Star Wars prequel trilogy moments that were actually good

We don't think it's too controversial to say that the Star Wars prequels are a little bit underwhelming. That actually might be a bit of an understatement. The extent to which people hate the prequels is notorious. They've been subject to parody, scorn, and any array of negative emotion you can imagine since their release. Heck, there's an entire documentary that largely focuses on exploring, among other related subjects, the way the trilogy complicated die-hard fans' affection for the franchise. However, amidst the prequels' admitted low points, there are some gems. A number of moments in the Star Wars prequels aren't just good, they're some of the most memorable moments in the entire Star Wars franchise. 

Duel of the Fates - Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The coolest character in The Phantom Menace—and perhaps in the entire trilogy—is Darth Maul, an evil red and black Sith lord. It's no surprise that Maul's striking visage made up for a huge bulk of the film's advertising campaign (his face is plastered on the packaging for most of the action figures). While the prequel trilogy may not have lived up to the hype, Maul certainly did. He proved to be the perfect foil to the film's Jedi protagonists (Qui Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi), with their feud coming to a phenomenal end in the film's climactic lightsaber battle.

In a scene which has been named after the score selection that accompanies it, "Duel of the Fates" gave fans their first look at a true lightsaber duel—not between a self-taught rookie and his aging father but between trained warriors at the height of their abilities. That, plus the fact that it involves three people rather than two and that one of them, Maul, had a then-unheard-of duel-sided lightsaber, makes for movie magic. 

Not only is the scene's fight choreography stunning, the story it tells is structured perfectly: it includes a first act consisting of the opponents feeling one another out, a second act in which the setting changes and the stakes are raised (Qui Gon's death), and a climax in which the student avenges the death of his master. If it has one imperfection, it's that it ends in Maul's death. Thankfully, that was remedied in a later animated series. 

The Jedi are flawed - Episode I, II, and III

Going into the prequel trilogy, there was still painfully little Star Wars had told fans about the Jedi and their history. The prequel trilogy didn't just mean an origin story for Darth Vader, it gave fans their first look at the Jedi before their fall. It would have been incredibly easy for George Lucas and company to depict the Jedi in a fashion that aligned with notions of peaceful warrior-monk guardians of the universe, but what they did instead proved far more engaging.

While the primary narrative of the prequels depicts the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, the underlying narrative is about the fall of the Jedi Order, and that fall comes about due to the failures and shortcomings of the Jedi themselves. It's every bit as tragic as Anakin's fall, an event that the Jedi effectively set into motion. The prequels depict the Jedi as inactive, arrogant, and blind; they're so wrapped up in politics and ego that they refuse to acknowledge the Sith's rising power. Adherence to their Jedi Code is ultimately what creates Darth Vader when they alienate Anakin for being a man who allows himself to feel an array of emotions. While the prequels are fairly maligned, they don't lack thematic density; the idea that the Jedi have been the problem all along is one of the most engaging facets of the films.

The search for Kamino - Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Obi-Wan Kenobi's story in Attack of the Clones briefly takes the prequel trilogy away from its lofty space-opera aspirations and brings it back down to the pulpier influences of the original films. While tracking a bounty hunter, Kenobi finds himself drawn to Kamino, a planet which has been erased from the Jedi archives. He uncovers a conspiracy of sorts from the Jedi Council's past to order a massive clone army to serve the Republic's needs.

The way the story plays out is great sci-fi storytelling and very much brings back the feel of the original films, or even a great episode of Star Trek. A mysterious planet, an army of clones, a hidden agenda within the Jedi order decades old? And a deadly bounty hunter at the center of it all? It's vintage science-fiction at its best—so much so that if this had been the primary plot of the movie, rather than that ill-advised love story, the film may have been better received.

Order 66 - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

One of the more interesting points made about Lucas as a filmmaker is the idea that he's a much stronger visual storyteller than he is a writer. No one is more aware of this than Lucas himself, who has at times referred to his student films as "abstract visual tone poems." Given this, it's no surprise that some of the most disparaged moments in the prequel trilogy are bad lines of dialogue. Lucas remains a compelling visual artist in the prequel films, which clear by his orchestration of the Order 66 sequence.

Order 66, for the unfamiliar, is the order Emperor Palpatine gave to the Clone Troopers to activate their clandestine programming and initiate the extermination of the Jedi. The moment happens almost entirely visually, with the only dialogue being occasional repetitions (or variations) of the phrase "Execute Order 66." We see the troopers gun down countless Jedi on land and in the air. John Williams' score swells and soars, beautifully highlighting the tragedy and the betrayal and fear the Jedi feel in the moment. What's more, this should be one of the highlights of the entire prequel trilogy. Short of Anakin and Obi-Wan's duel on Mustafar, it's maybe the single most significant event of the prequels. And while many crucial story beats fail in these movies, Order 66 is every bit the gutting, visceral experience it should be.

Darth Plagueis the Wise - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Ian McDiarmid is perfect in his role of Emperor Palpatine, and the prequel trilogy really allows him the chance to shine and make the character he's so well known for far more than the two-dimensional villain he was in Return of the Jedi. While there are a number of great Palpatine story beats in the prequels, he's at his best when recounting the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise.

At a (literal) space opera, Palpatine shares with Anakin the tale of an old Sith lord who could save his loved ones from death—Darth Plagueis. This Sith was so singularly focused on conquering death that he never noticed it coming for him in the form of his apprentice, who eventually murdered Plagueis and became the master of the Sith. 

