Darth Vader: The Most Iconic Villain in Pop Culture History, the Most Tragic Fall in Star Wars
Sauron, Saruman, the Joker, Magneto, Green Goblin, Lex Luthor, Scar, Jaffar, Ursula…these are some of the biggest names in the Villain business. But none of them hold a candle to the man in the ultimate face mask, Darth Vader. Ever since audiences first met him in 1978, with his black mechanical armor and cape and James Earl Jones’s formidable voice, they were in love. We knew nothing about him back then, other than that he killed Luke Skywalkers’ father. By the time we learned in Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader was Luke’s dad, the Star Wars fan community were already making their own costumes. So, why do we love Darth Vader so much?
How Star Wars Became the Darth Vader Story
Awww, what a cute genocidal maniac in the making! (Image: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, 20th Century Fox)
Who can forget the Weird Al Yankovic classic “The Saga Begins”—I mean seriously, I hear anything that sounds like a line from the song, and it’s stuck in my head for a month. What’s funny, though, is that Yankovic called it a saga before it was ever named The Skywalker Saga. But for the first six episodes, Star Wars was very much the story of Darth Vader—also known as Anakin Skywalker. While most people grimace when thinking about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, it sets up one of the most messed up turns in cinematic history.
Imagine going into Star Wars not knowing Anakin Skywalker of Tatooine would turn into Darth Vader. In Phantom Menace, we meet this kind of annoying, innocent, but wildly brilliant ten-year-old boy. Qui-Gon Jinn believes in him so much that he’s willing to go against a large and powerful religious/FBI organization just to make sure the kid gets the training he deserves. Little Anakin must give up his home, his mother, and venture into the cold of space towards his destiny. That little bugger does not have “future genocidal maniac” written on him at all. He doesn’t even hurt an animal in Episode I!
Anakin Skywalker, Murderer of Children, Hero of the Galaxy
Star Wars is great for the whole family! (Image: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
Then Anakin starts losing it in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and the first signs of Darth Vader emerge. When a village of Tusken Raiders kills his mom, a not-old-enough-to-drink-yet Anakin kills their entire village. Not just the men, “but the women and the children, too.” He even goes as far as saying, “They’re animals. And I slaughtered them like animals.” That’s a pretty intense line of dialogue from the kid who said “yippee!” in the last movie. Also, just something to think about, but Padmé Amidala, a senator, and former Queen, doesn’t seem to care that he kills Tusken children. Keep that in mind.
Anakin, a Jedi Knight, and a hero of the Republic, finally succumbs to the Dark Side in Revenge of the Sith. Everyone around him was shocked that the Tusken child-killing guy with bad impulses and some deep anger problems turned. The first thing Anakin—now Darth Vader—does in his new role? Kills all the younglings (child students) in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. When Padmé hears about this, she’s shocked and disturbed, as if he didn’t tell her just a couple of years ago that he killed an entire village, including children. Really, Amidala? Really?
That’s going to take a lot of Aquaphor. (Image: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, 20th Century Fox)
But he’s still not the Darth Vader we loved from the original Star Wars trilogy. That only happens after his mentor/best friend Obi-Wan cuts most of his limbs off and pushes him into a lava pit…and walks away. The smoldering torso, formerly Anakin Skywalker, gets some upgrades, a cool cape, and is finally Darth Vader.
Darth Vader and the Road to Redemption (Paved on the Backs of Innocent People)
What’s a few hundred dead children anyway? (Image: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, 20th Century Fox)
We next see Darth Vader in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and he’s the most feared man in the galaxy. Well, until we see him in Episode IV: A New Hope, where his staff scolds him until he force chokes them like he once did his pregnant wife. And of course, from his illegal marriage to Padmé, we get Luke and Leia. Once Luke accepts that Vader is his father, he recognizes that there’s some good left in than man who once was Anakin.
