You Underestimate Their Power: The Definitive Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
By: Eli Lo Re
I was born in 1993, and started obsessively watching the original Star Wars movies when I was three years old. I saw all of the prequels in theatres, and loved each of them when they came out. A lot of millennials in my age group had the same experience at the time. However, time has a way of obscuring nuance, exacerbated by social media groupthink and the illusory truth effect. Despite their commercial success, the prequel trilogy received mixed reviews from critics, and over time a consensus seemingly emerged that this trilogy was a failure. At best it was considered a disappointment, and at worst, a laughingstock. From the time shortly after their release until the Disney acquisition and beyond, the Star Wars prequels were considered the awkward step-children of the Star Wars universe. When I debated the merits of the prequels against its critics, many would just make a blanket statement that they were completely terrible and had no redemptive qualities. When prodded, more charitable critics would at least concede that Revenge of the Sith had some merit, and that the Duel of Fates was cool.
In recent years, the prequels have experienced a modest renaissance (a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one). In an internet culture that values campiness and irony, their quotes have become a viral sensation, with meme groups like r/prequelmemes attracting more viewers than the Boonta Eve Classic. Furthermore, the mixed reaction to the new Disney trilogy has reminded everyone just how difficult it is to make Star Wars movies that consistently please a rabid, near-religious fan base. While meme culture and the Disney comparison has made the heart grow fonder for some, the overall tone of Star Wars discourse still does a disservice to the prequel trilogy. The prequels are legitimately good enough to stand on their own merits, and should be recognized for what they are: critical parts of the Star Wars lore that completed arguably one of the most compelling narrative arcs in popular cinema.
I can happily sit here and keep waxing poetic about the merits of the prequels. Seriously, I could do it all day. But that isn’t going to convince hardcore fans of the original trilogy. It’s always fun to preach to the converted, and I love a good echo chamber as much as anyone. But in order to convince hard-hearted cynics who have not seen yet seen the light, I have to speak their language. So I compiled a list of the most frequent complaints that prequel-haters have, and ‘interviewed’ my favourite Star Wars cynics to get their take on what exactly makes the prequels so (bom)bad. Although it would probably help, I won’t be relying on the rich Star Wars lore or the outstanding Clone Wars animated series to do any of the heavy lifting for me. This is simply a straightforward, unabashed defense of the three movies themselves. So let’s dive into our critic’s complaints, and see what we are left with in the end. This is where the fun begins.
Let’s start by getting the Gungan in the room out of the way. Jar Jar Binks put the prequel trilogy in big doodoo right from the start, and was an easy figurehead for fan ire. Jar Jar is very deservedly on the Mount Rushmore of worst movie characters of all time. There is no denying that his character’s conception and execution were both fatally flawed, and that his prominence in the Phantom Menace significantly detracted from that movie. But Jar Jar’s role in the prequels writ large is far less prominent than the way it’s portrayed in pop culture. In the Phantom Menace, Jar Jar gets a highly excessive 17 minutes of screen time. However, this still puts him well behind the four true leads in the film (Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively), and under half of Qui-Gon’s screen time. Let me be clear: this is still far too much attention for a character who, at best, provides only mild comic relief while dumbing down the film. Realizing the error of their ways, LucasFilm dramatically corrected course in the next two films, slashing Jar Jar’s screen time to a little over two minutes in Attack of the Clones, and a mere 15 seconds in Revenge of the Sith.
Jar Jar is an irritating character that probably shouldn’t have existed to begin with. But he is a sideshow to the real debate about the prequels. To condemn an entire trilogy of movies for 20 combined minutes is not giving the prequels a fair shake. By that logic, the entire original trilogy could be condemned for giving the Ewoks as much attention as they did (although I recognize they aren’t on the same scale of irritation), or the entire sequel trilogy could be dismissed solely for the atrocious Canto Bight subplot. With that out of the way, meesa propose that we move onto the real issues.
Some variation of this complaint consistently came up among the critics I talked to. You can see where they are coming from on this – there are significant differences in tone and appearance between the prequels and the original movies. The original trilogy had a far grittier feel, with brutalist aesthetics and blunt, antiquated looking technology to match the feel of a monolithic, homogenous Empire against a rag-tag group of overmatched Rebels.
By comparison, at first glance the prequel visuals can seem jarringly sleek and vibrant by comparison. One critic I spoke to put it this way: “There is a ton more world building, new planets, factions, alien races and such, [which] gives [the prequels] this sort of ‘high fantasy’ feel that’s way less accessible than the originals.”
