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How Star Wars' Return of the Jedi endures as a bonafide classic

Return of the Jedi celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Here’s how the Original Trilogy’s closer stands redeemed and among the franchise's very best.

Return of the Jedi poster
Image credit: Lucasfilm

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Return of the Jedi, the capper to George Lucas’ original Star Wars Trilogy running from 1977 to 1983. Directed by Richard Marquand, Star Wars Episode VI (as the film is otherwise known) was a critical and commercial success, going on to become the highest-earning film of 1983. Despite this, and Return of the Jedi deservedly earning its fair share of loyal fans, the film has existed in the shadow of its predecessors for years, widely considered the inferior entry of its trilogy. Fortunately, this dubious distinction has abated over time, particularly as Return of the Jedi reaches its latest milestone anniversary, with Star Wars Celebration Europe IV commemorating the occasion with its promotional artwork and merchandising.

Set approximately a year after the events of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker leads his friends to rescue Han Solo from the notorious mobster Jabba the Hutt. As Luke prepares to complete his training to ascend to the rank of Jedi Knight, the Rebel Alliance rallies to attack a second Death Star while it’s under construction over the forest moon of Endor when they learn Emperor Palpatine is currently visiting the secret installation. This leads to an epic confrontation in outer space and on Endor’s moon while Luke attempts to redeem and save his father Anakin Skywalker from the villainous persona of Darth Vader that he has embraced for decades.

This weekend at Star Wars Celebration 2023, Lucasfilm and ReedPop are celebrating the40th anniversary of Return of the Jedi with a variety of exclusive merchandise including shirts, patches, hats, jackets, and more -- even a 'Camp Endor' t-shirt.
Luke duels Vader
Image credit: Lucasfilm

Return of the Jedi gets maligned for its tonally uneven second half, leaning more into humor than its predecessors as a Rebel strike force led by Han travels to Endor to destroy a shield generator protecting the incomplete Death Star. Similarly, the inclusion of Ewoks, the teddy bear-sized native population on the forest moon, has seen a mixed reception, with movie’s detractors seeing them as overly appealing to children or serving as a merchandising gimmick.

Though the family-friendly and campy aspects of Star Wars weren’t perhaps as explicitly pronounced in its first two installments, they were always present, best personified by Yoda or Jawas. Return of the Jedi leans harder into that component, inviting younger audiences in. It should come as no surprise that viewers who grew up with Return of the Jedi are among its most vocal fans rather than those who came to it years after watching the two preceding films. Episode VI recaptures the sense of wonder for the Star Wars franchise rather than continuing down its darker and more cynical themes introduced by The Empire Strikes Back – in essence, it was always going to give the Original Trilogy the happy ending it deserved.

And there's a surprising amount of maturity in Return of the Jedi. The Original Trilogy is essentially Luke’s coming-of-age story, from day-dreaming farm boy to confident and reserved Jedi Knight. Luke returns to his home on Tatooine showcasing just how much has grown, rescues the man who saved his life in both of the preceding movies, and redeems the father who revealed himself in Episode V while simultaneously rejecting the evil incarnate that claimed him. For all the people who get hung up on Ewoks, these are emotionally resonant themes that shine through the film’s action-heavy final act.

Luke rejects the Dark Side
Image credit: Lucasfilm

The reappraisal of Return of the Jedi really started to take shape when Lucasfilm remastered and re-released the Original Trilogy in 1997, introducing the film to an even wider and younger audience who hadn’t grown up with them. 26 years later, that redemption has only continued to grow and Return of the Jedi now proudly stands among the franchise’s very best. No longer the black sheep of the Original Trilogy, Return of the Jedi is as deep and influential as Star Wars can get and that reputation will only ameliorate as time goes on in that galaxy far, far away.

Want to dive into the Star Wars universe (again)? Read our comprehensive Star Wars watch order.