Friday, February 8, 2013

Darth Vader Is Not The Main Villain

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

Darth Vader is not the main villain of Star Wars.

I’ve hinted at this in several of my other columns. I flat-out stated it in my comparison of General Grievous to Vader, but I don’t blame anyone for losing it amongst the ramble. So I say again:

Darth Vader is not the main villain.

Perhaps this is my fault. I’ve been doing a very bad thing again. I’ve been reading comments sections on things that just so happen to mention Star Wars briefly. There are a lot of people who call themselves fans and begin to prove that they aren’t by nitpicking and saying really horrid things even before the T in “Star” can be pronounced. It makes my blood boil. You’d think I’d learn by now not to do this. It fills me with so much dark side feelings that I have to take it out on the word processor here so as not to turn into a Sith Lord.

I repeat: Darth Vader is not the main villain.

I’ve spoken before about how I think expectation plays a big role in how one can perceive a movie regardless of how good or bad the film actually is. Belief in anything works that way too; if you’ve lived most of your life convinced that a certain something is absolutely true only to find out the truth is actually in antithesis to what you had believed, you’ll fight pretty hard against the new way of thinking. We all do it. But, alas, based on a common complaint I’ve been seeing in comment after comment after review after review after meme after meme…I feel I must now attempt to set the record straight once and for all.

For those of you who came in late:

Darth Vader is not the main villain in the Star Wars Saga.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to undermine his role in the overall saga. He’s my second favorite character and the six films are ostensibly about him in one way or another. But let’s face it, when it comes to villainy, it would be generous to call him second-tier. If it weren’t for his familial relation to one (okay, two) of the heroes he’d simply be a goon. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at A New Hope, the very first Star Wars movie.

There’s a big debate over how much of Star Wars was planned and how much was just George Lucas flying by the seat of his pants. I’m inclined to believe him when he says that the main beats of the saga as well as the overarching themes were evident from the beginning. Filmmaking evidence however points to the fact that much of the detail was made up as the films were being produced. Which you could say is to Lucas’ credit, as he can let his ideas evolve and mix to suit the new reality. We know that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were not in fact the same character until probably during the preproduction of Empire. George might’ve had the idea earlier, but I don’t know of him telling anyone so let’s assume that New Hope was made under the idea that they were, in fact, separate people.

Even with the “betrayer of the Jedi” angle thrown in he’s just one of the Empire’s many tools. In a video game, he’d be like the boss you meet about a quarter of the way into the story to spike up the difficulty in preparation for things to come. He is, in every sense of the word, a dragon for the heroes to beat up on their way to the real mastermind. And remember, this is New Hope we’re discussing, so I’m not talking about Palpatine when I say the mastermind. No, the main villain of New Hope was: Grand Moff Tarkin. Seriously, Tarkin was the main bad guy. You’ve got veteran actor Peter Cushing acting as cold as ice, ordering the destruction of an entire planet, and talking to a six-foot cyborg samurai like he was an obnoxious puppy. Mastermind!

As the saga wore on, it became clear that Vader did have his own agenda and did pose a serious threat, but he was still not the top dog. Palpatine was calling all those shots. Jedi reveals that Vader, a.k.a. Anakin, is really more of a victim. I, II, and III hammer this point home, but it was always obvious that he wasn’t completely guiltless.

And that’s where the problem started. New Hope did such a good job at creating an iconic dragon that people naturally assumed he was the big bad, apparently missing the part where Tarkin was “holding his leash.” Marketing, Expanded Universe, and incessant pop-culture references didn’t seem to help dissuade the masses from this oversight. So, when Phantom, Clones, and Sith told his history, showed him in all his glory as the man he really was: Honest, but troubled; Good-Intentioned but Petulant; Unable to figure out his emotions in an emotionless society…well, people went nuts. And not in a good way. They claim the new information was “ruining” the character, that he was no longer “badass.”

“Badass,” there’s the key. And boy, do I loathe that word. I never really understood the appeal. Oh, the appeal of awesomeness, I understand. An awesome stunt, a great one-liner, on the right character and setting it’s great. But “Badass” to a lot of people simply means a heroic sociopath. He doesn’t care, he’s emotionless; it’s just machismo, and it can’t deal with any perceived weakness, despite the fact that this sort of behavior usually stems from some kind of character flaw.

