Return of the Jedi Luke trains more and does get better at using The Force. But are his abilities comparable to Vaders? No way.
Star Wars canon is filled with examples of Darth Vader accomplishing incredible feats with his insane Force powers. He’s so strong in The Force that he can rip starships right out of the sky. Even in the context of the original trilogy alone, he demonstrates the power to rip heavy objects out of the wall and hurl them like weapons, choke people to death with only his mind, and block blaster bolts with his hand.
By the time Return of the Jedi rolls around, the most impressive things we’ve seen Luke do involve Force jumping out of a pit, doing a basic Jedi mind trick, and being good at lightsaber fighting. None of that compares with any of Vader’s impressive abilities.
Luke Skywalker should not have been able to defeat Darth Vader. Yet, in the waning moments of Return of the Jedi Luke beats him in single combat and cuts off his father’s hand. How could that have happened?
Was Luke’s Success Superior Lightsaber Skill?
Maybe Luke was so much better at lightsaber fighting than Vader that he managed to defeat him on lightsaber skill alone? That’s always been the argument put forward by Star Wars fans, and they even get technical about it.
What follows is that explanation, which, when you think about it, makes absolutely no sense.
The duel commences with Vader employing his classic Form V, also known as Djem So, a technique he has mastered over years of battle. Luke counters with Form V as well but also blends elements of Form IV (Ataru), showcasing leaps and acrobatic movements to dodge Vader’s aggressive strikes.
Luke adopts a more aggressive stance, overpowering Vader’s defense. He leverages the nimbleness of Form IV to dodge and parry, then swiftly transitions to the strength-based Form V to go on the offensive. This hybrid approach keeps Vader off balance.
The idea is that Luke’s versatility gives him an edge that Vader, set in his ways, doesn’t possess. In a decisive moment, Luke disarms Vader, literally, by cutting off his hand.
That would make sense, except we now know that Anakin Skywalker was the greatest swordsman the Jedi ever produced. In Star Wars: Rebels, he’s literally shown as the guy in training videos showing Jedi how to master each style and counter them.
So we know for a fact that Anakin was a master of every lightsaber style. To believe that he was somehow unable to cope with someone using any style is ludicrous.
Maybe Vader Was Just Old?
It’s true that Anakin Skywalker was no longer a young man when he encountered Luke Skywalker. No doubt the many injuries over his lifetime took a toll.
But it’s hard not to notice that this didn’t seem to hamper him in Empire Strikes Back. What’s more, in Empire Strikes Back (when he’s clearly barely trying), Vader employs numerous tactics that he doesn’t even bother to try when dueling Luke in the Emperor’s throne room. Any one of which would have immediately killed Luke Skywalker and put an end to the whole thing.
How Luke Won The Duel, Despite Darth Vader’s Overwhelming Power
Why didn’t Vader grab Luke with The Force and throw him across the room as he’s done so many times before? Why didn’t he simply adopt a different lightsaber style and adapt to Luke’s use of Form IV?
The answer is clear: He didn’t want to.
By the time Luke appears before the Emperor, we know Vader is conflicted. Earlier, he tried to convince Luke to team up with him to take over the Galaxy and (presumably) kill the Emperor.
Vader was unhappy with the order of things and wanted to work with his son.
What’s more, moments before their duel, the Emperor, somewhat stupidly announces to both Vader and Luke that he’s done with Vader, Palpatine wants to kick him to the curb and replace him with Luke.
It’s hard to imagine that Anakin felt particularly loyal to the Emperor at that moment.
It’s also clear that the Emperor is afraid of Anakin and always has been. As powerful as the Emperor is, it’s safe to assume, given all that mumbo jumbo about Midichlorians, that Anakin is more powerful. In fact, it’s likely that Anakin Skywalker is the most powerful Jedi who ever lived.
As time has worn on, Anakin and Palpatine’s partnership has frayed, and each wants to get rid of the other. The Emperor because he’s afraid of Vader, and Vader because he’s tired of serving the Dark Side and getting nothing back for it. Maybe he even misses having family and friends.
What’s more, we know by this point that whatever is left of Anakin inside that Vader armor has genuine feelings for his son. In The Empire Strikes Back, he avoided killing Luke when he could have done so easily. So it’s safe to assume that he had no intention of killing Luke in the throne room, either.
Which brings us back to their lightsaber duel. At the moment of Vader’s defeat, Luke has been goaded into an insane rage by Vader. Vader did this to get him to come out of hiding, but he may have gotten more than he bargained for.
While not as good as Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker is skilled with a lightsaber. And his attack is furious, unyielding, and even reckless.
Luke’s attack was so over the top that for Vader, the only way to stop his son probably would have been to kill him. And we know Vader did not want to kill him.
That means Darth Vader CHOSE to lose that fight to Luke Skywalker. Luke did not win so much as Anakin let him win. And that, perhaps even more than his final act of killing the Emperor (after all, the Emperor wanted Vader dead; killing Palpatine was to Vader’s benefit as a Sith), is what truly solidifies Anakin Skywalker’s return to the light side.
It makes sense narratively, too. For as much as we all thought Luke to be the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, the true hero of George Lucas’s Star Wars stories has always been Anakin Skywalker.
The original trilogy is the story of Anakin’s redemption. The story of Anakin’s return from hell. And to make that story work, to make that story complete, it has to be Anakin himself who does it. Not Luke Skywalker.
In that duel Anakin was never fighting Luke, he was fighting himself. Anakin took his fate into his own hands, chose the light side of The Force over hollow victory, and became the hero he was always meant to be.
Yoda Knew Luke Would Never Defeat Darth Vader, Winning Was Never The Plan
At the beginning of Return of the Jedi, when Yoda tells Luke his training is complete and that he’s ready to face Vader, it seems ludicrous. We’ve seen Luke face Vader, and he’s not even close to achieving Vader’s skill level. Even Luke didn’t seem to believe it.
However, Yoda never said Luke would beat Vader. Yoda didn’t even seem like he really wanted Luke to fight Vader. Rather both Yoda and Obi Wan kept telling Luke he must FACE Vader. Confront him, not necessarily fight him. Because putting Luke in front of Darth Vader was all that mattered.
Yoda was intimately acquainted with Anakin Skywalker. He knew what drove his passions. He knew what drove him to the Dark Side.
The deep irony of Anakin’s fall is that it was his intense love for Padme (his family) that drove him to the dark side in the first place. That love drove him to evil, and Yoda’s hope is that this same passion, that same love, will bring him back.
That’s why this is a job only Luke or Leia can do. Because Luke and Leia are the only family, the only piece of Padme, that Anakin Skywalker has left. Yoda believes that when confronted by his children, Anakin’s passion to protect his loved ones and his feelings for Padme, the same passions that drove him to the dark side, will also bring him back.
It’s why Yoda spent so much time focusing on teaching Luke to avoid the dark side and not so much time on teaching him how to fight. For Yoda’s plan to work, all Luke had to do was resist falling to the dark side. If Luke didn’t fall to the dark side, then Yoda knew Anakin would be forced to join his son in the light.
For Yoda, it’s the only path he sees to victory. Yoda knows Anakin’s power. He understands that no one in the galaxy can defeat someone that powerful. The only person who can defeat Anakin Skywalker is Anakin Skywalker himself.
And so Yoda plays the long game and positions his pieces, setting things up until Anakin is forced with a choice: Go against everything he believes in (family) or allow himself to lose.
Darth Vader chooses to lose and in doing so, Anakin Skywalker wins.