Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the modern supervillain with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty, pop culture has been home to countless larger than life figures exhibiting wicked inclinations. Nowhere is this more apparent than the movies, which have provided us with numerous classic evildoers.
From Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector and right on through to Heath Ledger’s Joker, film has been a showcase for some of the most memorable bad guys in all of fiction. But who is the greatest cinematic supervillain of all time? While there are plenty of worthy candidates to consider, for me, there’s really only one valid answer: Darth Vader.
Why? Because this iconic Star Wars baddie is one of the few screen villains who evolves.
There’s more than meets the eye with Vader
Now, to the casual movie lover, Darth Vader is a pretty simple character. He wears a black suit of armour and a swirly cape, and he kills people on a whim. Not exactly the most sophisticated villain getting around.
But to pigeonhole Vader like this is to ignore how much his characterisation changes over the course of the original Star Wars trilogy, and how our understanding of him develops after viewing the newer prequel trilogy.
It’s this continued evolution that puts the Sith Lord ahead of any other contenders for best big screen supervillain of all time – even the many colourful adversaries in the 007 franchise.
First impressions can be deceiving
When we first meet Darth Vader in Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, he’s essentially a sci-fi samurai take on the black knight from Arthurian legend. He stalks about starship corridors, barking commands and acting as the enforcer for primary antagonist Governor Tarkin.
That’s right: in his first appearance in the series, Vader isn’t even pulling down big bad status. Sure, he’s clearly a high-ranking member of the Empire, and his status as a fallen Jedi makes him an interesting foil for our heroes. But ultimately, he’s a glorified henchman (albeit one with his own sinister agenda).
Fortunately, there’s still a lot to love about the character even at this early stage, including one key characteristic that will endure throughout much of the saga: despite lacking the emotional depth that will later define him, Darth Vader debuts with his acerbic wit fully intact.
Vader’s (dark) sense of humour is often overlooked, but it’s actually one of his most appealing traits, and it’s a credit to Star Wars creator George Lucas – and uncredited co-writers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck – that this element of Vader’s characterisation works right from the off.
It’s hard to pull off a funny villain and still have them remain a credible threat (look no further than Avengers: Age of Ultron for a recent example of this). However, by keeping the Sith Lord’s jokes macabre in tone (the punchlines usually involve a fresh corpse) and restrained in frequency, Lucas is able to have Vader elicit the odd chuckle without sacrificing his menace.
Promoted to primary antagonist duties
Not even Vader’s quick wit can prevent him from being sent packing during the finale of A New Hope, but this is only a minor setback. By the time Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back rolls around, he’s re-introduced as the baddest boss around. Sure, when we last saw him, Vader was hurtling through space after being blindsided by Han Solo, but that’s quickly forgotten in the wake of the sheer villainous swagger on display here.
Whether it’s the sick burns he continually dishes out to his subordinates (“Apology accepted, Captain Needa” as he strangles Needa to death? Priceless) or him being scary as hell (the jump scare during Empire’s climatic duel is terrifying), it’s Vader’s galaxy and we’re just living it.
Yet before we can fully absorb this new, more confident identity, we’re provided with clues hinting at further transformation still to come. And indeed, unexpected chinks in Vader’s metaphorical armour soon begin to manifest themselves throughout Empire’s 124-minute runtime.
For starters, although Vader now seems to be the top dog running the show, at one point we witness him kneeling before a hologram of the Emperor. This makes it abundantly clear that while the Sith Lord is the one calling the shots out on the factory floor, someone else is still paying his wages.
Empire also allows us our first glimpse at Vader with his helmet removed. The partial view we get of his scarred, bald head doesn’t just prove his humanity in a literal sense – providing useful clarity for those unsure if he was really a robot – but figuratively as well, intimating a painful past.
Most importantly of all, however, is the bombshell dropped during Empire’s finale, when we find out that Luke Skywalker is Vader’s kid. After all, what could be more humanising for this demonic figure than the revelation that he is someone’s dad? And not only is Luke Vader’s boy, but the Sith Lord even seems to care for him!
You’ll spot this not only in Vader’s suggestion that he and Luke rule the galaxy together (cute), but by closely re-watching the earlier scene between Vader and the Emperor. Here, Vader convinces his master that it’d be better to convert Luke to their cause rather than just off him and be done with it – and while this can be attributed to classic Sith scheming, it’s also at least partly down to the love Vader feels (very) deep down for his child.
Shattering Vader’s mystique
Darth Vader’s newly uncovered vulnerability comes to a head during the final instalment in the original trilogy, Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It’s funny that the prequels are frequently accused of robbing Vader of his mystery and his intimidating air, but in truth, he first lost these when Jedi was released back in 1983.
Once Yoda assures Luke (and us) that Vader wasn’t lying to Luke about being his father, a large chunk of Vader’s backstory is filled in, and – combined with subsequent comments by Obi-Wan – a basic origin story for Vader quickly comes into focus. We now know that Anakin started out as Obi-Wan’s prize pupil, Anakin Skywalker, before being seduced to the dark side and entering the Emperor’s service as Vader. In short: he’s just a person, like anyone else.
With the enigma surrounding Vader’s past rapidly vanishing, the next thing to go is the aura of fear that surrounds him. It begins early, when the Emperor arrives in person and starts bossing the mighty Sith Lord around, really hammering home once and for all who the big kahuna is over on the Dark Side.
But what really does it is Vader’s first (verbal) confrontation with Luke since their duel at the end of Empire. There’s a generally dejected vibe to Vader’s interactions with his son here, which comes to a head when Skywalker Junior asks Skywalker Senior to give up his hateful life and leave with him. In response, Vader quietly laments, “It is too late for me, son”.
