Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Confirmed the Jedi Were Always Jerks

Some fans remain uneasy about the idea of the Jedi being fallible, but they were always pompous screw-ups when you get down to it.

Jedi Council in Star Wars The Phantom Menace
Photo: Lucasfilm / Disney / 20th Century Fox

Nearly seven years after its release, one of the most controversial scenes in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi continues to be when Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master and veritable legend, tells the next generation about what the Jedi really represent. While training the franchise’s newest protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Mark Hamill’s now grizzled and ancient Luke intones, “The Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure; hypocrisy; hubris.”

The scene wasn’t taken well by some corners of the Star Wars fandom in 2017, and it’s not taken well now. Yet I’ve been thinking quite a bit about it in lieu of Disney+’s upcoming and hotly anticipated new Star Wars series, The Acolyte. Set over a century before the events which brought Rey and Luke Skywalker together, or for that matter the era that saw Anakin Skywalker meet Obi-Wan Kenobi, the series attempts to reveal a previous moment when the Jedi came into contact with agents of the Dark Side. But as the first Acolyte trailer seemed to tease, that interaction produced a worldview a lot more morally gray than the light/dark dichotomy of the original Star Wars flicks.

“This isn’t about good or bad,” one character ominously forewarns in a teaser for The Acolyte. “This is about power and who is allowed to use it.” While we will not know for certain until The Acolyte is released if that line is as a veiled indictment of the Jedi, the fact that the show’s main character Mae (Amandla Stenberg) is said to be a former Padawan (Jedi apprentice) turned rogue warrior has led to plenty of speculation that the series will be adding some moral complexity to Star Wars. It might even depict the Jedi as something less than the shimmering image old Ben Kenobi once sold to an adolescent Luke Skywalker as “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.”

The prospect has noticeably triggered some fans on social media who are as wary today as they were in 2017 toward anything that’s less than glowing tribute to the Jedi heroes of old. And yet, we’d argue if you went back and really looked at those George Lucas-written and directed movies, you might realize that even there… the Jedi behaved like high-handed jerks.

Ad – content continues below

High in Their Ivory Tower

Ben Kenobi’s promise of “a more civilized age” is fulfilled from the very first moments of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. In Lucas’ first attempt to imagine a Jedi golden age, these knights of the Republic are presented as both authoritative and off-puttingly sterile. Where the original Star Wars movie of 1977 opened with a cracking space battle and a wiseacre princess, The Phantom Menace starts on two dry-to-the-bone Jedi walking into a space station like they own the place. The galaxy that Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young Padawan Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) move through is indeed more civilized with its lightsabers and fixations on trade disputes, as well as on shiny monarchal spaceships instead of the bucket of rusted bolts we call the Millennium Falcon. But this universe is also colder, which is no better exemplified than by the Jedi themselves.

Overly confident in their mastery of the Force, and condescending to those not in their super-special-secretive-cool-kids club, that movie’s Jedi are admirable in their intentions but cold in their demeanor. The Jedi Temple where Lucas sets most of the scenes involving the most powerful space wizards, including Yoda (voiced by the great Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), is a literal tower in the sky. They sit above the rest of the galaxy’s leaders while affecting a feigned disinterest. They are also intended by Lucas to be somewhat oblivious.

Take our heroes, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. They begin the movie by rescuing Naboo’s imprisoned Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) from occupation. However, their sense of superiority over the young royal also makes them easily deceived. During their time on Tatooine while searching for new spaceship parts, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are utterly fooled by Padmé’s disguise as a handmaiden to the Queen (who is actually a decoy bodyguard). Qui-Gon is also as openly dismissive toward Padmé in the city of Mos Eisley as he is to the locals he manipulates and hoodwinks into giving him the parts he needs to repair the queen’s ship.

