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

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The trailers looked so good, didn’t they?

Twenty 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.

And 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.


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