Clearly, there are significant tonal and visual differences between the two trilogies. If the prequels were trying to replicate the original trilogy, and were trying to convey the same feeling, then they would have undoubtedly failed in their execution.
However, the criticism misses the mark because the prequels were reflective of a different time in the Star Wars galaxy, and were purposefully not trying to emulate the original trilogy, in order to depict an entirely different era. Just as the grittier visuals in the original trilogy match its setting, so too do the glossier visuals in the prequel trilogy. This was not the Empire-dominated Star Wars galaxy, with subdued monochrome visuals to match its xenophobic government staffed by bland white humans in stiff uniforms. The prequels portrayed a far different era, the last decade of the Republic in the waning years of its gilded age. When Obi-Wan wistfully reminisces in A New Hope about the Jedi keeping the peace for thousands of generations, this was the very end of that time he was speaking about. There was indeed more world building, more alien races, more bright and vibrant planets. But there should be, because it is reflective of the time period the prequels are portraying. All kinds of diverse, vibrant aliens occupy seats in the Senate and the Jedi Council, or frequent deathstick-filled bars, or attend Mon Calamari operas, because that is how life would be under a democratic regime in a cosmopolitan planet.
Sleek technology and previously unseen weapons of war were deployed in epic battles across dozens of star systems, because there were separate factions that each possessed the means to develop and harness the newest technologies of the day for large scale war. By comparison, in the original trilogy the Empire possessed a near-monopoly on violence, and their arsenal reflected their sensibilities, while the Rebel Alliance’s scrappy fighters and guerilla tactics were reflected in the modest, outdated weapons and technology they possessed. It paints a narrow and incomplete picture of the Star Wars galaxy and history, to simply brand anything that deviates from the specific context of the Empire-dominated years in the Star Wars universe as ‘not Star Wars’. As then-Chancellor Palpatine himself once said: “If one is to understand the great mystery, one must embrace all of its aspects, not just [a] narrow, dogmatic view...” And following his advice has never steered anyone wrong.
It is impossible to talk about the look and feel of the prequels without noting their use of special effects. Admittedly, this is where the critics have a stronger point. One remarked that “there are some fantastic sequences visually (duel of fates, podracing) but there are some plastic-y looking CGI battle sequences. While they were pioneering stuff they relied too heavily on doing it in post-[production].” There’s no denying that some of the visual effects haven’t aged particularly well – watching Attack of the Clones recently for example, I was struck by how cartoonish Jango Fett’s seismic charges looked in his dogfight with Obi-Wan. However, overall this point is often exaggerated. The Phantom Menace employs effects largely similar to those in the original films, and does not rely heavily on special effects. Attack of the Clones definitely goes a little overboard in the Geonosis battle, the chase scene in Coruscant, and a few other scenes. But by the time you get to Revenge of the Sith, the CGI is downright impressive, and holds up better than critics like to admit. From the initial eye-popping space-battle to the final duel on Mustafar, Revenge of the Sith makes liberal use of significantly improved special effects without overdoing it. While the trilogy, and particularly Attack of the Clones, makes no secret of its enthusiasm for special effects (can I interest anyone in a CGI pear?), and isolated scenes may age poorly in hindsight, it does far less to detract from the overall experience than critics would have you believe.
We’ll lump these two common complaints in together, as they pretty much go hand in hand. As one of my critic friends says “…because the acting is so awful, we don’t care about the characters or what happens to them. There are so many moments from the prequel trilogy that could’ve been powerful story moments that are utterly ruined by poor dialogue/direction.”
Prequel critics have a tendency to generalize and say that the acting was universally bad throughout the trilogy. But any fair-minded critic starts to make concessions pretty quickly when pressed. Ewan McGregor was universally praised for his performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi, alternating seamlessly between playing the role with gravity and dry humour that fans would expect from a younger Obi-Wan struggling to rein in his friend and protégé. Liam Neeson was phenomenal as Qui-Gon Jinn. Samuel L. Jackson was deployed very successfully as Mace Windu. Ian McDiarmid was excellent throughout, and particularly in Revenge of the Sith, for his menacing, subtle portrayal of Palpatine influencing an impressionable Anakin Skywalker. Anthony Daniels is the same old C-3PO, and Frank Oz is great as always with Yoda. When the sweeping claim about acting is actually dissected, we’re left with complaints about only two roles: Natalie Portman as Padme Amidala, and Jake Lloyd/Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker.
