May 06 2014

How the Prequels Fixed Darth Vader

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Movies

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Last week that Star Wars Episode VII casting news dropped (what a great lineup!), and this weekend was Star Wars Day (silly, but harmless fun). So… I’ve had Star Wars on the brain.

It doesn’t help that I recently came across a really interesting series of quotes from George Lucas. I always wish this dude would spend more time talking through his thoughts on the Saga. They tend to be really insightful; very much the opposite of the crass commercialism he’s often accused of.

For me, a lot of what helped highlight just how good the Prequels are, is his discussion of the various intents with which he made them. Which brings us to the subject of the article: A big sticking point for a lot of folks is the way those movies “ruined” Darth Vader. But like most decisions Lucas has taken crap for over the past decade or so, there’s a perfectly reasonable, maybe even fascinating explanation for it.

Here’s the specific Lucas quote we’ll be using as our thesis today:

“I didn’t like that after the first trilogy Vader wasn’t realized as a tragic figure, but as an icon of evil.”

Let’s start admitting the obvious: Lucas is 100% right about that. Vader was the ultimate bad guy. A hulking warrior encased in black armor. A red-eyed skull for a face. That nightmare-inducing breathing noise. That voice. Vader was badass. Sure, the redemption sequence in Return of the Jedi (and it really is just in that movie) was powerful, but 95% of the video games, artwork, and general talk about Vader that I’VE seen shows off the dark side of the character. That’s what makes him cool.

vadercool

It’s no surprise that so much of the Prequel-related wishful thinking is bent around the idea of forcing Vader back into that “unstoppable badass” role. Folks want to skip the episode where Anakin’s a little kid, or amp up the so-called “buddy cop” dynamic between him and Obi-Wan, or see more of the “cunning warrior” alluded to in ANH, or any number of other things.

As Patton Oswalt says in this semi-famous bit, “I just like the helmet and the sword and the cape.”

Now, I know that Oswalt’s largely just being funny , but all the things he says — like Anakin needing to be a Damien-from-Omen type kid killing people with his mind — are exactly what Lucas was trying to course-correct on.

“He was a sweet kid, helpful, just like most people imagine themselves to be. Most people said, ‘This guy must have been a horrible little brat — a demon child.’ But the point is, he wasn’t born that way — he became that way and thought he was doing the right thing. He eventually realizes he’s going down the dark path, but he thinks it’s justifiable.”

littleani

Quick-but-relevant tangent: This has been widely written about, but it bears repeating. Star Wars was Lucas’s attempt to write the mythology for the modern world. Much like Tolkien’s attempt to give England it’s own myths in his writings on Middle Earth, Star Wars was intended to recontextualize the tales of legend and history into a format that we could apply to the present.

Most mythology, at its core, is meant to be instructive. It puts abstract concepts into concrete stories not just to entertain us, but so that we can learn from them. Much like Aesop’s Fables, or Grimm’s fairy tales, the Star Wars movies provide a framework for a broad exploration of love and hate, good and evil, humanity and mechanization, and any number of other things.

politics

Death and taxes…

For a lot of people, Star Wars simply represents the pinnacle of popcorn entertainment. Not a problem, in and of itself. These movies are a ton of fun and some of the most imaginative adventure stories ever created. As we enjoy the hot-rodding and planet-hopping and all that, though, it’s important to remember that Lucas didn’t stop his efforts at basic entertainment… so really, neither should we stop our assessment there.

“People expected Episode III, which is where Anakin turns into Darth Vader, to be Episode I. And then they expected Episodes II and III to be Darth Vader going around cutting people’s heads off and terrorizing the universe. But how did he get to be Darth Vader? You have to explore him in relationships, and you have to see where he started.”

So here we have Anakin Skywalker, the character who apparently ruined Darth Vader. If Star Wars is just meant as an amusement, I can sort of see the argument. Any good action movie needs a suitable villain, and old-school Darth Vader was one of the best. Demystifying him all the way back to age ten really does undercut some of the fear factor there. Specters of evil aren’t as threatening when you’ve seen them cry about their mothers.

