Darth Vader needs no introduction. He is, without any real objection, one of the best screen villains of all-time. The mask, the helmet, the voice, the breathing, the stance, the sand: each element is as iconic as the last. The fallen Jedi is such a striking presence that he’s appeared – in some form – in all nine theatrical Star Wars movies and so much more expanded material, all despite being killed off in 1983. There are so many pieces of quintessential Star Wars imagery, but he’s pretty much the epoch.
This wasn’t always part of George Lucas’ plan. In early drafts of The Star Wars, Vader was just an Imperial general killed at the end of the film, but over an intensive redrafting process became merged with a dark samurai-inspired character and eventually a major henchman. Even then, he didn’t even get his iconic mask until famed concept artist Ralph MacQuarrie reasoned the villain needed some breathing apparatus to jump from one ship to another in the opening sequence – George Lucas loved the image so much he made it a key character trait, in turn enabling a shocking identity twist and the prequel’s lava bath.
Once the film hit, he was the breakout character. A menacing, unknown figure with dark links to Obi-Wan and Luke who is the only major bad guy to survive the Death Star’s destruction, by the time The Empire Strikes Back hit three years later he was an icon. The twist he was actually Anakin Skywalker made him an even more essential figure and once the prequels came around Lucas had decided he was the focus of the whole thing, essentially repositioning the Flash Gordon-inspired saga as “The Tragedy of Darth Vader.”
Of course, now in the hands of Disney, Star Wars is moving forward and beyond Vader’s death, which poses a major question of what they do with him next. So far, it’s not been an issue. His legacy was a core part of The Force Awakens, with Kylo Ren struggling to live up to the imposing figure of his grandfather (early reports also suggested that originally Anakin’s old lightsaber was the MacGuffin, not the map), and Rogue One featured the Dark Lord in two essential scenes that put full focus on his immense power. In both these films, Vader’s presence felt organic; contextually he almost needed to be a factor in Episode VII and it would have been weird for him not to be at the very least tangentially involved in the Rebellion’s acquiring of the Death Star plans.
However, looking to the future, there’s not the same necessity. As the sequel trilogy moves further away from the originals and the standalones spin off in fresh directions, what’s to be done about Darth?
Darth Vader’s Movie Future
Let’s first look at this practically. Given that he’s deader than dead in the sequel trilogy, the easiest way to have Darth Vader appear again is in an anthology film. After his impressive lightsaber show at the end of Rogue One, there’s been calls for a full movie looking at his Sith life – the Mustafar castle definitely teased some things worthy of further exploration. At the moment, though, this is pure fan speculation, with no real world on if it’s even a possibility. At this point, the only confirmed Story film is Han Solo, in which a Vader appearance would be rather contrived. He’d fit better into a Boba Fett spinoff, something that was on the verge of happening with Josh Trank and is rumored to still be in development, but that’ll be in 2020 at the absolute earliest.
There is a risk that having too much Vader could exacerbate a potential issue with these films; some people are already skeptical about making anthology movies purely set around the time of the originals – there’s millennia of potential Star Wars settings, yet the first three Lucasfilm have attempted all come from that era – and this is only compounded if the in-the-shadows Sith Lord pops up in every other one. Vader being in Rogue One was a core event, but that same level of anticipation won’t be reached if it’s a semi-annual occurrence.
He may actually be more at home in the sequels; while he can’t be there in the flesh, the way Kylo Ren is established enables Anakin to have a constant, looming presence over Ben Solo. Additionally, there’s the ever-present possibility of a Force ghost or some other vision appearance (Rey’s Force vision in The Force Awakens almost showed Luke and Vader’s Empire duel as part of the Cloud City flashback). These wouldn’t be as viscerally thrilling as proper standalone appearances, but they give a taste of the enduring menace.
But if he is used beyond the charred helmet, that can’t last forever. There’s only two more confirmed episodes in the Skywalker saga and even we do get a fourth trilogy (something that’s very much up in the air), we’ll be another generation removed from Anakin and thus any leaned-on reference could feel excessive. The same is true of any anthology films set in the sequel era after the new episodes are over – it’s the Skywalker link that keeps him relevant, so it would still be strange for his legacy to be overly prominent.
While there’s definitely ways to keep Vader present in the movies, it won’t be as simple as it has been so far. The initial fan enthusiasm of him being back on screen is over, and it was done with such purpose in The Force Awakens and Rogue One that any future experiences need to be equally, if not more, narratively airtight. And that’s going to be tricky.
Above all logistical concerns, keeping so obsessed with a forty-year-old character may not be the smartest move for Star Wars going forward. He’s iconic, yes, but shoehorning Vader into every possible nook-and-cranny of the series can only dilute his effect and stop the franchise evolving. We saw this to some degree with the prequels’ backstory and, now there’s less direct reasoning, it may be time to embrace the full scope of the galaxy and accept Vader is just one part of it. Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Alden Ehrenreich are the stars now, and Rey, Kylo, Finn and young Han should thus be the ones we’re clamoring to see. At best, it’s probable Vader will be a sporadic screen presence for the time being.
Vader In Other Media
Of course, we’ve been talking about the films so far, which come only once a year and are under a myriad of narrative restraints. Things are a little different if you step out into the wider canon. There’s less weight on the comics, books, TV shows, and games than the tentpole cinema releases, and as such creatives are able to jump around time periods more readily and chip in on all manner of classic Star Wars elements with a greater sense of freedom. This is evident by just how prominent Vader’s been in Disney’s tie-in materials.
Where Vader’s seen the most exploration is in the comics. His run was a highlight of the new Marvel Star Wars series; delving deeper into his actions between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, writer Kieron Gillen explored his Imperial life and gave the villain some more nuanced personality. The series came to an end after 25 issues late in 2016, but it showed how Vader can be a prominent, long-running presence in the wider universe.
To that same tune, he became a key presence on Rebels in Season 2, stalking the Ghost crew and showing down against Anakin’s former apprentice, Ahsoka. He’s been absent in Season 3, mainly due to Thrawn taking on big villain duties, and with the show potentially coming to an end this year it doesn’t offer much future exploration, but it shows how effortlessly he can fit into other stories.
Games also offer a lot of avenues. Vader was always a popular character in a medium that allowed him to use the Force to a Rogue One level without it ever feeling stretched. In terms of the new-canon, he was a hero option in Battlefront and will no doubt return for the sequel, perhaps even with his own related storyline, and has popped up across the range of phone games.
There’s also the impending VR story. Announced at Star Wars Celebration in 2016 with a striking trailer, the second ILMxLAB Star Wars experience after Trials on Tatooine will focus on the Dark Lord. Little is known about the project other than it’s written by David Goyer of Batman and Man of Steel fame, but like with traditional games it’s a medium where the character’s prominence feels like an asset, rather than a hindrance.
Whether Darth Vader will be back on the big screen anytime soon depends entirely on the skills of the writers bringing the Star Wars galaxy to life; after brief but effective parts in both The Force Awakens and Rogue One, it’s hard to find a natural next step for the character, and this will only become more pertinent as the Disney era becomes more established.
However, what all those non-cinema appearances show is that even with an uncertain cinematic future, the Jedi formerly known as Anakin Skywalker still has a concerted presence in the franchise going forward. With new media projects written by Hollywood writers, Lucasfilm may not even need to have him in movies to still give fans their fix. It’s safe to say Vader’s not going anywhere, even if there could be a gap in his on-screen presence.