The High Ground: Moral Ambiguity in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The following essay is my final paper for my Media Contexts class at Northwestern. The prompt was to look at the importance of context in the meaning of any movie, and, naturally, I chose to explore Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Enjoy!

Sitting alongside Anakin Skywalker during a pivotal scene in the 2005 Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith, powerful politician Sheev Palpatine converses with the impressionable Jedi Knight over Skywalker’s devotion to the morally upright Jedi Order. “Good is simply a point of view,” Palpatine cautions Anakin, hoping to weaken Anakin’s emotional ties to the Jedi for Palpatine’s own devious purposes. It’s a train of thought foreign to the traditionally black-and-white Star Wars universe, and that theme of moral ambiguity, of the difficulties in discerning right from wrong, serves as the core of the final installment of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. Through this paper, I will argue that Revenge of the Sith’s opposition to the hegemonic norms of Hollywood storytelling creates the opportunity for the moral ambiguities that drive emotional investment in Anakin Skywalker, a fallen protagonist.

Revenge of the Sith’s context amid media culture demonstrates why it was such an ambitious and jarring undertaking. From its inception, Revenge of the Sith brushed up against hegemonic norms. Hegemony consists of the common sense thinking and values of a dominant group in a society, one fortified through lived experience (Williams). Within Hollywood, those norms manifest themselves in the concept of the hero’s journey. Conceived by Joseph Campbell in the 1949 book Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey promotes a streamlined structure of storytelling, also known as the monomyth, that conglomerates aspects of stories throughout historical eras to create what Campbell perceived as the fundamental arc of a great story. Campbell’s writings were a key influence on Lucas while writing the original Star Wars (Lucas even called Campbell his “Yoda”), and the film’s adherence to Campbell structure brought those ideas to the mainstream (Bancks). In the case of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas could not rely on the hero’s journey structure because his task in telling Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader focused on a fallen hero rather than a redeemed and moral one. In addition to having to write a fundamentally different character arc than the Hollywood norm, Lucas faced the hegemonic norm of disdain for a morally corrupt character or villain. He chose to address this norm by creating a protagonist, Anakin Skywalker, who has compelling moral values but is torn by moral ambiguity and conflicting interests. 

The juxtaposition of Revenge of the Sith with the hegemonic Hollywood culture also brings the role of audience interpretation to the forefront. The moral quandaries Lucas sought are antithetical to the hypodermic needle theory of communication, prevalent for much of the 20th century in media spheres and promoted by critics such as F.R. Leavis. The hypodermic needle theory proposes that audiences receive one message from a media object, and in doing so denies audience agency or room for interpretation. In the film medium specifically, Leavis wrote that movies “involve surrender, under the conditions of hypnotic receptivity” and are simply “passive diversion” (Leavis). Lucas challenges this theory head-on in Revenge of the Sith, a film in which emotional investment is a direct result of audience agency. By posing his protagonist with conflicting interests and no true moral path, Lucas renders a clear-cut interpretation impossible. Instead, Revenge of the Sith aligns much more closely with the concept of an active consumer furthered by Michel De Certeau. To De Certeau, a reader or spectator of a text “invents from the texts something different from what they intended” and interacts with the story from a unique and personal perspective (De Certeau). Those readers can also “poach”, or find meaning in ways that may be against the creator’s intention or “right interpretation” and similarly exhibit agency (De Certeau). In Revenge of the Sith, this interaction with the text generates the emotional investment and nuance in Anakin as audiences interpret his decisions and weigh his priorities, in a way that is impossible under the hypodermic needle theory.

The film opens Anakin’s character arc with a test that exposes the moral turmoil brewing within. In a mission to save Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, Anakin duels Sith Lord Count Dooku, ultimately beating Dooku and holding both of their lightsabers to Dooku’s throat. “Kill him,” Palpatine urges, and Anakin resists, conflicted between eliminating his enemy and honoring the Jedi Code. Palpatine persists and Anakin gives in, graphically beheading Dooku. Anakin immediately expresses regret, telling Palpatine “it is not the Jedi way,” to which Palpatine justifies the killing by saying Dooku was “too dangerous to be kept alive” and reminding Anakin that Dooku cut off his hand. Anakin’s disturbing killing presents a darker side of a protagonist presented as fundamentally good, and plants the seed in his mind that he can justify wrongdoing if it is for supposedly moral reasons. However, Anakin’s choice to carry his friend Obi-Wan off the ship reassures the spectator that Anakin is still a good person and one worth investing in emotionally. 

As the film progresses, Anakin struggles further with tensions between himself and the rigid Jedi Code. After rescuing Palpatine, Anakin learns that his wife, the Senator Padmé Amidala, is expecting a baby. The marriage goes against the Jedi Code and Padmé’s pregnancy widens this divide, though Anakin receives the news warmly. These internal feelings surface when Anakin faces the Jedi Council after Palpatine chooses Anakin as his personal representative. Jedi Mace Windu tells Anakin that he is on the council but will not hold the corresponding rank of master, prompting Anakin to lash out that it is “outrageous” and “unfair.” Anakin then apologizes (mirroring his redemption in the earlier scene), but the damage is done. Anakin expresses his frustration with the Jedi Council’s restriction of his unrivaled Force powers and its opposition to his hidden marriage and remarks on the contrast between the unfair Council and Palpatine, who empowers Anakin by legitimizing his feelings and empowering him with responsibilities. The divide shifts Anakin’s perspective of the Jedi, who he saw as a young boy as the most moral people in the galaxy, and tilts his allegiances further toward Palpatine. His response, validated in the eyes of spectators by his understandable emotions and motives, makes him a more accessible and rational protagonist (though audiences could certainly read the Jedi’s caution as being a more rational solution).