Of course, some of that fear gets reinstated once you process what Anakin’s brutal murder of the Jedi younglings means on a subtextual level. That ten-year-old kid isn’t in there anymore.

younglins

Actually the literal text of that scene is pretty alarming, too…

While we’re (briefly) on this subject, it’s sorta distressing that most people will admit that Revenge of the Sith has some pretty good stuff here and there, while simultaneously dismissing the groundwork for it laid in Menace and Clones. Loss of the mother, loss of the father, enslavement, rejection from the Jedi, almost losing Padme, befriending Palpatine, fighting for Obi-Wan’s respect… this Anakin fella had a lot of problems. And each one of them reveals more about the man underneath that iconic armor.

Seeing Vader as a ten-year-old actually IS important. The separation from his mother is probably the single most influential action on Anakin’s descent into confusion and darkness; that story beat simply doesn’t play if he’s Luke’s age. Even the angsty teen stuff in Clones has its place. Sure, it’s kinda emasculating, but it’s absolutely appropriate for a story about a well-meaning, talented youth who’s being torn apart by parties who just want him to sit down and fit in.

The evolution Vader undergoes through the release of the Prequels enriches and deepens the character. It strips off the slick finish of “cool” to reveal a much more rewarding foundation. Star Wars isn’t really about being cool; it’s simply about being earnest.* Despite the saga’s action-adventure trappings, all its characters really want is to find a little bit of peace with the world.

Kinda like Anakin and Luke. Sure, they have the Force, and lightsabers, and ace piloting skills, but all that stuff leaves them hollow, snowblind, and defeated. What really sets things right is the simple peace that comes with connection to the world around them, to their friends, and to their family.

“As evil begins to take over, it pushes the Force out of balance. It’s easier to succumb to evil than it is to be a hero and try to work things through on the good side. Evil is inherently more powerful—it doesn’t have the burden of worrying about other people. What Luke sees in Darth Vader at the end of ROTJ is something that I thought was worth understanding: the idea that Darth actually was a very good person.”

 

FOOTNOTE:

*Okay, okay, it’s extremely cool in a number of places. But that’s not WHY Lucas made the movies, nor is it WHY they became the massive hit they did.

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29 responses so far

  • Guest

    Eh, I don’t know about others. Personally I could see what they were shooting for with Anakin’s descent into darkness, but I never really felt they did a good job of selling it. Palpatine is too much of evil for evil’s sake, so Anakin’s transformation never really seemed all that compelling. To really sell something like that, you need to have people doing evil things in service of a good (or what they think is good) cause and Star Wars doesn’t really have that (think French Revolution, the oppressed become the oppressors). The Sith and the Empire are kind of just evil douchebags for the sake of being evil douchebags.

    So ultimately that tears it all down for me. I would rather have watched the Clone Wars start in ep 1 and continue through ep 2 and 3 then the movies we did get. Or heck, how about just adding some more nuance to the Force? Again, it is too much a case of black and white (which is odd as I’m usually arguing against shades of grey). Regardless, I remember during my brief stint playing SWTOR, there was one mission as a Jedi where you had to choose whether or not to tattle on two padawans who had fallen in love. Obviously, most of us would probably like to say “Ah, that’s sweet, let them be in love. Lie to the teachers” but that is the DARK side choice. If you want to be Light side, you totally rat them out. Those kinds of decisions would show more of the struggle between Light and Dark, but you don’t really see that in the movies. So ultimately it just felt more like Anakin turned bad because, well, he had to, otherwise he wouldn’t become Darth Vader.

    All this ignores the glaring plot holes brought about by shoehorning R2-D2 and C3PO in the plot of the Ep 1-3, among other plot holes.

    • cypher20

      How did this end up here? I accidentally deleted it.

