We are all looking forward to The Rise of Skywalker and on social media the theories and leaks are flying around our ears like shrapnel. But for all characters we know are returning, one way or the other, in Episode IX, one name is consistently absent: Anakin. So what if Anakin isn’t in the story? Could that be? If so, then why? And what would it mean?
What do we know so far?
J.J. Abrams started this trilogy with his Episode VII, The Force Awakens, and we know from the concept-art for that film that they were entertaining the idea of a force-ghost appearance of Anakin Skywalker. It would seem like a perfectly sensible way to connect the Sequel Trilogy with the Prequel Trilogy given that the connection to the Original Trilogy was already obvious due to the presence of Han, Luke and Leia. For reasons I am unaware of the team producing The Force Awakens decided to abandon this path. I am quite sure that Rian Johnson has considered an appearance by Anakin as well but has opted for the safer option of a Yoda appearance in The Last Jedi. Since the release of the first teaser trailer of The Rise of Skywalker we now know Darth Sidious a.k.a. Emperor Palpatine is back in the fold for Episode IX but no reference so far has been made to as little as a cameo for Anakin Skywalker.
The difficulties with including Anakin
It is good to think for a moment about why it would actually be quite difficult to include Anakin in the Sequel Trilogy. Return of the Jedi seems to complete Anakin’s arc in a definitive manner. Not only does he die, but he also redeems himself, at least in Luke & Leia’s book, and given his force-ghost appearance next to Yoda and Obi Wan we must assume that they accept him back into the club as well. This implies that bringing Anakin is a huge can of worms for the Sequel Trilogy if they want to tell a story about Rey, Poe and Finn. In fact even the appearance of any force-ghost other than Anakin would raise questions as to where the progenitor of all of this is off to?
The difficulty with an Anakin appearance in the Sequel Trilogy is that it places the Sequel Trilogy conflict in the galaxy within his missions to “bring balance to the Force”. A mission that was supposedly completed in Return of the Jedi. A return of Anakin would suggest he had still some mission time left, triggering an avalanche of questions about the how’s, why’s and when’s of that, all distracting from the arcs of the Sequel Trilogy protagonists. In particular an appearance of Anakin would suggest also his nemesis Sidious was somehow still relevant. I suspect they hadn’t sketched out that part of the Sequel Trilogy in a final form yet. So the choice of The Force Awakens to not present any force-ghosts seems rather consistent with a desire to avoid Anakin at all cost and to make the Sequel Trilogy a story about Rey and her generation with some side-roles for the Original Trilogy crew.
Also Han’s death fits this pattern, as does Luke’s absence and Leia’s background role. All not too dissimilar from the roles the surviving Prequel Trilogy characters play in the Original Trilogy’s first instalment, A New Hope. Empire Strikes Back then raises the stakes concerning one of the Prequel Trilogy characters with Darth Vader’s parental reveal and the introduction of that other great Prequel Trilogy character, Yoda. So one could have expected that if there is to be a similar move in the Sequel Trilogy that The Last Jedi would have done so. At the time many were expecting Rey’s parentage to be this reveal, but it clearly was not.
The gaping hole with Anakin’s name on it
I would say the actually shocking reveals of The Last Jedi were two subtle ones, one which perhaps most people would have missed, and one so blatant that is was regularly seen as evidence of ‘poor writing’.
The blatant reveal was the killing of Snoke. Rian Johnson made close-up-shot-sure that we knew Snoke was diced and fried. This robbed the Sequel Trilogy of it traditional antagonist with Kylo a far to ambiguous and too central character to assume Snoke’s role, irrespective of who calls him “supreme leader”. Snoke is in the General Grievous category, not in the Sidious category. This reveal basically made it unavoidable that The Rise of Skywalker had to reveal a truer evil behind the machinations going on in the universe. The conflict between First Order and Resistance was not the actual conflict that mattered.
The second reveal, but more subtle, was that force-ghosts can actually affect and interact with material objects. Yoda’s appearance, conjuring lightning and hitting Luke with his stick, was a far more ‘dense’ and less ethereal form of force-ghosting than anything we had seen in the Original Trilogy. However The Last Jedi also provided some commentary on that in the form of Luke’s Force-projection technique with which he tooled and fooled Kylo. Luke’s ‘projected’ feet left no physical traces on the salty soil of Krait, his ‘projected’ lightsabre did never block Kylo’s. Yoda’s force-ghost had a presence that was far more material than Luke’s force-projection presence. The stunning thing here is that this means that after Return of the Jedi the ghostly Jedi have perfected their ghost-force abilities beyond that of mere projection.
