R2-D2 was once the most important character to the Star Wars franchise, but Disney's recent trilogy completely sidelined the character.
R2-D2 was once the most important character in the Star Wars saga, but Disney's recent trilogy forgot that and completely sidelined the beloved droid. R2-D2 was introduced in 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope as a companion to Luke Skywalker who accompanied him throughout the rest of the original trilogy. He was front and center for the action, even taking some damage during the film's climactic battle, before returning in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Though R2-D2 communicates with only beeps, chirps, and computerized whistles, R2-D2's relationship with Luke was one of the best pairings in Star Wars, producing a dynamic that was boisterous and sincere. George Lucas brought R2, as well as C-3PO, back for his prequel trilogy, and the pair once again had a sizeable role in the three films, bringing fans many of the franchise's best moments. But once Disney acquired LucasFilm and began the sequel trilogy with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, R2-D2 saw his importance to the films' plots diminish.
In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Luke says, "A Jedi's weapon deserves more respect," which is a fitting articulation of Disney's treatment of Star Wars' legacy characters in the recent trilogy. Despite playing a crucial role in both the original and prequel trilogies, Disney relegated R2-D2 to the sidelines in their films, and it seems as though they forgot that R2-D2 was once Star Wars' most important character.
R2-D2 Was Star Wars' Most Important Character
Leia and R2-D2
In the original trilogy, R2-D2 is integral to plot, not just cute side character. R2-D2 has the Death Star plans and Leia's distress call that sets Luke and Obi-Wan off on their adventure, and later in the film, R2-D2 saves Luke, Han, and Leia from the trash compactor. During the climactic battle against the Empire, R2-D2 accompanies Luke in the X-Wing that ultimately destroys the Death Star. In Empire Strikes Back, he's responsible for fixing the Millenium Falcon and helping the Skywalker twins escape Darth Vader in Bespin. He also accompanies Luke on his journey to Dagobah to look for Master Yoda. In the last film of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, R2-D2 smuggled Luke's lightsaber into Jabba's palace and was instrumental in freeing the main characters from certain death in the Sarlacc Pit. Throughout the original trilogy, R2-D2 was the heroes' constant companion, playing key roles throughout the most important events, even in the inciting incident of the whole franchise.
Naturally, George Lucas brought R2-D2 back for his prequel trilogy where his role was increased further. In Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, the droid saves Queen Amidala, Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon Jinn when he assists in bypassing the Imperial blockade on Naboo. He then goes on to save Padme in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, using never-before-seen rocket thrusters that he later weaponizes against two battle droids in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. While the original trilogy focuses on R2-D2's relationship with Luke, the prequels focus on his dynamic with Anakin before his tragic turn to the Dark Side.
Lucas' use of R2-D2 throughout the original and prequel trilogy was extensive, but what's even more telling about R2-D2's importance is Lucas' original plan for the ending of Return of the Jedi. Lucas planned to end his series with R2 narrating the story a century after the film's events, making R2-D2 not only a crucial participant in the plot, but also the whole original trilogy's narrator.
Disney's Sequel Trilogy Failed R2-D2
Luke and R2-D2 in the Millenium Falcon
Considering how important R2-D2 was, why is the droid's role in Disney's recent trilogy so minimal? Though Disney wanted to bring back Star Wars' legacy characters, they also wanted to introduce a roster of new characters, which meant compromising character arcs of the Star Wars alums. In The Force Awakens, BB-8 essentially serves the same role that R2-D2 played in the other trilogies. Much like R2-D2, BB-8 carries vital information that propels the lead characters into action - the last piece of the map to Luke Skywalker. He also serves as the astromech for the lead pilot, Poe Dameron. Sadly, BB-8's screen time meant that R2-D2 was mostly inactive for the whole film until somehow being reactivated at the end.
Even in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he doesn't have a lot to do. He accompanies Rey to meet Luke, something Rian Johnson championed to have in the film, and the pair share a sweet albeit brief reunion. Admittedly, R2 is partly why Luke agrees to train Rey, but he doesn't do much after that. Even in The Rise of Skywalker, which was more droid-friendly with the introduction of D-0, R2-D2 was barely utilized. Throughout the Disney era, though the human legacy characters have made frequent appearances, droids like R2-D2 and C-3PO have been pushed aside to make way for newer astromech characters and more merchandising opportunities.
How Disney Could Have Used R2-D2 Better
Luke, R2-D2 and George Lucas
R2-D2 finally got a sequel trilogy poster, ahead of the release of The Rise of Skywalker. This led many fans to speculate that R2's role in the finale of the Skywalker Saga would be more prominent, but though R2-D2 and C-3PO certainly share a few good scenes, and R2-D2 gets a great moment with Poe towards the end of the film as his X-Wing co-pilot, these moments lack weight because they feel like cheap attempts at retconning the fact that R2-D2 has had so little do in the sequel trilogy.
Considering Lucas didn't get end up using his R2 twist, in which the droid is revealed to be recounting the events to a Keeper of the Whills, it could have been a good way of closing out the saga. Because R2-D2 has never had his mind wiped, unlike C-3PO who has had his memory erased on several occasions, it would make sense for R2 to narrate The Rise of Skywalker and by extension the whole Skywalker Saga. Such a reveal would have given the character an arc that didn't feel reductive.
Even if Disney's Star Wars films didn't choose to turn R2-D2 into the story's narrator, the droid should have had a more cohesive connection to the sequel trilogy's plot. Rather than essentially replacing R2 with BB-8, there's no reason why the two droids couldn't have shared the screen - R2 as the grizzled veteran of the star wars and BB-8 as the new apprentice. Building R2's relationships with the newcomers, as Chewie and C-3PO did, would have added more of a backbone to the fan-service moments that they included for the character. The astromech droid was once Star Wars' most important character, but the studio forgot that and wasted R2-D2 instead.