On May 19, 1999, George Lucas changed films forever. The long awaited Star Wars prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace beat theaters, returned to a world that fans had thought they would never see again. For some, the excitement turned to confusion, puzzling and straight anger when the credits rolled and Lucas's great cinematic experiment was turned off to a rocky beginning. Phantom Menace turned out to be a precursor to the biographical environment we are now in. It was a special power revolution, the first incline that stories never end, and a movie where the director and cast met huge drivers from fans .
In the late 1980s, Lucasfilm began to see if there was still life in the franchise, and licensed a series of novels, the first of which Timothy Zahn's heir to the empire hit the top of the bestselling lists in 1991. Under the The following years, the company began to develop larger cross-selling projects, which combine the company's series, novels, games and action figures as a kind of test drive to see if all of these parts could work together. They showed that Lucas's world was still viable, with crossover projects like Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston's series X-Wing (which included books, video games and series) and Shadows of the Empire (A book, comic, video games and action figures). Lucas had already started working with a prequel trilogy, and restored and updated the original films in time for their own 20th anniversary. All of this was basically immense at that time – but it spoke with the power that the franchise still had with fans who had grown up in the theaters, or who had looked at VHS.
It is now not uncommon to see studios assemble a comprehensive package of intellectual property rights to reach fans, with not only series and ties, but also a larger constellation of stories based on and adding to the film in the middle. In 1999, the concept of binding stories that followed a centralized cannon was not common. Nowadays, continuity and canon are important concepts, with fans reviewing each character and action to ensure that the stories they enjoy keep together when they are prodded.
While Star Wars came complete with a living in the world with a long history of continuity over medium, Phantom Menace helped show that Lucas's world was greater than anyone could have imagined. It started an impressive – if incorrect – series of films that gave a new perspective to the franchise's internal history, and led to many other stories on other media, such as the animated Clone Wars and Rebels – the series, which was based on the larger foundation of the prequel films, and in many cases improved them by adding context and additional details to the world. Lucasfilms stand-alone prequels, Rogue One and Solo benefited from all these efforts and helped demonstrate that the franchise could largely stand on its own, away from the main Skywalker fairy tales.
Ultimately, Lucasfilm's large-scale experiments in which the film industry ended: studios invest largely not just in single films: they invest in worlds . When Disney bought Lucasfilm, it did not intend to make a couple of films: it bought the company's big and deep panties of intellectual property: thousands and thousands of characters and stories that will undoubtedly be mine for decades.
The same goes for Marvel and its huge back catalog of heroes and stories. The legendary version of Godzilla no longer fights for theaters with a city to crush alone: he comes along with a pantheon of other movie monsters, with the potential that every crossover will lead to larger crowds around the world. While the word "Prequel" had been created in the 1950s, Phantom Menace took it into the popular culture encyclopedia and got a whole new genre of movies that helped put the scene (for better or worse) for other classic films which Prometheus / Alien: Covenant The Thing or The Hobbit trilogy.
Lucas 'efforts culminated in franchise returns, and in any case where expectations have been allowed to run wild for a decade and a half, these expectations did not match Lucas' vision for the future of the franchise. Darth Vader, the franchise's horrific and evil antagonist, became a six-year-old boy who shouted "Yahoo!" Jar Jar Binks, the CGI sidebar, was for his voice and privilege. The plot was dismissed as too dull and too political. It wasn't exactly the triumphant return that everyone had hoped for, even though it blew away the archives at the cashier's office and became the second highest wholesaler movie ever after Titanic .
The response from the fans in the original films was brutal, especially on the actors and Lucas. Ahmed Best, the actor behind Jar Jar Binks, noted that he was thinking of suicide, while Jake Lloyd noted that the reaction made his life a "living hell." (He has since left the film industry.) Lucas moved his frustrations into another interview, asking "Why would I do more when everyone screams to you all the time and says what a horrible person you are?"
These cases prefigured some of the responses that actors and directors regularly encounter when working on an established franchise. Films such as Ghostbusters and the latest Star Wars departments have dealt with pervasive pushback from righteous fans whose own vision for the continuation of the stories they say they love does not match studios and advertising.
But during the 20 years since The Phantom Menace beat theaters, some fans have changed their mind about the movie while children who saw it at the same formative age as their original trilogical counterparts have sung their awards. In a remarkable Twitter thread art historian Glendon Mellow was listed by lots of details about the trilogy that stood out and pointed out some of the design and subtitles often overlooked: Lucas developed a world reef with disenfranchisement, colonialism, and politics that holds. Mashable editor Chris Taylor devotes a whole chapter to the rehabilitation of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: Past, Present and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise Phantom Menace and its successor, they pointed out many arguments that the three films have made, and outline that fandom's beliefs about what the movies should not necessarily end up with what Lucas tried to accomplish.
And at the end of the day I can appreciate what Lucas was trying to do: build his world in the way he desired it, on his own terms. Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequel films are very different films – of design – than their predecessors. A valid complaint about Disney's follow-up trilogy has been that it relied too much on fan service from the existing films – something that Lucas himself had observed. The ideas that Lucas suggested for a follow-up trilogy are out there – "coming into a microbiotic world". At the premiere Revenge of the Sith Lucas actor Simon Pegg told a revealing piece of advice: "Don't do the same movie you did 30 years ago 30 years from now." The Prequel trilogy is certainly that.