Michael O’Connor descends into a Sarlaac Pit of moral ambiguity to explore the compromised heroism of the Old Republic, painted in shades of gray.
Heroes and villains; good versus evil; Jedi against Sith. Star Wars is clear cut, right? Wrong. Michael delves into the masterwork of crafting a story of profound moral ambiguity while avoiding the pitfalls of anti-heroes. This is Power to the Prequels. -Ed.
My brain had just been rewired. In the final moments of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker looked at his mechanical hand and compared it to Vader’s robotic stump. His lightsaber blade poised to strike and kill his enemy, he hesitated, deactivated his weapon and threw it away as the Emperor approached him, perplexed and irritated.
“You’ve failed, your highness.” Luke says. “I am a Jedi. Like my father before me.”
This wasn’t how 80s action movies were supposed to end. The good guy is justified in killing the bad guy. And the bad guy is Darth Vader. Of that, there can be no doubt. If three films of evil hi-jinks wasn’t enough evidence to convince us, we had The Jedi, the ultimate good guys in the Star Wars galaxy, the wise mentors as personified by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, telling Luke in no uncertain terms that he must kill Vader; he couldn’t be saved. He was all evil. More machine than man.
Instead our action hero opens himself to attack from the Emperor by discarding his weapon, sacrifices himself for the ideals of true heroism, true love. Hope and honor.
It’s our first indication that the old ways, the old institutions, the old guard maybe aren’t so flawless and pure after all. Maybe, just maybe, the Jedi were wrong. Compare that notion with the starkly defined concepts of good and evil as represented in the original Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back. The Rebels are morally pure. The Empire unrepentantly evil. About the closest we get to moral ambiguity is whether Han shoots first or not.
Even the design, the colors, the costuming scream the difference between the moral opposites. Good wears earth-toned fabrics and Evil wears black and white armor… or Nazi grey uniforms. But how does Return of the Jedi begin? With our hero paradoxically dressed all in black.
Return of the Jedi is our first real hint in the Star Wars saga that neither good nor evil is absolute, that there are gradations of moral ambiguity in this galaxy just as in our own world.
But if Jedi hinted, the prequel trilogy articulates. As it turns out, there are various shades of gray in that galaxy far, far away.
For some critics, this difference between the original trilogy’s classical heroism and the prequels’ flawed and compromised characters was an indication of some sort of failure on Lucas’ part. As if he had somehow not realized what he was doing. As if he inadvertently made his heroes complicit in the Empire’s rise to power. The magic trick here is taking the perceived ultimate good of the original trilogy, as epitomized by the Jedi, and revealing that Obi-Wan’s “certain point of view” happens to be filtered through rose-tinted glasses as well. Similarly, the bad guys of the Clone Wars era? Well, they weren’t really THAT bad.
Lucas clearly intended to tell a different story. If the OT was a romanticized vision of World War II heroics and villainy, the PT is the morally dubious conflicts of World War I and the fallout events that caused its “sequel.” Lucas decided to take his morally pure galaxy and interject a couple of revolutionary questions: What if the enemies weren’t so obvious? What if the good guys sometimes made the wrong decisions?
The Phantom Menace is the first film to introduce this new dynamic of moral ambiguity, and it does so slyly. On the surface, the film is an optimistic, colorful fantasy of a couple of swashbuckling samurai rescuing a child Queen and meeting a gifted slave boy who can help save the galaxy from the slimy Trade Federation and its Sith leaders. But beneath that cheerful facade is a sweatshop of horrors. It is so markedly different from the original trilogy films that even watching it today, it feels like an outlier to the saga. An intentional exclamation point that requires further study. Successive films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith ditch the happy veneer altogether and connect more visibly with the original trilogy, but they double-down on the moral ambiguity that TPM introduced to the saga.
What all three films have in common is a commitment to good guys that aren’t all good and bad guys that aren’t all bad.
That may not sound like much of an accomplishment. We are in an age of storytelling where the anti-hero reigns supreme, although the term does lose some of its meaning when classical heroes are so rare and just about every film protagonist is flawed and vulnerable to sin or temptation. The problem with the moral ambiguity of the modern day anti-hero is when the story revolving around him or her bends over backwards to justify their sordid actions. It’s either a morally bankrupt world in which nobody is good, so the anti-hero is heroic in comparison, or it’s an anti-hero who does terrible things but has some redeeming characteristic that draws the audience’s sympathy.
Nevertheless, the majority of these characters are rarely faced with the true consequences of the actions they take; stories rarely dwell on the aftermath of a righteous killing or act of violence, and if they do, it’s only to set-up the next obstacle for our anti-hero to eventually gun down as well.
The difference with the prequel Jedi is that they are not really anti-heroes, but they aren’t classical heroes either like Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. They are something else, almost in-between.
