One of the most defining features of Star Wars is the iconic weapon that the Jedi and the Sith use to fight the battles they engage in.
Star Wars is defined by lightsaber duels with varying degrees of significance to the plot of the movie or show. But, over time, the quality of these duels has changed. They have evolved and developed from one form to another.
Perhaps one of the most significant features of a lightsaber duel is its effects. These duels have been important to both the audience and to the plot itself. Well-executed and well-choreographed lightsaber duels are unrivaled in terms of what a climactic final fight should be.
But lightsaber duels have changed in recent years. They have gone from long, drawn-out battles of skill and swordsmanship, to small fights consisting of a few blows each. But then, what happened to lightsaber duels in Star Wars, and why did they change.
Table of Contents
- When were lightsaber duels at their best?
- Why are lightsaber fights in the Sequels so bad?
When were lightsaber duels at their best?
The peak of Star Wars lightsaber duels was the Prequel Trilogy. Starting at Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and ending with the iconic duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, the Prequels were the definition of on-screen choreographed excellence.
The Prequel Trilogy was known for being the perfect balance between storytelling and relatively amazing CGI. This translated into fights that pleased the audiences’ need for an emotional climax and their craving for aesthetically pleasing visuals.
But, despite their fame, lightsaber duels in the prequels were few and spread thinly over the three movies. The three movies featured a total of five lightsaber duels, which roughly translates to about one duel after every hour and a half of Star Wars content.
And while the number of duels makes it seem like there is not too long of a wait between them, they are not spread evenly throughout the movies. Episode I and Episode II feature one lightsaber duel each, while the other three are found in the three acts of Revenge of The Sith.
So, without further ado, let’s start analyzing these duels one at a time in chronological order.
1. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn versus Darth Maul
Taking place in the third act of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, this specific duel was our first look into the potential that the Prequels held. This duel was choreographed so well and practiced so well that it shot way past the bar the Original Trilogy had set.
The duel served as the climactic ending to the movie, after being built up for quite a while. Qui-Gon and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi had spent most of the movie being chased by Darth Maul throughout the Galaxy.
When Maul finally caught up with the two, the silent Zabrak did nothing but ignite his iconic double-bladed lightsaber and face them. The duel took the three of them through the inner workings of Naboo’s royal palace and into the reactor room.
It was here that a series of ray shields would cut off Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, leaving the latter to fight Maul alone while Kenobi could only watch. Kenobi would look on in despair as Qui-Gon was defeated and cut down by Maul.
When the ray shield finally opened, Obi-Wan would use his mastery of Soresu, coupled with his level-headedness, to defeat Maul.
This duel was so well-rehearsed between the three actors, that the directors had to slow down the footage to make it seem realistic. But the beauty of the fight was not the only thing that defined it. The emotion portrayed by the death of Qui-Gon was an important factor in defining the path that Obi-Wan would take in movies to come.
2. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Master Yoda versus Count Dooku
Serving as the final battle for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones, this battle would serve as the prelude to Anakin’s duel with Count Dooku at the beginning of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
The duel would take place on Geonosis after the iconic arena scene where the Jedi were surrounded by an army of droids and the arrival of the Clones. This duel would play out in two stages, the first of which would consist of Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting Dooku, and the second would be when Yoda arrives after their defeat.
The fight starts with Anakin charging in to fight Dooku alone and being taken out very quickly. This leaves Obi-Wan alone to fight the Count, which results in Dooku quickly injuring Kenobi to the point where he could not even stand.
When Kenobi had kept the Count occupied, Anakin had regained consciousness and was able to continue the fight with Dooku. Anakin would hold his own for a bit by using his limited knowledge of Jar’Kai and Obi-Wan’s lightsaber.
Anakin would start losing the fight once Kenobi’s lightsaber was destroyed by Count Dooku. Anakin’s defeat would come with the Count delivering a successful blow which caused Anakin to lose his right arm and pass out.
Mere seconds after his victory over the young Skywalker, Count Dooku would come face to face with his old master, Yoda. The two would have a short contest of their knowledge of the Force before Dooku is defeated in a lightsaber duel and forced to retreat.
Following the pace that Episode I had set, this duel served as more than just a visually pleasing final battle for the movie. It was also the final bit of character development for both the antagonists and protagonists of Star Wars.
The duel showed us how Anakin was nothing more than a headstrong Padawan now, and how Obi-Wan had grown beyond his years and become a Jedi Master. It also showed how, despite their skills, both were leagues behind Yoda’s experience and knowledge of the Force.
3. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Count Dooku
Being the first of two major lightsaber duels in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith, this fight served as the rematch between Anakin and Count Dooku. The fight started by showing us how Anakin had changed from Episode II to Episode III.
It showed how he realized that Count Dooku was not a foe to be taken lightly, and it showed how he listened to Obi-Wan when he said they would fight together. Then, even though Obi-Wan was quickly knocked out, Anakin held his own against Count Dooku.
The duel would end with Anakin disarming Count Dooku and using his lightsaber along with Dooku’s own to threaten the Count with certain death. Anakin, egged on by Palpatine, would then use the lightsabers to behead Dooku.
The duel served as more than just a beautiful display of blue and red flashes. It showed us how Anakin had grown in the years between Episode II and III, but it also showed us how he had drifted from the Jedi Code.
