Long before Andrew Garfield got blamed for ruining a franchise, there was Hayden Christensen. The OG victim of shoddy screenwriting and bad faith criticism.
However, we are not reviewing Star Wars today as much as we are offering a new perspective on the way we consume and think about Star Wars.
Often pinned with the prolific title of "The First Cinematic Blockbuster," Star Wars is, shortly, a space soap opera with glowing swords, old religions, and star-crossed lovers responsible for the deaths of countless innocents.
If the description mentioned above sounds like something out of a seventeenth-century theatrical production of Shakespeare, that's because it is. Star Wars – Shakespeare - that's not exactly a winning formula for the game of word association because of the action-flick-ness nature of the saga.
But if you get granular and examine it, Star Wars is a bunch of entitled clans flexing over whose clan has bragging rights to flex the most.
You know, Shakespeare's career in a nutshell.
George Lucas' personal opinion aside (that he also views the first six movies as the "Tragedy of Darth Vader"), we as an audience should look at Star Wars canon movies objectively and judge them for what they are.
A freaking mess.
But what a glorious mess it is.
Shakespeare's Legacy and the History of a Villain
If you search for top Yahoo answers on Shakespeare's villains, this is the top comment:
"I don't believe Shakespeare has any villains, but more like misguided characters … the "bad guys"… are not really bad deep down but broken out by the cruel hand of fate. The villains in Shakespeare's plays are not horrible people with no sense of humanity… but complex characters, usually more complex and deeper than his protagonists."
And boy, does Shakespeare love his villains. It is arguable whether good old Willy even believed in human goodness. The innocent and the good in his plays are almost always abhorrently punished by death or forced to turn into monsters by the twisted series of events that disfigure their souls.
Often misunderstood, Shakespeare's villains, as mentioned, are more victims caught in the crossfire of larger-scale politics, which Shakespeare takes as an opportunity to explore the very worst in people. What we are capable of before we crumble and eventually self-destruct – where the line of sanity is drawn.
There is a figure connected to Shakespeare and his work equally as important as the man himself, I dare say.
And that man is Samuel Coleridge.
An English poet and literary critic who outlined some of the most recognizable and widely used literary instruments. Concepts like suspension of disbelief, spiritual connection of metaphors to the real-life counterparts they serve, romanticism at large but most importantly – "Transcendentalism" and "Motiveless Malignity" – two philosophies dissecting a human character that Shakespeare loved to marry into one person.
Without Coleridge, who defined and tirelessly studied these subjects, I don't think anyone would ever understand what Shakespeare went on about in his sonnets.
Magna Carta spurred some revolutionary schools of thought and transformed society into being more of a civil body than a savage existence, and sure, there were brilliant writers in Shakespeare's England who wrote similar deeper studies of the human soul, like John Donne, Mary Sidney Herbert, or my favorite, Anne Lock whose sonnets A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner preceded Shakespeare's melodrama about evil by almost fifty years.
But – with Magna Carta and other written texts in mind- whether they were biblical texts, legal opinions, romance novels, ancient legends, or Celtic myths, they never said much beyond "evil-bad, good-good."
It was a very dichotomy-driven, binary world. I bet it's hard to imagine what it was like back then these days.
Then came Shakespeare with a new point of view. Heroes who turn into villains. Heroes who get punished for their chivalry. A corrupt church, love doesn't conquer everything, it doesn't conquer anything. In fact, it only brings suffering for those in love and all their loved ones.
(Now the cornerstone philosophy of Star Wars takes a more apparent shape, doesn't it?)
Without Coleridge's criticism, we probably wouldn't understand how deep Shakespeare's conviction of wickedness in all of us goes, or what triggers it.
His constant battle to convince the narrow-minded folk of England that people are a vast, complicated spectrum of emotions inspires writers to this day.
A timeless battle.
Not necessarily because we as an audience are too dumb, but because, well, Shakespeare's writing is the most boring body of text you will ever read.
Shakespeare was not really a writer. He was a playwright. His art is supposed to be watched, not read.
But trips to the theater are too expensive for schools, so Shakespeare's texts are experienced and hated by millions of children worldwide instead of appreciated for the clear-cut diamonds that they are.
They're hilarious, they're heartbreaking, they're telling, they're daring. But not on paper. On paper, they are mumbo-jumbo of iambic pentameter.
That's where Coleridge's input comes in. And his two ardent philosophies.
Transcendentalism - in its most distilled definition – is a movement originating in New England whose pillars are beliefs about the inherent goodness of people and their good nature bestowed to them by their Creator despite the surrounding, ever-engulfing delinquency of institutions and social structures working tirelessly to corrupt them.
Motiveless Malignity - on the other hand - is a term Coleridge first uttered during his university lecture in 1819 after he went to see Othello in a theater for the first time:
"…. the last Speech, the motive-hunting of Motiveless Malignity—how awful! In itself, fiendish—while yet he was allowed to bear the divine image, too fiendish for his own steady view.—A being next to the Devil—only not quite the Devil—& this Shakespeare has attempted—executed—without disgust, without scandal!"
