Star Wars: Why Emperor Palpatine’s Return Could Backfire

As much as Lucasfilm is holding back on the plot of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, we know one juicy detail about the final entry in the Skywalker Saga. This sequel will bring back Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine, as this twisted Sith Lord makes one final attempt at dominating the galaxy. But as much as Palpatine’s return raises the stakes for this sequel, we also can’t help but be worried. Bringing back the Emperor could wind up doing more harm than good for the franchise.In many ways, Palpatine’s return isn’t terribly surprising. As we’ve explored in the past, it was basically inevitable director J.J. Abrams would revive this ultimate villain, given how much The Force Awakens and his other films trade on a reverent nostalgia for the past. Depending on whom you ask, that nostalgia-fueled approach either helped or hindered The Force Awakens. Plus, considering how much the Star Wars franchise prizes storytelling symmetry, it makes sense that the overarching villain of the first six movies would return for one last hurrah in Episode IX.

Check out the final Rise of Skywalker trailer.

That all being said, Palpatine’s return being the obvious choice doesn’t necessarily make it the right one. It raises a number of concerns about the direction of the sequel, not least of which being the prospect of Star Wars clinging ever harder to nostalgia so soon after The Last Jedi made a point of moving forward. Kylo Ren’s iconic line “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to” instantly became the mantra and the mission statement of a movie trying to move the franchise beyond aged heroes and old ideals of Light and Dark. Bringing back Palpatine is simply telling fans the past is still alive and kicking.

Palpatine’s return raises other concerns which may be familiar to fans of the pre-Disney Expanded Universe novels and comics. Many fans will remember the idea of bringing Palpatine back to life originated way back in 1991’s Star Wars: Dark Empire. That comic series saw Palpatine return six years after the events of Return of the Jedi and resume his efforts to conquer the galaxy. In the process, Luke Skywalker was turned to the Dark Side, forcing Leia to redeem her brother just as he once redeemed their father.

Readers eventually learned Palpatine’s spirit survived even as his body was destroyed aboard the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, and thanks to a seemingly endless supply of clones, Palpatine was basically unkillable. Cue the Dark Empire sequels. It was only with 1995’s Star Wars: Empire’s End that Palpatine exhausted his clone stash and was destroyed for good.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Final Trailer Images

At the time, new Star Wars content of any sort was something of a novelty, so Dark Empire and its sequels struck a chord with fans. However, these stories haven’t aged particularly well. Above all, Dark Empire’s core flaw is that it never truly justifies the notion of resurrecting Palpatine. Bringing back the Emperor cheapens Darth Vader’s redemption and ultimate sacrifice in Return of the Jedi. The scene where Vader finally chooses his son over his master and his own thirst for power is one of the most powerful moments in the franchise. To learn that Vader only delayed Palpatine’s plans lessens the impact of that scene. Dark Empire doesn’t exactly reflect well on Luke, either. It makes the entire ending of Return of the Jedi ring a little more hollow.

The concern here is that Rise of Skywalker may prove no more successful than Dark Empire in terms of justifying Palpatine’s return. Perhaps his return makes sense from a structural standpoint, but what about emotionally? Can The Rise of Skywalker include this iconic villain without lessening Anakin Skywalker’s journey in the process? Is it even a necessary plot point given how much the previous two films have worked to establish Kylo Ren as the greatest threat to galactic peace?

To be fair, there are many unanswered questions surrounding Palpatine’s role in Episode IX. Only one brief shot in the final trailer even suggests this ancient villain will be taking physical form in the movie, rather than simply existing as a disembodied ghost tethered to the wreckage of the Death Star. We also don’t know Palpatine’s connection to the late Supreme Leader Snoke (though they could be one and the same). It’s entirely possible the sequel will defy expectations and handle Palpatine’s return in a far different manner than what we saw in Dark Empire.

Learn more about Rey’s strange new lightsaber in the video below.

It’s also worth remembering that Palpatine’s resurrection wouldn’t be the first example of Lucasfilm bringing back a long-dead villain and achieving storytelling greatness in the process. The animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars brought back Darth Maul after his apparent death in The Phantom Menace (a plot point that also had a precedent in the Expanded Universe comics). While Maul’s return may have seemed silly and unnecessary at first, it paved the way for a surprisingly deep and nuanced character arc that played out over the course of several seasons of The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. Maul is a fundamentally more complex, interesting and tragic character thanks to his return. The hope is that we’ll be able to say the same for Palpatine after The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters.

Still, it’s difficult not to worry about the effect Palpatine’s resurrection will have on the series. That storyline didn’t pay off the first time around, and it’s unclear what the franchise stands to gain by trying again.

For more on Episode IX, check out our final trailer breakdown, direct your eyes towards these 15 new images from the upcoming movie, and take a look at this comparison between Emperor Palpatine’s throne and unused concept art from Return of the Jedi.

Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.

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