What makes such a flawed character as Anakin Skywalker an appealing protagonist? Michael O’Connor explains.
Michael O’Connor explains why Anakin Skywalker is his favorite Star Wars character by discussing the appeal of flawed characters, the myth of The Chosen One’s all-powerful abilities and the haunting echoes of Anakin’s ugly behavior in the real world.
When most of us think of a favorite fictional character, we have certain criteria. The character is usually inspiring to us in some way, deserving of our respect and appreciation; we find some trait or talent or characteristic enviable or enchanting. We are usually drawn to those who overcome the odds, stand up for a strongly-held belief, and demonstrate some control over their own destiny. A popular character is one who represents strength and purpose and identity.
Superman. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. Princess Leia. The list goes on and on…
I happen to be a little unusual in that I’ve always been most fascinated by characters who are flawed or vulnerable or just out-right failures. My favorite characters tend to be guys like Holden Caulfield or Benjamin Braddock, Fox Mulder or Phillip Marlowe, Patrick Bateman or Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
And in the case of the Star Wars saga, Anakin Skywalker. Specifically, Hayden Christensen’s Anakin from Episodes II and III.
That will strike many as a strange choice. After all, Anakin is kind of a disaster. He’s petulant, he’s arrogant, he’s always whining about something, and he isn’t even very good at his job. In Attack of the Clones, he’s losing lightsabers left and right, getting his ass kicked by bounty hunters and Sith, and just generally screwing up his mission to protect Senator Amidala. One of the only examples of his true Force potential and fighting ability is when he gives in to the Dark Side (thereby making him a failure as a Jedi) and wipes out an entire tribe of Tusken Raiders. All this talk of The Chosen One to the contrary, Anakin is just not a very impressive Padawan learner.
As viewers, we’re accustomed to our heroes being a little more competent than that, especially in a fantasy sci-fi story where the heroes run around with laser swords and can call upon a mystical energy field to give them super-human abilities. The wish-fulfillment of this equation usually implies that our protagonist will be gifted with enviable physical prowess, skill, a witty sense of humor and luck. Instead Anakin is oddly ineffective and inferior in Episode II, arguably even more so than as a child in The Phantom Menace.
Similarly emasculating for the character is that he’s not much of a ladies’ man. Stumbling over weak pick-up lines only grants him awkward silences and irritated looks in response. As audiences we expect our male hero to be cool and smooth and dynamite with the opposite sex. But Anakin is a shocking disappointment not just as a Jedi-to-be but as a virile, heterosexual male too. The badass veneer is painfully transparent, exposing the vulnerable man-child beneath. He’s a Chosen One in name only in his second appearance of the prequel trilogy.
But of course, that’s the point.
The Chosen One concept is an idea older than The Bible and has made its way into plenty of stories ever since. You can see the idea dutifully repeated in plenty of superhero films, fantasy and sci-fi action epics, and even in the original trilogy. But the emphatic calling out of the literal Chosen One in the prequels ought to clue us in that Lucas is playing around behind the scenes against our expectations. As Yoda says in Revenge of the Sith, the Chosen One of the prequel era is “a prophecy that misread, could have been.”
The irony is that being The Chosen One doesn’t mean that Anakin will become “the most powerful Jedi ever” as he vows on the Lars homestead in Ep. II. His enviable midichlorian count doesn’t mean he could “rival Master Yoda as a swordsman,” a fact which becomes painfully obvious when the little green guy has to save him and Obi-Wan from Count Dooku. He may be potentially strong in the Force, but Anakin never truly lives up to that potential. Even as Darth Vader, he’s broken goods.
It’s tempting to suggest because of how badass Vader looks and sounds in the original trilogy that he is the most powerful Sith ever, but the evidence for that is thin. Sure, compared to a bunch of Rebels without any Force aptitude and his own son who takes the Cliff Notes version of how to become a Jedi he looks invulnerable, but compared to the Jedi or Sith of the prequel era in their prime? Not even close.
But being The Chosen One has nothing to do with ability or talent or Force aptitude. All we really know of the prophecy is that this individual will bring “balance to the Force” by destroying the Sith. And he does precisely that; he destroys himself and the Emperor. But it doesn’t take the most powerful Jedi ever to accomplish that feat; it only requires a loving father willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his child.
So if this isn’t a story about a character who will become the best at everything, what’s the appeal? Why care about that character? Shouldn’t the prequels just be all about Anakin being a badass and kicking butt until he turns to the Dark Side because the costumes are cooler?
The appeal, as it turns out, is the lack of appeal.
Anakin is a character for whom nothing comes easy. He struggles and doubts, grieves and shouts, cries and breaks down. He is not a character any of us would aspire to become, and yet his troubles are often relatable. We are closer to being like him than we might care to admit. Like Anakin, we ascribe to a certain philosophy and understanding of the world and yet often make ourselves hypocrites with contrary actions; like Anakin, we attempt to show the world one face–seemingly confident and capable–but fail at convincing anyone of that face; like Anakin, we make bold actions that we attempt to convince ourselves and others offer the best path forward even as we internally doubt and obsess over these choices; like Anakin, we get angry and emotional sometimes and when we let it out, we don’t usually look cool or badass. We look like jerks.
We may not want to look in a mirror and see Anakin staring back at us, but surely all of us have felt like him at some point in our lives. Beset by failures or feeling inferior or unable to overcome some shortcoming, we have adopted his playbook of attitudes and emotions. Especially when we were younger.
