Few franchises can claim as large or as diverse a fan base as Star Wars. George Lucas’ space epic appeals to everyone, from little kids and casual fans to die-hard super-geeks who can tell you the call sign of the stormtrooper that Luke impersonates in A New Hope (it’s TK-421, by the way).
This weird mix of fan bases means that Star Wars obsessives can argue over just about anything–and they do. Even something as simple as the order in which you should watch the Star Wars movies is up for debate. And that’s as simple a thing as you could imagine, right?
Ah, my sweet summer child. The truth is that putting the Star Wars movies in order is a very complex thing indeed. It’s been weird for at least two decades, and it’s only getting weirder, especially if you consider spin-off flicks like Solo and Rogue One to belong in the main Star Wars movie-marathon mix. Some of the Star Wars films are numbered, and some are not, and some of them used to not have numbers, but now do. Plus, the numbers don’t line up to the order in which the films were released. Complicated stuff, right? Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything.
There are generally three camps in the Order Wars. There’s Episode Order, which mandates watching the movies in the Star Wars chronological order George Lucas’ Roman numerals suggest; Release Order, whose adherents start with 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope and watch the films in order of their theatrical releases; and Machete Order, a unique order that boasts evangelizing believers all over the internet. There’s obviously a right answer here, but let’s take a tour through each camp and see the upsides and downsides of the different approaches to Star Wars order.
A Complete List of All Star Wars Movies
Before we go any further, let’s get to know these movies that we’re trying to put in order. Here they are, listed in order of release (which, incidentally, is one of the viewing order options I’ll lay out later on).
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
This is the film that started it all, the first Star Wars movie. It’s also the film that started the confusion we’re discussing here. When it was released in 1977, this film was just called Star Wars — no “A New Hope,” no “Episode IV,” no nothing. Nor did those terms appear on the famous text crawl that kicked off the film. George Lucas added that stuff later and retitled the film (we’re using its current “real” title here, as determined by IMDb).
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Unlike Star Wars, this film got its episode number right from the start. But, of course, the second movie wasn’t the second chapter of Lucas’ story — it was the fifth. A year later, in 1981, the original Star Wars was released with the “Episode IV” stuff in there.
Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi (1983)
The last of Lucas’ original three movies was the last Star Wars movie for more than 15 years. For that time, the films’ IV-V-VI numbering seemed a little weird, but certainly didn’t make it tough to watch them in order. Then, that all changed.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
George Lucas returned to Star Wars in the late 1990s and started in on the so-called “prequel” trilogy. The Phantom Menace was heavily marketed as “Episode I,” and that’s still what it’s most commonly called today. Also, a lot of people hated it! It remains perhaps the most reviled of the relatively unpopular prequel trilogy.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Like Episode I, 2002’s Episode II was and still is primarily known by its episode number. But should that mean it must be watched second? The point was somewhat academic without Episode III to complete the saga, but that was fixed a few years later.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
By far the best-loved of the prequel films, Revenge of the Sith ended the prequel saga on a high note — and started the fierce debate over viewing order. The prequels are the main reason this debate exists at all, and once Revenge of the Sith was in place, watching the films in numerical order instead of the order of their release became possible.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
Star Wars stayed off of the big screen for a decade after the prequels (though there were some great TV shows made in that period), but the franchise returned after Disney bought out LucasFilm. Tellingly, this film was marketed as The Force Awakens, with the episode number downplayed. That helped separate this new sequel from the controversial prequels, which all went primarily by their “Episode” names.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Disney wasn’t content to limit itself to a new trilogy. It wanted spin-offs, and spin-offs it got — starting with the impressive Rogue One. Despite its spin-off status, Rogue One is placed tightly within the timeline set by the Episode-grade films: it takes place after Episode III and immediately before A New Hope.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
I mentioned above that the first Star Wars film was released as Star Wars and later became Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. According to IMDb, the 2017 installment was originally titled Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, but is now called Star Wars: The Last Jedi, without the episode number. Rotten Tomatoes also recognizes this episode-number-free title. I truly have no idea why this is the case. Let’s move on.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Following the success of Rogue One, Disney released another spin-off called Solo. This one follows Han Solo’s journey prior to his appearance in A New Hope. The film presumably takes place before Rogue One, too, since Rogue One ends at the moment A New Hope starts and since Solo doesn’t bring Han quite to where he’d be at the start of that original film. Since the Empire is in power in Solo, we can also presume that it comes after Episode III. Did you get all of that?
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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
At the time of this writing, we’re still eagerly awaiting the release of The Rise of Skywalker. This film will be Episode IX, but, like The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker is listed sans-episode number on IMDb and other sites. I don’t get it, either.
Episode Order: I, II, III, Solo, Rogue One, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII
Hey, George Lucas helpfully numbered his entire saga. So why not watch it in that order? That’s the opinion of plenty of fans, including Reddit user u/urkspleen, who called out viewing order infidels last year by invoking George Lucas’ storytelling mastery:
Don’t do the “Machete order” referred to in other comments, not for your first time viewing. People love Star Wars because despite all the flak he gets, George Lucas is a master story-teller and you shouldn’t mess with the way he’s trying to tell you his story. That leaves you the option of release order or chronological, IMO you’re better off with chronological so you finish strong with the original trilogy.
