(Note: Almost everything I talk about here is going to be jumping off the very elaborate and well-argued post by Rob Hilton about the “Machete-order” of watching Star Wars movies. To be honest, had Disney not stepped in, I would completely agree with his suggestions and have no reason to write this post. But since the new movies have come out, I have some modest suggestions for changing that order. But let’s give credit where credits due and acknowledge that this post is merely a tweak to his original brilliant idea.)
It’s almost that time again for the now annual pilgrimage to the movies to see the latest Star Wars movie. And with that comes the prerequisite discussion of what exactly is the correct viewing order for the ever expanding Star Wars universe movies. Granted the discussion has paradoxically actually gotten a lot easier since Disney bought the IP and started churning out new Star Wars movies because it helped to eliminate the conundrum of whether to watch the movies in canon order or by the year they were released. Nonetheless, there are many ways one could choose to tackle the Star Wars universe, and more importantly there are still several wrong ways to go about it. In order to help you avoid those pitfalls, here I present you the optimal viewing order of Star Wars movies. And the word optimal is key here: I’m presenting here what I think is the best way to go through the series if you are someone with unlimited time on your hands and are fully invested in Star Wars. Without those two conditions, one might want to alter the order below.
(As an aside, the actual order below is currently not THAT innovative but with the additions of a Han Solo anthology movie, a possible Boba Fett movie, a rumoured Obi-Wan movie, Episode IX, and a brand new trilogy set within the Star Wars universe but apart from the Skywalker family things might get complicated quickly)
One caveat before I jump in, I’m assuming in this article that you are someone somewhat versed in the Star Wars universe and are either putting together a viewing order to revisit before the latest release or to show to a Star Wars newbie. So in making my argument as to why films show up in the order they do I will be going into spoiler territory. If however you are someone who is not versed in the Star Wars universe and are genuinely looking for advice as to what movies to start with first, let me just list them out briefly here and then you can leave before the spoilers spew left and right.
1. EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977) dir. George Lucas
2. EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) dir. Irvin Keshner
3. EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) dir. Richard Marquand
4. EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) dir. George Lucas
5. EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) dir. George Lucas
6. STAR WARS: CLONE WARS (TV Series)
7. EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) dir. George Lucas
8. STAR WARS: REBELS (TV Series)
9. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) dir. Gareth Edwards
10. EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) dir. J.J. Abrams
11. EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017) dir. Rian Johnson
(Essential viewing in BOLD)
Have all the newbies written that order down? Okay then get out of here because spoilers will abound from here on out.
1. EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE
Before we got Disney in on the Star Wars act, a significant chunk of people thought that the best way to view the movies was canonical order (Episodes I through VI). Unfortunately those people were dead wrong. There are so many reasons why you should start with the original release and the clue to why can be seen in the original poster to the left. The title of the movie originally was just simply Star Wars. No tagline. No episode count. No hint that there might be more movies to come. Thus the movie is plain and simply the foundational piece in the Star Wars universe. Every movie that comes after this (prequel or otherwise) will build from the concepts, characters, and mythology that gets established in this movie. The Force and the concept of light vs. dark. The Empire and the Rebellion. Lightsabers, blasters, X-Wings, TIE-fighters, Star Destroyers, Death Stars, and the Millenium Falcon. Wookies and droids. The central trio of Luke, Leia, and Han. And of course the greatest villain in the series against whom all other villains will be compared to in Darth Vader. All these things are established by A New Hope. And more importantly, this is the only movie in which you don’t need any prior knowledge of the Star Wars universe to be able to (presumably) enjoy. If you (or that weird friend/relative of yours who has never seen any of the movies) can’t at some level appreciate or be entertained by the original then chances are the series probably isn’t going to be for you. But perhaps the most compelling reason to start with Episode IV is that it establishes right from get-go that the central narrative arc is Luke Skywalker’s. The only reason the prequels exist is as backstory to Luke’s own arc and he remains our window into the world for all of the original trilogy. So it makes sense then that his story must be the one we follow first.
2. EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Naturally, given that we’ve watched the original instalment of Star Wars, the next movies should be the rest of the original trilogy. And with The Empire Strikes Back we get what is arguably (in this author’s opinion) the best movie of the entire saga as the plucky Rebellion finds its backs against the wall against a reinvigorated Empire and our heroes find themselves in narrow escape after narrow escape to get away from its wrath. This movie also deepens the mythology by fleshing out the Force and the order of the Jedi. It introduces the Jedi master Yoda and continues Luke’s journey toward becoming a Jedi himself. And while it might be obvious that Empire should be the next movie on the list, it also perfectly illustrates why a newbie should start with the original trilogy first. This is because any other order is going to spoil what is perhaps the greatest twist in all of movie history that (Spoiler alert for the dumb dumbs who don’t know anything about Star Wars and are still somehow reading this) Darth Vader is Luke’s real father. Just look through YouTube for Darth Vader reveal videos and you can see that this twist still has tremendous power to shock, and the great sin of watching the prequels first is that its power will get completely nullified (in inferior movies nonetheless).
3. EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI
Thanks to some furry creatures taking out the best ground troops of the Empire this film has gotten a little bit of flak in recent years. And compared to all the Star Wars movies (including the prequels) this film has suffered the most from the need for resolution. The first half of the movie is strictly devoted to wrapping up the cliffhanger at the end of Empire and getting the gang back together. And then so much time is devoted to making sure that all the major relationships in this series has some emotional payoff, whether it is Luke and his father, Luke and his (spoiler) newly discovered sister Leia, or Han and Leia. It’s no wonder then that there’s no time to develop an original threat for our heroes to face so they shoehorn a Death Star again. It is also at this juncture that I differ the most with the “Machete-order” now. The Machete-order calls for a break between Episode V and VI and to insert the prequel trilogy in between (Effectively IV-V-I-II-III-VI). This made sense when Return of the Jedi was the end of the Star Wars saga as we knew it as it ensured that (a) Luke’s arc remains central to the story and (b) we ended the saga on the high of a victorious Rebellion in Episode VI rather than the crushing despair of an ascendant Empire in Episode III. But this is an issue that the new trilogy has solved as we now know that Luke’s arc continues and the threat of ending on a downer is no longer there. So it makes more sense to restore the original trilogy to its full glory, and work our way from there.
4. (Optional) EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE
It is at this point that one needs to gauge the enthusiasm of the people watching for the first time because there is going to be an appreciable dip in quality once you enter the prequel trilogy. When The Force Awakens was released I said that the phenomenal success of that movie effectively rendered the prequels to the realm of appendices for uber fans, and I still hold that to be true. So if you are strapped for time or you find yourself an enthusiastic but less-than-rapturous audience, then by all means do yourself a favour and skip the prequels and jump straight into The Force Awakens. But there is a further argument to be made that even if you should dive into the prequels that The Phantom Menace still remains skippable. This is because it is in a race to the bottom with Attack of the Clones as the absolute worst Star Wars movie ever but is further disadvantaged by being inessential to the saga as a whole. There are no essential characters introduced in this chapter that don’t get introduced later in the prequels and even the two main characters who die in this edition (Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul) have a shockingly small imprint in the rest of the prequels. Plus skipping this reduces your Jar Jar Binks exposure by about 75% and that cannot be anything but a good thing. But if you are a completionist (like myself) then this is the point in which to indulge in Episode I.
5. EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES
An additional advantage to skipping The Phantom Menace is that you won’t have to subject yourself to TWO bad Star Wars movies in a row. This is because unfortunately Attack of the Clones is not much better and is arguably worse than The Phantom Menace. We replace the annoying canker sore that was Jar Jar Binks with the emo-lite pouting of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin and I honestly can’t tell which is worse. But while The Phantom Menace was for the most part a throwaway adventure Episode II is slightly more essential to the larger mythos of Star Wars. Here we get the introduction of the fabled Clone Wars, the establishment of the relationship between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin, the romance between Luke and Leia’s eventual parents, and the hint of the darkness inside Anakin that will inevitably consume him. But as in The Phantom Menace, these four themes are also developed in better ways in Revenge of the Sith. If it wasn’t for the fact that this is an actual movie in the canon rather than the next item on this list I think I could still convince myself to skip it altogether. In fact, as I write this I might have just about convinced myself to relegate this movie to “Optional” status personally. But it might still be essential viewing for the newbie fan.
