10 long years in the shadow of ‘The Phantom Menace’

Movies, Sci-Fi & Fantasy


The trailers looked so good, didn’t they?

Ten years ago today, the Prequel Era officially began as Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace arrived. Unprecedented levels of hype and anticipation quickly dissipated into disappointment and even disillusionment as the great Darth Vader was revealed to be a dirty little brat from the wrong side of the tracks with mommy issues who said “Yippee!”

jarjarbinks Yes, the future scourge of the galaxy whined like a baby. Droids became more slapstick than ever. Slugs with bad pseudo-Asian accents served as scheming, detestable alien warmongers. And Jar Jar Binks — love him or hate him — reminded us that it was always about the kids. That’s the only possible explanation I am willing to accept for that.

darthmaulBut it wasn’t all bad. Liam Neeson’s performance as Qui-Gon Jinn gave us the noble Old Republic Jedi we had been waiting 16 years to see. Darth Sidious was the villain everyone wanted to see as the precursor to Emperor Palpatine, even if his apprentice Darth Maul was little more than a thug. Still, he was a thug with the coolest weapon ever: a double-bladed red lightsaber.

The long march of mediocrity continued: 2002’s Episode II — Attack of the Clones gave us an uncomfortable romance, but also Boba Fett and some Yoda-brand Whup-Ass. 2005’s Episode III — Revenge of the Sith redeemed the prequel trilogy (mostly) with a faster pace and the long-awaited throwdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan — and it felt a lot more like the Star Wars films we grew up with, even if it didn’t feel quite right.

fanboysdvdAnd that gave rise to one of the best things to happen to television in a long time: Clone Wars, a CGI animated series that fills in the gaps between Episodes II and III and delivers more of that old-school charm the Classic Trilogy is famous for.

This year saw another tribute: The feature film Fanboys, which follows the exploits of a fictional gang of Star Wars superfans who plot a 1999 infiltration of George Lucas’ inner sanctum so one of their number who is dying of cancer can see Episode I. The movie comes out on DVD today.

My adventures don’t quite compare. When The Phantom Menace came out, I was just starting out at the Tribune as an editorial assistant, and then-features editors Mike Gossie and Erinn Figg let me geek out and write an article about the midnight release of the first tie-in merchandise at the Fiesta Mall Toys “R” Us (now a Target store).

That article is reprinted below, with links to some articles I freelanced for State Press Magazine at ASU.

STAR POWER: Fanatics make midnight run for ‘Phantom’ toys

May 4, 1999

By Jayson Peters

Sunday morning, Dan and April Wendt and their two sons were at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver, braving wet and windy 30-degree weather to feel the Force at the Star Wars Celebration.

By that night, they had joined about 300 other fans of George Lucas’ saga in line at Toys “R” Us at 1617 W. Southern Ave. in Mesa, hoping to be among the first in the Valley to get their hands on the new line of toys based on ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.’

“I want figures,” Dan Wendt said. “Figures, ships, Legos. Anything I can find.”

He wasn’t disappointed.

With John Williams’ soundtrack from the original Star Wars trilogy blaring, fans crowded the two narrow aisles devoted to action figures, vehicles, Micro Machines, puzzles, books, inflatable chairs and Jedi and Sith lightsabers, which created a frenzy in the Valley and across the nation when they went on sale Monday at 12:01 a.m.
Frenzy of fun

The Wendt family drove straight back to Arizona after two days at the convention, which they said was so packed it was nearly impossible to get in to see any of the prop and costume exhibits, hear the celebrity speakers or purchase exclusive merchandise. They stopped at their Chandler home only briefly to freshen up before joining the Toys “R” Us fray.

“You couldn’t find anything at the celebration, unless you paid big bucks for it,” said Dan Wendt, who has been collecting Star Wars stuff since 1977, when he was 8 years old. Now, he customizes and modifies action figures. Lucasfilm demanded that no ‘Phantom Menace’ merchandise could hit shelves before Monday, but some stores around the country and in the Valley put some items out for sale early. Fans and collectors have been grabbing them up. Wendt showed up in line sporting a Darth Maul baseball cap. His sons, 8-year-old Nick and 5-year-old Christian, wore Queen Amidala and Podracer T-shirts. The items were gleaned from a Chandler Kmart.

“One of the store managers saw us looking through the shirts,” April Wendt said. “We found the adult Darth Maul shirt and we started to walk off, and he pulled two women that worked in the store over and said, ‘We’ve got to get these out of here.” I walked by five minutes later and the shirts were gone.”

April said the family never passes a Toys “R” Us or Target store without at least stopping to check for new Star Wars stuff.

Tempe’s Mike Amentler, 24, arrived at the Fiesta Mall Toys “R” Us at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and hat. He was rewarded with the first spot in line. Amentler said he plans to repeat the feat May 17, lining up two days early at the Harkins Arizona Mills 24 Luxury Cinemas to see ‘The Phantom Menace’ when it premieres May 19.

But until then, he’s out to get his hands on “anything and everything” he can that’s related to the film.

Lucas Turnbow, 18, of Mesa said he found most of the ‘Phantom Menace’ figures early, but wouldn’t reveal where or how. He said he only needed four more to complete his quest, but didn’t find those particular figures at Toys “R” Us Monday morning.

Turnbow said he tries to collect one of each Star Wars action figure. He doesn’t open them, however, instead thumbtacking them to his walls. “That’s my wallpaper,” he said.

Despite scattered Internet reports of chaos and mad rushes at Toys “R” Us stores across the country, a Mesa Toys “R” Us manager Bill Valley said there were no problems.

“Everything went pretty smoothly,” he said. After the early morning opening to accommodate Star Wars collectors, Toys “R” Us stores remained open Monday until their normal closing time of 9:30 p.m.

See also:

Related and recommended

About Jayson Peters

Nerdvana's founder and owner. Digital editor, social media director, educator. Lifelong Star Wars fan and Trekker who also worships all things Tolkien and Doctor Who.