By Lauren Morgan and Christian Holub
December 26, 2019 at 09:20 AM EST

Everyone has their own favorite element of Star Wars. Some fans may like droids best, while others prefer cataloging the many varieties of spaceships. Some of us, though, are really in it for the lightsaber battles. Swordfights have always been a part of theater and cinema, but turning the weapons into lasers and giving them that distinctive whoosh sound is one of the distinguishing features of the unique Star Wars aesthetic.

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Lightsaber battles channel the chivalry fantasy represented by the Jedi Knights, while also allowing for emotional one-on-one confrontations that form the bedrock of this saga about fathers, sons, friends, and rivals. In honor of the release of The Rise of Skywalker, we picked the 11 best lightsaber fights in the series, along with an honorable mention for something outside the films.

Honorable Mention: Ahsoka Tano vs. Darth Vader in Star Wars Rebels, “Twilight of the Apprentice, Part 2”

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Both the Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels have more than their share of lightsaber action and the Rebels episode, “Twilight of the Apprentice, Part 2”  is itself filled with great duels, but it’s the face-off between Darth Vader and his former apprentice, Ahsoka Tano, that we’re singling out for a special mention.

Coming face-to-face with Darth Vader at the top of the Sith Temple on Malachor, Ahsoka can hardly believe that all of their history together, every battle fought side-by-side, every time he defended her or she him, all of that teaching about the ways of the Force has come to this. She vows to avenge the death of her former Master, scarcely believing venal Vader and Anakin could be one and the same.  When Vader says that revenge is not the Jedi way, Ahsoka proclaims, “I am no Jedi!” like the true badass she is before igniting her white lightsabers and launching into the fight. As lightning flashes down on the temple, Vader and Ahsoka fight fiercely, the former allies now on separate sides.

As Kanan and Ezra flee with the Sith holocron that has turned the temple into a weapon, Ahsoka cracks Vader’s mask and for a moment she sees the man beneath the monster, her former mentor Anakin. Ahsoka, heartbreakingly pledges not to leave him this time, but Vader, using a blend of Anakin’s true voice and Vader’s James Earl Jones one, mocks such foolish compassion and vows she will die for it. Ezra tries to rescue Tano but she Force blocks him knowing this duel with Vader has always been both fated and inevitable.

11. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader, A New Hope

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Is this the most dazzling lightsaber fight in the Star Wars canon? No, of course not. To eyes used to modern screen fighting, the battle between Darth Vader and Obi Wan looks positively poky, more like an elegant fencing match than the impressive duels we grown accustomed over the course of the last 42 years. But as the first lightsaber battle we ever saw, it deserves a place on the list.

Though Obi-Wan and Darth Vader last fought each other on the lava fields of Mustafar, both seem to know that this battle between them was always coming. The Jedi Master and his former apprentice face off, much less acrobatically this time, but still attention-getting enough to draw an audience of stormtroopers and eventually Luke Skywalker himself.

Seeing that his new apprentice is watching, Obi-Wan recognizes his time has now passed and that the battle between the Light and the Dark Side is now Luke’s to fight. Obi-Wan smiles a small self-satisfied grin and basically surrenders, pulling his weapon to him and leaving himself defenseless. As the score swells, Luke and the audience react in horror as Vader strikes the killing blow and Obi-Wan simply disappears amidst his robes.

In his shock, Luke fires at Vader and the stormtroopers until Obi-Wan’s ghostly voice tells him to run. Luke doesn’t realize it yet but Obi-Wan hasn’t really left him (maybe learning for the first time that no one’s ever really gone) but the older Jedi had to make this sacrifice for Luke to become who he was destined to be.

10. Rey vs. Kylo Ren, The Rise of Skywalker

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While The Last Jedi wanted to let the past die, its follow-up, The Rise of Skywalker, is full of callbacks to the preceding movies. Lando and Emperor Palpatine both come back, our heroic protagonist learns that they have a genetic connection to great evil, and even the Ewoks show up for a second. The main element of The Rise of Skywalker that feels truly new is the evolving dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren. Their love-hate relationship is unique in the annals of Star Wars (certainly far different than the relationship between their dark ancestors), and so perhaps the most representative scene in The Rise of Skywalker is Rey and Kylo fighting out their feelings amidst the literal detritus of Star Wars. 

The battle among the rainswept ruins of the second Death Star doesn’t quite astound the way Rey and Kylo’s previous shared fights did (look for them closer to the top of this list) but it’s an exciting physical contest. The pouring rain and raging waves add a new flavor to the franchise’s fights, and the conclusion (Rey “killing” Kylo’s dark half, freeing him to redeem himself later) is a payoff we’ve been waiting two-and-a-half movies for.

