What Even Is The Phantom Menace?

You know what lockdown means? A complete chronological order rewatch of all the Star Wars movies!

I’ve only seen the prequels once, when I was a teenager, and I don’t remember much beyond the Padme decoy and the scenes in memes, so I was pretty curious. They’re famously regarded as Not Great, but some people seem to really love them. Plus there was a lot of pressure and expectation on them when they were released, which might have caused mediocre movies to become hated ones.

I went into The Phantom Menace without particularly high expectations (JarJar Binks, right?), but hoping to have fun. But instead I’m left wondering how the creator of such a well-crafted narrative as A New Hope could miss the mark so thoroughly and dramatically.

I’m confused. What, exactly, was the plan here?

Let’s get the most important point out of the way first. The Phantom Menace is clearly aimed at children. Anakin is a child, and the movie really plays up elements of child-like silliness, like JarJar Binks. But if that’s the case, why is the main conflict of the movie about a trade war? Even when the Sith show up, the main problem is… trade. It’s such a jarring mismatch of tone, with serious politics on the one hand, JarJar on the other, and Dark Side vs Light Side elements kind of shoehorned in to make it Star Wars-y.

I think The Phantom Menance’s big problem is its characters. And this really shouldn’t be the case. It’s filled with familiar names and faces, like Anakin and Obi-Wan and Yoda. The viewers are already predisposed to like them and care about them, and are already invested in their stories and challenges. Yet The Phantom Menace still fails to give most of the characters any actual character.

Qui-Gon Jinn is our jedi hero here, but by the end of the movie, I don’t feel like I know anything about Qui-Gon Jinn beyond the fact that he’s a jedi. He believes in the jedi code. His padawan is Obi-Wan. And that’s pretty much it, beyond his ability to be a badass in a lightsaber fight. The Star Wars Wiki tells me he was a “maverick” jedi who refused a place on the council to follow his own path, but… I didn’t really get that sense from the movie itself.

Meanwhile, Darth Maul is our main antagonist, and he’s… A Sith Apprentice. Again, he’s awesome to watch in a lightsaber fight, and he has a very iconic look, but we don’t know a single other thing about him. So that epic final battle is an amazing spectacle, and I loved it, but spectacle is all it is.

Even Obi-Wan is just A Padawan, despite being a familiar character. He says “yes, master” a lot and has a weird pony tail and braid look going on, and that feels like it’s it. I’m not asking for the movie to go into everyone’s detailed backstory (perhaps with a trilogy prequel of the prequels?), but if we had some sense of them as individuals with character of their own, the movie would be a lot more enjoyable to watch. The most interesting character is probably Padme, but that’s also difficult to judge, because we’re kept out of the loop on most of what’s going on with her character for the majority of the movies, and I still have many, many questions, like why Naboo decided to elect a fourteen year old to rule them.

But even giving these characters more personality wouldn’t fix the other, bigger problem with the narrative. (Almost) none of the main characters have any reason to be invested in the plot, at all. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi don’t really care. They’ve just been sent on a Jedi mission. They get more invested when they meet Anakin, but overall, their investment in Naboo’s trade war is basically nil. JarJar Binks is just… there, a character met by accident who kinda just sticks around. Padme is highly motivated, but because we don’t know that she’s the Queen of Naboo for most of the story, we as viewers don’t know that she’s motivated. She’s mostly just there, making protests about what the queen would and would not approve of. So why should we, as viewers, get invested in this somewhat uninspiring story about trade, when most of the characters that we see aren’t particularly invested either? It’s a major, major problem.

Theoretically, though, I think it’s a problem that has interesting implications. I don’t know whether or not this was intentional, but The Phantom Menace does a good job of laying the groundwork of the idea that the Jedi, well… kinda suck. They’re not about fighting injustice. They’re about keeping the peace, at almost any cost. Qui-Gon Jinn doesn’t care about helping Anakin until he decides he’s the Chosen One. They could easily have taken Anakin’s mother with them, but they leave her behind, because the laws of slavery are fine, I guess? And then the Jedi Council initially reject Anakin because he’s a whole nine years old, I assume expecting him to go back into slavery or somehow find a way to live by himself, despite being nine. 

It makes sense that our Jedi characters are uninvested and lacking in personality. The Jedi Ideal we’re shown is a lack of emotional investment and a calm and centered response to everything. But that sure as heck doesn’t make them very interesting to watch, until we get a character who starts rebelling against those rules. And although Qui-Gon Jinn does a little, that’s really a story arc that’s waiting until Episode 2.

Characterization isn’t the only problem with the Phantom Menace, or even the most egregious one. That prize must go to the movie’s blatant racism. I was looking for another article on this issue to link to, but I couldn’t find much written solely on this, possibly just because The Phantom Menace came out in the early days of the internet, or perhaps my Google skills are just failing me. But the trade villains sport racist stereotyped East Asian accents. Anakin’s slave owner with a large nose and a Yiddish accent comments that mind tricks don’t work on him, “only money.” And debate about the racism inherent in JarJar Binks has raged ever since he first appeared.

But I’m a white British girl. I’m not qualified to analyse the layers of racism here. I’ll stick to the narrative sins, which are, on the one hand, understandable when you think of the greater story of the Jedi that Lucas was trying to tell, and, on the other hand, infuriating because they’re boring and could have been so easily avoided.

So I’m afraid The Phantom Menace has not won me over. Up next is Attack of the Clones, which people assure me is the worst of the three, but I still have hopes for it. Like, maybe the characters will have personality in that one? Maybe the story won’t be about trade? And some people seem to ship Anakin and Padme. There must be a reason for that, right? Fingers crossed.

One comment on “What Even Is The Phantom Menace?

  • Lars Sjöström , Direct link to comment

    I like Darth Mauls lack of personality, sometimes it is fun with an enigmatic villain whose motivations are unclear and unknown. In real life we usually learn little or nothing about the backstory and motivations of people who hurt us, and many times they do not make since.

    I disagree with that jedi only care for peace at all costs, if that had been the case they would have supported the stronger party in every conflict. Then the Trade Federation wouldn’t need to fear going against the jedi since that would at worst mean to back off a little but still be winners.

    As for electing a fourteen years old, I guess that Naboo political culture is very different from ours.

    Personally I think that there was to much to be said in one movie. A long-running TV-show would most likely have been better at catching the difficulties of galactic politics and what it meant to be a jedi.

What do you think?

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