The third and final reveal which was perhaps more on the nose in some ways, were Leia’s force abilities. In saving herself from the vacuum-death outside of the Resistance cruiser, as well as from the shrapnel of the explosion of the bridge, is a huge ability that she definitely didn’t learn from Luke who never displays anything similar. Also, Luke has not been absent for a few months by the time we enter the Sequel Trilogy, but for years. So it might be an ability she acquired during his absence. But even if it was during the time he was still there, her ability is so unlike his that it is very hard to see how she could have learned it from him.
Ever since The Last Jedi the Sequel Trilogy has a gaping hole in it and, although it may not be too obvious to many, it has the name of Anakin Skywalker plastered all over it. If The Rise of Skywalker gives us a conclusion to the saga that persists in its avoidance of Anakin then it simply means this hole remains and even grows. Palpatine’s return is a fact now. The Last Jedi has left us in a place where Palpatine can indeed fill the role as the trilogy’s ultimate evil doer. It has also prepared the ground for force-ghosts taking actual physical part in a battle beyond the mere counselling or coaching of our heroes. Every force-ghost appearance of Luke, Yoda or Obi Wan would raise the question where is Anakin? is even more forcefully.
What could be the reasons for not having Anakin in there?
I hope I made a convincing case that there were story-telling reasons for not having Anakin in the Sequel Trilogy before Episode IX: it would simply raise to many questions. But now the ground work has been laid and a couple of scenes would suffice to expose how Anakin has been communing with various characters from the start and he could even get involved with physical effect in the finale of The Rise of Skywalker. All that has been set-up. So what could be a reason not to go there?
If I try to come up with story-telling reasons I find none of them hold much ground, especially given that Palpatine and pretty much everyone else has appeared or will appear, including voice appearances in The Force Awakens by Obi Wan. So if there is a reason for Anakin’s absence it must be a non-story reason. I can think of only one.
When George Lucas negotiated with Disney, after his Prequel Trilogy turning Star Wars essentially into Anakin Skywalker’s tragedy, I think he was most concerned about that character beyond any other. I would not be surprised if there is a clause in that contract that either protects Anakin, or that ensures that Anakin can only be used with George Lucas’ consent. His appearances have been rare: a few in Star Wars: Rebels and one in Rogue One. His most profound appearance in the Disney era has, without a shred of doubt, been the duel with Ahsoka Tano in the Rebels Season 2 finale. With the final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars coming up as soon as February 2020 the Sequel Trilogy would be taking an awful risk by avoiding Anakin altogether. But … I could very well imagine that Abrams and his team simply could not convince Lucas of their story ideas. After all … they are no Dave Filoni.
What would the consequences be if Anakin is not in there?
I have no doubt that Abrams is going to serve is a delicious and gorgeously shot movie. Similarly I am quite confident that Williams will provide a decent and worthy final score for his Star Wars work. But I do think that if there is no Anakin in The Rise of Skywalker then the inevitable consequence will be, perhaps only a decade from now or more, that the Sequel Trilogy will be redone.
Abrams and Johnson and their fellow filmmakers were OT-generation filmmakers who attempted to make sense of a Sequel Trilogy torn between the commercial interests of their production companies, an utterly vitriolic Fandom Menace and a new audience that was expecting modern filmmaking and modern stories. They succeeded on many counts. Commercially the Sequel Trilogy has been very successful so far, no matter what aggravated fanboys might surmise. But story-wise The Force Awakens was more characterised by what it tried not to do then by what it tried to do. The Last Jedi largely corrected this, but could not do so without opening up a chasm that leads us right to the Anakin Skywalker that Episode VII chose to leave off-screen.
It seems to me that the rumours of George Lucas’ involvement in Episode IX were most likely founded on the occurrence of talks between Disney and Lucas about the use of Anakin. I suspect Lucas’ original story-treatments for Episodes VII-IX avoided the problem all together by not going down the route of enhanced force-ghost capabilities and renewed Imperial entanglements. Rather I assume they would have explored the deeper bio-mythological implications of Anakin’s restoring balance, perhaps involving Mortis’ force-wielders and the mythology laid out in the 6th Clone Wars Season. A path Disney rejected years ago as confirmed by Bob Iger’s recently published memoirs. I suspect the negotiations with Lucas were short …
Of course much of this is speculation based on the little snippets of information we do have. But if Anakin Skywalker does not feature in some necessary form in The Rise of Skywalker then I believe, no matter how entertaining and commercially successful the movie will be, in a decade or so some Prequel Generation filmmakers will get together and reboot the Sequel Trilogy. Perhaps then they will take Lucas’ story treatments as their starting point. I think much is riding on The Rise of Skywalker if it truly wants to be the film to end the saga.