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When George Lucas finally unleashed the prequel trilogy onto the world starting around the turn of the century, the movies were met with a sliding scale of reactions ranging from bemusement down to outright hatred. Few people were particularly fond of these movies, and fewer still would say they were among the best of what the Star Wars universe had to offer. Even the most positive reactions acknowledged the movies as, in large part, unintentional jokes that gave us more than a fair share of lulz.
And then something happened as the years went by that I’d argue even fewer people could have anticipated: People on the internet began to have fun when engaging with the prequels. What began as people laughing at the prequel trilogy has, many years later, turned into laughing with the trilogy. (OK, some folks are still laughing at the trilogy, but maybe without as much scorn as before. There’s some genuine love there.)
Why? Because the internet understands the prequels. The internet is a paradise of irreverence, just like George Lucas' scripts. These qualities don’t always translate well on the silver screen — they create an oft-disjointed narrative that leaves audiences feeling cold and alienated. But in the digital world, these are the things that bring people together, letting them play around with the loose wires in their brains that love the ethos “so bad it’s good.” Anakin Skywalker is a weird guy — the sort of person you’d probably want to stay away from if you ran into him at the post office, but who you’d probably get a kick out of following on Twitter. His 29-tweet diatribe on sand is the stuff culture writers dare to dream of writing one day.
I was young when the prequels came out (Episode I came out when I was 9), still at the age when you’re learning how to be critical about creative works, and learning to articulate why you like or don’t like something (which, in essence, teaches you about your own personality). But my earliest memory that the prequels had internet cache was when stills of the Chinese bootleg of Revenge of the Sith went viral. The subtitles seem to have been the result of a Chinese translation of the script that was translated back to English, and the stills became meme gold. Of particular note was seeing Darth Vader’s iconic screaming of “Noooooo!” at the end translated into “Do not want.” (Once more with feeling, methinks.)
I loved it, and the internet loved it. The Chinese bootleg meme was a revelation. It gave Revenge of the Sith some endearing personality. Even in English, the bad writing, flawed storytelling, and goofy characters suddenly felt like a warm joke we could all get behind. Lucas’ famously awkward writing and some very atrocious performances (most notably from Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman) helped to actually complement the mistranslations and bolster the humor from the meme. It was as if we all had the same takeaway: “Oh, you thought the movie was bad? Take a look at this thing I found on the internet.”
While the internet was showing us we could laugh more warmly at the prequels, other properties within the Star Wars universe began to remind us that the stories took place in very rich settings, and set about redeeming some of the main characters who came off poorly in the movies. Most of this work, of course, was done by the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, which takes place between Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. We got to see Anakin go from a mercurial teen to a sharp, innovative, and empathetic leader. Padmé's reputation as a shrewd stateswoman was fleshed out in much bigger detail. Obi-Wan ... well, actually, Obi-Wan was already a bright spot, and he stayed that way.
The result of these two driving forces is an ecosystem on the internet that’s basically devoted to loving the prequels. This is not because they’re now Actually Good, or because The Clone Wars outright repairs the movies’ flaws — it’s because we can love the prequels’ characters for the silly and absurd people they are, while still enjoying who they are. Anakin’s hatred of sand, the “angel” question, “Hello, there” finding its way into the Ewan McGregor Cinematic Universe — there’s just so many instances of bad or strange lines taking on new lives of their own.
All of this shows how the internet grew the prequels into an unexpected cultural force that probably few people could have anticipated. Even Zoomers are taking to TikTok to embrace the prequels in their own right, despite never having grown up with them. Obi-Wan’s drop on General Grievous on Utapau encouraged so many short videos of people imitating Grievous’ multi-limbed body. Anakin frying to a crisp is one of the first things on everyone’s mind when they see something on fire.
One of my favorite memes encapsulates the influence the prequels now have that extends beyond just nerdy Star Wars fans. Behold: the Taylor Armstrong / cat meme, but prequelized. Already a marriage of feline bizarreness and Real Househouswive iconography, the addition of Obi-Wan and Anakin in the first panel just makes sense, doesn’t it? And of course, it’s Yoda at the dinner table at the other end of Anakin’s wrath. It’s a meme that is at once so ingrained in distinct niches of pop culture and humor, and yet puts them all together into something that nearly anyone who’s plugged into TV and movies can appreciate.
All of this honestly feels like the type of stuff that makes the other several hundred minutes that make up these movies worth it. It’s not simply that the internet has given the prequels a new lease on life — the internet has effectively cemented the legacy of the prequels, perhaps not as great films, but as cultural touchstones.