- Collection of Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature
Coleridge is talking about Iago - the most caricaturist Shakespearean villain from Othello - where he basically says that Iago is evil for the sake of being evil. He doesn't really have a gravitas or an ethos; he doesn't have a motive or a quest; he just wants to be a villainy-villain who loves to be villainy. And that's perfectly fine.
Not just fine - compelling.
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar, confirms Coleridge's assessment:
"Coleridge asserts that Iago's motives (in our sense) were his "keen sense of his intellectual superiority" and his "love of exerting power." And so Iago's Malignity is "motiveless" because his motives (in Coleridge's sense) — revenge for being passed over for promotion, and for being cuckolded by both Othello and Cassio — are merely rationalizations."
Now that we have got our definitions straight, let's apply them:
George Lucas created a character of pure Transcendentalism and married him with Motiveless Malignity.
Anakin Skywalker believes he's special, more powerful, deserving, competent, and intelligent than his peers or superiors. The circumstances of turning evil are just convenient rationalizations.
So, what's the problem if the groundwork for the character and the theory behind the creation of the character is so strong?
The problem is that George Lucas' execution of marrying these two components is kind of … the worst.
The use of metaphor is simultaneously too literal and too figurative, which, when seen on screen, feels like a ride inside a particle accelerator.
As explained by Anakin's mother, there was no father - she just became pregnant one day. (That's the Holy Spirit of the Force for you, I guess.)
Anakin Skywalker, a child of the Force – a literal son of God - if translated to a Judeo/Christian belief structure - becomes a twisted monster because he gets too greedy.
"I want more. And I know that I shouldn't."
See, audience? Do you get it?
Anakin is Lucifer, God's most loved son falling from His Grace, seduced by the power of evil, the most beautiful blonde-haired creature of light burning from the inside out on Mustafar, a literal hell version of the Star Wars universe like an overdone panini sandwich, struck down by his warrior brother– the other most powerful defender of peace in God's Heavenly army.
Do you get it? Do you? Hey, you in the back, you dumb-dumb over there - did you get it? Or should his last name be "the one who walks the sky" so that you can grasp what we're going for?
Or shall we have his brother-in-arms yell at him, "You were the chosen one!" while he's literally on fire so that you can see the metaphor? Is it clear? Is it?!
Star Wars Legacy – A New Type of Villain
Star Wars often gets accused of rudimental messaging - that it doesn't say much beyond good vs. evil, where evil is cartoonishly evil and good is cartoonishly good. But that's not quite the case.
(If it was, I think Star Wars would have been better off.)
The morality of the characters in Star Wars is closer to the Shakespearean fluidity definitions than people give them credit for. Han Solo starts as a scumbag space pirate and learns to be selfless.On the other hand, the overtly self-righteous Leia unlearns to see the world in black and white.
But there are even more obvious ties to Shakespeare, and that's Lucas' sketch board for the story. Where he got his ideas.
George drew inspiration from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the Third Reich, respectively.
The philosophy of extremist regimes stems from a need to identify a common enemy in society and then subsequently identify the one true hero, the only one who can effectively protect the state from furthering the agenda of a single tyrant and/or a political party seeking complete domination over a state - that one is a copy and paste on how tyrannical regimes rise to power on George's part.
Rarely does a totalitarian regime rise by force, from Caesar to Hitler to Gaddafi; these leaders are most often democratically elected by a body of people who see the solution to their desperation or to an immediate threat by granting absolute power to someone who gets stuff done.
Although I'm not sure that by "getting stuff done," the voters meant widespread genocide. That goes for Roman senators, the German people, and the Galactic Senate alike.
To be fair to all those who misguidedly help dictators gain a throne, politicians rarely get anything done. If they do, it's hardly an act of selfless governing.
Electing technically "not a politician" with strong rhetoric and promises to drain the swamp can be, if not condonable or smart, then at least understandable, especially in the context of the Star Wars universe.
"This is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause."
People can't always define fascism, but if you ask them to show you, on this Star Wars doll, where fascism touched them, they will probably give you a spot-on answer.
We don't know what it is, but we know what it looks and sounds like.
Loud, spiteful speeches of grandeur about a great galactic purpose, soldiers in pristine formation, black/green uniforms, and blind, unquestioning loyalty.
So, George Lucas might not have been drawing directly from Shakespeare more so than the code and the conviction of the Third Reich, but he tapped into the same references and sources as Shakespeare did – ancient worlds and eleventh-century legends about dictators to blend them with fascism - that was at the time of Star Wars creation way too fresh in everyone's mind – with a fairytale-like quality of Transcendentalist heroes resisting the Motiveless Malignity in them.
George Lucas, much like Shakespeare, heavily challenged the perception of good vs. evil and the audience's expectations of what that fight should look like.
The reason why the "Luke, I am your father" twist is so gut-wrenching and effective is the spin on the nature of villains that Shakespeare initially introduced in Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and even Romeo and Juliet.
Good vs. evil is not always Devil vs. God. Sometimes the Devil is your half-cyborg Dad, and God is a teenager with a Bieber haircut.
If we removed Vader from the equation, Star Wars wouldn't be nearly as iconic. Writers have been trying to figure out how to pull the "I am your father" UNO reverse card for decades, and no one has come close to its legendary cultural status. Not for the lack of trying, though.