And at last, the mystique of his dark lord persona is shattered, and we see Darth Vader for what he truly is: a sad old man who keeps making terrible, hurtful choices because he doesn’t believe he has the strength to change.
As if to underscore this new step in Vader’s evolution, the Sith Lord’s body language in private, after Luke bitterly states that his father is truly dead, betrays a surprising capacity to be wounded on an emotional level (and I mean why not? Words can hurt, Luke).
All this isn’t to say that Vader in Jedi has completely lost his ability to frighten. When he and Luke finally come to blows, there are several moments – like his slow, threatening ascent up the throne room staircase) – which rate up there with any of Vader’s intimidating efforts from the previous two films.
Even so, for the most part it’s evident that Vader is physically outmatched by Luke, and his sharp dialogue and vicious swordplay come across as less majestic then petty. They’re the not the actions of an indestructible monster, but rather a pathetic, ageing junkie strung out on the metaphorical drug that has ruined the best years of his life.
On the plus side, now that Vader’s villainy has been so thoroughly undermined, his redemption when he saves Luke from death at the hands (literally!) of the Emperor is far easier to swallow. It’s a moving scene, trumped only by the emotional impact of his dying moments. When we see him unmasked and at his most feeble, his sheepish smile towards Luke makes the newly restored Anakin hard not to forgive.
Anakin’s last words to Luke are for him to tell his sister Leia that he was right about their father: that the man who was Darth Vader always contained a spark of goodness within his soul. This affirmation that someone as ruthless as Vader is still capable of feeling love and acting upon it is a powerful one, and it plays an important part in how the character evolves in three remaining films in the Star Wars saga.
The past is prologue
Vader’s evolution continues next in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace, set a generation before the events of A New Hope. So, ironically, we end up going backwards to move our understanding of Darth Vader forward.
For any of Phantom Menace’s faults (and it has many), it’s undeniably fascinating to meet Vader as a kid. Indeed, witnessing a time when Anakin Skywalker was a nine-year-old boy, full of love for his mother and the desire to be heroic and kind is low-key a revelatory experience.
Focusing on Vader’s childhood reminds us of how things can all go wrong despite the best efforts and intentions, and we begin to see the seeds for Vader’s downfall being planted: like many of us, the kid just cannot face the prospect of losing the people that he loves.
Darth Vader: lovesick teen?
This becomes a greater concern in Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones, where Anakin’s romance with Padmé Amidala takes centre stage.
The young Vader-to-be of this instalment certainly has his flaws; he can be whiny, reckless and short tempered. But he’s also brave and good-natured, and any of his questionable decisions are motivated by his love for Padmé, Obi-Wan or his mum.
Even his most horrific act – the murder of a whole village(!) of Sand People after their tribe murdered his dear ol’ ma – was driven by heartbreak, rather than his lust for power. At this stage in his life, his deepest motivation is the very human urge to protect those he cares about.
By exploring this, Attack of the Clones asks us to consider whether evil in the form of someone like Vader can love, and if evil can love, then what does being evil even mean?
The tragedy of Darth Vader
Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith builds upon these questions, and on our understanding of how a good person like Anakin could become a villain like Darth Vader.
It reinforces Anakin’s love for Padmé, and reconfigures his troubled, father-son relationship with Obi-Wan to that of affectionate brothers. It also shows us how his obsession with protecting one of these people ultimately drives them both away.
And so, what Lucas calls the “Tragedy of Darth Vader” boils down to the simple yet inescapable truth: no matter how noble or sympathetic a person’s reasons for seeking power might be, this power will inevitably corrupt them.
Before too long, Anakin has forgotten his initial motivation for turning to the Dark Side – preventing his pregnant wife from dying – and shortly after being christened Darth Vader, starts plotting to overthrow the Emperor and reign in his place.
As is so often the case, he also becomes addicted to abusing his newfound power, getting sucked further and further down with each misdeed, becoming the Dark Side junkie we saw earlier in Jedi.
It gets to the point where he even murders Jedi younglings, which may have been a storytelling misstep (seriously: killing kids is pretty hardcore, even for a Sith Lord), but is nonetheless effective at demonstrating the depths of Vader’s villainy previously hinted at rather than explicitly shown.
This all helps flesh out how Luke’s dad could become the second most horrible guy in the galaxy, however, it doesn’t justify his metamorphosis at the conclusion of Jedi. How can a guy this rotten possibly come back to the light? We’ve just spent a decent chunk of screentime being shown how irredeemable he is!
Luckily, this crucial justification emerges during the film’s extended epilogue, after Vader (courtesy of a scrap with Obi-Wan) has received the severe injuries he carries with him in the original trilogy. Here, mere moments after being fitted with his life-sustaining armour, Vader completely flips out after Palpatine (incorrectly) informs him that he killed Padmé.
His final, pitiful (and much parodied) scream of “No” confirms everything we learned about him in Jedi was true and offers us one last shift in how we view the character overall. From now on, whenever we watch Vader in the original trilogy, we’ll know that inside that suit is a man who ruined his life at a young age and who’s now resigned himself to an existence both terrifying and wretched.
But more importantly, we’ll also know that the engine driving Vader’s villainy is fuelled by the ever-present heartache of losing the woman he loved. This will allow us to accept that a positive reminder of this love – in the form of his child with Padmé – really could be enough to push him towards redemption, and pay-off a clearly-defined character arc that spans six whole movies.
And that’s why Darth Vader is cinema’s greatest supervillain.