Part 3: What the Prequels are All About
Let’s look again at The Empire Strikes Back.
Fans love Empire because it’s “dark.” But it’s really only dark in the final act – when Han gets captured, and Luke gets his hand cut off and needs to be rescued. And by the end of the movie, Luke has a new hand, Lando and Chewie are confident that they can find Han, and everyone is smiling and looking forward to the future.
Whereas at the end of Episode III, tyranny has won and every major character is dead, disfigured, or hiding in exile. So why do people find the darkness of Empire more satisfying than the darkness of Revenge of the Sith?
The answer, I think, is that in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is a victim. It’s not his fault that his father is Darth Vader, or that Obi-wan lied to him, or that the Empire rules the galaxy. This fits the worldview of Generation X, who have long been content to blame all of their misfortunes on their parents, the government, or society in general.
In Revenge of the Sith, everything bad that happens is Anakin’s fault. He is responsible for the terrible things that happen. True, Palpatine instigated his turn to the dark side, but the point is that Anakin could have resisted, but didn’t. Perhaps a story in which the protagonist is responsible for his own fate is less palatable to some viewers than a story in which the protagonist can more easily blame external forces for his suffering.
To me, Star Wars was always a story about accomplishment. Whether you look at the fictional story of Luke leaving Tatooine and becoming a Jedi, or the real-life story of Lucas managing to get the Star Wars movies developed and made, Star Wars represented success and achievement as being possible.
What makes the prequel story poignant, for me, is that the opposite happens. Anakin is a child prodigy who loses his way in adulthood, and loses faith in the values with which he was raised. All the protagonists’ goals prove elusive, and every decision they make only seems to make things worse in the long run.
Based on all the online vitriol, I would guess that much of Star Wars’ Generation-X fan base has some kind of inferiority complex, and can only identify with underdogs and low achievers. Whatever points Lucas might have been trying to make in these movies about moral responsibility, all the fanboys noticed was that the Empire represented authority and that the Rebels were opposing that authority. By contrast, the prequel films are about characters who have authority and power, and are struggling to figure out the right ways to use that power.
Most criticisms of the Star Wars prequels boil down to the fact that these films are in some way different from one’s memories of childhood. The tragic irony is that this misses the entire point of the story. Anakin’s inability to accept change or loss, and his desire to control things that are beyond his control, are signs of his immaturity, and these faults are what allow the galaxy to become a hellhole in the first place.
I’m tempted to wrap things up on that note. But doing so would leave the three most common knee-jerk, Episode I-centric complaints unanswered. So let’s deal with the taxes, the midichlorians, and Jar Jar Binks, in that order.
Find out next week as we explore more about What the Prequels Are About….