Shakespearean settings are usually of epic proportions. A minor conflict within the family or a marriage, amplified by the royal or another socially crucial role of the family in their universe, whose choices directly impact the construct and the fate of the society they live in.
In other words, horrible, selfish people, being horrible and selfish for five hours or so. Depending on whether there was a plague raging behind Shakespeare's windows. If not, he tended to be more succinct.
In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, after George Lucas decided to sell Star Wars to Disney, he said:
"We call it space opera, but it's really a soap opera. It's all about family and family problems. It's not about spaceships."
Well, Amen, George Lucas. It indeed isn't. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't like it as much.
Lucas set the death of democracy as an A plot backdrop to the B plot generational family drama of the Skywalkers.
(But he will be the first to preach with an unshakeable conviction that these movies are for children, to which I say … Sure. Whatever you need to tell yourself to sleep at night, sir.)
The Star Wars saga is, in fact, a Shakespearean tragedy.
Here lies the trick in recognizing the bare bones of Star Wars covered in the mixture of meaty influences that Lucas pulled from: Focus on the driving force (ha-ha, get it) of Star Wars, the character that moves the story along, and you have your answer.
Whether George Lucas knew creatively that the Star Wars saga would become a story of one man's tragedy, whether he even knew it was going to become a saga in the first place, or simply adjusted his creative processes for all his Star Wars properties that spurred from the original trilogy - the central figure dominating the story is Anakin Skywalker.
"Dominating the story" in storytelling does not mean what most writers think it means. The character does not need to be in the story for most scenes to become the primary motivation for the plot and other characters to go through their arcs.
In fact, if a character has a strong pull and a fierce personality, it is wiser to use them sparingly, which is exactly what Lucas did with Vader.
Vader's allure is rooted in mystery. The pull comes from the feeling of leaving you unsatisfied, craving more once he exits the frame.
I am a Star Wars fan, but I don't need to go and read every book or every comic to enjoy Vader. I think it was somewhat detrimental to my perspective that I got to know what Vader thinks every step of the way or what he does in his free time.
I've read a lot of the comics, and they're often incongruent with what we know about him from the canon properties – he shows tremendous personal ambition in them, which doesn't really make sense when he ultimately always ends up in the position of a law Enforcer blindly loyal to the Emperor, he has moments of compassion – rarely but he does – and it cheapens his eventual redemption - takes away from his character more so than expands on it.
He shouldn't have side quests for personal gain or show mercy here and there. That's kind of the point of Vader and his arc - no one except for his kid can get through to him because he's a serial killer sealed in a mechanical suit with crippling depression and borderline personality disorder.
But naturally, Disney+ does not give a damn about my or anyone's feelings on the matter, and we have oh so much more content coming starring the number one sand hater in the Galaxy. And why should they heed our feelings? Obi-Wan Kenobi has brought a viewership of over two million households to their show.
A far greater number than the Mandalorian or the Book of Boba Fett.
Disney, man. It's coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere.
Obi-Wan Kenobi Finally Apologized after 45 years
Now I am going to say something you are not supposed to say.
The only reason why people love Obi-Wan Kenobi is Ewan McGregor's number one – incomparable charisma, number two – one-liners, and number three – the memes.
Sir Alec Guinness's legendary status aside, Kenobi was a solidly built mentor to Luke Skywalker and an intriguing character wrapped in a mystery, but it didn't go beyond that.
The dialogue and the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan were vague enough in Lucas' first films for Disney to exploit it and develop a million different shows about it.
Objectively, stripping Obi-Wan off the face of Ewan McGregor, the likeability of the character is non-existent. His main objective is to troll Vader into snapping every chance he gets.
The fact that he's the best part of the prequel trilogy and still sucks pretty hard should tell you all you need to know.
Obi-Wan is the perfect example of a character written by five hundred different people. The operative word here is sloppy. And if there is one thing that kills a story, it's sloppiness and inconsistency.
But we are talking Shakespeare here, so let's explore the dynamic between Vader and Obi-Wan. Or Lucifer and Michael, as George Lucas would have it. Or not. Who knows? We are just riffing it. No one really knows what the hell Star Wars is.
But we love it. I know that right now, it looks like I do not, but I promise you, I do. Well, I am in a very abusive relationship with Star Wars, to be exact. I love it, but it hurts me deeply. Still, I will watch everything Star Wars until both Suns on Tatooine burn out of the freaking sky.
The idea of a prequel is a hard sell because we know how and where each character will end up. You would have to be a master storyteller to keep me on the edge of my seat during a movie that cannot go too crazy to preserve the continuity intact.
We all know that George Lucas was not in it for the money. Star Wars has always been a passion project for him, and his love for the project always comes through. Plus, let's not forget that this guy was pitching a story about space wizards to a movie studio during the times when computers weighed more than the Empire State Building.
But what does Disney say about passion and love for the project? Well, we have this internal Paramount memo from 1982 written by Mr. Eisner, the former Chief Executive Officer of Disney:
"We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective."
Do not be fooled by the fact that this happened in 1982, because this is very much the altar Disney worships at and the hill they will die on to this day.
And so, we've ended up with this really bizarre, disjointed streaming platform where creativity goes to die and where Disney launders its ideas to make a side coin off of nostalgia.