Natalie Portman gets significantly less criticism than her male counterparts, and she doesn’t really deserve much. Judging from the rest of her career, she is clearly a very successful and capable actress, and she does a decent job as Padme, showing an independent streak and knack for diplomacy that her daughter would pick up in the original movies. While she is stuck delivering some cringey lines, this is much more a reflection of some poorly written dialogue than her own acting, as we will talk more about.
Jake Lloyd also gets stuck with a meme-able line or two (“now THIS is podracing!”), but overall does a fine job playing a ten-year-old Anakin Skywalker. His performance particularly when he is leaving his mother behind on Tatooine hits the right notes, and shows real emotion.
The criticisms of Hayden Christensen’s acting are, quite frankly, completely wrong. People like to hone in on the admittedly stilted delivery of the infamous Naboo love scenes (as if that dialogue could possibly be delivered well). But overall he did a great job at portraying the raw emotion that a young Anakin Skywalker would have. The quick turn from intense grief to furious anger when his mother is killed by the Tuskan Raiders was delivered perfectly and foreshadowed the path of his eventual fall to the dark side. His building internal conflict and ultimate transition to Darth Vader was similarly well executed. Christensen and McGregor have great chemistry throughout the trilogy, whether tensely navigating their master/apprentice relationship, bantering and fighting alongside one another in classic Star Wars fashion, or having an emotional standoff before their final confrontation. Christensen had a far more difficult task than his leading Skywalker counterpart, Mark Hamill, and had to navigate a much more complex character with more significant emotional baggage. By and large, he did it successfully. It is time to let old things die and that includes tired potshots at Christensen’s acting performance. Judging from his glowing reception at a recent Star Wars celebration, many fans have grown to appreciate his performance more over time, and prequel critics should follow suit.
On the dialogue, the critics have a stronger argument. The memes alone are enough evidence that there is no shortage of campy dialogue in the prequels. But that is a feature of all Star Wars movies, not a bug. Every scruffy-looking-nerf-herder around knows that even the best Star Wars isn’t exactly Shakespeare, and there is plenty of corny banter along the way to loftier scenes in the series. Attack of the Clones has the dubious distinction of being the only Star Wars movie to feature extended romantic scenes, and it is almost trite to talk about how cringe-worthy those are. But those are the only scenes that are truly hampered by consistently poor dialogue. As a writer, George Lucas definitely has a tendency to say the quiet part loud (“Anakin, you’re breaking my heart!”) and gets in the way of his own actors. But overall, when you strip away the handful of awkward romance scenes in Attack of the Clones, the dialogue isn’t much cornier than any other Star Wars movie.
Certainly for the Phantom Menace, this was a common criticism. One of my critics complained that “the prequels are full of convoluted plot lines…”. The Phantom Menace did not do itself any favours with the decidedly unsexy opening to the front crawl: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” The political aspects of the movie were memorably spoofed in the Simpsons, and it is a commonly held opinion that George Lucas got too caught up in politics during the prequels.
However, the political parts of the Phantom Menace are arguably its most consequential outside of the discovery of Anakin. While Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith deal with massive, galaxy-altering conflicts, the Phantom Menace seems modest and small-scale by comparison. But the political scenes on Coruscant provide the raison d’etre for the Battle of Naboo as the focal point for beginning the prequels. Then-Senator Palpatine of Naboo manufactures a military takeover of his own planet from behind the scenes as Darth Sidious. Once Naboo falls, he uses the crisis to manipulate the Queen of Naboo to defeat Chancellor Valorum, and rapidly succeeds in becoming Chancellor himself, which he credits in part to a sympathy vote for the situation in his home planet. As we will discuss more, the prequel trilogy is about Anakin’s rise and fall, but is also about Palpatine’s rise to power and uncanny ability to manipulate everyone from behind the scenes. While the political scenes in the Phantom Menace definitely add to the movie’s weird pacing (an apparent tradition for each inaugural trilogy film), they are crucial to understanding the importance of an otherwise trivial conflict that sets everything else in motion.
Once the groundwork is set from the Phantom Menace, the other two films are not highly political or difficult to grasp - the primary conflict between the Republic and the separatists is very straightforward. But the films still show enough maneuvering by Palpatine behind the scenes to give context to the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
The critics I spoke to had a lot to say about the prequel villains. One said “All of the interestingly written villains besides Palpatine are barely explored. They’re only cool in our memories [be]cause we’ve expanded the lore. Dooku and Maul both get really minimal screen time and very little about their motivations is actually explored...which is a shame because they are fantastic characters.” Another echoed that sentiment: “for most of ep[isodes] I and II, and even III, they’re just throwing new random villains at you with no real motive.”
