It’s been nearly sixteen years since The Phantom Menace first came out—sixteen years! God, I’m old—and there is no shortage of negative critiques for this movie online. But now that Episode VII has been announced, I decided it was time to go back and revisit the prequels. While the Star Wars prequels are some of my favorite movies, they are very poorly written, and that’s especially true for Episode I. The Phantom Menace could be removed from the story entirely with the series losing very little, since the movie comes across more as a prequel to the other two prequels instead of as the first part of a trilogy. Nothing much of importance happens in Episode I—Palpatine becomes chancellor and Anakin and Padmé meet during an unexplored conflict about a trade blockade—and the story also has a distinct lack of focus. It’s not until Episode II that the Clone Wars begin and our main conflict gets going.
Not only is Episode I’s plot all over the place, but we wind up with four potential main characters. While this is not necessarily a problem, it becomes a problem when a movie doesn’t know what it’s doing. As a result, none of these characters are particularly developed, and it’s hard to tell which character is supposed to be the main character.
Out of all four of them, though, Padmé is probably the most interesting character, and her story arc has a lot more potential that everyone else’s. She’s a young, naïve queen, fighting for the liberation of her people, while at the same time trying to reconcile this need for violence with her own personal pacifistic beliefs. Or at least, that would be the case, had her character been better written, and had she been intended to be the main character. Regardless of what the writers wanted when they wrote this episode, Padmé is more connected to the plot than any other character, and she’s also the one with clear motivations we can relate to. What this means is that The Phantom Menace is potentially the first Star Wars movie with a female lead.
If I had to guess, I would say that Qui-Gon Jinn, our wise old Jedi master, was intended to be the main character, not Padmé. We spend more time following him than the other characters, and as a result we learn more about him. However, I firmly believe that this was a mistake on the movie’s part.
As I said earlier, out of all our characters, it is in fact Padmé who is dealing with the central conflict in the story, and it should have been Padmé we followed instead of Qui-Gon. Both Obi-Wan and Anakin also have their own internal conflicts, but they are not tied to the plot the same way Padmé is. Unfortunately, we learn very little about Padmé throughout the whole movie. Padmé is a sixteen-year-old girl elected queen, and yet, why was she elected? What about her made her people think that she could handle ruling a planet at the tender age of sixteen, when there are clearly older and more experienced politicians they could have elected instead? We don’t know, and the movie never answers these questions.
Making matters even worse, the conflict Padmé deals with is never fully explained, which is why Episode I could be cut entirely from the series. While the Trade Federation and their blockade of Naboo is just a ploy to get Palpatine in office, we never learn about their dispute with Padmé. Why did they agree to block trade? What dispute with Naboo were they using to justify this to the senate? And how did this blockade affect the people of Naboo? We hear that they starve and there’s a catastrophic death toll, but we’re never shown this. As a result, Padmé’s conflict and her character are both set up, but there’s no payoff. The blockade ends before we learn about it, and it also ends before we really get to know Padmé’s character or her people. In the end, we don’t care about anything that happens. And why should we? The story treats this whole issue as nothing more than an event to put Palpatine in office, while completely neglecting to show us the problems this causes for the people of Naboo, and Padmé never progresses beyond a cardboard cutout of a character. She doesn’t have any kind of flaws or weaknesses, at least not ones that are explored, and she certainly doesn’t learn anything or grow as a person.
Thankfully, The Clone Wars came out and expanded on all our characters in ways that were meaningful. However, I was still never really a big fan of Padmé in The Clone Wars and thought that her character could have been better explored there as well. Why does she take certain stands on certain issues? Why is she so opposed to war when everyone else is so for war? Why is she one of the few people in the senate to recognize that the clones are people and not expendable? What happened to her, a privileged human and former queen, to make her into the activist for social justice? Despite these issues I have with her, the cartoon did a better job with her than the actual movies. We get to see more of her relationship to Anakin and Ahsoka, and we now know her well enough that her character is even allowed things like strengths and flaws. She’s well-rounded in a way she should have been in the movies.
I would argue that it was Padmé’s experience with the Trade Federation that informs her decisions and beliefs during The Clone Wars. But that leads us into another problem. In The Phantom Menace, we never find out how the suffering of her people affect her. Padmé’s character had numerous opportunities to grow and develop, in Episode I, especially, but the movie wastes every single one of those moments. She could have very easily been one of the better written and more intriguing characters in the entire series. There was a lot the story could work with, and had The Phantom Menace done better with her character and conflict, not only would the movie been infinitely better, it would have been the first Star Wars to give us a female protagonist.