The Surprise of Star Wars Episode III

Word is already circulating that Star Wars Episode III will post the highest grossing first day totals in the history of cinema, which is kind-of bizarre, when you think about it, since Sith is one of only a handfull of movies in which the conclusion was known by the audience for years before it was even made.

Yet, even though I, along with the tens of thousands of other moviegoers, knew how the third installment in Lucas’ trilogy was going to end, it packed a walloping surprise for me.

Perhaps I am the only person who had this expectation, but I had always thought that Yoda and company on the Jedi counsel – always good and wise – would caution Anakin against fear and anger, that he would refuse to listen to them, and that he would pretty much make a unilateral decision to go for the power and perks that come with the dark side.

But Episode III painted a much more sophisticated, and – I must say – disturbing picture. I’ve said this before, but I see Sith as not only a movie about the fall of Anakin and the slow erosion of democracy – it is also a tale of the moral demise of the Jedi order itself. And, because of its subtleties, it is the latter element of the story that will require a considerable amount of un-packing on my part for some time.

Here, in short, are a few of my observations relating to the moral demise of the Jedi:

Observation #1. Anakin Skywalker: From Chosen One to Unwanted Stepchild. In Anakin, Qui Gon had discovered this wonderful gift from the Force. He was innocent, loving, and giving. He was ready to learn, and use his powers for good. But no one else seemed particularly interested in him, and – after Qui Gon’s untimely demise – he was assigned to be trained by Kenobi, who was then a capable, but inexperienced Jedi. From the beginning, the Counsel’s message was clear: “We don’t really care for you, Anakin, but we’ll let you hang around since Qui Gon’s dying wish was for him to be trained.” They should have either taken Anakin’s training seriously or said “no” to the whole thing. I get the impression that, over the years, as Anakin stuck out his neck again and again for his friends, and he was lucky if he got a pat on the back by anyone. Anyone, that is, except…

Observation #2. Obi Wan and Padme: Enablers Extraordinaire. Is there any doubt that Obi Wan knew dern well about Anakin’s relationship with Padme from the outset? He must have spent years, literally, looking the other way as Anakin broke the Jedi code, vainly searching for the acceptance in Padme that his Jedi peers refused to give him. Padme, in the meantime, frankly, should have flatly laid it on the line for Anakin: its me or the order. Instead, she apparently spent endless years waiting around in her apartment for Anakin to show up for midnight snuggles. (And, by the way, lets not kid ourselves here. I’m grateful – for the sake of smaller children who tend to ask questions – that Lucas arranged to have the two married at the end of Episode II, but I think we all know that – by marrying, he is breaking the Jedi code – and that his actions are, consequently, the equivalent of adultery).

Observation #3. The Counsel: As Political as Palpatine. In order to maintain their standing with the Republic, the Jedi counsel chose to fight – and continue to fight – a war in which it was increasingly apparent that they were on the wrong side. As Palpatine manuvered his way into more and more power, they continued to blindly fight a war in which the good guys, if any, were increasingly difficult to identify. Then, when they decided they didn’t like the situation with Palpatine, they took matters into their own hands – asked Anakin, their favorite stepchild, to become an off-the-record spy – and ultimately plotted a political coup.

Palpatine, frankly, doesn’t have to tell a lot of lies to Anakin. By the time Mace Windu is goaded into the decision to execute Palpatine, the order’s hypocricy has become apparent. Don’t get me wrong – Anakin made a horrible decision. He made the worst of all possible choices in that situation, but Windu and friends made it a much easier option to consider.

Observation #4. What is Missing Here: Self Denial. Think about it. In Episodes IV-VI, the path to the return to the light side has nothing to do with the quest for power. Indeed, it only becomes clear in the various characters’ acts of self-denial. Yoda chooses to flee the Emperor and again become a learner, seeking out the spirit of Qui Gon. To secure the escape of Anakin’s children from the Death Star, Obi Wan gives his life. Han Solo, on multiple occasions, puts his neck on the line for Luke. Luke offers his own life up for what everyone else believes is a slim chance that Anakin will turn back to the light. When Luke is tempted to turn to the dark side by destroying Vader, he casts aside his lightsaber, inviting his own death at the hands of Palpatine. And then, in his ultimate act of redemption, Anakin takes on the death-strike that is meant for Luke.

What would have happened if Qui Gon had lived to train Anakin in a more thoughtful way? If Qui Gon had been his advocate in the counsel? If the Jedi had refused – at some point – to continue to fight the Senate’s war? If they had simply left Courscant in protest to the political changes there, following a more peaceful, and independent, path that seemed to them to be right? If Obi Wan had not looked the other way while Anakin attached himself to Padme?

So many turning points, and so many bad decisions along the way by so many people.

Maybe I’m looking too hard here. Maybe I’m being too influenced by my own views of what has happened to the modern Church. I certainly want to draw those parallels. But this theme of the moral demise of the Jedi – thought slightly more subtle – seems difficult to ignore.

What do you think?

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