Sunday, May 24, 2009

Star Wars Character Coolness: Before & After

Ten years ago on May 19th, 1999, Star Wars again became part of our lives with the theatrical release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. That's right, the prequel trilogy is now officially retro.

In the decade since, Star Wars fans both casual and hardcore alike have been disgruntled by the treatment that these three films gave to beloved, timeless characters and storylines. I would say there's been strife and debate, but that wouldn't exactly be true - it's wide and essentially universal consensus that the prequel trilogy was a disappointment (although many including myself will argue that Revenge of the Sith was a substantial step up from the first two), flawed and easily overshadowed by contemporary genre fiction like The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, even the new Star Trek.

But as much as we may wish they did in light of midi-chlorians, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith don't exist in a vacuum, and by the nature of their existence color our perceptions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Both the mythology - when Obi-Wan discusses "the Clone Wars" in A New Hope, we now know he's talking about a Saturday morning cartoon - and perhaps even more so the characters.

It's not an opinion but simple fact that the original trilogy has many of the most iconic characters in the history of the cinematic medium, sixteen of whom by my count also make appearances in the prequel trilogy. So I'm going to examine these characters one at a time and analyze how the coolness of each character stands up in the original trilogy while taking their actions and characterization in the prequels into full account. They will be graded on an eleven-point scale of +5 to -5, with -5 being a character that seems profoundly stupider and less respectable in light of their origins, and +5 being a character who is substantially enriched and deepened. We will start with the de facto central character of the entire saga:

Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader

In the original trilogy, before: Baddest motherfucker in the galaxy, more machine now than man, twisted and evil. He compensates for his no-doubt burnt dick by wielding a badass red lightsaber, Force chokes his underlings like he just don't care, and busts out awesome lines like "The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet," and "Apology accepted, Captain Needa." Although he turns to good just before his death, few non-lamers would debate that he's one of the most imposing and iconic villains in all of film.

In the prequel trilogy: An adorably floppy-haired little boy who hits on a girl twice his age by asking if she's an angel (they live on the moons of Iego, I think). After the cringe-inducing revelation that he's the product of a virgin fucking birth, he accidently flies a starship and ends a war in a madcap comic routine that plays like a Charlie Chaplin-Star Wars crossover while shouting "WHOA! THIS IS TENSE!"

In the next two movies his brash, cocky, and entitled personality has nothing to do with the little boy from Episode I, which makes you wonder why he couldn't have just been the age Luke was in Episode IV from the beginning so they could have had one actor and a non-creepy love story with Padmé, but whatever. He stalks and seduces Padmé, whines and cries about Obi-Wan not respecting him, and finally goes evil and becomes marginally cool half an hour before falling into the lava. There's also an asinine, out-of-nowhere, totally unnecessary, and completely unresolved three-movie subplot about how he's the "Chosen One." Yikes.

In the original trilogy, after: There's a lot to interrogate George Lucas about here: why did Vader have to be from Tatooine, making the theoretically vast Star Wars universe seem about as small as your high school? Why in god's name is he a virgin birth? Why did Obi-Wan describe him as the greatest starpilot in the galaxy? Why are angels from the moons of Iego, I think? Why is he the "Chosen One?" In retrospect, Jake Lloyd's Anakin is probably worse than Jar Jar, because at least Jar Jar's awfulness was self-contained and didn't bleed over into one of the greatest characters of all time.

He at least becomes marginally interesting in the last half of the third movie. Some might have trouble with the fact that Anakin turned into Vader for a woman, but it's a common motivation, so I can accept it. I have a lot more of a problem with the fact that he goes from troubled if roughly goodhearted Jedi Knight to murdering a room full of babies in about an hour. I mean, I've had some bad days, but jeez. Anyway, his slight improvement in Episode III barely saves him from the worst grade, but knowing what's behind Darth Vader's mask is ultimately rather unfortunate. -4

Obi-Wan Kenobi

In the original trilogy, before: Badass warrior monk and first Jedi Master of Luke Skywalker. He dies fairly quickly, as all mentors and father figures must, but lines like "That's no moon," and "Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?", not to mention his casual de-limbing of a rowdy bar patron, solidified him in the pop culture lexicon. Alec Guinness was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

