Between the final seasons of Game of Thrones and Mr. Robot, Avengers: Endgame wrapping up the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga”, Glass serving as the final installment of M. Night Shyamalan’s unexpected Unbreakable trilogy, and of course the ending of the Skywalker Saga with this week’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 2019 has lived up to its billing as the year of the finale.
Unlike any of the others, however, J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio, and the entire Lucasfilm team have undertaken the immense task of wrapping up more than four decades-worth of iconography and pop culture-defining mythos. Naturally, the past few weeks have seen an influx of fans revisiting the entire series to prepare themselves for a conclusion that promises to pay off all that’s come before. But that brings us to an age-old question for overly-obsessive nerds such as ourselves…
What’s the best way to watch the main Star Wars Saga films, anyway?
This might not seem very tough, as the choices basically boil down to either chronological or release order (for the purposes of this article, let’s limit the discussion to these two while ignoring other random permutations, such as the popular “Machete order” for reasons that will become clear). For the most part, the issue largely appears to be split along generational lines; anyone of a certain age to remember when the Original Trilogy was the only trilogy tend to consume the series the one way they were able to – sequentially – while anecdotally, younger fans prefer starting with the Prequels first and moving forward chronologically.
Well, as much as I’d love to be the Millennial to kick off the Generational Wars in style and condemn an entire swath of the movie-going population with the words “Ok, Boomer”, I’m just here to state my truth -–watching the films in release order is the most logical way for them to be seen and, more importantly, leads to the most rewarding experience overall. Not convinced? That’s alright, let’s pull a Luke Skywalker (or a Rey!) and go on a little journey of self-discovery together. No pressure or anything.
The Continuity Conundrum
The basic appeal of chronological order is pretty straightforward: in an attempt to maintain some semblance of continuity, experiencing the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall before rewatching the Originals adds extra meaning to his actions decades later in-universe as Darth Vader. I’m not here to quibble over whether the Prequels actually succeed in their ambitions, to be clear, but the haphazard approach of Episodes I-III does raise uncomfortable questions for these viewers. Isn’t this a franchise that’s shown itself to be almost aggressively antagonistic towards such efforts in the past? What if trying to manufacture and project continuity onto Star Wars is really no different from crowbarring a square peg into a round hole and forcing something that simply doesn’t belong?
Over the years, Star Wars’ relationship with continuity has proven to be… shaky, to say the least. You may recall a stray instance or two of simmering romantic tension between Luke and Leia Organa at certain points of the Original Trilogy, culminating in Return of the Jedi with the siblings’ official, uh, family reunion – a revelation that thankfully makes no mention of a certain ill-advised kiss between them in the past. Lucas similarly played fast and loose with the true identity of Darth Vader, an incredibly resonating plot twist that was slightly easier (though no less awkward) to ret-con. Then you have the Prequels, at which point the utter futility of chasing continuity is laid bare amid several confusing additions (Anakin built C3PO and palled around with R2D2 for years before ignoring them altogether when he encountered them as Vader?) and flat-out contradictions to previously established lore (Qui-Gon Jinn trained Obi-Wan instead of Yoda? Leia remembers her mother despite Padme dying in childbirth?).
Lucas’ well-meaning desire to fill in historical gaps left by the Original Trilogy ended up largely hit-or-miss, but perhaps it’s worth considering whether he was even trying to create a perfectly seamless bridge between trilogies in the first place. What if our craving for overly-literal, impossibly smooth timelines is completely at odds with what Star Wars is all about? Maybe some stories simply aren’t meant to be reverse-engineered into a neat-and-tidy box of continuity, ready to be consumed chronologically without ever taking into account the context of release order.
Ultimately, it may come down to the basic fact that Star Wars just isn’t the MCU. This isn’t a value judgment on such a pop culture darling, as the clear emphasis on a vastly interconnected universe has more than paid off for the Avengers in terms of audience investment and worldwide appeal in the MCU (even after finding itself at the center of a seemingly never-ending firestorm in recent months). But when it comes to the sprawling, decades-spanning drama of the Skywalker family, the decidedly old-school inspirations and space opera trappings at play point toward a far more mythological tone.
