Do I need to give a SPOILER WARNING for the Star Wars movies? Here’s one in case you need it, especially for The Force Awakens. If you haven’t caught up with it yet there will be some MAJOR spoilers.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away. . . a mixture of influences from Kurosawa films, Flash Gordon serials, and American Westerns became a pop culture phenomenon to match few others. A space opera with strong elements of fantasy, the Star Wars franchise uses the Hero’s Journey to create a new mythology for the modern world.
It also features one of the great movie villains of all time.
This is the third Great Villain Blogathon, and the array of movie villains represented has been varied and impressive. You’d think someone would have pounced on the opportunity to write about Darth Vader (aka Anakin Skywalker), and yet the first two years he was passed over for other movie villains.
It’s true that many bloggers who participate in blogathons concentrate mostly on the Golden Era of Hollywood films, but there have also been many posts analyzing modern movie villains.
Why the reluctance to tackle the movie baddie that terrified an entire generation of filmgoers?
I think part of the answer is in the question—Star Wars is such a massive pop culture phenomenon that it can be a tad intimidating.
Then there are those prequels.
Sure, it’s possible to talk about Vader only in terms of the original trilogy (as well as his residual impact on the latest film, The Force Awakens). But there’s no escaping that the prequels are canon now.
So I took one for the team and sat through the prequels for the first time since they were released in the movie theaters.
I’m not going to say, “Hey, they aren’t as bad as I remember!” They are pretty much as bad as I remember. Not worthless—every Star Wars movie has elements that made us fall in love with the Star Wars universe in the first place. Luckily, this is not a review of the films, so I don’t have to get into what is bad about them (except in terms of the Vader character). Besides, anyone who’s seen them already knows why they were massively disappointing to fans.
Since the first film, A New Hope, was released I have heard several fans assert that Darth Vader is the actual hero of Star Wars, not the villain. Considering he impacts every film up to now (and likely the next two films, as well) there may be something to that. I wouldn’t call him a hero (except in his own mind, as is the case with many villains) but he certainly serves as a through line for the entire opus.
The basic premise of Star Wars is a fight between good and evil, good represented by the Jedi and the Rebels, who are trying to overthrow the Galactic Empire. The Jedi and the Sith, the antagonists represented by Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, are adept at using The Force, a metaphysical power created from an energy field that exists in all living things. A princess named Leia, a young farmer named Luke with a strong sensitivity to The Force, and a smuggler named Han Solo join forces to help the Rebels vanquish the Empire.
From the moment Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s starship in A New Hope he’s a scary dude, with his now iconic black helmet, black robes and relentless breathing apparatus. He is part man and part machine, due to some physical disaster we don’t know the details of until the third prequel movie, Revenge of the Sith. Voiced brilliantly by James Earl Jones (David Prowse is the actor who played him on screen) his deep, slippery intonations became as iconic as his appearance. It also helps that he has the baddest of bad-ass musical themes, written by John Williams.
A Sith Lord (one who uses the “dark side” of The Force to gain personal power), he can kill people without even touching them. His ruthlessness is sketched out very quickly, as he uses The Force to kill not only enemies in his way, but also minions who don’t succeed in obeying his commands. (A New Hope has this happen several times, as each dead minion is replaced by someone who is promoted into their rank. It becomes a running joke.) Early on he commits a terrifying act of genocide, using the Death Star to destroy the planet Alderaan—in front of the planet’s own princess. He also kills hero Luke’s mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who was at one time Vader’s own mentor and trained him as a Jedi Knight.
It’s no wonder our intrepid heroes want to bring him down. It’s no wonder the audience waits breathlessly on first viewing to see him vanquished.
It would have been easy for creator George Lucas to stop right there and have Vader be nothing more than the ruthless right hand of the evil Emperor Palpatine. Instead, he created one of the great plot twists in film history by revealing at the end of the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, that he is also Anakin Skywalker, the biological father of Luke, as well as Leia. Since Luke is also exceptionally Force-sensitive, Vader tries to lure him to the dark side of The Force and join the Empire against the Rebels.
What seemed a straightforward quest at first becomes far more complicated. In Return of the Jedi, Luke’s refusal to join the Emperor results in Vader turning against his master and killing him before he himself dies. In Luke’s eyes, his father has been redeemed.
I recently reviewed the latest Star Wars novel, Bloodline, by Claudia Gray, which is a Leia-centric book. Interestingly, it is revealed that Leia never agreed with Luke’s belief in their father’s redemption. It is a lot to ask to overlook the millions of deaths Vader caused, either directly or indirectly. That Luke forgives his father while the rest of us may not is another reason Star Wars is more than a fun roller coaster ride.
