Essay On Moral Ambiguity In PT

Michael O’Connor’s “Power To The Prequels” series at Retrozap takes a look at moral issues in the prequels and how the films introduce ambiguity to the saga:

Lucas clearly intended to tell a different story. If the OT was a romanticized vision of World War II heroics and villainy, the PT is the morally dubious conflicts of World War I and the fallout events that caused its “sequel.” Lucas decided to take his morally pure galaxy and interject a couple of revolutionary questions: What if the enemies weren’t so obvious? What if the good guys sometimes made the wrong decisions?

The Phantom Menace is the first film to introduce this new dynamic of moral ambiguity, and it does so slyly. On the surface, the film is an optimistic, colorful fantasy of a couple of swashbuckling samurai rescuing a child Queen and meeting a gifted slave boy who can help save the galaxy from the slimy Trade Federation and its Sith leaders. But beneath that cheerful facade is a sweatshop of horrors. It is so markedly different from the original trilogy films that even watching it today, it feels like an outlier to the saga. An intentional exclamation point that requires further study. Successive films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith ditch the happy veneer altogether and connect more visibly with the original trilogy, but they double-down on the moral ambiguity that TPM introduced to the saga.

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42 Responses to “Essay On Moral Ambiguity In PT”

  1. fundhund Says:

    This has actually been one of the main reasons I love the prequels for a long time. I never liked the flat black and white chlichee of the OT (ROTJ in particular) all that much, and so I really enjoyed it when the prequels kind of opened up the galaxy, and there was finally room for characters that didn´t quite fit the mold of hero or villain. And not all `villains` needed to be killed by our heros, for that matter 😉
    With TFA, if I am allowed to make that statement, Star Wars has become morally unambiguous [and pretty one-dimensional, if you ask me] once again.
    Btw: This is my first comment here, and I just wanted to say that I really like this site very much! It´s nice to know that there are others out there who love these films just as much as I do.

  2. Adam D. Bram (The Nilbog) Says:

    I’m glad there are more people looking into this.

  3. Hunk a Junk Says:

    “It is so markedly different from the original trilogy films that even watching it today, it feels like an outlier to the saga.” This statement illustrates one of the things that always bothers me about Star Wars discussions, even pro-PT ones: that it assumes the OT as a benchmark for what Star Wars “is.” TPM is only an “outlier” when seen in comparison to the OT rather than the first of the whole. Had TPM been the first film released, and it was the story that set the benchmark for what Star Wars “is,” then people would be seeing the OT as the films that ‘seem wrong or don’t fit in the spirit of what Star Wars is.’ Almost all criticisms I hear when discussing what is “wrong” with the PT stem from how it ‘doesn’t look like Star Wars,’ or ‘It doesn’t have this or that of the OT.’ Indeed, that was the motivation for the “practical effects” campaign or the promised “return to classic Star Wars storytelling” in TFA: the movie would deliver the ‘stuff’ the PT got ‘wrong.’ I always try to argue that TPM isn’t an “outlier,” but rather it’s part of the contrast George Lucas was creating in depicting two eras of the Star Wars story. Democratic Republic vs. Militaristic Empire. Chrome and curved designs vs. junky and angled designs. Ambivalence vs. certainty. Etc. George Lucas’ Star Wars existed in a continuum, not as a rigid set of rules.

    • lazypadawan Says:

      Very good point.

    • Michael Says:

      Oh, don’t get me wrong. I very much admire the extent to which TPM sets off in a brave, new direction for the Star Wars franchise. “Outlier” is a compliment coming from me. I’m not a fan of derivative works, and I’ve always admired the Star Wars saga for being comprised of six such wonderfully diverse and individual films. My point was merely that TPM is such a shock to the system that it demands further study; there’s clearly a reason GL departed from the tone, feel and look of the OT and we owe it to ourselves as viewers to dig deeper.

  4. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    There is some moral ambiguity in the OT, especially “The Empire Strikes” (which I regard as a dress rehearsal for the PT). But as I had pointed out, the moral ambiguity in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” is basically a dress rehearsal for the 1999-2005 movies.

    • lazypadawan Says:

      In a private discussion with the author, I pointed this out…that the graying of the OT started with Vader revealing to Luke that he is Luke’s father. Not only is the hero the son of the second most evil guy in the galaxy, said hero finds out the hard way that the mentor he trusted and loved had lied to him and was setting him up to commit patricide.

