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The Star Wars starter guide: Every movie ranked and graded

May the 4th be with you! Whether you're new to the Star Wars universe or coming back after some time away, we'll help you decide which movies to watch, in what order, and explain how they all fit together.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Chewbacca poses on May 15, 2018 during a photocall for the film "Solo: A Star Wars Story" at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

With Star Wars Day nearly upon us -- May the 4th be with you (get it?) --  a few folks out there may still be wondering what all the fuss is all about. For them, we've put together this starter guide to the Star Wars movies. Of course, all you fans are welcome to read along too and let me know what I got right -- and wrong.

There are two main approaches to watching the Star Wars films. You could watch them according to their in-lore chronology, or you could watch them based on their release chronology.

Also: The beginner's guide to Star Trek: What to watch first

The Star Wars film world (and we're not counting the ever-growing world of Star Wars TV) consists of nine main films, and three additional major theatrical releases.

Whether you make it through all this entertainment is up to you, but I recommend starting with the middle trilogy of the nine movies that make up the Skywalker Saga, and beginning where it all began for movie fans in the 1970s. That's Star Wars, the original movie. All of the following can be found on Disney+ and many can be purchased on Apple TV or Amazon. 

Actor Mark Hamill presenting an award with his Star Wars co-stars C3PO and R2D2

Actor Mark Hamill presenting an award with his Star Wars co-stars C3PO and R2D2, at the 50th Academy Awards, Los Angeles, April 3rd 1978.   

Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

Letter grade: A+ 

Watch it on Disney+

When the original Star Wars was first released back in 1977, nobody knew it would create some of the most iconic characters in entertainment and go on to gross roughly $10 billion in overall sales, making it the second most successful film franchise in movie history. For the record, the most successful film franchise is the Marvel series -- and Disney owns both.

So, this is where it all began. If you're going to know anything about the Star Wars universe, you need to watch this movie. It's here you'll meet Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, R2D2, C-3PO, Darth Vader, Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, and lightsabers -- but not Yoda. Many people don't realize it, but Yoda was not in the original Star Wars.

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Star Wars is part of a trilogy. In fact, the main movie franchise is a trilogy of trilogies. The original trilogy contained films released between 1977 and 1983. Next came the prequel series (taking place about 20 years before the original series), released between 1999 and 2005. Finally, the sequel series (which takes place about 20 years after the original series), was released between 2015 and 2019.

When the prequel series came out, Lucas had to place the original series in lore order. He renamed Star Wars from merely "Star Wars" to Episode IV, a New Hope. No matter what, start with a New Hope.

The only problem is that the version of Star Wars, a New Hope you watch will probably not be the Star Wars we saw back in the theaters in 1977. George Lucas believes movies are fungible, and with the advent of digital moviemaking technology available in the late 1990s, he gave the original movie a bit of a digital zhuzhing up.

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If you watch the movie now, probably on Disney+, you'll be watching a modified version. If you want to know about all the movie mods across the franchise since its release, read this Wikipedia article.

And with that, let's move on to the film most serious fans consider the best in the franchise.

Photo by Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Letter grade: A+

Watch it on Disney+

The Empire Strikes Back, known to most fans simply as "Empire," is probably the darkest of the original three movies. It's here, we (and Luke) get to meet Yoda for the first time.

Most of the movie takes place along two different storylines. Luke's journey is learning how to master his Jedi powers, with Yoda as his mentor. Meanwhile, Han and Leia spend most of their time trying to hide from Darth Vader. This does not end well, and a terrible secret is revealed, but I won't spoil the plot for the two of you out there who haven't seen this masterpiece of a film.

Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

Letter grade: A

Watch it on Disney+

The final film of the original trilogy is one of my personal favorites. This installment introduces the Ewoks, fierce furry little warriors that were clearly designed with the hope they would become highly licensable toys for the kids. It works. I have a small Yorkipoo (Yorkie Poodle mix) named Pixel, and when he gets all fierce (there's no petting while fierce), he has the same adorably defiant don't "eff" with me stance as the Ewoks when they get their fur up.


