In the history of cinema few villains capture the imagination like Darth Vader. While the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz burst onto the scene cackling and shrieking madly in a puff of flame, Darth Vader slowly emerged from the shadows in the opening scenes of original Star Wars film, saying nothing and analyzing the scene before him. He didn’t even have to say or do much to be intimidating. There was just something about him that whispered “evil”. It was as though our cultural fear of death had somehow manifested itself on the big screen and managed to get James Earl Jones to dub his voice.
While no one knew what to expect with Star Wars before it opened, actor David Prowse who wore the body armor, wisely chose to take the roll of the villain when George offered him the choice being either Vader or Chewie. He had stated in many interviews since then that he knew that the villains were always the most memorable characters in a film, and with Vader that was excellent hindsight. Because of his booming voice and his instantly recognizable appearance, Darth Vader has become a cultural touchstone, and his name is nearly synonymous with evil.
As Brad Bird, director of Disney-Pixar’s The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, notes in the forward to The Making of Return of the Jedi,
“As Stormtroopers invaded the rebel ship, blowing back the resistance with a hail of laser blasts, the film’s villain, Darth Vader, made his entrance-and, instantaneously, on the opening night of a movie that no one knew anything about-the audience booed and hissed… this was spontaneous, theater wide, and instant as if every member if the audience possessed dormant silent-movie-villain-hating DNA passed down from their grandparents , behavior that had been suddenly wakened in that moment…”
The simple fact that he commanded an army of storm troopers would make him more than intimidating. Deriving their name from Hitler’s own army, it was more than enough to conjure up images in the minds of the kids of the 70’s from the war stories that could have been shared by their grandparents in World War II. The Stormtroopers were the kinds of soldiers who would break down the door in the dead of night, drag a family out and shoot them. Considering the second half of his name sounds like “invader” it is none too surprising that he would command such an army.
Couple that with his list of villainous deeds you have a villain that you do not wish to cross idly. In the original movie alone we see him overtake a Rebel cruiser, kill a Rebel officer for information, disregarded politics and imprison a high ranking diplomat, intimidate an Imperial officer, supervise over the destruction of a planet, battle an old Jedi master, and even lead the Imperial fighters in the defense of the Death Star. While most villains are content to let lackeys to do the work for them, Vader had no problems getting his hands dirty. He even went so far to lead the offensive against the Rebel fighters in the attack against the Death Star in the Battle of Yavin at the end of Star Wars. The Wicked Witch would have let her flying monkeys do that.
The Empire Strikes Back only took it further and deepened the mystery of this character as well as his power. Vader personally scourers the galaxy for young Skywalker, commanding his forces to attack the Rebel base on the planet of Hoth. When an Imperial Commander brings his flag ship in too close to the planet out of Hyper Space he kills him for his mistake. He also tortures the heroes we have grown to love, giving a villain a rare victory in a film.
There have been many “Dark Lord” characters in fiction before and after Vader, and there will be many more to come. The fallen Maiar Sauron in Lord of the Rings ravaged Middle-earth and sought to enslave them with The One Ring. Voldemort sought to destroy Harry Potter. Even Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind books gradually became a bit of a Dark Lord, complete with powers at times that seemed like a Sith Lord.
The one thing that made Vader so different from all other Dark Lords is that he carried an air of mystery to him, courtesy of his mask. Like Alexander Dumas’ titular Man in the Iron Mask, it was all concealing and immovable. In the initial planning phases of Star Wars Vader only wore his armor out of necessity. As was related by JW Rinzler in the book The Making of Star Wars, concept artist Ralph McQuarrie admitted,
“George wanted him to have some sort of mask, because they were supposed to leap down from his big ship to a smaller ship that the rebels were in. The space suits began as being necessary for their survival in space, but the suits became part of the character.”
We saw the helmet lowered down and saw scars upon the back of his head. Whatever that suit was it was concealing some great mystery to him. Just who was the man behind the mask. Audiences knew it was hiding something and to wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery. Was he human, or was he a robot?
What Obi-Wan Kenobi would tell us would only serve to add to his mystique. When the old Jedi master saves young Luke Skywalker and takes him home to discover that he has ties to the hero’s long dead father. Obi-Wan tells him, when the boy asks how his father died,
“A Young Jedi, by the name of Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct.”
