Palpatine's return in The Rise of Skywalker could make or break the Star Wars saga
When J.J. Abrams revived Star Wars with The Force Awakens, he was slammed for playing it too safe. But with The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams is set to close this new trilogy by taking a massive risk that could bring the 42-year saga to a highly satisfying finish or unravel it completely. I'm talking, of course, about the reintroduction of Emperor Palpatine.
After the emperor plummeted to his apparent death in a Death Star that subsequently blew up in Return of the Jedi, Palpatine's return was barely on any Star Wars fans' radar until the teaser for The Rise of Skywalker ended with his cackle. The bombshell reveal made for an effective trailer, but bringing Palpatine back into the Star Wars narrative could easily go terribly wrong.
For one, Palpatine's return runs the risk of playing out as an unearned twist that comes out of left field without the proper setup. How long ago this plot point was decided upon is somewhat unclear, as Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy has said Palpatine's return was always the plan, yet Colin Trevorrow, who was originally set to helm the ninth episode, says it wasn't actually in place for his version. Writer-director Rian Johnson has also explained there was "no mapped story" beyond The Force Awakens when he came on board to direct The Last Jedi.
Either way, aside from some extremely minor potential hints in books, comics, and video games, the story of the new trilogy never seemed headed for a Palpatine resurrection, especially seeing as The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi gave us Supreme Leader Snoke, who appeared to be assuming the same narrative role as the emperor. If Palpatine was going to come back anyway, what was the point of Snoke? And if Palpatine has been around all this time, why not bring him back earlier rather than introduce such a massive plot point requiring tons of explanation at the absolute last minute, long after it seems relevant?
A recent promotional clip suggests the film's solution may be to reveal that Palpatine was actually behind the events of the sequel trilogy all along, and perhaps even that he and Snoke were one and the same. Still, if that's the case, it remains to be seen if The Rise of Skywalker can convincingly pull off such a twist in a way that retroactively feels inevitable. Otherwise it might feel a lot like Leia turning out to be Luke's sister in Return of the Jedi after they kissed in The Empire Strikes Back.
Another risk with Palpatine's return is that The Rise of Skywalker could suffer some of the same criticism as The Force Awakens, which was that it relied too heavily on the first trilogy's plot. With The Last Jedi, Johnson seemed to hope killing off Snoke would shake up the dynamic for the final episode, since it presumably wouldn't end with Kylo Ren redeeming himself by rebelling against Snoke the exact same way the original trilogy ended with Anakin redeeming himself by rebelling against Palpatine.
But Snoke's early demise may have actually had the opposite effect, teeing up a movie that's even more similar to the original trilogy. Now, Kylo wouldn't just kill a new version of an old character; he would kill the same old character. Depending on the execution, that might not just be boring. It could retroactively undermine the ending of Return of the Jedi, which saw Anakin die while taking down Palpatine. For years that sacrifice stood as the saga's cathartic conclusion.
Chronologically, the series' first six movies tell the story of the Jedi Order putting their faith in a boy they believe will bring balance to the Force. They conclude their prophecy must have been misinterpreted when he turns to the Dark Side, but decades later, Anakin is saved by his son, who never gave up hope that there was still good in him. By killing Palpatine, Anakin proves himself to be the chosen one after all, ridding the galaxy of the Sith Lord and restoring its balance.
The sequel trilogy was once thought to be a sort of epilogue to that story, focusing on the legacy of the original characters while keeping their actual personal victories intact. But to have Palpatine return in The Rise of Skywalker, or reveal that his apparent death was just one move in his long game of 3D chess, could significantly reduce Anakin's accomplishment and potentially even imply he was no chosen one at all.
If Palpatine were to return in non-corporeal form and be defeated by Kylo, it might work. Since Anakin would have really killed Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and his grandson would finish the job, he'd remain integral to the saga. When the prophecy mentions that balance in the Force will be restored "through" the chosen one, that could still refer to Anakin, with balance restored through his bloodline. Rey defeating Palpatine could potentially work as well, as long as the importance of Anakin's actions in Jedi is acknowledged. Still, there's a real danger of the film clumsily stripping away the significance of this crucial character and undermining the plot line of the first six movies.
Given Palpatine's presence in both the original trilogy and the prequels, his return also presents an opportunity for Star Wars. If Abrams pulls it off, this could wind up being an ingenious way to tie the whole saga together and retroactively transform it into one cohesive story. If he doesn't, though, The Rise of Skywalker could devolve into a poorly setup ending that's not only an uninspired rehash but also messes up one of the series' main arcs.
The stakes for the Star Wars saga couldn't be higher.