Since 1977, every generation has had *their* Star Wars. From the Original Trilogy to the current wave of live-action series, both the young and the young at heart always have had a unique take on the “galaxy far, far away” to latch onto. But as part of the “Prequel Generation”, things can be… awkward. George Lucas’ return to the universe he created certainly included a lot of visually rich worlds and creative world-building, but the execution of the movies themselves leaves something to be desired. However, twenty years ago, Lucasfilm released something that boiled away the weaker parts of the Prequel Trilogy while doubling down on what worked: Star Wars: Clone Wars.
Star Wars: Clone Wars (not to be confused with Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the later computer-animated series) was an Emmy-winning animated “microseries” originally released on Cartoon Network from 2003-2005, which covered the events between Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Clone Wars was rather unique in its episode length, with Season One and Season Two episodes lasting 3-5 minutes, while the shorter Season 3 had 12-15 minute episodes.
The series was helmed by animation visionary Genndy Tartakovsky, who had previously created and overseen Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack for Cartoon Network. It makes a lot of sense that Lucasfilm picked Tartakovsky, considering Star Wars and Samurai Jack share a lot of creative DNA: both blur the lines of science-fiction and fantasy, and are the results of their creators throwing everything they love into one project- particularly the works of Akira Kurosawa.
In many ways, Clone Wars is a sort of spiritual successor to Samurai Jack. Both series have very similar art styles (though Clone Wars has more defined lines than Samurai Jack), and they both have minimal dialogue, telling their stories more with action than words. One of the biggest criticisms directed towards the Prequels was that the characters’ dialogue was wooden and awkward, and Clone Wars avoids that issue by just… not having clumsy discussions about trade disputes or tender talks that come across as more creepy than romantic. Padmé silently touching Anakin’s scar as she sees it for the first time just feels more intimate than Anakin openly telling Padmé that he thinks fascism is neat, actually.
Also, the Prequels were frequently bashed for putting style over substance and utilizing an overabundance of CGI, so it kind of rules that Clone Wars just went: “Fuck it, if Star Wars is a cartoon now, then it should be a damn good cartoon”. As a result, we got to see Jedi performing almost mythological feats. Saesee Tinn seizing an enemy ship with only a handful of Clone Troopers. Kit Fisto wrecking an underwater cannon that can tear through Star Destroyers. Mace Windu single-handedly beating his way through an army of B2 battle droids with nothing but the Force and his bare hands.
Clone Wars essentially makes the Jedi into demigods, and fans often believe that the miniseries is more a representation of what the war felt like to the average galactic citizen rather than how it actually went down. I doubt that Tartakovsky had this idea in mind, but it really is interesting to view this series as though parts of it are accounts from a Dantooine farmboy, a Mon Calamari warrior, or a Nelvaanian liberated from the Techno Union. There certainly doesn’t need to be an explanation as to why an animated series and a couple of live-action films have tonal differences, but it’s a little fun to think that tall tales about the Jedi taking on entire armies are the reason why Han Solo initially dismisses the Force as a crock of shit.
Of course, larger-than-life heroes need larger-than-life villains, and Clone Wars more than delivers on that front. The series introduced Asajj Ventress, the apprentice of Count Dooku who skirts around the “Rule of Two” by not technically being a Sith. Her striking design is pulled directly from Dermot Power’s concept art for the main villain of Attack of the Clones, which was abandoned in favor of Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku. Ventress initially just seems like a pretty badass foe that can clear a colosseum full of alien gladiators (god, Clone Wars is cool), but upon rewatching the series recently, I realized that she serves as a dark reflection of Anakin Skywalker. Both Ventress and Skywalker are pupils who are as powerful and ambitious as they are arrogant. The two are almost equally skilled in piloting and fighting, but Ventress seems to just slightly have the upper hand over Skywalker.
At least, this is the case until the end of their dramatic duel on Yavin IV, when Anakin overpowers Ventress by giving in to his rage. As Anakin repeatedly tries to hack Ventress apart with one of her own lightsabers, we see mental flashes of Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda looking in shock as “The Chosen One” surrenders to the dark side of the Force. The ground beneath Ventress crumbles until she falls off a cliff to her death (at least, until the 2004 comic “Obsession” reveals that she got better), and Anakin stands triumphant, yet broken, bathed in the red light of Yavin Prime. The imagery is not subtle, but this is the man who is going to become one of the most notorious villains in fiction: his descent into evil should be as big as possible.
The other baddie made specifically for the Clone Wars microseries is Durge, a silent, armored bounty hunter in the same vein as Boba Fett. The only difference is, Durge actually gets to be a badass instead of just being an implied one. In a sort of meta moment, one of the Banking Clan leaders begins chastizing Durge for “just standing around” (like a certain other bounty hunter), but Durge grabs the Muun by the throat, and from that scene on we always see him in action.