9. Mace Windu vs. Palpatine, Revenge of the Sith

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Revenge of the Sith is the most effective prequel for a very simple reason: It actually has stakes. All the talk about Darth Vader wiping out the Jedi and the deadly Clone Wars that came before implied the prequels would be one dark ride. Instead, the first two installments served up Jar-Jar Binks and Tatooine sunshine. Revenge of the Sith is when the rubber met the road, and we finally got to see characters kill each other on screen.

Emotions surge as Palpatine’s fascist coup materializes, producing some of the trilogy’s best acting. Exhibit A: Samuel L. Jackson’s facial expressions during Mace Windu’s confrontation with him. The Jedi Master who spent most of the previous prequels steepling his fingers in council meetings is now trying with his whole being to murder the politician who betrayed his people, and he makes a really good effort! One lightsaber blow turns Coruscant’s omni-present skyline, previously just a backdrop, into the very precipice of the abyss. The tragedy of this scene comes from how clear it was that Mace really could have beaten Palpatine and stopped the Jedi genocide from ever happening. Even Anakin recognizes this, though far too late; Hayden Christensen’s ashen face after fatally interfering in the duel redeems some of the acting criticisms leveled at him over the years. That is the look of a man who knows he’s crossed a line there’s no going back from, and has now option left but to become even more of a monster.

This scene also earns bonus points for boasting one of the most gif-able moments in all of Star Wars: “Unlimited powwwwwwwwerrrr!!”

8. Darth Vader’s rampage, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

There are pros and cons to George Lucas relinquishing control of Star Wars. One definite advantage is that a new generation of fan-creators have now risen to reclaim Darth Vader as a badass villain. Though the prequels made a noble effort to make one of cinema’s most terrifying villains seem like a multi-dimensional tragic hero, young Anakin instead came off like a fusion of all the most annoying stereotypes of teenagers; he managed to retroactively make Darth Vader lamer. Thankfully, the Rogue One climax went a long way towards erasing that baggage (as did his appearances in Star Wars Rebels and the recent Darth Vader comics published by Marvel). 

Here is Vader in his majestically villainous glory, just mowing through Rebel soldiers. Even though there’s only one lightsaber involved in this sequence, the swordplay is so viscerally exciting and so delightfully on-character (especially Vader condescendingly swinging his blade upward as he walks by the guy he Force-pinned to the ceiling, killing him almost as an afterthought) that it earns a spot on this list. Taking place after all the Rogue One protagonists are already dead, the scene plays like a coda that cements this war story’s gradual transformation into a gruesome horror show. 

7. Yoda vs. Palpatine, Revenge of the Sith

On the one hand, this fight probably shouldn’t exist. As the most powerful paragons of the Light and Dark Sides of the Force, Yoda and Palpatine should be above the vulgar spectacle of lightsaber battles. Their strength runs deeper than that, and the preceding movies are full of proof, from Yoda lifting the X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp to Palpatine giving the idea of pain physical form with his Force lightning. If only this whole contest could have had the same energy as Yoda decking two Imperial Guards with a flick of his hand.

On the other hand, though, it’s still a visceral thrill seeing these opposing forces finally go at it. The Force flows through both of them, allowing their bodies to jump and flip at inhuman angles. Perhaps it makes sense that Yoda is so willing to bust out the lightsaber at this point when you remember that he’s now endured years of manufactured warfare and the total failure of his ally the Force to alert him to the presence of a Sith Lord right under his nose.

The Galactic Senate rotunda, which seemed from its inception like the ideal location for a lightsaber fight, here becomes a chilling backdrop for the death of democracy. Eventually Palpatine does forgo his lightsaber altogether in favor of using the Senate itself as his weapon. Once the seats of elected representatives become empty objects for a dictator to hurl at his opponent, Yoda realizes he’s lost. But at least he doesn’t go out without making the most excruciating nail scratch in the history of blockbuster movies.

6. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi

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Luke’s first lightsaber battle with Darth Vader cost him his hand and destroyed everything he thought he knew about his father. In their second battle, another hand gets lost but Luke sparks one of the biggest feats of redemption in the entire Skywalker saga and that in itself is impressive.

Sensing there is more conflict in Darth Vader than ever before, Luke arrives on the second Death Star a little cocky that he can pull his father away from the grip of the Dark Side. But Emperor Palpatine has planned for this confrontation with Anakin’s impulsive son and his manipulations bring Luke to the edge of darkness.

