What Star Wars: Dark Empire Tells Us About The Rise of Skywalker

Dark Empire was one of the early Star Wars expanded universe efforts, and it may have an influence on The Rise of Skywalker.

Star Wars: Dark Empire - Emperor Palpatine Clone

With a single cackle, the childhood memories of countless Star Wars fans have been reignited. Though he isn’t actually seen in any of the marketing for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Emperor Palpatine’s laugh at the end means the darkest of dark side dudes is totally back. And if bringing back the famous Sith Lord feels like the oldest trick in the book, you’re not wrong. But, in this case, the book in question was a 1991-1992 comic book miniseries called Dark Empire, published by Dark Horse Comics back when new Star Wars stories were far rarer than they are today. 

For those who might not remember, Dark Empire focused on the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine after his “death” in Return of the Jedi. Published as a six-issue mini-series from December 1991 to October 1992, it was the first major Star Wars comic book release after the Marvel run concluded in 1986. Written by Tom Veitch with art by Cam Kennedy, Dark Empire was also the first comic book entry into the ‘90s “expanded universe,” which, at the time was brand new. As Dark Empire was coming out, the only other post-Return of the Jedi EU material was the Timothy Zahn Thrawn Trilogy, which began, famously with the novel Heir to the Empire in June 1991, and concluded in April 1993 with The Last Command. Published in the middle of this was the Dark Empire comic series, which, was — in-universe — set 6ABY, one year after the events of Zahn’s 5ABY trilogy, despite finishing its run a year earlier in real life.

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These days, savvy fans are probably aware that the Thrawn Trilogy has partially been retconned thanks to Rebels and some new in-canon novels. But Dark Empire gets less public love, despite its incalculable influence on canon. While the Clone Wars are mentioned in A New Hope and are central to Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, it was Dark Empire that introduced the idea of cloning a major character, well before the mad Luuke Skywalker (not a typo) clone showed up in Timothy Zahn’s The Last Command in 1993. Dark Empire also brought Boba Fett back from the dead, introduced the Smugglers’ Moon of Nar Shaddaa, and created the concept of Jedi Holocrons (really, Holocrons were created by Tom Veitch!). Bad guys also use some creepy attack dogs calle Neks in the opening pages of Dark Empire, which seemed to inspire those scary dogs on Corellia in the first big chase scene of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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And, just like The Rise of Skywalker seems poised to do, Dark Empire brought the Emperor back to life and tempted Luke Skywalker to turn evil in the process.

The central plot conceit of Dark Empire was that the Emperor had been moving his consciousnesses into a variety of clone bodies for a long time, but because he was such a Dark Side badass, his evil energy meant he burned through these bodies quickly, making each clone-body age rapidly. This fact made the Dark Side of the Force seem like a drug addiction that ruins your body, predating Mark Hamill’s 2018 comments which likened Luke’s death in The Last Jedi to an overdose. This explanation for bringing back the Emperor — in the flesh — is so good that if The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t copy it — at least a little bit — it will be a shame.  

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Aesthetically, The Rise of Skywalker will be nothing like Dark Empire. How could it? The interior art from Cam Kennedy is moody and often monochromatic. In fact, when Luke has a lightsaber duel with a clone of Emperor Palpatine, everything for several panels is nothing but green (other panels are totally purple, and all of it is, in a word, weird). In fact, in terms of a color palette, Dark Empire has more in common with the striking, almost minimalist art direction of The Last Jedi, than the lush organic feeling in the teaser for The Rise of Skywalker. Like bringing an inky, ruminative comic book out into the bright light of desert heat, the tiniest taste of the next Star Wars film feels like the franchise is blending a dark, bittersweet narrative with an Oz-like aesthetic. The Rise of Skywalker looks more like the art of Ralph McQuarrie and Chesley Bonestell than Cam Kennedy. This is likely because J.J. Abrams — at least visually — is less adventurous than someone like Rian Johnson. Still, one aesthetic from Dark Empire has survived, in a roundabout way, to the sequel trilogy: everything about Kylo Ren.

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Back in 1991, the Luke Skywalker of Dark Empire dressed somewhere between a half-assed Darth Vader cosplayer and a vampire who goes to techno clubs. So in the sequel trilogy, a cipher for Dark Empire Luke clearly exists in Kylo Ren. In Dark Empire, much of the plot centers on the idea that Luke “pretends” to turn to the Dark Side of the Force in order to take it down from within. Since Kylo Ren’s shocking betrayal at the end of The Force Awakens, fans have floated the idea that he too, is a cynical double agent. Now, I’m not saying this theory is literally true, but the parallels between Dark Empire Luke and Kylo Ren are clearly there.

In Dark Empire, Luke feels like the only way he’ll truly understand his father is to turn the Dark Side and serve Palpatine. Ditto for Kylo Ren’s feelings about his grandfather and serving Snoke. In Dark Empire, Luke is initially confident about his plan, but then, gets a little lost in it, these leads to him getting busted by Imperial Officers who know he’s lying. Kylo Ren has similar power struggles within the First Order. And finally, the only way Luke can be pulled away from the grip of the Emperor is with outside help, which, in the climax of Dark Empire comes in the form of a fully-realized Jedi Knight version of Leia Organa.

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For The Rise of Skywalker, all of this feels like a ready-made setup for the existing characters. Instead of Luke and Leia, you can just swap out Kylo Ren and Rey. The evil Clone emperor can remain the same, mostly because it allows for Ian McDiarmid to return as the cackling old Emperor we all know and love, but then, when the time comes, jump into a younger clone body. This is what Dark Empire did so well, and honestly, if you go back and look at those old panels of the young clone Emperor, you’ll find yourself wondering if Richard E.Grant’s secret character in Episode IX isn’t just the young cloned Emperor.

So, what does this mean for the plot? How will Kylo Ren react to all of this? It seems like the short answer is: poorly.

Throughout both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi it’s clear that Kylo Ren thinks the only way to fix the universe is to work from the inside of the Dark Side. This is just like Luke in Dark Empire (and Anakin, obviously)  but it also means that there’s no way Kylo Ren will be happy about the return of Palpatine. In The Last Jedi, Kylo clearly is done with “old things.” If anything, Palpatine represents everything Kylo Ren claims he hates: an obsession with nostalgia and the past. Even so, it feels unlikely that Kylo can take the Emperor on his own. Which means that a team-up between Rey, Kylo Ren, and literally everyone in the galaxy might be the only way to get rid of the Emperor forever.

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J.J. Abrams has said that the new film will feature the “new generation” of characters facing the “ultimate evil.” But, since The Phantom Menace, what’s made the evil of the Emperor so interesting is that we aren’t really even sure what his motivations are. Mostly, characters in Star Wars make deals with Palpatine because he has something they want. Amidala goes along with Palpatine in The Phantom Menace because she needs him politically. Anakin goes to the Dark Side because Palpatine promises him the secret to immortality (pssst…it’s just clone bodies). And finally, in Dark Empire, Luke decided the Emperor had emotional knowledge about the Force that he also wanted. In all of these ways, the Emperor is scary because the good guys tend to really need him.

So, if The Rise of Skywalker takes any one page from Dark Empire, beyond the obvious return of the Emperor, it should be connected to what the protagonists need from the Emperor. Having a villain who is super-destructive is one thing. But having a seductive bad guy who offers good people things they can’t turn away from is much more interesting. Which means the central question about Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker isn’t really about how the good guys will take him down. Instead, it’s all about what he’ll offer them to join him.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is out everywhere on December 20, 2019. We have everything you need to know about Episode IX here.

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Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths ( Plume/Penguin Random House). You can find more of his work here.

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