Star Wars Revisited: Rebels
The Rise of Skywalker is almost here, and it’s supposedly the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. So, I’ve decided to attempt a full canon rewatch before it releases, reviewing each chapter as I go. That’s all the movies, as well as the Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance TV series. We continue today with Star Wars: Rebels.
Before I start this review proper, I have something important to say. I suspect that many of you have never seen this show. I get it. It’s a goofy-looking CG cartoon on Disney XD. There are plenty of folks in the world who don’t want to spend time watching a children’s cartoon, and I don’t blame them. Cartoons are a different kind of narrative, especially ones aimed at all audiences. Star Wars is inherently goofy, but it also takes itself just seriously enough to be able to deliver on telling a story capable of resonating with countless audiences. But hear me out.
Were you a child when you became a Star Wars fan? Were you in the theater in 1977? Did you catch it on VHS in the 90s? Were the prequels your first experience? Because if you were ever a kid who was also a Star Wars fan, Star Wars Rebels is the TV show you wish existed when you were. If you’re the kind of person who still feels something when the opening scroll rolls in a Star Wars movie, who still gets chills when Vader says “No, I am your father.” If the stories and characters in Star Wars are even half as important to you as they are to me, consider this a personal request.
Find time to watch this show. It’s not that long, and it’s all readily available on Disney+. Are you enjoying The Mandalorian? Good. This is what Dave Filoni did before that. This guy gets Star Wars, and that soul is in every inch of this show.
Imagine you’re a kid. In the second season finale, our plucky young hero (also a kid. Well, not a kid so much as a young man, but you get it) stands before Darth Vader and says “I don’t fear you.”
Darth Vader, played by James Earl Jones, replies without missing a beat. “Then you will die braver than most.”
That’s what this show has to offer, and so, so much more. Believable characters, incredible moments that only serve to enhance continuity instead of break it, stellar voice acting across the board, and the spirit that makes Star Wars special.
Please, remember what it was like to be a kid watching Star Wars, and watch this show.
It is a children’s show, so there will be plenty of episodes and characters that are childish to a fault, and occasional dialogue that comes across as cheesy bordering on cringeworthy, especially in the first season, but that really isn’t all that different from A New Hope now is it? If you have reverence for the best that TV animation has to offer, like Batman: The Animated Series or Avatar: The Last Airbender, I promise this show has something for you.
There’s a case to be made for having to see at least some of The Clone Wars to appreciate characters like Ashoka Tano, the clones, and even Darth Maul, but if that’s too high a hurdle to get you involved, I think Rebels stands just fine on its own. Stick with it, too. The small stuff, the filler, it might seem silly and superfluous, but it all serves a purpose.
I’ll stop now, and if you haven’t seen Rebels and you’re only reading this because I asked you to, things are about to get spoilery and I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprises this show throws at its audience for anything. Thanks for your time, and may the Force be with you.
Let’s get on with it. Like I said, what lies ahead is some seriously spoilery territory, and if you haven’t seen this show before I strongly urge you to stop now and watch it before reading my review.
Star Wars Rebels is brilliant. It isn’t flawless. It has its share of issues. But it’s honestly almost as good as any Star Wars content that’s out there, and I’m including the original trilogy in that statement. One thing you have to swallow though is this show’s children’s program nature. At the end of the day, this isn’t a live-action PG-13 movie. There are characters with silly voices. There are characters who make bad jokes. There are TV tropes you will see coming a mile away. There are also far more moments where you will forget you’re watching something aimed at kids because not only is it just that well put together, but it does an amazing job of making you feel like a kid too.
My wife and I watch She-Ra with our kids. We both really enjoy it because it’s very well done and the plot is genuinely interesting. But there’s never really a time where the show hits me with the feels the way Rebels did. What I’m trying to say is that there are certain shows and movies that transcend their mediums. Star Wars Rebels makes me feel like a kid again, and it does it in a way that allows me to experience the show’s twists and turns like a kid would. What’s cooler is that while I’m enjoying the show like a kid with a bowl of cereal in one hand and a toy lightsaber in the other, I also have the benefit of the wonderful nostalgia that comes along with hearing the voices of Frank Oz, James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDirimind, and more reprise their classic roles alongside the new characters who fit into Star Wars canon like a glove.
