You know, I rag on the Star Wars prequel trilogy a lot, but in the end that’s mostly out of love. I love me some Star Wars, and even at their most ridiculous, the prequels are still mostly watchable, enjoyable films. A lot of people claim that they squander the magic of the original trilogy, which is perhaps mildly true, but one of their weirdest imprints on the legacy of Star Wars might not be as clear at first glance. Today, we’re going to discuss how the prequel trilogy kinda made the Jedi seem like assholes.
The original trilogy featured only three real Jedi, the incredibly old and decrepit Obi-Wan and Yoda, and the childlike and immature Luke, but they still made being a Jedi seem like the coolest goddamn job in the entire universe. You could influence people’s minds, use telekinesis, you get the coolest weapon ever made, and you probably get to save the galaxy from space Nazis. Maybe less is more, though, because the prequels introduced us to a literal army of Jedi in the prime of life, deadly warriors who knew precisely how to use their powers and could take on incredible odds and come out unscathed.
Those powers make them almost superhuman, and if you’re a comic book fan, you’d like to think that ordinary citizens would react to Jedi as if they were actually superheroes. Instead, people seem to view them with a weird mixture of trepidation and fear, as if their mere appearance was a sign that a situation was about to get worse instead of better. What’s more, the Jedi as an organization were hazily defined - were they a religious order, a collection of supercops, political operatives, arbitrators, military advisors? They seemed to shy away from actual governance, but didn’t hesitate to take on every single other role in the galaxy. Weirdly enough, if you take them generally, the Jedi are a bit hazily defined, but taken on an individual basis, they seem to just be sour and mean-spirited folk.
Part of the problem might be the sheer arrogance with which they use their powers. It’s already kind of frightening to think of cops with lightsabers, but it’s probably even worse to think of cops that can literally change your mind for you when they don’t like how you’re thinking. No one is better (or perhaps worse) at this than Qui-Gon Jinn in Episode I; the guy waves his hand around so much he might as well be at a rap concert. Most of these situations aren’t even life and death; he occasionally uses, or attempts to use his powers to shorten negotiations that could be dealt with through language, which is a bit odd since he’s supposed to be some kind of arbitrator. The prime example is when he's attempting to buy a hyperdrive off of Watto; Watto says, straight up, that Republic credits are of no use to him, but Qui-Gon attempts to mind control him into accepting currency that he can't actually use. That's little better than theft, and certainly isn't something that seems to be representative of the best and noblest minds in the universe; at least when Obi-Wan pulled a similar stunt in Mos Eisley, it was a near life-and-death matter compelling him to do so. Qui-Gon also manipulates the mind of the leader of the Gungans...funny he doesn't remember it when they meet again later in the film.
In retrospect, the Trade Federation might’ve been right to try and kill Qui-Gon rather than negotiate with him, because he probably would’ve just brainwashed them to try and get home a bit earlier. There’s a Nixon-like quality to Qui-Gon, as if anything he does is right simply because he’s doing it, no matter how shaky his ethics; if the rules don’t suit him, he’ll change the rules and think little of it, or even cheat to further his goals, as he does when he manipulates the die roll that Watto casts to earn him Anakin's freedom.
There’s a lot of other weirdness on the part of the Jedi in Episode I, such as when they use Queen Amidala as bait to draw out the apparently kill-happy member of the Sith, or when Qui-Gon seems fine with leaving Anakin’s mom behind on Tatooine as he shuttles him off to Coruscant. To be fair, the script does have a nod towards explosive implants that prevent Anakin's mom from escaping with her son, but we're still talking about the Jedi, man. There are bits and pieces of the film that make me suspect that Qui-Gon is content to leave Shmi behind, knowing that she would be separated from Anakin when he was inducted into the Jedi order anyway; better to have that separation seem to be a result of slavery than as a result of the Jedi order not allowing her any contact with him.
Things get a bit weirder in Episode II, especially early on when Anakin and Obi-Wan are attempting to track down a bounty hunter. (Note that Obi-Wan follows in his master’s footsteps by brainwashing a drug dealer into giving up his livelihood, instead of dealing with him through whatever justice system they have on Coruscant.) When the bounty hunter finally attacks, Obi-Wan could force-pull her gun away, or deflect her blaster shot harmlessly to the ceiling, but instead: off with her hand. Anakin’s sinister little followup remark ("Jedi business. Go back to your drinks.") strikes me as suspiciously like something some fascist secret policeman would say: Don’t worry about our horrible maiming of someone we easily could’ve restrained, just keep drinking. Whatever you do, don't question us...you might be next. Granted, Obi-Wan's acting in self-defense, but at the same time, you have to wonder if he wasn't considering that the pain of losing a hand might make her more willing to talk when he dragged her outside for questioning.
The last two episodes of the prequel trilogy also expose some of the other weird practices of the Jedi Order, such as their preference to start training soldiers when they were babies, or their restriction on romance for their Jedi. It’s that last restriction that effectively allowed Sidious to control Anakin, and the matter of whether or not Jedi should be able to engage in romantic affairs is dealt with...oddly. The Jedi seem to be intended to be no less robotic than the droids they’re fighting against, even though any sane audience member would of course want them to enjoy a little romance here and there. In a weird way, Lucas treats Anakin’s desire to have a normal enough romantic life as the end of the world; it’s effectively the downfall of the entire Jedi Order and causes the deaths of thousands of Jedi. But, you know, you could draw a parallel to modern religions and simply say that if the Jedi weren’t such dicks about letting their members have relationships, Anakin wouldn’t have felt the need to hide that relationship, which would’ve hopefully eliminated the problems he eventually ran into.
In the end, the prequel trilogy commits a pretty big sin against fans of Star Wars by making the Jedi seem a lot less mythologically cool than they were in the original trilogy; it’s worth noting that perhaps the coolest new character Lucas introduces is actually a Sith. The Sith are obviously the greater evil in the universe, but that doesn't mean that the Jedi are portrayed as saints in the prequel trilogy themselves; if anything, Lucas has made them more morally ambiguous and physically tenuous. But that’s just my opinion; I am, as always, curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Am I misreading the prequels a bit too much? By exposing the political and bureaucratic side of their Order, did Lucas make you want to be one less? Or are they still the coolest heroes in the history of sci-fi? Please do let us know your thoughts on this in the comments below!