There are afternoons I am so taken with excitement for the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens that I feel I cannot wait for it. My patience is reduced to that of the proverbial kid before Christmas. Though I consider myself part of several fandoms, (including Buffy, DC, and Harry Potter) Star Wars is my first fandom. It was preordained, I think; I was born in 1983, one month and one day after Return of the Jedi was released. One of my earlier memories is of me hiding behind a couch at my grandma’s house, listening to my uncle and my father watch Empire Strikes Back on TV. I was too young to join them, I was told. I remember the flashes of red on the ceiling, and the screams of laser fire. What was this forbidden story, I wondered. What was flashing and exploding on that screen?
Fast-forward to today, after the Star Wars canon has taken not one but two unexpected turns: first, the prequel trilogy, which were released around the turn of the millennium underwhelmed a majority of viewers and made many downright furious with disappointment. Now that we have some distance from the prequels, tempers seem to have cooled, but it will be a long time before some fans forgive Lucas for what they see as a failure of epic proportions. Secondly, and more quietly, Lucas began making television shows, putting them in the capable hands of Dave Filoni, who has turned out two Star Wars animated TV shows, Clone Wars and Rebels, with surprising critical and popular appeal. Now we are poised on a third great change, as the third trilogy heads toward theaters.
I’ll hold off on speculation about whether the new trilogy will follow suit with the prequels or, more hopefully, replicate Filoni’s TV successes. No, I’m here to provide a ranking of what we have up till now. (I’ve only ranked canon films and shows; I’ll leave it to others to tackle the expanded universe.)
10. The Clone Wars (2008 film): The first sentence of Roger Ebert’s 2008 review of this animated follow up to the prequel trilogy is: “Has it come to this?” One can practically hear the disappointment in Ebert’s voice, not only that this film is so blasé, but also that this film exists at all. The Clone Wars era had already been smartly handled in an short, animated TV show in 2003, and Episode III had ended the prequel trilogy on a grim high note. Why this let-down, and why now? We now know that Lucas had a long game in mind, that he wanted to kick off a television show and wanted to use the film as an introduction to his new characters, most especially Anakin’s Padawan Ahsoka Tano. But the introduction leaves much to be desired. Ahsoka is mildly amusing at best, and positively annoying at worst. The film’s plot revolves around a minor villain, Ziro the Hutt, who appears to have been dreamed up by Lucas while he was drunk in Vegas. The best that can be said for this film is that in Ahsoka it introduced a character who would later come into her own and become beloved. Other than that, this film is forgettable.
9. The Clone Wars (2003 show): If the 2008 Clone Wars film was a minor Star Wars story at its worst, this miniseries is a minor Star Wars story at its best. The animation is strange and consistently engaging. The characters are almost figurine-like in their simplicity. The new character that is introduced, General Greivous, would become one of the best villains of the prequel age. With its brief episodes and dialogue-light plotting, this will never rival the films, or even Filoni’s shows, but it is a testament to what a fresh take on the look of Star Wars can sometimes produce. [I’ve since been informed that this show does not count as canon.]
8. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999 film): Such promise, such anticipation, such confusion. I watched this so many times in the theater, and so many more times on VHS, and I still could not make myself fully satisfied with it. There are moments of pure awesome that we had never seen before, never even imagined: the towers and waterfalls of Naboo, the sprawl of Coruscant, Darth Maul and his double-ended lightsaber, the whole quiet decadence of the Old Republic.
And yet the basic elements of what we looked for in a film were sub-par. The acting felt wooden and rote, most especially in actors we thought should know better, like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. The plot too often relied on Anakin’s abilities in ways that were hardly believable, even while keeping the original trilogies in mind. But now, sixteen years later, Episode I does not need to be the Return-of-the-Jedi-topping masterwork we were all hoping it would be in 1999. It introduced a key arc, and gave us indelible sights, and unforgettable characters.
7. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 film): This is an improvement, we all said. Obi Wan had some wry energy to him, Jango-Fett and his son Boba blasted onto the screen, and the Clone Wars actually, finally, started. We even got some promise of forbidden romance in the early scenes, which seemed at first to be charming and angsty enough. But it progressed all wrong. It didn’t seem to be acted well. The chemistry between the characters was off—too cold, then too obsessive and creepy. In retrospect, this almost seems the right way to do it. Anakin and Padme are supposed to be dysfunctional; we shouldn’t approve of or enjoy their courtship.
Luckily, right or wrong, the love between Anakin and Padme gets them into a wonderful scamper with alien beasts in a gladiator arena, which leads to a climactic Jedi, clone, and robot laser-fest that is still a lot of loud fun. And just when we think it’s over, Yoda pulls out a lightsaber, and audiences, for the first time since Return of the Jedi, were left breathless by a Star Wars duel. The Phantom Menace never really got the action right, except for in the final Darth Maul scenes. The real strength of Attack of the Clones is that it remembers the anxious fun of sci-fi action that the original trilogy captured so well.
6. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 film): I remember the first review that I read of Revenge of the Sith said that it was the best Star Wars film since Empire. That now seems to be overblown praise, but there’s no denying that this is the best of the prequel trilogy, and contains some of the most emotionally resonant scenes in all of Star Wars. The Mustafar duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan is nearly perfect, as is the unexpected Yoda vs. Palpatine fight. It is, in fact, Palpatine who really shines, believably corrupting and seducing Anakin and scorning the Jedi’s attempts to stop him. Even the painfully awkward Anakin/Padme love scenes seem to be appropriately painful, even if the acting leaves something to be desired.
Perhaps, in the end, this film justifies our whole unease with Episodes I and II. They lacked hope and spontaneity, seemed decadent where they should have been lively and aggressive where they should have been lyrical. Such lacks, such “should have beens” are, Episode III shows, what kill a republic.
5. Rebels (2014 show): I’m taking an awful risk here. This had better work. I’m predicting that Rebels, which is only 13 episodes in, will prove in the long run better than half of all Star Wars canon made so far. But what a 13 episodes they have been! Not in the whole prequel trilogy did I feel the fear, the thrill, the inspiration and the fun that the first season of Rebels has offered. Filoni says that the A-Team was an inspiration for Rebels, and I can kind of see that, but what Rebels really is, to me, is Firefly for the junior high crowd (okay, maybe ALL of Star Wars is for the junior high crowd). Many of Firefly’s adult themes are missing, but the rest is there: a ragtag group of misfits trying to survive off the scraps of outer space, a malevolent government tightening its grip on its frontier, and even a young, mysterious, and radically gifted teen with unresolved angst. And Filoni, like Firefly’s creator Joss Whedon, isn’t afraid to kill characters or crucially change the rules of the plot.
But what Filoni has that Joss doesn’t is the deep mythology of the Jedi—and the Jedi-in-hiding at that—to draw on, which leads to beautiful explorations of the virtue of hope and the activity of return. Return even takes on Judaic resonance in the early episodes, as Erza, the orphaned Padawan, finds Kanan, the lonely Jedi, and together they rebuild an ancient spiritual community. Perhaps one of the things that is so wonderful about Rebels is that is takes place in the Star Wars world we’ve known since 1977, the post-Order 66 world where the Empire is firmly in change. There are so many good stories to tell in this world, and I’m excited to see where they go next.
4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983 film): Jedi may be Star Wars at its most fun: Jabba’s palace, Boba Fett’s rocket pack, Ewoks, and a skeletal second Death Star. We finally get the narrative payoff—the redemption of Darth Vader—that we’d been waiting for since Empire in 1980 (if we saw it as it was released), or since Episode I, if we’re in a younger generation of fans. Jedi proves that Lucas lost none of his creative energy over the course of the whole trilogy, even if some of the elements (ahem, another Death Star?) feel a little recycled.