Star Wars Rebels is a show about the formation of the Rebel Alliance. It starts with a series of shorts that aired on Disney XD. These aren’t an essential watch, but they’re also on Disney+, there’s only 4 of them, and they’re about 2 minutes each, so watching them before getting into the show couldn’t hurt. They do represent the show at its most childish though, so that’s something to be aware of. Season one plays out the same way, really, and while it may be off putting for some adults because of its childish nature, it’s a pretty important step to get through. Rebels, like the best children’s/young adult shows, starts out relatively lighthearted. The stakes are low, nobody is ever in any real danger, and it’s just easy to digest fun. Until it isn’t. And when you get there, you appreciate the gravity so much more because while you’ve seen these characters get out of tight spots before, there’s a pretty big difference between watching them thwart a bunch of dumb stormtroopers and coming face to face with Darth Vader, especially with the voice of James Earl Jones under the helmet.
Anyway, each one of these shorts introduces us to members of Phoenix Squad, a group of rebels who live aboard The Ghost, this show’s “Millenium Falcon” if that makes sense. The first short introduces Captain Hera Syndula, a Twi’lek woman and captain of the Ghost, Kanan Jarrus, her co-pilot, leader of their group, (and as we find out a few episodes in, former Jedi Padawan who survived Order 66), and their droid Chopper, who is an astromech like R2D2 with adorable little robot arms and a pretty bitchy personality (in a mostly endearing way). The second short introduces us to Sabine Wren, a Mandolorian girl who loves explosives and graffiti art. The third introduces us to Zeb Orrelios, a giant purple furry guy who fills the “brutish lovable tough guy” trope with gusto. He’s the character I’ve always had the toughest time digesting because he’s the most “cartoon character” of the bunch. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but he does stick out, and not just because he’s a giant purple fuzzy dude. Finally, the fourth short introduces us to the series main protagonist Ezra Bridger, a force sensitive orphan who likes to collect Stormtrooper helmets, and is about to have his first run in with the Ghost crew, sending him on a spectacular adventure in a galaxy far, far away.
Once Season One starts proper, things play out in a very expected manner. Honestly, the start of season one isn’t the best television I’ve ever seen. It isn’t bad by any stretch, but it’s very by the numbers. It does, however, give us an understanding of what’s going on in the world of Star Wars after Revenge of the Sith. The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, but there are small pockets of rebellion popping up all over the place. The Empire is pretty good at dealing with them, and they never really accomplish anything that would constitute a serious threat because there is no actual organization. No alliance. At least not yet.
As far as the Jedi are concerned, Order 66 wiped out the bulk of them, but there are still a handful out there, which Darth Vader has been tasked with wiping out. This isn’t really a job for one though, even Vader, so The Emperor has seen fit to allow him to form a team of not-quite-Sith called the Inquisitors. These folks are force users with really cool spinning lightsabers, but they aren’t quite as powerful as a full on Sith lord. This is probably Palpatine’s way of ensuring that what happened with Count Dooku and Ventress doesn’t happen with Vader.
The head inquisitor in season one is voiced by Jason Isaacs who plays the role of impending terror delightfully. This guy’s played Captain Hook and Lucius Malfoy, so he knows how to villain, and he’s a constant delight whenever he’s on screen.
We’re also introduced to a couple of Imperial recurring villains. One is Tarkin, played here by Stephen Stanton and remember that name, because he plays another character in this show, and it’s a real doozy. Obviously Peter Cushing wasn’t available on account of having been dead for a number of years before the show was made, but Stanton does a pretty great job of capturing his mannerisms.
The other is Agent Kallus, who regularly sports the most absurd mutton chops I think I’ve ever seen, making it kind of hard to take him seriously. That issue is alleviated quite admirably by his voice actor David Oyelowo who plays this seemingly one-note villain like a freaking violin. Kallus is honestly a completely nothing character for half of the show’s run. He’s just some imperial jerk who wants to crush the rebels. Then in the season 2 episode The Honorable Ones, he gets wounded and stranded in a cave with Zeb. Zeb hates this guy more than most because Kallus was responsible for the slaughter of Zeb’s family, and as far as he knows at this point in the series, entire species. Still, Zeb elects not to finish Kallus off, and instead helps him in his helpless state. This is another TV trope you’ve likely seen in a show at some point, but it’s played out especially well here because by the end of the episode they aren’t friends. They both go their separate ways, seemingly now even and fully ready to kill one another the next time they meet. Zeb gets rescued by his friends on the Ghost, which Kallus was certain wouldn’t happen because there’s no way there are people in the galaxy who would go through that kind of trouble to save one person. When Kallus finds his way back aboard an Imperial Star Cruiser, we see him walk past people he knows, people he works with, and nobody says a word. Not so much as a “Hey, I’m glad you’re alright.” Everything’s just business as usual. He goes to his dark gray room, and that’s it. It’s pretty sad, but the next time we see him, he’s acting like a regular villain again, and you think the show was just being a regular old inconsistent kids show until almost a full season later we learn that Kallus has been working as a spy for the rebellion ever since that day. By the end of the show he’s a full blown member of the rebel alliance and I never saw it coming.
