The Star Wars prequels (Episodes I-III1) are not good films2. The debate is about which one is the worst film (the correct answer is Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones despite the Yoda lightsaber scene3). The prequels are, however, very useful in the overarching mythological narrative of the Star Wars universe4. I have come to think of them as integral to the story, but, like a terrible production of Hamlet, almost unwatchable (unlike the new Star Wars VII trailer).
Following the digital release of the first six Star Wars films, my kids have been preparing for the release of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens by watching the prequels. In the minds of my kids, Anakin Skywalker’s character is second in importance only to Ahsoka Tano. This makes Anakin’s transition from hero to villain – from good to evil – extremely dramatic to them.
It also means that Daddy has had been required to repeatedly explain the narrative arc of Darth Vader. A complete explanation of Vader’s narrative arc requires the prequels to be understood, which is why I am cautiously glad the prequels exist. What follows is the explanation of Anakin/Vader that I give my kids (WARNING: May contain pop-psychology).
Anakin Skywalker’s primary motivation is protecting the one he loves, or his fear of harm coming to them. His idea of “protecting” is on par with that of Nemo’s dad Marlin before the experience in the mouth of the whale – nothing will ever happen to you.
His quest for power to protect loved ones alienates those closest to him creating fear. That pushes him to acquire greater power to forcefully impose peace to protect the one he loves, which leads him deeper into the Dark Side of the Force. This motivation is used explicitly by Palpatine in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith to recruit Anakin.
Unlike the other Sith lords, Anakin is not motivated by greed for power, but by love (granted a very creepy, domineering, co-dependent kind of love). This is the avenue back from the Dark Side, why Anakin Skywalker can be redeemed when no other could. In Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi, he is faced with the choice between saving his son Luke or maintaining his status by supporting the Emperor. Any other Sith would have allowed Luke to die. Anakin follows his algorithm. He gives up everything, in this case his own life, to save one that he should love.
The story of a hero, with so much innate power that he believes that he can conquer death, not for his own good, but to protect his loved ones, who is torn by the decision to sacrifice all to achieve that goal and an awareness of what those costs truly are (eg, his soul, the lives and freedom of billions, etc), becoming a villain is truly compelling. In better hands, Anakin Skywalker would have been an enormously sympathetic character up until the last possible moment5. Instead, he is basically very capable and very annoying. I find that I mainly sympathize with Obi-Wan for having to put up with such an obnoxious student.
So, we can thank the prequels for giving us a coherent character arc for Darth Vader. We can also wish that they had done it in a way that did not require a decade of getting over disappointment to appreciate.
1. Somehow George Lucas convinced us all to adopt the convention of using Roman numerals at all times to refer to the Star Wars films. This was the Devil’s second best trick.
2. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the animated series wedged narratively between Episodes II and III, was a great TV show.
3. It was awesome the first time. The graphics, however, do not hold up. This applies across the board (in fact many did not hold up at the time, either), not just to Yoda – which is why so many of us are happy to hear that JJ Abrams re-comitted the franchise to the practical effects that made the original trilogy amazing.
4. This narrative thread is supported and strengthened by the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars2.
5. In the films, this is supposed to happen in Episode III, when he mercilessly kills the children training to be Jedi. More sensitive film makers who had not already laid the racist stereotyping onto the prequels with a trowel would recognize that butchering the children of the Tusken Raiders was morally equivalent to the butchering of the prettier children in the Jedi Temple.