I have said some controversial things here in the digital pages of The Portalist. I have spoken out against the popular “Machete order” for Star Wars movie viewing, explained why Superman is the best superhero, and laid into Batman V. Superman perhaps slightly more than was necessary (but still less than I wanted to, to be honest).
But this is perhaps my most daring post yet, because I am about to drop a HOT TAKE that covers every single Star Wars movie ever made. Prepare to get angry as many as seven separate times, dear reader, because this is every Star Wars movie, ranked from worst to best.
By the way, I’m going to use whichever title each film used in its original promotional materials. That makes the original Star Wars (1977) just plain Star Wars, not Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope and the first prequel Star Wars: Episode I instead of Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace, because this list is long enough already.
Star Wars: Episode II (2002)
It was a guarded public that entered theaters to watch Star Wars: Episode II. The previous installment had been a major letdown (read on!), and we were ready for the worst. But, somehow, it was even worse than we expected.
Episode II didn’t always even seem to know what kind of bad movie it was. Was it a bad romance? A bad action flick? Its plot was stupid and boring at the same time. Nothing made sense. Anakin jumped out of a window near the beginning for no reason. There was an entire plotline about clones that bored the bejesus out of me. Sitting in the theater letting Episode II sink in was almost enough to make a person give up on Star Wars entirely.
Star Wars: Episode I (1999)
Star Wars: Episode I is not quite the worst Star Wars movie, but it is certainly the one that was most devastating to watch. After more than a decade without Star Wars, fans flooded back to the theaters and were greeted with this, this … this bloated, confusing, plotless mess of a first act.
The original Star Wars was simplicity itself, pitting a good-guy rebellion against a bad-guy Empire, but Episode I instead had Jedi knights arguing about some vague trade tariff issues with some very un-intimidating bad guys. Nobody was force-choking anyone. It was like a Star Wars mad lib with all the blanks filled in by an intern at The Economist.
Is this what the original trilogy would have been if George Lucas had been given the budget he wanted? It’s too frightening to think about.
Star Wars: Episode III (2005)
Episode III is widely seen as a return to form for Star Wars. On review aggregation sites, its marks rival Return of the Jedi. More than a few lists like this rank it above Return of the Jedi, and plenty of people like it more than The Last Jedi. I do not understand these people.
Yes, Episode III is way better than Episode I and Episode II; yes, it was a huge relief to see it in theaters. But going back and watching it now is an exercise in frustration. Its fight scenes are dumb and interminable and full of ACTION-PACKED VIOLENCE in a way that seems almost apologetic. It rushes to convince us of Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, and only sort of pulls it off (this is really the fault of Episode I, which wasted an entire movie doing nothing that had anything to do with Anakin’s love-and-the-Dark-Side arc, but the consequences were laid at Episode III’s doorstep). The climactic battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan is loaded with drama but marred by roughly 800 hours of CGI and lava-surfing.
Episode III is fine. Good, even! But it is not great, and it felt dated within five years of coming out. It’s not a classic.
The Force Awakens (2015)
The Force Awakens was safe and familiar, but that was all that it needed to be. Burned time and again by the prequels, fans just wanted to see a Star Wars movie that felt like Star Wars, and The Force Awakens accomplished that beautifully. Was it derivative? Sure. It was supposed to be. The Force Awakens isn’t perfect, and its cast feels crowded at moments as the filmmakers rush to introduce all three new stars while juggling three old ones. But it’s fun without being stupid, and it looks and feels like Star Wars, and it has a solid story and characters to go with its tone and visuals.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
Return of the Jedi is the weakest gazelle in the original trilogy, and that makes it a popular target for hot takes like this one and this one and this one. The complaints are all over the HOT TAKE internet: the ewoks were basically just like Jar Jar! The Skywalker family reveal was a pale shadow of the one in The Empire Strikes Back! The superweapon was so derivative that they called it the Death Star II!
