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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The First—and Last—Time We Rank the Star Wars Movies

This is, for the roughly 32,300,001st time—if we trust Google Search results—a ranking of the Star Wars movies. Meaning it’s a list. But it’s a list that hates the idea of lists, so it won’t take the form of one. It also won’t make you scroll down for the complete ranking. Here it is, from best to worst: Revenge of the Sith (III), A New Hope (IV), Attack of the Clones (II), Empire (V), Last Jedi (VIII), Phantom Menace (I), Return of the Jedi (VI), Force Awakens (VII), Rise of Skywalker (IX).

Our galaxy is disordered and, every day, more disordering. That’s why we rank things: to tidy up what corners of it we can. At the same time, we know it’s bullshit. Do you agree with this ranking? Of course you don’t. For one thing, 9! = 362,880. Even if only 0.1 percent of those are legitimate, that’s a lot of arrangements. And arguments.

The occasion for it—this list that isn’t a list—is the recent success of the six-episode Obi-Wan series, set between the original trilogy and the prequels. Some of us weren’t sure it’d be much of a success; the first four episodes passed uneventfully, and often awkwardly. Then Darth Vader Force-yanked a ship out of the air in episode 5, and by 6 nobody wanted it to end. That includes two of its stars, Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen, who’ve not only expressed interest in returning for a second (and possibly third) season but have, throughout their publicity tour, repeatedly acted surprised and grateful that people liked these characters, and the films in which they appeared, enough to make Obi-Wan Kenobi possible at all.

Maybe it was genuine, but—guys, where’ve you been? The fact is, the prequel films, so famously written off in their day by a select number of weak-minded dweebs, have always been considered, by literally everyone else, great. Even revolutionary. That’s the main reason this list hates lists: They’re ritualistic enshrinements of the dead.

Most list-makers are, at the end of the day, pop-cultural conservatives. Scaredy-cats masquerading as defenders of “quality” with a self-professed “respect” for “history,” they believe taking risks means upholding orthodoxies. So: 2001 is the best sci-fi movie. Tolkien is the best fantasy writer. And, for the 32 millionth time, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars.

Is it? Quite possibly, with its revelations and amputations. But what if you say, simply, that it is not? Nothing all that bad happens, and potentially something very good. Suddenly, you’re shaken out of your complacencies and convictions—even if you expect to return to them, more convicted (but now, at the very least, less complacent), in the end.

One thing that never really made sense about Empire was this: Yoda, pure of wisdom, lies. He says that if Luke doesn’t stay in swampland and complete the Jedi training, he’s doomed to become “an agent of evil.” Ignoring this, Luke flies off to save his friends. Which, everyone can agree, is the exact opposite of evil—an agent of which Luke never, even remotely, becomes. So why did Yoda say that? To scare him? And manipulate him? Not very Jedi-like, that.

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Or is it? George Lucas’ prequel trilogy did far more than tell the story of the rise of Vader. It also revised the legacy of the Jedi, and therefore the legacy of the franchise itself. The famed Jedi Council was revealed to be not some bastion of wisdom and nobility and truth, but flawed, even corrupt: perfectly capable of manipulation and deceit. In a word, a colossal failure. Yoda failed Dooku, just as Obi-Wan failed Anakin, and the galaxy along with him.

This was world-building—world-remodeling—at its finest. To then go back and rewatch the originals, in light of the prequels, was to gain a deeper appreciation of Luke’s Lightness, his goodness. The only reason he would’ve become an agent of evil, it was now clear, was if he’d listened to Yoda and not saved his friends. On some level, Luke had perceived the failure of the Jedi, their recourse to dogmatism and arrogant all-knowingness, and sought to break the pattern. That’s why this list puts Attack of the Clones near the top and Revenge of the Sith at the very. If a new story in a franchise deepens or expands, rather than limits or undermines, your idea and enjoyment of an original, it’s worthwhile—and can plausibly be considered better.

Not that J.J. Abrams understood this. When he went to make his contribution to the Skywalker Saga—episodes VII–IX, producing all three, directing the first and third—he looked not to the prequels for inspiration, as he should have. He looked to the originals.

The result, some say, were “homages” to Lucas, loving reconstructions that introduced the archetypal storytelling of Star Wars to a new generation. This is hooey. Abrams’ films were, to put it plainly, plagiarizations of the first order, a copy-and-paste made all the more shameful by the implication that having a female lead, in Daisy Ridley’s Rey, was all it took to legitimate the effort. So his films must, in any ranking and certainly in this one, appear nowhere other than dead last. The characters and plot points were so mappable onto their original-story counterparts, Abrams’ failure of imagination so total, that the trilogy threatens to destroy, to this day, the legacy of the entire franchise.

That’s, again, why this list hates lists. Because as much as Abrams is to blame for the general worthlessness of Rey’s journey to Jedi-dom—and he really, really is—lists, especially those that serve only to recapitulate norms, are equally, and perhaps even more so, responsible. Lazy, lame, lusterless, lacking, such lists are. In continually propping up the glory of the old, they inflict their own risk-aversion outward, poisoning audiences with a conservatism at fundamental odds with the emancipatory art of storytelling. As a result, fandoms, far from welcoming radical change, demand allegiance, loyalty, to tradition.

Over the years, certain swaths of the Star Wars fandom have revealed themselves to be exactly that: backward-bound in the extreme, and thus unwelcoming of transformation. Not wise, in other words, or noble or true, but flawed, even corrupt—failures of men. How big this sodality is has never been entirely clear. What is clear is this: They’re out there now, and they’re holding us back.

And they are, very probably, many of you: the audience for an article like this one. Ask yourself, as Yoda once asked Luke: Why are you here? Because if it’s to argue and show off and police and hate—and what else would it be?—an agent of evil you already are. To seek out rankings of Star Wars films, to read list after list after bullshit list, is ultimately to justify your obsession with, and nostalgia for, a dying franchise: the infinite hours you’ve spent rehashing its pointless particulars. If only you had friends to escape to. If only you had actual people to save.

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