Why Ranking Things is Dumb/LET'S RANK STAR WARS!
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I've been so delinquent in getting my thoughts on The Force Awakens out there, I'm going to skip doing a traditional "review" of the movie and instead just jump into discussing the movie with my fully armed and operations geekitude.

On Star Wars Power Rankings

What is it about people that we constantly feel the need to rank things? From Moses bringing down the 10 Commandments (those are totally ranked, people) to today's Buzzfeed "listicle" culture, rankings seem to be a go-to device for popular discussion.

Our favorite sports team wins a championship, we instantly rush to compare them against previous winners. We listen to our favorite band's new album, we instantly do some mental gymnastics to see how the new work stacks up against that band's previous works. We rank everything from our favorite books and restaurants to ranking our kids. (Blogpost sidebar: don't effing lie... you ALL do this).

Is it biological? Is there something in our brain that likes ordering items? My dad used to be a big believer in the principle that "nature abhors a vacuum." But maybe our need to rank things is because nature abhors a mess and ranking things is a quick and easy way to get rid of the mess.

Is it more psychological and a want for validation? We want what we want what we really, really want, but we also want the stuff we want to be liked by lots of people. The more people who like the stuff we like, the more power the stuff we like has. And if we're lucky, the more people that like something, the more likely it is that we'll get more of what we want.

Take it away, ladies...

There's also an analytic side of ranking things. When we rank things, we are instantly forced to analyze what we're seeing. And sometimes, through that process, we're able to fully see the stuff we like in new and interesting ways, even if it's to the detriment (from a ranking perspective) of the stuff we're analyzing. In other words, I may say I like something, but once I start comparing it to other things I like, I realize I didn't like it as much (or maybe I like it more) than I thought I did.

(Blogpost Sidebar: this happened with Man of Steel. I loved Man of Steel immediately after seeing it, but surely it wasn't as good as Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, which is a gold standard for superhero movies and a movie that still makes me kind of get all goosebumpy. It wasn't until I started comparing the two works that I realized while I love Donner's Superman, Man of Steel was the Superman movie I'd always wanted to see and the one that speaks more to me and where I am with my life now.)

Before watching The Force Awakens, I was really preoccupied with "ranking anxiety" about where the new movie would sit among the 6 movies that came before it. From the images we saw in the trailers, I guessed that it would be better than the prequel trilogy but not as good as the original movies. But if we're being completely honest, we've been burned by seemingly great footage before. But the footage shown in the various trailers looked special. But could The Force Awakens possibly be on par with the original movies, which I revere with a kind of religious fundamentalist fanaticism? Could it be better than the original 1977 movie? Better than Jedi? Better than *gasp* Empire? Surely not, but... maybe?

I was trying to go into the movie with as little built up expectation as I could. I didn't want my bar set too high, and I didn't want it set too low. I worked hard to calibrate my expectations to a state of equilibrium. But once the morning of December 18th came around, all bets were off.

Basically, me before The Force Awakens:

I think I was suffering through so much "ranking anxiety," that it negatively impacted my first viewing experience. I'd watch a scene of Poe and Finn piloting a TIE-Fighter, for example, and my brain would instantly attempt to put that scene into some kind of series order. "Okay... that's a good scene. Not as good as the Death-Star trench run or the opening space battle of Sith, but certainly better than the Millennium Falcon escaping Tatooine in A New Hope." I did this the whole movie. Scene after scene, character after character... music, direction, hairstyles; all ranked.

It wasn't until my second go 'round with The Force Awakens that I kind of just relaxed a bit. Where does The Force Awakens rank? My answer: I honestly don't care anymore.

Instead of spending the second watch-thru comparing and contrasting The Force Awakens to the previous 6 movies, I spent the second watch-thru better appreciating just how rich a tapestry the Star Wars saga really is. I mean, think about it, this is a 15+ plus hour movie series about family, god, good vs evil, and legacies (among other things). It's rare to find a series of this length that is basically one continuous story. James Bond and Star Trek are series comprised of standalone movies.

That's even true, although to a lesser extent, with the Marvel movies. There are events that play off one another and themes that weave through each of the Marvel movies, but they're all essentially loosely linked "one-off" stories. At best, the only continuity you get in the Marvel movies is within individual character franchises. But Thor's movie has very little to do (as a story) with Iron Man 2, even though Iron Man 2 loosely references the events of Thor.

