It may be the most notorious of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but there's no question that The Phantom Menace has gotten a bad wrap. The time has finally come to admit the truth, and accept that the REAL story of Star Wars begins in Episode 1... but you won't realize it if you only watch the movies.
The movie may not be flawless, as a low point in both large-scale action and momentum. But the real problem with The Phantom Menace was the assumption that it was the "beginning" of a story fans thought they knew--instead of what it truly was. Not a simple prequel, but the first of a three-part story shifting the perspective on the original saga. Yet even to this day, many self-professed Star Wars fans refuse to see it as such, claiming the Star Wars prequels haven't been misunderstood, but judged only on the problems with the films themselves. And done so with the assumption that only the Star Wars movies need to be seen to understand the universe.
Now that the larger Star Wars universe has been entrusted to dozens of gifted storytellers, though, the larger context has shifted once more, through pure volume and repeated themes. Whether viewers of the Star Wars prequels took it as such, or indeed whether George Lucas intended it or not, The Phantom Menace plants seeds for the true message of the epic, multi-generational saga that followed... even if that message isn't as simple as fans originally desired.
The Hypocrisy & Blindness of The Jedi
The original Star Wars films presented the Jedi as an ancient, tragically fallen order of... well let's be honest, the coolest version of the Knights of the Round Table that fantasy fans could imagine. Wise, guided by the Force of light, and protectors of all that was good and righteous in the universe. That is, until they were tragically deceived and betrayed by the one who should have brought total and everlasting peace to the universe. Not exactly a brand new myth in the grand scheme of things, but the Jedi became a legendary order of a lost Golden Age. And because of the laws of blockbuster adventure movies, getting audiences to see anything beyond that wonder was always going to be a problem.
Of course, their depiction raised some nagging questions when diving deeper (as the Star Wars prequels eventually would). If the Jedi were so wise, and so attuned to good and evil, how could they have been utterly destroyed and taken by total surprise? Surely the Force could not have abandoned them, or stepped aside to permit their ruin if their will was truly that of goodness and justice, right? The story George Lucas concocted for his Star Wars prequels answers that question almost immediately. But again, the problem is that fans didn't like the answer they were unequivocally offered. Not in blockbuster form, at least.
The Last Jedi may get credit for having Yoda admit the Jedi's failure, but the prequels made the admission unnecessary, showing the Jedi as the proud, gifted, and righteous knights fans knew them to be--while also just people like the rest of us. And like all great empires of human history looked back on through wide eyes, epic legends, and mythic heroes, only the best qualities are remembered. The ancient ways were better, people say: wiser, happier, and freed from the corruption and prejudice of the modern day. But more often than not, the 'tragic' fall of any great empire is brought on by themselves first--and the enemy credited with their destruction second. (The most controversial of Lucas' additions speaks to this very idea, that Anakin was not recruited based on his abilities or gifts, but what the Jedi believed based on the contents of his blood.)
The arrogance and pride of the Jedi from Yoda and Mace Windu on down may have been ignored by fans who preferred not to see it, but the future storytellers who continued Lucas' legacy sure didn't. In almost every facet of the Star Wars universe that followed, whether in novels, comic books, video games, or any other means of expanding the lore, the extent to which the Jedi strayed from their initial goals of peace-keeping and guidance into politics, warfare, and power is credited with their downfall more than any Sith. And beginning The Phantom Menace by joining his epic, heroic, fantastical Jedi Knights in a boardroom, sent to negotiate a trade dispute makes Lucas' intentions clear.
Anakin's True Role in The Star Wars Saga
Everything in the original Star Wars movies, from the presentation of Darth Vader, the discussion of the all-powerful Emperor, and even the selection of Luke Skywalker as a new 'Chosen One' suggests that this story, this hero, and this villain are special. Unique. Ultimate. But again, George Lucas set out to subvert every piece of that assumption in his prequels, again beginning immediately with The Phantom Menace--its very title speaks to the falsehood, deception, and theater of the saga's 'big bad.' And six movies later, the same elements are at play in creating the terrifying First Order, its supreme Leader Snoke, and the masked villain (whose mask returns for The Rise of Skywalker). Which makes fans wonder if such a return stands in defiance of the very reason Lucas brushed it aside to show the truth in The Phantom Menace.
The great and seemingly all-powerful Sith Emperor began as just a regular man, playing the game of politics, in search of power just like every other leader before him (or after). The singular 'Darth Vader' was now just another 'Darth' used for that goal. Anakin wasn't selected by the Force as its champion, but was found by a Jedi who believed him to be such. A boy plucked from obscurity and cloaked in Jedi prophecy to serve the beliefs and goals of a political movement--the true tragedy of which being that Qui-Gon Jinn was actually the right Jedi to do it, for the best possible reasons. But in the end, the motivations of Qui-Gon's confidence and designs for the galaxy didn't matter... because that's not the point of this story.
Palpatine isn't some ultimate evil, destined to claim power or vanquish the Jedi. The Jedi aren't some blessed, untarnished order cut down unjustly right as they prepared to deliver the galaxy into paradise. The Star Wars story, now viewed in hindsight, is one of a quest for power. Not ethereal, divine, or otherworldly power, either. But Power as the audience recognizes it, and attained through the same means. But only by dispelling the idea of fate, destiny, or the assumption that the Force can do more than guide the conscience does that become clear. So it's no surprise that is exactly what The Phantom Menace does first, deflating the fantasy for an entire generation of (understandably) bitter fans.
Anakin was used by Palpatine to bring down the Jedi. Luke was used by the Jedi to bring down Palpatine. Now The Rise of Skywalker gives Palpatine another shot, leaving fans to excitedly wonder whether Rey will be the Skywalker who defeats the Sith once and for all--on her own this time! Perhaps they would all recognize that they, too, are locked in the cycle of belief that doomed the Jedi.
But that probably won't happen so long as audiences ignore The Phantom Menace laying bare the true message of Star Wars: a struggle of greed, pride... and a new hope born free from either.