Pixel in all his fierce glory!

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

A lot of the plot takes place on Tatooine, Luke's home planet. It starts out with a rescue mission (again, I'm holding back on details to avoid spoilers) that goes south. This leads to some really exciting action in the desert of Tatooine aboard Jaba the Hutt's flying party barge.

Eventually, the story moves to the planet Endor, home of our fuzzy little Ewok friends. Above the planet is a Death Star, and much of the story revolves around the attempt by the Rebels to destroy it. At one point, while Luke fights the Dark Side on the Death Star, there's a battle between the super high-tech empire and the ferociously adorable Ewoks. If you've ever wondered how Star Wars fits into the Disney aesthetic, look no further.

And that brings us to the end of the first trilogy. While you could immediately transition to the sequel series, a lot of foundational lore is set up in the prequel series. So if you're ready to watch more movies, you'll probably want to take in the prequels next.

Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Letter grade: C-

Watch it on Disney+

If Empire is the best film of the Skywalker Saga, Phantom Menace is clearly the worst. This is what happens when we let George Lucas stew on his budgetary and technical limitations for 20 years and then set him loose with a big budget to take his vision to the next level.

We're now about 32 years back in time from  A New Hope. We get to meet a plucky little boy named Anakin. And it's here I have to give you one spoiler, because there's no way to describe this series without it. Anakin grows up to become Darth Vader. The entire prequel series is Anakin's arc from cheerful little boy to one of entertainment's greatest villains.

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There are some great set pieces in this film, especially the pod races. But we also meet Jar Jar Binks, a character intended to appeal to kids that misfires on every level. We also meet a young Obi-Wan (played by Ewan McGregor, who will also go on to star in last year's Disney+ Obi-Wan Kenobi series). Oh, and Lucas tries to explain how The Force works by retconning the concept of midi-chlorians. Shudder.

But look, even though this movie isn't the best, it's still way entertaining -- and worth a watch if you're planning to see the next two in the prequel saga. Also, a really fun droid battle scene near the end of the movie is worth the price of admission.

Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)

Letter grade: C

Watch it on Disney+

Ten years go by and Anakin is now Obi-Wan's Padawan (think of it as a trainee ward). Now played by Hayden Christensen, Anakin manages to exhibit epic teenage attitude and angst throughout the entire movie. It's like Lucas is trying to tell us that there's an evil Darth Vader inside every annoying teenager.

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One thing that always bothered me about the transition from Phantom Menace to Attack of the Clones was the age portrayal of Anakin and Padme. In Phantom, Anakin was played by 8-year-old Jake Lloyd, and Padme was played by 16-year-old Natalie Portman. But in Attack of the Clones, coming 10 years later in the fictional chronology, Anakin was played by 19-year-old Hayden Christensen and Padme was played by then 19-year-old Natalie Portman. So: In the first movie, there was a very visible eight-year age difference, and then in the next, they were the same age.

In any case, Anakin is training to be a Jedi and he and Obi-Wan are called on to guard Padme when she's attacked by an assassin. Jedis are not permitted to have relationships, but the still wildly annoying Anakin and the charismatic, graceful, intelligent Padme fall in love. This is forbidden. So begins Anakin's swing to the Dark Side.

Much of Attack of the Clones is kind of stupid and hard to believe, but there's an epic battle with Yoda that makes it all worthwhile.

Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Letter grade: B

Watch it on Disney+

Given that the entire prequel series is essentially the origin story for Darth Vader, it should come as no surprise that this final prequel movie is all about…wait for it… Anakin finally becoming Darth Vader. I know. Big spoiler, right?

This one gets violent and dark, and I'm guessing it might be pretty triggering to some of you. This is about as close to horror as the Star Wars series gets, and it's mostly about the horrors of what people are willing to do to get their way and how that turns them into monsters.

