Why 'The Phantom Menace' Need Not Divide 'Star Wars' Fans
Sunday marks 20 years since George Lucas returned to Star Wars with his first prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Twenty years of criticism, hostility, and malice directed at a film said by many to be the lowest point in the Star Wars franchise.
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Twenty years of coming to terms with the fact that the film did not meet the lofty expectations that many fans of the original trilogy held on to for 16 years.
Twenty years of fiercely protective love and community built around a film whose director, principal performers and fans have faced their share of blaster burns.
Undoubtedly, the 20th anniversary of a film so divisive begets all kinds of retrospectives tackling where the film went wrong and why it's actually a misunderstood classic.
But after two decades of searching for answers behind the reaction, and arguing over the response to the film, those topics have been thoroughly wrung out. So what's left to say on the anniversary of one of pop culture's most frequently discussed and hotly debated films?
I can't confidently argue that the film isn't the weakest entry of the franchise. Nor would I say that it's a film that fails to live up to the expectations that come with Star Wars. What I can say is that I got to experience Episode I: The Phantom Menace at the perfect age, and my reaction to fan-dominated stories, not just for Star Wars, was sealed because of it. This is how I stopped worrying and learned to love The Phantom Menace.
I was 9 years old when The Phantom Menace was released, an age where there was no possibility of encountering spoilers, where trailers could only be seen in movie theaters and reviews were moot. I was well acquainted with Star Wars at this point, having thoroughly watched and rewatched my VHS copies of A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Return of the Jedi (1983). I only became aware that a new Star Wars film was coming a few months prior to release when my mom brought home a copy of Time magazine that covered the film. It was there that I learned the term "prequel," and that The Phantom Menace would begin a new trilogy following Anakin Skywalker's descent into Darth Vader. For as often as I rewatched the VHS copies, I reread that Time magazine, waiting for the May release date. I had no expectations for The Phantom Menace, no feelings about how Darth Vader's story should be told, or what design or linguistic elements should be retained for the OT, all of those things that older fans became consumed by. For me, The Phantom Menace was simply another entry in a series I loved, a series that I'd only been aware of for a few years. There was no sense of ownership, of being owed, of waiting for something to recapture the feeling of childhood. I was a child and Star Wars was Star Wars.
There was no disappointment felt after witnessing The Phantom Menace for the first time. I was in love with it. From the sheer awesomeness of Darth Maul and his double-bladed lightsaber, to seeing younger versions of familiar characters like Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Yoda (Frank Oz), and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), the prequel was a film experience unlike any I'd encountered before, a narrative building toward a story that had already been told. And the elements that have created so much of the negativity surrounding the film? Pod racing? Loved it. The overuse of CGI? Loved it. Jar Jar Binks? I bought the action figure. You couldn't tell me The Phantom Menace was bad. I bought the toys, the video games, the VHS copy, the novelizations and the guide books. I studied the film, compared it to A New Hope and looked for similarities between the two films. It would be years until I realized that the film had held a place of contempt for a different generation of Star Wars fans.
This is the part where I could tell you I was swayed by those voices of an older generation, that I came to recognize the disappointment The Phantom Menace represented. But that never happened. Yes, as a teenager and young adult I became aware of certain flaws: dialogue, tonal issues and an over-reliance on greenscreen. But, coupled with the releases of Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), I also became aware of the interesting political POV that Lucas had incorporated and the fallibility of the Jedi Order. The prequels were made by a filmmaker uninterested in repeating what he had already done, and as a result it expanded the Star Wars universe in a way that kept me invested. I never learned to dislike The Phantom Menace for all of its flaws, because I had the opportunity to grow up with it, its sequels and its footprint on the whole multimedia franchise. I valued Star Wars while recognizing that this was someone else's story, one whose telling I always took as a gift but never a possession.
Not for the first time, and surely not the last, the notion that the prequel films should be remade has risen again in the form of a petition. It comes in the midst of other unfortunately thought out petitions to remake Game of Thrones season eight, and recast the unofficially cast Robert Pattinson as Batman. These extreme reactions are silly, but they no doubt have their origins in the idea that The Phantom Menace should serve our fandom. There is a possessive nature to fandom's response to these fictional worlds, these stories gifted to us by their tellers, that only stunts authorship and creativity. But no matter how many signatures exist on a petition, or how hard social media will try to convince us that something is universally hated, there is a whole generation of fans who do and will see these stories differently, will embrace their flaws and learn from them in order to tell better stories.
After so long, maybe it's time to let go of what The Phantom Menace could have or should have been and view it as a story that belongs to the teller. Maybe that's something all of fandom could consider.
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