In the prequel trilogy: Surprisingly, although he has to wrestle with plenty of shitty dialogue ("Good call, my young padawan!") and act across from bad CGI, the younger version of Obi-Wan the badass warrior monk is more or less a badass warrior monk. His nadir is probably his conversation with a shit-colored CGI monstrosity called Dex in a 1950s American diner, a scene that makes you feel as shocked, embarrassed, and vulnerable as getting walked in on whacking off, but Ewan McGregor muscles his way through with a surprising amount of dignity intact. Not to mention he defeats Darth Maul, General Grievous, and Darth Vader.

In the original trilogy, after: Nothing about Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi really makes me like hermit Old Ben Kenobi any less, although I admit slight confusion as to why he lies about not knowing R2-D2. When he cuts off Ponda Baba's arm in the cantina, I can't help but wonder if he has a brief-yet-fond flashback to removing all the limbs of his old apprentice with the very same lightsaber. Ah, sweet nostalgia. +0

Luke & Leia Skywalker

In the original trilogy, before: Central characters, children of destiny. Everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats when they kiss in The Empire Strikes Back.

In the prequel trilogy: A pair of twins born to Padmé Amidala on the asteroid Polis Massa, before being split apart and sent into hiding on Alderaan and Tatooine.

In the original trilogy, after: You may be wondering how a pair of infants who show up at the very end of the movie and have a couple minutes of mostly not-bad screentime could drag down their adult counterparts. Well, I'll tell you. I have no children myself, but I understand that for normal mothers seeing your newborn infant for the first time produces a monumental rush of love and protectiveness. But not for prissy Princess Padmé! Nope, she saw her two babies, born without a father into a universe torn apart by war, bloodshed, and totalitarianism, but her boyfriend had choked her before, and she was so brokenhearted that she had lost the will to live, so she decided to die. That's right, baby Luke and Leia, you were so unimportant that you weren't worth staying alive to care for. Shitty mother, shitty babies, or shitty writing? You decide! -1

Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru

In the original trilogy, before: Luke Skywalker's caretakers. They're pretty weak and demure and get killed fairly quickly, but to give all credit where it's due they are among the four or five people in the universe to know that Darth Vader is Luke's father from the beginning of A New Hope - even Vader doesn't know yet - so there's a little more than meets the eye.

In the prequel trilogy: "Owen Lars. This is my girlfriend, Beru."

In the original trilogy, after: Did you miss what I just typed? "Owen Lars. This is my girlfriend, Beru." UGH. -2


In the original trilogy, before: Han Solo's wookiee co-pilot and sidekick, and proof that at some point in his life George Lucas could do comic relief with some degree of competence. He has no character arc but he's widely beloved all the same.

In the prequel trilogy: For some godforsaken and incomprehensible reason, Chewie is a friend to the Jedi Order, Yoda's buddy and bodyguard (?) on Kashyyyk in the waning days of the Clone War. Yoda tells Chewie that "miss you I will" before he goes into exile, seemingly implying that they're old drinking buddies and they play poker together and everything.

In the original trilogy, after: Having Chewbacca be Yoda's best friend is possibly the single stupidest decision in the prequel trilogy, even worse than midi-chlorians. Chewbacca is best known as Han Solo's sidekick. You know, noted and vocal Force agnostic Han Solo, a skeptic who does not believe the Force exists and mockingly commiserates with Chewie about how Obi-Wan Kenobi is "an old fossil." So at no point in all the years they know each other could Chewie have turned to Han and roared, "Actually, Han, the Jedi and the Force do exist. I fought alongside the Jedi Order in the Clone Wars."

So now I'm sitting here questioning whether Han and Chewie are even that close, if Chewie couldn't inform Han about this simple and basic aspect of his background. Impressive that the character of Han Solo is damaged in a movie in which he doesn't even appear. Even worse is the fact that this bullshit is sitting in the middle of and infecting otherwise the best movie in the trilogy by a mile. Chewbacca shouldn't have been in the prequel trilogy. -3


In the original trilogy, before: A homosexual protocol droid who accompanies R2-D2 to Tatooine in A New Hope, joins Han and Leia's party in The Empire Strikes Back, and convinces the Ewoks that he is a god in Return of the Jedi. Some people found him annoying even in the original trilogy, but Jar Jar Binks showed those people just how good we had it. He has the first line in the saga: "Did you hear that? They've shut down the main reactor!"

