The devolution of C-3P0
Star Wars (1977) introduced us to many interesting characters, among them, a perhaps under-appreciated C-3P0. In the original trilogy, Threepio had agency. he had purpose, and he played a key role in bringing down the empire. Threepio doesn’t always make wise decisions, but he does keep the action moving forward (or at least keep up with it). He’s intelligent, articulate, the intellectual partner of R2-D2. He tells R2 what to do, gives directions (“Come on, R2, we’re going”) and takes initiative - talking his way past the guards in the security room of the Death Star.
So what went wrong?
Our very first introduction to C-3PO was in the Tantive IV as she was being attacked. Threepio was one of two protocol droids escorting an astromech (not that we knew this, just that there were three droids - two human looking ones and a small trashcan). So, the first thing we learned about Threepio was that he was not unique. The two droids made the comedic sidekick roll, although it’s not as often as you may remember. Much of their reputation for comedy came after the film, in appearances and analysis of the Campbellian rolls that needed to be assigned.
This mostly continued in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), although being separated from R2 for most of the film meant that he had to play comic relief off of random partners - Han and Chewie mostly. Threepio started the film intelligently, if pessimistically, trying to comfort the princess when Luke and Han both go missing.
It was his disbelief in R2, mixed with egocentrism, in the last reel of Empire that seemed both misplaced and the turning point in our interpretation of Threepio. Now he was whiny, ineffectual. it was a reputation that would stick in spite of his work in Return of the Jedi.
Jedi (1983) starts by reinforcing the new dynamic. R2 is wise, trusted, competent. Threepio is cowardly, incompetent: not to be trusted with plans. Perhaps from a story-teller’s perspective the whole Jabba’s fortress sequence would have been less suspenseful if there wasn’t someone raising doubts. But Threepio wasn’t just raising doubts, he was intentionally clueless.
Later in the movie, Threepio appears to have a redeeming moment. Han and Leia have been captured by imperial troops. The rebel plan to destroy the forcefield, allowing their allies to attack the incomplete Death Star, has been stopped dead in its tracks. Except… Threepio, and the Ewoks have a plan. (I want to call it a cunning plan in full Baldrick voice). Their tactics of surprise win out the day, and the rebels win! Yay Threepio!
But the only ones congratulating him at the end of the film are the Ewoks. You know, the wookie stand-ins that everyone dismissed as marketing toys.
Threepio’s already been written off by the humans.
Chronologically, we now go back to Episode I, The Phantom Menace and (incidentally) Threepio’s origin story.
Anakin Skywalker built Threepio.
Wait! What? Wasn’t Threepio one of many protocol droids? Haven’t we seen others throughout the original trilogy? Anakin made him? Anakin? Threepio really has nothing to do in this film except say hello and disappear. R2’s origin story is also presented, and matchng the evolution of the first trilogy, it’s a hero’s story full of bravery and overcoming the odds. R2 stays with the main characters and continues his hero’s journey. Threepio gets left in slavery with Anakin’s mother.
Attack of the Clones manages to reunite Threepio with Anakin and eventually R2-D2, but otherwise, his presence is a wash. When the two droids do perform their role of comic relief, it's always in the context of heroic R2 and incompetent Threepio.
Revenge of the Sith sees Threepio playing nursemaid to Amadala (Another discarded character). Threepio may have had a whole minute on the screen.
When did he change from this whiny creature in films I-III into the competent droid we saw in IV? And why was this competency constantly undermined? If this is a character arc - he's growing into a competent member of the team - then Episode VII should have a very competent Threepio.
In The Force Awakens we get prequel trilogy Threepio. Now he’s self-centred and oblivious to the undercurrent around him (To be fair, you could say that about his actions in the middle parts of Empire also). Popping his head between the estranged couple, interrupting their reunion… surely that’s NOT what a protocol droid would do. Maybe we should blame his red arm.
I knew going into The Force Awakens that R2 would be taking a back seat to BB-8. I didn’t expect Threepio to have a large part, but just being a whiny background character in a handful of wide shots?
Threepio deserved better. Thoughts?