As the press for Star Wars: The Last Jedi begins in earnest, the detractors have also come back out in force as well. Once more, the comment sections and Reddit forums are awash in debates about whether the sequels are actually good or just nostalgia vehicles. As part of this debate, a sort of revisionist Star Wars history has started: more and more fans are leaping to defend the prequels. Once the most hated films the galaxy, the prequel trilogy has become cool in a way. Similarly, Star Wars: The Clone Wars has experienced a boom in popularity due to the way it enhances the prequel trilogy.
And then there is Star Wars Rebels, Lucasfilms’ second major animated series. The show forgoes familiar protagonists such as Obi-Wan Kenobi or Anakin Skywalker (though both do appear in the show) in favor of a band of original characters. Initially, it had a familiar Disney premise – a spunky orphan named Ezra joins a ragtag group of rebels and learns the ways of the Force from Jedi-in-hiding Kanan. However, the show has moved far beyond the simple pilot to explore the larger origins of the rebellion itself. At the close of season three, the characters are almost unrecognizable from where they began, and despite airing on Disney XD the show’s willingness to tackle darker themes make it more of a companion to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story than anything else, even though the body count is still relatively low.
From epic finales such as ‘Twilight of the Apprentice’ and ‘Zero Hour’ to remarkable character-centric stories like ‘Trials of the Darksaber’ and ‘The Honorable Ones,’ Rebels has proven time and time again that it more than lives up to the legacy of the many Star Wars films, shows, and books that have come before. Between the oftentimes graceful and mature narrative and the excellent character development, Rebels has emerged ahead of the pack as the best Star Wars prequel.
This will no doubt be a controversial statement to those embroiled in the prequel debates. Despite drawing large, enthusiastic crowds at Star Wars Celebration and inspiring its own devoted base in the fandom, some fans still criticize the show for being too childish. Common complaints center on the villains, Ezra’s personality, and a lack of true emotional stakes. But what many seem to forget is that for all the show’s thematic maturity, it is still a cartoon for all ages. This is Star Wars, after all. Of course good will triumph over evil and the heroes will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Even so, Rebels shouldn’t have to pull a Game of Thrones and wipe out a majority of the main cast simply to garner a reaction. Season four might see the death of major characters – after all, Kanan and Ezra can’t be part of the rebellion when Luke shows up – but showrunner Dave Filoni has demonstrated (as he did in Clone Wars before it) that character arcs might not always end where we expect.
The balancing act between family-friendly entertainment and the more adult elements is also executed with a far more deftly than prequels or even in The Clone Wars in some cases. The prequels are often criticized for the way they blend juvenile slapstick like Jar Jar making “poodoo” jokes, children being murdered, domestic abuse, and complex political allegory all into the same narrative. The Clone Wars has a far better reputation, but it occasionally veered into territory too dark or violent for kids, losing track of its target audience. Some of the most famous moments in Star Wars are its darker moments, but at its heart, it has always been a space fairy tale, a hopeful story where good does triumph despite all odds. This is where Rebels truly excels. It never becomes unwatchable or too dark for children, even though parents were cautioned about the episode ‘Twilight of the Apprentice,’ but it also never shies away from the realities of rebellion.
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