Why weren’t the Clone Wars cooler?

The portrayal of the Clone Wars in the Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3 has long bothered me. Long, long ago, when I first watched Star Wars and heard crazy old Ben Kenobi’s offhand reference to the Clone Wars (in which he had served alongside Anakin Skywalker, the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy!), my young mind conjured up images of an epic conflict that ravaged the galaxy.

The Clone Wars of my imagining were all part of a civil war in which brother fought brother, master fought apprentice, and hero fought hero. The schism started small but grew to engulf every known star system. There were true heroes on both sides, all struggling to fix a failing Republic: the Loyalists (who believed the dying Republic could be reformed from within) stood on one side and the Separatists (who believed that the Republic had passed the point of redemption and needed to be torn down) on the other.

The heroes of the Clone Wars were to the people of the Rebellion-era Star Wars universe what the heroes of Greek myth are to us today–they were larger than life, with power and might far beyond anything that would come after. And like the heroes of Greek mythology, their flaws were just as great. In time, noble ideals were lost beneath beneath monstrous egos; the forbidden science of cloning was tapped to make good on never-ending battlefield losses; and in the end, Jedi on both sides even turned to the Dark Side in a desperate quest for something, anything that would give them an edge and bring the devastation to an end.

And somewhere in the midst of all this, the Emperor came with the promise of peace. I never thought too much about the details, which didn’t seem all that interesting anyway, but as a young Star Wars fan I saw the Empire that grew out of the Clone Wars as a sort of populist movement. The people of the Republic may have hated the corruption of their government, but they grew to hate the hell of galactic war even more. The idealistic Jedi struggle looked more and more to the average Republic citizen like the squabbling of children with too much power. The Emperor, who had earlier fanned the flames of civil war, now tapped into this frustration. The details are lost to the passage of time, but when the bloodshed ended, the Emperor was in charge, the Jedi were on the run, and both Loyalist and Separatist found that they had lost the war.

That was how I envisioned the Clone Wars, at least. But the Clone Wars as portrayed in Episodes 1, 2, and 3 seem… well, pretty lame in comparison. Lucas’ Clone Wars isn’t a tragic clash of mighty heroes, but a battle between the Good Guys and the Goofy Evil Robots. Despite the extreme amount of boring detail we’re given about the state of the Republic, we never get even a mildly satisfying reason why the Separatists are trying to leave the Republic in the first place, except that they’re Evil. The Jedi aren’t mighty but flawed heroes; they’re utterly worthless bureaucrats who can’t even stop the Trade Federation from invading the Happiest, Most Peaceful Planet in the Galaxy. Despite the fact that the Republic Senate and the Jedi Council are both portrayed as useless, corrupt, or both, the films expect us to side with the Loyalists simply because the Republic is a Democracy. The battles of the Clone Wars are not tense, tear-jerking dramas in which former friends are forced to fight and even kill each other over their ideals; instead, they’re dull CGI engagements between faceless clone soldiers and droids with silly accents. Even the most epic battle scenes of the prequels, like the space battle at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, manage to evoke only the barest scrap of emotional investment.

It was probably foolish to imagine that Lucas’ vision of the Clone Wars would match mine perfectly. And as frustrating as the prequels can be at points, Lucas has packed them with quite a few cool ideas. But the Clone Wars themselves–what should be the epic backdrop against which the fall of Anakin Skywalker occurs–are far more dull than I had hoped they would be.

I wanted the American Civil War in space, and I got a confusing and poorly-explained war between clones and robots.

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4 thoughts on “Why weren’t the Clone Wars cooler?

  1. Paul

    As usual, Lucas leaves us disappointed and disgusted, looking to outside sources and authors to fill his gaps and tie-up all the loose ends he carelessly left trailing about in his hasty effort to market more toys.
    Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars episodes do a fair job of tying up a few things between Episode 2 and 3 and show the strength of the Jedi, coupled with the clones.
    A series that I’ve found to be satisfying has been the Republic Commando books, which are a spin-off from the game.
    The game addresses your expectations a bit more in that some of the Clones find themselves struggling to define who their true commanders are and where their loyalties lie. There’s a split between the platoons and, just as you said, brother fights brother. All of this is told from the perspective of an Elite trooper from the 501st squad. He tells his tale, siding with the Emporor, contempt in his voice for his traitorous brothers, but full of respect for them and their struggle to do what they feel is right. In the end, he doubts the side he’s chosen.
    The books are essentially prequels to the game but plant the seeds of doubt among the clones and tell in more detail their individual stories.
    You’d think Lucas would be proud, but in the end, I doubt it… it wasn’t enough to start a new line of toys.

  2. Andy

    It’s amazing how many third parties–animators, video game creators, novelists–seem to “get” Star Wars even better than Lucas himself, isn’t it? Obviously the SW universe is Lucas’ to do with as he chooses, but an awful lot of die-hard fans of the original trilogy were dissatisfied with the prequels. I still haven’t figured out if Lucas changed, or if we’re all just judging the prequels overly harshly because we loved the originals so much…

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