After nearly a dozen years without seeing Darth Vader on the big screen, he’s returning to a theater near you very soon in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. We don’t anticipate a huge role from the Dark Lord of the Sith, but we’re on the edge of our seats to see exactly what role he’s going to play. After all, Rogue One will tell the tale of what happens just before A New Hope, and Vader had two key jobs in that original movie: find the stolen Death Star plans and find the Rebels’ hidden base. And we’ll learn more about both of those things in the latest Star Wars movie.
With all that in mind, we were inspired to look back on the Force-user formerly known as Anakin Skywalker’s best moments in the four movies in which he's appeared so far. Mostly, they’re fantastic moments inspiring fear and intimidation, but also moments of astounding Force ability, lightsaber prowess, deft piloting, and hints of a slightly softer side of the Sith.
“There is no escape,” as Vader would say, from Darth Vader’s 15 Best Movie Moments.
Old Obi-Wan is strolling through the dark, industrial hallways of the Death Star, when who does he stumble upon? It's our favorite insanely intimidating, dark-suited dude, just standing there in the hall, red lightsaber ignited but pointed down. He’s calmly waiting to meet his old master one last time. You just know he knows he’s about to destroy the old man. He’s just going to stand there a minute and savor the moment before calmly approaching, telling Obi-Wan he’s been waiting for him. No kidding.
It’s Obi-Wan who looks scared. Not that you can see Vader’s face behind the mask, but you know he’s not sweating it. It’s in his body language and voice, even as he gloats a bit, telling his former master that, “Now I am the master.” And then they go at it. Is it the most thrilling lightsaber battle ever? No. It’s a little stiff. But it was nonetheless the first one ever and it was mind-blowing to hear those sabers clash and buzz and hum for the first time. Even when Obi-Wan threatens that he’ll somehow become super powerful if Vader kills him, Vader remains unphased and wastes no time killing the old Jedi when Obi-Wan chooses to give himself up. It may have been the easiest win of Vader’s dueling career, but it's one that would ultimately come back to haunt him, thanks to Obi-Wan’s ghostly mentoring of Luke.
Vader isn't exactly known for forgiveness, despite his telling Moff Jerjerrod in Return of the Jedi: “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” No, he’s known for Force-choking even his highest ranking officials at the slightest provocation (more on that later). In The Empire Strikes Back, he puts Captain Piett through a lot. His coworkers drop like flies thanks to Vader’s lack of forgiveness, he has to see his boss without his helmet on, and he’s subjected to some creepy bounty hunters.
Piett looks scared to death of his boss in pretty much every scene. And that fear may just be what keeps him alive. Vader knows Piett isn’t going to question him or do anything to purposely anger him, because he likes his throat exactly as it is. That’s likely why Vader chooses to spare him at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
Piett’s men deactivated the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon on Vader’s orders, but unbeknownst to them, R2-D2 fixed it just before Piett tried to pull the ship in with a tractor beam. The Falcon got away. Watching out the Super Star Destroyer window, Piett shakes in his boots while Vader pulls a quietly badass move. He makes a half turn, looks back out the window as if to say, then just turns and walks away. Hands calmly behind his back, he gives Piett the slightest of ice-cold glares, clearly telling his latest right-hand man that there'll be no more chances. Unsurprisingly, you don’t see as much of Piett in Return of the Jedi.
In A New Hope, we’re just learning, alongside Luke Skywalker, exactly what the Force is and what it’s capable of. At this point in the film, we’ve seen Obi-Wan use it to hilariously trick stormtroopers into thinking Artoo and Threepio aren’t the droids they were looking for. And the old Jedi feels a disturbance in the Force after the the Empire uses the Death Star to destroy Alderaan.
But here Vader shows us for the first time that the Force can be used to detect someone’s presence, specifically another being with Force sensitivity. The Empire has just captured the Millennium Falcon, with Obi-Wan and friends on board. “I sense something…” Vader begins, “A presence I haven’t felt since…” He doesn’t finish his thought, but we know he’s talking about Obi-Wan. And with the hindsight of the prequels we know that he’s specifically talking about that time on Mustafar when Obi-Wan mutilated him, forcing him into that life-preserving suit.
