In May 2005, legions of beleaguered Star Wars fans flocked to their local theaters to see the concluding chapter of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall. Some were cautiously optimistic about Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith’s potential, and willing to overlook the two deeply disappointing previous entries in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Although The Phantom Menace was a childish distraction, and Attack Of The Clones was a mess, visually and plot-wise, perhaps they were necessary evils to get us to this point, the darkest moment in the Star Wars mythology. Finally, we’d get to see the Jedi hero we’d watched grow from boy to man become the iconic villain of our childhood nightmares. “Yes,” we lied to ourselves, “maybe this time things will be different.”
Ten years ago, Star Wars fandom had taken on the dimensions of a bad relationship, full of shattered hopes and numerous broken promises to do better. While it was the best-reviewed film of the prequels (holding at 80 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes), Revenge Of The Sith is now regarded as a failure, especially among fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. Over the decade, it became the butt of jokes for critical takedowns of the prequels. (The best and most comprehensive are Red Letter Media’s series of video reviews, hosted by “Mr. Plinkett.”) What should have been a classic tale of good vs. evil and free will vs. destiny was weighed down by an over-reliance on computer graphics, wooden dialogue, poorly sketched-out characters, and a needlessly complicated plot involving trade disputes and Senate voting. (A recent re-watch with friends required three of us to put our heads together to piece together the labyrinthine political machinations Palpatine sets into motion on his rise to power.)
The sting of this disappointment ran deep, and George Lucas became a punchline. The “ruined a generation’s childhood” complaints were a melodramatic way to frame the situation, but they fit with the intense love the original trilogy engendered decades ago. But now, mere months away from the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, 10 years seems to have been enough time to heal the pain. Judging from the enthusiastic reaction to the two trailers that have been released so far, fans have forgiven enough that they’re poised to love again. J.J. Abrams is the cool new boyfriend, here to right the wrongs of the fandom’s last relationship. The reveal of droid co-star BB-8 as an on-set remote-control prop at Star Wars Celebration in April was a savvy move, assurance that Abrams’ new installment will return to the practical effects of the original trilogy. A consistent alignment with the values of the original trilogy has been the driving promotional angle of The Force Awakens, from the Vanity Fair photos of actors in rubber alien masks to Abrams’ only-half-joking assertion that he thought of including onscreen evidence of Jar Jar Binks’ death, in the form of a fleeting shot of “bones in the desert.”
But 10 years is also enough time to reconsider the other side of Revenge Of The Sith’s legacy. A new generation of younger fans have grown up with the prequels. Now in their teens and early- to mid-20s, these fans regard Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side as an emotionally fraught cinematic experience. There are numerous examples of online fan dedication from this sect: The Tumblr swPrequelFrames proudly claims it is “dedicated to the glorious imagery of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.” On Twitter, Star Wars Day (“May the 4th be with you”) was an occasion for proud Sith fans to rewatch the film and trumpet their fandom:
REVENGE OF THE SITH: powerfully realized piece of filmmaking. Unparalleled in it's sheer storytelling ambition. A masterpiece. #StarWarsDay— Andrew Allen (@A_B_Allen) May 4, 2015
When Revenge of the Sith filled the gap between Attack of the Clones & New Hope.... that was the answer I needed my whole life! #nerdytweet— Ashton (@rashtonowland) April 25, 2015
Even formal critical reexaminations of the prequels have popped up online, like the “Star Wars Ring Theory,” which attempts to argue that the prequels, rather than following traditional dramatic structures, are arranged in a complex ring pattern that matches up to specific story elements and images of the originals.
Star Wars fandom has developed an odd bifurcation, built on the notion that preferring the original trilogy—that swashbuckling, lightsaber-swinging, state-of-the-art effects-laden epic—is an inherently superior form of fandom than preferring the prequels, that other swashbuckling, lightsaber swinging, state-of-the-art effects-laden epic.
But the idea that one type of fan is better than another is patently false. Value-judging nostalgia is untenable. It’s because of nostalgia that the bad digital composite of Anakin and Obi-Wan dueling on Mustafar in Revenge Of The Sith will someday be looked upon with the same affection older fans have for obviously fake rubber puppets and the janky stop-motion Tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back. And if this same nostalgic affection can downplay the silliness of the Ewoks in Return Of The Jedi, why can’t it also overlook Revenge’s silly dialogue? (Lines like “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” actually enter the realm of delicious camp.)
Fondness for outdated effects aside, it can’t be ignored that those who saw Revenge Of The Sith in their formative years may have genuinely responded to the story of Anakin Skywalker. Regardless of Sith’s terrible execution, there are legitimately potent images in the final installment: a roomful of children flinching as Anakin draws his weapon, Anakin Force-choking his visibly pregnant wife, Anakin’s final moment of defeat, maimed and burning alive. While weak storytelling deflates much of the dramatic tension of these moments, they still have the potential to be haunting, especially to young viewers. After all, the most memorable entertainments of our childhoods are the ones that induce a little trauma. Nostalgia works on the same register as trauma, imperceptibly planted at a formative time, and inextricable from our emotional engagement with experiences that bring us back around to those memories. There’s nothing wrong with allowing nostalgia to guide our tastes, but measuring things from our own childhood against other people’s childhoods becomes a sticky proposition.
What does this fandom fissure tell us as we enter the final months in the lead-up to the release of The Force Awakens in December? Abrams and his pro-analog-effects tack is certainly understandable, but it runs the risk of alienating prequels fans. There are two sets of Star Wars boosters for J.J. Abrams to live up to, with two sets of ideas about what “their” Star Wars is supposed to look like.
But what’s most exciting about the new trailers are the ways The Force Awakens looks nothing like any Star Wars film we’ve seen before. The basic iconography is there: lightsabers, stormtroopers, Rogue Squadron pilots, the Millennium Falcon. But the visual language is pure kinetic Abrams. This is to be expected. Films are a product of the technological and aesthetic limitations of their time. The fact that the digital worlds of Revenge Of The Sith and the previous two prequels looked nothing like the original trilogy isn’t inherently bad thing. It’s simply the reality of making films in a franchise with entries separated by decades. The reasonable expectation is that the new trilogy (and the ancillary films) will look nothing like the beloved originals, nor the derided prequels. With any luck, they’ll usher in an entirely new Star Wars visual language that will be loved by yet another new generation of fans.
Through ups and downs, Star Wars has more or less weathered the years, adhering to underlying themes and ideas that have remained universal and stalwart. It’s a malleable, ever-evolving entity that has grown alongside its fans. By constantly changing to fit the times—and by constantly finding new fans, which may not revere the exact same things as the old ones—it promises never to become a relic of the past, like hokey religions and ancient weapons.