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Star Wars Characters – Who Got Better? Who Got Worse?

Occasionally I am asked, in my capacity as an Official Science-Fiction Film Critic™, to render a judgment to settle a dispute between friends who are nerds. This week is one of those times, as I received the following e-mail:

Settle a disagreement I’m having with a friend. He’s a Star Wars fanboy who will argue with a straight face that the prequel trilogy has redeeming qualities. I’m of the opinion that they should have stopped after Empire, because after that point every single character in the series starts to suck. He’s says I’m wrong. You hate the prequels, so I’d guess you’re on my side. Help me, John Scalzi, you’re my only hope!

So the question, as I see it, is this: do all the Star Wars characters start to suck after the first two films — or, more generally, do the characters become less cool the further along we go in the series (going by the chronological release of the films, not by the narrative arc of the entire series)?

Well, I have bad news for my correspondent: in fact, not every
major Star Wars character gets worse as we go along. Some do, but
several get better or, at least, more interesting — even if the films
themselves started a quality decline after The Empire Strikes Back.

Which characters improve as we go along, and which ones don’t? Let’s take a look.

Characters Who Get Better

Luke Skywalker: This one’s obvious. When the first film begins, he’s a whiny dork who’s never been beyond Mos Eisley, and he’s damned lucky Han Solo didn’t toss him out an air lock. By the second film, he’s gone beyond whiny to develop genuine
issues, which actually does count as an improvement, and by the third
film he really is a fairly Zen-like badass, even if he’s written poorly.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Alec Guinness was not
very fond of this part, and with reason: in Star Wars, all he
really gets to do is mumble semi-deep platitudes to the unblinking Luke
and do scutwork for the plot, namely turn off a tractor beam and then
get deli sliced by Darth Vader. In Empire and Return of
the Jedi
, what we mostly learn is that, even beyond the grave, he’s
still not very good at telling the truth. He’s a far more interesting
character in the prequels and gets to do more-exciting things, even if
the plots require him to be slightly dim.

Chewbacca: It’s not so much that he gets better than that he’s consistently awesome. Not even the The Star Wars Holiday Special can take that away from him.

Jar Jar Binks: How does the series’s worst character get better after The Phantom Menace? Simple: he’s seen far less in Episode II and even less in Episode III. Less is more with Jar Jar. Much less is much more.

The Emperor: His cackling malevolence was fun in Jedi, but it’s an absolute
joy in Revenge of the Sith, mostly because the Emperor is the
only character in the entire prequel trilogy who is actually allowed to
have any fun. And why shouldn’t he? Evil is his business, and business
is good.

Characters Who Get Worse

Darth Vader: Another obvious one, right? Here’s the evilest evil dude in the
history of evil — the guy who mind crushes tracheae as a management tool and slices off his own kid’s hand just to get his attention. And in the prequel trilogy? First he’s the universe’s most annoying 8-year-old, then he’s an emo kid with a lightsaber. Now you look at Darth Vader and think, Aw, all he really needed was a hug. And that’s
just wrong.

Yoda: Seriously: how awesome was Yoda
in Empire? So awesome that, as audience members, you forgot he
was, in fact, a Muppet. Then comes the prequel trilogy, and worse his
grammar is, more clueless is he, and like a small rodent he must jump to amuse audiences. By the time Sith rolled around, I
knew I was looking at nothing more than a special effect, and that made
me sad.

Princess Leia: She was spunky and sassy in Star Wars and reduced to being sort of Earth Mother-y in Jedi, having to assure
Han that in fact she wasn’t going to suddenly run off with her brother. Yes, I know: the metal bikini in Jedi. Run off and take a cold shower now, please. A metal bikini does not make up for a lack of character development.

C-3PO: When in Episode I George Lucas asked me to accept that C-3PO was assembled by an 8-year-old Darth Vader, that was the day my innocence died. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but come on — it was pretty bad. Plus he spent all three prequel movies being a useless ninny — well, more of a useless ninny than he already was. On the other hand, it’s nice to see him and R2-D2 happily monogamous through the entire series.

Boba Fett: Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse than being eaten by a Sarlacc, we get Boba Fett’s moody years. Oy vey.

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