Back in A New Hope, Obi-Wan tells us that Darth Vader was once his pupil; a young Jedi who was seduced by the dark side. But we didn’t know much about his past and who he really was aside from that. Was he human or an alien? Why was he inside that black, technology-laden suit? Why did he wear that expressionless mask? Why did he breathe like that?
We finally got some hints about halfway through The Empire Strikes Back, during the second scene in Vader’s chamber. Piett enters the room to find a shocking sight: Vader’s real head is exposed, just for a brief moment, as his helmet is mechanically lowered back down to lock into his suit with a suction sound. In that very brief exposure, we can see his bald head is covered in scars and it seems almost fused into his suit. The suction sound gives us a hint as to why he makes the breathing sound – the suit is airtight and helps him breathe. It’s a shocking and informative scene that may even draw a little sympathy from viewers.
Speaking of sympathy for the devil – er, Vader – this next scene does the most to establish some semblance of a heart in Vader at this point in the franchise, and is second only to his final act. On Endor, Luke has surrendered to the Empire as part of his master plan and is brought to Vader. Immediately, Vader orders his crew to leave him alone with his son so they can have their first real heart-to-heart since Luke has accepted the fact that Vader is his dad.
At first, Vader denies his past, telling Luke that the name Anakin Skywalker no longer means anything to him. Luke insists that Anakin is his true self, that he’s just forgotten that, and that there is good in him. Then, the first hint of a crack: Vader gives his son an “atta boy” on the construction of his new lightsaber and acknowledges Luke’s power. Luke says, “Come with me,” and Vader doesn’t outright refuse. He basically says it’s hard because the dark side is so strong and the Emperor won’t let him (“I must obey my master.”) Vader is surprisingly calm about the whole thing and almost sadly says, “It is too late for me, son.” It’s almost heartbreaking. But then he regroups, rediscovers his inner big bad, and sends Luke off to the Emperor. Even after Luke leaves, though, Vader seems contemplative, taking a quiet moment to himself.
We’re going to go with one more of Vader’s somewhat weaker moments here before we get back to his badassery. Up until this point in the franchise, Darth Vader has been nothing but the baddest man in the galaxy. He’s been utterly ruthless, bossing everyone around, and killing anyone who doesn’t fall in line with his evil desires and beliefs.
But we've heard hints that there’s someone above even Vader. Tarkin mentions the Emperor dissolving the council in A New Hope, but that’s it until Piett tells Vader that the Emperor has commanded him to get in touch with him in Empire. Vader wastes no time. He rushes off to his chamber and immediately kneels, head bowed in deference to a huge hologram of the Emperor. Vader is totally subservient here. His first calm, reverential words here are, “What is thy bidding, my master?” But Vader also proves he’s a good apprentice here by suggesting Luke could be turned to the dark side, which greatly pleases his master.
Up until now in A New Hope, we’ve seen Vader’s Force power, and we’ve seen some skill with a lightsaber. But now, during the legendary Battle of Yavin, we get to see he’s also a highly-skilled fighter pilot. First we watch as the flat-winged Imperial TIE fighters give the Rebels a hard time. But Vader, watching from the Death Star, notices a few Rebels breaking off from the main group, so he grabs two TIE pilots to join him in going after the smaller group.
Then we see three TIEs leave the Death Star, but one of these things is not like the other. The middle one, piloted by Vader, is even cooler: a TIE Advanced x1, a faster and safer model. Quickly and easily, he picks off three Rebel Y-wings, then a trio of X-wings, before setting his sights on Luke and taking down one more X-wing. That leaves Luke alone. But Vader is so strong in the Force that he senses Luke’s emerging power as Obi-Wan’s Force ghost talks to the young pilot. Still, even with all of Vader’s prowess, he’s not successful, as Han Solo comes in with the Millennium Falcon to protect Luke and knock Vader’s fighter spiraling into space.
