‘Obi-Wan’ embraced the prequels. Disney still doesn’t understand them.

There is a peculiar wisdom in George Lucas’ direction of Star Wars prequels. It is celebrated in the first few seconds of the first trailer for The Phantom Menace: “Every generation has a legend.”

Lucas made a lot of mistakes directing the prequels. There’s the weird writing, the flat characterizations, the dubious performances, the soapy tone, the distracting retcons. But Lucas was basically right to do The Phantom Menace a children’s movie, as silly as it is. He was right to cast Star Wars for a new generation, in new terms, instead of dedicating itself again to the old style. The sequels, in contrast, tried to have both. They are nostalgic to a failure. The Force Awakens reveals yet another fleet of space Nazis launching yet another Death Star. Disney has rehired the old cast to further perpetuate the so-called Skywalker saga. But the sequels are also strangely sloppy with canon. The Force Awakens is a sequence of Return of the Jedi who barely bothers to come to terms with the big events – most notably the rebels’ victory over the Empire – of the succeeding film. The Last Jedi turns Luke Skywalker into a sock puppet for a subversive meta commentary that never sounds like it should come from him of all people. The Rise of Skywalker revives Emperor Palpatine out of thin air.

The result of these tensions was a trilogy with an ambiguous generational statement. It was too regressive to mark a fresh start with a new cohort, but too fast and loose to satisfy fans of the originals or even the prequels.

This week, Disney aired the sixth and final episode of its Star Wars miniseries Obi wan Kenobi, starring Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen, both reprising their respective roles as Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. The miniseries follows Obi-Wan in the early days of his exile on Tatooine as his former apprentice, Anakin, now known as Darth Vader, hunts down the last Jedi to survive Emperor Palpatine’s extermination order. Obi-Wan, lured out of hiding by Senator Bail Organa, leaves Tatooine to rescue young Princess Leia from bounty hunters and, later, the Empire. Inevitably, Obi-Wan confronts Vader and duels him for yet another wasted victory. The miniseries ends with Obi-Wan retreating once more to Tatooine and becoming desert drifter Ben Kenobi, caring for Anakin’s son until his call to heroism in A new hope.

Obi wan Kenobi began to reconcile two styles of Star Wars, two generations of fans once hopelessly at odds. Disney also produced Only and a rogue as a prelude spin-off to A new hope. But Obi wan Kenobi is so clearly determined to deepen the kinship between the original trilogy and the prequels. And then Obi wan Kenobi is noticeably isolated from the events and characters of the sequel trilogy that Disney spent four years and nearly a billion dollars producing. so it is the Mandalorian. so it is Boba Fett’s Book. So supposedly it’s next andor. Where Obi-Wan leave us? Back once more to the configuration for A new hope– watching Obi-Wan Kenobi fall into obscurity, anticipating the rise of Luke – where Lucas also left us 17 years ago with Revenge of the Sith. Now all generations are trapped here.

There are some competing theories about Star Wars, George Lucas and the prequels. Supposedly, Lucas didn’t understand his own upbringing. The first original film, A new hope, was not a work of his own genius, but rather a miraculous rescue mission led by his editor, Paul Hirsch, and Lucas’ wife, Marcia, in post-production; others largely wrote and directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But Lucas took full creative control over the prequels—The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith– and thus revealed his weaknesses as a writer and director. Lucas spent six years and a total of $343 million serializing the worst love story ever told with (admittedly) the best computer graphics since Jurassic Park. He turned space opera into a soap opera. he ruined Star Wars, so they say. Lucas selling the franchise to Disney 10 years ago brought the fanbase out of its misery. That’s the common view among younger boomers and Gen Xers who grew up watching the original trilogy and didn’t find the prequels until their 20s. This cohort despises the prequels.