I can't say that I hate absolutely everything that Disney does with Star Wars - I kind of love how every movie, cartoon, series, or comic that Vader appears in turns into a survivalist horror – because that's how it theoretically should be.
I don't know how kids react to Vader these days, but my generation, our parents' generation, and even our grandparents' generation – when we saw Darth Vader for the first time, he was the most terrifying figure in film history. And if you ask me, he still is.
We had nightmares about this guy and his strained, machine-like breathing, choking people with some weird magic that only he had, mindlessly mowing them down with his glowing red electric stick.
I'm so glad the national treasure James Earl Jones is still around to voice him. Vader would not be nearly as fearsome without his creepy, robotic voice-modulator-like performance.
So, Disney does have a good understanding of Vader, if nothing else, and they have given us some epic, unforgettable moments since they took over.
Here's the thing, think of Disney+ as a street money-changer in former East Germany, where you cannot exchange currency properly because it's kind of illegal.
You have expectations of getting the equivalent of your original value, but unfortunately, the source is inclined to miscount your money. They are standing on a sketchy train platform and wearing rugged old Nikes smuggled through a crack in the Berlin wall.
You will get your money, but it's shabby, the notes are half-torn, and some of it is missing.
Remember when I said, "Use Vader sparingly?" Well, I stand by that, but if we decide to make a show and call it Obi-Wan Kenobi, doesn't it beg the question of why it's not about Obi-Wan Kenobi?
Disney does this thing where they make a show about a character the internet loves for a quick cash grab and then go out of their way to cram as much unnecessary side plot about everyone else around the titular character's life except for the titular character.
They did it to Loki, they did it to Boba Fett, they did it to Hawkeye, and now, Obi-Wan Kenobi is the latest victim of that nasty habit.
If there ever existed a reason (which it kinda doesn't) to justify the existence of this show, it would be to see Kenobi apologize to Anakin. Which is also one of the three good scenes in the entire show.
Ever since I re-watched the prequels as an adult, there has always been a major disconnect between Vader and Anakin, as if my brain couldn't really believe that the maniacal fascist in the suit is, in fact, the obnoxious kid from the sand planet, despite witnessing the transition with my own eyes.
Honestly, that's probably because Anakin's turn to the dark side is more jarring and sudden than Daenerys's. And just like with Game of Thrones, I had an out-of-body experience when re-watching and went into freeze mode to survive the trauma.
The biggest testament to its clumsy execution is that people can't stop joking about Anakin murdering 8-year-olds. It's such an out-of-the-blue decision that people had to create a new league of superior meme-ing to emotionally process it.
George Lucas made the critical mistake of separating Obi-Wan and Anakin and had them go on their own adventures during their trilogy, so we don't see much of their relationship.
Every chance we get to build up their friendship, Lucas decides to have his actors say lines that make them visibly uncomfortable and make us ponder questions like: "What is English?" or "Do I speak English?" or "Is that even English?"
Take the scene where Palpatine tries to convince Anakin to leave the unconscious Obi-Wan behind, to let him die after they've saved him. Perfect opportunity for Anakin to say what he feels like: "He's my friend," or "I can't just leave him here."
That would have made more sense, no?
Apparently not, because what he actually says is: "His fate will be the same as ours."
What does that mean?
Well, converse with your priest and make peace with your God before departing this world, because you will not get an answer to that question in this lifetime.
People say it's the "Shakespearean dialogue," but as someone who studied Shakespeare, I can promise you that saying big vague words and being overly verbose with them is not the key to a Shakespearean dialogue. But at least it does confirm the validity of this essay.
That George Lucas tried to write a Shakespearean tragedy and managed to produce unlimited free real estate for memes instead.
When there is a rare moment when we do see Kenobi and Anakin together, it's like nails scratching against the blackboard. They bicker constantly.
I wouldn't say these two characters don't have any chemistry; quite the opposite, actually.
But to spew George's dialogue and try to connect with your acting partner at the same time is a doomed endeavor.
Right off the bat, after Qui-Gon dies, Anakin's training falls under Obi-Wan's responsibility. It is clear from the beginning that these two really don't want to be stuck with each other.
But it's not written that way. What we see and what the characters try to convince the audience of is in such severe emotional dispute that it feels like our sensors are being torn apart by the contrarian nature of what George had intended and what we actually got to see.
Suppose the dynamic between Anakin and Obi-Wan was written as intended. In that case, Banquo and Macbeth, where Anakin is Macbeth and Kenobi is Banquo - his most trusted friend - and we are assured by the older Kenobi in the original trilogy that they were good friends and that Anakin essentially became a victim of Vader - his violent impulses – the impact of Anakin's betrayal wouldn't have felt so empty.
And it does feel empty because these two can't stand each other. It's like watching a pair of sassy cats fighting over the same turf with lightsabers for three movies straight.
There is no sign of a genuine brotherly bond anywhere. Instead, Obi-Wan spends the entirety of two minutes pondering whether he should kill his "best friend" before he spits out some more lousy dialogue, cuts Anakin's limbs off and leaves him to perish in the lava.
Sure, there are warm ( usually 180-turn, out-of-place) moments of fondness, but for the most part, Anakin scowls at Obi-Wan, and he scowls right back at him.
