George Lucas is a brilliant storyteller.
That’s not a controversial statement, but I want to mention one aspect of that here that I think has often gone overlooked. And it pertains to the way each of the three prequel films end. In his subtle genius, Lucas subverts our natural thoughts and feelings by suggesting there’s something different going on. Like, for example, when the climactic moment of Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker finally wins, doesn’t come when he bests Darth Vader in a lightsaber fight but when he throws away his lightsaber.
There’s another way the franchise subverts things, and it’s in how Lucas brings each of the three prequel movies to a close. Two of them, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, end and leave the viewer with warm feelings of victory – but Lucas is suggesting that it’s not a victory like we think. Then when we come to Revenge of the Sith, it’s a more somber ending – but Lucas is suggesting that it’s not as bleak as we think. Let’s start from the beginning.
The Phantom Menace
The first chapter of the story ends in victory: Obi-Wan Kenobi has (seemingly) killed Darth Maul, Anakin Skywalker has blown up the Trade Federation ship, and the final scene is an upbeat victory parade where the Republic celebrates with both the Naboo people and the Gungans, reunified. It it s a feel-good victory!
Or is it?
The ending of The Phantom Menace is actually suggesting to us that, in the midst of this temporary victory, it is actually Palpatine who has won. The duel between the Jedi and Maul is the duel of the fates for a reason: it’s the duel for the fate of Anakin’s future. The Jedi might seemingly win it, but with Qui-Gon Jinn dead, they’ve actually lost. Qui-Gon has been removed from Anakin’s life, drawing Palpatine ever closer to his plan being realized. It’s no coincidence that, at Qui-Gon’s funeral, as the camera focuses in on Palpatine looking on, we see Anakin in the background. In-between him and Palpatine stands just two people: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padmé Amidala. They are the two who will continue to stand in the way until, tragically, it’s too late for even the two of them to do something about it.
So, then, the final scene is a victory parade. But John Williams, in his typical mastery, clues us in on what’s happening. The music during the victory celebration is just the Emperor’s theme, in a different key and sped up. The heroes have won this encounter, yes. But it’s Palaptine who has truly won.
Attack of the Clones
Jump ahead then to the next film in the trilogy. The film ends with an epic battle on Geonosis, with the Jedi and the brand new Grand Army of the Republic arriving to save Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé. They win the battle, then the movie ends with Anakin and Padmé getting married on the beautiful Naboo lakeside. It’s a happy ending!
Or is it?
Lucas is a less subtle this time. At the end of the film, as Obi-Wan speaks with Yoda and Mace Windu, he says that without the clones it would not have been a victory. To this, Yoda corrects him: “Victory? Victory, you say? Master Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun the Clone War has.” Yoda tells us that this is not a victory, contrary to what we might initially think, because the dark side has now been revealed and the war has begun. And by getting involved in this war, the Jedi have already compromised on their fundamental identity, leading them down a dangerous and deadly road. So the next scene is a group of Senators looking out over the massive Republic army, with Palpatine looking on, and the Imperial March plays. Again, less subtle than the previous film, but the same flavor going on: John Williams playing the theme of an iconic villain overlaid on a scene that might otherwise be interpreted as heroic and victorious.
So then why end with the final scene as the wedding between Anakin and Padmé? Doesn’t that undermine this feeling of defeat-masked-as-victory? Not at all, for it is showing us how Anakin’s passions and love for Padmé have led him to rebel against the Jedi, and in so doing it sets up his ultimate rebellion in the next film.
Revenge of the Sith
So, then, at the end of Revenge of the Sith, it feels like defeat. Palpatine has seduced Anakin to the dark side. The Republic has fallen, replaced by the Empire. Palpatine has defeated Yoda, who heads into exile. Padmé is dead. And though Obi-Wan has defeated Anakin, Anakin – now Darth Vader – is revived as the dreaded apprentice to the new Emperor. The movie ends with a defeat.
Or is it?
The final shots of this film are not reserved for Anakin/Vader. We see him standing alongside Palpatine, looking out at the Death Star in construction, but that’s not the last shot. After that, we get two different glimpses: the first is of Leia on Alderaan, adopted by the Organas. And then we see Obi-Wan giving Luke to the Lars family on Tatooine. And as they look over the binary sunset, the triumphant Force theme swells. The movie, and John Williams, is telling us that though evil appears to have won, evil will not have the final word. A new hope has been born.
Ironically, then, it could be argued that the most uplifting of endings in the prequel trilogy is Revenge of the Sith, because while the previous two movies ends with an apparent win it foreshadows a more ultimate loss. But in this one, while it ends with an apparent feat, it foreshadows a more ultimate victory.