Obi-Wan establishes for us, just what it is that made Vader to different from other villains. At one point, he had been one of the heroes, and yet somehow fell from grace as the expression goes. As Chuck Klostermann notes in the book I Wear the Black Hat ,
“When you’re very young, the character you love the most is Luke Skywalker (who is entirely good). As you grow older you gravitate towards Han Solo (who is basically good but superficially bad). But by the time you’re an adult, and you hit the point where in your life where Star Wars starts to seem like what it actually is (a larger-than-life-space opera with one iconic idea), you inevitably find yourself relating to Darth Vader. As an adult Vader is easily the most intriguing character, and the only essential one.”
Then The Empire Strikes Back dropped the biggest bomb shell in the history of film. Just when Vader had the young hero on the ropes, he makes him an offer. Vader knew how strong and how powerful the boy is and sees a valuable ally, and makes him an offer Luke can only refuse, telling him,
“There is no escape! Don’t make me destroy you. Luke, you do not yet realize your importance. You’ve only begun to discover your power! Join me, and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the galaxy…If only you knew the power of the Dark Side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father…”
Luke responded that Obi-Wan had told him enough in that Vader had killed his father. Then Vader revealed to him and the entire movie-going world six little words that would arguably change the course of film history, “No, I am your father.”
The audience, like Luke, was shocked. Was Darth Vader really Luke’s father or was he just pulling his leg. Ryder Windham and Peter Vilmur recounted in the book Star Wars: The Complete Vader, that examined the history of the iconic villain from his creation in the 70s to the cartoon series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that even actor James Earl Jones admitted when he first read the script,
“ I thought Darth Vader was lying. I thought, ‘what a ploy,’ but it did deepen the mystery of who Darth Vader was.”
It wouldn’t be until Return of the Jedi, that we would learn once and for all, that Vader had in fact at one point been Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker. This raised a new question: how did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader?
As can be expected, Anakin Skywalker never woke up one morning intent on destroying the Jedi. Long before he ever wore the armor he was a slave boy on the desert planet of Tatooine. Anakin did not know much about the life he and his mother, Shmi, led before they belonged to a junk dealing Toydarian by the name of Watto, save what his mother told him. He dreamed of a better life, far from the confines of slavery, having heard the deep space pilots tell daring tales.
One of his reoccurring dreams was chronicled in the Star Wars: Episode I Adventures: Anakin Skywalker comic book, which told his story prior to the film. As he was taking a quick rest he saw a space ship pass over head and thought to himself in an elaborate day dream,
“A ship coming in..going fast. Maybe a starfighter? Or maybe…it was an angel. Yes…an angel….leading warriors into battle… worlds without number…a Jedi… a Jedi!”
He was a skilled mechanic, capable of rebuilding an entire protocol droid to help his mother. For a boy so young skilled at piloting a pod racer. It was a sport known for being very fast, very dangerous, and very cutthroat. On the Outer Rim, some of the best pilots are known to cheat. For Anakin to get that far in the contest is one of the many things that would lead Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn to theorizing he may have Jedi potential.
He was also an immensely compassionate boy, ready to help anyone in need. It would be this nature that would lead him to fulfilling his dream when one “Angel” would walk into Watto’s shop with a Jedi, in the forms of Padmé Amidala and Qui-Gon Jinn. When they were hiding out on Tatooine he found them in the market area of Mos Espa after they left Watto’s shop and took them home to avoid a sandstorm. Much of this came from the roll his mother played on him. She was the one who urged his love of technology, and encouraged him to help others, saying one of the biggest problems in the universe was that no one helped one another. He would go on to not only win his freedom in a pod race and secure the parts for the ship that Qui-Gon and Padmé needed, but help win the battle of Naboo.
So what went wrong? How can Anakin go from a caring little boy to the monster that was Darth Vader? Even in the Star Wars universe it is regarded as impossible. In the Star Wars Legends novel Tatooine Ghost when Han Solo and Princess Leia travel to Tatooine to purchase a painting that once belonged to her, only to learn more about Vader. They are surprised to learn from the locals that he had once been such a kindhearted individual to the point of Leia’s frustration, and Han sarcastically said,
“Yeah, I keep wondering when somebody’s going to tell us about the real kid…the one who used to tie grenades on bantha tails.”