We barely see them interact, there is nothing to latch onto, we don't know Obi-Wan's heart or his character traits, and we don't know how he really feels about Anakin except for one brief, jolting scene where, after three movies of nothing but pure irritation at best and harsh criticism at worst, we see him awkwardly praise Anakin for his wisdom and strength.
And that's only because that scene is supposed to serve as their final goodbye before Ani goes nuts and turns from a troubled but kind-hearted guy into a child-murdering attack dog for the Nazis in less than ten minutes.
So, bringing back Obi-Wan twenty years later cannot be justified in any way except with "let's make some money," especially not by gluing these two to the bow of the ship and leading with "We are exploring these two characters."
And then not do it at all.
It doesn't explore anything, it doesn't even add to Kenobi's character except for the final confrontation that should have been the whole point of creating the series and fixing the disconnect between Anakin's split personalities.
But Director Debora Chow had to center the series around the horrific nature of Order 66 just so we would start taking Anakin's turn seriously. That's how much of a meme the killing of younglings is.
Yes, there are things to like about the little that they added to Obi-Wan's temperament. I do love the portrayal of Obi-Wan's adoration for Anakin's children.
I love how much he loves Luke and Leia. I like the respect Obi-Wan shows when describing to Leia how exceptional her parents were.
I like that the first time he sees Vader tear through a village and mercilessly snap necks left and right, he's so bone-chillingly petrified that he bolts from the scene Fast and Furious-style instead of fighting him.
I like that Kenobi's old, depressed, and has PTSD because, after everything he's been through, he should. I like that anyone from his old life who interacts with him rips him a new one at every opportunity they get. Because they should.
I like how, in their confrontation and subsequent conversation, we understand that Anakin and Obi-Wan hate themselves more than they hate each other.
But despite these few moments of well-structured characterization, the 2022 version of Kenobi just doesn't jive with the rest of the saga. And that's why it's so frustrating to watch it.
Vader in this show, however, is another story altogether.
Ewan McGregor repeated multiple times on a tour of promo interviews for Obi-Wan Kenobi in different iterations that seeing Hayden walk towards him in that robotic suit scared the hell out of him:
"… and then you see fu**ing Vader charge at you, it scared the s**t out of me. I don't think I've ever had genuine fear on an acting set, and I've done horror movies, he's terrifying."
You can't blame him, Vader wasn't very menacing twenty years ago, was he? Nowhere near as horrifying as the Vader part of Anakin should have been.
Not many actors get a chance to redeem their most prominent roles and rectify the mistakes of the past, and boy, did Hayden Christensen absolutely nail it.
From the brief flashback of a training duel where Vader's anger and frustration ever so slightly seep into his features to his distempered, crazed eyes and delirious grin, once Obi-Wan slices his mask in half and cuts his respirator open - and we get to see what Obi-Wan sees.
This man is a deranged mess.
Obi-Wan calls him "Anakin" and apologizes for letting him down. Anakin absolves him, gives him peace, and gives him a blessing to let it go. And my Star Wars nerdy-loving heart breaks just a little bit.
Because that kind of good writing and brilliant direction from that scene, kids, is what we could have seen when we were ten years old.
If only someone had violently ripped the directorial chair and screenplay out of George Lucas' hands and kept only his concept ideas.
If he only put so much time into writing Anakin's dialogue as he did picking his hairstyle.
"It's like poetry, it rhymes."
So, here we are. Hayden Christensen. A dude playing a dude disguised as another dude.
They say it's best to start at the beginning. In this case, the beginning of understanding Anakin Skywalker is rooted in our perception of Darth Vader.
How is Anakin introduced to us? Before the prequels, the understanding was limited. (It would have been fine by me if it stayed that way, but it's too late for that now).
We heard characters talk about him to his children, we knew he had the heart of a knight, excelled at everything he touched, and was extraordinarily powerful.
Snippets of a person the characters (and even Vader himself) completely separate in the way they talk about him from the person they now know as Darth Vader.
Then we had evidence of what remained: a seven-foot-tall, glowing-sword-wielding-space-wizarding Joseph Goebbels serving the mustache-twirling Adolf Hitler in a cape.
We learn that the man they treat as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde does not take any special serum to transform or forcefully sever one part from the other.
It's the same guy, both capable of executing Order 66 (the real-life equivalent to Hilter's Operation Hummingbird) and killing the guy who ordered him to do it to save his son years later.
Writing a character this deeply torn apart by his own paranoia and fear, never mind executing it believably, is a tall order. That's why the prequels are redundant, among being, in general, a huge mess.
Because they're too much. Anakin and his sixty-six personalities is too much. An allegory for eating KFC every day for sixty-six years. He needs to be treated with respect, distance, and subtlety.
All "Force of Nature" characters do, and it seems like whoever proofread George Lucas' work in the 1970s was clearly not around to do it in the 2000s.
Too much of a good thing can kill you. Now imagine too much of that thing has been deprived of the pleasant taste it used to give you, plus it still kills you anyway.
Vader does not appear extensively in the original trilogy, but when he is on screen, oh, the feels.
And let me remind you that the whole point of revisiting Star Wars thirty years after the original trilogy was to explain how Vader became Vader.
