(This post gets into spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker. If you have not seen The Rise of Skywalker, you probably don’t want to read this post. You have been warned!)
Back in April, J.J. Abrams and company shocked a room full of giddy Star Wars nerds (including me) by revealing that our old friend, Emperor Palpatine, would be returning in the saga’s ninth installment, The Rise of Skywalker. Now, what made this shocking was that the normally secretive Abrams was just giving this information away. This kind of reveal seems tailor-made for one of Abrams’ patented mystery box surprises. In retrospect, maybe it should have been.
Look, at the time, I wrote that this decision made sense. That the Sequel Trilogy kind of felt like it was missing an all-encompassing villain that tied into the other six movies. That with Snoke dispatched during The Last Jedi, of course, you have to bring back Palpatine now. Oh boy was I wrong.
Back in 1983, I was a young kid and saw Return of the Jedi on its opening weekend. Which means I saw Emperor Palpatine die in a fiery explosion. It was odd to walk out of a movie again this week and say out loud, “I guess they killed the Emperor … again.” It’s just weird that the other two movies didn’t even hint at Palpatine’s return, then over the course of two and a half hours we get, “Hey, it’s me! I’m back!,” then, “Oops, I guess I’m dead again!” (For the record, those are not direct quotes from the movie.)
Look, the case can be made that we didn’t really meet the Emperor in the Original Trilogy until Return of the Jedi. But the big difference was his presence was felt throughout. Palpatine’s first mention goes as far back as the Star Wars novelization, which, surprising by today’s standards, was released in 1976, six months before the movie. But it’s a fascinating read. Especially the prologue, which basically served as a blueprint for the Prequels that would come 23 years later. Here’s the most interesting part, though he does come off more like a corrupt politician than someone with evil powers:
Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears. Having exterminated through treachery and deception the Jedi Knights, guardians of justice in the galaxy, the Imperial governors and bureaucrats prepared to institute a reign of terror among the disheartened worlds of the galaxy. Many used the imperial forces and the name of the increasingly isolated Emperor to further their own personal ambitions.
And then we finally see the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, but for those of you who haven’t seen the non-Special Edition in awhile, it’s a very different experience than what we’re used to. The voice was Clive Revill, but the actor is actually a woman (whose identity still seems to be up for some debate, but most people have landed on Marjorie Eaton).
Anyway, my point is, by the time we actually get to Vader announcing the Emperor would be showing up to the new Death Star, the anticipation had been building for six years to finally see what this guy was all about. And Palpatine’s death in Return of the Jedi is just about perfect: with Vader finally turning, choosing to save his son than follow Palpatine’s commands. It’s thrilling, dramatic, and emotional.
So, now, that’s wiped away. Because Palpatine is just “back,” even though we get no explanation of how. Instead of a sinister reveal (which actually could have been pretty exciting), we just learn that at some point between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker Palpatine has just, somehow, returned. And when we first see him, he’s just kind of hanging out with his zombie eyes, dangling on a coat hanger, spouting a bunch of nonsense that was fun during Return of the Jedi but now just sounds stupid. Palpatine says he made Snoke. Then we see a bunch of Snokes in some sort of test tube? What on Earth? (Though, I’d consider watching a Disney+ show about Palpatine just sitting in his dimly lit lab making Snokes all day. I’m not saying for sure I’d watch this. But I would consider it.)
If nothing else, The Rise of Skywalker has convinced me that Palpatine is full of shit. Sure, in Return of the Jedi, some of his nonsense about how Luke killing him would turn Luke to the dark side made sense. In retrospect, after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, this now all seems so convenient. Basically, “Hey, I’m evil, but you can’t kill me because then you will be, too.” But it has the payoff of Vader killing Palpatine, so it all works out! Now, here we are, 36 years later, and Palpatine’s still making up these dumb rules.
First, he wants Kylo Ren to kill Rey, even though that’s not what he wants at all for reasons we find out later. Then, during the ending, which is basically just a worse Return of the Jedi (also, instead of a new Death Star, we get hundreds of new Death Stars … alrighty), Palpatine, still on his coat hanger, tells Rey he’s going to take over the galaxy again. But if Rey kills Palpatine, his spirit will possess her. So that’s quite a predicament. And Palpatine just babbles on and on and on. I found myself just wanting this murky, dimly lit scene to end. So then Rey just kills him anyway and he explodes. His spirit didn’t transfer to her like we were told. Oh well, I guess. Oh, and all of this takes place in front of a legion of chanting zombies for some reason. While watching this scene, I remember thinking, what am I even looking at? And I’ve seen this dude explode before! Why am I to believe he’s even dead this time?
Again, Palpatine’s death in Return of the Jedi really felt like the end of something. And it carried the emotional weight of a father helping his son. The Rise of Skywalker somehow manages to make Palpatine into a blubbering idiot with no real point in even being there, but also takes away some of the impact that his death had in Return of the Jedi. So it’s tough to be excited for movie’s finale when I saw the same thing happen to the same character 36 years ago, only done much better. Anyway, yes, Emperor Palpatine is dead. Again.
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