The longevity of the Star Wars franchise puts the generation gap in another perspective, one in which all the archetypes are confused. The biggest example was the celebration of actor Hayden Christensen‘s return as Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series. His supporting role has gained prominence status because his character’s relationship with the Jedi master is the one that has the greatest impact on the entire journey, whether in the original trilogy, prequel, sequel, or spin-offs. It’s the old song, what a difference a day makes. In this case, a few decades…
The Canadian actor, who started working at the age of 13 and has been successful in independent films and drama series such as Higher Ground (an ironic title that geeks will pick up on), was just 19 when he took on the role of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels written by George Lucas himself. He was chosen from 1500 candidates and with that, only the pressure grew.
He starred in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, replacing Jake Lloyd who played Anakin as a child in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Hayden was slammed by fans and critics alike. Unfair? There has always been the current that defended this theory, as the actor had more obstacles than material to deepen the character, from the robotic and staggered way that James Earl Jones voiced Darth Vader in the original films to the questionable dialogues – now classics – as the one he dramatically says. “I hate sand”.
The actor had to bridge the gap between an ambitious young man who would succumb to the dark side of the Force and speak the way all fans already knew. In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Hayden was able to redeem himself (within text limitations) and was so dedicated that he asked to be kept in the role even when Darth Vader takes on his classic armor (and the voice of James Earl Jones) instead to use a double. That’s commitment.
For the generation impacted by the originals, of which I am a part, the prequel has never been satisfying. At this point, as much as fans point out flaws of the narrative, I’ve gotten used to it being adapted over time. Things like “Darth Vader betrayed and killed Anakin” turned “from a point of view” was just the beginning of many disagreements. As in the prequels that included R2-D2 and C-3PO as Anakin’s robots, having to “erase their memory” so that later they could be with Princess Leia and Darth didn’t react to meeting them again, in A New Hope. With the series, we have a Princess Leia attached to Obi-Wan, but later she won’t even react when she witnesses his death. And the incestuous kiss between Leia and Luke? The crush Luke had on his sister without knowing she was his twin? And of course, wouldn’t Darth Vader be immediately suspicious when a pilot hailing from his home planet, with the surname Skywalker and the exact age that his and Padmé’s baby would have, could be his son? Demanding consistency in Star Wars has always been very complicated.
Returning to Hayden, he did the best he could, but for many years he was “burned out” by the role that made him a star. And nothing like the passage of time to change the analyses. For millennials, who were able to watch the franchise in the right order, Hayden and Ewan McGregor became the biggest references. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) was never as the greatest hero of the saga, as George Lucas imagined.
In fact, the genius was in the director’s decision to use the thesis of the philosopher Joseph Campbell, who deciphered the steps of what we now know to be the “hero’s arc” or “journey”, counted in 3 acts. The story was that of Luke Skywalker, saving the galaxy, and little by little it became more complex.
And nothing more complex than Anakin Skywalker’s journey. George Lucas made history when, in 1980, he radicalized the narrative and shocked the world by deciding that Darth Vader was not just Obi-Wan Kenobi’s apprentice who betrayed everyone and murdered Luke’s father. He was Anakin himself, who metaphorically killed his persona to transform into something evil. That premise has changed every narrative since then and given Anakin, no longer Luke, the deepest dramatic arc in cinema. Luke, like his mother he never knew, felt that Anakin never completely disappeared and managed to redeem his father, saving his soul at the last minute. (Not that it did much good when his nephew, years later, repeated his grandfather’s mistake, but that’s another story.)
Millennials missed what was the revelation of Darth Vader’s secret and its importance, but they embraced his trajectory and always approved of Hayden Christensen. So much so that his return in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series was celebrated. And yes, he managed – finally – to bring out the tragic dimension of the character as he deserved. It was perfect.
And with that, we understand that the saga became about the relationship of a representative of Generation X (Obi-Wan) and his “failure” with his Millennial apprentice (Anakin Skywalker). Criticizing him for his impetuosity, even occasional ruthlessness to achieve good, Obi-Wan contributes to fueling his weaknesses until he succumbed to the power and oppressive freedom of the Empire, the dark side of the Force.
Let’s remember that when we see Anakin for the first time, he was fatherless and a slave. A Jedi grandmaster identifies him as “the chosen one”, challenges every bench of Jedi who disagrees and educates the boy personally. However, with his sudden and tragic death, it’s up to the other student, Obi-Wan, to be promoted to the child’s Master and mentor.
The impact of all these expectations on the mind of a person who soon emerged from slavery to a greater role in the Galaxy was underestimated by the Jedi. Seeing Obi-Wan quickly rise through the Order, Anakin naturally expected the same speed. When he was “held back” by Obi-Wan, who gave negative feedback, Anakin always saw criticism as “envy” and “insecurity”. As far as we know, even as Darth Vader, he never changed his mind.
In The Phantom Menace, Master Yoda hints at it, explaining that “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, hatred leads to suffering.” Anakin feared for his mother, who he was forced to abandon to take on a big role. When she was murdered, he felt double frustrated. Not being able to openly relate to Padmé, he also felt wrong. He makes a string of bad choices, which reinforce Obi-Wan’s analysis that he wasn’t ready. Without prioritizing mental health, Anakin never had emotional control. Everything he does is out of impetus and passion. Even though still in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan still influences him, in Revenge of the Sith Anakin reveals his immense resentment. He succumbs to Emperor Palpatine‘s influence, and attains Power, but loses everything and everyone he loved in the process.
Instead of understanding the consequences of his choices, Anakin places the blame on protector Obi-Wan’s shoulders. He can’t stand the fact that, as the Jedi reminds him, Obi-Wan is on a higher ground.
But let’s try to understand Anakin. He is referred to as “the chosen one”. He has talent, he has conflicts, and trauma, but his political views reflect a genuine desire to do the right thing. Just in a hurry. By only perceiving the Jedi order as something restrictive, almost elitist, he embraces the Sith, who always offer help, leadership, and the idea of a “benign dictatorship”. (If Anakin met Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, it would be a match made in heaven. But they both lost.)
Obi-Wan, true to the principles of Generation X, “did what he needed to do”, suffering the consequences with resilience and reflection. He knows that he failed, multiple times, and that he didn’t know how to help Anakin. With better dialogue, the Obi-Wan Kenobi series hits that key when the two are reunited for the first time in 10 years, with the Jedi shocked to see the former apprentice as Darth Vader. “I am what you made me,” says Anakin. The phrase that goes straight to the heart of the suffering Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan asks for forgiveness again. In Revenge of the Sith, he said “I failed you Anakin”. Now just say “forgive me”. However, what he says does not translate to Darth Vader, who hears the request only as an admission of guilt that justifies the violent and criminal actions of the Empire.
One of the advantages of Hayden Christensen‘s maturity as an actor, and the advancement of the saga’s narrative, no longer signed by George Lucas, is that it was possible to humanize the inexpressive Darth Vader, restricted by an armor that alters his voice, his breathing and movements. Now we see his hatred and equally his anxiety in the face of failure when his heavy breathing quickens and he seems more vulnerable. He lives to overcome and prove his Master wrong, but with every step, he only understands that Obi-Wan is right. Seeing him with his mask broken, a sensational image coming from animation and ported to TV, was chilling.
Obi-Wan’s failure with Anakin triggered a period of repression and violence that only Luke Skywalker could reverse. But like family karma, the same conflict will make the Skywalkers suffer again in future generations.
George Lucas could never have anticipated his narrative precision when developing the franchise. The secret to its longevity is human relationships. Failures, but always with redemption on the horizon. Just like Anakin Skywalker’s.