WARNING: This post contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for Rogue One
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story features an ensemble cast that consists mostly of new characters like Jyn Erso and Director Orson Krennic, but it also includes some familiar faces moviegoers know very well. One of the more exciting aspects about the spinoff was that it featured the big screen return of the one and only Darth Vader, and fans couldn't wait to see how the Dark Lord factored into the narrative. Lucasfilm smartly downplayed the villain's Rogue One involvement in marketing, only offering the briefest of glimpses to show fans and casual viewers alike that Vader was in the film. The size of his role was a mystery to be saved for the premiere.
In addition to preserving any Vader spoilers in advertising, the scant use of the evildoer in the trailers and TV spots illustrated that moviegoers should not expect much from Vader in the final product. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said as much over the summer, revealing that the plan was to use the character sparingly, but have him show up for key moments. With Rogue One now playing in theaters, we're taking an extensive look at Vader's role in the film and how he impacts the story.
Vader & Krennic
Since Vader has now become synonymous with Star Wars in the four decades since A New Hope was released, it's easy to forget that he has just 12 minutes of screen time in the original film. As presented in Episode IV, he is more of the Empire's muscle than the central focus; an argument can be made that Grand Moff Tarkin is really A New Hope's primary antagonist. Vader is simply a small part of the larger machine, and given the franchise timeline, it makes sense that is the case in Rogue One.
Director Gareth Edwards clearly illustrates this by waiting until around the halfway point to give audiences their first look at Vader. In his first scene, Vader is visited by Director Orson Krennic in his lair (complete with a bacta tank) on an unnamed planet to discuss recent events. Imperial high command, including Grand Moff Tarkin, has become displeased with Krennic's handling of the Death Star project, despite a successful test being conducted on Jedha. The meeting between Vader and Krennic serves two purposes: for Krennic to be briefed on information concerning an Imperial pilot from Eadu who defected (Bodhi Rook) and so Krennic can complain about being undermined by Tarkin and losing control of the battle station's operations after it was finished. He also feels Vader and Palpatine should have been in attendance to witness the first test.
It's abundantly clear that Krennic has a fierce rivalry with Tarkin and the two despise each other. Krennic's primary motivation is to move up the ladder and prove himself as an irreplaceable member of the organization; he is extremely eager to please both the Emperor and Vader so that he too can have the position of close confidant. Krennic is very obsessed with his status in the Empire and enjoys being in command. However, he's overly ambitious to a fault. Vader (and by extension Tarkin) are in Rogue One to keep Krennic in check so he doesn't lose sight of the bigger picture. As Vader warns him, "Don't choke on your aspirations." To the Sith Lord, Krennic's individual rank is insignificant and Vader wants to ensure the director understands what is expected of him.
The primary reason why Tarkin, Vader, and others are skeptical of Krennic is because the security leaks can be traced to the scientist Galen Erso, who Krennic forcibly recruited to the Death Star project due to his knowledge of kyber crystals. While Krennic is undoubtedly responsible for getting the super weapon off the ground and running, those above him on the chain of command also view him as a liability since Krennic was the one who personally vouched for Galen (as revealed in Catalyst) and hence can be partially blamed for whatever problems they are encountering. Following his conversation with Vader, Krennic is determined to seal up the leaks himself so that he can restore his reputation and get back in the Emperor's favor.
Lord Vader: Imperial Enforcer
When Darth Vader was first confirmed for Rogue One, many were thrilled at the prospect of him being involved with the action. From the beginning, Edwards teased that his film would put the "war" in Star Wars, with a tone that's more in line with Saving Private Ryan than Flash Gordon. With the promise of hard-hitting, gritty action in the backs of viewers' minds, there was always the possibility that Vader would be presented on film like never before. In the original trilogy, he was always an intimidating presence, but it felt like his reputation as an imposing figure was because of things that happened off-screen (Force choking notwithstanding).
Rogue One builds up to the climactic Battle of Scarif, where Jyn leads what is essentially a suicide operation to break into the Imperial high-security data bank to secure the Death Star plans and transmit them to the Rebels. Upon learning of the break-in, Tarkin orders the Death Star be brought to the planet and sends a message for Vader to join him there. Tarkin's plan is to destroy the Scarif base, but before the turbo laser fires, Jyn is able to beam the readouts to Alliance leaders. With the blueprints aboard the command ship, Vader leads a boarding party to get them back.
This leads to Vader's second and final Rogue One scene, and for many fans it was worth the wait. As soldiers attempt to bring the schematics to Princess Leia on the Tantive IV, they have a most unfortunate encounter with an angered Vader in a hallway. In a sequence that would be right at home in a horror film, Vader uses his Force abilities and lightsaber to brutally slaughter the Alliance fighters in his path, showcasing just how strong his powers are. Vader is truly frightening in this moment, and it's easy to see why he is the most feared man in the galaxy after watching it.
Of course, the Rebels were able to get the plans to safety, and in his final shot on-screen, Vader watches the Tantive IV fly away, setting the stage for A New Hope's opening sequence, where the blockade runner is speeding away from a Star Destroyer. This final action bit recontextualizes the beginning of Episode IV in an exciting way, and though some may be disappointed that Vader never got involved in the fighting on Scarif, it's safe to say that Edwards delivered a scene viewers will remember for a long time. This was Vader unleashed, and though it was only a small taste, it was a rewarding payoff for the audience.
Essentially, Darth Vader is to Rogue One what Spider-Man was to Captain America: Civil War - the recognizable, fan-favorite character who comes in for some short scenes to flesh out dynamics and take part in key set pieces. Edwards and company did an admirable job by not leaning on Vader as a crutch to keep audiences engaged and were confident in the newcomers and their story to make Rogue One the well-received hit that it is. It would have been easy to make Vader an integral part of the plot, but his role as a side figure was arguably for the best.
It will be interesting to see if Vader factors into Lucasfilm's plans for the films moving forward. Right now, the only other anthology that's been confirmed is the young Han Solo spinoff, but it's difficult to see how Vader could fit in there. Given the character's immense popularity and strong response to his turn in Rogue One, however, the powers that be would no doubt be interested in having him return for another go-around.
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