In this particular situation, Qui-Gon’s cunning is justified given he is dealing with bantha scum like Watto, a slave owner who holds the deed over young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). However, his confidence leaves him thunderstruck later when he discovers that Padmé was actually the queen he boasted to Padmé he had the full support of. One might also wonder if Qui-Gon would have tried harder to free Anakin’s mother from slavery in this portion of the movie if he thought there was anything to gain in it for the Jedi. Consider that Obi-Wan even dismissed the child who would become his apprentice as “another pathetic life-form” until Qui-Gon explains the child is Force-sensitive. Only then does a kid raised in bondage register as important to someone who is still but a Jedi learner himself.

While this is an innocuous example of the Jedi’s presumptions, Padmé isn’t lying when she says “you presume too much.” Indeed, it becomes the first data point in an emerging pattern of the Jedi’s deluded belief in their own infallibility. And as the prequel trilogy continued, that pattern became increasingly dangerous. Padmé saw that firsthand in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones after surviving an assassination attempt on Coruscant. Avoiding death by fiery immolation because of that decoy trick again, she immediately tells the Jedi that she suspects the political separatist Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) was behind her near-death experience. The Jedi dismiss her out of hand.

“He’s a political idealist, not a murderer,” Jedi Master K-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson), mansplains to Padmé, fulfilling his perpetual role as the only other Jedi Council member with lines of dialogue that’ll make Mace Windu look less haughty. Not that Mace fares any better in the same scene when he also chimes in, “You know m’lady that Count Dooku was once a Jedi. He couldn’t assassinate anyone. It’s not in his character.” Mace Windu, Yoda’s right hand Jedi, should be the baddest mother in the galaxy. But he’s oblivious about that Dracula-looking mofo raising an army, or that he’s (surprise!) actually in league with the Sith Lord they have known is out there for 10 years and have done nothing to discover or unmask.

Ad – content continues below

This is because the Jedi so buy into their own hype that the idea of a club member turning to the Dark Side (even though the more these canons are expanded on, the more common that turns out to be) is impossible to compute. The only Jedi who seems even vaguely aware that the Jedi have become out of touch is Yoda, but as the most senior member of the Council, he does nothing to improve the situation.

When Obi-Wan realizes the Jedi archives are incomplete because a planet he is looking for is missing during the events of Attack of the Clones, the chief curator of the Jedi records dismisses Obi-Wan like a dim-witted child. “If an item doesn’t appear in our records, it doesn’t exist,” she says with the rapidly waning patience of a middle school administrator. Yoda sees the problem in this cockiness when Obi-Wan brings the same problem to him. The little green guy then gets a Youngling (child Jedi-in-training) to state the obvious: someone has erased said planet from their archives.

“Truly wonderful the mind of a child is,” Yoda smiles. For only a child who hasn’t been wholly indoctrinated into believing his innate superiority could recognize the Jedi system is flawed. In the same movie, Yoda even confides to Obi-Wan, “[Arrogance is] a flaw more and more common among Jedi. Too sure of themselves, they are. Even the older, more experienced ones.”

And this proves to be their, and the galaxy’s, undoing.

Complicit in Empire-Building

The above examples reveal a landscape Lucas is painting, and it’s populated by both extreme wisdom and extreme arrogance. The Prequel era represents the pinnacle of Jedi power and a civilized peace, but it also suggests a gilded decadence unaware of its own weaknesses and decay, which leave it vulnerable to fascism, collapse, and tyranny. And the Jedi have a front row seat to watch how democracy dies; they even assist in it when it’s suggested that for much of the reign of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), they sat right across the table from the man who would be emperor and never got an inkling he was a Sith Lord or untrustworthy.

In Attack of the Clones, they even prove complicit in Palpatine’s first major steps toward a naked power grab. While discussing the political threat posed by Dooku’s separatist movement, Mace Windu tells the corrupt chancellor, “We’re keepers of the peace, not soldiers.” This statement of the obvious occurs after Palpatine insists that he will not let the Republic which has stood for more than a thousand years be split in two. However, it’s as important to note what Mace appears to be not saying: we’re not soldiers, so you will need to raise an army to fight this war.

Ad – content continues below

Mace and the other Jedi are obviously not against the use of conflict or mass death as a political tool—they even end up being generals in Palpatine’s army once begun, these Clone Wars have—but they will not come out and directly say it. Windu wants to preserve the illusion of the Jedi’s abhorrence of war and violence while gently pointing the chancellor in the direction of carnage.