Yeah, sure, that’s all true enough. But Return of the Jedi is good. It’s the loudest, pandering-est entry into the original trilogy, but it culminates in an Anakin Skywalker redemption moment that manages to feel–even with less dialogue and relative simplicity – infinitely more powerful than Episode III’s reciprocal turn-to-the-Dark-Side moment.
Return of the Jedi has a lot of the hallmarks of a Star Wars movie that isn’t character-driven, but it’s character-driven nonetheless. It wasn’t the first bad Star Wars movie, it was just the last great one (for a while). You can see the seeds of Star Wars future in it, but only in retrospect. On its own, Return of the Jedi is good, and if you do not like it, you are wrong.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One was the first film since The Empire Strikes Back to seriously alter the tone of the Star Wars movie franchise without, you know, getting everyone mad. It got some people mad, to be sure, and its murky morals and grim ending remain points of contention for some.
But Rogue One was always going to be tasked with doing something different, because it was the series’ first spin-off film. Establishing right off the bat that Star Wars spin-offs were allowed to be different in some fundamental way from the established saga was a favor to all of us, and if you don’t believe that, wait until the 8,939,430th Star Wars spin-off comes out. Variety is the spice of life.
The Last Jedi (2017)
There was more wrong with The Last Jedi than there was with The Force Awakens, but there was also much more right with it. The Last Jedi was flawed and unfocused, and I know as well as you do that it had a few characters and subplots too many.
But its expansion of what the force can do, its plot twists, and its besieged good guys all evoked the best parts of The Empire Strikes Back while still managing to feel far less derivative of that film than The Force Awakens felt of the original Star Wars.
The way I see it, The Last Jedi is like that figure skating dude who fell down and won the gold medal anyway and made everyone get all mad. If you try bold things, you don’t have to get every one of them perfectly right to create something really memorable.
This isn’t a knock on The Force Awakens, by the way. Star Wars needed a reset, and The Force Awakens gave it that. With that done, it was time to do something bigger and messier, and The Last Jedi delivered that part. The Last Jedi wasn’t perfect–it would be ranked higher if it had been–but it was a joy to see Star Wars look new again.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back tops more than a few of these lists online, and I wrestled with its placement here right up until I submitted this piece. I have nothing bad to say about The Empire Strikes Back, which remains the most innovative and surprising Star Wars movie ever.
It has the best battle scene of the original trilogy, and perhaps of the entire series, in its opening fight on Hoth. It has the greatest twist in blockbuster history. It changed how Star Wars worked in a way that was so fundamental that it’s hard to understand now just how revolutionary it must have been at the time. It is the most artistically daring of the original trilogy, and it remains the series’ deserving critical darling. The Empire Strikes Back is great. The gap between it and the list above is significant, while the gap between it and the one movie below is slim, if it exists at all.
Star Wars (1977)
What can one say about a movie like Star Wars? It’s perhaps the single greatest blockbuster of all time. It’s so good that, even after years of George Lucas’ ill-advised tinkering, it remains a masterpiece (you should check out the Despecialized Edition anyway, though).
Star Wars is a near-perfect movie, and none of the ways in which it is imperfect really matter much. In every fundamental category, from pacing to characterization, Star Wars hits its blockbuster beats.
You could easily argue that The Empire Strikes Back does more with the Star Wars material than Star Wars does, or that it deserves special consideration because it managed to be as good as it was as a sequel, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
But, to me, the self-contained narrative of Star Wars is the pinnacle of the series. If it didn’t take as many risks with Star Wars norms, that was only because it was busy inventing those norms. And it has to be worth something to perfect a form in the way that Star Wars did with the space opera.
If The Empire Strikes Back is the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of the Star Wars universe, then Star Wars is its Revolver, the work that left nothing to do but to but get weirder and riff on perfection. And riff we have for 50 years now, but we’ve never quite seen the likes of this again. There’s a good chance we never will.
Featured still from "The Force Awakens" via Lucasfilm