Return of the Rebels: Is 'Star Wars: Rebels' Better Than 'The Force Awakens'?

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This article assumes some knowledge of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and that you’ve watched Star Wars: Rebels Season I.

This weekend, for the first time, I watched the final episodes of both Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Season 5 and Star Wars: Rebels, Season 1. It’s fair to say, my mind was a little blown, especially combined with a quick peek at the Rebels, Season 2 trailers.

I watched the trailers with my older two children (7 & 10), and we were all left cooing with excitement. For the first time in many a year, the Star Wars franchise has reignited the boyhood thrill I felt for the Original Trilogy. Sure, I was excited to watch The Force Awakens trailers, and I enjoyed the film too, but it didn’t make me whoop. It didn’t make me feel eight again, but for some reason Star Wars: Rebels has. Why is this?

I think it stems from the fact that Rebels (and The Clone Wars) story arcs continue within the original motion picture narrative.

The Force Awakens continues a narrative that was completed 30 years ago. If you take the original saga as a fairy story, Episode VII shouldn’t exist. We’ve had our happily ever after. The story was over. I don’t want to know that my boyhood fantasy of being a Jedi and saving the galaxy, would be brought to naught in less than three decades. It’s not the stuff legends are made of.

I’m not saying that The Force Awakens shouldn’t have been made, only that, as a story, I had few expectations. Whilst I was interested to see what Abrams’ new vision might be, I wasn’t excited about it. There was little to compel me to watch it, other than the fact it was Star Wars.

Which, to be fair, is much how I felt about the Clone Wars when it was first made. I didn’t really see why that bit of story needed to be told, and for Rebels, I was much the same. As a snap judgement, Rebels’ softer edged animated style didn’t appeal. Having picked up The Clone Wars for my children, I had come to enjoy it; I liked its harsher, angular animation, especially as its storylines darkened. Rebels looked in comparison to be for younger children. It was only assertions of its quality, made by a few of my fellow GeekDads, that made me sit down and watch it.

And I’m glad I did.

Both Rebels and Clone Wars contain strong writing and excellent characterization. The characters are more interesting and better rounded than their movie counterparts. This is perhaps not surprising since they’ve had hours more screen time, but Ahsoka, Ezra, Sabine and Kanan are excellent additions to the canon.

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New friends and old work together in Season two

But what has really made me enjoy these animated series is time and setting. In the Clone Wars, there was the ever-present foreshadowing of Anakin’s journey to the Dark Side. I always had a sense of foreboding about Ashoka’s continued existence, considering she doesn’t appear in Episode III. The end of Season 5 of The Clone Wars, goes some way to explaining this, but we were left with unanswered questions about Skywalker’s padawan.

The period before A New Hope is a hotbed of revolution. The idea of a small band, a “Rebel Alliance” is probably one of the most intoxicating concepts of the Original Trilogy and the writers of Rebels use it to good effect. It’s no coincidence that the first Star Wars movie, not to be part of the Saga, Rouge One, is to be set during this time.

When watching Rebels, it helps that we know what Ezra and the crew of the Ghost are up against; we know how powerful their enemy is, better than they do. Our enjoyment is enhanced by knowing that ultimately the Rebellion will be successful. We root for Hera, Kanan and the team; each of their victories is building up to the point when a princess places secret plans into an R2 unit, and that’s exciting.

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Things got a bit tetchy at the college reunion

The reveal of Ahsoka Tano and the arrival of Darth Vader at the end of Rebels, Season 1, builds a neat bridge between the two animated series and better yet, connects Episode III with the original trilogy. Pitting Tano and Vader against one another, no longer apprentice and master, but arch enemies, is a piece of storytelling genius. Just having Vader present elevates excitement levels; there are few things more quietly terrifying than the sound of his respirator. Add to that the possibility of a conflicted Vader then you have the makings of something very interesting.

Further flashes from the Rebels, Season 2, mid-season trailer show how the connections between series will be tightened. The introduction of Leia and Yoda will surely be welcomed by all Star Wars fans, whilst the brief flash of Darth Maul adds further intrigue, and binds the two animated series closer together (Maul’s reintroduction during The Clone Wars overstretched credibility, but since that crime had already been committed, one can’t blame Rebels writers for living off the proceeds).

The tightening together of the various Star Wars narrative strands has led me to speculate further. Will some future Rebels storylines feed into Rogue One? I think it would be great if they did and, more wildly, will Disney use their other stories to shed light on one of The Force Awakens biggest mysteries?

There has been much debate about Rey’s parentage, but could they come from outside of the saga? In the time before A New Hope there were clearly more Jedi than just the Skywalkers, Obi-Wan and Yoda. Will the new stories of the Rebellion’s infancy shed light on the new, new hope? I have no idea, but the arguments for having strands that connect across varying narrative streams are compelling from a storytelling perspective, for audience retention, and merchandise revenues. Disney have already set a precedent for this with the multifarious strands of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.     

Cynics might say that the introduction of the saga’s most popular intellectual properties is a great way of gaining audience and shifting toys, to which I say, if it’s done this well, who cares? I’ve yet to see any Season 2 episodes, but couldn’t resist watching the mid-season trailer and, as I said at the top of this piece, it’s the most excited I’ve been about Star Wars in years.

Star Wars: Rebels Season 2 continues January 20th 9pm ET/PT on Disney XD. 

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