Something I love about Durge is that we gradually see what he’s capable of. He initially leads a bunch of lancing droids on speeder bikes against the clones on Muunilinst (this show is so goddamn cool), but when Obi-Wan destroys Durge’s bike (and does the Akira slide because this show is really goddamn cool), the bounty hunter shows just how deadly he can be. Obi-Wan impales Durge with a lightsaber, and Durge just lets out this low, menacing laugh (surely inspired by The Predator) before beating Obi-Wan around like a little bitch Durge unleashes a comical amount of weapons and gadgets on the Jedi, including darts, a flamethrower, a morningstar, two blasters, and little wrist shields.
When Obi-Wan slices Durge up, he pulls himself together for round two, where clone troopers destroy his armor (sans mask) in an attempt to blow him up. In what feels like another homage to Akira, Durge’s final form is a gigantic mass of meaty tendrils- an absolute beast that only seems to be stopped when Obi-Wan uses the Force to make him explode from the inside. But even then, it’s implied that Durge has only been inconvenienced, as his puddles of flesh ominously creep while Obi-Wan and his troops walk away. Durge’s borderline invincibility not only makes him menacing, but it’s also kind of funny on some level. There’s something inherently humorous about the way this guy just refuses to die, and every time Obi-Wan thinks he’s gotten rid of him, he comes back for more. Durge sort of encapsulates the delightfully outlandish vibes of Clone Wars as a whole.
And then… there’s General Grievous. See, initially the second season of Clone Wars was meant to end with Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting Durge one more time, but Lucasfilm wanted Tartakovsky to include a certain Jedi-hunting cyborg that they were developing for the upcoming Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. And so, Clone Wars introduced Star Wars fans to Grevious, a skeletal-looking mechanical monster who easily overpowers a whole group of Jedi in the season finale. Keep in mind that up to this point in the series, the Jedi were rarely depicted as losing. We’ve seen them overcome impossible odds and perform almost Herculean feats, and all of a sudden there’s a villain who picks them off one by one- like something out of a horror film- until the survivors are forced to retreat. Not only does Grievous slaughter Jedi though, but he does it with an almost acrobatic ease, grabbing his victims’ faces with his taloned feet and throwing them with a flip.
Obviously, this is a show for kids, and a lot of the violence is left to the imagination. When Grievous crushes a Padawan that looks like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo by jumping on him, his body vanishes like a goomba under Mario’s boot. Still, it feels very intense, and it’s quite apparent that this version of General Grievous is an unstoppable death machine. The Grievous who eventually appeared in Revenge of the Sith is vastly different from the one in Clone Wars: cowardly and ready to run away at the slightest chance that he might lose a fight. The reason for this disconnect is pretty simple: George Lucas hadn’t decided on Grievous’ personality, the team on Clone Wars had to make one up, and by the time Grievous debuted, Lucas decided to take the character in a different direction.
Though the original Clone Wars was removed from the new Star Wars canon in 2015, the series has had a pretty substantial legacy. Its biggest impact is the 2008 computer-animated series, which borrowed heavily from the microseries’ art style and premise. The 2020 “Siege of Mandalore” arc even included a throwaway line about Shaak Ti protecting Senator Palpatine in the leadup to Revenge of the Sith, which was a central part of the final season of the original Clone Wars. In fact, the microseries has had somewhat of a resurgence in recent years.
The original Clone Wars was added to Disney+ in 2021 under the “Star Wars Vintage Collection”, and later that year Durge was introduced to the new continuity in Alyssa Wong and Ray-Anthony Height’s Doctor Aphra #10. 2022’s Obi-Wan #3 from Christopher Cantwell and Alessandro Miracolo makes direct references to both Mace Windu’s fight “against all odds” on Dantooine and General Grievous slaughtering Jedi on Hypori. Additionally, Mike Chen’s novel Star Wars: Brotherhood also calls back to Mace Windu’s fight on Dantooine. Various toys based on the microseries have also been produced long after it aired, including a set of Black Series action figures from Hasbro earlier this year, and, curiously, a 2015 LEGO set based on Anakin’s custom starfighter from Clone Wars, the Azure Angel.
I think the thing about Star Wars: Clone Wars that makes it stand the test of time is how it doesn’t really care about any nostalgia you have for Star Wars because it’s too busy doing its own thing. Clone Wars doesn’t have time to go back to Tatooine or some similar desert planet- it would rather show off the Banking Clan world of Muunilinst, whose green, Greco-Roman architecture purposely evokes the U.S. dollar bill (according to art director Paul Rudish).
There’s a remarkable amount of creativity on display in the microseries. Especially considering it was initially conceived by Lucasfilm and Hasbro as a means to sell more toys. Tartakovsky’s unapologetic pursuit of something new and original disregarded preconceived notions of “what Star Wars should be”, and because of that, it really captured what George Lucas was trying to do with the movies: make the coolest thing a ten-year-old could imagine. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that you can revisit Star Wars: Clone Wars as a twenty-something and still think it’s the most badass thing ever.