  • cypher20

    Eh, I could see what they were shooting for with Anakin’s descent into darkness but I don’t think they did a good job of selling it at all. Palpatine is too much of evil for the sake of being evil. So Anakin’s transformation didn’t really seem believable. To really sell something like that you need people doing something evil for a good cause (or what they perceive to be a good cause). If done really well you should actually be rooting for the “villains” early on until you start to realize, “oh, well, maybe this has gone too far”. The Sith and the Empire are really just evil jerks for the sake of being evil jerks, they don’t work, it needs to be something more like the French Revolution, the oppressed becoming the oppressors. Not to mention that it is completely ridiculous that there are only ever two Sith, an entire Jedi Order taken down by two Sith? Preposterous.

    On that note, why not add more nuance to the Force in general? It is far too black and white, which is odd as I usually argue against shades of grey (everyone and their grandmother is doing it, plus it leads to ridiculous equivalence arguments, American soldiers do not equal Taliban). With the Force though, why would anyone go Dark side? It’s never really presented as an attractive option. I remember during my brief stint of SWTOR, there was a quest for the Jedis where you had to choose to tattle on two Padawans who had fallen in love. While our modern culture would lean towards encouraging that love, that was the DARK side choice. To go Light side you totally ratted them out. Decisions like that are too rare in the SW universe, even in the video games I think most people go dark just for fun or because that is the only way you get to do the cool lightning blast.

    All of this ignores the plot holes introduced in the series, especially the ones introduced by shoehorning in R2-D2 and C3PO. Basically, what he is saying sounds great, the execution was severely lacking though.

    • David R

      There’s a lot in here, but two things that struck me the most:

      “With the Force though, why would anyone go Dark side?”

      “Quicker, easier, more seductive.” – Yoda. It’s very much the sort of thing that you can slip into without realizing, if you choose to indulge your unhealthy impulses. See Luke nearly crossing over at the end of RotJ… it’s a choice born out of emotional decisions, not premeditated ones.

      “…an entire Jedi Order taken down by two Sith? Preposterous.”

      To cite this guy again, Yoda spends a not insignificant amount of time talking of how the Jedi’s powers are diminished; that their arrogance has blinded them, and other related topics.

      • cypher20

        Well the deletion was accidental, weird that Disqus does that though.

        I totally see what you’re saying about the Dark Side but again I just don’t think that gets across very well in the movies. It’s been a while but I don’t recall ever really feeling like Luke was in any danger of turning Dark Side at the end of ROTJ, but it has been a while.

  • Caleb K

    Yeah I see what you’re saying and in the grand scheme of things the story works fine. Where they really blew it in the prequels was casting and dialogue.

  • Guest

    The intent was fine, the execution was the problem.

    • Steve

      I use this exact phrase to sum up Superman 4.

  • Steve

    Lucas didn’t think of the idea of making Vader a tragic figure until halfway shooting Jedi. So if George has ever said in interviews that Vader was meant to be a tragic figure, he’s lying.

    Secondly, Anakin is more of a snot-nosed whiny brat as an adult than he is as a child. Hayden can act, but Lucas is not a good “people” director.

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    I actually really loved the concepts behind the prequels. But like other commentators have said, the execution was often weak. Too much cheese and unnecessary kiddie humor and not enough genuine character development. There’s another true classic trilogy in that story, but I feel like Lucas failed to realize its potential. And well, even if everything else in the prequels fixed Vader, it only took one comically-performed two-letter negative adverb to ruin him.

    • cypher20

      Say it ain’t so!

      NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

  • jeff brady

    I don’t see where you made the case I thought you defined within the title of this entry? Lucas had well-reasoned intentions? Vader had problems and losing his mother was a big one? Is that it? Vader’s evolution, if I’m going to be generous enough (to Lucas) to join you in calling it that, is narrated in such a way that it came off as rushed and nonsensical to me.

    Anakin’s days as “yippee” kid / slave don’t seem too rough. His mother doesn’t seem to have it all that bad either. He’s a mechanic/pilot and she’s just a homemaker insofar as I could tell. We don’t see any harsh treatment nor difficult living conditions. Anakin even bristles when a stranger refers to him as a slave. You’d think a slave would take pains to avoid the potential for negative reporting to his master. I guess the worst part of being a slave is the idea of it to him (or maybe the idea he thinks Padme has as to what that means)?