However, no one wakes up one morning and simply decides to go out and blow up a planet, just as no one wakes up one morning and decides to commit mass genocide. They begin with a gentle nudge in the wrong direction. For all the good that Anakin was capable of, even as a boy he had a hair-trigger temper. In a deleted scene from The Phantom Menace that was featured in a story in the Star Wars: Episode I: Adventures: Qui-Gon comic, he is seen beating up a young Rodian because the other child accuses him of cheating in the race.
Further, when taken back to the Jedi Temple to be tested Yoda sense in him a spirit of fear. Anakin was afraid of losing those he loved. This becomes his overarching fatal flaw in the rest of his tragic story, one that was all too easily exploited. This became more noticeable as he grew up. In Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones his is uneasy about seeing Padmé again for the first time in ten years and rushes to rash decisions in feeble attempts to impress her.
Assigned to protect her after a failed assassination attempt, they travel to Naboo to hide, and their long time friendship begins to develop into love. Padmé was resistant, not wanting to jeopardize their futures but Anakin wanted to be with her. He also began having nightmares relating to his mother. She was in pain, and being tortured.
He didn’t wish to leave Padmé, but he had to see if his visions were true. Padmé agreed to go with him and they journeyed back to his homeworld. They learned that in the ten years since the events of Phantom Menace Shmi had been freed and married a moisture farmer by the name of Cliegg Lars. He and Padmé traveled out to Cleigg’s farm that he shared with his son Owen and Owen’s girlfriend Beru Whitesun. He learned that the Sand people had captured his mother confirming some of his worst fears.
Striking out alone, he found her, but he was too late. She died in his arms and there was nothing left for him to do but bury her. In his anger he struck out at the Sand People, and vowed that he would one day be able to save people, as he later told Padmé, in his grief over what had happened and what he had done,
“I killed them. All of them. But not just the men. The women. And the children. They’re animals! I slaughtered them like animals! I hate them!…Someday I will be the most powerful Jedi ever. I will even learn to stop people from dying!”
This led him to making a host of rash decisions to protect the people he loved. For example, during the battle of Geonosis, he ordered a pilot to turn a ship around to save Padmé at risk of losing the battle. When Obi-Wan tried to make a concise battle plan to take down Dooku in a duel, Anakin rushed right in and was not only shocked with lightning, but lost his hand.
The Clone Wars had begun, and in the shadows of this war, he and Padmé were secretly married. Officially knighted during the height of the Clone Wars, Anakin rose to the ranks of general. The war had also caused him to confront his inner darkness however Anakin did not heed the warnings. After returning home from the Outer Rim sieges, and a successful rescue of his long time friend Chancellor Palpatine, he was overjoyed by the news from Padmé that he was going to be a father. However, that night he was troubled by nightmares of her dying in childbirth.
Having lost his mother, Anakin was obsessed with making sure his wife did not suffer the same fate. To that end author and scholar Mike Alsford in his book Heroes &Villains notes a stark contrast between Anakin and another tragic figure of pop culture known for his frightening black mask: the superhero Batman. Like Batman, Anakin lost someone he loved, and was haunted by the memories of that tragedy to the point that it shaped both men into becoming the feared specters they’d become.
However while Bruce Wayne became dedicated to justice and preventing crime in Gotham City, and striking terror into the hearts of those who did evil, Anakin’s served as his fatal flaw that led him down much darker path that caused him to become a figure who would strike terror into the hearts of those who did good. Alsford states,
“ Here is a person who does indeed become ruled by his memories of one bad day, the day his mother was violently killed and the day he took bloody revenge upon her killers, Anakin’s hatred and fear are seen as dominating him to such an extent that he is easily manipulated and corrupted. He falls into traps of expediency, use of the weapons of the enemy and the misuse of power…”
During a private meeting with the Chancellor, Anakin discovered that Palpatine was actually a Sith Lord named Darth Sideous. Palpatine offered to teach Anakin the art of the Dark Side of the Force and discover a way to keep people from dying. Anakin hurried back to the temple to inform Jedi Master Mace Windu of what the learned and when he offered to help bring Palpatine in, Windu refused, ordering him to stay at the temple. Anakin returned to the chambers where he was haunted by the words of Palpatine. He hurried back to the offices to find Palpatine locked in a lighstaber duel with Windu, and Windu seemingly having the upper hand.
