Calling yourself a Star Wars fans these days is like calling yourself a Christian. Okay, sure, you believe in the basic principle, that “the franchise had some good things” but which denomination do you belong to? Are you an Original Trilogy purist who believes that every decision George Lucas made after 1985 exists as a revisionist cancer on the rest of the series? Are you a Disney Revivalist, on the edge of your seat waiting for the next episode of mini-series to eek its way onto Disney+ while you constantly insist that anyone slightly implying that the Sequel Trilogy is a bit uninspired has too much internalized sexism or racism for their opinion to ever matter? Or are you a Prequel Boy that incessantly posts memes to Reddit and 4chan to harvest some sick upvotes and (you)’s?
Among the members of the Star Wars community, it is commonly agreed upon that the prequels are not really good movies, even by fans of the prequels. Are they enjoyable? Sure. Watching my Alma Mater get blown out by Nebraska last year was enjoyable in a macabre and grotesque sort of way. With that said though, there has to be something more than just ironic hipster camp that draws Star Wars fans to episodes I, II, and III.
Episode I is most infamous for being the movie that ruined the franchise, with so many things going wrong that anyone can point to their favorite issue and correctly identify it as an abomination of cinema. The beginning lacked the gravitas that it needed. The senate scenes were as exciting as a 30 second clip of C-SPAN from the 90s. Jake Lloyd just never had the acting chops he needed. Jar Jar Binks had major minstrel vibes. The only real redeeming moments of the film came from the pod-race which was the greatest decision to forgo background music in cinema history since Heat, and the overstated bombast of Darth Maul vs Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, something that looked more like an NJPW Super Juniors match with swords than anything Star Wars fans were accustommed to seeing.
Episode II weathered the tides thanks to Hayden Christensen becoming thee image of Anakin Skywalker, the introduction of Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, and the downplaying of aspects Episode I that everyone hated (Jar-Jar), but never felt like a remarkable work of cinema in the way that Episode V did. Most scenes felt stiff as actors started the scene sitting on a green-screen set, before ending them by standing on a green-screen set. It had a cool scene of the clone troopers marching, and Yoda flipping around like a 13 year old who had his first Red Bull, but not much else.
Meanwhile Episode III still stands as the film that most fans can kind of agree on being at least sort of good. The opening was strong. The fights were all 5-star classics. Christensen captured the demonic energy of a young sith-lord through his facial expressions alone, and some scenes aged well, like, really well. Plus its Chinese translation is a banger.
When looking at the numbers, the prequel series is 33.3% kind of good, as agreed upon by the Star Wars community, so that provokes (not begs) the question, why are people so attached to this series? People that favor the Prequels are not simply operating on irony, their love is legitimate. It goes beyond nostalgia too. Their love is often never couched in the “I was a kid” defense. They defend these movies as if they’re on the same artistic level as the original trilogy.
While some contest that it’s just the movies in their own right that these people are defending, I see that as short-sighted. That line of thinking refuses to acknowledge how good it actually was to be a Star Wars fan at the time that those movies were coming out. Back then in the year of 2005, whether Revenge of the Sith was any good or not was a non-factor, because being a Star Wars fan in the mid-2000s was the better than it was, or ever would be in any other time.
Star Wars as a whole has always been a cool concept with its space opera fusion of sci-fi and samurai cinema, and in the 2000s, technology finally arrived at the point that it needed to in order to show how cool the concept could be in every possible light. When the original trilogy was lighting up silver screens, all that people could enjoy of the brand were the toys and the Holiday Special, but the prequel era squashed that. Apart from the movies, Cartoon Network aired the animated mini-series The Clone Wars, which was popular enough to get its own movie. Fans that grew up with the original trilogy might have had Empire Strikes Back on the Atari 2600 and the vector-based arcade game, but Prequel Trilogy fans were hit with video game adaptations of the movies, the Jedi Knight series, which let fans experience some of the most satisfying lightsaber combat ever and the Battlefront series, which let everyone experience the true intensity of both the clone wars and the rebellion as they duked it out in online combat. The Battlefront brand name on its own is so strong that Electronic Arts and DICE tried reviving it with their own series as the Sequel Trilogy picked up steam. Even one-shot games like Republic Commando proved that the brand didn’t even need to focus on the jedi to produce quality content. Meanwhile, divorced from the movies entirely was the legendary Knights of the Old Republic saga on the Xbox, two games so legendary that fans still pine for a true third game to complete the trilogy, the games most notorious for actually letting players experience the sensations of living in the Star Wars universe and growing in the force in the way that a jedi does.
Plus there was the Lego Star Wars series, and those games just go beyond words.
So what really attracts people to the prequels is not so much the movies, but the strength of the brand. While the Original Trilogy was troubled with establishing its brand, and the Sequel Trilogy struggled with maintaining it, the Prequel Trilogy actively flourished in it.
At the time of Prequels as well was the birth of a true online Star Wars fan community. People could actively voice their displeasure for the new films, or enjoy reviews made by collectives like Red Letter Media, which lampooned the new movies so well that the reviews could be considered entertainment in their own right. Even major networks like Vh1 were getting in on the Star Wars hysteria, like with their retrospective show When Star Wars Ruled The World. All this comes without even mentioning the vibrant video game forum scene for just about every major Star Wars game that was being released at that point.
While the Prequel movies quality can be up for eternal debate, what cannot is the quality of the Star Wars brand in the 2000s. The baby-boomers and generation-x could rest on their laurels, talking about their memories watching the Original Trilogy in the theaters, while their sons and younger siblings clacked away on their PS2 controllers, finding ways to singlehandedly win the battle of Dagobah.
Disney could learn a lesson from this. I’m not saying they will, but they could. If they were more liberal with the Star Wars IP and started licensing it out with the frequency that George had loaned it, letting middle-tier and even indie studios get their shot with it, everyone may benefit. New minds may find ways to make the next hit for the franchise on a budget, and the Star Wars name can be associated with something that has soul, rather than another big-budget corporate project like it’s been recently. Disney needs to abandon their natural brand instincts and let Star Wars return to being a vehicle to elevate other artists, rather than just another IP to safe-guard.