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There are also a few impressive space battles and an epic lightsaber battle near the end of the movie.

If you've made it this far and followed my viewing recommendations, you know all about the Empire and the Rebels, Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and how Darth Vader got his evil on. Next up, we're going to zoom forward about 30 years in lore time after the original series and also about 30 years in real time between the production of the original movies and the sequel series.

Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Letter grade: B

Watch it on Disney+

When the sequel trilogy begins in the form of Episode IV - The Force Awakens, everyone you knew from the original trilogy is much older. Favorite hero characters like Han and Leia are as much older as the actors playing them. To be fair, they're not as old as Indiana Jones will be when the fifth Indiana Jones movie comes this summer. (Harrison Ford was 73 when The Force Awakens was released. He'll be 80 when he reprises his action-packed role of Indiana Jones. What a career!)

But to keep the Star Wars franchise going, Disney had to introduce a new cast of characters. This time, we meet Rey, a young scavenger on a desert planet. Joining her are Poe and Finn, a hotshot X-Wing pilot and an AWOL Storm Trooper. When Rey finds a droid carrying a map to Luke Skywalker (don't overthink it), she and her buddies attempt to bring the droid to the Resistance.

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We also meet Kylo Ren, the new big bad and perhaps the whiniest villain in the Star Wars universe. There's a great escape, a tense lightsaber fight, and a huge battle between the Resistance and the First Order (the replacement for the Empire). If you don't try to think about it too much, it's rollicking good entertainment.

Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)

Letter grade: B+

Watch it on Disney+

I'm sorry, but the title gives it away. So here's a major spoiler. Rey finds Old Luke and much of the movie revolves around her training as a Jedi and Luke's willingness (or lack thereof) to be part of that quest.

Meanwhile, General Leia is trying to keep the Resistance from getting blown up by the baddies in the New Order. Finn and a mechanic named Rose try to disable the First Order's ability to track the Resistance through hyperspace. The scenes here are among the best in the sequel trilogy.

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Adding a woo-woo magic component to the whole mix, Kylo Ren does his best Vader Lite impression and connects through the Force to Rey, adding to her angst and confusion.

If you want to see what CGI can do with modern computers, this movie has it. Of particular note are the creatures called Vulptex, which are like crystalline foxes. 'Tis amazing.

BB-8 Star Wars


VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Letter grade: B+

Watch it on Disney+

Speaking of special effects, Carrie Fisher sadly passed away before the filming of Episode IX. To include Leia's ongoing participation in the saga, the producers (with the support of the family) turned to archive footage and special effects to create a deep fake of Fisher's performance. On one hand, you could definitely feel the uncanny valley. On the other, it was one more chance to see and say goodbye to Princess Leia.

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Make no mistake about it: Rise of Skywalker is a must-see film. It's a twisty-turny experience because the writers seemed to know this was probably the last film of the main saga and did their darnedest to wrap up every loose plot thread from across the nine movies. There are a few "that ain't right" moments, a few more WTF moments, and an eventual resolution that's no weirder than anything Lucas dreamed up for the prequel trilogy.

The legacy of the Skywalker Saga

If you want to put the nine main films in perspective, look at it this way: The original trilogy created an entertainment juggernaut and an entire catalog of cultural touchstones and icons. Prequel and sequel trilogy milked that juggernaut for all it was worth.

For the price of admission, which today is a Disney+ subscription, it's well worth watching all of them.

Beyond the nine main movies, there are three theatrically released films and three TV movies worth noting.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars film (2008)

Letter grade: A

Watch it on Disney+

So, here's how this went down. Lucas was working on an animated series (to be called The Clone Wars). When he previewed some early footage from the series on a big screen, he decided to do a theatrical release that would kick off the TV series. And that's exactly what happened.