But Star Wars is unique because it's one grand, epic narrative where everything is connected as one big, broad story. And on top of all that, it's freaking fun as Hell!

Yes, I even count the prequels in that. It's fun and easy to bash the prequels, but even that story has more depth and wisdom than a lot of blockbusters that have come out since. In their own stupid way, they say more about how a good kid goes bad than most other superior movies that have come out since. Most movies don't spend a lot of time showing how a good guy goes bad. Star Wars put 3 movies into exploring that theme. Were they disappointing? Yes. But they still attempted something unique. (Blogpost sidebar: I like what the X-Men franchise has done with exploring Magneto's rise.)

So I think the need and want to rank these movies kind of misses the point. These are chapters in an ongoing book and if you remove any one piece, it's not a complete story. You don't really rank chapters, you follow them.

(Blogpost Sidebar: I'm curious to see how future generations view these movies once the notion that release order and story order are a little more blurred. The issues The Phantom Menace and the other prequels have might be a little more excusable and easy to look past when they're viewed more as chapters of a larger story, than as an affront to everything that is good and righteous about the Star Wars universe)

If you remove any individual piece of this story, it's not as strong. Anakin Skywalker going apeshit and slaughtering a bunch of Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones has reverberations through the series all the way until you see Kylo Ren go apeshit on a First Order Star Destroyer control panel. If you don't see how Anakin's powerlessness drives him to seize control of everything around him in the prequel trilogy, it makes his eventual return to the side of good and love that much less powerful in Return of the Jedi.

Yeah, the prequel movies put some holes in the quilt. But for me, at this point, I'm just grateful for the quilt itself. Take those holey panels away, it's not the same quilt.

Let's move beyond ranking things...

The "me" who wrote the above nonsense has his head up his own ass

...still here?

Good! I'm glad. I thought the "me" above would never shut the (redacted) up. Not ranking the Star Wars movies? Are you (redacted)ing kidding me? "People have a psychological and biological need to rank things blah blah blah blah."

What "Mr. Head Up His Own Ass" failed to say above is that another reason people rank things is BECAUSE IT'S FUN! If I'm not ranking these movies, I don't really have a purpose and reason to live. Rankings things and debating things is how we give meaning to otherwise meaningless activities. And if meaningless activities remain meaningless, the very nature of our lives inches closer and closer pointlessness.

Enough with the navel gazing. Let's get to it. There's a good ol' fashioned 'rankin' to do. Here's how I rank these movies, starting with 7th and working my way to 1st.

The Star Wars movies are more than just movies to me, so I feel compelled to establish some kind of metric to better help me wade through each movie:

  • How it works as a narrative? This is the nuts and bolts "big picture" of the movie, taking into account its story, storytelling, direction, acting, music, etc.

  • How has this movie impacted the culture?

  • How it's held up over the years. How does this movie play on the 50th viewing?

  • X(wing) Factors. This is a catch-all. How the CG looks, how it's been referenced in other works, etc.

7. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace


If you had no knowledge of Star Wars and someone were to describe this movie to you, it'd sound pretty amazing:
Facing a potential war, a young Queen enlists the help of Obi Wan Kenobi and his Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Upon escaping a space blockade, they crash on Tatooine and enlist the help of a young slave named Anakin Skywalker. The young Skywalker is already a hotshot pilot and has shown extraordinary force potential. As they prepare to leave Tatooine, the Jedi learn that the Sith have returned and the Jedi are lucky to escape with their lives. The young queen petitions the corrupt Republic Senate for help. After it's clear the Senate would rather not get involved, the young queen, her two Jedi protectors, a newly freed Anakin Skywalker, return to Naboo to enlist the help of a primitive water based civilization as they confront their oppressors.

See? That's a movie I want to see. The fact that it doesn't work falls exclusively on George Lucas's flannel shirted shoulders. Everything that's wrong with this movie compounds on top of itself. The script was clunky and without punch. The acting ventured between being too wooden (Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor), too hammy (Jar Jar, Jake Lloyd) and too bland (Chancellor Palpatine). There are some decent visual cues in this, but without a solid story, those visual cues feel empty and sometimes pointless. These have always been movies that weigh visuals over verbose data, so when you have neither, you have an empty movie.


Ultimately, very negatively. While I once enjoyed (and occasionally still do) The Phantom Menace, this movie was the beginning of the end for the Star Wars movies. For the first time in Star Wars' existence, the product was really, really sub-par and everyone knew it.