These conflicts of interest escalate until Anakin faces the most direct test of his allegiances — the revelation that Chancellor Palpatine is a Sith Lord. Anakin’s immediate reaction to Palpatine’s hidden identity is one reflective of his Jedi ways — he holds his lightsaber to the throat of the only father figure in his life and says he would “certainly like to” kill Palpatine. Despite Anakin’s hostility to Palpatine’s identity, Anakin cannot compel himself to kill the Sith Lord because Palpatine promised to show Anakin how to save Padmé’s life, appealing to Anakin’s greatest fears, and has been the one person receptive to his struggles. Anakin must choose whether to do what is in accordance with the Jedi Code despite his frustrations, or do what he knows to be evil to accomplish the greatest good he can think of — saving Padmé from “certain death.” This moral quandary invites the spectator to wrestle with this question and come to their own interpretation, but the conflict of two morally good but mutually exclusive choices make Anakin a character worthy of empathy either way. Anakin ultimately delays his decision, sparing Palpatine’s life but threatening to turn his friend over to the Jedi.

Anakin’s decision, the climax of the prequels, is one he can not delay for long. Anakin tells Mace Windu of Palpatine’s identity, but Mace again shuts Anakin out when he requests to accompany the Jedi and instead sends him to the temple. In this calm before the storm, Lucas alternates mirroring shots of Anakin, tears trickling down his face, and Padmé, signifying the obsessive need Anakin feels to protect her after he suffered the devastating loss of his mother. Possessed by his emotions, Anakin breaks orders and takes off for Palpatine’s office. 

Anakin arrives to see Mace Windu holding a lightsaber to Palpatine’s throat, presenting him with a final decision to make between Padmé and the Jedi. Windu tells him that Palpatine is too dangerous to be kept alive despite the Jedi Code, reversing the roles of Anakin’s earlier killing of Dooku. Windu’s words allow Anakin to entertain Palpatine’s perspective that the Jedi are “trying to take over”, and Anakin slashes Windu’s arm as he goes to strike. Anakin cries in remorse after Windu falls out of the window, but his reaction after this decision compels him to fully commit to saving Padmé and embracing the Dark Side. Anakin has chosen the evil path, a far departure from the hero’s journey arc of the hegemonic storytelling structure. However, the moral ambiguity Lucas has created in conflicting Anakin’s two allegiances allows for multiple valid interpretations, both for and against, Anakin’s turn.

His protagonist already corrupted, Lucas spends the final act of the film testing the spectator’s connection with Anakin by pitting him against every allegiance he has held until his humanity runs out and he becomes a machine. Anakin’s first act as the newly coronated Darth Vader is to slaughter young children in the Jedi Temple, literally killing the innocence of the young Jedi who look up to him and, figuratively, his own innocence. A fully-pregnant Padmé, the very reason Anakin turned to the Dark Side, confronts him in hopes of bringing him back to the Light Side and offers to run away together. Anakin instead chokes and weakens her when she rejects his quest for greater power and says she does not “know him anymore.” The final person on Anakin’s side, his master Obi-Wan Kenobi, engages him in a lightsaber battle in one last fight for Anakin’s soul on the lava planet Mustafar. After the two duel across a river, Obi-Wan lands on a bank and declares the battle over, telling Anakin that he has “the high ground.” Anakin foolishly attempts the jump and Obi-Wan slices his legs off, then watches as Anakin is burned by the lava and loses his last shred of humanity. Despite his wicked crimes, the spectator is still emotionally invested in Anakin until the end because his virtuous heart has been established, even if his perspective and moral compass has been warped by Palpatine. Even though his fate as Darth Vader was known as the opening credits began, that investment and interaction with the text makes Anakin’s fall a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Contrary to the Revenge of the Sith’s 1977 predecessor A New Hope, a hero’s journey fable with clear distinctions between the light and dark side, George Lucas faced two unique storytelling challenges in crafting Revenge of the Sith: the ability to tell a compelling story in which the audience knows the ending and the need to invert the hero’s journey to tell the tale of Anakin Skywalker’s corruption. Lucas overcomes both by blurring the lines between good and evil and engaging audiences through empathy for its fallen protagonist. The result is a riveting film that, unlike its Hollywood counterparts, leaves its central questions without definitive answers and varying interpretations possible. In doing so, Revenge of the Sith begs us to take a closer look at the existing constructs of right and wrong that are not from a galaxy far, far away.

Citations

Bancks, T. (2003). Beyond the hero’s journey: ‘Joseph [Campbell] is my Yoda.’–George Lucas (1). Retrieved June 06, 2020, from https://go-gale-com.turing.library.northwestern.edu/ps/i.do?&id=GALE|A112130487&v=2.1&u=northwestern&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w

De Certeau, Michel. “Reading as Poaching.” The Practice Of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1984.

Leavis, F. (1994 – Journal Publication). Mass Civilization and Minority Culture. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture.

Lucas, George, director. Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. 20th Century Fox, 2005.

Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure.” Media and Cultural Studies, 2001.

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