Unlike anti-heroes, they don’t operate from the streets or the backwaters; they aren’t vigilantes or criminals with hearts of gold. Rather they are the authority, the idealized leaders, the wise monks with the stringent code of ethics. To anyone who has seen the original trilogy, they are mythic and grand, until you actually meet them in the PT, that is. Then you witness their moral shortcomings, their blindness, their coldness; but unlike anti-heroes, these traits are not affectations to make them edgy and cool; their moral shortcomings are alarming and uncomfortable because we have been encouraged to think of them as above reproach.
And most importantly, unlike the more common anti-hero narratives, the narrative world of the Jedi is not devoid of morality. There is still good and there is still evil in the Star Wars galaxy, but the prequel trilogy also offers moral ambiguity and demonstrates that good isn’t always easy or even obvious. Had there been no underlying moral barometer, it would be too easy to entirely sympathize with Anakin’s decision to turn to the dark side. Seeing it the way that Lucas presents it, we are given just enough of an emotional and narrative reason for his turn, but are removed just enough to hate him for making the fateful choice to join the dark side. Unlike the more common anti-hero protagonists, Anakin’s decisions ultimately repulse us, anger us, frustrate us. We are on his side until he makes a decision that we cannot condone.
That’s the delicate balancing act of the prequel trilogy; it doesn’t work if the heroes are too good or too flawed, or the villains are too evil or not evil enough. Lucas is weaving an elaborate fairy tale that still has a remarkably grounded and humanistic moral at the center of its story: no one is all good or all evil; we are all shades of either extreme, but at any given point you have a choice to make the right decision or the wrong decision. And the more wrong decisions you make, the more difficult it is to start making the right ones again.
The Jedi, for all their moral certitude, make a lot of bad choices over the course of the prequel trilogy, and part of the problem is that their rigid code of ethics gives them a sense of misguided propriety over the galaxy. The Council is an arrogant, haughty group, sitting atop their figurative (or is it literal?) ivory tower removed from the common man. Mace Windu, in particular, is a scowling character who seems fond of putting fools in their place, whether it’s a fellow Jedi like Qui-Gon Jinn or Anakin Skywalker or an adversary like Count Dooku or Chancellor Palpatine.
But the most telling moment for the character may come in Revenge of the Sith, when he insists to Anakin that Palpatine is “too powerful to be left alive!” It can’t be a coincidence that Lucas has him parroting a line Palpatine said to Anakin earlier in the film after Skywalker insists that killing an unarmed Dooku is not the Jedi Way. “He was too dangerous to be kept alive,” Palpatine casually notes in that moment.
If Luke throwing away his lightsaber in Return of the Jedi rewired my brain, that moment in Revenge was knocking down walls. We see things through conflicted Anakin’s eyes: maybe the Jedi and the Sith aren’t so different after all…
Of course, Windu isn’t the only Jedi guilty of moral ambiguity, arrogance and hypocrisy. Even the noblest Jedi of the prequel trilogy, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, are not without their occasional prejudices. Obi-Wan’s query to Qui-Gon about picking up “another pathetic creature” on Tatooine is about as colonial-white-man’s-burden as Star Wars gets. And Qui-Gon’s boneheaded remark about not “actually” coming to Tatooine to rescue slaves comes across as pretty condescending and snotty too, especially from a guy who so values the Living Force.
And then there’s the whole notion of Jedi taking infant children away from their parents to train them to become Jedi. I’d like to think that the parents have a say in the matter (the film never says one way or the other), but even so, the child certainly has no say. He or she is bred to join the order and to forego all attachment and paternal love without any choice. At least Anakin gets to decide to devote his life to serving the Republic (even if he’s only thinking about the cool parts like flying around in spaceships and swinging around a lightsaber).
Even Master Yoda isn’t blameless. For a guy who lectures Anakin about not giving into fear because it will lead to suffering, Yoda’s choice to share the existence of the clone army and support the Senate’s vote to grant Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers to use this army is dictated by FEAR of the Separatists’ droid forces. Is there any other Jedi in the Star Wars saga who had remained so unblemished, so purely noble up until this point? And yet, Yoda sacrifices his ethical and moral superiority by not only accepting the clone army but escorting them into battle. The clones, it should be emphasized, are human beings created in a test tube and brought into existence for the sole purpose of killing and dying. Like an echo of the infants that the Jedi raise to forego attachment, but here without even the opportunity to grow into a role of anything but Soldier.
You can say that he and the Council had no alternative; after all, the Separatist army would have struck the defenseless Republic. But the Jedi Master who would go on to tell Luke that a Jedi uses the Force for “knowledge and defense, never for attack” conveniently glosses over the fact that he is the means by which the “Attack of the Clones” happens and leads to all-out war between the Republic and the Separatists.