George Lucas always said that it wasn't until he saw the computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that he realized that the technology was there to make his prequel trilogy. Lucas saying that carries an implication that he was waiting on the technology to spark his creative energies, instead of relying on the germ of a brilliant idea to spark the technology, as was the case in 1977. So before it was even made,The Phantom Menace was always a movie that placed visuals above storytelling. As the movie's aged and the Special Effects become less "special," the movie has become kind of an empty vessel. As I've said, there are ideas and scenes (and even an inkling of depth here and there) that work well, but the movie has not aged well.

X(wing) FACTORS:

I haven't even really mentioned Jar Jar Binks or the bad racial stereotypes littered throughout this movie. They make maybe an otherwise excusably bad movie into an inexcusably bad one. Plus, who had the bright idea to give Obi Wan Kenobi a rat-tail haircut?

Damning evidence:

6. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones


With Attack of the Clones, George Lucas appeared to have heard all of our The Phantom Menace complaints and tried to at least address and/or rectify some of our issues. There's less Jar Jar, no midichlorian talk, slightly snappier banter, and seemingly less fat.

Similarly to above, if someone were to describe the plot to Attack of the Clones, it'd sound like one of the best movies ever:
As danger grows across the Republic, a young senator survives an assassination attempt from a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows. Anakin Skywalker, now a young, promising Jedi is dispatched as her bodyguard. As time progresses, the young Skykwalker has to reconcile his growing feelings for Padme with his duties as a Jedi. Making matters worse are his nightly premonitions that the mother he left behind is in mortal danger. Meanwhile, while on a mission to find out who is behind the assassination attempts, the brave Jedi Knight Obi Wan Kenobi discovers that a dark, mysterious figure has ordered the creation of a Clone Army. As the Republic frays, the Jedi learn that the Sith are firmly in control and the Jedi can only react as the Sith start the galaxy-wide Clone Wars.
See? That's an amazing movie. Narratively speaking, the movie *should* work. The fact that it doesn't, again, falls on George Lucas not being able to fully weave all the separate parts of moviemaking into one coherent and enjoyable movie.


Unfortunately, wooden acting, an uneven script, and excess fat in the final third of the movie sink an otherwise promising first two thirds of the movie. The romance is just "okay," when it should really been one for the books. This should have been something that worked like the space opera version of Romeo and Juliet and not the space opera version of... well.. whatever this is:

Since The Phantom Menace got things off to a rough start, the good parts of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones weren't enough to cure the ill feelings fans felt towards the franchise. For every one thing it got right, it seemed to get two or three things wrong.


When Star Wars works best, it bubbles and pops with energy. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones feels like flat soda. You can taste what it's supposed to taste like, but it has no life.

X(wing) FACTORS:

The giant cockroach battle at the end has no oomph to it. For my money, it's the weakest battle scene in the entirety of the SW saga. Also, whereas the second movie of a trilogy is supposed to flip the script on the heroes and put their journeys in jeopardy, Attack of the Clones felt more like a bridge between two movies than one that radically puts the characters into challenging positions.

Again, who had the bright idea to give Obi Wan Kenobi a Jedi mullet? It's like George Lucas was taking pride in trolling his fans.

5. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith


Overall, not all that bad, actually. It's certainly the best of the prequel trilogy, but it's also the one prequel movie that feels the most like an original Star Wars movie. It has the coherent and forward moving narrative drive that the first two prequels movies lacked. It's issues fall more on the side of Lucas bungling key scenes instead of Lucas bungling everything altogether. So you'll have a scene or two that's a mess... or something that feels rushed, but everything on either side of it works okay.


Ultimately, I think fans were dually relieved that it at least felt like a Star Wars movie and that the prequel trilogy was finally over. All trilogies, no matter how expertly or poorly executed they end up being, are tiring endeavors. From a narrative standpoint, expecting fans to care about characters over the course of 6-7 years is pretty difficult. If the trilogy is a success (Lord of the Rings, for example), the last movie is a triumph that sends fans out feeling positively about film series. But make no mistake, it's still exhausting. But if the trilogy is not received well (I'm looking in your direction Matrix and Hobbit trilogies), you're kind of just relieved that they're over.

With Star Wars, although III was okay, most people were just kind of relieved that the trilogy was over and that they didn't have to really wrestle with the notion of putting their emotions in the hands of George Lucas anymore. So there was a sense of relief that it was over, but there was also a sense of "okay... let's shelve Star Wars for a while." Revenge of the Sith, while being pretty good in moments, kind of officially put the Star Wars franchise in a deep coma.


