There’s a peculiar wisdom in George Lucas’s direction of the Star Wars prequels. It’s memorialized in the very first seconds of the very first trailer for The Phantom Menace: “Every generation has a legend.”
Lucas made many mistakes directing the prequels. There’s the uncanny writing, the flat characterizations, the iffy performances, the soapy tone, the absent-minded retcons. But Lucas was basically right to make The Phantom Menace a kids’ movie, as goofy as it is. He was right to pitch Star Wars to a new generation, on new terms, rather than rededicating himself to the old style. The sequels, in contrast, tried to have it both ways. They’re nostalgic to a fault. The Force Awakens unveils yet another fleet of Space Nazis launching yet another Death Star. Disney rehired the old cast to further perpetuate the so-called Skywalker saga. But then the sequels are also weirdly careless with the canon. The Force Awakens is a sequel to Return of the Jedi that barely bothers to reconcile itself with the major events—chiefly the Rebel victory over the Empire—of the movie it’s succeeding. The Last Jedi turns Luke Skywalker into a sock puppet for half-baked subversive metacommentary that never really sounds like it should be coming from him of all people. The Rise of Skywalker revives Emperor Palpatine out of nowhere.
The result of these tensions was a trilogy with an ambiguous generational claim. It was too regressive to mark a fresh start with a new cohort, but too fast and loose to satisfy the fans of the originals or even the prequels.
This week, Disney aired the sixth and final episode of its Star Wars miniseries Obi-Wan Kenobi, starring Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen, both reprising their respective roles as Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. The miniseries tracks Obi-Wan in the early days of his exile on Tatooine as his former apprentice, Anakin, now known as Darth Vader, hunts the last several Jedi to survive Emperor Palpatine’s extermination order. Obi-Wan, lured out of hiding by senator Bail Organa, leaves Tatooine to rescue a young Princess Leia from bounty hunters and, later, the Empire. Inevitably, Obi-Wan confronts Vader and duels him to yet another wasted victory. The miniseries ends with Obi-Wan retreating once again to Tatooine and becoming the desert drifter, Ben Kenobi, watching over Anakin’s son until his call to heroism in A New Hope.
Obi-Wan Kenobi set out to reconcile two styles of Star Wars, two generations of fandom once hopelessly at odds. Disney also produced Solo and Rogue One as spinoff preludes to A New Hope. But Obi-Wan Kenobi is so pointedly determined to deepen the kinship between the original trilogy and the prequels. And so Obi-Wan Kenobi is rather conspicuously isolated from the events and characters of the sequel trilogy Disney spent four years and nearly a billion dollars producing. So is The Mandalorian. So is The Book of Boba Fett. So, reportedly, is the forthcoming Andor. Where does Obi-Wan leave us? Back once again at the setup for A New Hope—watching Obi-Wan Kenobi slip into obscurity, anticipating the rise of Luke—where Lucas also left us 17 years ago with Revenge of the Sith. Now every generation is stuck here.
There are a couple competing theories about Star Wars, George Lucas, and the prequels. Supposedly, Lucas misunderstood his own creation. The original first film, A New Hope, wasn’t a work of his own genius but rather a miraculous salvage mission led by his editor, Paul Hirsch, and Lucas’s wife, Marcia, in post-production; others largely wrote and directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But Lucas assumed total creative control over the prequels—The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith—and thus revealed his weaknesses as a writer and director. Lucas spent six years and a combined $343 million serializing the worst love story ever told with (admittedly) the best computer graphics since Jurassic Park. He turned the space opera into a soap opera. He ruined Star Wars, so they say. Lucas selling the franchise to Disney 10 years ago put the fan base out of its misery. This is the common view among the younger boomers and Gen Xers who grew up watching the original trilogy and only encountered the prequels in their 20s at the earliest. This cohort holds the prequels in contempt.