      • Hunk a Junk Says:

        As a side note, Obi-Wan didn’t lie to Luke. By the end of ROTS, both Yoda and Obi-Wan considered Anakin “dead.” Not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real (for the Star Wars galaxy) physical sense. Obi-Wan didn’t want Luke to think of Darth Vader as his father because to Obi-Wan he wasn’t. But, Obi-Wan is certainly guilty of leading Luke on and omitting key details. Calling Darth Vader his “pupil” is closer to being a lie. If the PT is guilty of anything it’s that George didn’t make crystal clear that “falling to the Dark Side” is more than just someone deciding to do evil things. It’s not just psychology or metaphor. It’s a real, tangible thing that, as far as the Jedi are concerned, is a one-way street. When someone “turns,” their spiritual essence is ripped in two and the darker side destroys the light. In normal people, even Jedi, a person’s good and dark sides exist together — which is why Jedi must train to control their darker impulses and passions. The reasons the Force has “lost balance” is because the Sith have destroyed their good sides. They are all evil. This is not true of the Jedi. They are not “all good.” That’s what makes Anakin/Vader’s story compelling — why he’s the Chosen One. He’s the first and only one who came back from the Dark Side. Anakin’s good essence, crushed so small that even Yoda and Obi-Wan couldn’t detect it, was able to fight back and destroy the Dark Side. This is why I’m not looking forward to Kylo Ren being “redeemed” at some point in the sequel trilogy (and you know he will be — because there’s now way Disney will allow Han Solo’s son to die a villain). Anakin returned because he was the Chosen One. He was special. If Kylo Ren can turn back to being good, it dilutes the specialness Anakin’s accomplishment.

      • Michael Says:

        I guess the way I see it is that Vader being Luke’s father is only a shade of gray if the film is going to follow up on that thread and maturely explore the ramifications of that reveal.

        As it stands, in ESB we pretty much get that reveal, Luke escapes and the movie ends. It’s a heartbreaking ending and a big cliffhanger, but there’s nothing happening there that shows the bad guy not being bad or the good guy not being good.

        It’s really in ROTJ where you insinuate that the Jedi are not perfect beings; they’ve set up Luke to take out his father for them and never even told him the truth about his parentage. His act of defiance and sacrifice shows the Jedi what true heroism is, and the fact that Anakin is able to be redeemed calls into question the ultimate good and ultimate evil dichotomies portrayed in Eps. IV and V.

  5. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    After reading this paragraph, I would like to add:

    The Council is an arrogant, haughty group, sitting atop their figurative (or is it literal?) ivory tower removed from the common man. Mace Windu, in particular, is a scowling character who seems fond of putting fools in their place, whether it’s a fellow Jedi like Qui-Gon Jinn or Anakin Skywalker or an adversary like Count Dooku or Chancellor Palpatine.

    Mace isn’t the only one. I noticed that Yoda did the same to both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in “The Phantom Menace”. And like Mace, he made the mistake of going after Palpatine in an act of aggression. This is why both Jedi Masters failed in the end.

    • Jacobesico Says:

      That reminds me of a quote that references Jedi arrognce in Attack of the Clones. It’s where Obi-Wan is talking to Mace Windu and Yoda in his hover chair.

      “A flaw more and more common among Jedi. Even the older, more experienced ones. Too sure of theirselves they are.”

      • Michael Says:

        I love that moment, Jacobesico. I always got the sense that Yoda’s referring to himself with that quote. It doesn’t prevent him from continuing to be arrogant, but at least he’s ‘fessing up to it.

      • Jacobesico Says:

        There’s another good moment in AOTC where Obi-Wan is trying to find Kamino and Madame Jocasta Nu tells Obi-Wan rather stiffly “If an item does not appear on our records, then it does not exist.”

        I think that that is a good example of Jedi arrogance.

      • Michael Says:

        Oh yeah, Jocasta Nu is INSUFFERABLE. You just know she was the first against the wall when the 501st stormed into the Jedi Temple.

      • lazypadawan Says:

        “I’ll show you who’s overdue now.”

  6. Jonathan vd Sluis (@Natusaurus) Says:

    I must admit that I don’t read this blog every day, but I do keep coming back because you always find these fascinating articles about the prequels. Thank you very much for again and again coming up with this thought-provoking stuff, and for a good blog.

  7. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    As a side note, Obi-Wan didn’t lie to Luke. By the end of ROTS, both Yoda and Obi-Wan considered Anakin “dead.” Not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real (for the Star Wars galaxy) physical sense. Obi-Wan didn’t want Luke to think of Darth Vader as his father because to Obi-Wan he wasn’t. But, Obi-Wan is certainly guilty of leading Luke on and omitting key details. Calling Darth Vader his “pupil” is closer to being a lie. If the PT is guilty of anything it’s that George didn’t make crystal clear that “falling to the Dark Side” is more than just someone deciding to do evil things. It’s not just psychology or metaphor. It’s a real, tangible thing that, as far as the Jedi are concerned, is a one-way street. When someone “turns,” their spiritual essence is ripped in two and the darker side destroys the light.

