Let me take you back to San Diego Comic-Con 2015 and the panel for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was the first time the entire main cast, along with director/screenwriter J.J. Abrams, producer Kathleen Kennedy and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, had gathered together to talk publicly about the then-upcoming Star Wars film.
About forty minutes into the panel, a question sounded out for the creative team, whose collective experience in Hollywood spans decades:
"Is there gonna be any mention of Darth Plagueis in Episode VII ... maybe surrounding a certain staff that someone finds?"
Total silence. A few nervous laughs. Abrams turns to Kasdan: "Larry? You wanna answer that?" Kasdan responds: "I don’t think I heard correctly, is it Darth Vegas? Like Las Vegas? Darth…Vader?"
I can't stand most Star Wars fan theories, and this moment perfectly illustrates why — the folks who hold them often have a bemusing need for validation from those in charge for ideas that are totally implausible in the context of a major Hollywood production.
Even if you have seen every Star Wars movie — or, like Kasdan, written several of the best — you probably, forgivably, have no idea who Darth Plagueis is. He appeared in the main saga precisely zero times. The one time he was mentioned was to explain how he was killed.
In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker accompanies Supreme Chancellor Palpatine to a night at the opera. The film’s plot revolves around Skywalker’s attempts to protect his wife Senator Padmé Amidala from certain death, and this is the moment where Palpatine reveals that he holds the secret to saving her life. Palpatine recounts to Anakin the "legend" of a Sith Lord named Darth Plagueis the Wise, who had the power to prevent those he loved from dying. One night, however, Plagueis’ apprentice slipped unnoticed into his chambers and murdered him in his sleep. In truth, Palpatine himself was the apprentice of the story, and he used the false promise of Padmé’s salvation to lead Anakin further down the path to becoming Darth Vader.
It’s a powerful scene, probably one of the best in any of the three prequel films, but it’s much more about the relationship between Skywalker and Palpatine than the subject of the "legend."
So, basically, the question posed to the panel at Comic Con was: "Will a character who never appeared in any of the previous movies and has no name recognition play a key role in potentially the biggest blockbuster film of the century so far?" Abrams gave the asker, and by extension many thousands of fan theorists, a polite, but definitive, "no."
Although Plagueis had just that one shoutout in the films, he had enough potential for a fleshed out story to justify a novel, which spent over five years in development before its release in 2012. The novel was well-received by much of the Star Wars community, enough to warrant giving Plagueis his own action figure the following year.
Unfortunately, the book was released before the Star Wars canon was rebooted in 2014. The events of the novel slipped into the realm of "Legends canon," the name now given to older material outside of the films and certain TV series. The canon that replaced it is overseen by a few story consultants collectively called the Lucasfilm Story Group. The new canon aims to be more cohesive, being consistent throughout every Star Wars story, regardless of medium, but its replacement of the old Expanded Universe remains a topic of serious tension among fans.
All of these events combined caused a select few in the Star Wars fandom to be unusually attached to Plagueis, and have led to several other prolific fan theories involving the character. One, alluded to previously, posited that the staff that protagonist Rey carries in The Force Awakens actually once belonged to Plagueis. Another suggests that the true identity of The Force Awakens’ Supreme Leader Snoke, ruler of the First Order, is in fact, drumroll please, Palpatine’s dead master Darth Plagueis. That theory, too, has been shot down so often that it’s become a running joke among people like the Lucasfilm Story Group’s Pablo Hidalgo.
Now, believe me, I do not hate fun. One of my favorite things about Star Wars fans, truly, is their passion. I love to see it manifest in all of its wild, wonderful ways, and I totally encourage peoples’ drive to put thought into the vast Star Wars oeuvre in order to make it their own. But when fans can’t be at peace with their own headcanons until they get confirmation from the higher-ups at Lucasfilm, it feeds into a vicious cycle of expectations that can never possibly be met.
At least, that’s what I used to think. Now, Forest Whitaker may change everything I, and the fringe theorists, can expect from a Star Wars movie.
That is because in the upcoming Star Wars film Rogue One, Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker will portray Saw Gerrera, a character who never appeared in any of the previous movies, has no name recognition and will play a key role in the follow-up to one of the biggest blockbuster films of the century so far.
More specifically, Saw Gerrera is a character — invented by George Lucas — who appeared in four episodes of the CG-animated canon TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which took place during the titular war shown in the prequel trilogy of films. Called a freedom fighter by his allies and a terrorist by his enemies, Gerrera fought alongside Anakin Skywalker against the Separatist droid army. In Rogue One, Gerrera will be using his extremist tactics to fight against his former ally, now the Sith Lord Darth Vader.
Granted, Gerrera isn’t the first Star Wars character to make the transition from animation to the silver screen. Revenge of the Sith’s main villain, General Grievous, made his debut on the first non-canon Clone Wars TV series in 2004, more than a year before the third prequel film premiered. Even fan favorite bounty hunter Boba Fett was introduced in an animated segment of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special nearly two years before he would appear in The Empire Strikes Back.
So I've been thinking about the #RogueOne trailer and...what if Forest Whitaker is Saw Gererra? Rebel, fighter, timing seems right.— Geek Girl Diva (@geekgirldiva) May 9, 2016
The key difference is that George Lucas had little to no involvement with Fett or Grievous’s first appearances, and instances like those really only served as sneak peeks to what awaited fans in the films. For example, despite the events of the Holiday Special, the "real" Boba Fett, tragically, never actually rode a giant pink space brontosaurus. Those initial introductions were just advertisements, ersatz replicas of Lucas’s characters which were ultimately under his own sole purview.
Because of the new, consistent Star Wars canon, though, the Saw Gerrera that will appear in Rogue One will be the same Saw Gerrera that was introduced in The Clone Wars. He’ll have the same history. He’ll have made the same choices and the same mistakes. All of his experiences in The Clone Wars and beyond will make up the person he is on the big screen.
Billboard in San Francisco bought by Star Wars fans in protest of the new canon
The same goes for Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the most beloved Legends canon characters in Star Wars history, who will be brought into the official continuity through the TV show Star Wars Rebels as well as a new novel by his creator, Timothy Zahn.
But does Saw Gerrera’s lead role in Rogue One prove that the true identity of Supreme Leader Snoke could in fact be Darth Plagueis? Definitely not, given how many times members of the Lucasfilm Story Group, J.J. Abrams and even Snoke actor Andy Serkis have flat out denied that theory.
What it has done is given subtle, but significant credence to certain Star Wars theories that may once have been too outlandish or niche to ever make it into a multi-million dollar production. It’s added to the fandom a bit more of something that, in many ways, Star Wars is all about — hope. For every contrarian naysayer like me who denies the desires of uber-fans as too farfetched, too out of touch with Hollywood to ever actually come true, there will be another to point out that, hey, Forest Whitaker played Saw Gerrera. Anything is possible.