It’s no secret that I spend a lot of time thinking about movie titles. It’s also no secret that I spend a lot of time thinking about Star Wars. So it’s not going to come as much of a shock when I say that after the recent announcement that Star Wars – Episode VIII is called The Last Jedi, I found myself considering what makes a good Star Wars title, and that before too long, I had ranked all eight of the saga’s episode titles from best to worst.
So what makes a great Star Wars title? A few of things, actually. Firstly, a good moniker for films set in a galaxy far, far away should suggest a sense of action – the idea that either our heroes or the bad guys are about to do something really exciting. Secondly, the name should at least hint at the plot of the episode itself. It sounds obvious, but as you’ll notice below, at least one of the films on this list fails this basic test. Lastly, it’s crucial for a Star Wars flick to have a title that embraces the hyperbolic, 1930s Saturday matinee vibe that inspired both the iconic yellow crawl and “episode” structure in the first place. In short, a good Star Wars title should be a little bit corny.
With these criteria in mind, here’s how my Star Wars episode title rankings stacked up.
8. A New Hope
As most fans already know, the first Star Wars movie didn’t have a subtitle when it was initially released. It wasn’t until the film was re-released in cinemas that series creator George Lucas added Episode IV: A New Hope to the opening crawl, to keep continuity with sequel The Empire Strikes Back, by then released as “Episode V”.
So A New Hope gets kudos for continuity, at least – but let’s be honest: it’s a fairly bland title. Sure, it sounds pleasant enough, but there’s nothing energetic about it and there’s no sense of great adventure across the stars, which is disappointing given how much of a thrill ride the actual movie is. It also doesn’t really tie-in too closely with the film’s narrative either, although does link in with the wider Star Wars saga overall (spoiler: Luke is the new hope of the title, following his father’s fall to the Dark Side in Revenge of the Sith).
But most disappointing of all, there’s no real bombast to A New Hope, nothing completely OTT or old school in the Flash Gordon tradition, which makes it the most lifeless of the Star Wars titles.
7. The Last Jedi
Admittedly, it’s a bit premature (not to mention unfair) to judge the title of Rian Johnson’s upcoming follow up to The Force Awakens, especially given how little we know about the film’s story. That said, taken on face value, The Last Jedi isn’t exactly the most electrifying header. True, there’s a certain sense of pathos in how it evokes the sense of the sole remaining Jedi alone in the galaxy, but like A New Hope, it’s more of a reflective tone poem than a dynamic heading.
On the plus side, it seems pretty likely that The Last Jedi will score full marks when it comes to tying in with the plot of the film itself. Whether – as comments by Johnson would suggest – the title refers to Luke Skywalker (currently quite literally the last Jedi going), or to his new student Rey (which suggests – gasp! – Luke might die before the end!) or even both of them (given the plural of “Jedi” is, well, “Jedi”) it seems clear that The Last Jedi will prove an apt title, if not an overly thrilling one.
There’s also the cheese factor, and here, The Last Jedi earns a pass, if not a particularly glowing one. There’s a vaguely vintage vibe to Episode VIII’s moniker, and its absolute nature – seriously, you guys: there are no other Jedi left – does lend it a touch of the extreme. Taking all these factors into consideration, you’re left with a solid enough Star Wars title, albeit not an overly memorable one.
6. The Phantom Menace
That noise you hear – as if a million voices cried out in disgust, and were suddenly silent – is the sound of all the die hard fans reacting to the mere mention of much-maligned franchise opener The Phantom Menace. As with Episode I itself, however, this title is better than its detractors will admit, but is also unavoidably a let down. Like the last two entries on this list, The Phantom Menace suffers from the absence of any action in its phrasing, resulting in a fairly stagnant header.
Still, it does manage to perfectly encapsulate the real plot of the film. No, I don’t mean a boring squabble over trade routes between a nasty corporation and a backwater planet suspiciously similar to Caserta, Italy. I’m talking about the sneaky behind-the-scenes machinations of the evil Sith, who plot in the shadows through The Phantom Menace while the Jedi and Republic remain completely clueless to the threat they pose.
The Phantom Menace label is also suitably retro-tastic – you can totally picture it appearing on the title card of a black and white sci-fi serial – and it exudes a somewhat sinister sentiment, so (again, much like Episode I itself) there’s a surprising amount to like about this one.