    I’m sorry, but I do not agree with this. I believe that both good and evil reside in all of us, regardless of the choices we make in life. Some of us decide to succumb to the goodness within us and some of us decide to succumb to the evil within us. But whatever choices we make, that duality remains intact, whether we like it or not. Even if we flip-flop between making good and bad choices. I do not believe that our inner psyche is that set in stone.

    • Michael Says:

      I’m kind of in the middle on this argument. I do believe that falling to the Dark Side is like having your mind altered (by drugs, alcohol, whatever). You do things out of your right head. That doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for doing these things; you did choose to take those drugs or drink that spiked Dark Side Kool-Aid in the first place after all.

      But where I agree with ladylavinia is that the Jedi are clearly wrong about not being able to return from the Dark Side. There is still goodness in Vader, as Luke tell us. Ultimately, Anakin makes choices; he’s not just magically transformed into Sith and he’s not just magically converted back to the Light Side.

      He’s in conflict with the Good and the Evil inside him, but as I say in the piece, I think the point is that the more wrong decisions you make, the harder it is to start making the right ones again.

  8. Kingpun Says:

    I never made the WWI connection with the prequels until a few years ago when I watched through all the bonus stuff on the Young Indiana Jones DVD’s, which were all historical documentaries about each episode’s specific subject matter. The similarities became pretty obvious very fast. I think that might be at least one of the reasons a lot of people seem to eschew the prequels in favor of the OT’s more WWII vibe. WWII is far more prevalent in our public consciousness as many of us growing up in the Star Wars era could still talk with survivors of WWII and the glut of actual film footage from the war and its depiction in cinema. WWI just barely missed the filmmaking boom so it didn’t get the same treatment.

    Something else quite interesting is that if you want to pinpoint an event that ended the era of monarchies in exchange for democracies, it was WWI. To me, that’s another one of the many reasons Phantom Menace isn’t just a superfluous bonus chapter to the saga as some detractors like to claim. It starts us in a world of Queens and Kingdoms and knights that would crumble over the course of the trilogy. The lack of those elements in the OT retroactively makes them feel like we are seeing a drastically changed world.

    I was hoping the new trilogy would continue the pattern and give us the Star Wars version of the Cold War. I suppose it still could, but I didn’t see any similarities so far. Hopefully we go from the very safe “here are the good guys, here are the bad guys.” world into something a little more complex. I would love to see the remnants of the New Republic attempt to create their own super weapon in reaction to the events of Force Awakens. Given her history Leia of course would be the most adamant voice of protest and it could lead to a larger schism between the Resistance and the New Republic. That would certainly make the Resistance more interesting that just being “the Rebellion again.”

    • lazypadawan Says:

      Great points.

    • Michael Says:

      You nailed it, Kingpun! The monarchy observation is particularly apt.

      Also, glad you brought up the topic of the Young Indiana Jones series. The second season of that show is stellar and really shines a spotlight on WWI in a way that few other shows or films have.

      I had hoped the ST would take the Cold War or possibly the War on Terrorism as inspirations, but it looks more like WWII redux, which is a shame because it leaves our heroes in the same kind of situations and conflicts.

    • jayoungr Says:

      Interesting observations!

      Here’s a thought, though I’m not quite sure what it means: the world of queens and knights is also the world of democracy. And when that world fades, it is replaced by the empire, which is a kind of monarchy turned up to eleven. So in one sense the story moves away from monarchy, and in another sense it actually moves toward increased monarchy.

    • Marshall Says:

      And what triggered the Clone Wars was the repeated assassination attempts on Senator Amidala, who wanted to avoid war. What triggered WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who wanted to avoid war with Russia. Another interesting similarity between Padme and Ferdinand was their forbidden marriages: Padme had to keep her marriage to Anakin a secret because of their castes, Franz had to downplay his marriage to Sophia because of her caste – she wasn’t even allowed to ride with him in royal parades.

  9. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    Does the New Republic still exist?

    • Kingpun Says:

      The New Republic could still exist. It could go either way. If the filmmakers want their part in the story to be over, it could just be left as is. If they see story opportunities for them however, they could pick up with them at a point of drastic reorganization in the wake of the Starkiller attack. Wookiepedia seems to indicate it is still around but the destabilization is the beginning of the new Galactic Civil War.

