Star Wars is trying to turn Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and agent of evil, into an antihero. There are few movie villains widely known and feared as Darth Vader. From first walking through the blasted door of the blockade runner in 1977's Star Wars to hacking down Rebels in a fight to get to the same ship in 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, that imposing face mask, rasping breath and booming James Earl Jones voice have painted a powerful, calculating figure, one that strikes fear regardless of which galaxy you live in. Even though he was eventually redeemed by his son in Return of the Jedi and the prequel trilogy detailed his tragic fall, few would debate that he is an out-and-out villainous character.
One group who would, it seems, is Lucasfilm themselves. In a press release for upcoming comic run Star Wars: Vader — Dark Visions, the StarWars.com site describes the titular character as "the mysterious antihero known as Darth Vader." Now, granted, this is in the context of a story that aims to present the character from distant perspectives of those not knowing his true nature let alone his past (the description also states he "can be someone’s greatest fear and even…someone’s greatest hope"). However, that goal still leaves one big thing clear: Star Wars wants you to think of Darth Vader as an antihero.
This is as wrong as it is bizarre, and while it could end up being an isolated incident feels like part of a bigger shift - for the character, for Star Wars, and for our culture's relationship with villainy in general.
- This Page: Darth Vader Is A Tragic Villain - But Still A Villain
- Page 2: Why Darth Vader's Called An Anti-Hero (& Why It's Bad)
- Page 3: Darth Vader's Anti-Hero Confusion Highlights A Bigger Villain Problem
Darth Vader Is A Tragic Villain - But Still A Villain
The key factor in this discussion is that, indeed, Darth Vader hasn't been viewed as an out-and-out villain on film since 1980. In The Empire Strikes Back, he famously revealed he was Luke Skywalker's father, suggesting a more tragic backstory (which had been there in Obi-Wan's description in Star Wars anyway), and then three years later in Return of the Jedi, he sacrificed himself to save his son and the galaxy. He was a redeemed villain, even getting a Force ghost that put him alongside his former mentors, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda.
But it was the prequels that really changed the Star Wars story. What had once been a sprawling space opera powered by family was reframed more directly as "The Tragedy of Darth Vader". Episodes I-III detailed Anakin Skywalker's gradual corruption and fall, seeing an idealistic but hard-done-by child trapped in a suffocating situation grow into a powerful and feared young man; he suffers the death of his mother and, when a similar fate threatens his secret wife, vows to avert it. There's a lot more going on in the Star Wars prequels than just that, but the sum effect was that Anakin Skywalker became a tragic figure and Darth Vader someone corrupted and misled who eventually returned to the light. By 2005, for only two movies out of six was he not on the light side of the Force or at the very least conflicted.
However, this wasn't about reframing the character as anything but a villain; it was exploring how such a dark figure could exist and be returned. Darth Vader wasn't made any less menacing in the original trilogy by the prequels (give or take some personal opinions on Revenge of the Sith's "Nooooo"). Indeed, George Lucas' controversial change to Return of the Jedi that replaced Sebastian Shaw's older Anakin with Hayden Christensen's Clone Wars-era version served to highlight the character delineation.
No, while Darth Vader isn't totally the same villain he was in 1977, he was still very much a villain after the prequels. And across his Rogue One cameo and misread legacy in the sequel trilogy, that's held true in the Disney era too. So why has this rebrand happened now?
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019