After yesterday’s… diversion… I will in fact be writing a post about Star Wars. Rest assured that just as expected, I still think that The Empire Strikes Back is a fantastic movie, and it remains my favourite of the saga. Return of the Jedi and A New Hope have constantly jockeyed back and forth for the coveted second-place spot, and having now watched them back-to-back… I’d still have a hard time showing a strong preference for one over the other. I actually don’t hate the Ewoks, so they don’t automatically bring Jedi down to third place like they do for so many others.
But enough about that, it’s time to pivot over to something slightly different.
Something I’ve noticed while watching the prequel and original trilogies all in a row like this, is that the prequel trilogies lack one very specific thing that really helps to focus the narrative of the original trilogy: a good villain.
The original trilogy opens with Darth Vader, and follows him throughout. It’s just as much his story as it is any of the Rebel heroes’. You get to spend a lot of time with Vader, to learn about him, to see him in action in both lightsaber combat and a little bit of dogfighting, and to bear witness as to why exactly he’s a villain. There’s a lot of Darth Vader in these movies, and you really do become invested in him as a character!
As of The Empire Strikes Back, we also get introduced to Emperor Palpatine, who is revealed as the man pulling all the strings. As badass as Vader is, he’s still just a lapdog for this greater evil. But in reality, Palpatine is there more as an avenue for Darth Vader’s eventual redemption than he is to be a villain. We don’t really see him do anything except be a hologram and taunt Luke, and he’s got very little character besides “ultimate evil”. And I think that that is a good jumping off point for why all the villains in the prequel trilogy fall flat.
Starting with The Phantom Menace, we have… The Trade Federation, I guess. But when you’re looking at a group like this, with leaders that I don’t even know if their names are mentioned in this film, it’s hard to really care about them or what they’re doing. Also I have no idea what motivated their invasion of Naboo. Some sort of political disagreement? We know that a Darth Sidious is behind it all, but to what end, we’re never told. And (spoilers: it’s Palpatine) like in Empire, Sidious is just a talking head again. Issuing commands but we really never know who he is or what his motivation is, at least not until Revenge of the Sith. Finally, we have Darth Maul, who gets exactly three spoken lines and then gets chopped in half. He certainly looks like he could have been a cool bad guy, but he existed for literally no purpose other than to facilitate lightsaber combat.
In Attack of the Clones, our first enemy is Jango Fett, who admittedly seems pretty important. But all of his most important actions are done by proxy or are off-screen, having hired a sub-assassin to take out Padme, and having been the genetic basis for the clone army. So really, we could have just had that shapeshifter be the one who was working directly for Palpatine, and it really didn’t matter who the clone army is made of. Could have been anyone since the Geonosians did so much genetic tampering with them anyway. And then Jango gets killed. Barely more important than Darth Maul.
We also see that the Trade Federation’s little coup has grown into a much bigger Separatist movement, who want to break away from the Senate because it’s becoming corrupt. Okay, I get that. But why, exactly? They’re still not really interesting villains, until very late in the film where we are introduced to Count Dooku. And he seems like, okay, this dude is a really powerful Sith who’s got some backstory and actual character, he’s definitely going to be the Darth Vader of Revenge of the Sith. We’re going to learn about his relationship with Qui-Gon and why he turned to the Dark Side, and it’s going to be great.
Except no, because Dooku gets bodied and executed right off the bat in the third film. Then we see General Grievous escape an exploding starship, after being introduced as a successful Jedi hunter with a bad smoker’s cough. But then Obi-Wan tracks him down and puts him down with one well-placed blaster shot. Dude seriously had a gigantic, plusating weak spot in the center of his chest. And so the potential of General Grievous is lost.
I think that Revenge of the Sith sort of gets a pass, though, because it does have a compelling villain: Anakin Skywalker. Getting to actually watch a hero break and become the bad guy is pretty darn rare in my experience, and it’s a rough story to watch, even though we were all well aware of what had to happen. We also get the full reveal of Palpatine as Darth Sidious about halfway in. And only at this point, when you can trace back how he orchestrated all of the events in these three films, do you really get a solid idea of what a cunning supervillain he is. Though he does end up begging for his life at one point, so that kind of walks it back a bit.
My thesis here probably isn’t the strongest or most comprehensible, but that’s because I’m mostly just ad-libbing this. What it comes down to is that you don’t have a solid bad guy to root against throughout the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and I think that’s one of the things that really drags them down. Solid villains are just as important as relatable heroes, and these movies opt to just keep rotating out cool-looking bad guys instead of constructing a single, more defined antagonist. Keep in mind, of course, that this is only considering the prequel trilogy of movies. I know that all of the characters mentioned get vastly more characterization in other Star Wars media, but that’s cheating. The characters should have been written to be properly developed in these movies, not cartoons than came years later.
It could be that I’m totally out to lunch on this one, but I wanted to write something at least a little bit more thoughtful for at least one of these nine entries, and that’s what I landed on.