How the Prequels Fixed Darth Vader

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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Still here? If so, let me take a shameless second to plug the new web series I helped create: WebCamelot! It’s a low-budget comedy where all the citizens of Camelot have webcams (for some reason), and it’s tons of fun. Don’t hold the rest of the people involved accountable for my rickety movie opinions!

Here’s our newest episode, The Plague:


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