Tragic Hero and Ominous Villain: Darth Vader Examined
I’m back with a post about Star Wars, specifically Darth Vader. I’m thinking of doing more of these posts themed around character examinations, especially around Star Wars characters. But for now, have a read of this. Search your feelings, you know there to be spoilers below.
If you did a survey to determine which villain was the most iconic in cinematic history, one that would easily be in the top three, if not taking the number one spot, is Darth Vader. His entire look, with emphasis on his helmet, are ingrained into pop culture. Show it to anyone and they would most likely be able to name the character. Yet, for all his notoriety, he is currently only remembered as the ominous villain he is for the majority of the original trilogy. But you can’t fully appreciate the full extent of the character without including the tragic hero of Anakin Skywalker. Now I know what people are going to immediately think: ‘but the prequels are bad’. That is another topic that we can come back to another day, but for now I shall simply say that they still add essential elements to the entire Star Wars franchise that wouldn’t be there without their existence. And one of them, albeit with a near insufferable performance by Hayden Christensen, is the descent of Anakin Skywalker from cocky Jedi pilot to formidable Sith lord.
The descent itself is done well if taking into account the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated television show. The prequel trilogy provides a decent backbone for what could have been one of the best falls from grace in all of cinema, but the meat of the character development comes from the plots and their implications surrounding Anakin in the aforementioned show. To start off, he comes into the Jedi Order at aged ten, which is an incredibly uncommon occurrence; the Jedi believing that if you aren’t instilled in the Jedi tenets from a very young age, you are more likely to question the teachings and easily fall down a path leading to the dark side. But since Qui-Gon Jinn felt that he would be the Chosen One, the question of whether he would be taught didn’t even cross Jinn’s mind. And then after the Jedi Master’s untimely death, the Jedi Council granted his last request that Obi-Wan Kenobi should train the boy to be a Jedi. From then on the problems which led to the Jedi Council initially rejecting Anakin as a Padawan slowly start to emerge. He openly questions decisions made by higher ranking Jedi and even goes so far to reject certain teachings, or at least manipulate them to fit his world view. By the point of Episode II, any other Padawan would have been kicked out of the Jedi Order, labelled as unteachable and unfit to be a Jedi. But because of the prophecy and the Jedi’s continued paranoia about their potential destruction, they continue to let him be trained and to associate themselves with him. And to be fair, they’ve grown to like the boy over the years. Although he does turn into one of the most feared figures in the galaxy’s history, at this part of his life he is charming, witty and ends up being a big favourite with the clone army when they are created. You could say that the Jedi’s own incompetence, which is another topic that could be talked about endlessly, led to their own destruction but they are not entirely at fault. There is also the fact that an extremely powerful Sith lord placed himself within the politics of the Republic and slowly made his way through the system until he became the Supreme Chancellor. Palpatine saw what the Jinn had seen in Anakin as well, looking out for him and secretly giving out his own teachings subtly until he knew the time was right. Anakin’s early life was full of either misery, or incredibly arduous work while training. And while the entirety of the fault for his descent can be placed with multiple individual people, it is all of the situations and circumstances coming together that created one of the most feared entity in the galaxy.
After turning to the dark side, we don’t immediately see Anakin, now Lord Vader, sink into the evil tyrant role that he settles on later in life. We first see him go into a state of depression. We can’t fault him for this at all, he betrays the Jedi for a chance at saving his lover, but in the end she dies anyway and he fails to kill his former master which leaves him horrifically wounded to the point he is half machine and has to wear a special suit so that he does not die. Though this is not to say that he didn’t stay on his path of destruction. If anything, the emotional turmoil he was in fuelled him to carry out the Supreme Chancellor’s, now Emperor’s, dirty work: killing all the remaining Jedi in the galaxy. This wasn’t too hurtful of a mission. Although he would’ve felt bad for betraying the Jedi Order, it’s not as though he had much connection with the remaining Jedi, nor did he see them as brothers and sisters because they were Jedi. The only surviving members that he would have cared for was Kenobi. Although happy enough to engage Kenobi in combat and defeat him in Episode IV, there was probably a period in between the initial conversion of the Republic into an Empire and the events of Episode IV where the fallen Jedi would’ve happily reconciled with the Jedi exile, probably leading him to try and convince Kenobi that joining the Empire was the only sensible option. But the years of killing Jedi and no hope of being reunited with Padmé slowly cemented him into his role as the Emperor’s enforcer. It isn’t until Vader’s own son comes onto the scene that the dark lord doubts his choices again and eventually turns back to the light side of the force. But we’ll come back to that later. This period of Vader’s life is probably the most tragic, even though he is most definitely not a hero. But it shows his resilience and determination to do what he believes is right.
