I can hear the gasps from here. Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi? That's impossible! Saying something like this in the #StarWars community is always a bit daunting and can feel a little like this:
The original films are so beloved that putting them down in any way is fandom heresy. I still think Return of the Jedi is a good movie, and a great finale to Luke's three-part arc, but I have to admit that I get more enjoyment out of the other act three film in the saga, Revenge of the Sith, and ultimately I feel like it was the better film. Let me explain why.
'Return Of The Jedi': A Rocky Road To Tatooine
George Lucas had quite a bit of problems leading up to the production of Return of the Jedi, which was originally slated to be released as Revenge of the Jedi before Lucas changed the title back to Return. George was already in a bit of hot water with the various guilds over the open credits for his Star Wars films and was also in the process of writing his films and launching LucasFilm as a company, so returning to direct Episodes V and VI were out of the question. While Lucas's old professor, Irvin Kershner, nailed The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi didn't fair as well when it came to the overall direction of the film. Why didn't Kershner return or another prolific director step in? It was all because of that famous opening crawl.
It was a huge deal that the film didn't open with any credits and Lucas was heavily fined by the studio for doing it twice in a row. He subsequently dropped out of the directors and writers guilds, which ultimately prevented him from hiring Steven Spielberg to direct the film (ugh, that would've been awesome and you know it).
In turn, Richard Marquand was tasked with helming #ReturnoftheJedi, but had little prior experience in directing blockbuster films, let alone films in general. Before Star Wars, Marquand worked on a few films, documentaries and TV shorts, but his lack of directorial experience felt evident for most of the film. Everything felt stretched out, as if they didn't have much of a story but had to fill in the blanks until they could get to the final act, which is where the film shines. It's here where it all pays off, and Luke duels his father in front of the Emperor while the Rebels engage the Empire on the surface and above the moon of Endor.
Another uninspired aspect of RotJ was the script and the familiar rehashing of old tropes (Death Star II). Mix that in with almost 45 minutes at Jabba's palace, the film's unusual pace, and a tone that begins to pander more towards children, especially with the introductions of the Ewoks and the cringeworthy changes made in the Special Editions in 1997 ("Jedi Rocks" anyone?) made the film feel even more out of place compared to the rest of the series.
Where Did The Wise-Cracking Smuggler Go?
Most criminal of all was the neutering of Han Solo's character, who is no longer a wise-cracking co-lead, and isn't given much to do in this film. This is a result of the uncertainty of Harrison Ford's contract renewal, meaning the script was created while still unsure if Han was dead or not. Actor Harrison Ford was pretty adamant that the character should die if he returned for the third film. In the documentary Empire of Dreams, Ford had this to say about the character:
"I thought Han Solo should die. I thought he outta sacrifice himself for the other two characters [...] I said he's got no mama, he's got no papa, he's got no future, he's got no story responsibilities at this point. So lets allow him to commit self-sacrifice."
Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the script and wrote Empire, echoed this statement, saying:
"I also felt someone had to go, y'know, I felt someone had to die [...] and I thought [Han's death] should happen very early in the last act, so you'd begin to worry about everything. So we should sacrifice somebody, and George was against it. George knew what he wanted and got what he wanted."
Ford had initially thought the carbonite scene would be that self-sacrifice but when it was revealed that Han would be coming back, the writers had to insert him back into the movie and keep him alive. The character (who is my favorite of the original films) went from being a wise ass, snappy-yet-charming rogue to, well, not much really.
Look, I get character arcs, and while Han did end up more responsible by the end of his, there was something missing. He felt emptier, devoid of personality and became far less interesting to watch. I guess being frozen in carbonite does that to a guy.
Thankfully, The Force Awakens brought balance to this issue, bringing Solo to a healthy middle ground, stating that the legends of the Jedi are all true (after dismissing them for so many years) while still giving us that "no nonsense" attitude. with lines like "that's not how the Force works!"
A New Hope For The Prequel Trilogy: 'Revenge Of The Sith'
On the other side of the spectrum we have Revenge of the Sith. It wasn't looking too good for the prequels, which were not being well received critically. On Rotten Tomatoes, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are sitting at 55 percent and 65 percent respectively, compared to Empire Strikes Back's 94 percent. Interestingly enough, Jedi and Sith are neck and neck when it comes to critical reception, sitting at 80 percent and 79 percent respectively.
Despite some instances of wooden acting and poor dialogue delivery, there is no disputing that Revenge of the Sith is a big step forward for the prequel films. From the moment the film starts, it is apparent that this film will be different from the others, from a sweeping long take that flows into a space battle with actual banter between our two leads! Crazy, right? We missed it too.
George Lucas decided to go with an entirely CGI production this time around and it works some of the time. The awesome opening 20 minutes look much sharper and believable than all the Utapau scenes, which could have benefited from an actual set. It was good to see Lucas learned from his mistakes and made a film that felt more like Star Wars than the last two and aligned perfectly by the end with the original trilogy.
'Good, Good, Let The Hate Flow Through You!'
Revenge of the Sith didn't hold back, either. While RotJ was giving audiences teddy bears and making the world smaller, Sith decided to go all in and become the first Star Wars film to be rated PG-13. It was dark. Our lead character finally falls to the Dark Side and it is not pretty. Anakin Skywalker massacres children and executes an unarmed prisoner via beheading. He's burned alive after fighting his former mentor and friend. He even strangles his wife. Yeah, it was intense.
It wasn't just a darker tone that helped Sith step up its game. The opening lightsaber duel with Christopher Lee's Dooku was also arguably the best duel of the prequel trilogy.
Although the Darth Maul fight was the most visually engaging, the Dooku rematch downplayed the silly flips that were rampant throughout the trilogy, reintroducing the dialogue that made the original trilogy's duels so great. This is what was missing in the first two duels, which offered plenty of style. However, to have a narrative arc and allow a character's emotions to dictate the outcome of the battle is far more appealing and rewarding than flashy choreography.
Far Less Cringey, Actually
Thankfully, Episode III stepped it up in the acting and script department, too. Jar Jar is given nothing to do in this film and the awkward, stilted romance dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. There are some cringe-worthy moments, mainly Vader's "nooo!" and some wooden moments of dialogue, but the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives. Hayden Christensen as Anakin vastly improves his acting game here. Is it perfect? Heck no, but he offers enough banter with Obi-Wan that their relationship becomes more believable while also juggling his fear of loss, which will be his ultimate downfall.
This is the film where Ewan McGregor shines as Obi-Wan and you can tell Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine is having a ball. The scene discussing the legend of Darth Plagueis may just be the best acted scene in the trilogy and adds to the mythology of the franchise. I seriously hope the story group at LucasFilm have more plans for Plageuis in the future as his old novel is no longer part of the canon. This scene just seems too important to the overall universe and I would love to see it become important later on down the road.
In short, the films will mean different things to different people; that's inevitable. I'm sure many will disagree with me on this, but I am curious to see why you disagree or if you agree. Let me know in the comments and tick off which film you preferred.