Why are the tragic Star Wars films our favorites?

by Todd King, contributing writer

Oft-Mentioned Favorites

Ask people and fans who've watched Star Wars which movie is their favorite in the saga and I believe most often we hear that The Empire Strikes Back is their choice. That one is considered the best in many "best of" lists and review columns for some time. Even after eleven live-action Star Wars movies, spanning four decades, Episode V consistently remains at the top. Why?

Ask fans which is the best film of the prequel trilogy and frequently the answer is Revenge of the Sith. Why?

Ask which movie is the best of the Disney-era films and it seems many people agree upon Rogue One. Why?

Why are these most-often considered the best? Is it because of the awards they won? Is it because these films had the best scripts, the best editing, acting, production design? Is it because of the events in the story and how impactful they were? Is it because of our own nostalgia bias? Is it something more ambiguous and subjective that draws us to them? What is it about these particular films that resonates with us?

Why ask these questions?

I go round about these questions myself when I'm asked "which one is the best?" or "which one is my favorite?" (There is a slight difference between those questions.) And then I ask why do I even have to pick a favorite or name a best one? I don't know. It just seems we humans like to organize things. We like to categorize things so that we can compare them to other things. Also, we just love making lists and putting things in some sort of sequence and ranking, particularly in "top 10s" (or 5s!) because those are such natural numbers. When you say "best," what do you mean? When you say "favorite," what do you mean? And even those words can lead to different paths of answers for each person… and oh my Grogu I'm getting off track!

Anyway, if it's all so subjective why even explore this idea of "best" and "favorite?" Asking those questions can tell a lot about us as humans and as fans. It makes for conversations and arguments, all in good fun, of course. As kids we would debate these things without much context of other films and as adults, while we have that context, we continually name our favorites as those that we loved when we were kids. As kids, everything felt more visceral and more positive without the cloud of cynicism we create as grown-ups.

There are really no completely-satisfying answers for all these questions because we're dealing with art and it isn't so easy to grasp all the effects art has on us. Art is mysterious to artist and onlooker alike. We continuously explore the world of art often simultaneously with our pursuit of truth. Some kind of destination is unattainable; it really is all about the journey. But ppffffft! Let's address these questions anyway. But how? I'd like to look at what these three movies have in common to help us along the way.

Dark Matter

The Empire Strikes Back, Revenge of the Sith, and Rogue One are tragedies. These are the ones with sad endings; they end on a forlorn note usually after some kind of downfall. What does that matter? Every Star Wars movie has some tragedy but what I'm talking about is how the movies end. These with the sad endings leave a different impression than those with happy endings. Neither one is good or bad or better or worse than another; they're different.

When A New Hope ends, there is an exhilarating rush of joy. It is uplifting how Luke fought through such hard times and turned out to be the one to save the galaxy. At the end, he stands proud with his friends and awarded for his courage all the while bowing to the princess who is now restored (thanks to them) to her throne. We won! It makes you want to go out and win, too. It builds up your own courage to face adversity, to appreciate your friends, to become a good friend yourself. It makes you believe in the power you have somewhere inside that can lead you to good things if you nourish that power and not let it take over your heart.

Then we come to Empire and the ending is not so uplifting. The characters are beaten-down, forlorn, and confused. They're not as proud. They made mistakes, there was no sense of victory. And yet, this is often the one people love the most. Why do you rank such a downer as your favorite? It leaves you with an impression of hardship and questions like, "How do we fix all this?" There is a great sense of uncertainty about people you've come to care about.

With Sith, we kind of knew what to expect. Anakin would plunge into the Dark Side of the Force and become Darth Vader. His fall would be a tragedy and a shame. All of that came true. We witnessed the good in himself vanish. We realized he kept operating under a single vision to bring justice. He didn't take into account the complexity of human nature and shut out all points of view but his own. He dealt in absolutes, as Obi-Wan said, and defending that vision to the extreme cost him his soul. He never saw his children being born and the person he loved the most could not survive the wave of darkness he unleashed upon her. And yet, people will point to this story as their favorite of the prequels. Why do you rank such a downer as your favorite? It leaves you with an impression of hopelessness… at least until you remember the follow-up story (which came out first) that took three films to turn these things around.

Then with Rogue One, three-quarters of the movie is spent with these people we slowly come to admire, then one-quarter showing us their demise. You know instantly in your heart that they did not perish in vain. They were fighting for a good cause, but none of them would ever be able to see the results of their efforts. They got the job done but they would be all but forgotten. They would not get the chance to celebrate together and reunite in better times. They didn't lose somebody along the way, they lost everyone. None of them made it through—none. And yet, this is considered a favorite, perhaps the favorite, of all the Disney-era films. Why do you rank such a downer as your favorite? It leaves you with an impression of great loss amid many tears.

The More it Hurts

So, what it is about these "downers" that makes them so good? I thought we all liked happy endings. Well, we do, but life isn't always full of happy endings. But isn't that why we go to the movies? So that we can have something positive to feel and be uplifted? Yes and yes, of course. But we also don't operate under a single vision in life. We don't deal in absolutes. Even though our spirits are sad at the end of movies like these, we also have a deep sense of introspection. It touches us, it moves us. We share in the humanity with these characters who had it so rough. It feeds our empathy.

I ask some of my friends why they like horror movies so much? Why would they go through all that frightfulness? A long time ago one friend told me it was because he was happy he was alive at the end of it. That he didn't have to go through what the characters did. He said it made him appreciate the life he was living. I think there are similar ideas at play with these sad endings. When we share in humanity, we think not only about our own lives but we also consider the lives of those we care about. Our relationships are important and sometimes it takes tragedy to make us realize what we have—and through movies, the tragedy doesn't really happen to us but we witness what could happen if we lose something important to us.

With these movies, yes we are left with moods of dejection and sorrow, but out of that can come a reckoning within ourselves. What do we value most? What does this say about me? These thoughts make us introspective. Along with our feelings, we also think about those feelings and put all this stuff into the context of our world.

In Empire, Luke learns that the world is more complicated than he thought. The image of his father, and in turn himself, was put into question. But his value in his friends was strengthened. In Sith, Anakin became lost but we realized how things could have been better if people took time to learn from each other, to not disallow close relationships, to trust, to love, and not let war destroy our souls. In Rogue One we may have lost everyone we loved, but we embrace their courage and hope and we get a desire in ourselves to live the faith they exemplified. Would I band together with friends to do what is right, too?

I believe these movies with sad endings call us to reflect on our lives and on our world. We don't just feel the loss, we contemplate our purpose. Star Wars does tragedy very well in these regards and through characters like Luke Skywalker, Jyn Erso, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, we can not merely see how things could be, not even just how they should be, but how they can be in ourselves and in our relationships.