6. (Optional) STAR WARS: CLONE WARS (TV Series)
The only reason that I’m making this optional viewing is because of its prohibitive length at 129 episodes. But this phenomenal series helped make the world of the Old Republic look more compelling and fleshed out than anything the first two movies of the prequel trilogy accomplished. Following a large cast of characters but focusing mostly on Anakin’s padawan Asuka, the series managed to compellingly portray Anakin as a heroic but flawed person as well as illuminate the Jedi Order and in the process make them look like a badass clan of warriors. While the general tone of the series might turn of Star Wars purists, if you get pass that (and have roughly three days to spare) then Clone Wars is an absolute hoot. At the very least popping in an episode or two is the perfect break in your marathon while waiting for that pizza to arrive.
7. EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH
The problem with the prequels is that George Lucas for some inexplicable reason decided to save all the major events that fans had been curious about for the final feature. The result is a packed movie with all the greatest hits of previously unexplored Star Wars mythology: Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader. His climactic battle between his old friend Obi-Wan. The end of the clone wars. The dissolution of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire and Emperor Palpatine. The destruction of the Jedi order. The birth of Luke and Leia. Simply by delivering satisfying depictions of all the above events, the movie by default becomes the best of the prequels. And due to the significance of those events it is also the only essential movie of the prequel trilogy. In fact I’m pretty sure that if we provide some background info to some prequel specific characters in the movie (Princess Amidala and Mace Windu in particular) we could dispense with the rest of the prequels altogether leaving us with this pretty good, if very dark, Star Wars movie.
8. (Optional) STAR WARS: REBELS
Confession time: This series’ debut coincided almost perfectly with my daughter’s birth so as of yet I’ve only seen less that a half dozen episodes in passing (which, as a life-long Star Wars fan, feels like a betrayal somehow). Set in between Revenge and A New Hope it details the slow rise of the Rebellion and while I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, it hasn’t seemed like essential viewing (but please, do correct me if I’m wrong and I will hop on that bandwagon in an instant). This could be due perhaps to the lack of a Skywalker in the majority of proceedings, or maybe because the inter-Trilogy period hasn’t fascinated me as much or needed as much redemption in the public eye as the prequels did. In any case, uber fans will naturally want to include these stories here. But those pressed for time should look elsewhere.
9. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
When this movie came out, which details the Rebellion’s quest to get its hands on the blueprints for the first Death Star, some erroneously suggested that this should be the first movie to watch especially because it ends just as A New Hope begins. Those people would be wrong however, and you don’t need to look any further than the title to see why. It’s called “A Star Wars Story” meaning that it’s set in the Star Wars universe but not actually part of the Episodic series and therefore by default cannot be the introduction to the Star Wars universe. This is also the one movie that requires prior knowledge in the universe for it to be effective at even the most basic level. Darth Vader’s appearance is only chilling because of all that we know about him. Similarly this movie rewards us with little Easter eggs like the appearance of Red Squadron at the final climactic battle which only makes sense if we remember their key role at the end of A New Hope. And while the movie also retroactively fixes some plot holes in A New Hope, there is nothing absolutely essential that it adds to that movie (because as I stated upfront, A New Hope is truly the only stand-alone movie in the series). But I place it at this point in the viewing order because we need a tonal transition from the end of the bleak Revenge of the Sith to the optimistic energy that drives The Force Awakens. And in that sense Rogue One is the perfect bridge as it canonically follows Revenge and yet by the end anticipates the destruction of the Empire.
10. EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS
And with that we come to the effective passing of the torch from one generation of Star Wars to the next as Han, Leia, and Luke make way for Finn, Rey, Poe, and Kylo respectively in an instalment that feels instantly familiar and yet thoroughly modern. Much like A New Hope all those years ago, The Force Awakens is the necessary gateway into this new trilogy (and whatever spinoffs and one-shots happen to be set in this time period) as he introduces the major players, powers, and themes that will carry this new trilogy forward. In addition, after spending some time in the green-screen filled prequel trilogy, the movie also serves as a resetting of the more lived-in aesthetic that helped make the original trilogy so compelling to look at. While J.J. Abrams’ movie has been accused of mining too much for nostalgia and not necessarily taking the series in new directions (ANOTHER planet destroying ship for the bad guys!), one cannot help but admit that he was extremely effective in that endeavour and that he successfully created the platform for the new movies to build on.
11. EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI
As of writing, I have nothing substantial to contribute about this movie other than the same giddy enthusiasm that the rest of the fan community is going through. But I suspect that no one is going to object to me placing the movie here in the order.