In a universe where legendary triumphs are traditionally passed down through oral histories – consider iconic moments such as C3PO reciting our heroes’ adventures to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, or the tale of Luke’s last stand against the First Order living on and inspiring hope among the oppressed and downtrodden in the very last scene of The Last Jedi – it almost feels antithetical to its very essence to demand a strict adherence in-universe to rote plot points and lore.
Star Wars is about a great many things: hope and perseverance, friendship and family, love and loss, triumph and tragedy, mythology and storytelling. But as far as I’m concerned, continuity and chronology are among the last things that ought to define the saga, even during rewatches. In that spirit, I say embrace the messiness and lived-in charm of release order and leave the overly-literal bookkeeping of chronological order to Wookiepedia!
The Rule of Two
One of the many new additions The Phantom Menace made to traditional Star Wars lore occurs near the conclusion, as Master Yoda gravely intones to Mace Windu about the disturbing return of the Sith, “Always two, there are. No more, no less. A master, and an apprentice.” Symbiosis (balance, if you will) is an issue that hangs over the entire Prequel trilogy just as the mysterious Prophecy of the “Chosen One” hangs over young Anakin. While this Rule of Two proved to be a source of consternation among some fans, let’s apply this principle to the Original and Prequel trilogies. Perhaps the nature of balance best exemplifies why release viewing order is the best way to go.
By his own admission, George Lucas’ main motivation for moving forward with his prequel trilogy was to fill in crucial backstory of characters and events “…because things that I thought would be self-evident about the story, the audience didn’t get. Over the 10 years after Return of the Jedi, I realized people misunderstood a lot – such as where Anakin came from. So it was a way of finishing the whole thing off.” In other words, this means that Lucas approached the Prequels through the lens of the Originals – specifically, how he could fill in the gaps and eventually bring things full circle again – as he brought balance to both trilogies at once.
So here’s where watching the films chronologically gets complicated. It strips away crucial context of how the Prequels actively engage with viewers’ knowledge of the Originals at all times, as opposed to making concessions for those whose first exposure to Star Wars would be out of order (as it clearly was for so many who jumped aboard with the Prequels, me included!). But this approach, as alienating as it may have been for newcomers and lifelong fans alike, resulted in the most successful weapon this divisive trilogy has in its back pocket – a sense of inevitability.
Thanks to the Originals, we know that the Prequels should explain why the Empire must rise and the Jedi must fall. Since we’re following Anakin’s journey and already know his endpoint, we realize this is a Greek tragedy in space instead of a Cambellian hero’s journey. By treating the Prequels as prequels and watching them after the original story, we’re in the right frame of mind to pick up on as many meaningful insights as possible.
Think of Anakin’s fateful decision to forsake his duty and try to save his mother from torture and death after his foreboding visions in Attack of the Clones, an explicit parallel that neatly calls to mind Luke’s moment of choice to cut short Yoda’s training and help his captured friends after his own Force vision in The Empire Strikes Back. There’s the evocative sequence of the Republic’s new clone army assembling together after their victory against Count Dooku’s Separatists, which would otherwise play as a triumph if it weren’t for John Williams’ sinister Empire theme blaring in the background as the future Emperor, Chancellor Palpatine, oversees the beginning of the end of the Republic from on high. You can even take note of Qui-Gon Jinn’s actions in The Phantom Menace, whose arrogant and reckless behavior, blinding obsession with Anakin as a tool to fulfill prophecy rather than as a person with inherent worth, and casual indifference to oppression (if the “quick and easy” path leads to the Dark Side, as Yoda explains to Luke, then using the Force to influence a roll of the dice for custody of Anakin instead of freeing both mother and son from slavery feels far more monstrous than anything Luke ever did) all come across as a shocking indictment of the Prequel-era Jedi Order, urging us to cast a more skeptical eye upon these supposed “guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy” than ever before.
And all of this, every thematic underpinning that unites past, present, and future throughout the Prequels, would be lessened when viewed through the prism of inert, sequential storytelling in chronological order. The overriding ideas Lucas aimed to tackle with these films, from purposefully undercutting the aura of the Jedi to depicting in excruciating detail how democracies can essentially vote in favor of their own slide into authoritarianism with a big enough push, all stem from an informed perspective grounded in awareness and familiarity with the events of the Originals.