The latter was made most obvious by his killing of Dooku, who despite being a Sith Lord, was unarmed and not dangerous. His killing directly violated the Jedi Code that Anakin had been sworn in on as a Jedi Knight.
This violation, along with the fact that Anakin used his hatred and anger to defeat Dooku, would soon enough become a precursor to the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader.
4. Anakin Skywalker versus Obi-Wan Kenobi
Serving as the final battle for the Prequel Trilogy, this battle was one for the ages. Out of the four duels spread throughout the three movies, this had perhaps the most emotional weightage attached to it.
The battle was the breaking point for the bond that had developed between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and as the final act in the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. The duel was a tearjerker, to say the least.
From the prelude that cemented Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force after he used the Force to choke out Padme, to Obi-Wan and Anakin’s exchange of ideologies, the duel brought audiences to the edges of their seats.
What made this duel so impressive was not the fact that Anakin had just turned to the Dark Side, or that Obi-Wan was his master, but the fact that the two knew each other so well that victory seemed impossible for either of them.
On multiple instances throughout the fight, we would see the two of them be so perfectly at odds with each other that they would execute the same moves and perform the same attacks at the same time.
The end of the duel occurred due to Obi-Wan having the tactical advantage over Anakin, rather than beating him in an all-out battle of skill. This was followed by an emotional exchange between the two where Obi-Wan would tell Anakin that he loved him like a brother, and Anakin would reply by telling his former master that he hated him.
The Prequels had a lot of drawbacks and flaws. They are infamous for their poor dialogue and the occasional lackluster moment, but the lightsaber duels are where they truly shined. Episodes I to III are undeniably the peak of Star Wars lightsaber action.
The factors surrounding their success are numerous, but some of the most prominent is that these duels were so well choreographed that it was hard to believe that they were not sped up or altered on a computer.
The second, and perhaps the most important factor is that the Prequels did not make the duels feel forced in any way. Everything, from emotional context to the clashing of blades, felt as natural as the Living Force itself.
But then the question remains,
Why are lightsaber fights in the Sequels so bad?
The Sequel Trilogy, starting with The Force Awakens and ending at The Rise of Skywalker, was, without doubt, the visual peak of Star Wars. This was the time when Star Wars was at its most beautiful.
But what the sequels had going for them in terms of aesthetic pleasure and pure graphical excellence, they lacked in other departments. One of the departments that suffered turned out to be the portrayal of on-screen combat.
The Sequels had insane amounts of potential when it came to using lightsaber battles effectively throughout the series. Unfortunately, most of it was wasted due to poor storytelling and pacing throughout the movies.
But these were not the only problems that the movies had. The first three episodes of Star Wars, despite their lack of adequate dialogue and significantly older graphics, were defined due to the sheer amount of effort that went into them from a storytelling point of view.
1. Timeline Placement and the de-evolution of Lightsaber Combat
The Prequels were set in an era when the Jedi Order was at its peak. With thousands of Jedi throughout the Galaxy and a variety of lightsaber combat forms that were taught to the Younglings from a very young age, lightsaber combat was at its peak because it was more widely used than in the Sequel Trilogy.
The problem throughout the Sequels was that the knowledge of Lightsaber combat, and how to effectively use the lightsaber forms, was lost to the ages. Both Rey and Kylo Ren were seen to use raw variations of lightsaber forms that were mixed and matched with each other.
In comparison to them, lightsaber duels in the Prequel Trilogy involved different styles of lightsaber usage in almost every single duel. The best example we see of this was Anakin versus Obi-Wan where Anakin utilized Form V to its fullest offensive capabilities and Obi-Wan utilized his mastery of the more defensive Form III, Soresu.
2. The Emotional Weightage of Final Battles
The most major difference between the lightsaber duels in the Prequel Trilogy and those in the Sequel Trilogy was one of emotional weightage and the meaning attached to these on-screen battles between good and evil.
The prequels shined because of every single moment, well-written or not built up emotions inside the audience. From the death of important characters to speeches delivered and political traversals, viewers were being teased with what was to come.
This led to every single fight in the Prequel trilogy feeling like it was tugging at the heartstrings of anybody who was watching it. Their endings, ranging from the death of Qui-Gon Jinn to Obi-Wan telling Anakin Skywalker how he was his brother, were some of the most emotional moments in pop culture history.
On the other side, the Sequel Trilogy was the exact opposite of what we saw in the Prequels. Lightsaber duels in the Sequels felt, for the most part, out of place and unnecessary; not to mention the fact that they lacked any degree of variety.
Consistently featuring only two characters, the fights between Rey and Ren quickly became dull, predictable, and straight-up stale. But that was far from the only problem, the duels showed no skill and felt boring to watch after the displays of style and mastery that the Prequels had given us.
The Sequels suffered due to the Jedi having died out after the Great Purge. Order 66, and its aftermath ensured that the teachings of the Jedi would never be brought to light again. And while Luke tried to change this, he too broke after Ben Solo betrayed him.
This resulted in the art of lightsaber combat, and the years that Jedi spent learning Lightsaber Forms, being lost to the ages.
The Prequel Trilogy was set in a time where using a lightsaber was less of a way to fight and more of an art form. But by the time that the Sequels had come around, the characters only saw lightsabers as weapons.
So, the stark contrast between the quality of lightsaber duels comes from the time between them and the events that had transpired in them. And while that might have been the major factor, the storytelling and lack of emotional context in the Sequel Trilogy, also played a role in this.