The Clone Wars' greatest success was making the Star Wars prequel movies more watchable
How the animated series became an essential piece of the Star Wars canon
Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which just wrapped with its series finale on Disney+, proved itself over seven seasons to be an essential piece of the Star Wars canon — and the film saga is ultimately better for it.
Set in the timeline between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the George Lucas-created animated series debuted on Cartoon Network in 2008, following up a film of the same name, to delve into the war between the Republic and the Separatists mostly kept off screen in the Star Wars movies. It functioned essentially as an anthology show, with seasons broken up into standalone arcs, and like most anthologies, the results were inconsistent. But The Clone Wars' contribution to the franchise was still immense, and not just because it helped foster a love of Star Wars in a younger generation and provided the series with tons of new lore. Its most important function, instead, was to dramatically strengthen the prequel films and help right some of their wrongs.
By far the greatest issue with Lucas' prequels, and indeed the whole Star Wars film saga, is the character arc of Anakin Skywalker, whose transformation into Darth Vader was rushed and unsatisfying. We're meant to see Anakin as an initially heroic figure who tragically falls to the dark side, both because of his fear of losing his wife, Padmé, and because Chancellor Palpatine stokes his growing distrust of the Jedi Council. But that first element doesn't fully land because Anakin is off-putting from the start, and the second doesn't exactly work either because the reasons why Anakin might legitimately resent the Jedi aren't well explored in the movies. Throughout its run, The Clone Wars retroactively addressed both of these issues.
In the films, even before Anakin begins really tapping into the dark side, he comes across like someone Padmé should immediately take out a restraining order on, even in scenes played as romantic. But in The Clone Wars, Anakin is retooled to be far more likable, and all that cringe-worthy dialogue Hayden Christensen was weighed down by is gone. While moments throughout the show raise red flags to forecast his turn — he's too quick to anger and often makes use of dark side tactics — the flags aren't too red as to overshadow his heroic side. Giving Anakin his own Padawan, Ahsoka Tano, to mentor also helps establish him as a less immature character than we'd previously seen.
Even more importantly, the issue of Anakin's resentment of the Jedi being unearned is dealt with, especially by a key arc involving Ahsoka. After five seasons focused on the father-daughter relationship between Anakin and his Padawan, the Jedi Council falsely accuse her of murder, and Ahsoka as a result abandons the Jedi Order entirely, leaving Anakin heartbroken and frustrated that the council let her down. Another key arc sees the Jedi fake Obi-Wan's death, and Anakin feels betrayed when they keep him in the dark and lead him to believe Obi-Wan has legitimately been murdered. "How many other lies have I been told by the council?" Anakin wonders. When Anakin ranted and raved against the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith, seemingly just because they won't give him a promotion, and later declares the Jedi are "evil," this extreme reaction was baffling. But thanks to The Clone Wars, it now makes more sense.
Outside of fixing problems with the Star Wars films, The Clone Wars also came in handy for fleshing out concepts Lucas raised but never fully explored. As one example, Revenge of the Sith's opening crawl states that there are "heroes on both sides" of the war, yet we really don't see any heroes on the Separatist side in the movies. But The Clone Wars runs with this idea that the war isn't so black and white. One episode, in particular, shows us some noble Separatists who just happen to be on the "wrong" side, with Padmé actually being friends with one. Appropriately, the episode is titled "Heroes on Both Sides," a nod to the hole in the movies it was filling in.
Throughout the show, The Clone Wars also turns a heavy focus to the clone troopers, giving them lots of characterization as individuals that the movies didn't. This pays off in a big way in the stellar four-part finale arc that just concluded, in which we catch up on the timeline with Revenge of the Sith and Palpatine orders the clones to execute Order 66 to murder the Jedi. The Clone Wars expands upon the downfall of the Jedi Order not only by giving more screen time to the minor characters who eventually perish in Order 66, but also revealing that the clones are actually being compelled to betray the Jedi by a chip implanted in them. In a devastating penultimate episode, one clone we've gotten to know struggles to resist the order he desperately wants to not follow. For Clone Wars fans rewatching the films after spending seven seasons with characters on both sides of the tragedy, this key turning point in the saga is now far more powerful than it ever was in theaters.
That's not to say the show is perfect. It's chock full of forgettable arcs most fans would recommend skipping and at times only doubles down on some of the prequels' worst qualities; yes, there are storylines focused on Jar Jar Binks.
Every prequel should however, in the end, make the larger story better, and while Lucas' actual prequel trilogy struggled to do that, The Clone Wars pulled it off. Fans who spent the last 12 years on the journey with the show will be glad they did. Goodbye, The Clone Wars, old friend. And may the Force be with you.
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