Courtesy of Disney

May 19 marks the 20th anniversary of “Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace” which introduced fans to a new era of Star Wars, set before the Galactic Empire’s rise to power.  Upon announcement, fans of the films were thrilled to return to a galaxy far, far away and see for the first time the events that had led to the fall of the Jedi and the destruction of Anakin Skywalker. Fan anticipation was so great that when the first trailer was announced to be premiered before the film “Meet Joe Black,” fans purchased tickets to the film only to leave after the trailer had been shown. Star Wars mania hit the world by storm, but, to many, the film sadly failed to live up to the hype.


“The Phantom Menace” received poor reviews that criticized its acting and dialogue, as well as a drawn-out and tedious plot about trade negotiations. To the fans, the film had failed to make good on the promises made in its marketing. Fans were initially blown away when they got their first look at the terrifying and undoubtedly cool-looking Darth Maul and his iconic double-bladed red lightsaber, but were let down when his role in the film was relegated to two lines of dialogue and an admittedly decent fight scene at the end. Even more disappointing was that the potential of the character was snuffed out when he was killed off at the end. Furthermore, instead of fleshing out a fascinating villain, George Lucas instead focused on politics and, for some reason, Jar Jar Binks. Darth Vader was introduced as an annoying child, the nature of the force was unnecessarily explained and Jar Jar distracted in every scene he was in. Despite its critical failure, the film still made money and kickstarted the original trilogy. Unfortunately, the issues that plagued Phantom Menace continued in “Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones,” which to some is worse than “The Phantom Menace.” Even “Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith,” undoubtedly the best in the prequel trilogy, is riddled with poor dialogue and questionable acting.


For years after its release, the prequel trilogy was universally panned by fans and critics alike and mocked by practically everyone. Jar Jar Binks became the irritating face of the films as he epitomized what was wrong with the prequels. With that being said, however, the era that the prequel films introduced is now beloved by fans, and to some even rivals the era of the originals. The lore that Episodes I-III introduced was later expanded in the fan-favorite Cartoon Network series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which lasted six seasons before it was cancelled following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm. During those six seasons, the show fleshed out several side characters and fan-favorites while also diving into the Clone Wars, a period in Star Wars lore which fans had wanted to see ever since “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.”


“The Clone Wars” took what was introduced in the prequel films and elaborated upon the extensive lore. With George Lucas’ supervision, Dave Filoni crafted a show that explored all aspects of the Star Wars universe during that era. The series successfully managed to touch upon several unexplored aspects of the universe while still maintaining a focus on the titular conflict. Several episodes were dedicated to the criminal underworld of Star Wars, and focused on fleshing out existing bounty hunter characters, such as Boba Fett and Bossk, while also introducing new fan-favorites like Cade Bane and Embo.  Furthermore, the underworld was further populated with more diverse gangsters and organizations than just Jabba the Hutt. Additionally, the series made the politics interesting as the show offered intriguing storylines that featured backstabbing politicians as they conspire against one another.


Most importantly, the show fleshed out the titular conflict as both sides had their motives explored and had fascinating characters capture our attention and even though the jedi played a major role, the true stars of the show were the clones themselves. Fans of the show each have their personal favorite clone whether its Rex, Cody, Wolffe, Fives or any one of the countless others. It’s a testament to the storytelling capabilities of the show that the showrunners can make the death of a clone resonate with audiences. Despite debuting on Cartoon Network, the show matured with its audiences and the narration took risks and pushed the boundaries while staying accessible to all audiences.


Not enough praise can be placed on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” as its expert storytelling that matured with its audience was coupled with superb voice acting. The show’s most impressive feat, however, is that it reintroduced new fans to the prequels, the entire saga at large and even motivated existing fans to give the prequel films a second chance. As a result, the prequels are now looked back at with some fondness despite their obvious flaws. By no means has the quality of the dialogue or acting improved, but the story that those films established is now beloved by fans. Ewan McGregor is now this generation’s Obi-Wan and Darth Maul has remained a fan-favorite, largely due to his return in “The Clone Wars.”  Furthermore, the prequel films have endured and solidified themselves inside today’s culture as scenes from the films have been immortalized in meme form, which are perhaps the best thing to come out of the unfortunately poor dialogue.


The love that has formed around the prequel era is something that was once inconceivable back when this trilogy was first released. Thanks to “The Clone Wars”, fans are clamoring for more from this rich period of Star Wars lore. Video games set in the Star Wars universe are responding to fan demand and providing more content set in the prequel era than any other. Books and comics also continue to dive deep into that time and explore the characters introduced in it. When “The Phantom Menace” held its 20th anniversary panel at Star Wars Celebration Chicago this past April, the cast was met with warm embraces from the fans. Although the era of the prequel was once considered lacking, its legacy has now become one of the most beloved aspects of the saga and continues to entertain fans new and old.