In the animated Clone Wars (film), Anakin is a Jedi Knight and pretty much a good guy. He takes on an apprentice in the same way that Obi-Wan did with Anakin and Luke, and Luke eventually did with Rey. Anakin and Ashoka set out to rescue Jabba the Hutt's son and much chaos ensues.

There's a great droid and gunship battle, a really fun space battle with very large warships, and a climactic bonkers-level battle on the planet Christophsis where Anakin, Ahsoka, and their allies must fight their way through a maze of enemy fortifications and tanks.

Storm Troopers

Storm troopers at at the launch event for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Letter grade: A

Watch it on Disney+

Next up is the first of the two "A Star Wars Story" films. To understand the plot here, you need to know that the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, revolved around the rebel's desire to blow up the Empire's Death Star. To do this (and we've all seen this in a thousand video games), the rebel fighters had to fly through a trench on the Death Star and drop a bomb in a very small hole that somehow the Death Star designers had overlooked, and if bombed, would blow up the whole thing.

But how did the rebels know where to deliver that bomb? That's Rogue One. It's a just-before prequel where a team of rebels infiltrates an enemy base to get the plans for the Death Star. As in all Star Wars movies, some bits are a little less than believable, but I loved this movie. In fact, after A New Hope and Empire, I consider this the best Star Wars film to date. It's well worth watching.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Letter grade: B

Watch it on Disney+

In A New Hope, Han Solo boasted about making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. At the time when Lucas wrote the movie, those were just words. But 30+ years later, when Disney produced Solo, that was the main set piece of the new movie. Just how hard was the Kessel Run? How did Han Solo accomplish it? How did he avoid imperial patrols? All these questions are answered in this movie.

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We learn how Han Solo become a smuggler and got involved in the criminal underworld, how he met Chewbacca and how they became partners, how he got the Millennium Falcon, and how he became its captain, and even how he got the name Solo.

As movies go, it isn't the best, but it certainly isn't the worst. Alden Ehrenreich, who played Han Solo, is no Harrison Ford, but I thought he gave a credible performance that makes it possible for you to mostly believe in him as the Han Solo we all know and love.

And with that, we end our look at the theatrical films of the Star Wars universe. May the Force be with you. Next up is a lightning round through Star Wars TV.

The made-for-TV movies

There are three made-for-TV movies (if you count the Star Wars Holiday Special). And we need to count the Star Wars Holiday Special because it's widely regarded as some of the worst TV ever made.

  • The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) - Watch it for yourself. It's on YouTube.
  • Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984) - Ewoks help a young human look for his parents. 
  • Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985) - Ewoks, a human girl, and a fight against moon marauders and a witch. You can get the DVD on Amazon.   

The animated series

These are hit-and-miss. Some of them are mediocre, while others (Clone Wars) are recipients of multiple Emmy awards.

  • Droids (1985) - Further adventures of R2D2 and C-3PO. Uninspired, but a first try at a Star Wars spinoff.
  • Ewoks (1985-1986) - More Ewoks, after the Ewok movies. Now, the Ewoks speak English.
  • The Clone Wars (2008-2014, 2020) - Continuing right after the movie, won five Emmys.
  • Rebels (2014-2017) - A motley rebel crew fights back against the empire.
  • Resistance (2018-2019) - A pilot spies on The First Order and gives the Disney Channel a reason to attract subscribers.
  • The Bad Batch (2021-) - Elite clone troopers go rogue, turn mercenary, and fight for Disney+ subscribers.
  • Visions (2021-) - Random, unrelated short stories. Think Short Treks, but for Star Wars.
  • Tales of the Jedi (2022-) - More Star Wars shorts, this time following various Jedi from the prequel series era.

The live-action series

Say what you will about streaming services, but the constant need to attract and keep subscribers has provided a golden age of ongoing entertainment. These are all pretty good and exist (along with the constant stream of Marvel content) so you don't cancel your Disney+ subscription.