Then for the entirety of Episode IV, and the majority of Episode V, we see Vader as the ominous and mysterious figure, doing the Emperor’s will without a second thought. Although this is a smaller portion of his life and less impactful towards his overall character, it is the what Vader is known for. He mercilessly slaughters innocents, quashes anything resembling defiance and puts a lid on any hope his opponents have. This is the furthest away from Anakin we get. The question is why is this particular phase of his life the most notorious and most celebrated? There are numerous reasons this could be. First of all, the idea of this version of Vader may have been cemented while the original trilogy was the only Star Wars that existed. We didn’t have the prequel trilogy, nor the animated television show. So for sixteen years, we only saw a glimpse of Vader’s tragedy with Episode VI’s scenes showing the regret of his actions and his determination that he cannot be turned back to the light side even if he wanted it. It shows a little bit of his character arc but it isn’t complete with those crucial, but sometimes painful to watch, prequel trilogy moments. Another reason is that the prequels are easily dismissed by people. They label them as ‘pointless’ or needing a remake. Again, the idea of remaking the prequel trilogy is another complex idea that could be talked about endlessly. But because they are so easily dismissed by the general audience, the important factors of Anakin’s descent are often forgotten whether that be intentional or accidental. It is so ingrained in people’s thinking that they are bad that I’ve seen many people argue over the years about the ‘poor quality’ of storylines and character arcs in the prequels without them actually looking at them in great detail and relying on many repeated lines throughout certain communities. The final reason I will talk about on this point is that people only see this part of Vader’s arc because it is the one that fits best with most people’s understanding of a villain. To explain this a little further, the general audience who don’t absorb a ton of media including film, television, books and video games have a very basic and one-dimensional view on heroes and villains within these art forms. This audience will see the bad guy dressed in black and choking people to death in their first scene and from then on will look at the character solely as the most evil thing imaginable. They will think every action is one of evil intent, that their view is entirely wrong and shouldn’t be given any thought, as well as locking them into their role and never accepting that they can have good intentions or be able to change their ideals and opinions. This may appear as if I’m being elitist, however I don’t feel that it is hard, or uncommon, for people to actually take time to watch and think about these important character arcs and appreciate the good ones. It’s unfortunate that in any section of life, the people who take even a few minutes to appreciate the aspects get shouted down by the uninformed and frankly ignorant majority who continue to view characters through that one-dimensional thinking.
Moving onto the last part of Vader’s life, this is where we see the old Anakin seep back into the character. We first see this in the most iconic part of all of Star Wars, the reveal of Luke’s father in Episode V. For Luke, as well as most of the galaxy, Anakin was a Jedi who died during the Clone Wars. But here we get that reveal that the mysterious enforcer for the Emperor is Anakin Skywalker. Vader is overwhelmed by emotions after reuniting with his son that he didn’t know was alive. He tries to persuade him to turn sides and join him, still set in his Empire ways he’s been in for twenty two years. Luke’s refusal to join his father over on the dark side to the point where he jumped from the platform, not knowing whether he’d live or die, reignited that part of Anakin buried deep inside. This is the other part of Vader’s life that you could consider the most tragic. He wants to be with his son, but knows that he is too deeply lost down the dark side for him to come back, leading to Vader letting the Emperor seduce Luke over to the dark side. At this point, he is simply a broken man. His goal of reuniting with Padmé was crushed now leaving him only with his son. So after it looks like Luke is unable to destroy the Emperor and that he might die, Vader gains the courage and kills off the Emperor. Though because of the injuries he sustained while fighting Luke and the force lightning from the Emperor, he dies. The redeeming factor in his death is that he died a hero. He died as Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One, fulfilling his destiny of balancing the force by killing both the Jedi and the Sith.
So looking back on Vader’s life, it is easy to see that the result has most certainly lived up to the potential of this great character. Although he may not be recognised by all as a hero of the Star Wars saga, his impact will be felt for many years.
I have felt it.
Originally published at bodaciousboad.wordpress.com on January 7, 2019.