As the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens draws near, we find ourselves in the midst of an enormous wave of Star Wars enthusiasm unrivaled since the release of 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. That film like the forthcoming entry heralded the return of the Star Wars Saga to movie theaters after more than a decade of absence. But unlike The Force Awakens which will bring back familiar characters from the original trilogy and continue where 1983’s Return of the Jedi left the story, the prequel trilogy had the challenge of introducing an almost entirely new set of characters in unfamiliar settings while telling a different sort of story than the one that it was setting up. Despite initially being well-received by audiences world-wide and proving to have strong legs that produced record box office totals, by the time that its sequel Attack of the Clones debuted in 2002, The Phantom Menace had fallen into disfavor in the eyes of conventional wisdom. Now, a decade since the release of Revenge of the Sith, the Star Wars prequel trilogy is commonly the object of disparaging remarks and often dismissed as a failure when I would argue that these three films taken together instead constitute the saga’s artistic zenith. The Star Wars prequels are unfairly maligned, underappreciated films whose charms and greatness have been eclipsed in the public conversation by a vocal minority of myopic, overzealous armchair critics who hyper-focused on real and imagined flaws in the films and whose reach, voice, and influence have been excessively amplified by the echo chamber of Internet forums and the subsequent online media frenzy of gossipy entertainment media.
When The Phantom Menace was announced, legions of Star Wars fans who had given up hope that George Lucas would ever return to finish his reported plans for developing a nine film saga suddenly found themselves with their long dormant childhood dreams coming to life. Pent up longing for the saga’s continuation, a well-developed marketing campaign, and a salivating entertainment media’s eagerness to profit from the mounting spectacle combined to produce an incredible hype machine that soon achieved a level of anticipation that would have been impossible for any film to fulfill.
Despite bearing the weight of unrealistic expectations, The Phantom Menace was actually well-received. As has been the case for every Star Wars film, the professional reviews were decent if not enthusiastic, but the film was well-liked by audiences even if it was not all that some zealots had fantasized it would be. I saw the film with an excited crowd at the midnight premier, and people cheered at various points throughout the film. I saw the film on several other occasions during its long box-office run, and I continued to see packed theaters of people enjoying the film. Although the film played well with the wider movie-going public, there was a vocal, obsessive minority that absolutely detested the film. Having spent the previous sixteen years imagining their own ideas of what stories the prequels would tell, many of these people had created mental yard sticks designed for disappointment. Through the young, rapidly growing medium of online communities these disenchanted fans were able to group together and obsessively trade criticisms, feeding their negativity and killing their former passion with a thousand paper cuts. The stage was now set for these “fans” to grab a megaphone and amplify their voices of dissatisfaction to the point of distorting public perception.
Having played a role in creating the ridiculous level of hype for the film, the entertainment media were quick to pounce on further opportunity to milk the Star Wars phenomenon. With the film now released, promotional materials and tie-ins would hardly generate additional attention. Instead, media outlets sought to cover more Star Wars by deconstructing the giant that they had helped create through pushing stories of controversy and disappointment. The character of Jar-Jar Binks whose injection of a more juvenile sensibility into the series had already become a target for the ire of online super “fans” took center stage as a figure of scorn symbolizing all the perceived failings in The Phantom Menace, and the media highlighted these misgivings while also giving voice to attention seeking figures making ridiculous accusations of latent racism in the character. The tipping point arrived in 2000 with the release and viral spread of a professional quality re-edit entitled The Phantom Edit that removed criticized elements from the film and created an opportunity for Star Wars trashing headlines trumpeting how disgruntled fans hailed the edit as better than Lucas’s disappointing original.
People are social creatures responding to social cues. With enough repetition – especially when presented as a matter of fact and in a context of some social authority – received ideas will invariably shape the thoughts of most people exposed to them unless they have some personal inoculation against them. Propaganda and marketing work through this mechanism. The media’s repetition of the mantra that The Phantom Menace was a disappointment and a failure apparently loathed by its own fans eventually cemented this perception in the minds of many who had never given the matter much thought or had possibly even enjoyed the film originally only to have its impression soured over time through the constant parade of incommensurate negative commentary thrown at the film. By 2002 when the second prequel Attack of the Clones arrived in theaters, the public narrative had been altered from one of great expectations to a critical bracing to see just how George Lucas might disappoint Star Wars fans again. Primed to look for flaws, online critics and movie goers found them and focused on them. Entertainment media savored the juicy spectacle of again tearing apart a once respected franchise.
At this point, it would have taken an absolutely perfect movie to deflect the ill will that had been manufactured against the second Star Wars prequel before it could even leave the gates. Attack of the Clones was not such a film. While delivering an exciting and visually splendid addition to the saga and one that was even free from the juvenile antics that had initially poisoned the minds of the vocal minority of people who hated The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones suffered from a flawed development of its romance – which was especially damaging given that this romance is arguably the center of the story and indeed the pivot point of the entire prequel trilogy. Perhaps reacting to fears of further offending some vocal “fans” who had criticized the less action-oriented parts of The Phantom Menace, Lucas allowed his producer Rick McCallum to persuade him to remove several scenes of character development for Padmé Amidala that not only served to enhance her character but also built up the central romance allowing it more breathing space. Without these scenes, the film’s romance can seem insufficiently motivated and forced – especially when coupled with some scenes where the actors are unable to pull off Lucas’s attempt at over-the-top flowery, high romance dialogue that is especially hard to sell in a modern cynical and sarcastic culture. With these problems front and center and a vocal segment of the audience predisposed to aim a critical eye, Attack of the Clones suffered the same fate as its predecessor: it was endlessly criticized for flaws at the expense of its many great strengths that normally would place it head and shoulders over typical cinema fare.
With two prequels still being bitterly criticized, the final prequel Revenge of the Sith came onto the stage in what could only be characterized as a hostile environment. However, there were some factors that ameliorated the receptivity of its audience. First and foremost, this prequel seemed poised to deliver the story that many had been hoping would occupy the entire prequel trilogy. Second, this film would finally bridge the gap between the trilogies and reunite audiences with more touches of familiar characters and settings. Finally, Lucas began to claim that he had never seriously considered making a sequel trilogy and furthermore indicated that he would not be making nor allowing the production of such a trilogy in the future. Thus, all signs were that this episode would be the last new Star Wars film. As a result, even critics of the previous two films were more embracing of Revenge of the Sith although it too felt the sting of the prequel basher’s barbs. As was the case with its predecessors, Revenge of the Sith‘s post release glow began to diminish with time as it was lumped in with the prequels as a whole which by now had come to firmly occupy their place as a dumping ground for the scorn of both obsessed fan and now even casual pop-culture fan alike.
If there had not been an Internet community back in 1999 when The Phantom Menace arrived, I am firmly convinced that the received attitude towards the prequel trilogy would be completely different. Without the rot of groupthink to shape and amplify negativity, individual criticisms of the films would have remained overshadowed by the abundant virtues in the films. While there were always fans of the prequels from the start, as a new generation of Star Wars fans has grown up in a world with both the original films and the prequels, increasingly we are seeing that these new fans do not distinguish between the trilogies and are often shocked when they first join the online world and discover such hatred for the prequels. With the marketing beast for the The Force Awakens in full stride, the same gossipy entertainment media impulse to attack the prequels has reared its head and yet now increasingly, piece after piece appears coming to the defense of the prequel trilogy. Perhaps with time, the increasingly vocal fans who appreciate the prequel trilogy just as much or even more than the original Star Wars films will be able to bring balance to the picture and allow us to do away with the irrational invective still thrown at these films.