Kratos vs Luke Skywalker: How to Innovate a Protagonist
The release of God of War (2018) was met by nearly universal praise from critics, citing the powerful, protagonist-driven storyline as a refreshing return to the franchise. The development and characterisation of the franchise’s titular anti-hero, Kratos, and in particular his relationship with his new son, Atreus, form the bedrock of the installment’s critical success. In contrast, in a barrage of mixed reviews for The Last Jedi, one commonly cited flaw with the progression of the film’s narrative is Luke Skywalker’s transformation off screen, into the weary hermit he is depicted as in the film. This remarkable transformation from the shining, stereotypical sci-fi hero that people have idolised over the years, have left fans feeling disappointed with Disney’s interpretation of the character, and has not satisfied their expectations for the return of the character after 30 years.
A comparison between the two protagonists of the re-emerged/soft-rebooted franchises highlights the reasons why Kratos’ evolution was much more well-received than Luke Skywalker’s. The first example would be each protagonist’s interaction with past nostalgia, in particular Kratos’ Blades of Chaos and Luke’s lightsaber. Another example is how each protagonist faces and interacts with their former mentors to demonstrate their progression, in particular Kratos facing Athena and Luke reuniting with Yoda. Finally, as both protagonists have significant transformations off-screen with relatively low explanation, the way that their evolutions have been justified by not only their past events but by their current interpretations has ultimately affected how satisfied fans were with their current interpretations.
Tempered use of Nostalgia
One great example of how God of War (2018) effectively tempers the nostalgia of Kratos as a character, is when Kratos reunites with his famed Blades of Chaos. In God of War (2018), as Kratos and co must venture into the cold depths of Helheim, Mimir tells Kratos that in order to retrieve the heart of the Keeper of the Bridge of the Damned, his Leviathan axe will be of no help to him in the cold climate, and that he must use another weapon. This prompts Kratos to face his past and reclaim the weapons that brought about his blood-fueled infamy as the Ghost of Sparta, the Blades of Chaos. This cutscene is a slow-paced, meaningful moment in the game, supplemented by a nostalgic piece of music from the soundtrack, as this represents Kratos interacting with a moment of his past that he has previously decided to bury.
Kratos received the Blades originally from the Greek God of War, Ares, after Kratos pleaded with Ares to save his life in battle. Since that pledge of service, the Blades of Chaos were permanently infused to Kratos’ arms, as a reminder of the bloodshed he had committed as the champion to the God of War. It is with these Blades that Kratos ended up killing his wife and daughter, Lysandra and Calliope. Kratos was soon reprieved of the Blades after his defeat of Ares however, and soon hid them under the house he lived in when he raised Atreus in the Norse realm. Retrieving the Blades forced Kratos to face the horrific atrocities that he had buried, but also showed that he has grown beyond his former life, and his ability to use the Blades of Chaos to save his son rather than for his own selfish needs demonstrates his maturity as a character. This is an example of how the tempered use of nostalgia enhanced Kratos’ characterisation and was instrumental to our ability to relate to Kratos.
In contrast, a similar moment of temperament of nostalgia in The Last Jedi, is when Rey confronts Luke on Ahch-To with Anakin’s lightsaber. The scene begins in The Last Jedi moments after the end of the previous installment, The Force Awakens, with Rey having traveled across the galaxy to deliver the mythic lightsaber to the legendary Luke Skywalker, in an attempt to recruit him to the Resistance to defeat the First Order. On paper it sounds like the beginning of an epic moment, but instead it resulted in a lack-luster attempt at comedy, with Luke simply tossing the lightsaber off the cliff behind him and storming off to his hut. As the movie progresses, it is clear that this quick dismissal was meant to demonstrate Luke’s reluctance to return to his old Jedi ways, yet this scene was still received negatively by most fans, due to its lack of temperament of nostalgia surrounding the lightsaber.
Even in The Force Awakens an entire, dramatic scene is dedicated to Rey simply presenting the lightsaber to Luke, resulting in Luke giving the weapon an emotion-filled stare, highlighting the significance of the weapon to the lore of the franchise. In stark contrast to the build up of Kratos reclaiming the Blades of Chaos, this scene effectively disregarded any emotional impact the lightsaber has on Luke Skywalker as a character. The scene could’ve been handled a number of different ways to temper the nostalgia of the lightsaber. Luke could have vocally refused to claim the lightsaber from Rey and stormed off to his hut, expressing his disregard about returning to his old life as a Jedi Master. He could have given the lightsaber back to Rey, again detailing how he does not wish to use the weapon because of the fear of his past. Perhaps the scene could’ve played out more like how Luke throws away his green lightsaber after defeating Darth Vader, as that action of throwing away his lightsaber symbolizes his rejection of The Emperor’s attempts to seduce Luke to the dark side of the force, after Luke realised that cutting off Darth Vader’s hand was reminiscent of the anger fueled removal of his own hand by Darth Vader himself. Overall, the lack of capitalizing on the significance of the moment of Luke receiving the lightsaber represented a clear lack of temperament of nostalgia surrounding Luke Skywalker as a character.
