The long-rumored return of Emperor Palpatine was confirmed in April with the release of the first trailer Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which ended with his chilling laugh. That triggered an avalanche of theories about how the Sith Lord, believed dead since 1983's Return of the Jedi, could rise again, and what impact he might have..
Let's weigh different ways in which the franchise's ultimate puppet master might return in the finale of the Skywalker Saga.
THE EMPEROR DIDN'T DIE
The simplest way for the Emperor to return would be if he didn't physically died at the hands of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. There's an in-universe precedent: Darth Maul was cut in two in The Phantom Menace and, against all odds, survived, becoming half-android and ready to create the crime syndicate, Crimson Dawn.
Darth Vader lost his limbs on Mustafar, and yet he functioned well with his cybernetic prosthesis. And let's not forget our favorite asthmatic villain, General Grievous, who was mostly a machine wrapped around a blackened heart and two yellow eyes. That said, even this half-life is highly unlikely.
Even if Palpatine survived the long fall, the Death Star was destroyed mere minutes afterward, and then the debris is thought to have crashed into Endor, the gas giant, and Endor's Moon, home of the Ewoks. Had Palpatine been that strong in the Force, the chances of any part of his body surviving that domino sequence of destruction are extremely low.
ONLY THE EMPEROR'S SPIRIT SURVIVED
Let's assume Palpatine's body was destroyed, but that his conscience or spirit somehow survived. We know Sith Lords can't become Force ghosts once they pass away, as the Jedi are able to, but there is evidence, both in the Extended Universe canon and now possibly in the laugh heard at the end of The Rise of Skywalker trailer, that there is life after death for a Sith.
Lord Momin, a powerful Dark Side "heretic" introduced in Marvel's Dark Vader comics, lived on beyond the grave when his consciousness became trapped in his mask, which later came into the Emperor's possession.
It remained with Palpatine until he passed it on to Vader, who employed the specter as the architect for his Mustafar fortress, a skill that Momin used to express his devotion to the Dark Side when he was alive. Momin also promised he could use his knowledge of time, life and death to help Anakin revive his dead wife, Padme. The pair eventually came to blows when Vader realized the only dead thing the deceitful lord planned to resurrect was his own body. Vader was unable to destroy the possessed mask, and it found its way back the Emperor.
Who's to say the paranoid and conniving Palpatine, whom Momin accused of "hoarding knowledge," couldn't have found a way to simulate the architect's revival method, or tap into the death-defying secrets he claimed to have? Could the ruins of what we assume is the second Death Star in Episode IX's trailer, where Palpatine died, even be (or else contain) the object to which his spirit is now attached? If so, has he been manipulating events and monitoring the ebb and flow of the Force from Endor's moon this entire time?
Momin, through the mask, was also able to control host bodies. If we assume Palpatine will try to do the same, he could very well return in a new, living vessel.
THE EMPEROR NEEDS A NEW BODY
In the miniseries Dark Empire, the Emperor was able to "return" using clones. While that's no longer canon, we can't rule out the possibility of cloned Palpatines being reintroduced. He might have one or many clones on standby; those could be either of himself as a young man or those of some other Force user, blissfully ignorant of their true purpose.
Could the perfect Palpatine host be the sequel trilogy's main heroine? Far-fetched fan theories linking Rey to the Emperor, either genetically or through the Force, have existed since the release of The Force Awakens. Confirmation of Palpatine's return will no doubt add fuel to the supposed legitimacy of wild speculation like that, as does Daisy Ridley's comment about the matter Rey's parentage being reopened in Episode IX.
Following that line of inquiry, a far easier target for the Emperor's spirit would be Kylo Ren. His new position as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and his Skywalker blood, would make him an attractive candidate for possession.
Now that we know the Emperor had a hand in the conception of his future apprentice from lightyears away, the idea of him having some kind spectral, Force-enhanced involvement in Rey or Kylo's origin is ... still far-fetched, but not entirely beyond the realm of possibility any longer.
Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalkerstars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Billie Lourd, Keri Russell, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Carrie Fisher, with Naomi Ackie and Richard E. Grant. The film arrives Dec. 20.