How Bringing Palpatine Back in ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Hurt This Fan Favorite
With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the saga ends. Well, at least for now. Everyone knows Disney and Lucasfilm won’t allow the “galaxy far, far away” to fade out of the cinematic landscape completely. Still, the Skywalker side of the story has reached a pretty definitive conclusion.
Fans and critics, of course, can’t agree how well director J.J. Abrams resolves the lingering plot threads set up by the previous eight episodes. One particular point of contention has been how The Rise of Skywalker brings back longtime franchise baddie Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). In taking the saga full-circle, does Abrams undermine his own grand finale?
[Spoiler alert: This article contains MAJOR spoilers from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Read at your own risk.]
The sequel trilogy set up Kylo Ren
Palpatine was dead at the end of Return of the Jedi, thanks to a perilous tumble down a reactor shaft. McDiarmid has confirmed as much, despite his diabolical laugh punctuating The Rise of Skywalker‘s first teaser. Fans, however, were taken aback at his inclusion for an entirely different reason.
The previous two films devoted significant time to digging into the headspace of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The character was introduced as the ultimate Darth Vader fanboy in The Force Awakens. Then he vanquished Snoke and passed on the opportunity to redeem himself in The Last Jedi. Those events had expertly set Kylo Ren himself up as the finale’s big bad.
So re-introducing Palpatine this late — with no seeds whatsoever planted for his return — felt like an act of narrative desperation. Abrams co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Terrio. While he maintains he always intended to revisit Palpatine, the end result certainly doesn’t flow smoothly with what’s come before.
Palpatine replaces the fallen Snoke
More than ever, The Rise of Skywalker reveals no one at Lucasfilm had a concrete plan how this sequel trilogy would play out. The Last Jedi eliminates Supreme Leader Snoke, the chief villain of this trilogy until then. So Abrams, it seems, had to get a bit creative in retconning how Snoke fit into Palpatine’s grand plan.
Early on, The Rise of Skywalker reveals Palpatine actually created Snoke and has been manipulating Kylo Ren for years. It’s unclear whether Snoke was a literal puppet or a creation who considered Palpatine his master. In either case, The Rise of Skywalker quickly undoes the steps forward Kylo Ren took in The Last Jedi.
The film makes clear Kylo Ren has no intention of truly doing Palpatine’s bidding. But the threat still shifts away from him and the First Order. Instead, this trilogy’s Vader and Empire become impotent in favor of something brand-new. Palpatine and his fleet of Death Star-esque Star Destroyers literally steal Kylo Ren’s movie right from under him.
‘Star Wars’ lets down its star
Since The Rise of Skywalker intended to highlight the late Carrie Fisher, we imagine Kylo Ren’s redemption was always key. Abrams does what he can to salvage Leia’s role in her son’s return to the light. It doesn’t have nearly as strong an emotional impact without Leia. But Ben Solo’s re-emergence mostly works, thanks to Driver and co-star Daisy Ridley’s performances.
In order for Ben Solo to be — quite literally — reborn, perhaps The Rise of Skywalker always needed an external threat to propel his story forward. Nevertheless, the film’s sloppy handling of Palpatine’s return feels out of left field right from the opening crawl. The Rise of Skywalker could have spent act one building to the Palpatine reveal rather than jumping into it.
Give Kylo Ren time to reassert his position as the arch-nemesis of the Resistance. Perhaps he commands an attack on its base, taking some key characters off the board. Then, Palpatine could have sneakily wormed his way to the forefront throughout the film. As it stands, Kylo Ren feels like a bit of a non-entity in a Star Wars film destined to be his finest moment.