Moving Past a Former Mentor
Shortly after Kratos retrieves the Blades of Chaos from underneath his house in the Norse realm, Kratos is visited by what appears to be Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, who may or may not be simply a mental projection by Kratos himself. During the confrontation, Athena asserts that not matter what Kratos does, he will always be a monster, referring to his violent past as the Ghost of Sparta. Kratos agrees that he will always bear the burdens of his past life, but states he is no longer Athena’s monster, cementing the idea that he is no longer in league with the gods and is in charge of his own destiny. This somewhat short exchange was an incredibly important moment for Kratos in the game, as it represents how Kratos is on the path of moving on from his past, acknowledging that his annihilation of Olympus will always define him, but knowing that despite that he will live his life the way he wants to live it, as a man, and as a father. This scene is representative of Kratos moving past a former mentor of his, Athena, who has had a mixed past with Kratos.
In God of War (2005), Athena was responsible for Kratos’ ascension to god-hood, recruiting Kratos to defeat Ares in order to save Athens, by manipulating Kratos’ emotions surrounding his past service of Ares. She saves Kratos from committing suicide on the Suicide Bluffs, and grants Kratos the title of the God of War. In God of War 2, Athena reveals that Kratos is in fact the son of Zeus, after sacrificing herself to save Zeus from Kratos’ wrath, also highlighting that she is Kratos’ sister. In God of War 3, the now deceased Athena later visits Kratos after he fell from Mount Olympus, and tells Kratos that humanity cannot survive while Zeus reigns, and that he must destroy the Flame of Olympus to save them. To destroy the Flame of Olympus, Kratos had to open Pandora’s box, as Pandora is the only one that can destroy the Flame of Olympus, and in opening the box he gained the power of Hope. Athena humbly asks that Kratos give the power of Hope to her, so that she can use it to help all of mankind, to which Kratos refuses, impaling himself with the Blade of Olympus to give the power of Hope to all of mankind himself. Athena is ultimately disappointed in Kratos, as she wanted the power of Hope for herself, and unlike previous times of saving Kratos from death, she leaves him to die, showing her true motives. Kratos dismissing Athena’s asserting that Kratos has not changed, demonstrates Kratos’ maturity as a character, and the fact that he will no longer be manipulated by those who claim Kratos’ indebtedness, and has finally moved on from his past mentor.
A comparatively similar scene for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi would be when Yoda visits Luke as he attempts to burn the sacred Jedi texts. In that scene, Luke goes to the tree where he keeps the ancient Jedi texts with a flare, intending to destroy the texts and ultimately wipe the Jedi Order from existence. He is met by Yoda at the tree, and after Luke informs Yoda of his intentions, Yoda does not try to stop him, and in fact after Luke hesitates, Yoda himself uses the force to strike a lightning bolt and destroy the tree himself. The following dialogue between the two presented two somewhat-opposing messages. The first was that although Luke hesitated, both Luke and Yoda agreed that the ancient Jedi texts were not as insightful as their legend claims, and it is in fact time for the Jedi Order to end. The second is that Luke cannot be held back by his failures and that Luke should not only teach Rey about his triumphs but also his failures, in order to make her a Jedi.
As you can see, the two ideas are somewhat contradictory, in that Yoda helps Luke understand that it is time for the Jedi Order to end, but it is also important to train Rey to become a Jedi. On the surface it is unclear the direction that Luke must take in order to move on from his past self, and the teachings of his mentor, in order to complete his character arc. If the first message was the one to be taken on board, then this would make sense for Yoda to burn the tree and for Luke to effectively ‘move on’ from his own training as a Jedi and become something more. However this is apparently not the case, as Luke himself asserts in his confrontation with Kylo Ren that he ‘will not be the last Jedi‘, referring to the rise of Rey, effectively quashing the idea that the Jedi should end. If the second message was the one to be followed could’ve went back to find Rey and teach her the ways of the Jedi (and arguably might still be able to as a force ghost). However this also cannot be the case, as not only did he intend to burn the tree with the texts, but he accepted that Yoda completing the task was in fact the right thing to do. This conundrum of two opposing ideas makes it hard for Luke to successfully move past his former mentor and complete himself as a character.
Evolution as a Natural Progression
Another reason why Kratos’ evolution between his characterisation in the Greek mythology and the Norse mythology is well-received is because its causation is rooted in who Kratos has always been as a character, and therefore appears to be a natural progression. When describing Kratos, it is very easy to fall into stereotypes akin to the hack-and-slash genre, and use descriptions such as a blood-fueled warrior, havoc-wreaking monster or an engine of mythological destruction. However, it is also not incorrect to describe Kratos as a tragic anti-hero, someone who struggles with wanting to lead their own life, or even as a family-oriented person. Kratos’ deep affection for his family is rooted in the very origins of the series and it arguably the motivation for Kratos’ original conquest of Olympus. The reason why Kratos bears the red markings around his body, is because he painted them on himself in honour of his kidnapped brother, Deimos, who bore similar markings on his body as a birth defect. Kratos’ original hatred for Ares was borne from Ares’ manipulating Kratos into accidentally murdering his own wife and daughter whilst fulfilling his service to the God of War. It is not a stretch to say that Kratos would give anything to be reunited with his family again, as this literally happens when Kratos sacrifices his godly powers to be with his deceased daughter again in the Underworld during the events of God of War: Chains of Olympus. There are signs that what he seeks in life is a meaningful connection through a family, as when he spends time with Pandora during the events of God of War 3, they formed a bond somewhat akin to a father/daughter relationship to the point where he is reluctant to see her sacrifice herself in the Flame of Olympus.