But these movies have a better reputation among younger viewers who first encountered the original trilogy and the prequels around the same time. They may or may not have enjoyed Star Wars before The Phantom Menace but, in any case, their biases toward the original trilogy were a bit weaker. The peculiarities and shortcomings in the prequels weren’t lost on them but they weren’t deal-breakers; they weren’t sacrilege. Personally, I grew up watching the earliest Special Edition box set for VHS and reading Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy for a few years before the release of The Phantom Menace. I, too, watched the prequels in bemusement. Why is the Force, once a spiritual concept, now a hard-coded genetic concern in these movies? Why is the love story of Anakin and Padmé so treacly and absurd? Why would Lucas cast Samuel L. Jackson of all people to play a chastened monk? Why is the Jedi Council so helpless against Palpatine? Why does Anakin, an attendant to the elite leadership of the Galactic Republic, not think to emancipate his mother from slavery on his home planet until several years into his Jedi training? Why, Jar Jar, why?! So many questions. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t—don’t—enjoy the prequels on some perverse level. I’ve revisited these movies a dozen times each. Such is the power of nostalgia and hate-watching. Such is the pull of the prequels among millennials and Zoomers. This cohort cherishes these movies despite themselves.
The older fandom teased its objections to the prequels in its earlier complaints about those cutesy little Ewoks, designed to amuse children, in Return of the Jedi. The Phantom Menace, starring Jake Lloyd at age 10, was a childish romp with a cartoon humanoid rabbit playing comic relief and featured a three-pronged slapstick assault on the Trade Federation. The Battle of Yavin, this was not. The later two prequels would outgrow The Phantom Menace with more “mature” angst and violence: Anakin slaughtering Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan dismembering his apprentice with a lightsaber and leaving his torso to burn by a river of lava in Revenge of the Sith. But The Phantom Menace was, despite its palace intrigue about intergalactic tariffs and legislative procedures, a kids’ movie. Hence Jar-Jar Binks falling headfirst into a long fart gag at the pivotal podrace. Yet the childishness in The Phantom Menace gave the prequels, and the fan base, room to grow. It’s a real shock when Darth Maul, in this kids’ movie, impales Qui-Gon Jinn in the chest with his lightsaber during the climax. The kids watching this kids’ movie would grow up alongside these characters and watch even darker developments in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
The rest is relatively recent history. Disney buys Lucasfilm and produces the sequel trilogy with J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi) taking turns to direct. This trilogy starts strong enough but then turns to disaster. Abrams and Johnson aren’t on the same page in the later two movies, and the fan base fractures over their respective approaches to canon and characterization. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in particular, split the fandom into culture war camps. The discourse about these movies grew inhospitable. The actors moved on. Lucasfilm turned to television spinoffs, now culminating with Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Rise of Skywalker was a dead end for the movies. These days, it’s hard to find fans who would praise or defend the sequel trilogy in its entirety. Of course, the long-term reputation of these movies is yet unsettled. For all we know, viewers born in 2013 and later will grow up and develop nostalgia for Poe Dameron explaining, in The Rise of Skywalker, “Somehow, Palpatine returned.”
The mainline series isn’t the whole story. Every generation has its redeeming spinoffs. The prequel generation also had Clone Wars and Rebels. The sequel generation also has Rogue One and The Mandalorian. It’s weirdly possible to enjoy Star Wars while largely resenting the direction of the mainline series. But Obi-Wan Kenobi underscored the limits of its own mythology. Here, Disney rehabilitates the prequels while still generally overlooking the more youthful qualities that earned the prequels so much nostalgia in the first place. It’s too little, too late to pander to fans who appreciated The Phantom Menace. Star Wars needs new kids. Yes, Star Wars is, in all forms, a series best suited to children, regardless of the vanishing distinction between kids’ movies and adult dramas at the box office in general. But The Force Awakens wasn’t a kids’ movie in the same sense that The Phantom Menace clearly was; and Obi-Wan Kenobi is an epilogue written for a generation now largely in its 30s.
While Disney still makes proper kids’ movies in its animation studios, Star Wars and Marvel are rather successfully pitched as brands for all ages. That’s working well enough for Marvel. But how’s Star Wars doing at the movies these days? It’s still very, very profitable. But creatively, Star Wars is stunted by the all-ages approach. Disney, weirdly enough, can’t make a decent kids’ movie these days; at least not in this cinematic universe. But the answer’s always been staring us in the face. Every generation has a legend. There’s even a trace of this wisdom in the otherwise misguided meta-babbling of various characters in The Last Jedi. Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.