If you are ever able to cajole a hater into begrudgingly admitting to liking any of the newer Star Wars films, they’re most likely to say they kind of enjoyed “Revenge of the Sith.” “Sith” is bar none the darkest Star Wars film of the saga (so far). It features Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, including the murder of innocent children, his former friend, and even his own pregnant wife. Not to mention a show-stopping duel amidst a sea of lava ending with Anakin being essentially chopped into pieces and burned alive by liquid-hot magma, only to be saved by being entombed in the walking iron lung that is basically the Saga’s logo. It is the only film in the Saga to receive a PG-13 rating, even retroactively.
In a similar vein, when asked to pick a favorite film in the saga overall, the most common answer seems to be “The Empire Strikes Back.” While not as dark as “Sith” it’s certainly edgier than the other four films in the Saga. This one has lots of literally drab sets, a stunning revelation about character relationships, the Rebel Alliance beating a retreat, and Han Solo’s fate left uncertain.
There’s no doubt that a lot of people like their art gloomy and gritty. Anyone who has been through a film class is eventually told that "True Art is Angsty" and anything else is not worth your time as a serious artist or critic. Again, if you’ve paid any sort of attention to this space, you already know that I think that’s bunk. Not that the dark doesn’t have its place next to the light (in spite of what the Jedi might say), but the balance is what’s important. But why is this thought so pervasive?
I think it has a lot to do with wanting to feel grown up and adult.
For most people, it’s ingrained into us pretty early on that adults are super serious and children are super silly. Also, Adults get all the respect and nobody gives children’s ideas credence because they don’t know any better. This idea is reinforced when one gets into their teen years and finds out for the first time that not everything is okay. Sometimes, frequently in fact, there is no happy ending. Mom and Dad don’t know everything. A lot of people out there are simply interested in your money. Everything dies eventually. No wonder teens are seen as “moody.”
As people grow up, they want more and more to be recognized for growing up. Therefore, they want their tastes to grow with them so that they aren’t seen as childish for liking them. The near-universal praise for Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy I think comes less from the actual merits of the films (of which there are admittedly plenty) and more from taking a character like Batman, who has seen sillier days, and making him far more “adult” (though those movies can get pretty silly themselves if you really think about it).
Another example of where this idea actually works perfectly is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Each successive one is written with the idea that the reader will most likely be the age of the protagonist at any given moment. Hence, it truly does grow up with the reader.
Here’s the thing, though, not everything has to be like that. True art can be anything that touches you in a particular way. Monty Python is great without being serious. Most cartoons as well. Oh sure, you can have dark elements in there, but silliness does not a bad film make. Nor does engaging in your frivolous side make you less of an adult.
Star Wars is by its nature very silly. Every single one, even the “dark” ones. That’s why George Lucas has always said it was a children’s story, because they’re the audience best suited to accept that silliness. That being said, like any great children’s programming, there’s a lot of references and symbolism in the Saga (mostly to history, myth, and philosophy in this case) for the adults who bring the children and the adults that came into it as children to appreciate. The likes of Jar Jar and 3PO don’t make it any less of a work of art. In fact, I would argue they and characters like them are crucial to the timeless quality of the galaxy far, far away.
For those cynics and critics out there, here’s a parting thought: If the drama of our teen years has taught us anything, it’s that the more mature you try to appear, the less mature you reveal yourself to be. And for the kids out there, try not to grow up too fast.