Star Wars fandom’s relationship with the prequels is not dissimilar to that of Anakin’s with the Dark Side; to paraphrase Yoda in Episode I, disappointment leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to cries of underrated. Now before you click away, we’re not here to really defend or criticize the prequels – that’s been pretty much done to death by this point – but instead look at a very strange resurgence in the once poster child of cynical moviemaking.
It has for the longest time been an accepted fact that they’re bad, a single point of agreement in the debate-loving movie community. Everyone hates the Star Wars prequels, almost as much as Anakin Skywalker hates sand.
Except they don’t. Bring up pod racing, Dexter Jettster or younglings in online conversation today and you’ll find the vitriol that for the better part of two decades has dominated discussion of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith has seemingly dissipated, or at the very least chilled. Rogue One featured settings and characters from movies long-derided to great excitement. Perennial punching bag Jar Jar Binks’ story was resolved and nobody was shouting obscenities. Hayden Christensen appeared at Star Wars Celebration to a standing ovation. The Star Wars prequels are, for lack of a better word, cool. And not just in an ironic, underrated way. How did this happen?
The Millennial’s Star Wars
This was, to a point, always inevitable. One of the major defenses of the prequels was that Lucas was returning Star Wars to children – not the children who grew up with the films in the 1980s, but the next generation – and if this was true, eventually those 1990s kids would grow up with a strong appreciation of Episodes I-III.
And that pretty much has happened. There’s an entire subculture of fans who grew up with Star Wars as six movies of indeterminable comparable quality; a cohesive saga amplified by a litany of era-jumping expanded material. They preach their love and, in doing so, many more raised to hate the prequels have found their hidden depths and learned to unironically appreciate the more kitsch elements. You’ll see this subculture most prominently in the usual internet ephemera, with memes; subreddit /r/PrequelMemes has grown from less than 1,000 users at the start of 2017 to almost 250,000 at the time of writing. In the newest internet controversy, WatchMojo changed the title of a prequel-bashing video after a slew of downvotes – but there’s a mature side to this too.
Nostalgia belongs to those with the defining culture voice. On the internet, that voice is fractured and twisted but typically comes from those aged 25-35. Today, on the lower extremity of that, you have those who were children when the prequels came out and possibly first experienced the galaxy far, far away with Anakin, rather than Luke. So, just as ten years ago the likes of Ghostbusters and Back to the Future – films that in 2017 are still universally accepted as greats but not readily raised touchstones – were the peak of throwback culture, now it’s shifting to The Matrix and, yes, Star Wars.
We’ve seen an increase of in-depth analysis surrounding the prequels, specifically its defenses, in recent years. It used to be simple statements of how good John Willaims’ score was and the innate awesomeness of the lightsaber duels, but now we have near-academic level theses like Ring Theory that probe the films’ narrative and thematic depths. There’s even a fair millennial response to the definitive backlash documentary The People Vs. George Lucas in the form of The Prequels Strike Back. Regardless of how far some ideas push it (the movies are far from flawless), through these, it’s become apparent of a larger vision and appreciation behind the prequels.
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