In the Cloud City, Lando invites Leia, Han, and Chewbacca for “a little refreshment.” Lando doesn’t seem entirely trustworthy, but everything is bright and sunny up there. Even the score is bright and positive as Lando walks them through the hallways to a dining room. But Lando opens the door and who’s there at the end of the table? None other than Vader himself. Surprise!
The second Han sees him, he swiftly grabs his blaster out of its holster and fires at the Dark Lord of the Sith. But Vader simply holds up his right hand like a stop sign and uses his immense Force power to calmly deflect all five blasts. But that’s not all. Vader shows just how strong in the Force he is by, immediately after the deflections, using his power to magically pull the blaster out of Han’s hand through the air and into his own hand. The Rebels must have felt utterly helpless after this display. With his trademark calm, Vader announces, “We would be honored if you would join us,” which is actually more of a threat than a polite invitation.
Early on in A New Hope, Darth Vader and his crew storm the Rebel ship Tantive IV and find Princess Leia. In his first scene with her, Vader accuses her of being in possession of the stolen Death Star plans and, most memorably, of being “part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor.” He orders her to be taken away, paving the way for some real Vader creepiness.
Indeed, he adopts a creepy tone, sarcastically respectful (“And now Your Highness, we will discuss the location of your hidden Rebel base.”) in a dark interrogation room as a disturbing spherical torture droid hovers in the background. It almost looks like a miniature Death Star, holding an ominous giant syringe as it moves closer and closer to Leia. We get a real good close-up on the needle, then Vader lunges at her as the door closes. We’re not allowed to see what Vader does to her in there. The script tells us you could hear her muffled screams, but the film didn’t go there – although you can imagine them after the scene cuts over to Tatooine. So we learn that not only is he cool with torture, but he’ll do the dirty work himself and, with the benefit of hindsight, even to his own daughter.
About two thirds of the way through Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker makes his turn to the dark side and Palpatine officially christens him Darth Vader. No, he’s not in the iconic suit yet, but he’s still Darth Vader from then onward. Palpatine tells him that his friend Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi are now his enemies. Vader’s first task is to kill all the Jedi in the Temple, including the younglings. As dark as it is, we just can’t include that in a list of “best moments.” It’s just too dark.
But Vader’s best moment pre-suit is definitely his fiery, perilous duel with his former master, Obi-Wan, on Mustafar. Vader shows profound dexterity and physicality-- and incredible skills with a lightsaber-- in that epic duel. Obviously it doesn’t end well for him, but he shows absolutely no fear as they swing their lightsabers with astounding force and quickness, as lava bubbles all around them, and as they leap and balance at astounding heights.
There isn't much more intimidating than knowing someone can kill you without even touching you. Darth Vader’s officers find that out quickly and often, thanks to his use of the deadly Force choke. With this knowledge, it’s shocking that anyone dares challenge him or show their face after disappointing him. Nevertheless, there are two terrifying instances of this in the films.
The first comes in A New Hope when Admiral Motti shows that he’s not nearly as afraid of Vader as he should be. His stupidity nearly turns fatal as he refers to the Force as “sorcerer’s ways” and saucily chides Vader’s powers for not helping the Empire find the stolen Death Star plans or the Rebel base. “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Vader declares, awesomely. And Motti quickly discovers the extent of Vader’s powers when his esophagus squeezes shut from within, before Tarkin calls Vader off.
But in Empire, Vader goes all the way with a Force choke. Admiral Ozzel parked the Super Star Destroyer too close to the Hoth system, alerting the Rebels to their presence, so Vader sparks up his video screen to communicate with Ozzel. Through the airways, Ozzel’s throat starts clenching, as Vader shoots off another fantastic line: “You have failed me for the last time.” Vader continues to calmly give orders to Piett, who’s awkwardly standing next to Ozzel, while simultaneously Force choking Ozzel. Now that’s intimidating power.
As we’ve already seen, throughout Return of the Jedi, Luke consistently appeals to Vader’s good side, the side of him that’s still Anakin Skywalker; his father. It all comes to a head in the Emperor’s throne room, when the Emperor pits father against son because Luke just refuses to join the darks ide. Because of Luke’s refusal, the Emperor reasons, Luke must die.