The backstory of Darth Vader is told in snippets throughout the first trilogy. He was Obi-Wan’s “Padawan” (apprentice) studying to become a Jedi Knight. The Jedi were once the peacekeepers for the entire galaxy. Known then as Anakin Skywalker, Vader became the greatest Jedi of them all, but was lured to the dark side. He helped bring down the Republic, killing most of the Jedi. Those who survived—like Obi-Wan and Luke’s other eventual mentor Yoda—escaped and hid, waiting for the children of Vader to grow up. They were the “new hope,” the new generation that might bring the Jedi order back to life.
(Yes, I’m saying “they,” even though the first movies concentrate on Luke’s training as a Jedi. Obi-Wan and Yoda know about Leia, which is implied in the first trilogy and explicitly revealed in the prequels.)
The prequels also reveal (to the detriment of the story, in my opinion) that Anakin Skywalker was believed to be a prophesized “Chosen One” who would “bring back balance to The Force.” (Whatever that means, and just for the record, I flat out refuse to talk about “midichlorians.”) Lucas also blundered by getting a tad too literal with the Hero’s Journey when he designated him as a virgin birth. (I’m rolling my eyes as I write this.) He was also born into slavery and a prodigy from a tiny age—already a pilot by the age of three (!) and so mechanically proficient he built the droid C-3PO by the age of ten.
So what made Anakin turn to the dark side, according to the prequels?
He didn’t get the job promotion he felt he deserved.
Wait, that’s not quite accurate. He does get appointed to the Jedi Council—Palpatine, at this point Chancellor and not yet Emperor, insists on it.
What really gripes him is he doesn’t get the JOB TITLE he feels he’s entitled to. The Jedi Council refuse to allow him the title of “Master.”
There’s also some stuff about visions he has about the death of his wife. Palpatine promises if he surrenders to the dark side, he will have the power to bring her back to life.
I’m rolling my eyes again, because he NEVER ASKS PALPATINE TO DEMONSTRATE THIS POWER. I would have squashed a bug or something and said, “O.K., show me.”
But maybe that’s just me.
O.K., O.K., I could spend the rest of this post ridiculing the prequels, but if nothing else, they are a study in why prequels are so often terrible.
For one thing, there’s PLENTY in the subtext of the original trilogy to explain why Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
Start by taking a good, long, hard look at the Jedi religion.
It’s a really fascinating melding of Western and Eastern philosophy. The Jedi are in some ways like Christian monks—not supposed to form attachments, which is one of the first rules Anakin breaks by marrying and having children—and in others more like Buddhists.
The other major rules are the Jedi are not allowed to feel fear or anger.
Think about that for a moment—it’s not that they’re not allowed to SHOW fear and anger, they aren’t allowed to even FEEL these emotions, because that is the way to the dark side.
So basically, they are not allowed to feel the emotions that make humans human: love, fear, and anger. When Luke wants to leave his training to save Leia and Han, Yoda scolds him for putting his feelings for his friends above his training.
And let’s not forget this famous scene:
Luke: O.K., I’ll try.
Yoda: No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
We all love Yoda—even though he was perfectly O.K. with Luke leaving Leia and Han high and dry—and most fans have probably quoted that line at one time or another. But really think about that, too. In our culture, the belief is the only real failure is not to try, that success comes after many failures.
The Jedi are not permitted to fail. Ever.
When they DO fail, as they did when the Republic collapsed, they run away and hide, waiting for a new generation to do better than they did. This theme is being carried over into the new trilogy. After failing with his own Padawan, his nephew Ben Solo, Luke ran away and became a hermit, just like Obi-Wan and Yoda. The boy who was the “new hope” failed the same way his mentors did, and instead of sticking around to get important shit done (like his sister Leia) he has taken himself out of the game to sit on a rock and cry.
Don’t think pointing this out is meant as a criticism. I think it’s awesome. It makes what could have been unbearably perfect heroes amazingly imperfect and compelling.
We did not need three movies to explain why Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Sith Lords are not only allowed to fail, they can hang their failures on others. They can feel fear and anger. Love is a problem for them, which is why Kylo Ren/Ben Solo commits a horrific act against a loved one in The Force Awakens. But once Anakin lost his wife and children, love seemed to become unimportant to him—until he began to feel something for his son Luke. It’s love that destroys Vader and redeems Anakin. Ironic, since Luke is also not allowed to love as long as he’s a Jedi.
The contrast between Darth Vader and his grandson Kylo Ren is also more illuminating than the prequels, because Ben’s situation couldn’t have been more different than Anakin’s. He was born to two loving parents. His mother is royalty, his parents and uncle are war heroes. Yet he was just as susceptible to the lure of the dark side as his poor, enslaved, fatherless grandfather.
Remember that popular meme about the dark side?
“Come to the Dark Side. We Have Cookies.”
Funny, isn’t it? That’s because truth is funny.
The Jedi don’t have cookies. That’s the only explanation I need for why Anakin Skywalker went over to the dark side.