With each new installment of the Star Wars saga, it is becoming increasingly easy to criticize its prequels.
In hindsight, the Prequels promised us a Darth Vader origin story, and while they did deliver on this, its portrayal was disappointing. The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith should have been filled with images of a betrayed boy, whose soul was slowly twisted by anger, lies, and manipulation until he becomes nothing than a mere shell of his former Jedi self. Instead, we were shown political discord, performances that fell flat, annoying sidekicks and awkward lines.
Darth Vader is one of the greatest villains in movie history, and as such deserves an origin story of equal greatness.
Interestingly, all of the characteristics that were lacking in Anakin Skywalker’s portrayal in the Prequels — sympathy, depth, and intrigue — are the same characteristics that were seen and praised in his grandson, Kylo Ren, in the Sequels.
It is not uncommon to compare the prequels with the sequels. Ben Solo’s path to becoming Kylo Ren mirrors Anakin Skywalker’s path to Darth Vader.
Both were chosen to become powerful, altruistic figures in the Jedi Order; both felt betrayed by their Jedi masters; both longed for and feared companionship; both murdered innocent people to pledge themselves to the Dark Side and both were seduced by manipulative masters determined to wipe out the existence of the Jedi in order to rule unchallenged.
This parallel is a satisfying one because we know how much Kylo idolizes Vader, but it also reinforces the theme of coming full circle in the Star Wars universe.
The Sequels were better than the Prequels mostly because the story was better written and featured more compelling performances (particularly Adam Driver’s Kylo when compared to Hayden Christensen’s Anakin). What makes things even more frustrating is that since grandfather and grandson are so closely matched in terms character and personality, the former’s shortcomings were so poorly highlighted.
Both Kylo and Anakin are driven by the same feelings of anger, obsession entitlement, and selfishness. They lash out easily when provoked and allow grudges and betrayals to fester and poison their souls. But while Anakin’s turmoil feels distraught, Kylo’s feels unpredictable. Anakin’s rage is channeled through childish complaints, whereas Kylo’s alternates between sudden immature outbursts and pensive moments of lonely contemplation. Anakin’s motives are painted in black and white, whereas Kylo’s are multicolored.
The aura of mystery is what made Vader such a strong villain in the original series; in this case the Prequels gave away too much. It’s hard to strike a balance between offering answers to burning questions and withholding enough to tantalize an audience’s curiosity. In a way, it’s unfair to criticise a series for not being unpredictable enough when we already knew the ending. As Rogue One proved, just because we’ve seen the destination, doesn’t mean the journey can’t still surprise us.
The Sequels show Kylo sink deeper into the dark side by making his crimes have an emotional impact on the audience. While we had seen Anakin kill off minor characters like Mace Windu who had little or no attachment to the fans, Kylo kills his own father in cold blood and comes close to killing his mother as well — these two characters have a very emotionally strong connection with Star Wars fans. Anakin’s mother’s death was one of the incidents that pushed him over the edge, but that was something that happened to him instead of making Anakin deal the finishing blows himself. If the prequel had to happen that way, we would have been more convinced of the depths of his dark character.
The biggest mistake that the Prequels made was to suppress Anakin’s character origin under the rest of the film when it should have been the leading story. The Last Jedi, in this case, is successful at focusing on Kylo Ren’s character rather than the story. With this same amount of focus, Anakin Skywalker’s story should have been as complex, and intriguing as Kylo Ren was.