5. The Force Awakens
Finally, a verb! J.J. Abrams’ hugely successful relaunch of the Star Wars franchise might not get everything right, but at least The Force Awakens boasts a title that promises something worthwhile is going to happen. True, as action words go, “awakens” isn’t quite the most stimulating example available, but it at least gives the impression of a propulsive narrative where the Force itself will reignite throughout the galaxy.
The Force Awakens sub-header also accurately sums up the plot of the film. The arrival of Rey – along with the ongoing activities of baddies Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke, and the return of Luke Skywalker – surely represents an out-and-out wake up call for the partially slumbering mystical energy field the binds the Star Wars galaxy together, no?
On the downside, The Force Awakens isn’t a very OTT name. While the title wouldn’t look out of place fronting up a 1930s matinee feature, it would have been nice to see Episode VII’s label sprinkled with a smidgen more cheddar.
4. Revenge of the Sith
“Ah, that’s more like it!” That’s not just what a lot of fans had to say when they walked out of Revenge of the Sith – generally the best received of the prequels – but also my response upon reaching this stage of the list. As verbs go, “Revenge” is a nice a meaty one, less about ominous overtones and more about the outright acts of vengeance being committed by the less friendly practitioners of the Force.
What’s more, the Revenge of the Sith title is a spot-on match for the events of Episode III, which sees the villainous Sith finally pull the trigger on their plot to bring the Republic to its knees, exacting payback on their Jedi enemies in the process. Revenge of the Sith also snags top marks for having a delightfully OTT title, although it loses a few solely for the fact that casual fans probably aren’t entirely sure who or what the Sith actually are.
Finally, it notches up bonus credit for being a reference to the original title for Return of the Jedi, which was originally titled Revenge of the Jedi, until an eleventh hour change by Lucas (once he realised that retribution wasn’t really something a true Jedi would aspire to).
3. Attack of the Clones
Hoo-boy… this is going to be an unpopular choice. Calling Episode II a polarising Star Wars movie is akin to describing Jabba the Hutt as “somewhat heavyset” and this extends to its title, which plenty of fans seem to hate due to its unabashed corniness.
Yet the Attack of the Clones masthead contains the most action-packed “doing word” on this list, immediately getting across the concept that a major battle – involving at least two or more doppelgängers – is on the very immediate horizon. Attack of the Clones also does what it says on the tin: there are clones in the movie, and they attack. Granted, it’s a slightly misleading handle, as it kinda gives the impression that the proto-stormtroopers will be be going up against our heroes, not fighting by their side, but that’s neither here nor there.
Most of all, though, the Attack of the Clones title is next-level bombastic, so much so that I’m almost certain there’s an old serial out there with the same title. Its cornier than a grail silo, cheesier than a fromagerie, but – unlike so many of the other instances of goofiness in the prequels – it’s full of fun, old school charm that actually works.
2. Return of the Jedi
As discussed, Return of the Jedi came this close to being called Revenge of the Jedi, and if “return” is a bit of downgrade from “revenge”, if there’s anything more hype-worthy than the prospect of one or more Jedi returning, I’d love to know what it is.
Episode VI’s header also gets props for reflecting the plot of the film on several levels. Obviously, it refers most directly to the return of Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker for yet another adventure. However, it also hints at the redemption of Darth Vader (and by extension, the return of Anakin Skywalker), as well as the potential reformation of the Jedi Order itself under Luke’s guidance.
Granted, the title is only solidly retro – it’s as much a generic Hollywood sequel title as it is a matinee throwback – but still, Return of the Jedi manages to tick all the boxes and deserves the #2 slot.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
Unsurprisingly, the perfect Star Wars movie has the perfect title. Not only does The Empire Strikes Back meet all three criteria, it does so with gusto.
In terms of action-packed titles, it’s hard to get much more active than when you’re striking back, so that’s a massive nod in Episode V’s favour up front. Even more impressively, The Empire Strikes Back label not only succinctly spells out the basic plot of the flick – the Empire has the Rebels on the run – it also spells out that that this is going to be a tonally and thematically darker outing than its predecessor. If the first Star Wars was about resurgent hope and (implicitly) our heroes, The Empire Strikes Back moniker leaves no doubt that this is villainy’s time to shine.
Best of all, The Empire Strikes Back title perfectly evokes the vintage of feel of a matinee serial while still also managing to come off sounding effortlessly cool at the same time. It’s hyperbolic to the nth degree, yet it pitches itself just shy of outright cheesiness so that even the most straight-laced fan can dig it. And that’s why – when it comes to Star Wars episode titles – The Empire Strikes Back ranks number one.