Anakin was faced with a choice to help the Palpatine or Master Windu, and Anakin chose Palpatine, leading to the death of the Jedi Master. Anakin was devastated by what he had done, Palpatine had a foothold. Realizing there would be no escape from punishment and no way else to save Padmé, he agreed to become Palpatine’s apprentice and was dubbed Darth Vader.
Like Faust with Mephisto in Goethe’s eponymous play, Anakin chose to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for this ultimate knowledge. Like Professor Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis Anakin became determined to learn this dark arts to save his beloved. It is worth noting that like Rotwang, Anakin wears a black glove on his right hand, and was even responsible for building C-3P0 a robot that looked like Maria, the one built by the evil professor. The symbolism and connections are clear: Anakin has made a dark deal, one with grave consequences to the whole galaxy. Anakin’s first act as Vader was to take a battalion of clone troopers and murdered every single Jedi at the Jedi temple, including children.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi would later tell Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi,
“Your father… was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and “became” Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed.”
Anakin was sent to Mustafar to finish off the last of the Separatists, and upon finishing his work a surprise awaited him. Obi-Wan had gone to see Padmé, and warn her of Anakin’s fall. She wanted to see for herself, and much to her horror discovered that he had indeed become a monster. He told her,
“Don’t you see? We don’t have to run away anymore! I have brought peace to the Republic. I am more powerful than the Chancellor; I… I can overthrow him! And together, you and I can rule the galaxy; make things the way we want them to be!”
This is something that sets Vader apart from his master. While all Sith Lord seek a new apprentice to rule beside the, Vader’s immediate thought is to share his new empire with his family. Something none of them wish to have any part in. When Vader sees Obi-Wan come from behind the ship, he flew into a rage believing Padmé brought him there to destroy them. Padmé would be critically injured in his wrath as Vader assumed she brought Obi-Wan to kill him. Obi-Wan tried to reason with him, informing him that he was so clouded by Palpatine’s lies he wasn’t seeing the truth.
“Don’t lecture me, Obi-Wan! I see through the lies of the Jedi! I do not fear the Dark Side as you do! I have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new Empire!”
A duel erupted between the two, and Obi-Wan had the higher ground in the end. As Vader launched in one final attack, Obi-Wan swung and cut off Vader’s legs and remaining arm. Landing too close to the lava Vader ignited into flames. Obi-Wan left Vader to the Will of the Force and took his one-time friend’s lightsaber to later give Anakin’s child. Palpatine found him, still alive, and rebuilt him into the deadly cyborg that would be feared throughout the galaxy for 18 years.
The suit would become his life line. As it is described in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith,
“This is how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker, forever:…you can hear yourself breathing. It comes hard, and harsh, and it scrapes nerves already raw, but you cannot stop it. You can never stop it. You can never slow it down. You don’t even have lungs anymore. Mechanisms hardwired into your chest breathe for you. They will pump oxygen into your bloodstream forever…and you can’t( hear), not in the way you once did. Sensors in the shell that prisons your head trickle meaning directly into your brain… You open your scorched–pale eyes; optical sensors integrate light and shadow into a hideous simulacrum of the world around you… Or perhaps the simulacrum is perfect, and it is the world that is hideous.”
A sinister agent of the emperor he slaughtered many of Palpatine’s enemies and enslaved the galaxy under a literal iron fist. Vader was so deadly that Obi-Wan would say of him that there was no hope for redeeming him that he was, “More machine than man now, twisted and evil.”
As Joseph Campbell noted with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth that,
“The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual. What you see is a strange and pitiful sort of undifferentiated face… Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system.”
That is until he encountered his long lost son. Vader had been led to believe by the Emperor that he had killed Padmé and his unborn child. When Palpatine informed him that the young Rebel who destroyed the Death Star was in fact the son of Anakin Skywalker, his initial assignment for Vader was to kill the young Jedi. However, Vader suggested that if he could be turned then he could be a powerful ally.