It’s easy to see where they are coming from on this - in the span of three movies, Darth Maul, Count Dooku, and General Grievous, each came and went after stints of masquerading as the primary villain, and that doesn’t even account for peripheral antagonists such as Nute Gunray and Jango Fett. Right off the bat, personally I would concede that General Grievous probably didn’t need to exist - he was an adequate stand-in villain, but it is true that we don’t know much about his motivations in the prequel films. His role in Revenge of the Sith was unoffensive and gave us some memorable Obi-Wan moments, but did not especially stand out. He is the type of under-explored, “random” villain that our critics are talking about.
It is odd though, that this narrative has taken root almost exclusively with the prequel films. Star Wars has a long and proud history of introducing shallow, aesthetically pleasing villains with little-known motivations that are killed off too quickly (See: Boba Fett, Captain Phasma, General Hux, Supreme Leader Snoke, the Knights of Ren).
In contrast, Darth Maul and Count Dooku are genuinely interesting characters, and we do know enough about their motivations and see them in action enough to appreciate that they are formidable foes. Darth Maul is one of the most memorable and iconic villains in Star Wars history. A true Sith carefully groomed to exact vengeance on the Jedi, Maul is a sinister (dare I say, menacing?) presence throughout the Phantom Menace and is legendary in combat. Count Dooku is a similarly formidable combatant, dispatching easily with Obi-Wan and Anakin in Attack of the Clones, and holding his own against Yoda himself. Count Dooku has a lengthy scene with Obi-Wan discussing his own motivations, and a personal connection to the protagonists through his mentorship of Qui-Gon Jinn. A once-prolific Jedi who turned to the dark side as a means of destroying a corrupt Republic, Dooku suffers from a textbook case of noble cause corruption as he becomes an unwitting pawn in Palpatine’s machinations. And this takes us to one of the strongest aspects of the prequels.
Complaining that random villains are under-developed ignores the brilliance of the overarching prequel story. A new viewer is drawn into these villains as they come, all while the greatest enemy, Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious is lurking in the shadows, meticulously pulling the strings. “The one thing they really did right was Palpatine”, one of our critics concedes. As I have mentioned, and will continue to mention, the prequels are, at their core, about Anakin Skywalker. But the prequel trilogy also shows the greatest Star Wars villain, the ultimate, unambiguously evil enemy in each trilogy, at his absolute best. And for all the missives about one-dimensional villains from our critics, the prequels are the only entries in the series showing Palpatine’s capacity for nuance and subtlety, that is completely lacking in the other films.
Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous, and even the hapless Nute Gunray are all under Darth Sidious’s influence, as he uses them to suit his ends and sow conflict, then disposes of them when necessary. On the other side of the coin, as Senator Palpatine rises to power through manufacturing a conflict in the Phantom Menace. Not content with being a mere Chancellor, he then creates an entire galactic civil war in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as a means of attaining increasingly more power, before ultimately leveraging the crisis to become the perpetually cackling Emperor with unlimited power that we all know and love to hate. Between controlling both sides of a war that he created, Palpatine still finds the time to masterfully manipulate Anakin’s deeply rooted fear of loss and turn him against the Jedi, in a series of tension-building scenes that even most critics concede are well done. Even if you believe that every other prequel villain was exactly what the critics said they are - shallow, under utilized, killed off too abruptly - they are necessarily a distraction for the larger evil lying in wait.
One critic put it this way: “The prequels made it really hard to root for the Jedi Order, everything they do sucks.” This take is not universally shared among our prequel critics, but I have definitely heard people say it before, and there are plenty of “The Empire Did Nothing Wrong” truthers in the Star Wars nerdosphere. So I’ll try to speak their language.
The Jedi can come across as harshly dogmatic, intolerant of dissent, and too prideful to see their inevitable demise coming. But that is part of what makes the prequel trilogy so compelling. Anakin, like all Skywalkers, is a fundamentally good person, but one capable of making terrible mistakes. His fall would make no sense if the Jedi were nothing but flawless, accommodating, and compassionate towards him. The Jedi treated Anakin warily since he first came before them as a small child, and they never fully relaxed that treatment. And despite their apparent rigidity, the Jedi put themselves in potentially compromising positions and dealt in moral grey areas. They rationalized becoming warriors in order to try and keep the larger peace. They contemplated temporarily ruling the Republic if they had to overthrow Palpatine. And they offered no solution to Anakin’s fear of loss, beyond empty platitudes about letting go of attachment.
