“I didn't want to make a video bashing the prequels, as is a common joy of certain nerd circles.”
Star Wars devotees will know Michael Barryte from his intricate dissections of George Lucas’s divisive prequel trilogy, which kicked off with the 2012 video, “What if Star Wars: Episode I was good?” Using a combination of Lucasfilm footage and animated storyboards, the series on his Belated Media YouTube channel proposes a series of small and large tweaks that add up to a richer overall experience across all three films, like keeping Darth Maul alive and fleshing out the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan. The trio of videos racked up nearly 10 million views, but Barryte says the project began “on a lark” sparked by the 2011 theatrical re-release of The Phantom Menace in 3D.
Barryte doesn’t plan to make another video about Star Wars: Episode IX, but he certainly has plenty to say about it. “It is a grand bummer,” he says of The Rise of Skywalker. “But there are far worse movies. We could be watching Cats.”
“There are far worse movies. We could be watching Cats.”
A SoCal native, Barryte got his feet wet as a child actor. You can spot him in 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, as a young Jerry Seinfeld in one of the comedian’s HBO specials, and on naughties tween staples Lizzie McGuire and Drake and Josh.
He credits his Star Wars prequel videos with getting him his first big break: doing a little bit of everything at Smosh, a sketch-comedy YouTube channel with more than 25 million subscribers. He’s now the creative producer behind The Completionist, a gaming YouTube channel boasting nearly 1.3 million subscribers featuring in-depth playthroughs of beloved franchises like Doom, Resident Evil, and Final Fantasy. Barryte and his brother are also working on a webcomic about a girl raised by a family of oddball ghosts, Obituary, which has been seen by more than 5.5 million people on Webtoon.
While fans of his Star Wars commentary shouldn’t expect a full Belated Media rundown of the sequel trilogy, we’ve got the next best thing. Inverse spoke with Barryte about a major element of Attack of the Clones that everyone totally missed, where Rise of Skywalker came up short, and how that Palpatine twist might have actually made sense.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Did making videos about the prequels make you appreciate them more?
If a movie is bad, I can still find a fair amount of enjoyment from it. I'm going to enjoy the things that I enjoy and not dwell on the things that aren’t so great. When I was watching Attack of the Clones again [ahead of Rise of Skywalker], I realized they were trying to do a film noir in Star Wars with Obi Wan’s story. It doesn’t come across visually like one, but it’s definitely there on a narrative and dialogue level. So I have to tip my hat on stuff like that.
The worst possible thing that any storyteller can really try to do is deliver on what everybody wants. The prequels don’t try to do that.
Critics and fans have complained the sequels rely too heavily on fan service. Where do you stand on that?
When I walked out of the theater [after The Force Awakens] I realized this film has set itself up to live or die by its sequels. In that regard, it's really running itself like a television show. The Rise of Skywalker is the end of the season. That’s something totally different for Star Wars.
The more I hear about the development behind it, the more truly baffled I am. At the same time, I’m also emboldened, because if a bunch of people can randomly hand over millions of dollars to people who seem to have an idea and they just sort of run with it... I mean, anybody can do that.
“J.J. unfortunately read the comments.”
The first third or so of Rise of Skywalker had the general sense of playfulness and earnest excitement I had hoped for. But the thing is, J.J. [Abrams] unfortunately read the comments and tried to course-correct the frustrations people had with The Last Jedi.
Rise of Skywalker wouldn't be the movie it was without social media.
The other thing that's remarkable is they theoretically could have caught some of this, but Disney was so precious about not wanting anything to be spoiled. Then Rian Johnson went on record and said he would have loved to have had a test audience for Last Jedi.
And all those movies leaked on Reddit anyway.
Yeah, but Disney wanted to mitigate as much of that as possible. I would give my left leg to read Michael Arndt’s script for Episode VII. He wrote Toy Story 3, so he knows how to shape a story and a world.
Not to be dismissive of J.J., but I just find it so baffling that people mock James Cameron for spending so much time on the Avatar sequels. But one of the things that he did very early on was gather all three screenwriters on each of the films and say, we're going to break story together. [Editor’s note: “break story” is a screenwriting term that refers to making a blueprint or outline of a script to trace a clear beginning, middle and end.]
It's very strange how Abrams and Johnson's conversations about these movies played out in the media.
