Star Wars: The Phantom Menace improves with every spin-off it inspires

Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy Reimagined

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is 25 years old and back in theaters for Star Wars Day (“May the 4th be with you”), inevitably setting off a new round of debate about the movie, the prequel trilogy as a whole, and the current, sometimes frustrating, state of Star Wars media. Though The Phantom Menace has been heavily criticized, it’s also been re-examined and even embraced over the past few decades. There are memes that celebrate the highly dramatic dialogue and direct references in tentpoles like Solo. The kids who grew up with the prequels as their main Star Wars movies have spoken up to defend them.

The Expansion of Star Wars Canon

But arguably, what really vindicated the prequel trilogy was the spin-off culture. The animated series, books, comics, and everything else tying into the expanded canon made good on the promises delivered in the prequels’ seven hours of CG-filled adventure. The Phantom Menace, and later Attack of the Clones, introduced a political conspiracy that spanned every corner of the Star Wars universe, a corrupt government meshing with a somewhat clueless Jedi Order. In an attempt at reasonable runtimes, the movies don’t go that deep with the Jedi’s request for a clone army, or interesting characters like Darth Maul, Mace Windu, and Count Dooku, who all meet early demises. But the genius of Lucas’ plans — anticipated or accidental — is that the movies sparked creativity in other creators.

In 2014, shortly after the acquisition of Lucasfilm, Disney rebranded most “Expanded Universe” media as “Legends” content, with only a handful of stories and lore from outside of the movies surviving the purge. Still, both departed and surviving EU enhance the prequels.

Exploring the Untold Stories

One notable book that didn’t survive the new post-Disney canon is James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis, which took one of the most important yet unknown figures of the prequels and gave us a complete story that fills plenty of the blanks. The novel dealt with the Sith lord Darth Plagueis, hinted in Revenge of the Sith to be Darth Sidious’ master, and a being who could manipulate midichlorians to create life. The novel tells the story of Plagueis’ training of a teenage Palpatine, his arc to become a politician, and how the duo planned the creation of a clone army, and with that the Clone Wars itself.

Though the novel is no longer canon, the idea that Palpatine and his master planned everything about the Clone Wars in order to gain power has been explored in other comics and novels, like Luceno’s own Tarkin from 2014. Palpatine in the movies was meant to be this mastermind who was ten steps ahead of everyone, but we didn’t really see him do that much until Revenge of the Sith. Likewise, we are told vague statements about corruption and the “bureaucrats” in charge of the Senate, but in books we finally started to see how much the senator from Naboo changed the course of history in the galaxy. Tarkin illustrated the damaged political system, and how easy it was for Palpatine to manipulate it to his favor, something that fleshed out the hooded figure formerly known just as “The Emperor” into a cunning man everyone underestimated until it was too late.

Unveiling the Jedi Order’s Secrets

The expanded canon also shines a new light on the Jedi Order better than the movies ever could. We knew from the original trilogy that the Jedi had all but disappeared; the prequels showed them to be a naïve, strict organization that was unable to prevent its downfall.

The novels Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray and the audiobook Dooku: Jedi Lost by Cavan Scott focus on why some Jedi in the galaxy became disillusioned by the Order, and its close ties to the Republic. Master & Apprentice follows Qui-Gon Jinn as he welcomes Obi-Wan Kenobi as his apprentice, fleshing out some themes from the movies, like slavery in the galaxy and the Jedi Order’s role in galactic politics. The novel shows that Qui-Gon was constantly questioning whether the Jedi were more than the chancellor’s police force, and the nature of “balance” in the Force.