The Phantom Menace is integral to the Star Wars saga, because it foreshadows Anakin’s entire journey. It reveals his strength that saved a galaxy, and his love that brought it hope. It also shows that his weakness isn’t a penchant for sadism, or mere raw anger or hatred. The Phantom Menace explains how Anakin could return in Return of the Jedi after all those years as Vader. The saga is about Anakin’s rise, fall and redemption. The Phantom Menace hints at it all.
When Star Wars first premiered we knew nothing of Vader but we did hear intriguing things about the Jedi Knights. Guardians of peace and justice and Anakin was one of them. We knew Vader had been one as well, but betrayed them. By The Empire Strikes Back we found that Vader really wasn’t the number one bad guy. He bent the knee to the Emperor. The end of the movie left it with the shock of his revelation which you could consider a lie. Only in Return of the Jedi did he become a Jedi again. We see him willingly give his life for his son.
So when the prequels came out, any older fan paying attention to the news discovered this movie would reveal how Anakin fell to the Dark Side. Who was this complicated man? How does a man willing to sacrifice himself become a mass murderer? As for the newcomers, to watch The Phantom Menace first, you can find hints of the entire journey right here in the beginning.
A Mother’s Lasting Influence
His mother Shmi explains much about Anakin. In a world where she is a slave, where compassion and courage are discouraged in favor of look out for yourself, she exemplified the opposite. She was brave and generous to let her son race for the Jedi and the Queen. It was courageous and generous because she knew that to do any less would be telling him that there were times when fear and self preservation were stronger than compassion. She was rewarded by her son’s freedom. She bravely let him go with the Jedi in hopes he would have a better life.
Anakin’s faith in the Jedi is almost immediately shaken. Except for the Qui-Gon the rest of the Jedi just dismiss him. He naturally sees no reason why his legitimate fears for his Mother should affect his training. To him, it’s a private matter. They hardly tried to explain it to him. Soon after his confidence that Jedi can’t be killed is shattered as well. Qui-Gon Jinn is murdered by the Sith.
His own success in the battle feeds his pride, but also shakes his confidence because he was unable to protect those who mattered most. Here is the foreshadowing. He had to choose to leave his Mom to join the Jedi. But only the one Jedi wanted him, so he ends up alone, however briefly. But Obi-Wan honors his promise to Qui-Gon, and with the proof of Anakin’s gifts, the Council agrees (however reluctantly) to train him. Someday Padme will take his Mother’s place in the family slot.
The Impossible Choice in Revenge of the Sith
This impossible choice between love of his family and desire to be a Jedi and the duties that come with it (as well as it’s traditions) are ultimately what destroys him. Palpatine’s shadow is here as well. “We will watch your career with great interest,” he says to Anakin. And as Qui-Gon’s body burns on the funeral pyre, between Anakin and Palpatine stand Obi-Wan and Padme. The man who would’ve guided him lies dead. The Jedi and family are the protections what Palpatine, the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, will need to remove to get at young Anakin and break him. He has already removed Qui-Gon Jinn through his servant, Maul.
Shmi, Padme, Obi-Wan and Palpatine are the foundation of his identity. All have an influence. They all need to be removed for Palpatine to have control over him. The Jedi’s rule of no attachments is exactly the tool he will use to manipulate one against the other. This is confirmed as no idol threat or promise as by Attack of the Clones, Anakin is comfortable in his office and when congratulated on his new assignment comments how Palpatine’s “guidance” had helped him so far. So as Obi-Wan tries to guide Anakin on the proper path, the Sith already has sunk his hooks in.
Groundwork for Redemption in Return of the Jedi
The Phantom Menace explains how Anakin is able to return to the light. Luke becoming a Jedi resolved the divide in Anakin between his duty to family and duty to Jedi. He forced him to remember what he’d been fighting for when he thought all was lost. It explains why he held back in battle in The Empire Strikes Back and why there is regret in his voice ‘It’s too late for me, son” in Return of the Jedi. Luke has reminded him that he accepted the Dark Side not to destroy, but to save. And all he had accomplished by turning was the former.
Remembering the Child who dreamed of being a Jedi
He has accepted that he lost himself and everything he was fighting for. The boy who never gave up had become a man who gave up. He had nothing left to fight for, no dreams and nothing to truly love or that loved him. His relationship to Palpatine by now was more familiarity then friendship. He wanted to destroy the man who destroyed him but was quite aware he really would be alone when (or if) he accomplished it. But it isn’t until Luke shows him that he sees there is a way out of the dark that he can free himself. He has to stop thinking of what he lost, of his own pain, and truly see his son is everything that he’d been fighting to save.
The Phantom Menace has foreshadowed and explained all of this. Loving loyalty to family clashes with his dreams and duty as a Jedi. He loses his family by choosing the Jedi (Shmi), he loses the Jedi (Qui-Gon) but in so doing gains his dream of becoming one because the others accept him. This is a cycle that repeats in his life.
Anakin loses his identity when the choice tears him apart. He loses the Jedi by choosing his wife, sacrificing not only them but his very self. For every Jedi he murdered, he killed the boy who dreamed of being a Jedi and wanted to serve and protect. This in turn kills her. Whatever the mechanics of it, their desire to serve and protect was one of the bonds between them. But in the end, his son, by becoming a Jedi, heals that wound. And in regaining both the Jedi and his family, Anakin becomes himself again.
The Phantom Menace isn’t expendable. It’s foundational. This story isn’t about starships or lasers, but about people, families, love and dreams, loss, hope and redemption. Take away this chapter and you lose some of it’s essence. Take this part away and you lose what makes Anakin redeemable in the first place.
The Phantom Menace also provided excellent starting point for the opening of a previously closed era of the Expanded Universe. While you don’t need any of it to enjoy the movie or the saga, it was long awaited for those who do. George Lucas had forbidden exploring this era until he released the prequels.
We got Episode 1 Adventures (I’m still trying to even find these to sample them) for kids. There were Episode 1 journals told from the character’s point of view.
The entire series of Jedi Apprentice young adult books spun out a brief moment of Obi-Wan’s shock at Qui-Gon casually ready to release him to the Jedi Trials and take young Anakin. Turns out Qui-Gon didn’t pick Obi-Wan as padawan at first. At first he resisted him. That too spun out into years of apprenticeship until it was time to switch over to Anakin’s relationship with Obi-Wan as the Attack of the Clones came out.
Adult books explored events leading up to The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan shared an adventure. Darth Maul pursued a Jedi and a reluctant dealer of rare items as they raced to warn the Jedi of the Sith plot. Later we also got Darth Plaguies, detailing the truth of how Anakin came to be (and he wasn’t created by the Sith.)
Comic books explored the Jedi and their adventures right before and after Palpatine became Chancellor. Darth Maul got a short mini arc of his own where he takes on Black Sun criminals.
These let you race pods, battle for or against Naboo, play as Obi-Wan in events before and throughout the movie. You could even help build whole ecosystems for a Gungan Colony.