  10. jayoungr Says:

    (NOTE: I may regret posting this, because I have a feeling it’s going to be an unpopular opinion. I expect to be told that I’m just not seeing the subtleties or some such rot. But I wanted to put it into words, and typing helps.)

    While I completely agree that the Jedi as a group make a lot of ultimately bad choices during the course of the PT, I just don’t feel the kind of anger or revulsion toward them that a fair number of fans seem to have. Including the author of this essay, if his use of words like “arrogant,” “haughty,” “blindness,” “coldness,” and “hypocrisy” is anything to go by. I see them–yes, including Mace Windu and also including Qui-Gon Jinn–as flawed heroes genuinely trying to do the best thing, sometimes in cases where there IS no good solution, or at least not an obvious one. They have their blind spots and their disagreements, but their ideals are truly noble and they ARE committed to them, even if they don’t always fully live up to them.

    Maybe it helps that when watching the OT, I didn’t assume they were some kind of unnaturally perfect beings, as the essay assumes I must have. Therefore, it was no shock to find that they were capable of messing things up. But they’re like the collective heroes of a classical tragedy: their flaws may bring them down, but the good in them far outweighs those flaws, and the focus is on the greatness that is lost. When the Jedi order goes down, it is cause for sorrow, NOT for the viewer to sit back smugly and say “Oh well, the bleep-holes kind of deserved it,” which is the tone I get from this essay and similar ones I’ve seen over the years.

    • Kim Says:

      I agree with you. The Order 66 montage is incredibly sad because I care about the Jedi, imperfect as they are. The prequels are full of tragic falls-Anakin, the Republic, the Jedi Order, and what makes them all resonate for me are the characters involved, bad decisions included.

    • Michael Says:

      Hey Jay, I’m sorry my piece gave you the impression I dislike the Jedi or are looking forward to their downfall with smug satisfaction. Nothing could be further from the truth! I love Obi-Wan, Yoda, Qui-Gon, even Mace Windu despite (or maybe because of) his grouchiness. Heck, Anakin is my favorite character in all of Star Wars; he drives me nuts, but I love him!

      The point of the piece is not to cast aspersions on these characters, but rather to consider their vulnerabilities and their faults and why the creator gave them those weaknesses. For my money, Yoda becomes more interesting in the prequels because there’s an extra dimension to his character. He is not just the wise old mage with all the answers; his flaws make him a more compelling, fully rounded character.

      Anyway, thanks for reading. I appreciate your honest feedback and I’ll try to better clarify my views in future pieces.

      • jayoungr Says:

        I agree that the Jedi aren’t perfect, but the feel I got from your essay was that you didn’t even think they were particularly good. I’m glad if that’s not the case! (Maybe I’d have a fuller idea of your views if I’d read some of your other essays, but that was the first one I saw.)

      • Michael Says:

        I suppose I took for granted that everyone thinks of the Jedi as heroes already. I was operating from that base assumption, because I certainly think of the Jedi as heroes, despite their occasional shortcomings. Poking holes in their ethical and moral lapses wasn’t to show that they’re villains or terrible people, but to demonstrate how those flaws separate the murkier PT from the classic heroism of the OT.

        As you rightly point out, the Jedi are well-meaning and the values for which they stand are noble and inspiring. Had the Jedi been completely morally bankrupt or worthy of the audience’s hate, we wouldn’t care about the stakes and Revenge of the Sith wouldn’t be the devastating tragedy it is.

        If you’re looking for another Star Wars essay from me, I hope you’ll check out “Why I Love the Phantom Menace”:

        I’d be interested in your feedback.

  11. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    Wookiepedia seems to indicate it is still around but the destabilization is the beginning of the new Galactic Civil War.

    I feared this would happen.

    As for the Jedi . . . I never felt any anger at their imperfections. I pretty much expected it. In fact, I suspect that the revelation of Vader as Anakin Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back” and Luke’s questioning of both Obi-Wan and Yoda’s past actions in “Return of the Jedi” pretty much helped me prepare for the Prequel Trilogy’s ambiguous portrayal of the Jedi.

