Take a look at that bloke on the left.
To me, Darth Vader is interesting in many ways, but mostly because of his cinematic journey as a villain – unique in that he became less interesting the more that we learned about him.
The first time we meet him in Star Wars even the Stormtroopers hold their breath when he walks past. He is (seven-foot tall, dressed in black from helmeted head right down to shiny boots, with that hoary breath) the epitome of evil. There can be no question: Darth Vader was bad. Proper bad. As in, Force-choke the life out of anyone that dared to mock his sad devotion to an ancient religion kind of bad. Yet (crucially) he wasn’t an unstable psychopath with a hair-trigger temper, he was perfectly and effortlessly in control, and although he was working for Grand Moff Tarkin as a glorified bloodhound, you always got the sense that The Moff was just as scared of him as everyone else.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader’s bad-assity cranks up another level when we learn that he is actually working for the Emperor – who only appears as a floating head hologram, but by the fact that Vader bows to him, you know he is one bad mother-(Shut your mouth)! So now we have a triumvirate of villains – the Empire, Vader and the Emperor – and it’s only the second film in the trilogy! In the name of Mon Mothma, what can possibly happen next? SPOILER ALERT: (come on, seriously?) Darth Vader’s revelation that he is Luke Skywalker’s father remains one of THE best kept secrets ever – and we had to wait 3 whole years until Return of the Jedi to find out if it was true or not. Nowadays some bright spark would have found a copy of the script on a train and sold it to The Sun or put it on e-bay for a small fortune, and it would have bandied around the internet in a heartbeat, rendering the answer to the ultimate question inert for millions of people who actually wanted to find out the truth for themselves, thank you very much.
From “No, Luke…I am your father” – followed by some glorious overacting (he isn’t called Mark ‘Ham’ill for nothing) Darth Vader became a fully-fledged, multi-faceted, three-dimensional bad guy – someone who all of a sudden was not just a lot more frightening, but a lot more interesting, to boot. Those of us watching the film were like, “Luke, don’t listen to him, dude, he’s lying!”. It just had to be some kind of trick, all part of Vader’s sneaky plan, right? But up until that moment, Vader hadn’t exhibited any signs of being sneaky. He was an in-your-face kind of bad guy. He wouldn’t resort to playing mind-games, toying with his victims like a cat with a mouse. Something about the Dark Lord’s revelation rang true. Then came the inevitable – and perfectly understandable – reactions: “If he’s Luke’s father, how come he’s working for the Empire? And why is he wearing a mask? How come he hasn’t got an inhaler fitted into that helmet? Ben, dude, you totally lied to Luke, man!” It made you wonder about the man behind the mask, wonder how he came to be, wonder what made him tick, and wonder how he fell from grace.
At the beginning of Return of the Jedi, the Emperor visits the new Death Star in the pasty-white and ever-so wrinkly flesh. From the moment that Palpatine (not that we know his name yet) steps out of the Imperial Shuttle, the rot sets in and Darth Vader is reduced to a second-fiddle bad guy.
The Emperor seethes malice, whilst Vader trots along at his heels like a faithful womp-rat. We learn that Vader wants to continue his hunt for young Skywalker but the Emperor advises restraint – he has his own agenda, and it doesn’t include helping his old friend Anakin (not that we know his name yet either) out by reuniting him with his family. At this point it should be noted that it was Vader’s idea to only capture Luke – not kill him. Was he trying to save his son’s life in the long run, or was he just being an evil b*stard?
Later in Jedi, Vader tells Luke that if he will not turn to the Dark Side then perhaps his sister will. At that point, anything goes with Vader. Would he really sacrifice Leia? Why not? After all, she is the weaker of the twins, with no midi-chlorians in her system, plus she’s got latent incestuous tendencies that need to be sorted out. Or is Vader merely mucking with Luke’s mind so that he’ll get angry and thereby make him easier to turn to the Dark Side?
By the end of Jedi, Darth Vader effectively commits suicide by chucking the Emperor down “a bloody big shaft”. We get to see his real face under the mask – scarred and lumpy though it is. When he tells Luke that he wants to look at him with his own eyes, it is his last grasp for his humanity. He is instantly less a monster and more a man. He isn’t some death-crazed cyborg killer – he’s just a guy from the outskirts of Tattooine that lost his way. We let George Lucas have that one because we all knew that Jedi was the final chapter, and it served as a fitting bookend to the legend of Darth Vader. Lucas would never jeopardise such an iconic character’s universal status by releasing a series of prequels that would ultimately remove all the mystery about him, humanising him to such a degree that it deconstructed everything that made him interesting…
Well, yes he would actually. The curtain was torn back to reveal that the wizard was merely a man, and the magic was gone quicker than you could click your ruby slippers together and say “There’s no place like home.” Some people might never be able to forgive Lucas for his multitude of sins (hint: there were three of them – not including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Howard the Duck) but if I were to pick his greatest crime it would be that by the end of Revenge of the Sith, he has rendered what was formerly the universe’s biggest bad-ass not just impotent but even worse – unimportant.
The rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (or fall and rise if we’re talking chronologically) can be illustrated by these handy numbered bullet points:
6) Darth Vader strangles a captured Rebel soldier (Ep IV)
7) Darth Vader murders Luke Skywalker’s Jedi mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi (Ep IV)
8) Darth Vader battles Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker in Cloud City (Ep V)
9) Darth Vader sacrifices his life for his son’s by killing Emperor Palpatine (Ep VI)
10) Darth Vader is dead (Ep VI)
0) Anakin Skywalker is born (events occur prior to Ep I)
1) Anakin Skywalker falls in love with Padme Amidala, breaking the Jedi code (Ep II)
2) Anakin Skywalker is frustrated that Obi Wan Kenobi is holding him back (Ep II)
3) Anakin Skywalker is indoctrinated into the Sith by Chancellor Palpatine (Ep III)
4) Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi fight to the death on Mustafar (Ep III)
5) Darth Vader is born (Ep III)
(Note: All the cool stuff happens in points 6-10…with the possible exception of point 4)
Look at those points. They happened in that particular order for anyone that watched the original trilogy before the prequels (anyone roughly in their 30’s or 40’s by now I would guess). Addressing the argument that the kids of today should watch the 6 films episodically beginning with The Phantom Menace, swap the numbers around to begin with 0 and end on 10. This proves without a shadow of a doubt that you must ALWAYS watch the Star Wars movies beginning with Episode IV…just be prepared for a bit of a disappointment by the time you reach Episode I. The good news is you can quit at Episode IVIand pretend that what came next was all just a bad dream.