An entirely gratuitous image of Pixel as Baby Yoda. No AIs were used in the production of this image.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET
  • The Mandalorian (2019-) - Think Old West gunslinger, but in Star Wars and with a helmet. Plus, there's Baby Yoda. (His real name is Grogu, but he'll always be Baby Yoda to me.) Won seven Emmy awards.
  • The Book of Boba Fett (2021-2022) - The story of what happens to Boba Fett after he gets eaten by the sand monster, plus what seems like Season 2.5 of the Mandalorian.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi (2022) - Ewan McGregor trades a whiny Anakin for a cute-but-troublesome pre-adolescent (and somewhat whiny) Leia, but gets to fight a whiny Darth Vader.
  • Andor (2022-) - Prequel to Rogue One, follows a thief on his journey to become a leader of the Rebel Alliance.
  • Ashoka (2023-) - Coming this summer: Follows Cartoon Anakin's Padawan Ashoka. So what could possibly go wrong?

What? You want more? We haven't even begun to cover the video games and merchandising of this bajillion-dollar gold mine for Disney. Plus, since Disney+ needs to keep the hits coming to keep subscribers from dropping, there will probably be more Star Wars for at least another 45 years.

What are the best to worst Star Wars movies and shows?

This is a highly subjective list, but I know you're going to want to know. So here it is. My call for worst series to best. You'll be surprised. Note that I'm completely leaving out the animated TV stuff, because animated TV is not one of my favorite genres and you shouldn't judge those properties based on my perspective. And with that, here goes, from best to worst...

  1. 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special - Okay, fine, I'm Rick-rolling you here. But it's definitely something to see. Not a good something, but you haven't lived until you've seen this artifact of 70s TV
  2. Ep. IV Star Wars: A New Hope - It's the OG Star Wars and defined some of the most iconic characters of the 20th Century
  3. Ep. V The Empire Strikes Back - It's arguable whether this is better than A New Hope, but I rank it second because you needed the first for it to exist
  4. Rogue One - While you could call all Star Wars movies after the original derivative, this was original in many of its decisions. It's also the one I finished watching in modern times and said, "Wow, that was a fun flick."
  5. Ep. VI Return of the Jedi - This wraps up the original trilogy
  6. The Mandalorian - I didn't like the first few episodes, but then this show really grew on me. Plus Baby Yoda.
  7. The Book of Boba Fett - Disney turns this modern-day take on Boba Fett into a truly interesting character. Plus there's more Mandalorian in the back half of the season
  8. Star Wars: A Clone Wars (film) - This gets the nod because it extends the Star Wars universe in interesting ways
  9. Ep. IX The Rise of Skywalker - Although the last of the Skywalker Saga, a lot gets tied together and there's a lot of spirit in this film
  10. Ep. VII The Last Jedi - I really liked this movie -- and found it somewhat forgettable, all at the same time. Probably the most formulaic, if-an-AI-were-asked-to-write-a-Star-Wars-film of them all, but still fun
  11. Solo: A Star Wars Story - I love the idea of an origin story for Han Solo. It just doesn't quite make it.
  12. Ep. VII The Force Awakens - Rey's story is compelling, but it wasn't as satisfying as a first film in a trilogy should be
  13. Ep. III Revenge of the Sith - Look, any Star Wars is better than no Star Wars. That's where this fits, plus it's a bit disturbing, which is almost kind of nice in this very focus-group-processed prequel series
  14. Ep. II Attack of the Clones - It's this high up in the rankings because Phantom Menace exists. Good action and effects. Don't think about the story.
  15. Ep. I The Phantom Menace - Jar Jar. And yes, Jar Jar is in the subsequent prequel movies. But this is where the crime against cuddly merchandising ploys was first committed. See Baby Yoda for how to do merchandising gambits just right.

What's your favorite Star Wars movie? Who's your favorite Star Wars character? What's your favorite Star Wars series? Do you prefer Star Trek or Star Wars (or, heck, Stargate)? Explain why in excruciating detail in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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