‘Return of the Jedi’ turns 40: How the film’s

Note: This article contains spoilers for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” — movies that have been out for at least 40 years.

Star Wars spoilers move at the speed of the Millennium Falcon these days, almost outpacing the plots themselves.

In the past few months alone, we’ve learned Daisy Ridley will return as Rey in a future movie, and Grand Admiral Thrawn will make his live-action debut this summer. Then there’s the rumor that an upcoming Star Wars movie may draw inspiration from the 1991 book “Heir to the Empire.” One glance at a Twitter timeline is all it takes to find out what’s coming next to a galaxy far, far away.

So imagine the poor theatergoers of the ultra-analog 1980s, walking out of “The Empire Strikes Back” with the knowledge they would have to wait years to learn the resolution to “I am your father” or find out how wildly misguided their hopes were for a Luke-Leia romance.

Except, they didn’t have to. For better or worse, fans of the original Star Wars trilogy were just as good at ruining the major plot points of those movies as their descendants are today — they just worked a little harder at it.

“Star Wars” was already a global force by the time its sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” ended on one of the most momentous cliffhangers in cinema history. The villain, Darth Vader, claimed he was the father of the hero, Luke Skywalker, a twist so massive that even people who have never seen it know about it four decades later.

But for some, that cliffhanger was old news by the time they saw it. The original actor for Vader, David Prowse, predicted the entire sequence of events at a fan gathering two years before “Empire” premiered — father-son lightsaber battle and all. It’s unclear whether Prowse was leaking or lucky-guessing, but the incident prompted creator George Lucas to lock down scripts and even seed the media with false spoilers, according to Gizmodo.

Likewise, the big reveal of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” — that will-they/won’t-they protagonists Luke and Leia were actually brother and sister — was spoiled weeks before the film hit cinemas, exactly 40 years ago Thursday.

Fans didn’t even need a behind-the-scenes hookup to ruin that surprise: Radio show anchors invited to preview screenings blurted out details of the movie on air, and newspaper reviews and articles left little to the imagination.

“I never suspected Leia to be Luke’s sister, so that was kind of a neat surprise,” one woman told Oklahoma’s KWTV after leaving the sneak preview, and the news station helpfully broadcast her thoughts far and wide.

And those were just the really big spoilers.

A full recap of “Return of the Jedi” was published in The Washington Post on May 22, 1983 — three days before the film hit theaters. The article confirmed Han Solo was rescued from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, and included photos of a lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader. Discussions of Ewoks, the forest moon of Endor and the second Death Star were peppered throughout the article, too. At least it didn’t spoil the Luke and Leia twist.

Lucas told Rolling Stone in July 1983 that the film’s twist ending (Daddy Vader saves Luke’s life) was first spoiled by a science fiction magazine, which bought a story from a member of the production crew.

Toys, books and trailers featured hints of what was to come, too. “Return of the Jedi” the novel dropped nearly two weeks before the film hit theaters, according to Pablo Hidalgo, an author for Lucasfilm.

Just like today, fans didn’t necessarily want to be spoiled. They wanted to get their answers in the theater — preferably as soon as possible, said Bernadette Calafell, a professor of critical race and ethnic studies at Gonzaga University.

Calafell, 48, said she read a picture book as a kid packed with “Return of the Jedi” images and teasers for the movie. Any new image that leaked of Ewoks, Jabba the Hutt or alien planets, she said, hyped up fans even more about what was to come in the new movie.

“People would wait years,” Calafell said. “We just had to sit there and wait until the movie came out. And hope that we would be able to sustain our suspense for that long.”

A. Ron Hubbard, a 46-year-old co-host of the “Bald Move” television and film podcast, saved up toy purchase receipts for a “Return of the Jedi” action figure that came with a spoiler: The toy depicted the Emperor, who had only briefly appeared in previous films but was a major villain in the new one.

But Hubbard wasn’t much bothered. Answering essential questions can help amplify a film, even if you have “the full knowledge of what you’re about to see,” he said. Knowing a massive twist might ruin a movie for some, but others are just as interested in how Luke and Leia react to learning they are siblings as they are in the fact itself.

The climate is much different now. Not only are there more ways to stumble across spoilers on social media, but there are also more people who actively try to ruin movies, according to Noam Ebner, co-author of “Star Wars and Conflict Resolution: There Are Alternatives To Fighting.”

Ebner, who was 10 when “Return of the Jedi” came out, said he avoided reading spoilers for the film by not reading newspapers or listening to the radio.

But it has been “nigh impossible” for him to avoid Star Wars spoilers in 2023. He waited one month before watching the recent season of the Star Wars television series “The Mandalorian,” but he saw spoilers almost every time he went online.

“Most people can’t avoid that nowadays,” he said.

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