When it was announced that Hayden Christensen would reprise his role as Darth Vader in “Ahsoka,” Star Wars fans’ response was mostly positive. Christensen took heat for the prequel films like many of his costars, his two-film arc depicting Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness now obscured by indictments of the trilogy’s other flaws.
And Anakin — not portrayed by Christensen, but voiced by Matt Lanter — was a key part of the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which developed Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein). To have the master and apprentice reunited in live-action (Tano now played by Rosario Dawson) was a thrilling prospect for fans of “Clone Wars” and “Star Wars: Rebels” — where he is young, smiling, and mostly human. And as nice as it is to see the duo reunited, it boils “Ahsoka” down to the same uninspired purpose that drove every lackluster Star Wars project of the past decade: Nostalgia.
From George Lucas’s prequel films to J.J. Abram’s sequel trilogy bookends and multiple Disney+ shows, live-action Star Wars can’t escape its roots, to its own detriment. More often than not, that means Luke Skywalker himself — now a de facto de-aged Mark Hamill popping up abundantly from “The Mandalorian” to “The Book of Boba Fett” — for fear of disappointing a volatile fan base or perhaps the pressure to find original stories. Dave Filoni struck gold with “The Mandalorian” Season 1 and its cuddly green star, but Luke’s Season 2 cameo derailed the series. Some of the strongest Star Wars projects of the last decade were “Andor,” “Rogue One,” and “The Last Jedi” — the latter of which does focus heavily on Luke but actually moves the character forward in interesting ways (depending who you ask).
“Obi-Wan Kenobi” was the first series to bring Christensen back as Anakin, but the flashbacks and battle sequences did little to deepen his character — a drop in the ocean compared to “Clone Wars,” at any rate, but now “Ahsoka” Episode 5 does nothing but recap and rehash that relationship for viewers who skipped the animated series. Anakin explains to his former padawan that she’s part of a legacy between master and apprentice, laboriously connecting this new-ish live-action character to Anakin, to Obi-Wan, to Qui-Gon Jin, and the wider Jedi Order.
The Anakin scenes arguably work better than most of “Ahsoka,” their heavyhanded theming and Christensen’s role reprisal a welcome shift from meandering episodes with wooden performances. The disconnect is how Filoni’s series treats its animated roots; expecting viewers to wait patiently, even eagerly, for “Ahsoka” to unveil Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen) and Ezra Bridger (Eman Esfandi) while also serving SparkNoted “Clone Wars” exposition. “Ahsoka” is ostensibly its own bridge between worlds, a series that should be accessible both to “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” fans as well as the uninitiated, but it’s wrestling with those two demographics and defaults to using the Skywalker crutch.
There are still three episodes left of “Ahsoka,” episodes that will ostensibly bring focus back to Sabine (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and Thrawn and Ezra — and Ahsoka herself. But no matter what comes next, this series joins the litany of others in the Star Wars canon that were weighed down by presupposed nostalgia — none of which ever charms as much as it did the first time around.
“Ahsoka” Episodes 1-5 are now streaming on Disney+.