Instead, we got … well, that. But to iterate my original point, none of that was Hayden's fault.
People are warming up to that fact because the information and the inner technical workings of film-making are now more accessible and more discussed than in the 2000s.
But we want to be thorough, so we will make it a thing anyway.
An actor's performance is 90% screenplay/direction and 10% acting talent. If you don't believe me, allow me to present exhibit A and share with you my favorite past-time hobby: Watching the behind-the-scenes footage of George Lucas "directing" Hayden on set, where Hayden looks -
- utterly confused:
- utterly perplexed:
- utterly done:
- or my personal favorite - all of the above:
It would be hilarious if it wasn't so sad.
This man was later in his career nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG award, by the way.
The lifeless performances around him only enhanced the goofiness. I guess these people really wanted to be in Star Wars, but when they read the script, they collectively decided to simply labor through it.
No one could be bothered to act on that set.
Natalie Portman gave up halfway through prequel no. 2 after the real MVP of Star Wars – the "I don't like sand" speech, Ewan McGregor, who was the only one who knew what kind of project he was on, decided to just be himself, not to mention Samuel L. Jackson or Liam Neeson who, also didn't inject any sort of life into Windu and Qui-Gon Jinn respectively.
So, we have an overload of a Leviathan scale villain written both overwhelmingly and underwhelmingly at the same time, an over-the-top performance by an actor who couldn't figure out what it was the director wanted him to do, an overload of visual effects to the point you're not watching a movie but playing Playstation 2. By the end, you are no longer sure who or what Vader is.
If an audience doesn't know, rest assured, no one on that set knew either. If Coleridge was alive, he would give up on being a critic after seeing this bungled, disappointing chaos.
All of this is the reason why Transcendentalism and Motiveless Malignity in Anakin falls flat on its stupid face. Because we shouldn't be able to pinpoint the exact moment when those philosophies meet. They should overlap naturally.
It's not a jump off a cliff, it's a steady calm fall. Or it should be.
But we can tell when it happens. When he decides on a whim that he's going to tear through an orphanage of Jedi trainees and massacre everyone he knows and loves based on a vague promise.
I can pinpoint the hour, minute, and second on the runtime bar. And I shouldn't be able to do that.
It insults the genius Juggernaut nature of Vader's character more than any dumb soliloquy about sand that George could come up with.
(Still. I can't believe that "I don't like sand, it's coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere" is an actual line that came out of Darth Vader's mouth, and no one can do diddly-squat about it.)
I've heard complaints about undermining Anakin's reasoning for turning to the dark side because he was passed over for a promotion.
That's not it. In fact, that's the only aspect congruent with the Shakespearean villain. Being denied what is rightfully yours.
The sense of entitlement - destroyed, the years of dedication to the cause - wasted. The denied ambition by superiors shtick was the driving engine for Frank Underwood, who is the embodiment of the Shakespearean villain and an extremely well-written one.
And I have to assume that it was the Macbethian fall George intended from the indications given: A soldier of valor seduced by ambition and fear gets passed over for promotion by an overly self-righteous friend he betrays.
But it just ain't working, my dude.
The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker
If you managed to get to this point, congratulations, thank you, and hopefully, you now see a pattern in George Lucas' fractured characterization.
And the thread that connects them all is called literature.
Anakin Skywalker is written like a literary hero, not a cinematic one, and everything else around him – the pacing, the convoluted plot, the story structure, and the one-liners all have a bookish quality to them.
The constant telling instead of showing, characters describing to us things that happened that we never get to see on screen, the weird dialogue – yes, it is a sin to "tell not show" in book writing as well, but it's not such an obviously disturbing element in a book as it is on a silver screen.
No matter how much George thinks of himself as a filmmaker, he studied literature early on in his life, and everything he creates reeks of literary skills.
He has a wild imagination, his world-building is extraordinary, and his creativity is boundless.
But those qualities do not make you a screenwriter. They hardly make you a director, and there is a reason those two jobs are entirely separate and usually assigned to two different people. Not everyone can be James Cameron. And that's completely fine.
So, if you ask yourself why Anakin's writing is all over the place, that's because George Lucas wrote a book series and called it a movie script.
Back in the seventies, he probably had a script doctor who fixed all the issues and produced those beautiful films that the original trilogy is.
Check the credits, Empire Strikes Back is the best of all of them, and it's also the only one that George had the least to do with on a technical level of film-making.
J. K. Rowling pulled the same stunt with the Fantastic Beast saga. That's why everything about those movies is broken as well.
Screenwriting and book writing could not be more different from one another. Movies usually follow a three-act structure. It's the most straightforward, easiest to execute, and the most accessible for audiences to digest. It works, so directors use it the most.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
When I re-watched the prequel trilogy as an adult with critical thinking, I was so done that I would have taken any structure. Even a made-up one. Just give me something, man. I will take anything at this point.
No such luck.
And it took me twenty years and three college diplomas to figure out what the real problem with Anakin is.
The Phantom Menace has some of the most disturbing dialogue about slavery I have ever heard, and it baffles me that people don't have a bigger problem with it.
Some of the things they say are thirty-one kinds of wrong.
