There’s a lot of Star Wars stuff these days. More Disney+ series than you can shake a gaffi stick at, Marvel comics series-within-series; books, games, culinary chain promotional materials. It’s a lot. Though really, even before the House of the Mouse took over, there’s been a lot of Star Wars stuff, and it was always our job as diligent fans to sift through and find the good comics or games that cropped up alongside the feature films that defined the saga. Yet for me, at seven years old, seeing Star Wars: Clone Wars on Cartoon Network was the de facto representation of that galaxy far, far away, increasingly so for reasons I understood more as I grew up and expanded my pop cultural/artistic horizons.
Master animator Genndy Tartakovsky took one of the most iconic franchises in history and put a sleek, gorgeous spin on the Star Wars mythos, carving out around two-dozen episodes’ worth of war stories fleshing out the gap between Attack of the Clones and then-forthcoming Revenge of the Sith. Cast aside with the emergence of The Clone Wars (for our purposes, the series that began in 2008 on Cartoon Network will mostly be referred to as “3D Clone Wars,” after its CG style of animation) and further forgotten with Disney’s erasure of so much Star Wars lore to make room for their new canonical direction, Clone Wars made something of a triumphant return with its addition to Disney+ this month and now seems as good a time as any to wax nostalgic about my favorite bit of Star Wars. But also, really, this is about as good as it gets.
Picture this: It’s 2003, and after lighting your eyes up with the likes of Attack of the Clones’ Geonosis battle and Jango Fett and Obi-Wan dueling it out last year, you’re chomping at the bit for more Star Wars. The last film ended with the dawn of a massive war, our titular Clone Wars, and the forthcoming next film needed to loop this Skywalker story prequel into the oldies. But a war of this size must mean something! Enter, Clone Wars. It’s clear that George Lucas, in his grand scheme, saw the Clone Wars as a focal point for his Star Wars blueprint, and indeed, I find most Star Wars talk starts with defining whether we’re talking pre or post-Clone Wars. As important as it is for contextualizing much of the Original Trilogy, exploring an era of active, galactic war meant new territory for Star Wars beyond storytelling. This was a new breed, and as such should have a different feel and impact than what came before.
At this point, animator Genndy Tartakovsky was a household name of sorts, with Dexter’s Laboratory a part of the Cartoon Network brand, and Samurai Jack winning hearts for more than two years. Tartakovsky’s iconic visual style, abstraction of backgrounds, and pointed, almost Cubist character design are recognizable in an instant. A mere glance at a promotional image for Clone Wars was enough to indicate we were in for something a little different. Then you flip the channel and it is on.
Clone Wars starts with a lot of sound and fury--this is war, after all, with our favorite pair of Jedi not only off on their own adventures, but fighting a war. As generals! Perhaps here lies some of the inherent grit and sophistication that Clone Wars has always held in my mind; the Jedi were always these sort of valorous, gallant space-monks. Warriors, sure, but they were righteous and for a good cause. Now it was General Kenobi, General Skywalker. There’s something decidedly grown-up in seeing Yoda lead a charge of soldiers, or Luminara cut a swath through Separatist droids on a grim, red battlefield. Clone Wars takes characters we know and love and, from the start, thrusts them into a context as ugly and serious as war.
This isn’t to say Star Wars had previously been child’s play, nor that Clone Wars is a Come and See or Saving Private Ryan bombast of blood and brutality on the battlefield. But much in the way Star Wars video games of the era (Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, and particularly Battlefront in ‘04 and Republic Commando in ‘05) were expanding to tell stories about less-fantastic or powerful characters, Clone Wars concerns itself immediately with what goes on outside of Obi-Wan or Anakin’s immediate view.
Take the ARC troopers, for instance, an elite squad of clones infiltrating a Separatist gun battery in early chapters of the series. In the grand scheme of things, the few minutes of their episodes are a minor moment in Star Wars runtime, but that Clone Wars dedicated episodes to these stoic clones as they gunned their way through droids and the Greco-Roman architecture of the city is a massive statement. Clone Wars asked audiences to trust in this seemingly-minor episode of clone heroism, all the while telling its story with clear visuals and a remarkable lack of exposition.
