When you sit down to enjoy the Star Wars saga, what film is first? Two StarWars.com writers defend their favorite viewing order.
One of the great things about Star Wars is that it inspires endless debates and opinions on a wide array of topics. Best bounty hunter? Most powerful Jedi? Does Salacious Crumb have the best haircut in the saga? In that spirit, StarWars.com presents From a Certain Point of View: a series of point-counterpoints on some of the biggest — and most fun — Star Wars issues. In this installment, in celebration of Star Wars Day on May the 4th, two StarWars.com writers discuss their preferred order for film viewing enjoyment.
Jamie Greene says he prefers to watch the films in the order in which they were released: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi.
Look, I know you have an opinion on this topic. Of all of the debates in Star Wars fandom, the “correct” order to watch the films is one of the most contentious. There were disagreements back when things were simpler and we only had six films to organize. Now that we're about to have 10 films, the debate has gotten exponentially more layered and increasingly challenging.
There are a surprising number of ways to order the Star Wars films, and compelling arguments can be made in favor of most of them. For our purposes here, we're only considering the nine (to date) live-action theatrical films. The Clone Wars film, all animated series, and the Ewoks TV movies are off the table. They fundamentally change the conversation. But enough dilly-dallying. I'm here to take a position, so let's just get this out of the way. The best way to watch the Star Wars films is in release order: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi.
The only hiccup here is Rogue One, which I'll allow to be placed either between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace or between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Granted, that's a bit of a cheat, but if watched in release order, Rogue One disrupts the natural flow from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi—the two films that ironically don't have much passage of time between them. Full disclosure: I'm of an age where I saw the original trilogy in the theaters. So sure, the inclination here is to be a curmudgeon and loudly proclaim, "That's the way WE watched it, so that should be how EVERYONE watches it!" My point isn't to force my experience on anyone else, but let's face facts: watching the films in release order just makes sense. And it makes for the best viewing experience.
How you choose to watch the films depends on whether you think Star Wars is largely Luke’s or Anakin’s story (which is a whole other debate). Nevertheless, I'm going to break with protocol here and suggest that the saga is not about an individual character; it's about the Force.
There's a reason that "show, don't tell" is one of the most basic pieces of writing advice. Show, and the audience becomes mentally and emotionally engaged. They experience the story on a deep, personal level, and they develop a fully realized, three-dimensional understanding of the tale and its characters. Tell, and the audience remains passive and experiences a story from one perspective alone — the author's.
When we watch Star Wars in release order, the saga is shown to us. We're presented with complex characters, mysteries, hints at various backstories, and a story that slowly and logically develops. The narrative begins in medias res — that is, in the middle of things — and ultimately comes full circle, implying that the Force always has been and always will be. It isn't limited to one person, family, or sect. It doesn't belong to Obi-Wan, the Skywalkers, or the Jedi Order. It transcends everything. Luke, Leia, Anakin, Padme, Rey, Kylo . . . they're just ephemeral players in the Force's unending story.
When we watch in episodic order, the saga is told to us. We're presented with a biography of one person. The story intentionally focuses on Anakin Skywalker and centers the entire narrative on his journey alone. The irony here is that, even though episodic order centers the story on Anakin, it does the character a disservice. Watched in release order, Darth Vader is a real villain. He's ruthless, scary, and pure evil. Our understanding of the person behind the mask slowly develops to the point where we find that we have empathy for him. He is a complicated character we both fear and love, and it's obvious why Kylo Ren would grow to revere him.
Watched in episodic order, Anakin begins as a fragile child and grows into a flawed adult. First impressions matter, and because of that, the imposing figure he becomes isn't scary or villainous. It's just a broken shell. And it leaves us wondering why Kylo Ren and the First Order would seek to emulate his image. There's a reason George Lucas began his epic space opera in the middle with Episode IV. It's great storytelling. It's great viewing. And it's how's everyone should experience the saga.