It's a chilling tale told by Palpatine with a subtle menace, but there's more to the tale than it just being a great story. With this story, Palpatine is manipulating Anakin into joining him, using Anakin's love for his wife Padme as fuel. Furthermore, later Star Wars canon confirms that Palpatine was, in fact, the apprentice who killed Plagueis. For a character whose appearance in the franchise is confined to a fanciful campfire tale, the introduction of Darth Plagueis is a genuine game-changer in the story of Star Wars.

The final duel - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

A lightsaber duel can't just rely on flashy swordplay and theatrics to be great, or to be memorable. Look no further than the underwhelming battle between Dooku, Anakin, and Obi-Wan at the end of Attack of the Clones as evidence of this, and the ensuing battle between Dooku and Yoda. Backflips and lightning-fast saber clashes mean nothing if there's no context to the battle. There's no single moment in the prequel trilogy with greater stakes or greater significance than the crown jewel of lightsaber battles: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker's final confrontation on Mustafar

The duel is everything the prequel trilogy builds toward. We've known about the shared history between Skywalker and Kenobi since the very first film, but we've never seen the moment that led to them turning from friends to enemies. The prequel trilogy aims to better contextualize their relationship and show fans what caused it to fall apart. And in this lightsaber duel, it does. We see Anakin's rage come to a head, his broken faith in the Jedi embodied in his former master and best friend. We also see Obi-Wan's grief, his realization that he and the Jedi have created this monster and that it's his responsibility to deal with it. It's acrobatic, dynamic, and expertly choreographed. It's also heartbreaking. It's a lightsaber duel with greater stakes than ever, and, as such, it is among the most memorable in the entire franchise. 

The podrace - Episode I: The Phantom Menace

There are some things in the Star Wars franchise that just feel undeniably Star Wars-esque. The cantina scene, the lightsaber battle on Starkiller Base, and the escape from the Sarlacc Pit are all such perfect embodiments of the spirit of the series. While The Phantom Menace stumbles plenty over the course of its runtime and strays from what made the franchise great to begin with, it feels no more quintessentially Star Wars than it does in the podracing scene.

Everything about it just screams of that galaxy "far, far away." The premise itself, that of a young boy driving in a galactic stock car race for his freedom from slavery, is so embodying of what Star Wars is. The designs of the podracers and the aliens manning them are fascinating, opening up a whole world with every new one introduced. Then there's the race itself, running at a breakneck pace, leading to a thrilling conclusion that comes by way of that young boy discovering his Force abilities. What comes before it might be dull, and what comes after may be even duller, but for a brief moment, everything great about the world of Star Wars is present in The Phantom Menace.

Mace Windu confronts Palpatine - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Despite his undeniable air of cool, Mace Windu is one of the most compellingly flawed characters in the prequels. He's a hero of the Republic, but his unwavering devotion to the Jedi code and Order blind him to the rise of the Sith and to the fact that Anakin is someone he should trust. His lack of trust in Anakin is ultimately what leads to his death and the fall of the Jedi Order. 

Windu's confrontation with Emperor Palpatine bears that prequel hallmark of the inevitability of the story not diminishing how emotionally devastating many moments within it are. As soon as Master Windu arrives on the scene with a number of Jedi at the ready as backup, we know how it's going to end. Palpatine will win. After cutting down the remaining Jedi in short order, it's down to him and Windu—with Anakin on the sidelines. Windu makes the mistake of demanding Palpatine's execution—ironically his first real break from the Jedi code—echoing Palpatine's demands for Dooku's execution at the beginning of the film. Anakin, now recognizing that this is not the Jedi way, is then reminded that only Palpatine can help him save his wife (something Windu should have been able to intuit would be used against him). It's the lynchpin of the tragedy of the prequels and the moment the Jedi empire begins its fall. 

The Battle of Geonosis - Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars fans never could have imagined the world that Obi-Wan Kenobi opens when he first mentions the Clone Wars in the very first film in the series. Once a piece of vague but subtly brilliant worldbuilding, Attack of the Clones contextualizes the events leading to The Clone Wars and depicts its first battle—and what an incredible battle it is.

The Battle of Geonosis is our first look at the Clone Wars as well as our first look at the Jedi as a massive force to be reckoned with. It starts small, with Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme taking on some awesome Harryhausen-esque creatures. As the battle builds, the Jedi reveal themselves, the droids overwhelm them, and just when all hope seems lost, we finally see them—the Clone Troopers, eerily reminiscent of the Stormtroopers. It's all tied together in the battle's aftermath, with Yoda's proclamation that "Begun, the Clone War has…" The Battle of Geonosis fills in a crucial hole in the franchise's timeline and sets into motion the defining galactic conflict of the prequels.

The final shot - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

One of the greatest images in the Star Wars franchise is Luke Skywalker, an adrift farm boy, staring out at the twin suns of his home planet with a look in his eyes that cries for adventure, for escape. It's framed beautifully, and it means so much to Luke, and to the Star Wars story. It's no wonder the motif has made a return or two since the first film, with one of the most notable instances being the final shot of Revenge of the Sith.

Even if the film were radically different, it's hard to argue that it should end on any other moment than Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru holding an infant Luke Skywalker and standing in the same place he will in the next movie, looking out on the same twin suns. In this moment, everything the prequels have built toward has happened: the Jedi fall; Palpatine assumes power; Anakin Skywalker has given way to Darth Vader. The story of the prequels is over. In this moment, the story of Luke Skywalker begins. That it begins with us, the viewer, staring out against the same sky that, years later, Luke'll find himself gazing at, ready for the adventure that will define his legacy, is perfect. For all of the flaws of the prequel trilogy, there is no better ending than this. Darkness has fallen upon the galaxy. However, in this moment, we're reminded that light remains and that as one sun sets, another rises.