    I don’t believe Anakin is aware of Shmi’s kidnapping at the time he shares his longing for an autocracy (which is one of many statements/actions that should have nixed his chance at getting with Padme in a believable story). Maybe he was just so happy as a slave that he thinks the rest of the galaxy should collectively experience his life?

    I’m not even going to get into how a nine-year-old has the requisite
    knowledge to be so accomplished in two professions let alone how his
    talents were discovered. Answering those questions would have made a better movie to serve as the first in a trilogy that people largely watched only because it was supported by a better one yadda yadda yadda… I helped you beat this dead horse enough to feel how pointless it is.

    • David R

      The case that I made was, essentially, that whereas once Vader had been a fairly uncomplicated specter of evil (save a binary, if effective, transition in RotJ), the Prequel trilogy ultimately imbued his character with a lot more complexity and meaning.

      I don’t want to get into the back-and-forth nitpicking arguments, but yeah, the simple reality of being a slave would be enough to cause problems for most people. Sure, they’re not being beaten or whatever, but Watto routinely risks his life for money and if Anakin ever wanted to do something (say, fly away, like he suggests), he’d be blown to pieces.

  • goseebananafish

    Volkswagon killed Darth Vader when they put a child in the costume. Vader was a character who destroyed a planet during a product demo. He murdered children. He was evil, ruthless and a badass. Then he started selling cars and hamburgers.

  • robinvik1 .

    The problem with Anakin is not that he wasn’t evil enough. The problem is that he was a sith all along. He never was a jedi and that ruins his redemption because there is nothing to redeem. Where in those movies does he actually come across as a good guy? When he was 10?

    • David R

      Short answer: Yeah, pretty much. He’s pretty conflicted (though with a strong desire to do the right thing) by the time we get into Attack of the Clones. The Prequels are partially about the types of forces that can send a well-meaning, talented individual down the exact wrong path in life, and they do that by drowning Anakin in the waters of confused emotions and motives.

  • Chesticles

    I don’t really even think the stories were the issue. It’s the DIALOGUE people. All the major plot points, and moments strung together make sense in terms of character development, I just don’t see how “not liking sand because it gets everywhere” helps me to better understand Vader and the man he was before that.

    • MegaSolipsist

      It conveys that he didn’t like Tattooine and shows that he still has many bitter memories of before he became a jedi, because he was a slave and had to leave his mother.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Sorry, man, but you’re giving Lucas way too much credit. He likes to talk big about his intentions for the series and the character, but the historical record of the making of Star Wars does not support his after-the-fact claims. He likes to talk about “what he wanted all along,” but that keeps changing to match whatever he thinks will make him seem like a better director and storyteller.

    I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he really believes the “I set out to make a modern myth” baloney he proclaims today, but the facts contradict his account.

  • http://www.redstickrebellion.com/ Wayne Dupree

    Wow! I just had a huge moment of deja vu with your quote about people wanting Episode III to have been Episode I and that leading to much of the disdain for the prequels, I have said that many times myself. People seem to forget that Lucas has maintained that the movies (well, I – VI) are classic fables retold for a modern audience (like you also mentioned) and so the original trilogy was the son’s redemption of the father’s sins and the prequels were to explore what makes a person become “evil”, making poor choices and suffering the consequences of them. Like you also said, pretty much all the time, evil is not born that way it is forged that way because of expectations and experiences which is why seeing him as a kid is important, he wasn’t born a psychopathic maniac – he was a normal kid with extraordinary abilities who then is put under incredible pressure because he must be “the one” to fix all the Jedi’s problems which is in contrast to Luke who is allowed to grow up for the first two decades of his life wishing he could be come something extraordinary, instead of being “born” in to it he had to earn it. I hadn’t thought about the parallel of the pre-armour Vader killing the innocent part of him in the temple but looking at it now I see it – and the kid standing there looks amazingly a lot like Jake Lloyd at the end of TPM. Thank you for putting together such a well thought out post about this unpopular yet important point of view of the prequels and it’s relationship to the saga.