Young men have a predilection to strut around trying to convince everybody they’re tough and untouchable. Considerable effort is expended to perpetuate the myth of their physical superiority, reputation for sexual virility, indifference to education and insistence that they already know everything worth knowing. The story of teenage Anakin is the little boy from The Phantom Menace trying to “grow up too fast” as Padme warns him. The thing that teenagers never understand is that they don’t look like adults when they act the way they do. They look like little kids trying to pretend they’re adults.
Some of us come to realize this in later years, looking back. And some of us never get it. Becoming an adult isn’t about becoming The Chosen One: stronger and smarter and more successful than anyone else. Becoming an adult is about learning empathy, humility and sacrifice. It’s about caring for other people’s needs and interests and desires rather than just your own. Retaining your childlike sense of imagination and openness to new experiences is an enviable trait at an advanced age, but clinging to the same toys of your youth and not being willing to share them shows that your childish sense of greed and entitlement hasn’t yet been purged from you.
Anakin in Episodes II and III is doing what most teenagers do; he is rejecting the imagination and openness of children and adopting the cynicism and narrow-mindedness of adults. But he still clings to his childish entitlement for attention and respect. He wants to live up to everybody’s unrealistic expectations of him. When he doesn’t, he throws tantrums and blames others for his own failures.
Like many young men, Anakin struggles with his own identity. He has wrapped up his whole raison d’etre into being the greatest Jedi of all time without understanding what that really means. The Jedi are detached and willing to sacrifice bonds with others to complete their duty, to think of the greater good. Anakin holds onto emotions and connections with friends or family greedily, unable to let go, unable to tell himself that he can’t have it all. He makes himself promises he can’t keep. He thinks he can be a Jedi and still have a healthy relationship with Padme. He think he can save everyone, because if he can’t, how can he be The Chosen One?
The Anakin of Revenge of the Sith is on the surface a more mature individual than three years prior. In the opening action sequence of the film, we are fooled into believing he’s finally the heroic character we have been waiting for: confident and skilled, physically intimidating and a far smarter and more strategic fighter. But has he evolved beyond fighting prowess? As we soon learn upon his return to Coruscant, his sense of entitlement has never been greater and his emotional maturity never lower.
He doesn’t even know why he wants to be on the Jedi Council except that he feels he deserves that respect and status. He believes he should be assigned to track down General Grievous and bring about the end of the war, because how else can he fulfill his destiny as The Chosen One and bring balance to the Force? The Jedi’s rules are getting in the way of his glory, his ability to prove himself to them and to himself. There is little of the innocent, selfless boy who “gives without any thought of reward” from The Phantom Menace. Anakin is cynical, arrogant, and ambitious for power.
Ironically, Anakin has evolved into the warrior we can start to admire even as our sympathy for him slides to its lowest point. At his physical strongest, he is also at his emotional weakest. He has doubled down internally on philosophical notions that run counter to the teachings of the Jedi even as he pays lip service to their contrary ideals. He hesitates to kill Count Dooku, but does it anyway, and largely shrugs off the moral quandary when Palpatine tells him what he wants to hear–that the easy, obvious path is the best one. Yoda tells him what he can’t bear to consider–that the death of a loved one is a natural part of life. Given the choice between two wise mentors telling him how to behave–as pleases him or what would torture him–it is no surprise which path he follows.
At the time these films were coming out, I identified with Anakin. I felt angry and confused and inferior; I was trying to measure up to personal standards that I couldn’t, or at least hadn’t, achieved. I was frustrated and uncertain about the kind of person I was supposed to be. On top of the normal day-to-day doubts and fears we all share at any age, our brain chemistry in the teenage years intensifies those concerns and amplifies our sense of despair and hopelessness. Anakin Skywalker was not a character to aspire to become, but one to aspire to avoid becoming; he was a frightening representation of who I already was and how I felt. And he was a warning of where I could lose myself.
Our modern society is filled with Anakins. Men who never grew up. Men who are angry and confused and feel lonely and isolated from everyone else. Men who can’t truly love, because love is about sacrifice and they only understand needs and power and feelings of superiority. Men who have been conditioned and groomed on too many stories of heroism as epitomized by masculine demonstrations of power and violence. Men who would walk into a room of innocent people with a loaded weapon because they feel victimized and challenged by alternative lifestyles and because some hateful philosophy exists that justifies their anger and gives voice to their fears. Some whisper of hate in their heads gives them purpose and identity and the clarity to exercise righteous fury.
The point of Anakin Skywalker as a character is not as wish fulfillment or an inspiring, powerful template to model yourself after. The point is that Anakin is either you or someone you know. He’s the guy that can’t live up to whatever dream he’s either had forced on him or taken upon himself. He’s the guy who will never be happy because simply owning things and gaining awards and commendations, money or status doesn’t in and of itself result in a better life.
Anakin is my favorite Star Wars character because he paradoxically refuses to be what I want him to be; as many times as I watch these films, he will never make the right choice; he will never stop succumbing to his greed and selfishness. He fascinates me because he’s a reminder of just how easy it is to fall to the Dark Side and how close some of us are to slipping off that precipice in our own personal moments of weakness.
About Power to the Prequels
Power to the Prequels is an ongoing column that aims to critique and analyze the Star Wars prequels and demonstrate their worth as individual films and also as components of a larger saga. The goal is neither to blindly praise these films nor condemn them but rather to specifically and respectfully consider the artistic decisions made by director George Lucas and draw conclusions that may differ from the mainstream consensus.
Michael O’Connor is a writer, filmmaker, and designer with a deep affection for film, literature, comic books… and craft beer. You can read his musings, check out his stories and watch his films at OCONNOBLOG. You can also check out his apparel company, George Shot First, and pick up a one-of-a-kind t-shirt or hat in honor of Star Wars creator George Lucas! Follow him on Twitter and Facebook at the links below.