In the prequel trilogy: To the aghast horror and near-universal denial of the world, it is revealed that Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was just a wee a little boy. I mean, why make the dozen or so central characters of your sci-fi/fantasy saga come from diverse backgrounds across the galaxy, reflecting the vastness of your universe of quadrillions of beings, when you can have everything as compact and insular as your junior high social circle? He then proceeds to do nothing for the rest of the trilogy, making you wonder why he couldn't have just had a cameo in the final minutes of Revenge of the Sith, which would have actually been cool. He has the final line in the saga: "Oh no!"

In the original trilogy, after: I say again, Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was just a wee little boy. Why. Why would you do this George. -5


In the original trilogy, before: Beginning as C-3PO's counterpart and transitioning into Luke Skywalker's droid sidekick, R2-D2 was universally beloved for his adorable squeaks and whistles as well as being the MacGuffin that drives the plot of A New Hope. It was kind of funny when, with the entire Galactic Empire pursuing him, he just spent an hour chillin' on the side of the Death Star's hangar, not givin' a fuck.

In the prequel trilogy: Artoo works on Padmé's ship in The Phantom Menace, then becomes Anakin's droid for the rest of the trilogy, including after Anakin becomes Darth Vader until he falls into the lava, which I guess means R2-D2 was technically on the side of evil if only for a little while. He also, in another head-slappingly retarded moment, busts rocket jets out of his legs and starts flying around like fucking Superman in Attack of the Clones. Jesus Christ.

In the original trilogy, after: Unlike Chewbacca and C-3PO, R2-D2 being in the prequel trilogy doesn't bother me that much. No, there's no real REASON for him to be there, other than helping pilot starships around, but George Lucas claims that the saga is to some extent all seen through the eyes of Artoo, and I can accept that. Plus, unlike the prissy and annoying Threepio, Artoo is actually cool and cannot deliver shitty dialogue. However, giving him the power of flight out of nowhere is profoundly stupid, calling immediately into question why he rolls around Tatooine at 2 MPH in A New Hope and topples off Jabba's sail barge into the sand in Return of the Jedi. A continuity nightmare. -2

Mon Mothma

In the original trilogy, before: Mon Mothma is the leader of the Rebel Alliance, briefly seen before the final assault on Emperor Palpatine's fleet and the second Death Star. Many Bothans died to bring her this information.

In the prequel trilogy: Most people are probably unaware of Mon Mothma's role in the prequel trilogy, because Lucas decided to delete her scenes from the final cut (although YouTube can help), but Mon Mothma was a Senator who along with Padmé Amidala and Bail Organa quietly began the rebellion when Palpatine refused to give up his sweeping emergency powers after the end of the Clone Wars.

In the original trilogy, after: Unlike Darth Vader being a virgin birth and building C-3PO, Chewie being pals with Yoda, and R2-D2 flying, Mon Mothma starting the rebellion against the Galactic Empire actually makes total sense and logically informs her being the leader of the Alliance in the original trilogy era. Yeah! You go, Lucas! That's how you do it! Except, wait, you deleted her scenes. So close. +1


In the original trilogy, before: Yoda is a 900-year-old Jedi Master and badass little wizard who fills the role of Luke Skywalker's mentor in The Empire Strikes Back and briefly before dying from old age in Return of the Jedi. Despite only having about thirty minutes of total screentime, his diminutive stature, lifting of an X-Wing with only the Force, bizarre grammar, and the line "Do, or do not. There is no try" made him one of the most iconic characters of the trilogy, possibly behind only Vader himself.