The Emperor, intrigued by this idea, allowed him to bait Young Skywalker. This would lead to their climactic duel, and his revelation to Luke that would shake the young man’s universe. However, despite Luke’s refusal to join him, and Vader’s own threats to destroy him, the Dark Lord did not follow through. Apart from the plan to convert him, he couldn’t bring himself to kill his own son. Much as he did with Padmé, Vader wanted to rule with his family by his side.
When He and Luke met again on the forest moon of Endor, Luke sensed the conflict within him and urged him to leave the Dark Side. Vader felt it was too late for him. In fact after the Emperor’s taunting, he engaged his son in another duel. Luke continually refused to kill him, and even lowered his weapon.
Then probing his son’s mind, Vader found Luke’s weak spot. His love for his friends Taunting him he said,
“Give yourself to the dark side. It is the only way you can save your friends. Yes, your thoughts betray you. Your feelings for them are strong. Especially for…Sister! So, you have a twin sister. Your feelings have now betrayed her too. Obi-Wan was wise to hide her from me. Now his failure is complete. If you will not turn to the dark side, then perhaps she will!”
To the surprise of both Vader and the Emperor, Luke refused to convert. Then in one critical moment he made an important choice, one that would free the galaxy from tyranny, and thereby help fulfill the prophesy of the Chosen One. As the Emperor tortured his son, Vader was faced with another choice, like the one to help Master Windu, or to save the Emperor. This time, he made the right choice.
As Stephen J. Sansweet notes in the forward to Star Wars: The Complete Vader,
“Beyond the look, the sound, and even the hundreds of collectibles, it is the underlying story that has made Darth Vader such an indelible part of worldwide popular culture. Bound up with thousands of years of mythology, the saga of Anakin Skywalker/ Darth Vader is about the never ending momentous struggle between good and evil. It is also about the passing of power from fathers to sons… Luke sets out on a heroes journey, one that will transform him. But Vader is on a journey too. He has been transformed once- from the youthful and righteous Anakin Skywalker…into the relentlessly evil Darth Vader-but at the most perilous moment of his sons journey, he transforms back again and finds redemption.”
JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, referred to this type of moment in such a journey as the Eucatastrophe, the moment in which something unexpected happens that ensures that the hero does not meet uncertain doom. In the case that unexpected thing would be that Luke’s pleas to Vader would awaken the good man that was Anakin Skywalker to defeat his dark master. Picking up The Emperor he hurled him into a reactor shaft, redeeming himself, at the cost of his life. The force lightning had shorted his systems.
As Vader asked Luke to remove his mask, the boy was hesitant, reminding him that he would die if he did that. Vader told him that it was too late to do that and reassured his son that he had in fact saved him. Following his father’s last wishes, but insisting that he was going to save him, Luke took off the mask. Free forever from the dark mask he had worn for so long, Vader told him,
“ Nothing can stop that now. Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes…Now…go, my son. Leave me… You were right. You were right about me… Tell your sister… you were right…”
When given the choice between his son, one of the few good things he brought into the universe and the master who brought so much pain and evil to the galaxy, he chose his son. It was an act born out of love for his son, which proved that Luke was right that there was still good in him. This is why Vader is such a compelling and tragic figure in the Star Wars universe, and the one who is so important to the story. His is the classic story of fall and redemption told in a shiny metal helmet. In fact, as it has been noted in the Star Wars Technical Commentaries, inscribed on his chest plate in Revenge of the Sith, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are the Hebrew words, Ein Matzav, Nislachim, Ad SheZacha, which translated into English read, “The status of Forgiveness will be acquired when He merits it”.
That forgiveness was merited through surrendering to the greatest aspect of the Light Side of the Force: love. And it shows that the Light Side of the Force is and always will be stronger then the Dark Side.
As it says in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith,
“The Dark is generous and patient, and it always wins-but in the heart of its strength lies weakness: one lone candle is enough to hold it back. Love is more than a candle. Love can ignite the stars.”
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1983 LucasFilm, LTD/20th Century Fox. 2005 LucasFilm, LTD/20th Century Fox.
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