Mace will eventually try to correct these mistakes by attempting to dethrone Palpatine in the next film, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, but by this point it’s already too late. Palpatine has effectively made himself emperor in all but name, and Windu’s assassination attempt on a man he sat around with planning war strategy becomes the pretext Palpatine uses to justify the wholesale slaughter of the Jedi Order and his assumption of complete power over the Senate.

The Skywalker Saga of It All

There is then at last the Anakin Skywalker of it all, which is the reason the prequel trilogy exists. While acting as nursemaid to the rise of the Empire, the Jedi also train and raise the boy who will murder them. As Luke aptly sums up to Rey in The Last Jedi, “At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and then wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.”

Luke is of course speaking of his first mentor, Old Ben (then played by Alec Guinness), who trained his dark father. There could indeed be much argued about how Obi-Wan, Yoda, and all the rest nurtured Anakin’s ego or failed to contain it. A stronger argument, however, might pertain to whether insisting on Jedi to live as celibate monks played a larger role in this self-destruction since if Anakin and Padmé’s marriage was not secret, he wouldn’t feel the need to live a life of duplicity and shame, and be unable to turn to a master like Yoda for help with his visions of Padmé’s death.

However, as blind as they were to Anakin’s deficits—or for that matter a fellow elite like Chancellor Palpatine’s manipulations when he suggests that Young Skywalker become the Naboo Queen’s bodyguard—the more troubling aspect is that Anakin is no anomaly. Instead he is the most deadly example in a pattern of systemic failure.

Even when only using the Lucas films as text, Anakin is trained despite the initial misgivings of the Jedi Council because of Qui-Gon Jinn’s insistence the boy is a chosen one. Qui-Gon says this around the same time that his own mentor, Count Dooku, is likely succumbing to the Dark Side—and Dooku was the personal Padawan of Master Yoda. Obi-Wan’s failures with Anakin no longer looks quite so shocking, eh?

Ad – content continues below

Furthermore, in the old expanded universe canon that Lucas approved, or “Legends” as it’s now called, it’s revealed Qui-Gon had a Padawan before Obi-Wan who also fell to the Dark Side, with former Jedi Knight Xanatos becoming something Sith-like in all but name. He was a “Dark Jedi.” And whether you love or hate the unoriginality of the J.J. Abrams-scripted Star Wars movies, the new canon saw that Luke’s own attempts at teaching his nephew Ben Solo create yet another veritable Sith Lord: the Darth Vader-cosplaying Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

In other words, the Skywalker Saga is not just about the legacy of Anakin Skywalker, but in fact the central piece of a larger narrative of consecutive Jedi failure where a generation barely passes without one of their own selected golden boys revealing megalomaniacal tendencies and then threatening the entire galaxy. Dooku led a separatist movement which was ultimately just a pretext for his Sith Master to take total control of the Senate with the Jedi’s willing consent; Dooku’s Padawan Qui-Gon Jinn in turn trained a Dark Jedi and a good Jedi, but even the latter then under Qui-Gon’s insistence trained the man who betrayed them all so thoroughly he dared slaughter even Younglings; and that traitor’s own grandson, who in turn was trained by the traitor’s direct heir, repeated the mistakes of the past and helped usher in another civil war of mass death and chaos.

So yes, the Jedi’s legacy is that of failure, and no matter how much of that was reinforced by dubious writing outside of Lucas’ control, it seems their blindspot was always heavily hinted at by Star Wars’ original creator. In fact, it makes us even lament Lucasfilm not continuing at least the general direction of Colin Trevorrow’s aborted version of “Episode IX,” The Duel of Fates, which would’ve seen Rey become neither a Jedi nor a Palpatine, but something new: an inheritor of all the Jedi’s lessons, be it from their triumphs and their mistakes. She might have even created a new order that did away with celibacy and assumed superiority over all other “pathetic life forms.”

But this is not the way… when you call yourself Jedi.