The Jedi mean well and clearly intend to do good, so it is genuinely tragic to watch their sudden demise. But their imperfections soften and give context to how a good person can fall. They also give important context to Yoda’s behavior in the original trilogy. Yoda oversaw the decay of the Jedi order and watched it crumble before his eyes because he was too clouded to see what was right in front of him, and too distracted by the Jedi’s war on separatism. When Yoda reprimands Luke in Empire Strikes Back about failing to see what is right in front of him, he is speaking from experience. When he warns Luke not to underestimate the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, he is warning him not to make the same mistake that he did.
We have saved the most important and most misunderstood part for last. There are a couple of different angles to what I broadly call ‘The Anakin Problem’ that critics have. One critic did not pull any punches, saying: “its main character, since the prequels are about how Vader became Vader, is a whiny bitch.” I’ve heard a lot of variations on this theme before - how did this petulant, angsty teenager become Darth Vader? I am always surprised by this argument, because it ignores the obvious answer: that Anakin Skywalker is, well, a Skywalker.
The Skywalkers are a powerful family with strong instincts to do good and make a difference. But they are also, to a man (yes, specifically men), self-pitying, hyper-reactive, and arrogant. The Disney trilogy’s newest addition to the clan, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, constantly throws temper tantrums and sulks about his father issues throughout the trilogy. Luke Skywalker spends the first chunk of A New Hope complaining about how life is so unfair and how he is stuck on a Tatooine moisture farm, memorably whining that he can’t so much as go to the Taschi Station to pick up power converters. He blindly asserts that he is a better pilot than Han Solo shortly after they meet, he equates an important military battle to his experience shooting womp rats, and he sullenly lectures Han about not believing in the force, a thing that he just learned about earlier that day. During his training with Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, he continually fails to stay focused, whines that Yoda “asks the impossible” from him, and rashly leaves Dagobah to confront Vader. When you remember this behaviour, and remember that Luke is Anakin’s son, a lot of Anakin’s actions make a lot more sense.
Anakin is similarly petulant and over confident - in Attack of the Clones, he rants to Padme about how unfairly Obi-Wan treats him and asserts that he is ahead of him in a lot of ways. He foolishly charges at Count Dooku after ignoring his master’s instructions. Him and Padme attempt an ill-advised rescue of Obi-Wan. Of all the arguments that prequel critics have, the notion that Anakin somehow fails to fit the mold of how he should be is one of the more dubious ones. He is a Skywalker, through and through. Anakin’s emotional unbalance is much more understandable than Luke’s in many respects, because his life was more difficult. Anakin was born a slave, separated from his mother at an impactful age, trained by a reluctant mentor who treated him inconsistently, and lived his life in the confines of an order that sought to contain him, led by a council that did not trust him. Anakin watched his mother die and had premonitions about the same thing happening to his wife, all while trying to live up to the weighty prophecy that he would bring balance to the force. Anakin’s displays of Skywalker angst and his eventual fall to the dark side, viewed through this prism, make a lot of sense.
Another big issue that critics have with Anakin and the prequels at large, is this idea that the original trilogy was already perfect, and did not need to be messed with. Respectfully, I think these critics fundamentally misunderstand what the narrative arc of the Star Wars movies is about. The story is at its core, about the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, seen through the lens of different members of the Skywalker family. In a revealing interview with Rolling Stone, George Lucas says: “I made a series of movies that was about one thing: Darth Vader. Originally, people thought it was all about Luke. The early films are about Luke redeeming his father, so Luke’s the focus. But it’s also about Princess Leia and her struggle to reestablish the Republic, which is what her mother was doing. So it’s really about mothers and daughters and fathers and sons.”
To properly capture the whole story of Anakin, the story of the Skywalker family, it is not enough to just have a father and a son, a newly discovered daughter, and an unknown mother, as it was in the original trilogy. The story of Anakin’s rise as a Jedi, meeting his wife, his fall to the dark side - all of that needed to be told, whether or not you think it was executed well.
