by Kevin Clarke
“You fought in the Clone Wars?”
“Yes. I was once a Jedi knight. The same as your father.”
“I wish I’d known him.”
“He was the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior. I understand you’ve become quite a good pilot yourself. (Sadly) And he was a good friend.”
-Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977)
“Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”
“He told me enough! He told me you killed him!”
“No. I am your father.”
-Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1982)
These two scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy are the sole reason a Star Wars prequel series exists at all. In these two short passages of dialogue an entire history is hinted at and, in true Star Wars fashion, terms like “Clone Wars” are tossed away like we already know what they’re talking about. But seriously, what are the Clone Wars? And how did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? It boils down to those two questions. That’s really all anybody wanted to know. We never needed to have them explicitly answered, but when George Lucas set upon the task of creating the Star Wars prequels, spirits were understandably high. We were going to get to live through the Clone Wars! We were going to see old friends Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker fight alongside—and eventually against—one another! We were going to see the first time Darth Vader wheezed into existence! Childhood daydreams come true!
Well, not quite. The prequel trilogy, while answering the burning question of how Anakin became Darth Vader in one of the prequel trilogy’s only truly affecting scenes (up to the “Nooooooo!” part, anyway), was arguably a major disappointment. The Phantom Menace is a complete waste of time, a place-holder that moves no story forward at all, and only makes the seemingly endless Star Wars universe smaller (e.g. young Anakin building C-3PO) and stupider (e.g. Jar Jar Binks). Attack of the Clones is a more ambitious outing, and where the film succeeds is in its attempts at weird, visionary, science-fiction storytelling; the gladiator arena scene on the bug-man planet is a nice throwback to Ray Harryhausen monster movies, and the rain-swept planet where the long-neck aliens make the clones feels pulled from a sci-fi film noir. It succeeds less when showing Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as a human being with feelings—LOTS of feelings—about girls and love and sand and moms and hating things. Any intended subtlety is lost through clunky writing and poor casting.
It fails even worse at showing Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) as ANY kind of human being with real emotions. Despite being played by one of the best actresses of her generation, it’s never quite believable that this former queen/current galactic Senator would fall for a fawning, creepy stalker like Anakin. Padme is sidelined even further in the much better, but still not good, Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin finally becomes what we already knew he’d become, and Padme becomes pregnant and obsessed with her increasingly unstable, hateful boyfriend. Lucas also shows, in his space fantasy film, nothing short of the fall of democracy, replaced by an evil dictatorship. It’s heavy stuff, and it’s admirable Lucas even attempts such a thing in a Star Wars movie, although it’s impact is blunted a bit when a character woodenly says “So, this is how democracy falls. To thunderous applause,” at the exact moment democracy literally falls.
But all is not lost! For there exists an animated TV show, technically two animated TV shows, that give us (almost) exactly what we wanted from the Star Wars prequels! Star Wars: Clone Wars began as two hand-drawn mini-series by Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky, which was then spun off into a six season CGI animated series. Turns out Lucas had this planned all along. The reason we don’t see the Clone Wars in the movies that should ostensibly ONLY be about the Clone Wars is because he wanted to make this TV show. Which seems dumb and counterintuitive…until you see the show, which quickly surpasses the prequel trilogy in every way. So…um…thanks, George Lucas? Below is a list of reasons Star Wars: Clone Wars is the Star Wars prequel we really wanted!
13. The Clone Wars.
In the Clone Wars TV animated series, we actually get to see the actual Clone Wars. Star Wars Episode II is called Attack of the Clones, yet no clones attack till the very end. Most misleading title since The Neverending Story.
12. It’s like Band of Brothers, the animated show.
The show takes a surprisingly nuanced and subtle (for Star Wars) look at war and what it means to be a soldier. And since all of the Clone Troopers are bred for war, it also questions what exactly they have to live for outside of fighting in the war. In one instance, it questions the heroism of a Clone who went AWOL and started a farm and a family and has been living peacefully until the war shows up on his doorstep. Is it his duty to return to fight, as he was born to do, or does his duty now lie with his family? Heady stuff for a whiz-bang kids show. A lot of time is spent with the Clone Troopers on the ground, in the shit, and the show does an admirable job of giving each one his own personality, even though they all look and sound the same.
11. Making the Star Wars universe seem bigger, instead of smaller.
One of my major gripes about the prequels is how they make the seemingly boundless universe of Star Wars seem somehow small and claustrophobic. Anakin built C-3PO, Boba Fett’s dad was the original recipe Clone Trooper, Yoda knows Chewbacca. Everybody knows everybody! It’s weird, unnecessary fan-service. Clone Wars, on the other hand, expands the universe, hurtling back and forth across the galaxy, meeting one goofy or terrifying alien after another.