But these films have a better reputation among younger viewers who first encountered the original trilogy and prequels around the same time. They may or may not have liked Star Wars before The Phantom Menace but, in any case, his prejudices towards the original trilogy were a little weaker. The quirks and shortcomings of the prequels weren’t lost on them, but they weren’t decisive; they were not sacrilege. Personally, I grew up watching the first VHS special edition box set and reading Timothy Zahn’s book released trilogy for a few years before the release of The Phantom Menace. I also watched the prequels in amazement. Why is the Force, once a spiritual concept, now a genetic concern encoded in these movies? Why is Anakin and Padmé’s love story so corny and absurd? Why did Lucas cast Samuel L. Jackson of all people to play a punished monk? Why is the Jedi Council so helpless against Palpatine? Why doesn’t Anakin, an attendant to the Galactic Republic’s elite leadership, not consider emancipating his mother from slavery on her home planet until several years into his Jedi training? Why, Jar Jar, why?! So many questions. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the prequels on some perverse level. I revisited these movies a dozen times each. Such is the power of nostalgia and the observation of hate. That’s the lure of the prequels among millennials and Zoomers. This cohort appreciates these films despite themselves.

Older fandom sparked their objections to the prequels in their earlier complaints about those cute little Ewoks designed to amuse kids, in Return of the Jedi. The Phantom Menace, starring Jake Lloyd at age 10, was a child’s play with a cartoon humanoid rabbit playing comic relief and featured a three-prong slapstick attack on the Trade Federation. The Battle of Yavin was not. The two later prequels would surpass The Phantom Menace with more “mature” angst and violence: Anakin massacring Tusken Raiders in Attack of the ClonesObi-Wan dismembering his apprentice with a lightsaber and letting his torso burn by a river of lava in Revenge of the Sith. But The Phantom Menace it was, despite its palatial intrigue about intergalactic tariffs and legislative procedures, a children’s film. Hence Jar-Jar Binks falling headfirst into a long fart gag in the crucial pod race. But childishness in The Phantom Menace gave the prequels, and the fan base, room to grow. It’s a real shock when Darth Maul, in this children’s movie, impales Qui-Gon Jinn through the chest with his lightsaber during the climax. Children watching this children’s movie would grow up alongside these characters and witness even darker developments in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

The rest is relatively recent history. Disney buys Lucasfilm and produces sequel trilogy with JJ Abrams (The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi) taking turns driving. This trilogy starts off strong enough, but then devolves into disaster. Abrams and Johnson aren’t on the same page in the last two films, and the fanbase is split on their respective approaches to canon and characterization. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in particular, has divided fandom into cultural warfare camps. The discourse on these films has become inhospitable. The actors moved on. Lucasfilm turned to television spinoffs, now culminating with Obi wan Kenobi. The Rise of Skywalker it was a dead end for the movies. These days, it’s hard to find fans who praise or defend the sequel trilogy in its entirety. Of course, the long-term reputation of these films is still unclear. For all we know, viewers born in 2013 and beyond will grow up and develop nostalgia for Poe Dameron explaining, in The Rise of Skywalker“Somehow Palpatine has returned.”

The main series is not the whole story. Each generation has its redemptive ramifications. The prequel generation also had Clone Wars and rebels. The sequel generation also has a rogue and the Mandalorian. It is strangely possible to enjoy Star Wars while largely resentful of the main series’ direction. But Obi wan Kenobi underlined the limits of his own mythology. Here, Disney rehabilitates the prequels while still generally ignoring the younger qualities that gave the prequels so much nostalgia in the first place. It’s too little, too late to please the fans who appreciated The Phantom Menace. Star Wars need new children. Yea, Star Wars is, in every way, a series best suited for children, regardless of the distinction between children’s movies and adult dramas at the box office in general. But The Force Awakens was not a children’s movie in the same sense as The Phantom Menace clearly it was; and Obi wan Kenobi is an epilogue written for a generation now largely in their 30s.

While Disney still makes children’s movies at its animation studios, Star Wars and Marvel are launched quite successfully as brands for all ages. This is working out well enough for Marvel. but how is it Star Wars doing at the movies these days? It’s still very, very profitable. But creatively, Star Wars is stunted by the all-ages approach. Disney, strangely, can’t make a decent children’s movie these days; At least not in this cinematic universe. But the answer has always been staring us in the face. Every generation has a legend. There is even a hint of this wisdom in the misguided meta-babble of several characters in The Last Jedi. Let the past die. Kill him if necessary. That’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.

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