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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode III: show some character

Recently, I’ve been outlining ways that the Star Wars prequels might have been improved. First, I suggested that the whole ‘prequel’ concept is irredeemably flawed. Then I complained about how real-world analogues cheapen the Star Wars universe.

Today’s complaint? The Star Wars prequels spoil some of cinema’s best-known, most beloved characters.

Take Obi-Wan Kenobi, that quintessential space wizard. Now, if we’re honest, the Jedi Master comes across a bit static—even in A New Hope. In that original film, Obi-Wan learns nothing and can’t be rattled; he’s more like Luke’s Jedi Encyclopedia than an actual character. Even Alec Guinness himself despised the character and cursed the film’s “rubbish dialogue”.

In fairness, though, it made sense that Obi-Wan wouldn’t change much in Episode IV. The film depicts only the very last chapter of a much longer life story. Obi-Wan’s defining moments happened decades earlier, we learn: Clone Wars heroics and a tortured falling-out with Vader.

That’s where the prequels’ potential lay; we’d finally get to see how it all happened. How did Obi-Wan become the cool, unflappable mentor of A New Hope? What flaws did he overcome? What conflict shaped his elderly personality? One idea: maybe Obi-Wan’s inability to save his mentor’s life haunts him. Maybe it makes him overprotective. Maybe that control-freak behavior pushes Anakin towards reckless power grabs. In any case, regardless of the arc’s specifics, Lucas shouldn’t have hesitated to rough up the golden boy a bit.

Instead, Lucas extends Obi-Wan’s milquetoast personality all the way back to day one. He was (we learn) always incorruptible. Always steady. He’s always been the beige palette against which more colorful characters are painted: Luke, Qui-Gon, Vader.

Speaking of Vader… there’s another great character squandered. The prequels inherit the greatest villain of all time—then manage to spoil him. To Lucas’s credit, Anakin does has an arc (unlike Kenobi); he journeys from adorable, pod-racing wunderkind to moody teenager to malevolent cyborg. But if Obi-Wan’s statis bores us to tears, Anakin’s metamorphosis confuses us. We never quite believe the reasons we’re given for his downfall. Why can’t Anakin handle his mother’s untimely death? Why does he snap. After all, his son faced nearly-identical tragedy (his family’s horrific immolation) with courageous determination.

How might the prequels have better explained Anakin’s degradation? Show us how childhood wounds fester into adult corruption. Make the Skywalkers’ slavery unpleasant to witness. Make Anakin damaged and powerless as a boy, so that his hell-bent power quest makes sense. Show us the hurt; don’t rely on Hayden Christiansen to emote it with furrowed eyebrows and a whiny delivery.


Next time, we’ll wrap up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. In our crosshairs? The prequels’ over-reliance on CGI, to the detriment of story.