Spoiler alert: Neither of these is the best one.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
This post was originally published in December 2015, as part of Vulture’s Star Wars Countdown. We first updated it to reflect the lightsabers of The Force Awakens, and now, to celebrate the arrival of The Last Jedi, we have updated it again to included the best lightsabers from the recent Star Wars TV series. Thank you to all of the helpful readers who told us, often politely, which ones we had forgotten.
Star Wars did not invent the concept of a magic blade, or even a laser sword — those pop up in Asimov’s Lucky Starr series, among others — but as with many of the series’ pulp influences, George Lucas refined and reduced them to their essential elements, creating the series’ ultimate addition to the pop-culture canon. Think of the otherworldly glow, the distinctive hum, the (illogical, but who cares?) weight of the blade. For the Jedi, a lightsaber is a symbol of their innate exceptionalism; for Luke, it’s a connection to his father; for the Sith, it’s one more way to assert their dominance over the weak. But of all the lightsabers we’ve seen in Star Wars so far, which one is the best? To answer that question requires an elegant listicle, for a civilized age. Cue up “Duel of the Fates,” and meet us below the jump. Those who disagree should consider our new reader re-rankings below as their chance to challenge us to a duel.
100-17. Every Lightsaber Held by a Jedi at the End of Revenge of the Sith
Is it blaming the victim to suggest that a few more Jedi should have been able to survive Order 66? Maybe a little bit. But every other indication we’ve gotten of the Jedi’s combat prowess shows them to be fearsome fighting machines — and now suddenly they’re being taken out by a handful of blasters? (And don’t give me that “They were betrayed by the troops they were commanding” line; the Jedi had every reason to distrust the clone troopers from the get-go.) The most plausible explanation is that their lightsabers all spontaneously failed them at the crucial moment. For that, those lightsabers come in last.
16. Obi-Wan’s Lightsaber
Have you ever counted how many times Obi-Wan loses his lightsaber in the prequels? I have. He drops it once while fighting Count Dooku, twice against Darth Maul, and two more times against Jango Fett, who isn’t even a Force user. Get a Velcro strap on that thing, my man.
15. Darth Sidious’s Lightsaber
Aesthetically, this one is a total gem: Peep the elegant sleeve holster, the gold shading on the hilt. But doesn’t it just feel weird to see the Emperor use a lightsaber? It’s like seeing Jimi Hendrix play the electric bass — sure, he’s probably pretty good at it, but you really just want him to break out the lightning.
14. Qui-Gon Jinn’s Lightsaber
People made fun of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber for having a crossguard, but you know what would have happened if Qui-Gon Jinn had a crossguard on his lightsaber? He would have been able to block Darth Maul’s riposte, which means that he might have survived the duel on Naboo, which means he could have been a much-needed paternal presence for Anakin Skywalker, which means Anakin might never have turned to the Dark Side, which means the fate of the Galaxy might have been completely different. But Qui-Gonn’s lightsaber didn’t have a crossguard, which means that, instead of all those things happening, he just died.
13. Anakin Skywalker’s Lightsaber
There’s bad luck, and then there’s what happens to anyone who fights with this lightsaber. Anakin Skywalker uses it in his battle with Obi-Wan, and ends up a dismembered, charred shell of a man. His son Luke inherits it and promptly gets his hand cut off in his very first duel. (And after that, he receives the devastating news that Vader is Anakin.) Finn picks it up, and gets his ass kicked by Kylo Ren. Only Rey is immune — like color blindness, does this lightsaber’s bad mojo mostly affect men?
12. General Grievous’s Lightsabers
General Grievous fought with four lightsabers at once, which is cool, and used two of those lightsabers to do spinning saw-blade things, which is very cool. It’s an A-plus concept, but with an unfortunate C-minus execution — Obi-Wan chops them off literally five seconds into their big fight. And that’s why you never send a cyborg to do a Jedi’s job.
11. Asajj Ventress’s Lightsabers
Oh, crap! You didn’t realize you had to watch the animated shows to understand this list! Don’t worry, there are only a few. I’ve gotten the sense from reading message boards that people who have studied the blade consider dual-wielding a laughable concept, the swordsman version of holding guns sideways. But since it looks awesome, the Star Wars people decided to make it an official form of lightsaber combat called Jar’Kai, the most notable practitioner of which was Asajj Ventress, the Dathomirian assassin from Clone Wars. Using two swords might be silly in real life, but Ventress makes it look good.