I am not arguing it was executed perfectly, and have conceded a number of flaws with the prequels. But the prequels having existed, and having told Anakin’s story in the way that it did, lends so much more emotional weight and significance to the original films, and particularly Return of the Jedi. If we are being honest, Return of the Jedi is a fun but deeply flawed movie on the whole. The pacing is off, a disgruntled Harrison Ford phones in his purposeless Han Solo performance, and the Ewoks run a lot of the show. But the core of the movie, the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor, is space opera drama at its finest, especially when supported by the context the viewer gains from the prequels. The similarities between Luke in Return of the Jedi and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith are jarring. Both wear black, deploy unnecessary force chokes, and warn their enemies not to underestimate their power. Luke channels his aggression when dueling Vader and drives his defensive opponent farther and farther back, as Anakin once did to Obi-Wan. Just as Anakin fell to the dark side, you can see the possibility of Luke making the same mistake.
In the scene where Luke is initially captured by the Empire, he implores Vader to turn to the light. When Vader says “Obi-Wan once thought as you did”, we now have the context of the bond that Anakin and Obi-Wan used to share. When Vader says “it is too late for me, son”, the note of regret that we can detect in his voice carries more meaning. As Luke is being taken to the Emperor on Vader’s orders, he takes a parting shot at his father saying “Then my father is truly dead”, and Vader leans over the railing and appears lost in thought. Having seen the prequels, the viewer now can vividly imagine all of the conflict that must be raging in his head behind the mask, whether he is thinking of his son, his wife, or any of the other regrets he carries with him.
In the final moments before Vader’s redemption, he has watched his son overcome the dark side and cast aside his anger, only to be mercilessly attacked by Emperor Palpatine’s Sith lightning. Having seen the prequels, we’ve seen a similar version of this play out, with Palpatine shooting the same lightning at Mace Windu while Anakin looks on, right before his turn to the dark side. The shots of Anakin and Vader during their respective fall and redemption, each looking at the lightning-struck conflict in front of them, are almost mirror images. This time Vader, becoming Anakin once again, makes the right decision and intervenes in favour of the Jedi, against Palpatine, and completes his redemptive arc.
When Anakin dies, he is able to transcend the living force and reappear as a force ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi. And this edit to the original trilogy makes complete sense - whether or not you liked the prequels or Hayden Christensen, Anakin as he lived is how a redeemed force ghost should appear, rather than a projection of what an older Anakin might have looked like in an alternate world where he did not turn to the dark side and get disfigured.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is one of the most compelling and complex characters in popular cinema. From slave, to apprentice, to Jedi, to husband, to father, to Sith, to machine, to monster, to hero, we get to see his entire arc unfold, and the prequels give the character crucial context that gives his eventual redemption even more emotional payoff.
5000 words or so later, we have addressed every substantial complaint that my critics raised. Again, the prequel movies are not perfect. Far from it. And many of the points they raised have at least some merit. But here at the end, when the rhetoric is stripped away, what complaints are we left with? An irritating side character who only appears meaningfully in one movie. A couple of discrete scenes where CGI was overused. Some cringeworthy dialogue, especially the love scenes. Maybe an under-developed antagonist or two. But overall, far too little to justifiably condemn the prequel trilogy as some sort of embarrassment or major disappointment.
I can hear the argument now: “just because they aren’t a total embarrassment doesn’t mean they should be celebrated.” I have written this piece to defend the prequels from its critics, and that can come at the expense of actively extolling its virtues. I have barely mentioned The Phantom Menace’s Duel of Fates, probably the best lightsaber fight in the entire series. I haven’t discussed the outstanding music, featuring some of the most iconic scores in a series full of them. I haven’t talked about the emotional resonance of Order 66, the iconic birds-eye-view shot of Anakin storming the Jedi Temple, the superb noir-mystery style plot with Obi-Wan in Kamino, the gladiator arena on Geonosis, the podrace, the epic Obi-Wan/Anakin duel, Yoda versus Palpatine, the execution of Mace Windu, the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, the birth of Luke and Leia, and so much more. And I haven’t even mentioned that Revenge of the Sith largely received genuinely good reviews upon its release, and is about on par critically with Return of the Jedi.
The prequels have beautiful action sequences, introduce beloved new worlds and characters, give crucial context to familiar ones, and show the fall of Anakin Skywalker in a way that makes his eventual redemption resonate all that much more. It is time to let go of your hatred as Anakin did, prequel critics. It is time to bring balance to the series.*
*Disappointingly flat and disjointed Disney movies not included. That is an article for another day.