Why isn’t this, then, the best Star Wars? Well, the writing is just noticeably worse than the first two films; what had been the natural humor of Empire now feels a little more knowing and contrived. The sets, costumes and vehicles seem too neatly designed to be converted into merchandise, and there’s a heavy cheese factor at the end of the film with the Ewok party. None of these weaker elements are as off-putting as the Anakin/Padme romance, but they are creative indulgences which render Jedi a weaker film than its fellows in the original trilogy.
3. Clone Wars (2008 show): How can this possibly beat Jedi? It’s a cartoon for crying out loud! Well, sometimes Return of the Jedi feels like a cartoon too. Just hear me out: Clone Wars is the best of Star Wars on TV, and among the best Star Wars ever made because it learns from its predecessors and takes its cultural context seriously. Dave Filoni and George Lucas developed Clone Wars in a golden age of televised storytelling that was unimaginable even 9 years before when Lucas was making Episode I. I think that much of what Filoni and Lucas learned from a decade of prequels is what not to do: don’t focus everything on Padme and Anakin; don’t ignore your villains for the majority of the story, don’t treat the Clones like faceless throwaways, and don’t forget your women characters. Instead, Clone Wars focused on the villains, the soldiers, and the women. Ahsoka, who was just bearable in the Clone Wars film becomes a strong and beloved character; Asajj Ventress may begin as a one-dimensional villain, but by seasons 4 and 5 she is as fascinating as Carmela Soprano.
Speaking of Sopranos, I think that serious TV drama was the real influence on this show. There is a deep uneasiness at the political and interpersonal levels of this show that has more in common with Breaking Bad or Dollhouse than Batman the Animated Series or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows that are pitched at the same audience as Clone Wars. The closest inspiration for Clone Wars, however, is the impressive and disturbing Battlestar Galactica (BSG). Together, Clone Wars and BSG are the best sci-fi television of the new millennium, and arguably among the best sci-fi ever made. Only Star Trek is as good at sci-fi television, and Clone Wars and BSG have surely learned from the Star Trek shows of the 90s how to make good sci-fi TV. What is so effective about these shows is the political and philosophical seriousness. Clone Wars and BSG helped me process and wrestle with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the whole ethos of the War on Terror better than any pundit on CNN or article in The Atlantic. Clone Wars is truly art that reflects on its age; that it does so in a kid’s cartoon makes it that much more impressive.
2. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977 film): Oh the effortless joy of Star Wars, as it was called when there was only one film, and the world was young. The politics and philosophy of Clone Wars are all there, but streamlined into a concise, transporting story that is almost medieval, even ancient in its plot: the lost princess, the farm-boy, the old wizard, the black-clad villain. Every Star Wars since ’77 has come to be because of our fascination with this new world.
Yes, there are flaws, mostly those of youth and inexperience; Mark Hamill does not know how to play Luke sympathetically yet, and the rubber aliens, especially in the Cantina scene, feel cobbled together from some backlot warehouse. But if anything this low-budget, amateurishness adds to the charm. We now know that all the overblown CGI and clone battles are on the horizon; it’s nice to sit for a moment with Episode IV and relive a more elegant story from a more civilized time.
1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 film): What do you get when you make Star Wars with more experienced actors, a more tightly written script, more creative discernment, and more money? You get Empire, the only Star Wars film to approach Shakespeare in quotability and 2001: A Space Odyssey in sheer spectacle. While the Darth Maul saber battles in Episode I and Clone Wars are among the best in the canon, it is Luke and Vader whose long and varied duel in Empire takes the cake for best saber battle ever.
Joss Whedon has said that he doesn’t like Empire, because it’s not a complete story. This is a fair critique of it as a stand-alone film, but it’s not a stand-alone film. As we learn from Clone Wars, it is often the interludes, the half-way houses, the adventures one has while waiting for consolation or resolution to come, in which the greatest lessons are learned, in which meaning in life is discovered. As Yoda says in the final episode of Clone Wars, sometimes, when we least expect it, we discover that we can have “victory, not in the Clone Wars, but for all time.”