We get another epic lightsaber duel, but one that Luke wins when he slices Vader’s hand off. Turnabout is fair play, after all. But is it? Luke’s doesn’t go for the kill, so instead the Emperor goes for the kill against Luke, blasting him with Force lightning. Vader looks on, helplessly, turning to his master, then to his son. You can see the little angel and little devil on his shoulders. Finally, he gives in to the angel and tosses the Emperor down a seemingly endless shaft to his death. But Vader was fatally wounded by the Emperor’s Force lightning. Maskless, he gets to look on his son with his own eyes for the first and last time before he dies. When Luke says he needs to save Vader-- now Anakin again-- the dying old man says, symbolically, “You already have, Luke.”
As Luke and Vader’s first meeting in the movies (though new canon has them briefly meeting before that in the comics), this duel is loaded with iconic images. For example, there’s Vader’s first appearance: backlit and silhouetted high up on a platform, calm but intimidating in the dark, fog swirling around him. At first it’s almost like child’s play for Vader, with his one-handed attack against Luke’s tense, two-handed style. Their red and blue blades cross in another iconic image. Vader is almost always ahead in the battle, knocking Luke’s lightsaber out of his hand; so much taller, always seeming to have the higher ground.
Speaking of which, there are a couple of amazing jumps by Vader. First, his leap down the stairs toward a fallen, unarmed Luke. Vader shows off even stronger Force powers when he starts ripping things off the walls and tossing them at Luke, purely with the Force. After Luke is sucked out a window, he finds himself in a dark room, where Vader’s second terrifying jump comes in. He comes seemingly from nowhere, like a horror movie monster. Normally you can hear him breathing, but here, you don’t hear that iconic breath until he’s already on top of Luke, slashing with his saber. Finally, frustrated and having been grazed by Luke’s saber, Vader thrashes furiously and slices his son’s hand off. It’s all astoundingly intense… and we’ll pick up from here in a moment.
This is a tough task, we know, but imagine having no knowledge of Darth Vader. Depending on your age, you may already have been aware of him the first time you saw A New Hope. But imagine watching that opening sequence with fresh eyes. You know it’s a long time ago and it’s a galaxy far, far away. You know Rebels are fighting the Empire. Then the Rebels on their tiny ship prepare to be boarded by the Empire from their gigantic vessel. Scary white stormtroopers barge into the corridor, guns a-blazin’. The Rebels retreat and the troopers make quick work of them.
Then, in that original corridor again, the door slides open and through the haze of battle, we see red lights emerging from the darkness of the doorway. The stormtroopers stand at attention among a mass of dead bodies. Then, there he is: dark suit, dark cape, dark mask, robotic lights on his torso, standing a good foot taller than anyone else as he struts through the corridor. He stops to survey the corpses as we hear those iconic breaths for the first time. He says nothing. Off he struts again, followed closely by his faithful stormtroopers. Without a word or violent action, we know he’s scary, intimidating, in charge, and demanding of respect.
Let’s pick up where we left off at number three.While we thought the lightsaber battle preceding this moment was intense, the audience-- and Luke-- is about to get a whole new lesson in intensity. Vader has Luke essentially at the end of a plank; he has no choice but to join Vader or drop to his certain death. The Dark Lord knows that.
Vader pleads with Luke to join him in the dark side: “If you only knew the power of the dark side.” But this is ultimately Vader’s downfall. He doesn’t realize that his son Luke doesn’t have the same craving for power he did. Then he tries to appeal to Luke in another way: he plays the daddy card. Luke thinks Vader killed his father-- that’s what Obi-Wan told him. But, “No,” says Vader, “I am your father.” It’s a moment that shocked not just Luke, but the cinematic world, leaving us in utter disbelief. It’s one of the greatest plot twists of all time. But he continues to try to appeal to Luke’s non-existent desire for power, offering to destroy the Emperor and “rule the galaxy as father and son.” But that’s not what Luke wants, so he jumps. It’s a moment of punishing defeat for Vader. He hoped to come away with an ally. Instead, he may have lost his son.
What are your favorite Darth Vader scenes? Will his appearance in Rogue One top anything on this list? Let us know in the comments.