The first episode of Star Wars franchise is titled The Phantom Menace.
However, the movie doesn't clarify its title, nor is there a character named as such to justify its title.
So, my question is; why is the movie titled The Phantom Menace?
The Phantom Menace is initially said to be Darth Sidious (the pre-evolution form of Emperor Palpatine), not Darth Maul...
The phantom menace is a character named Darth Sidious, who is the last of the Sith
But the author then goes on to say
Actually, Lucas goes on to explain, the "menace" honorific should be broadened to include Sidious’s apprentice, Darth Maul
The movie doesn't have any character as such. Though Darth Maul has appeared significantly enough to make people assume that Phantom Menace is referring to him, but this is not the case.
In the movie, Senator Palpatine was involved as a menace and was a phantom to all. He was Darth Sidious in reality.
So, this title is really referring to Senator Palpatine aka Darth Sidious.
In the February 1999 issue of VANITY FAIR magazine, George Lucas stated that Darth Sidious was The Phantom Menace.
If you subscribe to the Darth Jar Jar theory, "The Phantom Menace" refers to Jar Jar Binks.
TL;DR of Darth Jar Jar Theory: Jar Jar was secretly a villain trained in the ways of the Force and only put on the bumbling fool antics as a cover to hide his true identity.
Because he was so unbecoming of a competent character, no one would ever suspect that he was the mastermind behind the fall of the Jedi Order. The protagonists, the rest of the galaxy, even the audience would never suspect that a ridiculously stupid caricature could ever be a powerful figure that influences the entire storyline. Thus, he is the menace that hides in the background waiting to be revealed.
I have always assumed it referred to the fact that the Trade Federation blockade and invasion of Naboo was a False Flag operation. It was entirely manufactured event which posed no real threat to the republic but was designed to provide the political leverage to justify a military buildup of the republic (including the creation of the clone army) while simultaneously advancing Palpatine's career.
It's true that George Lucas specifically said the title was referencing Palpatine/Darth Sidious, but I believe it's also a concept and much broader theme.
A theme that relates to the haunting quality of the Dark Side, especially Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader, but also as a metaphor for having to deal with the failures of past...
When one goes back to some of the promotional posters for the film, there is one in particular with young Anakin looking down towards the stand, while being positioned next a wall of a building where his "future shadow" of Darth Vader is cast.
This scene is never in the movie, but is meant to invoke an eerie foreshadowing of whom many viewers know Anakin will become, so one can argue that he too is a kind of 'Phantom Menace', since the prequels are his tragic hero story. (The poster scene has however been reworked into a very recent issue of Darth Vader comic series).
Each prequel film then continues to foreshadow Anakin's downfall with a new villain that all have characteristics to either Darth Vader or Anakin himself.
Going back to the idea that 'The Phantom Menace' may also relate to notion of dealing with the past, this is really been the bottom line of sequel trilogy thus far by referencing everything that came before.
Kylo Ren/Ben Solo becomes obsessed with his grandfather, Darth Vader, and comes to believe that he needs to finish what Darth Vader had started. In truth viewers do not exactly know what Kylo is specifically referring to, but in The Force Awakens, he does kill his own father, something Vader could not do to his son, Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.
Then in The Last Jedi these ideas get pushed further, as Luke Skywalker becomes more central to the over all story and back story...
Kylo Ren says early in film, "Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.", but this becomes a bit ironic as viewers know he is still obsessed with grandfather, and because he was about to potentially kill his mother while saying this, but ultimately couldn't. And then later, he is able to kill his master, Snoke, whose been a character that has been informing his story from the beginning, even influencing Liea's womb (After Math Trilogy).
But we also learn in a double juxtaposing flashback scene, that while Luke Skywalker was training his nephew Kylo Ren/Ben Solo at his new Jedi school, he came to fear the dark side that he could sense growing in Ren. He nearly kills his nephew while he was sleeping until he catches himself, while his nephew wakes up and sees him in the act! This causes Ben to join Snoke, turn some Luke's students against him, while killing the rest and burning down the school. This is a double reference back to what Anakin did when he betrayed the Jedi and joined Darth Sidious when he went back to temple and killed all of the younglings in Revenge of the Sith.
This leads Luke to go into exile, believing that, "The Jedi must end.", but through Rey's perseverance in making him train her, Luke being touched by nostalgia, including memories of his sister, and bit of last-minute prodding by force ghost Yoda, Luke changes his mind and help's the resistance escape by distracting Kylo Ren with a duel. Before Luke dies, he proclaims, "I will not be the last Jedi." and ancient text that viewers thought all of might of been destroyed, mysterious end up with Rey on the Millennium Falcon.
Another facet is Kylo Ren's and Rey's potentially romantic relationship. Both characters have been revealed to have "raw power" for a yet to be disclosed reason, and each characters is rising out fear for that of what they don't understand about their respected families.
Fear has often been seen as a precursor to the dark the side by the Jedi of Yoda's era. So it's curious then to have an antagonist like Kylo Ren, kill his master and save Rey, while Rey continues to play savior despite what she doesn't necessarily understand about her own past or heritage.
Moreover, since this trilogy is said to be the last in the Skywalker Saga, it would make a great deal of sense for it to want to full circle itself, going directly back to prequels in some way.
As mentioned, the prequels are about the Jedi's, Republics', and Aankin's downfall so an evolution of the Jedi philosophy seems apt, given it contributed to these things, despite Palpatine's grand plan.
The prequels were also in part a tragic mother and son story and a tragic war time romance. *If there is redemption story here for Kylo Ren, then it must be through Liea's and Rey's love in order for Ben to spiritually progress past where Anakin had failed, which means they (Rey, Ben) should continue to be contested by some undisclosed truth about Darth Vader/Anakin or Darth Sidious!
#Food for Thought:
There was concept art that was not used for The Force Awakens (featured in The Force Awakens Art Book) that depicts some kind of never-before-seen force ghost entity of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. The art seems to depict the force ghost in a more hybrid state between Vader & Anakin. The entity has a haunting quality.
Although not used in the film, it does tell us that they were considering using it, bringing Vader/Anakin visually back into the fold. This has lead some to speculate that these ideas may not have been disregarded, as much as Abrams maybe didn't have enough time or wanted to save this "idea" for later.
IMO it would play on a notion of 'A Phantom Menace' again both by referencing the darker part of Anakin, but also if the characters would have to confront it and viewers would have contest the states of a tormented soul....