“We’ve seen him, but we’ve never actually seen him fight. This’ll be the first time we see him pull out that little laser sword of his and go to town.”
One of the earliest Prequel Trilogy rumors was that audiences would be treated (if such is the word) to Yoda participating in Clone Wars-related combat. What eventually appeared during the climax of ATTACK OF THE CLONES was considered, at the time, a standout moment in the film, and one that put the character of Yoda in new context. “Judge me, by my size do you?” he once famously asked Luke. “Well, you should not, for my ally is the Force.” Now at last we saw the culmination of these veiled hints and clues as to the venerable Jedi Master’s true abilities.
Or did we? While many claim that Yoda taking on a full-sized human in ATTACK OF THE CLONES (and again in REVENGE OF THE SITH) is a Fist Pump moment exemplifying the character’s strength and power, the sequence is viewed by many -- myself included -- as a fundamental betrayal of the concept of the Force, and a misunderstanding of Yoda himself.
It’s also the moment where Yoda lost his class.
Full disclosure (being that I’ve tried to be honest in these writings and admit that I too was part of the Prequel machine, albeit in a disillusioned-but-still-participatory way): when I first read, in the pages of WIZARD, way back in the months before the release of PHANTOM MENACE, that Yoda was expected to duel at some point during the new trilogy, I let out a geeky giggle. Remember that in those days, CGI was still a relatively new thing, and the idea that Lucas was experimenting with never-before-seen set pieces wasn’t yet a cause for alarm. After all, it was George Lucas. Everything he did was a leap forward in storytelling, and special effects.
I wrote, in regards to THE PHANTOM MENACE, that I felt EPISODE ONE demystified the Jedi, and the manner in which they were trained. My argument was that Yoda was presented in EMPIRE as a sage who had been on Dagobah for centuries, teaching one student at a time. His existence was unknown to all but his pupils. Yoda was a calm and quiet being, whose teachings were as much about internalization as they were about the external world: both were bound to the Force, and a mastery of that ancient power both united and unbound that which tied the physical to the metaphysical. This was his strength; this was how he battled the Dark Side.
Both Yoda and the Emperor were seemingly above combat. Neither needed a lightsaber. Palpatine was, in fact, shown frying Luke with lightning bolts during the climax of RETURN OF THE JEDI, which was far greater than mere skill with a close-range weapon. Anyone who could hurl electricity from their fingertips didn’t need a three-foot blade; they simply zapped their opponent. It was a cowardly and effective means of assault, perfectly in keeping with a mastery of the Dark Side.
Yoda was presumably the Emperor’s equal and opposite. He didn’t need a lightsaber, either. He didn’t need to dash about; after all, he could stand his ground and moved crashed X-Wings. Size and weight and the physical realm were abstract. Thus, to battle Yoda would be a vein effort: you’d never get close to him. However he “fought” would be in keeping with his teachings, which revolved around defense…”never attack.”
When trying to imagine a Yoda battling in the Clone Wars, or perhaps fighting a Dark Jedi, one immediate (and I thought, unique) image jumped into my mind. I conceived of a Yoda who did indeed carry a lightsaber -- man-sized -- that, as a last resort, he tossed into the air. It would ignite, and duel with his opponent as if wielded by an invisible hand. Yoda would sit there, calm, at peace, passive, while his attacker desperately engaged a laser sword that would parry and thrust with unparalleled skill. Cinematically speaking, it would provide a new and striking image to the list of climactic duels, and keep in tone with the character of Yoda as previously established.
Still, as much as I can sit here all these years later and postulate alternate characterizations for characters from STAR WARS films older than my seventeen year-old dog, it’s all academic (and fan-wanky). The fact is that Yoda shouldn’t have been depicted as a warrior, being that it wasn’t who the character was. As with most (if not all) aspects of the Prequel Trilogy, we’re talking about elements that were best left in the viewer’s mind. This story didn’t need to be told, and was more effectively conveyed in broad stokes within the Original Trilogy.
So why was it okay to imagine Yoda using telekinesis to operate a lightsaber rather than doing so physically? Where’s the divide?
