When The Phantom Menace arrived in theatres, it was met first with fervour as the expectation of sixteen years unspooled. What we consider the backlash came later (I wasn’t even aware people had a problem with Jar Jar until after Revenge of the Sith). Perhaps the most prevalent of these criticisms was that the prequel trilogy demystified the character of Anakin Skywalker. That by understanding where he came from and the reasons for his fall, he became a less tragic or frightening figure. But this represents a major misreading and is more a matter of personal taste than questions of character.
There’s a conflation that more information about any given character is somehow the same as demystification. But that’s the nature of storytelling. If we go back to the early roots of human narratives, stories were passed from person to person, village to village, through spoken word and song. Stories weren’t fixed, they were fluid and changed in the telling. So stories in their most organic form are in a constant state of flux, something George Lucas is aware of. Although Lucas has attracted flack for his Special Editions, and the subsequent tweaks he’s made to the saga in the years since, he has done so to create a tighter, more harmonious version of his vision. And, by and large, many of these changes make for a richer, more rewarding experience. As with those changes, the prequel trilogy expanded his story, making it a bigger and more rewarding fairy-tale.
Whether you like it or not, Lucas’ earliest vision for the Star Wars saga was of a boy born to the light who is corrupted and becomes an agent of evil. His son walks down a similar path, until he makes a stand against the dark. In the light of his son’s love, Anakin is redeemed. The original trilogy functioned on its own strength for years, but it was clear there was something missing. It was like telling a joke with only the punchline. Although there were snatches of Anakin’s past offered here and there, it wasn’t until the prequels that we were privy to the whole story.
Darth Vader is frightening because he was once this sweet little boy who knew “nothing of greed”, who helped people he had no cause to and who, like the rest of us, was afraid to leave home. Nonetheless, testament to the subtlety of Jake Lloyd’s performance, this young Anakin has moments of anger whether at being called a slave, or when Mace Windu tells him he will not be trained. We can see the pain of his leaving home, the strength of his attachment to his mother, and his hunger for power. He wants to single-handedly free all Tatooine’s slaves, after all. And then there’s Obi-Wan, who makes no secret of seeing Anakin as dangerous. It should come as no surprise that that boy we meet in TPM grows into the gifted, conflicted and arrogant padawan we’re reintroduced to in Attack of the Clones.
The middle chapter of the prequel trilogy is perhaps the most important of Anakin’s journey. Although his physical turn to the dark side took place in ROTS, he’d been a victim of destiny and manipulation all his life. The question of whether his prophetic dream of his mother’s suffering was of his own divination or implanted by Palpatine still abounds. In either case, it tugs at the thread of his attachment until all that Anakin is threatens to come apart. Although sworn to protect Padmé, Anakin has to go to his mother – “I don’t have any choice,” he says, indicating the forces at work behind his every action.
After finally finding his mother beaten, tortured and within an inch of her life in a Tusken Raider camp, Anakin is heartbroken as he begs her to stay with him. As she dies, part of the boy he used to be dies with her, and in its place his heart grows colder and calloused. What has he left then but anger? In giving into his hate and exacting his vengeance on the camp – killing the men, women and children – Anakin opens a doorway to the dark side, a chasm inside his soul that will fester for decades to come.
Love might be the opposite of hate, but it can be a selfish, needful thing. As much as Darth Vader was born and baptised in hate, so too was he made by love. Anakin was raised in slavery, trading the hard graft on Tatooine for the control collar of the Jedi, and later confined to the pain and discomfort of his survival suit. Through all that, he was a slave to his emotions. That, more than anything else, gave Palpatine the means to manipulate and guide him. On top of all that had come before, the threat of losing Padmé is the ultimate catalyst of his fall. Yet in turning to the dark side, Padmé lost her life and Anakin became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Combined with the original releases, the prequel trilogy transforms Darth Vader into one of the most complex, complicated and compelling characters ever to grace the cinema screen.
The demystification argument reared up again in 2017, with the release of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s post-modern deconstruction of Star Wars and its archetypes. This time it was a look at Luke Skywalker’s future – one outside of the Legends continuity. Here we find Luke a broken man, filled with regret and shame, isolated from everyone and cut off from the Force. This wasn’t the Luke any of us remembered, or the Luke we thought we wanted, but it was the one we needed. I go into greater depth about Luke’s character and journey here, so I’ll keep things brief. But suffice it to say that in going on this journey, Luke was able to become the Jedi the galaxy needed and, in using non-violence to save those he loved, fulfil the mandate of the Jedi.
Heroes aren’t heroic because of their goodness, or their aversion to all things evil, but because they can recognise the difference. They know that being a better person is often the harder path to walk, but still they do so anyway. Both Luke and Anakin are elevated because of their expanded stories on screen, going beyond characters in movies and becoming cautionary tales, or idols to aspire to.