I bring this up in particular because Kallus should have stayed a nothing character, but by the end he’s somewhere I never expected him to be and that’s a heck of a testament to how well this show is written.
But let’s take a break from the bad guys for a bit and spend some more time with a couple of good guys I didn’t expect to see return. First is a small handful of Clone Troopers somehow still alive after the Clone Wars. Captain Rex along with Commanders Wolffe and Gregor, were all characters introduced in The Clone Wars. These particular clones apparently removed their chips and didn’t follow through on Order 66 (I’m a little fuzzy on the details there, but it doesn’t really matter). I honestly never thought I’d hear from these characters again, but having three clones just living in the middle of nowhere, doing their best to stay the heck off the radar following the events of Revenge of the Sith is kind of awesome. More importantly though, is the triumphant return of one of the best characters in all of Star Wars, Ashoka Tano.
At the end of Clone Wars, Ashoka decided to leave the Jedi Order after they wrongfully accused her of murder, among other things, and after a rather heartfelt goodbye with Anakin, who was more than a little pissed at the Jedi Order for everything that happened with Ashoka. We never found out exactly what she was up to after this because The Clone Wars series ended. All we know is she wasn’t around for a while, meaning that Anakin’s closest friend next to Obi-Wan wasn’t there to help Anakin not go all bug nuts and turn to the dark side.
Ashoka’s return in this show is amazing for a couple of reasons. First, because we get to see what kind of woman she grew into post-Jedi life. The answer to that is a freedom fighter, spy for the rebellion, and all around badass. The other big reason is that this show features Darth Vader as a regular villain, and by this point we know the showrunner has his head wrapped around not creating incontinuities with the original trilogy, so at some point Ashoka and Vader are going to meet, and it’s probably not going to go too well for Ashoka.
Watching her try to solve the mystery of Darth Vader (because that’s what he is in this show. A complete mystery who came out of nowhere and started killing folks) is incredibly fun and ultimately heartbreaking, because their eventual faceoff goes exactly the way you expect it to, and exactly the way you hope it won’t.
But before we get there, we have to mention another villain this series reintroduces, Maul. Yes, Maul is still alive, apparently in exile after being “tossed aside” by the Emperor. He meets Ezra and decides to make him his new apprentice, using his force powers to help him open a Sith Holocron which holds the ability to gain the answer to any single question. And what question does Maul want the answer to above all else? The whereabouts of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
I’m not going to go too deep into the events that follow. If you’ve seen the season 2 finale you already know the incredible coolness and horror that goes down. If you haven’t, I beg you to stick with the show long enough to get there.
Anyway, where Maul and Ezra meet is an old Sith temple, which is being guarded by a couple of inquisitors. They’ve been trying to get this Holocron for the Emperor for a while now, but they haven’t been able to get it. Neither has Maul. Once Ezra and his friends show up, the inquisitors send word to the Empire. Maul escapes, and once he does, Vader shows up. And there’s your Ashoka showdown.
I can’t say enough good things about the way this scene is done. It’s acted brilliantly by everyone involved, including a very creative and effective combination of the voices of James Earl Jones and Matt Lanter (Anakin from The Clone Wars). No exaggeration, if you’ve followed these characters to this point, this is as effective as anything in any Star Wars movie, and it’s a testament to just how good this show can be when it wants to.
There’s so much more to cover throughout the series, too. Yoda shows up and gives some advice. Classic Frank Oz, not swinging a lightsaber around, good old fashioned Yoda being Yoda. Sabine leads the show on a deep dive into Mandalorian lore, including explaining the history of that Dark Saber the leader of Death Watch had in Clone Wars. Kanan’s path to becoming an actual Jedi Knight is incredible to watch, and his arc throughout the series concludes in one of the most gutting scenes since Kylo Ren killed Han.
The show also takes Ezra on some unexpected journeys, including some really crazy mystical Force stuff I didn’t see coming. There’s time alteration, tons of fascinating Jedi lore that ties back into stuff introduced in back in The Clone Wars, and an eventual mental face-off against the Emperor himself (played by Ian McDiarmid) that is completely killer, and ultimately leads us to a resurrected Ashoka.