I get it. Watching the movie feels like being injected with an elephant tranquilizer, so it's hard to ponder the meaning of the dialogue when the line delivery makes you feel like you're dead.
I've heard plenty of commentary on the insulting nature of Jar-Jar, aka the racist Jamaican, and yeah, while Jar-Jar is probably the most idiotic addition, he is not nearly as damaging as Watto.
Because Jar-Jar technically doesn't hurt anybody. Watto, on the other hand, the Jewish-Paul-Giamatti-faced-spoof-Italian-accented enslaver who is literally some sort of flying vermin type, pains me deeply.
It's not about introducing slavery into the picture; it's about how the characters treat it, talk about it and deal with it, especially since, you know, Anakin, the main character, is a ten-year-old child slave.
These are some lines spoken by the heroes of the story—the Jedi—the elite group of warrior-monks sworn to protect the Galaxy - to the afore-mentioned child slave:
"I haven't come here to free slaves."
"Why do I feel like we have picked up another pathetic life form?"
"I tried to free your mother, Ani, but Watto wouldn't have it."
Oh, wow, thanks for nothing then, all-powerful wizard. It´s the effort that counts, I guess.
By the way, I don't think anyone needed to see Darth Vader as an annoying kid who develops a creepy mother-son dynamic with a girl he will marry one day.
If you think that little Leia in Obi-Wan Kenobi looks too young to be ten years old, go re-watch (at your own risk of falling into a coma) Phantom Menace - where ten-year-old Anakin, who looks like he's seven, flirts with his future wife who is supposed to be fourteen but looks twelve.
Star Wars is not great at keeping the plot continuity, but at least we know they've mastered the continuity of miscasting children just fine.
If we assume that the reason George Lucas decided to write The Phantom Menace, omitting Anakin's conflict entirely and showing him as a child, then the intent had to be to establish Anakin's state of slavery and the inherent desire to break free along with establishing the Transcendentalism of his character, the intrinsic goodness within him.
Except those two things are inevitably on a direct collision course. Anakin can't make decisions to "want to help everyone, that's who he is," as his mother tells us, or, rather, beats us over the head with it, because helping people who can potentially free him and his family from slavery automatically implies self-serving intent.
It is clear that once Anakin figures out that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Jedi, he goes out of his way to help so that he can bargain himself and his mother out of slavery.
If that wasn't confusing enough, once Qui-Gon Jinn and Kenobi free Anakin but fail to free his mother, they take him to meet with the Jedi council that proclaims after talking to him for three minutes that this enslaved, frightened child who had just been ripped away from his mother is evil.
Why? Well, converse with your priest and make peace with your God before you depart this world, because you will not get an answer to that question in your lifetime.
This kind of entangled writing only occurs when you write backwards with the fate that awaits Anakin in mind instead of focusing on the story at hand.
Then we have Episode II – Attack of the Clones, where the Clones never actually attack, and a teenage Anakin Skywalker who has absolutely nothing in common with his younger self from The Phantom Menace and is now making sinister eyes at everyone.
The entire plethora of characters in these movies changes personalities based on which part of the trilogy they're in or which scene they are acting in. And Anakin gets it the worst.
The kind-hearted kid from the last movie is gone, and now we get to know the other side of the coin, the psychotic one.
Ani's mother dies, he goes ballistic and wipes out an entire village of people he holds responsible for her death. The problem with that is not Anakin's action and reaction. The problem is his loved ones' actions and reaction.
It is never explicitly said whether Anakin tells anyone else except the Emperor and his girlfriend, but her lack of concern over this little genocide of his is blatant character assassination.
If the inherently pure-hearted queen Padmé who one movie earlier screamed "Justice for all!" marries the guy who just slaughtered a bunch of people, that tells the audience: He was justified in doing that. There is no conflict, no shift in morality.
Compare this to Banquo's learning that Macbeth, his best friend, has gone bonkers – Banquo is horrified, flees, and switches allegiance to join the opposing side that he believes in fighting for the restoration of peace and sanity.
A villain's morality is defined as much by his actions as it is by his loved ones' reactions to the demise of that very morality. Their behavior forms and establishes the world they live in and the code they abide by. What they deem as wrong and what they deem as right. Societal rules, culture, a way of life.
If you set a story in an environment, timeline, universe, or society that is so clearly different from the way we – humans in the 21st century on planet Earth, distinguish between right and wrong in a general sense– then the writing has to be consistent and precise to establish how the characters inhabiting their society/peer group see life.
When the Jedi murder murderers, it's presented as justice, but when Anakin does it, it's presented as malice.
And we haven't even gotten to the movie that was allegedly the entire point of revisiting Star Wars in the first place – How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader?
Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Meet a new Anakin. Again. Now he's back to his pre-murderous spree phase, piloting around, upholding the Jedi order.
I mean, sometimes. Sometimes he's brooding by the window of his Downtown Manhattan apartment, pondering treason and hating the Jedi council because they're hazing him again for no reason other than they know the movie's plot.
Anakin goes from Macbeth pre-madness to Hamlet post-madness, to Iago, to Claudius, to Hamlet pre-madness, and then back to Macbeth post-madness.
In a DVD featurette for Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas said, "Anakin is a victim."
Okay, but a victim of what?