In the prequel trilogy: In Episode I, Yoda is basically like we remember him, although the puppet that looked fitting in the dank, foggy swamps of Dagobah looks extremely bizarre and off-putting in the brightly-lit, pristine chamber of the Jedi Council. But you don't know what you have until it's gone, and in Episode II and III the wizened little Jedi Master we knew and loved as a puppet turns into a CGI frog leaping around with a lightsaber like Sonic the Hedgehog. Okay then. Palpatine defeats him in a lightsaber duel and so Yoda announces that he must go into exile for no particular reason, leaving behind a newborn Rebel Alliance that probably could have used his guidance and skills so he can go live in a swamp.

He's also a little asshole: when Anakin comes to him for guidance and shares his private fears that someone close to him (Padmé, although he doesn't name specifics) will die in childbirth, Yoda tells him that the dead are not to be mourned because they are merely becoming one with the Force. "Mourn them do not. Miss them do not." Well gee, thanks, shithead. I just can't figure out why Anakin turned to the dark side.

In the original trilogy, after: Nothing about Yoda's prequel trilogy appearance contradicts anything about him in the original trilogy, everything checks out logically, but basically every moment he's onscreen makes you like and respect him a little bit less. In the end I wonder why he cares about the Rebel Alliance at all. After all, if all the rebels and all Alliance planets die, they're just becoming one with the Force, right? Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. -3

Boba Fett

In the original trilogy, before: Boba Fett is the badass and semi-mute bounty hunter who tracks down and captures Han Solo for Jabba the Hutt, helping Lord Vader set a trap for Luke Skywalker in the process. He dies a stupid death at the hands of a blind Han and a Sarlacc pit (yeah, I know, in the Expanded Universe he goes on to escape the Sarlacc and become an anti-hero, whatever), but he's still one of two villains to give Vader lip without getting Force choked. Even Emperor Palpatine was promptly killed when he cheesed off Vader, so that puts Boba in elite company.

In the prequel trilogy: Boba Fett is a little boy who giggles with pleasure whenever his father Jango does anything evil.

In the original trilogy, after: There was absolutely no reason for kid Boba Fett to appear in the prequel trilogy. It's stupid, it doesn't make any sense, I hate it, and it makes me hate Boba Fett. -5

Emperor Palpatine

In the original trilogy, before: The ultimate evil looming over the entire trilogy; a mad, cackling Sith Lord who rules over the galaxy with the iron fists of Death Stars, Star Destroyers, and the dark side of the Force - until Darth Vader chucks him into a chasm for trying to kill his son Luke Skywalker, that is. The scenes between Palpatine, Vader, and Luke are probably Return of the Jedi's finest, although the character has absolutely no arc or backstory whatsoever.

In the prequel trilogy: Palpatine lives a double life as a humble Senator from Naboo and Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who commands the assassin Darth Maul and orchestrates the Separatist movement and the Clone Wars. In the guise of Senator Palpatine he engineers his election to Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, and by attacking his own Republic with terrorism and war as Darth Sidious, he allows the position of Chancellor to be granted more and more emergency powers, eventually suspending democracy and taking direct command over the army of clone troopers, i.e. Stormtroopers. He eventually seduces Anakin Skywalker to the dark side of the Force, frames Mace Windu for an assassination attempt on his life, puts out an execution order on all Jedi Knights, and declares himself ruler of the first Galactic Empire.

In the original trilogy, after: Along with John Williams' score, the most successful element of the Star Wars prequel trilogy is the arc of Senator-turned-Chancellor-turned-Emperor Palpatine. It does exactly what George Lucas failed to do with almost every other character: presents a cohesive, logically sound, narratively strong, and fascinating story that substantially enriches and deepens the cackling and entertaining but ultimately shallow cipher of evil that appeared in Return of the Jedi (without robbing the character of his fundamental mystery either). It actually makes Return of the Jedi a better movie.