I guess this is something of a dig at Kathleen Kennedy, and I don't mean any ill will. But J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson are such wildly different storytellers. Abrams is all about the slow reveal, and Rian Johnson is all about ripping off the band-aid. I think the backlash wouldn’t have been as intense if Johnson had done VII and Abrams had done VIII. It's a lot easier to say “all this is getting destroyed” before J.J. comes in with the whimsical paintbrush to make you feel like it's okay.
“The backlash wouldn’t have been as intense if Johnson had done VII and Abrams had done VIII.”
You’ve argued that the biggest misstep of the prequels was squandering Darth Maul. Is there anything comparable in the sequels?
The biggest misstep in IX is making Kylo Ren subservient again [to Palpatine]. At the end of The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren is now the top dog. He can finally do the thing he wanted to do. In the past, Snoke was holding him back, Hux was holding him back, his father was holding him back. Now he's able to do it. To see what that would be is a very exciting thing.
Finn is a terribly missed opportunity. Last Jedi just sort of recycled the same arc for him three times. Captain Phasma was another one. I was so excited at the amount of possibility there.
Do you think it would have been more satisfying to see Kylo Ren go full-blown evil in Rise?
It seemed to me VII was setting up for him to have a redemption arc. But there is definitely a world where he's gone all the way evil.
That was another missed opportunity in Episode IX, after Luke says “see you around, kid” at the end of Last Jedi. I was hoping beyond hope that Kylo Ren was going to be plagued by the ghost of Luke Skywalker. Like, “you can't lose me, my last mission is to help you out buddy, whether you want it or not.” It would be an interesting riff on the mentor-student relationship that we've not seen before in Star Wars. Like, you cannot lose your mentor.
Speaking of Padawans, what do you think of Anakin being largely left out of the sequels?
I'm in the camp where if you didn't offer me any fan service in these newer Star Wars films, I’d be fine with it. Those are things that actually pull me more out of the movie, because it just feels like a nod.
That said, we should be able to get clear explanations for the things that are in there. How did [Kylo Ren] get the [Vader] mask? He's obviously a collector of relics. Once we get to VIII or IX, we should fully understand the meaning of those small early moments. Stuff like that pays far greater dividends than just shoehorning a character in, like Palpatine.
We all love Ian McDiarmid, and he clearly adores playing Palpatine. It just made no sense for him to be there.
In Episode IX, he didn't get to play. He was just evil. In Return of the Jedi, he is catty, and it is delightful. When he’s taunting Luke in the throne room, it’s so wonderful to see him playing with his food. In Rise of Skywalker, he’s just lore.
I don’t need the most clear explanation as to how he is back, because we live in a world with laser swords and telekinesis. But why has he been silent for so long? That is the more interesting question to me.
Yeah, what is the point of Sheev kicking it on Exegol for 30 years in a stadium?
It's a bad pitch, but something like how Voldemort needed a unique sacrifice to manifest himself physically might have worked better here. This group [the Sith Eternal] performs some ritual to bring Palpatine back. Sure, that's weird, but it serves their odd culty thing. So when the return of Palpatine happens, because we live in a world of prophecy in Star Wars ever since Anakin, it’s something that was always supposed to happen. It might have worked better if you played into the whole religious zealot aspect of Star Wars. As it is, it’s just sort of waffling. It’s like the movie keeps asking you, “Is this okay?”
Obi-Wan was a big focus of your prequel commentary. What do you hope to see in the Disney+ show?
Above all, I want to be surprised. I don't need him to interact with Lars in any way. I enjoy Star Wars when it reads more bizarre. I’d love to see him dealing with Tusken Raiders. Or creatures that we've never encountered before.
The Mandalorian makes a great case for a blank-slate approach to Star Wars.
I loved that the first season was all about unexpected casting. If someone had told me five years ago that Amy Sedaris was going to be in Star Wars, I would have laughed. There are so many exceptional character actors who are getting incredible opportunities to shine.
I don't know if it's just me, but sometimes the action feels very Xena: Warrior Princess or like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. I like it being a little rougher around the edges.
The Mandalorian really leans into that homespun quality in a way the movies don't.
They're going for much more sheen and polish. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has clearly influenced how [Lucasfilm) tells stories, and I don't necessarily think that works as well.
The Rise of Skywalker is out now on digital and Blu-ray.