But one of the things that really made me sit up in my seat and pay attention was when the information Maul was looking for actually came to light. Ezra found out where to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, and went to get his help for the Rebellion.
I mentioned Stephen Stanton earlier as the voice of Tarkin, but that’s not his only role in this show. He also plays Obi-Wan, or at least that’s what the credits say. I’m not entirely convinced they didn’t just dig up and reanimate Alec Guiness to reprise his role because this performance is freakishly haunting. It’s about as perfect a match as I could possibly imagine, and it’s amazing. Obi-Wan’s portrayal here was surprising because not only did they not just use the Clone Wars voice actor to fill the role, they went the extra mile and showed us the Obi-Wan we remember from A New Hope, which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. He’s wise, a little playful, and more than a little pissed that Ezra found him since he’s trying to stay secret and all.
This ultimately leads to Maul having followed Ezra and forcing Obi-wan to fight him, which is the other surprising thing because they went ahead and fixed a problem I never knew needed fixing. Much like how Rogue One brilliantly explains how the Rebels were able to blow up the Death Star via a weakness intentionally implanted in the space station, Rebels gives a brief explanation on why Obi-Wan and Vader’s fight in A New Hope looked the way it did. In the prequel content, we’ve seen Obi-Wan jump around like a ninja multiple times. We also know that being old and rickety doesn’t have a lot to do with holding one back in matters of force wielding. Count Dooku was pretty freaking spry and he looked to be about Obi-Wan’s age in Revenge of the Sith. But when Kenobi busts out his lightsaber, he starts in his silly pointing-at-you-with-two fingers stance, but then pulls his saber back into a samurai position. Obi-Wan learned a new fighting style on Tatooine, which is based around small, deliberate movements, which he uses to dispatch Maul with shocking efficiency. They didn’t need to do that, but unlike most of the stuff the prequel movies did, this actually enhances the existing lore. Bloody brilliant.
The show ends with Ezra sacrificing himself to defeat Admiral Thrawn, a fan favorite character taken from the old Expanded Universe content and given new life in this show’s third and fourth seasons. In a rather touching epilogue, we learn that Hera was pregnant when Kanan died, and now she’s flying around with a green-haired son. Zeb took Kalus to a secret planet full of a thriving Lasat population, which was pretty nice to see too . And last but not least, Ashoka eventually found her way back to reality (after Ezra resurrected her, she was basically stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way to get anywhere, hence her absence in the original trilogy. Well done, show!) and her and Sabine leave to go see if they can find Ezra alive in the universe somewhere. The show runner said in a later interview that both Ezra and Thrawn survived what went down in the finale, and man oh man I hope the Ashoka & Sabine travel the galaxy looking for Ezra show happens someday because I would watch the ever-loving crap out of that. But for now, we have this, and this is about as good as I could have possibly hoped it to be.
Yes, Hondo eventually shows up, and he represents what is far and away this show at its absolute worst, but even with those low points in tow, Rebels is a spectacular experience from beginning to end. If you were ever a child who loved Star Wars, I can not imagine you getting through this show without feeling something. As much as I would have loved to see the events of Rebels play out in live action, I’m glad it’s a cartoon for kids because it really is the show I wish existed when I was younger. And unlike a lot of other shows, because this one is put together with the best of Star Wars in mind, it’s pretty much timeless. Aspects of the first few seasons of Clone Wars already don’t hold up. This show’s art direction isn’t spectacular, but it’s never actively ugly, and its overall presentation is done in a way that makes it just as viable as any other Star Wars canon out there. Heck, more so than even Episodes II and III in the prequel trilogy.
Rebels and Clone Wars were designed as supplemental content to fill in the gaps between II and III and III and IV. But honestly, if you were to just replace Attack of the Clones with The Clone Wars, and replace Revenge of the Sith with Rebels, you would have a much better story on your hands than what George Lucas gave us with his theatrical dumpster fires.
So if you have the time and dedication, watch The Clone Wars. It’s mostly great and makes the world of the prequels worthwhile. But Rebels is on another level. Rebels should be required viewing for any Star Wars fan, childish aspects be damned. So much more good stuff happens in the show’s four seasons than I can possibly recap here, but I can say this, I will watch this show as part of Star Wars canon for the rest of my life. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the movies. It’s just that good.
Speaking of amazing prequels, the stunning Rogue One is up next, and I’m stoked because every time I see this movie I like it more. Maybe everyone won’t die this time… right?