‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ Fandom Lives in 2 Different Realities | Commentary

George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” has a clear set-up/pay-off as the reason for its existence: young, innocent child Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) will grow up to become Darth Vader, a manifestation of evil. The movie’s entire reason for existence is ultimately to introduce us to this child and make us think about how far we are from the fall of the Republic, and how the Empire will arise in only a generation. These were major stakes and not a bad place to get fans excited for the first new “Star Wars” movie in 16 years. And yet when “The Phantom Menace” arrived in theaters in 1999 (25 years ago this month, to be exact) it was met with either a mix of fans trying to convince themselves it was good (“‘Star Wars’ has always been corny!”) or outright disappointment.

But that’s not where the story ends, and oddly, it’s not a matter of the next two movies — “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” — adding new information that changes the shape of “Phantom Menace.” Instead, the story is a years-long rehabilitation project where dangling questions got picked up by other media — notably the animated TV shows.

Someone who has only seen the “Star Wars” movies is going to have a completely different experience with “Phantom Menace” than someone who has seen the movies and the TV shows as well as the comics and books that are now considered canon. These viewers can watch the same movie and come away with completely different conclusions not based on interpretation or taste, but rather by how much “Star Wars” media they’ve consumed.

Take the character of Darth Maul for example. To someone who has only seen the movies, Darth Maul (Ray Park/Peter Serafinowicz) is a confusing figure. The film treats him as if he’s the new Big Bad, a Darth Vader for the prequel trilogy. He instantly makes an impression with his tattooed face, horns and dual-sided lightsaber, a contraption that had never been seen in “Star Wars” to that point. He has a massive battle with Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and kills Qui-Gon.

The young student seeing his master murdered in front of him is a knowing parallel to “Star Wars: A New Hope” (one of the things Lucas points out in “Episode I’s” behind-the-scenes documentary, “The Beginning,” is that he consciously made things “rhyme” with the original movies).

Except then Obi-Wan slices Darth Maul in half and knocks him into a bottomless pit never to be seen again for the remainder of The Skywalker Saga.

Darth Maul was clearly dead, and Lucas, the author of the prequel trilogy, never gave much thought to bringing him back. Perhaps that’s because he wanted to keep Anakin’s journey as the focus of villainy for the trilogy, and Anakin couldn’t be Palpatine’s apprentice if Maul was still hanging around (Lucas claimed he would have resurrected Maul for the sequel trilogy, but those plans never came to fruition, and to be fair, there’s nothing in the prequel trilogy that hints at such a resurrection).

Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Jake Lloyd in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (Lucasfilm)

But it’s still an anticlimactic end for a distinctive character, and so he was resurrected in Season 4 of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” If you follow “The Clone Wars” and subsequent “Star Wars: Rebels” story points of the character, then perhaps he retroactively becomes a rich, interesting character who you were excited to see show up at the end of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” But you need all of the “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” stuff to give depth the movie isn’t interested in providing.

We’re now in a world of big, interconnected stories, and that leads to the question of whether any individual installment of a franchise truly stands alone. Even without the animated TV series, et al., “The Phantom Menace” was clearly only the first part of a trilogy. Even though it rhymes with “A New Hope” by having the conclusion be a big celebration where the good guys stand on a dais believing they have triumphed over evil, “A New Hope” truly does stand alone. If that were the only “Star Wars” movie to ever exist, you could reasonably believe that blowing up the Empire’s superweapon and knocking their leader into the abyss of space was good enough to restore order to the galaxy.

In “Phantom Menace,” we know there’s still more story because it’s not a movie about a kid who can fly a spaceship real good. There was always going to be more story, and so perhaps it’s naïve to believe that the more would only be contained to two additional movies, especially since there was no source material to stick to like “The Lord of the Rings.”

But for me, a fan who excitedly saw “The Phantom Menace” on opening day in 1999, the added material can’t “fix” the movie. Its contradictions are too glaring, and the stumbles too egregious. You have a movie where the central conflict is a trade dispute involving a blockade, but you also have Jar Jar Binks, a comic character clearly designed to amuse young children who would have no interest in the particulars of intergalactic trade agreements. The Jedi are supposed to be amazing heroes who wield lightsabers and cut down bad guys, but they also seem somewhat indifferent to the slavery they encounter on Tatooine. It’s a movie where Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) doesn’t really get a character arc because the story feels the need to do this odd reveal where she’s pretending to be her own handmaiden.

Furthermore, it’s not like Lucas was unaware of the critiques of “Episode I.” Jar Jar Binks is a major character in “The Phantom Menace,” but fan reaction was so toxic that the character all but disappears in the following two installments. While you could argue that such a role reduction is simply the consequence of making more “mature” movies, that consideration didn’t stop the comic antics of C-3P0 appearing in “The Empire Strikes Back” despite it being a significantly darker movie than “A New Hope.” If Lucas wanted to bring back Darth Maul for “Episode II,” he would have (and reportedly, Lucas did consider having “Revenge of the Sith” baddie General Grievous be Darth Maul in disguise).

Where the new material from the non-film canon feels truest to George Lucas’ vision isn’t so much in narrative choices, but how he clearly views his “Star Wars” movies as fungible texts open to tinkering.

The “Special Editions” of the “Star Wars” original trilogy are now the only versions you can officially find, and even here, there’s been more nips and tucks than just the notable changes made in 1997. While Lucas may have never given serious thought to Darth Maul becoming a powerful gangster after he got chopped in two in “The Phantom Menace,” such an alteration feels in line with Lucas’ own approach where new ideas change old directions.

Darth Vader’s original conception wasn’t as Luke Skywalker’s father, but things changed. Luke and Leia clearly weren’t conceived of as siblings, but by the time you get to “Return of the Jedi,” things changed. “The Phantom Menace” of today arguably isn’t the same one fans flocked to see in 1999, and perhaps for fans of “Clone Wars,” “Rebels,” etc. it’s now a better movie.

To borrow a line from Obi-Wan, you just need to see it “from a certain point of view.”

The post ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ Fandom Lives in 2 Different Realities | Commentary appeared first on TheWrap.