At this point, criticizing the Star Wars prequel series is so easy to do, it’s almost not worth the effort. And yet, with each new installment of the cinematic saga, we can’t help but cast our minds back and see if what came before looks any different with the benefit of hindsight.
The Prequels promised us a Darth Vader origin story, and while they basically delivered on this, the execution was crushingly disappointing. Our collective memories of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith should be filled with images of a convincingly tortured and betrayed boy, one whose soul is slowly contorted by anger until he becomes nothing but a cyborgized husk of his former Jedi self. Instead, our lasting memories are of tortuous political subplots, flat performances, irritating sidekicks and embarrassingly awkward chat-up lines about sand.
Darth Vader is one of the greatest villains in cinematic history, and as such deserves — and needs — an origin story of similar strength. Interestingly, all of the things fans find lacking in Anakin Skywalker’s portrayal in the Prequels — grit, depth, sympathy and intrigue — are the same things that many have praised his grandson, Kylo Ren, for having in the Sequel series. In Kylo Ren, we get to see the Anakin Skywalker we should and could have had.
It’s certainly a comparison that the Sequels invite, beyond just the obvious visual and familial connections between the two villains. Ben Solo’s path to becoming Kylo Ren mirrors Anakin Skywalker’s one to Darth Vader with destined inevitability: both were considered to be “chosen” ones with the potential to grow into powerful, messianic figures in the Jedi Order; both believed themselves to be betrayed by their Jedi masters; both long for and fear companionship; both murdered young innocents to pledge themselves to the Dark Side and both were seduced by powerful and manipulative masters bent on wiping out the Jedi — and any other opposition — to rule unchallenged. Not only is this parallel a satisfying one because we know how much Kylo idolizes Vader, but it also reinforces the theme of inescapably cyclical history in the Skywalker/Solo family, and in the Star Wars mythos in general.
It would be too easy to simply say that the Sequels succeed where the Prequels fail because simply because they’re better written, feature far more compelling performances (particularly when comparing Hayden Christensen’s Anakin to Adam Driver’s Kylo) and just, well, better films in general. But, knowing how closely matched grandfather and grandson are in terms of their character arcs and personalities makes the former’s shortcomings seem less about failure and more about lost potential — which is even more frustrating.
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