Of course, he also says “wars not make one great” in Empire, and at the end of AOTC, we see him practically reiterate (or foreshadow) the sentiment when he calls out Obi-Wan for suggesting the Battle of Geonosis was a “victory.” It is a telling moment that shows us Yoda knows what he has done was wrong, but that he sees no other path forward. Three years later, the Jedi are still complicit in this conflict, still using clone troopers to fight a war that is an elaborate sham. These are not uncompromising heroes with entirely righteous and moral motivations; rather they are flawed individuals, propping up their ancient belief system but compromising those values at every turn.
Compare the Jedi Order with the Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy and you’ll see even more clearly the difference between the straight-forward heroism of the OT and the flawed Jedi of the prequels. The Rebels are a scrappy, scruffy looking gang, but they are immediately inclusive of new members like Luke and Han. They express sympathy to one another when hearing of a tragic loss or a death mark, they band together and exchange handshakes and backslaps when one of their own succeeds. They are exuberant and friendly and risk their lives to come to each other’s aid in battle. And we are never privy to scenes of in-fighting among peers or condescension from higher ranked members of the organization to individuals of lower rank… well, outside of Han and Leia, that is.
Until Return of the Jedi, we don’t even really see them instigate an attack against the Empire. They are always fighting a defensive game, protecting transports from escaping Hoth or confronting the Death Star because it is about to destroy them. Some revisionists have claimed you could watch the OT through the lens of the Rebels being terrorists, but this just doesn’t work if you’re paying attention. There’s nothing in the tone or the script that gives that interpretation any ground to rest on. The Empire is so convincingly and inherently evil that there is no doubt of the Rebels’ pure intentions for restoring peace to their galaxy.
Similarly, compare the Empire with the ostensibly evil army of the prequels: the Separatists. They may be bankrolled by a bunch of greedy mega-corporations like the Trade Federation and the Banking Clan, but their intention isn’t to take over the galaxy. They merely wish to secede. Even the Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace has no long-term plans to subjugate Naboo; they merely want the Queen to sign a treaty so they can resume trade. A lot of folks have trouble understanding the political machinations of these institutions, especially in The Phantom Menace. Taxation of trade routes, yadda yadda yadda. But the point is that an organization like the Federation has motivations beyond being purely evil for evil’s sake, and they are being similarly misled (like the Jedi and the Republic) by Darth Sidious.
The fact that Nute Gunray recognizes when things are “getting out of hand” and expresses anxiety about the Sith Lord’s violent strategy to invade Naboo and force Amidala to sign the treaty suggests that Gunray and the other Separatist leaders aren’t completely evil. They may be spineless and greedy and perpetrate atrocities anyway, but their hesitation suggests that they at least know right from wrong. No Imperial is ever shown stuttering in disbelief or getting a case of the shakes when told to activate the Death Star’s superlaser cannon.
For what it’s worth, I’ll admit to actually feeling a pang of pity for Nute Gunray when he meets his end at Vader’s blade on Mustafar with the other Separatist leaders. I believe him when he helplessly insists that “Lord Sidious promised us peace!” As the opening crawl from Revenge of the Sith reveals, “There are heroes on both sides” and while I’m pretty sure that’s not referring to Gunray, I do think that as nasty a group as the Separatists represent, it’s the Sith and General Grievous who are ultimately responsible for the lion’s share of the atrocities committed. The Separatists are analogues in our own world to politicians on the other side of an issue—a conservative if you’re a liberal; a liberal if you’re a conservative—and they’ve been pushed to war when a compromise would have been conceivable in a Senate chamber not being gamed by a Dark Lord of the Sith.
As I mentioned before, there is still good and evil in the prequel trilogy, even if there are oh-so-many flavors of moral ambiguity gray, from the aforementioned Jedi and Separatists to institutions like the Galactic Senate and the Kaminoan cloners and even individuals like Zam Wessel and Jango Fett. The epitome of pure evil is represented by Darth Sidious. There is seemingly nothing redeemable about him, nothing even remotely empathetic or endearing. He doesn’t think of himself as evil—“Evil is a point of view,” he tells Anakin—and the certainty and righteousness he demonstrates in his plans for revenge and “unlimited power” are the clearest, purest motivations of any character in the prequel trilogy. He knows what he is doing while everyone else stumbles around in the dark, hesitating and uncertain, losing sight of a confident path forward.
And so he serves a crucial—perhaps the MOST crucial—element of the prequel trilogy’s moral contemplations. His ultimate evil finally being exposed creates the classical heroes of the OT to counter it and combat it. Without a clear enemy, the Jedi Order, the Galactic Senate, the whole of the Star Wars galaxy bickers and backstabs and slides around the moral scales. But there is one benefit to Palpatine’s pure evil crashing down upon the galaxy; against its oppressive darkness, only the purest light can shine through.
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.
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