    • wonkeythemonkey

      Your comment has more substance than the entire prequel trilogy. You took everything (almost literally EVERYTHING) that was deep or meaningful about those three movies and expressed it in one paragraph. Lucas took six hours and millions of dollars, and he utterly failed at communicating the themes you are talking about. If he had succeeded, there wouldn’t need to be articles like this one trying to explain to everyone what they missed when they were actually watching the movies.

      It’s not enough to come up with the concept of “Darth Vader started innocent and turned bad because of circumstances.” The story is in the telling, and this was a very poorly-told story.

      • MegaSolipsist

        I guess you were one of those people wanting ROTS to be episode 1 and never considered the films anything other than popcorn flicks.

        • wonkeythemonkey

          You guess wrong. I would rather the prequels didn’t exist at all.

          But you’re mostly right about the popcorn flick thing. Star Wars has the *potential* to be more than that, and there are certainly complex and interesting stories to tell in that universe. But the movies did not do that. The original trilogy succeeded at excellent world-building (galaxy-building?) and fun action pieces and character moments. The prequels didn’t even do that.

          • MegaSolipsist

            I think a lot of people didn’t really think about what the prequels necessarily HAD to be (I’m not saying you’re one of them, just that there are a lot of them).
            They had to explain how the evil empire arose and so they had to be lighter in tone than the originals. Yes, there were some missteps, like Jar Jar Binks, and the obvious racial stereotypes, but overall, most of what was in the prequels had to be there.

          • wonkeythemonkey

            I respectfully disagree. What a movie must or must not include depends entirely upon the goals of the story. If your goals absolutely require you to include components in your movie that are boring, out of character, uneven in tone, or incomprehensible, then perhaps you should find new goals.

            Another way of phrasing my argument is that, if it simply couldn’t be told well, this story didn’t HAVE to be told at all.

          • MegaSolipsist

            But they always had to tell the prequels, and they had to explain how things changed. Yes, some things weren’t done well, even quite a lot of them, but I’ve always thought that people had impossibly high standards for the prequels and they didn’t deserve the flak they got.
            I think if people judged the original trilogy with the same criteria they used to judge the prequels, the originals would be a lot less popular.

          • wonkeythemonkey

            I’m curious why you think they always had to tell the prequels. There is no such assumption with most movies or movie series. For example, I don’t think that a Jack Sparrow origin story is inevitable. Why couldn’t the origins of Vader and the Empire have remained shrouded in mystery, the domain of the Extended Universe and fan theories?

          • MegaSolipsist

            Aside from the fact that the story began with Episode IV? Lucas always intended to have two trilogies and decided to start with the second one first, at least partly because of the limits of special effects in the seventies.

          • wonkeythemonkey

            I just can’t quit this conversation! :)

            Three rebuttals:

            1) No, Lucas did not “always intend” to have two trilogies — this is a story he started telling later. The original theatrical release of Star Wars did not even include “Episode IV” in the crawler text. His earliest known title was the ridiculously complicated “Adventures of Luke Starkiller, As Taken From the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1: The Star Wars”. Note that it began with “Saga 1,” and more importantly it bore very little resemblance to the final movie script. The “Episode IV” gimmick was added on for effect, to make the audience feel as though they were joining an old-fashioned movie serial like the classic Flash Gordon films of Lucas’s childhood.

            2) Even if Lucas were telling the truth, and he did intend from the very start to produce prequel episodes, that does not mean that they “had to” make them. Times and attitudes change, and most people (that weren’t Star Wars fanatics) were perfectly happy to let the trilogy be a trilogy without adding any episodes. A good novelist will often go back and remove stuff that they’ve already written before publishing their books. What they originally intended is secondary to a good final product.

            3) Another even if: Even if we accept that prequels had to be made, there is no rule that they couldn’t have been completely different than the movies that were ultimately released. They could easily have been completely different stories, with the only requirement being that they had to show the origin of Vader without contradicting anything from the original trilogy. I believe that there are infinite variations on Vader’s origin that could have been made instead and would have been an improvement. Some of them have already been told in either Expanded Universe content or fan fiction. Lucas did not know what story he would be telling when he started writing the prequels (the behind-the-scenes special features confirm this), and he could have done so much better.

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