The single most frustrating aspect of prequel criticism is the perpetuation of two competing stereotypes that form the foundation for many complaints. Often in the same breath, critics will deride the prequels for making Star Wars a political bore while also complaining that the films embarrassed the original trilogy with silly, childish content. If it isn’t one or the other, it’s probably neither.
The poster child for the supposed immaturity is, of course, Jar Jar Binks, the most reviled character in the series. To have his detractors describe him, he resulted from market research designed to maximize action-figure sales. But this argument presupposes both a lack of precedent for such a character in the original trilogy and an inarguable perception that Jar Jar embodies the juvenile prequels. Neither is true, at least not to an unimpeachable extent.
George Lucas dismissed criticism of the character as a retread of the flak he received for C-3PO, the template for the annoying tagalong. There are also shades of Binks in Wicket and the Ewoks, though ironically Return of the Jedi has been victimized by contradictory critical reception as well. While arguing the merits of Jar Jar, it’s easy to lose sight that the prequels aren’t “kiddy.” Lucas geared the films to children, just as he did with the original trilogy, but they appeal to adults as well. Comparing the decidedly lighter The Phantom Menace to The Empire Strikes Back is a bit of a false equivalency because any prequel implications derived are undermined by the fact that Revenge of the Sith is, to this point, the darkest film in the entire series.
It’s laughable that a film featuring a person halved by a lightsaber mere moments after stabbing someone through the chest could be deemed childish. The same could be said for the slaughtering of an entire village in Attack of the Clones and murdering legions of Jedi, including innocent children, in Revenge of the Sith. (Incidentally, I always cringed at referring to the young Jedi as “younglings” until it was pointed out that Lucas probably didn’t want to inundate audiences without explicitly saying “murdered kids.”)
Refuting the notion that the prequels are childish does not preclude the possibility that they are boring. This is a bit more subjective, but not impossible to argue against. At times, the films appeal to the policy wonks among the audience, but they rarely feel like a galactic C-SPAN as often argued.
The flaws in this critical argumentation are numerous, but the most fatal stems from projecting an exaggerated criticism across the entire prequel trilogy. Like Jar Jar, the trade dispute primarily featured in The Phantom Menace. Yet critics have lumped all of the prequels together in order to complain that Lucas created a series of films about ‘boring space taxes.’ God forbid a film series that would ultimately reveal how a grand republic would become a ruthless empire broach the issue of politics.
The biggest subplot of the entire trilogy is how a force-sensitive political rogue gamed the system to accrue authority while grooming a powerful Jedi to help him execute his ultimate power grab. In such a story, sometimes political dialogue is necessary, especially since the same critics who exaggeratedly bemoaned the scripts’ wonkiness would likely mock attempts to provide procedural exposition during action sequences. The prequels didn’t violate the spirit of Star Wars with politics because no one consciously kept them out of the original trilogy, they just were not necessary. In fact, allusions to the senate and empire validate expounding upon those ideas in the backstory.
If the prequels offend your adult sensibilities, fine. Seems a bit heavy-handed but you’re entitled to your opinion. But if you cry immaturity and then switch gears to bemoan the bore of their political content, it becomes hypocritical. Nuance would greatly help these criticisms, but the hyperbole forbids it. I could agree to disagree with someone who dislikes portions of the films as too childish or boring. But blanket, contradictory statements deserve a sharp rebuke.