And there’s no debate that Episode Order is the one that George Lucas would prefer you to go with. Lucas left no room for doubt when he spoke with Vulture: “Start with one. That’s the way to do it right: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. That’s the way they’re supposed to be done. Just because it took a long time to film it doesn’t mean you don’t do it in order.”
So George Lucas has spoken, and he prefers Episode Order! But, then again, George Lucas thought it was a good idea to extend Return of the Jedi’s Max Rebo Band scene by about 800 minutes, so maybe we should take his recommendations with a grain of salt.
Star Wars fans that prefer Episode Order see the entire saga as one big story that’s meant to be viewed in chronological order — an idea that is nicely supported by touches like the ending of Rogue One, which leads directly into the opening of A New Hope. The nice thing about this particular theory is its simplicity. Adding all of the other Star Wars Universe stuff into this method is easy–you can just slot in everything from The Clone Wars animated series to the old extended universe books to Solo wherever they fit into the chronology.
The flip side? Well, this order makes it abundantly clear that Luke Skywalker’s father is Darth Vader, which is arguably the biggest spoiler in all of cinematic history. So, uh, there’s that.
Release Order: IV, V, VI, I, II, III, VII, Rogue One, VIII, Solo
When Star Wars came out in 1977, it wasn’t marketed as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s hard to say for sure how much of the Star Wars universe Lucas had planned out at that point (he’s been somewhat unreliable on that matter himself), but it’s clear that each subsequent Star Wars movie built out on the ones before it. The Empire Strikes Back followed Star Wars with a huge new twist, which was built upon in Return of the Jedi. Then the prequel trilogy came along and expanded upon the series’ biggest twist–which is why watching the Star Wars movies in Episode Order is self-spoiling.
Because of this, brave Star Wars fans around the internet advocate for a very straightforward method of watching the Star Wars movies: watch them in the order in which, you know, they actually came out.
This is the only correct take. We should all begin every Star Wars journey by watching IV, V, and VII, in that order. Whether you choose to continue on to I, II, and III (again, in that order), or move directly on to 2015’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens and 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is between you and your God. But watching the movies in release order will always work best, especially for first-time viewers, because it preserves the biggest spoilers and leads with the strongest movies in the series. If you start off a first-time viewer with the prequels and then the anthology films — which, although masterpieces compared to the prequels, aren't as iconic as the original trilogy —they may not have the stamina to even reach the far better movies. Watching the Star Wars movies in release order is what reasonable people do.
But reasonable people are hard to find on the internet, particularly in the remote online corners dominated by hard-arguing Star Wars super-fans. And that’s why one unique viewing order has come to dominate the Star Wars viewing order debate. I’m talking, of course, about the Machete Order (hey, cool name!).
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Machete Order: IV, V, II, III, (Skip I), Rogue One, Solo, VI, VII, VIII
Here it is, the Holy Grail of the nerdy Star Wars viewing order debate: Machete Order. For the uninitiated, the Machete Order purports to perfect the Star Wars viewing experience by preserving the series’ biggest twist (the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that–spoiler alert–Darth Vader is Luke’s father), still including the prequels (as a “flashback” sequence), and still ending with Return of the Jedi. I’ve taken the relatively uncontroversial step of tacking the sequel trilogy onto the end of this order, and I have left the spin-offs out, as they don’t really fit with the vision of this viewing order.
The Machete Order owes its name (which is cool!) to its origins on the blog Absolutely No Machete Juggling. ANMJ blogger Rod Hilton argues that his viewing order keeps the focus on Luke Skywalker, using the Anakin-focused prequels only as a flashback. To that end, he’s skipping Episode I entirely. Let’s take a look at his reasoning:
“The reason to skip Episode I isn’t that it’s bad, it’s that it’s irrelevant. If you accept my suggestion that Star Wars, the saga, is really about Luke’s journey and his decision to accept his hero’s burden by saving not only the galaxy from the Empire, but his father from the dark side as well, then you’ll find that everything that happens in Episode I is a distraction from that story.”
Hmmm, yes. Of course, this isn’t super compelling in light of the fact that Episode II and Episode III also have pretty much nothing to do with Luke, but whatever.
Does the internet like Machete Order? Of course it does! The viewing method that nobody asked for has gained popularity among longtime Star Wars fans, who say it adds a “new dimension to the viewing experience,” and other things of that nature. Of course, the release of the new Skywalker trilogy movies and anthology films has led to fracture even within those who prescribe to the Machete Order school of thought.
Machete Order is well worth trying at least once, but does it have the staying power and adaptability of release order? I say no, but I look forward to hearing otherwise from angry people on Twitter.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Like most debates on the internet, the Star Wars Order Wars are very important to some people and completely unimportant to others. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what order you watch the films in, and each of these camps has something to offer. Whether you choose to embrace Machete Order or Episode Order instead of Release Order, there really is no wrong way to enjoy the Star Wars films. But there is a right way.
Check out all episodes of the Star Wars films on Amazon.
- Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
- Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
- Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
- Solo: A Star Wars Story
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
- Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
- Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
- Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
- Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
- Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi
Featured still from "The Empire Strikes Back" via Lucasfilm