Oh, sure, he has plenty of bad moments (the CGI flips during his duel with Mace Windu are pretty embarrassing), but the big picture is a good one. It's a grand stroke of fortune that they cast the thirtysomething Ian McDiarmid to play the Emperor in Return of the Jedi rather than a geezer closer to the character's age, because it allowed the same actor to return and give one of the most entertaining performances in all three prequels, particularly Revenge of the Sith. All in all I give prequel Palpy a big thumbs up. +3

Grand Moff Tarkin

In the original trilogy, before: Grand Moff Tarkin is commander of the Death Star and the highest-ranked non-Sith Imperial in the trilogy, with enough authority to make the call to destroy major civilized planets and boss Darth Vader around with no fear of being Force-choked in retaliation. Luke Skywalker kills him when he blows up the Death Star. Due to his ordinary human appearance Tarkin never became quite as iconic a pop culture villain as Vader, Palpatine, Jabba, or Boba Fett, but he's ruthless and badass all the same.

In the prequel trilogy: A younger Tarkin makes a wordless five-second cameo in the final montage of Revenge of the Sith, speaking to Emperor Palpatine on the bridge of the Star Destroyer overlooking the first Death Star's construction. Darth Vader approaches and Tarkin takes his leave.

In the original trilogy, after: There's something relatively subtle going on here - in Episode III, Tarkin immediately walks away when Vader moves to the front of the bridge to stand by Palpatine's side, which says to me that Lord Vader is clearly ranked well above Tarkin and Tarkin has to show respect and submissiveness. However, by the era of Episode IV, Tarkin has enough authority to command Vader: "Enough of this! Vader, release him!", and "Terminate her! Immediately!" This shows that Tarkin must have done exemplary work in the eyes of the Emperor in the two intervening decades, and increases my respect for him. +1

Jabba the Hutt

In the original trilogy, before: The galactic crime lord and gangster who puts out a bounty on Han Solo's head for dumping a shipment of Jabba's spice (Star Wars code for "drugs") he was smuggling. This hit dogs Solo for the entire trilogy and eventually coincides with the motives of Vader and the Empire when they need Solo to set a trap for Luke.

Jabba also sticks Princess Leia in a gold bikini, which is objectively awesome. Sure, Leia kills him later, but she does it while wearing the bikini. So in a way they both win.

In the prequel trilogy: Hanging out on a balcony overlooking the Boonta Eve Classic podrace in all his Playstation 2-era CGI glory.

In the original trilogy, after: Like Chewbacca and C-3PO and Boba Fett, there's no real reason for him to be in the prequel trilogy and I kind of wish he wasn't, but it at least makes sense that a Tatooine-based crime lord would be present at one of the galaxy's major gambling events taking place on Tatooine. Now, if we were grading how his godawful appearance in A New Hope's special edition effects my view of him, he'd probably get a -5, but his Phantom Menace cameo is, like your first girlfriend, disposable and harmless enough. +0


In the original trilogy, before: An amateurish bounty hunter who tries to collect the score on Han Solo in the Mos Eisley cantina. Han promptly shoots him dead.

In the prequel trilogy: Baby Greedo hangs out with baby Anakin while the latter builds his podracer.

In the original trilogy, after: Out of respect for you the reader's intelligence I decline to elaborate on why that's stupid. -2

In conclusion, the character who emerged from the other side of the trilogy the most improved is without a doubt Emperor Palpatine, although Grand Moff Tarkin and Mon Mothma also came out okay and I have no problem with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Darth Vader, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Boba Fett all took a real beating though. Who would have thought when watching Episode I that the political subplot would ultimately be the trilogy's strongest element (beyond perhaps the expectedly outstanding musical score and ninja lightsaber battles)?

The real lesson we (and hopefully George Lucas) can take from all this is that we don't need to know every fucking detail of every fictional character's life. We don't need to see them as little kids. We don't need to know every detail of how they were built or conceived. It's a narrative structure that can sometimes work - we know every detail of Bruce Wayne's life in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, which was executed well enough to be effective, but is anyone really chomping at the bit to see James Bond or Jack Sparrow or Frodo Baggins in preschool?

I'm sure there'll be another live action Star Wars movie one day, maybe not this year, maybe not this decade, but one day. All we can hope for is that, one, John Williams is still around to score it, and two, George Lucas or whoever is at the helm on it takes the lessons of the prequel trilogy to heart. I for one will be willing to give that movie the benefit of the doubt when it is inevitably announced, so long as no little kids or Gungans come within fifty light years of the main cast. May the Force be with you.