From all this evidence of Kratos’ roots in family affection, it is not the biggest stretch to see that he is attempting to be a significant role model for his son Atreus in God of War (2018). It would make sense for Kratos to finally be able to focus on raising his son and be a good role model, after he fled the Greek realm following the destruction of Olympus to live his life as a man. Kratos is arguably emotionally vacant, following the death of his former family, the betrayal of Athena and the loss of Pandora, and trying to fill this void through loving his own son Atreus would be a very plausible pursuit. Spending more time raising Atreus also makes sense within the game, as it is highlighted early on that Atreus spent most of his early life with his deceased mother, and that one of her dying wishes was that Kratos take care of Atreus. Trying to raise Atreus to be human and benevolent as opposed to being an almighty god is also rooted in Kratos’ personal history, as Kratos has always had a deep-seated hatred of the gods and doesn’t want his son to turn out like he has, murdering his own father. Overall, it can be seen that Kratos becoming a thoughtful father after having being portrayed as a ruthless warrior isn’t such a dramatic transformation given an understanding of his characterisation, and could be recognised as a natural progression of the character.
In comparison, Luke Skywalker’s transformation from the Return of the Jedi to The Last Jedi is not only quite dramatic, but has very little foundation in what we know of the character from the rest of the series. Luke in Return of the Jedi is arguably walking the fine line between a Jedi Knight and a Jedi Master, having constructed his own new green lightsaber and has seemingly dealt with the realisation that Darth Vader is in fact his father. For the duration of that movie, Luke’s goal is not to destroy his evil father, but to save him and to return him to the light side of the force. The Emperor taps into Luke’s fear for his friends and anger for the Empire to spark a confrontation between Luke and Vader, but Luke ultimately forgoes killing Vader after defeating him, throwing away his lightsaber after regaining sight of his original purpose of saving Vader, rather than striking him down and take his place at the Emperor’s side. Luke has demonstrated that he has resisted the temptation to strike down the man responsible for so many of the deaths of those in the Rebellion, instead recognizing that there is still good left in his father and that he would resist the temptation of the dark side in order to save him. Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi has shown that he is able to overcome his own emotional reckoning, being the realisation that Darth Vader is his father, and that he stays true to his benevolent intentions, saving Darth Vader rather than killing him.
Luke does not seem to embody these characteristics in The Last Jedi, and it is not exactly clear why as a character he would not be able to remedy these actions. In The Last Jedi, Luke lives as a hermit in isolation on Ahch-To following the destruction of his newly formed Jedi Order at the hands of his nephew, Ben Solo. Ben’s fall to the dark side was triggered by Luke attempting to kill him in his sleep after noticing that Ben had dark side tendencies, but ultimately hesitated at the last second. Luke was clearly unable to overcome his emotional reckoning, that being the understanding that Ben Solo was having a pull to the dark side, until the very last second, arguably demonstrating that he had still not overcome this character flaw, despite the events of Return of the Jedi. After Ben fell to the dark side, destroyed the New Jedi Order and joined the First Order as Kylo Ren, instead of staying true to his benevolent intentions of starting a new generation of Jedi and try to save his nephew from the dark side, as he had saved his father decades ago, Luke decided to retreat from the galaxy in shame of his failure. This is arguably against his original characterisation and is more in line with what Jedi Masters do in general (e.g. Obi-wan living on Tatooine and Yoda living on Dagobah) rather than what he would do himself. Overall, it can be seen that Luke’s transformation from Return of the Jedi to The Last Jedi isn’t entirely in-line with his characterisation, and the critical backlash of Luke in The Last Jedi could be because this transformation isn’t exactly a natural progression.
It is quite clear that the transformation of both Kratos and Luke Skywalker are remarkably different from their original portrays in previous installments of their respective franchises, however the critical success of the two characters is in stark contrast, arguably because of how they have been innovated. Whilst God of War (2018) understands the relevance of the nostalgia surrounding Kratos’ Blades of Chaos, The Last Jedi made short work of a comedic attempt to convey the importance of Luke reuniting with Anakin’s lightsaber. Kratos’ overcoming Athena’s haunting influence when obtaining the Blades of Chaos is far more satisfying as a progression than Luke’s reaction following the mixed messages from the reappearance of Master Yoda. Kratos’ progression into a father-figure was always rooted in his origins in the franchise, which made it appear as more of an evolution of the character, in comparison to Luke’s exodus from society because of his shame after previously having conquered his own demons. This comparison demonstrates that if you stay true to the original intentions of a character, even the most dramatic transformation can receive critical success.
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