So Anakin Skywalker isn’t a “badass” because he whines like his kid and loves his wife a little too much? Let me tell you something, the only difference between Anakin and Vader was that Vader lost what little respect for living things Anakin had. You call strangling your underlings for their failures a cool approach to problem-solving? I call it a temper-tantrum. That’s breaking your toys when you don’t get your way. Face it, Darth Vader didn’t change with I II and III, his true nature simply became clearer.

And that’s okay. Anakin Skywalker is flawed, and his flaws are presented to make that clear. But in the end he also has a good heart. In spite of everything else, he’s still that little sandy haired yippee-shouting moppet from Tatooine. That’s why he’s nine years old in the Phantom Menace. That’s who that character is, in spite of the heavy emotional, physical, and spiritual trauma the character goes through in the course of the saga. He messes up, and he doesn’t take responsibility because half the people in his life are building him up to an ideal and the other half are ruthlessly trying to tear him down with absolutely no middle-ground except maybe from his wife. He doesn’t really grow up until that moment when he sees his son frying at the hands of the jerk who manipulated him most of his life.

Similar to Jar Jar, I see this strange sort of abuse cycle where Anakin’s biggest detractors are those whom have been detracted against all their lives. Rather than use their memory to defend those less fortunate, they join in the verbal slaughter to try and climb the pecking order a little higher. And they’re always the people who saw Vader as the biggest, meanest bad guy in the entire galaxy.

However, the simple truth is that Darth Vader is not the main villain. He never was, and he never will be. Once you accept that, things tend to fall into place rather neatly.


  1. You're absolutely right, and I think the major flaw in thinking that way is assuming there's any overarching bad guy to the saga, when it really changes from film to film.

    The prequels make stabs at an overarching villain in Palpatine, but in terms of who the direct threat is, it changes each film, with Palpatine only being the major villain in Revenge of the Sith. The original trilogy is similar in this respect, though there's a nice bit of poetic flow in how it shifts from Tarkin to Vader to the Emperor.

    I would argue that Vader *is* the villain of The Empire Strikes Back (though in a much more complex way than the other films) and his role there is mostly done to serve that film's underlying themes of identity and challenging the black-and-white view of things in the first film. Aside from that, though, he doesn't fill the antagonist role in a real meaningful sense aside from being a recognizable foil to Luke and Obi-Wan (though I suppose there's merit for discussion on how the iconography twists and forms audience expectations and reactions to the 'proper' roles of characters).

    ...that was a bit of a ramble.

    This is Flynn, by the way- changed up my account info recently.

    1. I would argue that as the master string-puller, Palsy is the overarching villain. However, by his very nature he mostly operates in the shadows, rarely getting the limelight. You could call him a phantom menace. ;-)

      Because of that, I think you're absolutely right in that the "main" villain changes in each substory (read: film) to whoever is Palpy's highest lieutenant at the time. The exceptions being Sith and Jedi, where Palsy is at his most active.

    2. I did say Palpy and corrected it. Did it change as it was going out?

    3. Though even as a strings-puller he doesn't play much into the first two films- especially Empire, where there's a strong implication that Vader is acting independently of the Emperor.

    4. Oh, he most certainly is acting independently in Empire. With TPM revealing the Sith Rule of Two, this becomes all the more sinister, even if Anakin's good side is showing through a little bit.

    5. I don't think I see it as sinister so much as just conflicting- Anakin's looking to save and rescue his son from the evils of the Emperor, but also convinced of his own fall and the inevitability of corruption. There's a ton of layers to him through Empire that's really quite fascinating (and in some ways, tragic).

    6. I think that's all going on as well, but with the Rule of Two you also sense Luke's in greater danger of going down Anakin's path. One master, one apprentice. The good of Anakin may be targeting his son to help him "save the galaxy", but to the Vader side "saving the galaxy" doesn't mean defeating Palpatine - it means replacing him.