Clone Wars in this sense is very much in keeping with Tartakovsky’s magnum opus, Samurai Jack. Taking inspiration from the likes of icons of samurai cinema such as Akira Kurosawa, as well as the Lone Wolf & Cub manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Jack was a methodical, picaresque visual feast that would encompass sci-fi androids and spaghetti western homage alongside its Japanese namesake. The strong silences and flashes of action that would define the samurai film and westerns by Sergio Leone are apparent in Jack, and bleed over into Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars direction.
In this sense, Clone Wars gets at some of the earliest inspirations Lucas pulled from for Star Wars. A devout and vocal student of Kurosawa, the original film even borrows threads from The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa’s 1958 wartime adventure chronicling a pair of peasants traveling behind enemy lines with a princess and her general protector. The flashes of action that comprise the brutal duel between Anakin and Asajj Ventress, a Sith killer and one of Clone Wars’ most iconic contributions to Star Wars, at the end of the first season echoes the savage, visceral action of the samurai films George Lucas would pull from.
Of course, the Star Wars films are essentially our reference for the space opera, and spill out onto an epic scale that would grow from these quieter, slower inspirations and develop into the titanic battles and melodrama that we know and love. And there’s ain’t a thing wrong there! But imagine my delight, a devotee of Japanese cinema and worshipper of Sergio Leone, when I see something like Mace Windu, a lone figure on the vast plains of crops, taking on a droid army unarmed. Windu’s mid-season one moment in Clone Wars is paired with a lone farm boy looking on from the distance, his quiet, awestruck observation contrasted with the scale of violence and action taking place on the battlefield.
The management of scale, from grand, quiet vistas to a zoom-in on just how loud and dangerous those seemingly tranquil images actually are, are a part of what makes Clone Wars so impactful. Tartakovsky, like Kurosawa or John Ford, the master of classic westerns, knows that distance from images is fundamental to how they affect the audience.
Stylistically, Clone Wars was a bold new direction for Star Wars that leaves its mark upon first glance, but before its events were relegated to Disney’s “Legends” brand of Star Wars stories (simply, “we didn’t make it and we don’t want it messing with what we are making!”) as one of dozens if not hundreds of non-canonical tales, Clone Wars added layers of lore to the mythos that remain iconic to this day.
The aforementioned Asajj Ventress was of course deemed so great an addition to the lore that she appeared in the 3D Clone Wars series years later, an apprentice to Count Dooku and a frequent foil to Anakin and Obi-Wan, as well as Ahsoka Tano. And while The Clone Wars would go on to harness the menace of her pale, brutal figure and odd, curved lightsabers, there was a personal favorite of mine whose violent silence was left behind when Disney swooped in: The bounty hunter Durge.
The leader of the lancer droids Obi-Wan rides against on the planet Muunilist, Durge’s appearance gets the Star Wars gears turning. “That armor, is it Mandalorian?” “He’s not… human, is he?” The answer to both, we’d find, is as strong a no as one could muster. Obi-Wan’s battle with Durge (and then second battle) are, like Ventress’ duel with Anakin, some of the coolest, most inventive battles in all of Star Wars. Since Clone Wars wrapped, Durge appeared in several comics, though wasn’t until just recently confirmed to be returning to Disney’s Star Wars canon in an upcoming Marvel comic, much to my delight.
And of course, Clone Wars put the fear of General Grievous into the world. Season two ends with a band of Jedi, including Ki-Adi Mundi and Shaak Ti, under heavy droid gunfire and seeking shelter in the skeletal remains of a downed ship. “Unstoppable. He is… unstoppable,” one of the Jedi says, out of breath. Our band of force-sensitives are haggard, cornered, and seemingly out of luck. “But they’re Jedi,” we’d think, “they’ll get out of it!” Until a cold, metallic voice calls out from beyond the shattered hull of their refuge: “Make peace with the force now, for this is your final hour… I will grant you a warrior’s death.” Oh boy.
