Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the modern supervillain in the form of 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 on to Heath Ledger’s Joker, films have been a showcase for some of the most memorable bad guys in all of fiction.
Of all these cinematic supervillains, I’d argue that the title of greatest of them all should go to a true icon of the screen: Darth Vader. In this latest article in the Pop Culture Studio’s Star Wars-themed series, I’ll look at Vader’s constant evolution as a character throughout the Star Wars saga, and explain why this sets him above his distinguished competition.
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 in this way 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 development that puts the Sith Lord ahead of any other contenders for best big screen supervillain of all time, even including the many colourful adversaries from the 007 franchise.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS CAN BE DECEIVING
When we first meet Lord 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.
True, he’s clearly a high ranking member of the Empire, and his status as a fallen Jedi who devotes his mystical Force powers to evil makes him an interesting foil for our heroes, but he doesn’t progress much further than that.
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. Yes, despite lacking the emotional depth that will later come to define him, the artist formerly known as Anakin Skywalker at least debuts with his acerbic wit fully intact.
Vader’s (dark) sense of humour is often overlooked, but it’s actually one of his most endearing traits, and it’s a credit to all involved that it works.
After all, 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). But by keeping his jokes macabre in tone (the Sith Lord’s punchlines usually involve a fresh corpse) and proving himself deadly (and deadly serious) at all other times, Vader is able to elicit the odd chuckle without sacrificing his menace.
Promoted to primary antagonist duties
By the time Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back rolls around, we are re-introduced to Darth Vader as the baddest boss around.
Sure, when we last saw Vader at the end of A New Hope he was hurtling through space after being blindsided by Han Solo, but that’s quickly forgotten in the face of the sheer villainous swagger on display here.
Whether it’s his continued ability to drop sick burns on his subordinates (“Apology accepted, Captain Needa” as he strangles Needa to death? Priceless) or just generally being scary as hell (when he holds his breath to catch Luke off-guard during their duel is terrifying), it’s Vader’s galaxy and you’re just living it.
Yet before this new identity has fully sunken in, we’re already shown clues that further transformation is still to come. Unexpected chinks in Vader’s metaphorical armour can be seen throughout Empire.
For starters, whilst Vader now seems to be the top dog running the show, at one point we witness him kneeling before a hologram of the Emperor, making it clear that the Sith Lord might be calling the shots out on the factory floor, but someone else is still paying his wages.
Empire also allows us our first glimpse at Vader with his helmet removed, and the partial view we get of his scarred, bald head doesn’t just prove his humanity in a literal sense (for those unsure if he was some kind of robot) but figuratively as well, intimating a painful past.
Most importantly of all, however, there is that little revelation during the finale that Luke is Vader’s kid. After all, what could be more humanising for this demonic figure than the knowledge that he is someone’s dad? And not only is Luke Vader’s boy, but the Sith Lord even seems to care for him!
We can see this not only in Vader’s suggestion that he and Luke rule the galaxy together (cute), but by closely rewatching the scene between Vader and the Emperor, where the former convinces the latter that it would be better to convert Luke to their cause rather than just off him and be done with it.
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 actually lost both of these things when Jedi was released back in 1983.
Once Yoda assures us (and Luke) that Vader wasn’t lying to Luke about being his father, Anakin, a large chunk of Vader’s backstory is filled in.
Thanks to comments by Obi-Wan in this film (and in A New Hope), a basic origin comes into focus: that Anakin started out as Obi-Wan’s gifted student before being seduced to the dark side and entering the Emperor’s service as Vader.
With the enigma surrounding Vader’s history 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, which really hammers home once and for all who is the big kahuna 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 in this scene, 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 admits, “It is too late for me, son”.
And at last the mystique of his dark lord persona is broken, 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 do finally come to blows during the climatic battle, there are several moments (such as his slow, threatening walk up the throne room stair case), which rate up there with any of Vader’s efforts from the previous two films.
But even so, for the most part it’s evident that Vader is clearly physically outmatched by Luke. Furthermore, his sharp dialogue and vicious swordplay come across as less majestic then petty, the acts of a pathetic, ageing junkie strung out on the drug that has ruined the best years of his life.
On the plus side, now that Vader’s villainy has been so undermined, his redemption when he saves Luke from death at the hands (literally!) of the Emperor is all the more easy to swallow.
It’s a moving scene, trumped only by the emotional impact of his dying moments. Here we see him unmasked and at his most feeble, and 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
Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace is of course set a generation before the events of A New Hope. Therefore we actually go backwards in order to continue moving our views on Darth Vader forward.
For any of the faults of Phantom Menace (and believe me, there are many), it’s undeniably fascinating to witness 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.
By focusing on Vader’s childhood, the film 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: 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 installment 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. At this stage in his life, nothing Anakin does is for power as an end in and of itself, but rather the very human urge to protect those he cares about.
In 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 it really mean to be evil?
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 monster like Darth Vader.
It reinforces his love for Padmé, and elevates 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.
In the end, we learn that the so-called “tragedy of Darth Vader” boils down to the simple yet inescapable reality that no matter how noble or sympathetic a person’s reasons for seeking power might be, this power will invariably corrupt them.
Before too long, Anakin has forgotten his initial motivation for turning to the Dark Side, namely to prevent 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 increased might, getting sucked further and further down with each misdeed, becoming the Dark Side junkie we saw earlier.
It gets to the point where he even murders Jedi younglings, which may have been a storytelling misstep, but is effective nonetheless at illustrating to us the depths of Vader’s otherwise only hinted at villainy.
(When I say including the youngling murder was possibly a mistake, what I mean is that the scene runs the risk of derailing Vader’s redemptive arc; it’s one of those curious quirks of human nature that we can forgive a character when they are responsible for the deaths of faceless millions, but are incapable of showing the same compassion should said character kill a couple of cute kids.)
Everything Sith has thrown at us thus far has certainly assisted in fleshing out how Luke’s dad could become the second most horrible guy in the galaxy, but it doesn’t quite justify his metamorphosis at the conclusion of Jedi.
Fittingly, this is saved for the film’s extended epilogue, after Vader (courtesy of a scrap with Obi-Wan) has received the severe injuries present in the original trilogy.
Mere moments after being fitted with his life sustaining armour, Vader completely flips out upon hearing the (erroneous) news 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 seemingly ruined his life at a young age, who has 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 in turn allows 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.