By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
Star Wars attempts to define the difference between right and wrong—between good and evil, in a setting where no moral ambiguity exists. With Luke dressed in white and Darth Vader armored in black, the original Star Wars is, quite literally, black and white. Except, when it comes to the character of Palpatine.
The original Star Wars is one of the most iconic and successful science fiction movies of all time. It tells the story of a young orphan named Luke Skywalker, who teams up with the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi, a smuggler named Han Solo, and a princess named Leia Organa to fight against Darth Vader and the evil Empire—which has constructed a giant planet-destroying weapon called the Death Star. Together, they successfully deliver the stolen Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance, which then discovers the Death Star’s weakness and, with Luke’s help, destroys the Death Star.
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Lack of Moral Ambiguity in Star Wars
The original Star Wars trilogy is also notorious for its lack of moral ambiguity—for being painfully black-and-white. Luke, dressed in white, and the Rebel Alliance are obviously good; Darth Vader, armored in black, and the Empire are obviously bad. Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader’s master, is cartoonish and almost comically evil: a grotesque wrinkled figure hidden under a cloak who cackles as he reveals his plans. John Williams, who composed the film’s music, even wrote every hero’s theme in a major key, and every villain’s in a minor key.
Some might argue that Han Solo is a gray character. He’s a scoundrel with a bounty on his head who will, without remorse or hesitation, kill any bounty hunter who comes after him and then toss some money to the barkeep to make up for the mess. But even Han is redeemed by the end of the first film; he swoops in on the Millennium Falcon to save Luke from Darth Vader at the last second, giving Luke the chance he needs to blow up the Death Star.
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The Morally Ambiguous Prequel Trilogy
When it comes to moral ambiguity, the character Palpatine in the prequel trilogy seems to be the best example. Episodes I through III are set during a time in which the galaxy is governed by a democratic republic. The Jedi Knights serve as a kind of military police—the supposed ‘guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy’.
Palpatine secretly orchestrates an invasion of his own planet to gain sympathy votes. Once elected, he mobilizes a civil war and uses the threat it poses to acquire ‘emergency powers’ and reorganize the Republic into the First Galactic Empire.
All the while, he follows Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi training and gains his trust. When the time is right, he convinces Anakin to turn against the Jedi; he reveals himself as the Sith Lord Darth Sidious and declares Anakin to be Darth Vader. Palpatine uses Anakin and the Empire’s clone army to kill all the Jedi, and then he and Vader go on to rule the Galaxy.
The Character of Palpatine
One way the prequels are morally ambiguous is in its portrayal of Palpatine. Presented as a good guy at first, he is a senator from Naboo. If one hasn’t seen the original trilogy, the reveal in Episode III that he is the Emperor might actually come as a surprise.
The idea that the Jedi are no better than the Sith is essentially the idea that the Emperor is trying to get Anakin to draw. Palpatine tries to turn Anakin by convincing him that the Jedi are evil; that they only want to ‘hold on to their power’, and that they don’t ‘trust democracy’. And he might have a point.
The Jedi are, after all, trying to overthrow Palpatine, who—despite all his scheming—was duly elected and granted the powers he has by a majority vote. This makes one wonder: could the Jedi be the bad guys?
Consider exactly what Palpatine has done to gain power up to the moment that the Jedi try to arrest him and Anakin sides with him. In Episode I, he did stage an invasion of Naboo to gain sympathy—but it was an invasion by a droid army of a planet and no one was hurt. Granted, some Gungans died, but that battle was orchestrated by Queen Amidala, one of the good guys.
The Scheming Palpatine
In Episode II, Palpatine starts a civil war, but it’s primarily fought between droids and clones. He also commands Anakin to kill Count Dooku, but the Jedi actually wanted him dead! Palpatine, it seems, didn’t directly cause that much actual suffering as he rose to power.
It thus, seems obvious that Palpatine schemed with hostile foreign powers to get himself elected and used the cause of ‘greater security’ to get the Senate to grant him emergency powers. Yet, amusingly, isn’t it similar to what politicians do all the time?
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Prequel Trilogy versus the Original Star Wars Trilogy
The moral ambiguity is sustained up to the moment at which Anakin makes his choice between Palpatine and the Jedi. Till then it’s not clear that Palpatine has done anything to legally deserve being removed from office. If one didn’t already know what he would become, and what he would later do, one might think that the Jedi were in the wrong for thinking they are above the law. Or, at the very least, that the Jedi are no better than the Sith.
Star Wars prequel trilogy does sustain moral ambiguity at its pivotal points. It is most clearly seen—and where we can explore the difference between good and evil, and even question whether there is a difference—is in how Palpatine turns Anakin to the Dark Side.
In contrast, the original Star Wars trilogy is glaringly black-and-white. One never has to wonder who the good guys and the bad guys are. However, it still remains the franchise that most famously pits good against evil and tries to explore the morality of it all.
Common Questions about Palpatine and Moral Ambiguity in Star Wars
Palpatine tries to turn Anakin to the Dark Side by convincing him that the Jedi are evil; that they only want to ‘hold on to their power’.
In Star Wars, the Jedi Knights serve as a kind of military police—the supposed ‘guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy’.
In the prequel trilogy, Episode II, Palpatine starts a civil war, but it’s primarily fought between droids and clones.