There’s a good reason why inevitability only works as an effective narrative tool when paired with hindsight. After all, what good is a cautionary tale without first witnessing the consequences that makes one necessary in the first place? To the chronological order-or-bust truthers out there, is it really worth diluting the full weight of what the Prequels represent and rendering the Originals as mere footnotes to revisit down the line rather than treating them as the focal point through which so much of the Prequels are filtered through… all in favor of constructing only a vaguely cohesive timeline of events, split into two distinct periods that never really gel together anyway?
The Rule of Two ended up being the downfall of both Darth Sidious at the hands of Vader/Anakin and Supreme Leader Snoke at the hands of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, but that needn’t be the case here. Do what Anakin could not: search your feelings, let go of superficial concerns about continuity, and bring balance to the trilogies by watching them as they’re best equipped to be – in order of release.
“This Will Begin to Make Things Right”
So where does the Sequel Trilogy come into all this? Well, J.J. Abrams’ and veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan’s The Force Awakens and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi both share fascinating dynamics with the previous two trilogies that only add more credence to release order viewings… to say nothing of Rise of Skywalker and the implications of Emperor Palpatine’s shocking (pun most definitely intended) return.
In an amusing twist, it was practically a boon for The Force Awakens to follow the mixed reception of the previous trilogy. The existence of the Prequels allowed even more of a distance between the Originals and Sequels – a neat bit of serendipity that gave Abrams and Kasdan license to turn our new protagonist Rey (and to a lesser extent, Finn) into Star Wars fans of their own, as a younger generation living in and among the wrecked husks of the previous conflict between the Rebellion against the Empire and the Jedi against the Sith. In that way, we really feel a sense of history when Rey admits that she only ever thought of Luke as a myth or when an older skeptic-turned-believer Han Solo confirms the truth of the Jedi and the Force.
The Sequel Trilogy films have also made a point to engage with an incredibly potent theme that ties into both prior trilogies – the current generation spurred into action to right the wrongs of the previous one. In particular, The Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens left off and uses the self-imposed exile of Luke Skywalker to ram this point home. Devastated by his failure in training Ben Solo, Luke internalizes the legacy of the Jedi as one of long-term failure, as well – blinded by arrogance and apathy and myopia, Luke rightfully points blame directly at the vaunted Jedi Order for paving the way for Darth Sidious to rise, nearly extinguish the Jedi, and install the fascist regime of the Empire.
If this sounds familiar, it’s only the entire point of the Prequels. The Last Jedi truly reckons with the lasting repercussions of the Prequels while contextualizing the events of the Original Trilogy. With The Rise of Skywalker seemingly resurrecting the Emperor himself, the stage is set for the most hands-on demonstration yet of bringing all three trilogies together.
The impact of the Sequel Trilogy grappling with the ramifications of the Prequels, however, can’t help but feel watered down when viewed immediately after Return of the Jedi. Leaving the emotional heavy-lifting to mere nostalgia, rather than the tangible passage of time filled by the Prequels, arguably does a disservice to George Lucas’ approach to Star Wars in the first place. This isn’t a matter of always abiding by authorial intent – after all, Lucas himself would likely endorse chronological viewings given his insistence that the first six Episodes are meant to tell one complete story – but rather choosing the avenue that leads to the most insightful results possible.
At the risk of revealing myself as a Sith by speaking in absolutes, the answer is clear – by far the richest, most rewarding method to experience Star Wars is through release order.
Though it remains to be seen how The Rise of Skywalker handles ending a total of nine saga films, it’s hard to imagine any developments chaotic enough to throw off any of the conclusions drawn here (then again, famous last words!). Regardless, there’s more than enough textual and thematic evidence in the eight current Episodes to point towards one definitive answer. So start with the Original Trilogy, pivot to the Prequels, and finally bringing it all home with the Sequels.
Alright. Now that that’s settled, I’ve got a bone to pick with how some of you have been watching the MCU…
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