10. Pong Krell’s Lightsabers
This fallen Jedi from Clone Wars used two double-sided lightsabers at once, which he spun around like they were helicopter blades. I imagine that’s pretty dangerous, but luckily Krell had two spare arms in case things went awry.
9. The Darksaber
Okay, so: The Mandalorians. An ancient race of warriors who were famed for killing Jedi (or, if you’re a casual fan, the guys who made the armor Boba Fett wears). Thousands of years before Star Wars, one Mandalorian became a Jedi, and created this sweet black-bladed lightsaber, which was then passed from Mandalorian to Mandalorian like a championship belt. (You had to kill the previous owner to get it.) It first popped up in Clone Wars being wielded by Pre Vizsla, a separatist mercenary fellow, and though the blade was indeed very badass, it was not badass enough to stop Vizsla from getting killed by Darth Maul. (Through some complicated business, the good guys on Rebels have it now.)
8. Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber
According to legend, Luke’s self-constructed lightsaber in Return of the Jedi was originally blue, but was changed to green for better contrast against the Tatooine sky. (That’s why it’s blue in the film’s poster.) It’s proof that not everything George Lucas changed about Star Wars was a bad idea: Amid the yellow sand and blue sky of Jedi’s first act, Luke’s green lightsaber really does pop off the screen.
7. Yoda’s Lightsaber
Reasonable people — and unreasonable people, too — can argue all day about the prequels’ CGI Yoda, and whether or not it was appropriate for him to suddenly defy all laws of gravity when it came time to get in a lightsaber duel. But no matter what position you take in this argument, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Yoda’s little lightsaber is cute as fuck. It’s short, just like him, and green, just like him. Very adorable, the whole thing is.
6. Count Dooku’s Lightsaber
Is casting an 80-year-old man as the greatest swordsman in the galaxy a little bit of a stretch? Sure, but if you’ve got a chance to put Christopher Lee in your movie, you don’t throw it away. Instead, you give him a sweet curved lightsaber, make him (and his stunt double) move as little as possible, and do some hand-waving about his graceful Makashi Technique. The sleight of hand works well enough that you don’t even question Dooku absolutely destroying Obi-Wan every time they duel.
5. Kylo Ren’s Lightsaber
Before the movie even came out, this weapon was the most unexpectedly controversial aspect of Force Awakens. (Lightsaber crossguards were canon in the expanded universe for years, guys.) No one’s complaining now. This is a brutal, unglamorous lightsaber, befitting a hardened galaxy that’s seen 30 years of warfare. And we’ll state for the record: The crossguard looks cool as hell.
4. The Grand Inquisitor’s Lightsaber
The expanded universe takes some big swings when it comes to lightsabers, and there are some real horrible ones out there. (The less said about the light-whip, the better.) But the Grand Inquisitor’s lightsaber on Rebels is a great invention, combining the helicopter-blade defense of General Grievous with the minimalist style of Count Dooku to create a unique weapon that perfectly suits Jason Isaacs’s deliciously arch performance.
3. Mace Windu’s Lightsaber
Generally, it’s the villains in Star Wars who get all the coolest and most innovative lightsabers. The only exception is Mace Windu, who was given a sweet purple lightsaber after Sam Jackson insisted on being able to spot himself in the large fight scene that closes Attack of the Clones — the sci-fi equivalent of a wallet that says “Bad Motherfucker.”
2. Darth Vader’s Lightsaber
Across the hundreds of lightsabers that have appeared in various Star Wars stories over the years, one rule has held firm: With very, very few exceptions, bad guys always have red lightsabers. (They also wear all black and favor hoods, just in case you didn’t know they were evil.) Vader’s instantly recognizable red lightsaber kicked off this trend, and it became as much a symbol of his distinctive menace as his gleaming black armor and problematic asthma.
1. Darth Maul’s Lightsaber
The music you listened to in tenth grade will always be the best music in the world, and the lightsaber you saw when you were 12 will always be the best lightsaber. But even taking that into consideration, Darth Maul’s double-sided lightsaber stands apart. Just like its owner, Maul’s lightsaber is both terrifyingly simple — it’s two lightsabers in one, he’s a red guy who looks like the devil — and utterly unique, demanding a fighting style unseen anywhere else in the series. And if it breaks, it just turns into a normal lightsaber. If you’re not convinced by that, why not try simple Spinal Tap logic: Two blades, it’s one better, isn’t it?