    • Hoggle Says:

      Part of the tragedy of the PT is the Jedi Order, It is their undercurrent that resonates through the OT in the ultimate victory of the Rebel Alliance, in a one on one way with Luke to Vader, but more so the blooming of Leia in episodes 4-6 personally & professionally. Also for the more saga fan, the tragedy of the PT Jedi & the painful lessons learnt of Obi-1, & Yoda in tESB, the fallen Jedi Master who was the most well meaning character but ultimately blind to the here & now to disastrous consequences in losing the Jedi Order, the Republic and Anakin to the Sith, (although GL’s visual exposition to that is Yoda is much more powerful int the force in tBSB than he was through out the PT in his force power demonstration to Luke) 😥

      Saying that, the PT’s ambiguity to me as a whole to the OT is more about it’s story driven and thematics moments being where it’s big dramatic pay off moments & verve lays for the most part. The OT was better executed with it’s characters story in that way, the PT didn’t suck at it, was just more bumpy (the material was there for it to be just as good although different to the OTs in this way but the editing wasn’t there for that as much to get the best out of it as the OT did for it’s different situation) but it is there, where as in it’s story driven sense the PT is a masterwork, & this enriches the OT in that way how it layers through it now also – re my initial comments relating to Luke & Leia, rebel alliance stuff & galactic empire.

      • Michael Says:

        I agree with a lot of this. I think it’s great that the OT has certain strengths and the PT has certain strengths. Combined, they are really are a masterpiece and beautifully address each others’ flaws.

    • Cristian Martinez Says:

      In other world the Original Trilogy 2.0, and it hard to be around were there is no context whatsoever of their existence, other than words from the characters here and there, even if the next episode give us context, like it seems it will, now the Original Star Wars fans are whining because it “appear to be much like the Prequels”, so. Any context whatsoever is forbidden?

  12. lisse Says:

    This guy hit on most of the reasons why I love the PT. The moral ambiguity of the ‘good guys’, the deconstruction of tropes and narratives, the deconstruction of the jedi, of vader, these are all reasons why I love the PT. And, the idea that while Palpatine orchestrated everything, people and their decaying, stagnant organizations led to their own fall is something I’ve always loved.

    *Off to read it in its entirety*

    • Michael Says:

      One thing I’ve always wondered is whether the Republic would have eventually buckled under its own weight without Palpatine to push it down the stairs. How does that Senate ever get anything accomplished?

      • Hoggle Says:

        TPM is perhaps abit of a clue to that, without the Sith the Jedi would basically sort out everything in the immediate so the republic senate could gradually & randomly grind it’s way through stuff keeping a semblance of legitimacy.

        So the Jedi Order was actually the foundation of how the Republic worked by time of TPM, without the Sith around it perhaps could have kept on going how it was but one way or another the PT era Jedi Order were probably at the transition of their created currents in the force bringing forth a re-emergent Sith power ☁

  13. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    TPM is perhaps abit of a clue to that, without the Sith the Jedi would basically sort out everything in the immediate so the republic senate could gradually & randomly grind it’s way through stuff keeping a semblance of legitimacy.

    I don’t know if I can agree with this. I find it hard to believe or accept that the Republic Senate would have needed the Jedi to sort out their problems. I don’t think I really like the idea of a religious organization interfering with a political body like that. Or the idea of the Jedi “guiding” the Republic Senate, considering that they had their own flaws to deal with . . . and I’m not talking about the Sith. For me, this would seem like justifying the Jedi Council’s willingness to take over the Senate near the end of “Revenge of the Sith”. And that does not sit well with me.

    • Hoggle Says:

      I know what you mean ladyL

      At some time i had wondered how it worked & got to thinking without the Siths involvement in TPM Qui-gon & Obi would have handled the situation handily if it had just been them against the Trade Federation. The T Fed is very hesitant to go against the Jedi in TPM but are more hedging about getting away with stuff in the senate.

      It’s an entire planetery invasion army, the two Jedi are caught unawares yet they escape from the command ship, re-unite on the planet surviving the invasion that has droids looking for them, get themselves to the occupied capital and rescue the Queen & her group, get past the blockade on the way back to Coruscant in her spaceship which they manage to get fixed with no resources in a non republic Gangster run planet – you Jedi Bombad! WIthout a Sith Lord, they could have easily protected Padme in the mission to capture the TF Vice Roy.

      They were not so much guiding the senate as they were serving the Republic for the senate – the problem was the senate was about the Republic serving the senate to such a large extent that without the Jedi Order there was little unity to hold the other two together.

      In AotCs, how the Jedi are percieved is very different to the senate & Republic than what it was in TPM, & this is because Sith are now involved. The Jedi Order were not the Republic, nor were they the Senate but without their unique effectiveness unoppossed by Sith opposition, the workings of the Galactic Senate could not match what held it’s Republic together enough.

      For the PT era, could say if the Jedi Order hadn’t been a Republic then the Sith wouldn’t have (or been able to become against the Jedi :/ ) a Senate. The thing being that what they are fighting about, is not actually there anymore, so it had become based on Jedi power & no longer the Whill of the Force.

      -the jedi and sith are similar in almost everyway, including their quest for greater power – 🗽

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