Obviously, Luke’s resistance to Palpatine’s goading doesn’t last for long or else we wouldn’t have a battle to grade, but once the fight between Vader and Luke begins, it’s swayed by more than the clash of lightsabers, but a son trying repeatedly to rescue his father from the darkness before it gets them both.

Luke retreats more than once, showing the same pacifist strain he displayed against his nephew Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi, but Vader is merciless, menacing him and probing into his mind for a weakness. Luke, who clearly would have failed Occlumency at Hogwarts, reveals quite easily that his father had not one, but two children. Whoops. Vader, who maybe should act more surprised by this knowledge, suggests his daughter might turn to the Dark Side if his son won’t. 

Though the idea of Leia turning to the Dark Side is, frankly, absurd, Luke strikes out at his father, advancing on Vader until he hacks off his hand in anger. Luke almost kills him until he hears Palpatine’s cackle, which prompts him to switch off his lightsaber off and throw it away (he’s big on that), proclaiming that he’s finally the Jedi his father once was.

In the end this battle comes down to choices. Palpatine decides to punish Luke for his, but the tiny bit of Anakin that still survives in Vader finally chooses his son over his Master, hurling Palpatine into the Death Star’s reactor and getting electrocuted in the process. He survives just long enough to look upon his son with his own human eyes and tell him, “You were right about me. Tell your sister you were right.” And with that, the tragic saga of Anakin Skywalker reaches its poignant ending.

5. Rey vs. Kylo Ren, The Force Awakens

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In the run up to The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams spent a lot of time playing hide the Jedi amongst the new generation of characters. But by the time, Kylo Ren, Finn, and Rey start battling it out on the snowy forests of the Starkiller base after Han’s Solo’s death, just who is the new Force-wielder becomes clear and it was worth the wait.

After Finn’s noble attempt to take out an unhinged Kylo Ren ends with him injured in the snow, Kylo tries to call his grandfather’s lightsaber to him only for it to land in the hands of a stunned Rey. As John Williams’ classic Force theme swells, it’s one of the most beautiful moments of the sequel trilogy as Rey grapples with the immensity of what this means and Kylo realizes there is another person like him in the galaxy. She hesitates a moment before igniting the lightsaber and if emotions already weren’t running high after she witnessed Kylo kill his father, this supercharges it.

Rey doesn’t fight like a Jedi but like a brawling scavenger and it throws the more classically trained Kylo off balance as she scurries up rocks and leaps and tumbles away. It’s a messy fight as they take down trees and Rey strains against a much larger opponent until Kylo makes the wrong move.

As their lightsabers flare against each other, Kylo tells Rey that he can show her the ways of the Force. Hearing the word sparks something within Rey. As she closes her eyes and draws on the Force for strength, the courage and determination of a thousand Jedi warriors flows through her veins. She attacks with a new ferocity as the already injured Kylo starts to falter. Eventually, Rey slices Kylo’s face and chest with a blow that sends him sprawling to the ground. Fortunately for him, the battle ends as Starkiller splits apart and leaves them on opposing sides of a ravine. Rey, realizing her luck, runs off into the night but while she escapes, the battle triggers something in her she no longer can deny. She’s the new heir to the Jedi legacy.

4. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back

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The closest a lightsaber fight ever came to a knock-down, drag-out brawl. The jump from Darth Vader’s mostly static duel with Obi-Wan in A New Hope to this multi-level slugfest represents an exponential improvement. Luke Skywalker is clearly outmatched against the Dark Lord of the Sith, just as Obi-Wan and Yoda warned him he would be. But hey, this is the guy who blew up the Death Star during one of his first times flying a spaceship, right? He can overcome impossible odds.

Not this time, though. Vader is generous with praise for his opponent, but it takes Luke far too long to realize how much condescension is involved in those compliments. Obviously this fight builds towards one of the most thrilling revelations in pop culture, but part of the genius of that twist is how many hints are laid throughout the duel itself. Vader talks to Luke like a parent encouraging their child during a game, only revealing how much stronger they are when the kid gets too rebellious. Several times during the battle, the two combatants are filmed to make it look like Vader towers over Luke — just as impossibly big as your dad seems when you’re a little kid. As the nature of the situation becomes increasingly clear, Luke becomes increasingly desperate, eventually throwing himself down a space mineshaft rather than face the truth of his parentage.

Cloud City is probably the most interesting locale in the original trilogy; its sky makes for a vivid backdrop through most of the movie’s third act. Yet here, Luke and Vader pursue each other through the dark underbelly of the mining colony, beating each other with not only lightsabers but also hissing steam vents and unfathomable wall equipment and the howling wind of the abyss, until there’s nowhere left to run away from the truth.

3. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Anakin Skywalker, Revenge of the Sith

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For the entirety of the prequel trilogy, we wondered how the young, handsome Anakin Skywalker becomes the monstrous half-man half-machine we saw in the original trilogy. It’s the climactic battle on the lava fields of Mustafar that finally provides the answer.

In terms of pure lightsaber fighting, it’s one of the most elaborate battles of the whole saga, going on for nearly ten minutes and displaying what two Force fighters in their prime could do to each other. It’s also one of the most acrobatic fights as they leap across lava fields, balance precariously on beams as they dodge the molten flow, then jump onto ropes and moving platforms while trying to bring the other down.

But though the fighting is phenomenal and the setting is iconic, one of the most affecting elements of the lightsaber battle isn’t the battle itself but what happens once the lightsabers get switched off. As Obi-Wan grievously wounds Anakin, the normally stoic Jedi erupts in grief and it’s Obi-Wan’s anguish that haunts you long after this fight is finished. Ewan McGregor’s performance here hauls this entire sequel trilogy over the finish line as the Jedi grapples with his own failures. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Anakin was the Chosen One, the one to destroy the Sith, but more than that he was like a brother to Obi-Wan and he loved him like one.

Despite everything, he still can’t kill Anakin, can barely even look at him as he leaves him to die burning in lava field. But before he goes, Obi-Wan grabs Anakin’s lightsaber, which one day he will gift to Anakin’s son in the hopes he will right the wrongs of the father. That brief moment shows that as dark as it seems, one day there will be hope in the galaxy again.

2. Rey & Kylo Ren vs. Praetorian Guards, The Last Jedi

From the iconic moment Kylo Ren slices Supreme Leader Snoke in half with a flick of his fingers to the end where the room explodes as he and Rey cleave Anakin’s lightsaber in half, the Throne Room battle in The Last Jedi leaves you on the edge of your seat and doesn’t let up. For pure OMG moments, few battles match it.

As Kylo chooses Rey’s life over his Master’s, they both seem stunned but don’t have long to process it. Faces lit by the glow of their lightsabers, they turn in slow motion and start fighting back to back against Snoke’s advancing Praetorian guards. They sync almost immediately as Rey rolls onto Kylo’s back and uses his body for leverage, their Force yin and yang finally working together and demonstrating that when they are on the same side, they achieve a unity that’s hard to defeat.

The camera swings between them, with the long cinematic takes showing both the spectacular set and that these aren’t stunt doubles but Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley doing the fighting themselves. But what really makes the battle memorable is that it brings everything to a head that has been building between them and then uses it to break both their hearts once it’s over.

As their adrenaline drains once the last guard is killed and the room burns around them, Rey is elated thinking that Kylo’s turn means she’s saved the Resistance. But that fantasy collapses before her eyes as Kylo reveals he’s hasn’t turned at all but wants to rule the galaxy with Rey at his side.

Sensing her hesitation and trying to browbeat her into submission, Kylo offers her his hand, basically begs her to take it, but Rey will not betray everything she believes in. It’s the reason we love her, that as desperate for belonging as she is, as much as a nobody as she might be, Rey deep down knows herself and that there are certain lines she will not cross. In the end, this battle proves it.

1. Darth Maul vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi & Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

Star Wars would not be Star Wars without John Williams; surely we all recognize that by now. But unlike George Lucas or any of the Star Wars cast, Williams may actually have done his best work in the prequels. As good as the main theme and the “Imperial March” are, “Duel of the Fates” sounds like the epic clarion call of a brand-new century. The eerie vocals and rapid strings provide the perfect soundtrack to the series’ most unique lightsaber battle, one that has still not been topped by subsequent prequels or sequels.

Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber can’t possibly redeem all the problems of the prequel trilogy, but it does make The Phantom Menace watchable at least. Trying to imagine that movie without this scene or “Duel of the Fates” is almost too terrible to think about. Even those viewers who hate podracing and the Trade Federation and the whole CGI overload typically have to admit that this fight is a blast. All props to Darth Maul actor Ray Park, whose acrobatic physicality also propelled Toad through the first X-Men movie. It’s not an exaggeration to say he was a key factor in two different films that have gone on to define 21st-century cinema, for better and worse.

In retrospect, Maul’s death definitely feels like a waste. None of the subsequent prequel villains (Count Dooku, General Grievous, etc.) lived up to the imposing aesthetic of the red-and-black makeup or the spinning two-sided weapon. Lucas and co. eventually realized this, bringing Maul back in the Clone Wars and Rebels shows (and later shoehorning him into Solo), but the one upside to his early departure is it gives even more weight to this fight.

Now this is podracing.

[This article has been updated to include The Rise of Skywalker.]

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