As already stated, Yoda was above physical confrontation. EMPIRE (and to a lesser degree, JEDI) made it very clear that the aged Jedi Master had a connection to the Force so far beyond that of the average student (or indeed, fully-developed knight) that he existed on a higher level. You could aim a laser cannon directly at him and still miss. This ethereal existence -- on a planet that, as depicted, might not even respond to the passing of time as we know it – rendered Yoda nearly god-like. With that said, would Yoda ever directly confront a foe? Would he even need to? His place was to instruct, inform, and offer guidance. It’s sort of like imagining Jesus coming down and street fighting a Taliban leader.
So let’s just clear all of that away and say, yes, Yoda was a Jedi, and one of the key components of the Jedi method was to eliminate enemies through use of a weapon specific to the order: a lightsaber. Assuming this is the case, and eliminating my fan theory that Yoda would use the Force to wield the weapon remotely, what was so wrong about his duel with Count Dooku in ATTACK OF THE CLONES?
For one thing, Yoda spoke of the Force being used for defensive means rather than offensive. In the film, our sage uses his mind powers to draw his saber from his belt, and then immediately -- and aggressively -- assaults his foe, hooting and hollering the whole time. Maybe I’m alone in this, but never once did I imagine Yoda roaring during a duel.
Second, why would he leap around like Sonic the Hedgehog? More importantly, how could he perform these acrobatic bounds? Consider Yoda as depicted in the Prequels: he hobbles around on his cane like an elderly man, and when engaging with Obi-Wan and Mace Windu in a casual stroll, he requires use of a floating chair to keep up. “For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi,” he tells Luke in EMPIRE, and later acknowledges his age in JEDI when he says: “When nine hundred years you reach, look as good, you will not.” This tells us that his semi-arthritic depiction isn’t feigned, and is in fact his physical condition. Yet at the end of CLONES, he tosses his cane aside, whips out his weapon, and then hops around like a video game character; once the battle is over, he retrieves his cane and goes back to hobbling.
Having Yoda engage in physical combat suddenly becomes more than a character-based contradiction; it becomes a continuity error without internal logic in the very universe he inhabits. It even goes a step further when, after the duel, Dooku causes the ceiling to collapse, Yoda’s shown struggling to keep the debris levitated. “No! Size matters not!” he tells Luke, and yet here, we see that a few heavy chunks of ceiling completely discredit his Jedi teachings. I won’t even elaborate on the fact that had Yoda simply thrown the rocks at Dooku’s ship, the Sith Lord would have been captured, the Republic saved, and the Death Star plans obtained. But I digress.
Then there’s a simple question of physics. If engaging a tiny creature in combat, with your undersized opponent wielding a weapon of size comparable to their relative height, you’d eliminate your opponent within seconds. However fast they were, your physical strength would overwhelm them, and their attempts to deflect your attacks would prove fruitless. Should you require further examples, try sword fighting with a toddler. Close your eyes and use only your left hand; you’ll still beat the living shit out of them. I promise. I just did it with my six year-old son and his friends last weekend.
Yes, I get that this is STAR WARS. It’s fantasy, not hard sci-fi. The ships make pew pew sounds in the vacuum of space. Thus we have to engage in a certain suspension of disbelief and allow the story to carry us rather than the potential factuality of the events depicted. I’m onboard; I totally get it. After all, we were all willing to (begrudgingly) accept the Ewok victory over the Empire, right?
The problem here is that we aren’t engaged in the story or the characters. The events in ATTACK OF THE CLONES are as cold and remote as the pixels used to fabricate a Yoda who’s too hyper-real to ever truly resemble the lifelike, practical character we met in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. If we aren’t buying into the story and the people inhabiting it, how can we allow for events that we know are implausible but accept based on our investment in the greater tale being told…?
In the end, the clear motive is topping the previous film. THE PHANTOM MENACE is remembered fondly, if for no other reason, for the three-way lightsaber battle with Darth Maul. Lucas knew he needed to come up with something that bested it, and devised the Yoda duel. It’s stunningly transparent how brief and perfunctory Anakin’s climactic fight is, and how obligatory it is in its delivery. Thus, an iconic character becomes a puppet of another sort: one to create a brief and memorable spectacle that sells a few tickets in the short term, and becomes a negative footnote to be derided ever after.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)