The stuff Revenge of the Sith gets right, it really gets right. And the stuff it gets wrong... they're more flesh wounds than mortal wounds like before. With ROTS being as close to the original movies as the prequel trilogy got, it's the prequel movie that's easily the most re-watchable. I think it's a fun one.

X(wing) FACTORS:

Say what you will about Lucas, I think he actually does listen to fan complaints and tries to improve on each movie based on the notes he gets from fans. I think I retroactively grant Lucas a little more leeway than most in the notion that directing is really, really hard. So I'm able to grant Lucas some leeway in shaking off the decades long rust he collected between 1977 and 1999. That it took him two movies to shake off that rust is annoying, but ROTS is the movie where it finally felt like the pieces aligned for everyone; fans (largely) got what we wanted, Lucas was able to give fans what they wanted, and Lucas himself was able to scratch whatever creative itches he was having.

Also, they finally got the Jedi hair right!

4. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens


Overall, pretty well, though I have some minor issues. The Force Awakens feels like an original trilogy Star Wars movie in nearly every single possible way. For that reason alone, it's a triumph. But on a story level, I feel that The Force Awakens has some issues that prevent it from truly belonging side by side next to the original trilogy movies.

I'll save my complaints on The Force Awakens for another blogpost. For now, I'm just glad that Star Wars is back in the hands of people who are able merge their creative urges with something that's pleasing to fans. I hope Disney and Lucasfilm continue to be bold with these stories.

The plot of The Force Awakens is perhaps the most simple of all the Star Wars movies, but the more I think about it, the more the depth of the movie comes out in new and interesting ways. I have this movie ranked as the 4th best Star Wars movie, but I wouldn't be surprised if this ranking changes (for better or worse) as we get more information in follow-up movies. (Blogpost sidebar: This is a casual admission that, at least subconsciously, I can't rank these movies in a vacuum. For a while, I had Sith and The Force Awakens tied. But the more I thought on it, the more benefit of the doubt I gave to where the new trilogy is going, and the more the first two prequel movies weighed down my perception of Revenge of the Sith.)


Amazingly. We all thought Star Wars was dead after Revenge of the Sith. The true miracle of this movie is that it both rejuvenated the series in the eyes of its longtime fans, but also introduced a whole new generation into the Star Wars saga.


TBD. It's gotten better each time I've seen it.

X(wing) FACTORS:

I love the new characters so much that I found the old characters to be mildly distracting. Nearly every time an older character would come on screen, I'd find myself kind of lamenting that we weren't seeing more of the newer group. The plot kind of took care of some of this for me. As I wrote in a previous essay, my preferred Star Wars is the one of knights and magic and not space cowboys running around shooting their pistols. This movie series is squarely in knights and magic terrain now.

3. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi


I think really, really well. The only drawback of this movie is the Ewoks stuff. But everything else feels like the culmination of two (in some respects, six) excellent movies. You have the final battle between the Empire and the Rebellion, as well as the amazing confrontation between Vader, the Emperor, and Luke. It's all lead to this.

I've engaged in a discussion or two about which should be ranked higher; The Force Awakens or Return of the Jedi. For me, there is no question. There is nothing in The Force Awakens that compares in heart or dramatic power to the stuff that takes place between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. I've written entire essays about how Return of the Jedi is almost sneakily as great thematically as The Empire Strikes Back. If not for those pesky Ewoks...


I've always felt there were two waves of original trilogy Star Wars fans. If you were born in the late 60s or early 70s, you saw these movies in the theater and were a little more wise by the time Jedi rolled around. If you were born in the late 70s or early 80s, it's likely that Jedi was your first entrance into the Star Wars galaxy. I'm in that latter camp. I know this is entirely unscientific, but most people I know who really got into Star Wars between 1983 and 1999 (when the prequels started) fall into that latter camp. I think Return of the Jedi's really did a kind of underrated job at selling this second wave of fans on the original movies.


A New Hope can drag on its 50th viewing, and The Empire Strikes Back is the fine wine you break out on special occasions, but I'd argue Return of the Jedi is the most watchable of all the Star Wars movies. Though I think The Force Awakens might be in that discussion, too.

X(wing) FACTORS:

I'm going to write a post about this at some point, but here's a thought experiment: take out Ewoks and sub in Wookies (with all that doing so would entail), is Return of the Jedi the best Star Wars movie? Depending on how good your imagination is, a case could be made. Consider this paragraph a sneak preview for my next post.