Grievous’ subsequent and near-complete annihilation of the Jedi was absolutely devastating to behold. Imagine! A kid growing up who’d seen Luke have a hand lopped off and sure, Qui-Gon bites the dust in Phantom Menace… But this was different. This was death at the taloned, metallic feet of something that, it seemed, was without a shred of humanity, no redemption or honor for the fallen in sight. That Tartakovsky ends the second season this way is bold! It’s cruel! It’s just as bleak as we could stomach for Star Wars, perhaps, pushing our characters, as I’ve said, into a context of genuine life-or-death. The Clone Wars were raging, and neither side was going to walk out unscathed.
Though it could be said that Grievous never got his due when he made the transition to Revenge of the Sith, wheezing and bumbling a bit--particularly in his many appearances throughout The Clone Wars later--the impression left by his first scene in the original Clone Wars is positively bone-chilling, and I’d argue makes a strong case for the single most powerful moment in the series.
Though it was mostly the villains that made a big splash in the series, the clone troopers of our title were as much a part of what makes Clone Wars so memorable, and perhaps are the longest-lasting legacy of the original series. The clones in Tartakovsky’s animation are professionals, mostly silent, decked out in specialized armor, bearing strange and complicated weaponry the likes of which we’d not seen in Star Wars. The silence of the ARC troopers, navigating their way to those gun batteries, goes a long way. They’re soldiers, and while they’re ready to take losses, they’re going to do it the proper way. The clones that eventually come to the aid of the Jedi being hounded by Grievous are particularly memorable, with their customized Republic gunship. Though Tartakovsky’s clones don’t say much, the impression of soldiers beneath their armor, recalling the “Born to Kill” helmet of Full Metal Jacket fame or the very-real marks of personalization soldiers on the frontlines of World War II affected, is the sort of subtle, visual storytelling Clone Wars excelled at.
Giving the clones personality and presence is something the subsequent 3D Clone Wars series would do tremendously well, with whole episodes (far longer than the three-minute bursts of Tartakovsky’s show) solely to clones, whether under fire and outgunned or undergoing training, The Clone Wars of 2008 picked up the threads of granting Star Wars characters you might not be familiar with their time in the spotlight. Between the countless clone characters of The Clone Wars and the upcoming spin-off series The Bad Batch, I feel confident in tracing this fixation with the sleek armor and militarism of the Republic’s soldiers back to Tartakovsky’s vision.
And that perhaps is the ultimate point of Clone Wars for me, its importance in Star Wars history and why I sometimes lament the homogenization under Disney’s wing. Clone Wars was a vision. It was also a very different angle from which we had never seen Star Wars before, and gambled (and won) on the idea that it was okay to focus on stories other than our immediate Jedi heroes, the ones already on every lunchbox and Band-Aid across the world.
That Star Wars stuff that I mentioned, continually churning, is thankfully looking to cover more ground than just the Skywalker Saga so central to George Lucas’ rancor-sized baby of an idea. We have The Mandalorian (and it’s awesome) and, hopefully, we have more good series branching off from the typical Jedi vs Sith angle of the main films. Slowly but surely, video games expanding the lore are coming out. Jury’s out whether they’re any good, but the cracks left by Disney’s takeover are being filled in new ways. I love a good family drama like any other Star Wars fan, but I always say that Lucas’ canvas was the size of a galaxy--literally! Why pigeonhole yourself, creatively, into focusing solely on the Skywalkers and their copious problems?
With Clone Wars, Genndy Tartakovsky was filling in the corners of Lucas’ galaxy, providing not only context for the main event of the films, but a unique and meaningful experience of tremendous talent and, clearly, far-reaching impact. It’s a treat for those who may have missed it originally to get to experience the series anew, now that it’s so easily accessible on Disney+, and the enduring quality of the visuals and storytelling are a testament to Tartakovsky and his team’s mastery over the medium, and fundamental understanding of Star Wars. Someone get that man in touch with Disney.