Dan Zehr says he also starts with A New Hope, but then switches to Rogue One, The Empire Strikes Back, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi.
The conventional method of viewing the Star Wars films in historical, chronological order is certainly legitimate and is absolutely the way I would introduce this universe to children. However, from a mythological point of view, I propose we subscribe to the formula originally crafted by Homer, author of The Iliad (the oldest existing work of Western Literature) and its sequel, The Odyssey. The Odyssey, in particular, modifies the sequential order of the traditional narrative, and employs the technique of in medias res — in the middle of the action. Or, perhaps more accurately, when the story starts, certain key events have already taken place that have shaped where we find our heroes at the beginning of the tale.
Which is exactly why you have to start with A New Hope. You know how the film starts: we are in the middle of a Galactic Civil War, with dialogue centered around plans to a Death Star and a brave Princess that will not be able to escape this time. Throw in Darth Vader’s fearsome Star Destroyer, the Devastator, in hot pursuit of the Tantive IV. The stage is set: the audience immediately realizes that a lot has happened before the story even began. We are instantly invested, curious about what came before and what will happen next.
Then, we jump to Rogue One to help establish the narrative weight. We just saw the Death Star explode at the end of A New Hope, and now get to see, in a literal sense, just how difficult it was to get the plans in the first place. We go backwards, in order to go forwards. This increases our suspense of where we will go next.
It also demonstrates, in a very chilling way, just how dangerous and intimidating Darth Vader can be. The sequence at the end of Rogue One, in which Vader makes short work of members of the crew of the Tantive IV, will reinforce how serious it is that the Dark Lord of the Sith is actively searching for young Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Then, when the Skywalkers face off on Cloud City, the game of cat and mouse that Vader seems to employ is even more ripe with tension. We know Vader can take Luke out without much effort (again, see Rogue One), but the methodical manner in which he faces Luke Skywalker makes even more sense once we have the reveal of Luke’s lineage.
It’s Shakespearean tragedy, so let’s add to that, and employ in medias res once again by next viewing Episodes I, II, and III. Anakin’s rise and fall are full of gravitas and shocking revelations. Along with Padmé, we gasp and weep as Anakin completes his journey towards the Dark Side. We have gone from seeing him at his most powerful (Rogue One), and then his most innocent (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), only to witness him at his lowest point (Revenge of the Sith). It’s a different lens in which to experience Vader’s arc and may add another dimension to how you look at him.
However, this story is not complete without Anakin Skywalker’s redemption, which is why the natural next step is Return of the Jedi. Luke’s belief that there is still good in Darth Vader is arguably more powerful when you have viewed the films in this suggested order to get to this point. Plus, there’s the little matter of rescuing Han Solo from the vile clutches of Jabba the Hutt. When these films came out in theaters originally, we had to wait three years to find out what happened. Waiting to see Jedi after viewing the prequels helps give us anticipation for the moment.
That leaves The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to finish off the existing Star Wars cinematic universe. It would not make sense to watch these before the other films, and by this point, we are so invested in Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo that what happens in the newer movies leaves a mark on our collective psyche. Watching the films in this order will certainly be your first step into a larger world, and adds even more power to this already incredible story.
What are your picks for best viewing order? Let us know in the comments below!
Jamie Greene is a publishing/book nerd who makes a living by wrangling words together into some sense of coherence. He’s also a contributor to GeekDad and runs The Roarbots, where he focuses on awesome geeky stuff that happens to be kid-friendly. On top of that, he cohosts The Great Big Beautiful Podcast, which celebrates geek culture by talking to people who create it. With two little ones and a vast Star Wars collection at home, he’s done the unthinkable: allowed them full access to most of his treasure from the past 30 years, opening and playing with whatever they want (pre-1983 items excluded).
Dan Zehr is a high school English teacher with an MS in Teaching and Learning, and is the Host and co-creator of Coffee With Kenobi, a podcast that examines Star Wars’ mythology from a place of intelligence and humor.