2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope


There are only two self-contained stories in the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace and A New Hope. While The Empire Strikes Back is the crown jewel of the Star Wars universe, there are times when my favorite Star Wars movie is A New Hope. It has a simple yet amazing storyline, but there's also a lot of depth hidden throughout.

It introduced everyone to this whole crazy enterprise. George Lucas was firing on all cylinders, both with his pop-cultural referencing and effervescent script, but also with his epic, grand visual sensibilities. Although it drags on its 50th viewing, when the movie feels fresh, it really chugs along nicely. It doesn't have a ton of fat to it.

The Empire Strikes Back really only gets the leg up on A New Hope because it does everything the first movie does, but subverts expectations and adds more pathos to the proceedings. Everything in this movie just works for me; from characters, to music, to cinematography, to editing, to the amazingly simple storyline.

I've read message boards (and have had discussions on Facebook) where people say The Force Awakens is better than A New Hope. I just think that's a non-starter for me. I know it's petty, but my brain shuts down like R2 in The Force Awakens anytime I hear someone say that The Force Awakens is better than A New Hope.

Yes, a cover song can be better than the original song, but you really can't compare a movie to a song. If you want to take that analogy out fully, a scene in a movie would be a song, whereas the entire movie itself is the album. For me, The Force Awakens ventures a little too closely to being a cover album, not just a cover song. And for me, A New Hope is such a revolutionary work, I don't see how any movie that works off so many of the same beats can top the original work.


No movie has impacted pop culture more than this one. Nothing even comes close. It was the popcorn movie big bang. It took all these elements that were already in place (westerns, samurai movies, Saturday morning serials, mythology, jets, etc.), combined them all into one tightly compacted space, and exploded it across the collective imagination. We've been experiencing the effects ever since. It practically gave us a new movie-going language. There is no Back to the Future or Matrix without Star Wars. Although superheroes existed in a variety of capacities, there is no modern superhero universe without Star Wars. It literally changed pop culture in ways that are almost impossible to quantify and qualify.


It does kind of drag on its 50th viewing. If I'm not in the mood to watch this movie, this movie can be hard to watch. But when I'm pumped to watch it, there are few movies that provide as pure a viewing experience as A New Hope.

X(wing) FACTORS:

God... What else can really be said about this? I didn't do this, but my top rankings really could have been The Empire Strikes Back 1a and A New Hope 1b.

It's all right here, isn't it? The stakes of this movie are evident in the first two seconds of this movie.

1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back


This movie is perfect. I sometimes agonize that I couldn't have been 10 years old in 1980, instead of 3. I wish I could have been in that theater as all the pent up expectations I had after A New Hope were subverted and twisted and massaged in new and amazing ways. The Empire Strikes Back has the best story, the best acting, the tightest script, the heaviest stakes, the most complex subtext, the best music... Everything. The Empire Strikes Back is the template all other movies big budgets strive to reach.


A New Hope changed the culture in an insane amount of ways, but there is no Star Wars universe without The Empire Strikes Back being as great as it is. If this first sequel had been more standard and kind of by the books, I think this franchise would have kind of slowly died off over time. The notion presented in The Empire Strikes Back that what we saw in A New Hope was just the outer layer of the onion completely changed the ballgame for epic and popcorn storytelling. A New Hope may have introduced us to this universe, but The Empire Strikes Back begged us to look deeper.



Amazingly well. For me, this is the fine wine of the Star Wars universe. I only break this one out when I'm fully in the mood to be taken on a ride. I probably watch this one the least because it's the one I care about the most. I don't want to ever get tired of it. If I start noticing the creaks in it, I turn it off. I want this movie to remain as fresh as it can for future viewings.

X(wing) FACTORS:

I'll just repeat what I said above; there is no expanded Star Wars universe without this movie.

And there you have it.

I understand this is all subjective. This is my ranking on January 14, 2016, but ask me what my ranking is on January 14, 2017 and it's likely to be different. As I've maintained all along, these aren't just movies for me, so it's hard to be super analytical about them. Things that caught my eye in 1989 are going to differ from things that catch my eye in 2016.

Rankings or not, I'm standing by my original thesis that at this point, I'm just glad for the quilt. It's fun to rank the Star Wars movies, but it's more fun to go kind of Yoda on it and just feel the force of awesomeness that surrounds these movies.

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