Well, converse with your priest and make peace with your God before you depart this world, because you will not get an answer to that question in your lifetime.
There is a myriad of whys behind Anakin's choices, but they are presented in a chaotic, obscure way, and all of those whys, just like all of those underdeveloped, underwritten relationships he has with his loved ones and his enemies alike, are lackluster.
Fear of losing his wife, anger issues, the Emperor's manipulations, yadda, yadda. Those are, as per Coleridge's critique of a villain, rationalizations, not believably presented motivations unless written and supported by the evidence otherwise.
And in a classic hero-to-villain trope, rationalizations would have worked just fine because those heroes are usually already established as flawed humans, not transcendentalist characters.
Knowing what we know about Anakin's origins, his supposed wisdom, strength, and conviction about the sacred nature of the Force, aka the Godly power that is the origin of all (and his) life and that he's so tuned into, like no other being before him - joining the dark side with the reasoning George gave us is the equivalent of Jesus joining Romans because Pontius Pilate tells him he could spare his parents and the entire human race a great deal of suffering.
If only he just stopped being so damn difficult.
Anakin seeks help, but everyone is either blind, stupid, ignorant, or all of the above to justify his feeling of being alienated, betrayed, and cornered.
His wife, a former warrior queen Padmé, leading a nation in restoring freedom in previous narrations, spends the entire movie pregnant and crying in the living room.
Obi-Wan sees Anakin's anger and discontent but ignores it. Windu keeps badgering him, and Yoda, supposedly the wisest, most compassionate being in the Galaxy, basically tells him: Just stop caring so much, bro.
Detach from your compassion and love for your wife, unborn child, and best friend.
There you go. Problem solved.
The funniest thing about it is that this blasé dismissal is the only consistent writing choice for the Jedi since they say the same thing to his kid twenty years later.
They say the same thing that indirectly led Anakin on the path to becoming the biggest monster in the history of monsters to his son. Almost verbatim.
Sorry dude, your father is evil, kill him and let your friends die, too, lol. Whatevs.
Anakin spends his entire life bouncing from one form of enslavement to another.
He upgrades from slavery to indentured servitude to unlawful recruitment.
From the moment we learned that Anakin was born into slavery, the engine of his inner conflict and subsequent fall should have been shown as a struggle and failure to break free from bondage. The only narratively sensible reasoning for the Jesus-like savior character of Anakin, to do a one-eighty towards evil, is to make his turn to the dark side of his struggle to escape servitude.
Because that's the underlying motivation, it's just presented awkwardly and laid under sixty-six different reasons of dumb that we couldn't figure it out even if we were the brightest planet in the solar system.
Everyone constantly tells him what to do, how to feel, how to love, who to love, who to hate, when to fight, and where to go.
Yes, there are brief, subtle peeks when you can tell how much he craves to be free. That he has a profound, more evolved understanding of the issue when he schools his girlfriend about how archaic and downright tyrannical the Jedi rules are:
"Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi's life. So, you might say that we are encouraged to love."
But he also says that their political system is broken, and maybe brutal dictatorship is the way to go.
"Well, if it works."
Because dictatorship over his life is all he has ever known, he can't even grasp the concept of having agency over his life, even if he desperately craves it.
There is only one power higher than any God that even Gods respect.
And that power is free will.
The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker is that he hadn't come to fully realize he was a slave his whole life.
Until his son destroyed the illusion of free will his enslavers had given him. By offering him a choice without conditions.
Luke didn't judge or criticize him like his mentor, he didn't fail to set boundaries like his wife, and he never gave up on him like his brotherhood.
That little nod Luke gives him after Vader says that it's too late for him and that he has to surrender him to the Emperor is the single most brilliant screenwriting direction in all of Star Wars and one of the most beautiful moments in all of cinematic history.
That nod means: I respect your choice. I can't condone it. I disagree with it. But I will gladly die if it means that it is your choice and yours alone.
The camera zooms in on Vader as he leans against the railing and ponders what just happened. He finally wakes up and realizes that - no, that's not his choice. That's not what he wants. He just didn't know it because no one ever gave him a choice he wasn't manipulated into or conditioned by.
Luke shows him unconditional love, by promising to love him despite his horrific past. That's the kind of connection that Anakin has craved and doesn't want to let go of. That's what finally resonates and ultimately redeems him.
There are many reasons why Luke Skywalker is the epitome of a true hero and probably the best-written hero in the fiction genre.
It is far easier to condemn a monster than to show it compassion.
But Luke's compassion is on an entirely different level. Not because there are no limits to it, but because he doesn't expect, require or feel entitled to hold everyone else to the same standard.
He holds a funeral for his father alone. He doesn't force his sister, friends, or anyone else who can't find that much compassion in them to be there.
He doesn't hold a court of self-righteous speeches and preaches to the entire galaxy how they should or shouldn't feel.
He burns his father's body alone and says goodbye to him alone.
"I burn his armor and with it the name of Darth Vader. May the name of Anakin Skywalker be a light that guides the Jedi for generations to come. Rest well, Father. The Force is with you."
And that's why I love Star Wars. Compassion heals, love redeems, and free will is the greatest, unalienable gift of all.
All six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are now streaming on Disney+. You can watch the trailer here: