This month marks the 35th anniversary of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and while the film may generally be considered the lesser installment of the original trilogy, it does have at least one thing going for it: all that hot Leia action.
Sure, Luke may be the hero and Han may be the dashing rogue, but Princess Leia is a spy, a general, a rebel, a diplomat, and eventually a straight-up poncho-wearing, blaster-blasting badass. She always demonstrated her trademark nerves of steel and sharp tongue in her previous appearances — she’s played by Carrie Fisher, after all. But in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, her character tends to function more as a plot device, or a passenger. She’s symbolic of the larger resistance. She’s reacting. It wasn’t until Return of the Jedi that we got to witness Peak Leia, a Leia given the opportunity to exhibit some serious agency on her own.
And no, “agency” isn’t a euphemism for everything she was exhibiting in that damn metal bikini.
To start off, Leia goes undercover as a bounty hunter to infiltrate Jabba the Hutt’s compound on Tatooine and rescue Han from that slab o’ carbonite. She’s being proactive! She’s got Chewie in tow as her captive, and she does manage to free Han, but then she’s captured and enslaved. Womp womp. Cue the metal bikini.
But the thing is, while that particular skimpy costume may be seared in the minds of, well, everybody at this point, it distracts from what's truly notable about her time in captivity — the way that Leia bides her time, waits for the perfect opportunity, then STRANGLES THE SH*T OUT OF JABBA WITH HER OWN CHAIN LEASH. She kills Jabba the Hutt, while Luke, Han, Lando, and Chewbacca are busy trying not to get thrown into the Sarlacc’s eager maw. Then she comes out on deck and mans a giant gun to aid in the escape effort.
(I wish pictures could convey the sounds Jabba makes while Leia asphyxiates him. It’s like if a wheeze could be juicy?)
Luckily, Leia gets to cover up a bit for her next adventure as part of the Endor strike team. And honestly, it’s a shame her camo poncho look doesn’t get more appreciation in pop culture because it’s fabulous. Granted, she’s not the only one wearing it. She’s just wearing it the best. Anyway, she gets to drive a speeder with Luke as her passenger as they chase a couple of Stormtroopers through the forest. And she’s got skills! Luke eventually commandeers a speeder and drives himself, but Leia keeps up her pursuit until a shot knocks her off of her ride.
It’s cool though because then she gets to make friends with teddy bears!
Look, I’m not here to judge the Ewoks. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, that’s up to you. But I do think that Leia’s first contact with them, as frivolous as the scene may be in the larger context of the film, manages to show a new, softer side to the princess. When she first encounters Wicket she attempts to bond with this little guy, despite the fact that he’s got a spear in her face. She offers him food and reassures him that her helmet is, you know, just a helmet and not a weapon or a piece of her head that happens to be removable.
(“Look, it’s a hat!”)
She’s not a princess or a soldier at this moment; she’s just someone trying to make a new friend in the woods. A friend she can team up with to take out more Stormtroopers! Wicket distracts one long enough for Leia to slam him with a log, and then she uses her blaster to bring down a second one before he escapes on his speeder. And then Leia and Wicket traipse away, hand in paw. It’s almost painfully cute, but it’s also another moment of hardcore Leia badassery that exists in the absence of Luke, Han and the others—not to mention the fact that it lays the groundwork for some rather powerful, diminutive allies in the fight to come.
But action isn’t the only reason that Return of the Jedi is Peak Leia. There are a few emotional beats in the film that her character plays off to perfection. One is, naturally, the big reveal that she’s actually a Skywalker, Luke’s twin, and kinda Force-y in her own right. When Luke drops that bomb on her, she isn’t surprised. Her jaw doesn’t drop, she doesn’t ask a bunch of follow-up questions like “What? And also how?” Instead, she pauses, thinks about it, and with a calm expression says:
“I know. Somehow, I've always known.”
STONE. COLD. Her whole life is a lie, and she’s more or less unfazed. Then again, she watched her homeworld get blown up in front of her face so really, she might not have that many f*cks left to give about being Darth Vader’s daughter.
She does get emotional later in that conversation when Luke explains that he’s leaving to face their father. And when Han sees her in that state, he gets jealous — a reaction that pays off in the climax of the film, when Han offers to step aside and let Leia be with Luke if she wants.
That’s when she fills him in on the whole “he’s my brother” thing, which leads to this stunned reaction:
It’s safe to say that Leia took the news a bit more calmly than Han did. Then she kisses him, at which point he makes THIS face:
Leia may be deadly with chains, speeders, blasters, and very large sticks, but it turns out she’s also pretty dangerous with her lips. Remember how she confessed her love in Empire Strikes Back, and Han was all like, “I know?" Fine, that was funny. But this is the payoff. This is Leia lovingly claiming back that high ground while Han is flustered, trying to wrap his head around what is even going on anymore.
Honestly, even if you strip away the context, don’t you just admire a woman who can make a guy react that way to a kiss?
The Star Wars universe, especially in the original trilogy, didn’t give us much in the way of female characters. While it was easy to admire Princess Leia’s tenacity and courage, it was also hard not to wonder if that admiration was due in part because she was the only woman on screen. What Return of the Jedi pulled off was a fitting end to that trilogy which also ended up being Leia’s finest hour, paying off all the potential baked into that incredible character. It gave us Peak Leia, and for that, it’ll always have a place in our hearts.