10. Asajj Ventress
Asajj is most definitely a bad guy, but her character has so many nuances, it’s hard to not think of her as one of the main heroes of the show. Taken from her home planet, raised in the dark ways of the Sith, of course she’s gonna default to evil. When Count Dooku essentially fires her, she’s lost, so she turns to a life of crime as a bounty hunter. What’s cooler than a badass evil Force lady bounty hunter with a lightsaber? Not much, except for maybe
9. SPACE WITCH ASSASSINS
Speaking of Asajj’s home planet, it is a planet populated by space witches who are also assassins. Which may sound dumb at first, until you remember you’re watching Star Wars, a series built on the mumbo-jumbo of some kind of magical Force; it’s more of a space fantasy than hard science-fiction. The look and feel of the witch planet environs and rituals feel both unlike anything else in Star Wars, and also a welcome addition to the lore.
8. Gorgeous vistas
Clone Wars is bursting at the seams with one crazy planet after another. A bioluminescent planet floor, a jungle labyrinth, the underwater kingdom of the Mon Calamari. All is presented with a painterly quality, and I mean that literally—you can actually see brushstrokes on some of the space vistas.
7. Jar Jar Binks has his moments!
It’s true! He has an adventure with Mace Windu and it turns into a pretty great little buddy comedy. Almost like an Indiana Jones adventure, with sidekick Jerry Lewis. Well, that doesn’t actually sound too appealing…but you get my point. Look, it’s way better than you’d expect from something prominently featuring the world’s most universally despised space amphibian. Plus, Jar Jar gets laid (off camera, thankfully)!
6. GREAT actions scenes.
The show is directed with a sense of scale and depth and care for action that is sorely lacking in the flat prequel trilogy, which often felt over-stuffed with things zipping about everywhere. Even when the screen is over-crowded with robots and clones, the action is rarely confusing or dull, and always has a focus.
5. Cad Bane
Cad Bane is an awesome bounty hunter, whose look is based on spaghetti westerns. He’s a nice reminder of the myriad influences on the Star Wars universe. And his gun makes a neat sound.
4. Adds dimension and emotional weight to the prequel trilogy.
Remember that part in Revenge of the Sith when the Clone Troopers turn on their Jedi leaders and murder them because the Emperor pushed a button or whatever? Remember how sad you felt? No? Me neither, because none of the murdered Jedi meant anything to us. But the scene hits a lot harder after you’ve spent six season with them. You also feel for the clones, who have no control over what they’ve done. One particular storyline has a clone losing his mind after his Order 66 chip malfunctions and he starts killing Jedi, way before he’s supposed to. The show even made me not hate General Grevious…kind of.
3. Genre exercises
A three-episode arc featuring a Godzilla-like monster attacking Coruscant, a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Seven Samurai, but with bounty hunters protecting some ‘helpless’ little critters, The Most Dangerous Game co-starring Chewbacca. The show was full of fun genre exercises that never felt forced or out of place.
2. Anakin Skywalker finally lives up to the hype.
When Obi-Wan Kenobi talks up Luke’s dad in Star Wars: The First One From The ’70s, before we know that he’s Darth Vader, he sounds like a total badass; “The best star pilot in the galaxy” and “a cunning warrior” and even “a good friend.” While the first two are covered in the movies (well, maybe “cunning” is a bit much), the third is only tossed off in some pretty lame banter between the two. Anakin and Obi-Wan don’t spend a significant amount of screen time together in the films, and the chemistry between Ewan MacGregor and Hayden Christensen doesn’t really scream “FRIENDS!” Clone Wars puts their friend/teacher/student relationship front and center. And the Anakin of the show is a far cry from the whiny brat of the movies. He’s brash and reckless and increasingly crazy, but he’s also heroic and brave and (genuinely) cunning. As he slowly turns to the dark side, the real tragedy of his fall is so much more apparent. It makes his fate in Revenge of the Sith feel legitimately tragic.
1. AHSOKA TANO!
The masterstroke of the show was the creation of Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s Jedi apprentice, and, as far as I’m concerned, the main character of the show. I mean, Anakin is technically the main character of the show, but Ahsoka is the show’s heart, the reason to keep watching. We can count on less than one complete hand the number of female speaking roles in the Star Wars saga (maybe more, now that The Force Awakens is a thing), so centering so much of this show on a woman is a godsend. And the fact that she’s treated like an equal on the battlefield is never questioned; the Clone Troopers under her command call her “Commander” or “sir.” In fact, her gender only enters into the show a few times, when there’s a mild romantic interest, but almost never. Her youth and inexperience are brought up as a negative more often, and that’s entirely fair—she’s brash, spontaneous and occasionally careless, much like her mentor. She also gives us a character whose outcome is not already determined. We know the fates of Anakin, Obi-Wan, Mace Windu, Yoda and all the other weirdo Jedi from the movies, but Ahsoka is an anomaly, we don’t know where her story will end. Her relationship with Anakin strengthens the emotional core of the story by giving him someone to care about besides Padme—a reason not to turn to the Dark Side, even as we see him slowly slipping away. Her final scene in the series is one of the most heartbreaking moments in all of Star Wars, a scene which ends one relationship, while foreshadowing Anakin’s tragic fall from grace.
Kevin Clarke is a Seattle-based filmmaker/comedian who loves the Police Academy movies and Howard The Duck, despite knowing better.