As the Emperor tries to the last of the Galactice Rebellion, Luke tries to reason with his father. At the end of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader sees the evil emperor torturing his son, is moved in some way, and then tosses his boss down a pit. When Luke unmasks his father as the second Death Star crumbles around them, he is no longer Darth Vader and is once again Anakin Skywalker. Thus in Star Wars, especially when it comes to Sith, death is not the end.
The Legacy of Darth Vader in the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy
Some people get their grandfather’s pocket watch. Kylo got his grandfather’s hate-helmet. (Image: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Walt Disney Pictures)
In his last act alive, Darth Vader overcame the Dark Side, killed Emperor Palpatine, and helped save the Galaxy. So, naturally, his grandson Ben Solo took from that: “Commit genocide and curb stomp an entire galaxy.” This was the only logical way that Darth Vader and his legacy could work in Star Wars. He was always that murderous villain, and the heroes just didn’t want to believe it. Ben, AKA Kylo Ren, idolizes his grandfather but not for a chunk of time before and after his days as a Sith Lord. He saw his uncle/mentor, Luke Skywalker, as his own Obi-Wan Kenobi—someone who would love him and then betray him.
And just like Grandpappy Vader, Kylo is evil, murderous, and has just a moment of redemption before dying. Granted, Ben Solo’s moment was longer than three minutes. The story of Darth Vader, and the story of Star Wars, isn’t about finding redemption. It’s how one moment can’t make you a hero. Saving Luke at the end of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi didn’t erase the decades of a fascist rule that Darth Vader helped maintain. Rather, the point of Vader’s story, and Star Wars in general,
George Lucas Doesn’t See Darth Vader As a “Cool” Character—and He Has a Point
George said WHAT about me? (Image: Star Wars Rebels, “Twilight of the Apprentice,” Walt Disney Pictures)
Way back in 2005, after Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith came out, George Lucas had some interesting things to say about his famous creation (emphasis added):
I had to make Darth Vader scary without the audience ever seeing his face. Basically, it’s just a black mask. I said, “How do I make that evil and scary?” I mean, he’s big and black and he’s got a cape and a samurai helmet, but that doesn’t necessarily make people afraid of him. His character’s got to go beyond that – that’s how we get his impersonal way of dealing with things. He’s done a lot of horrible things in his life that he isn’t particularly proud of. Ultimately, he’s just a pathetic guy who’s had a very sad life.
This is like hearing your teachers tell your parents how brilliant you are, and your parents responding with “meh.” But it’s also not wrong. Anakin Skywalker was a hero that betrayed his own cause, and as Darth Vader, he was just Emperor Palpatine’s glorified hitman. It’s Palpatine who takes over the galaxy and crushes the Republic. Vader was just an attack dog.
Playing Darth Vader Nearly Ruined Hayden Christensen after Star Wars
Much like his character, Hayden Christensen also had to walk through fire. (Image: Star Wars: Darth Vader (2020) #1, Marvel Comics)
For the moody teenager Anakin Skywalker, George Lucas cast a 19-year-old Hayden Christensen. And though he’d eventually play Darth Vader, Christensen was one of the most hated people coming out of the Star Wars prequels. For 15 years, he avoided the public eye or, at least, Star Wars fans. However, at the 40th Anniversary Star Wars Celebration, Christensen made a rare appearance…and the crowd went wild. As Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair pointed out:
…The very young Star Wars watchers who actually liked the made-for-kids prequels grew into adult Christensen fans. The fact that the animated character of young Anakin Skywalker—modeled on Christensen’s look—got a much more popular run on the beloved TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars also helped heal old wounds.
The Best Darth Vader Appearances Aren’t In The Skywalker Saga
The Vader We Always Wanted. (Image: Star Wars: Darth Vader (2020) #1, Marvel Comics)
Anakin Skywalker didn’t just have a better presence in Clone Wars—he has better appearances as Darth Vader in Star Wars: Rebels, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the three Marvel Comics series that came out since Disney acquired Star Wars. Some of Marvel’s best writers tackled the Dark Lord of the Sith solo titles, including Kieron Gillen, Charles Soule, and, currently, Greg Pak. Though Lucas has a point about Darth Vader having a sad life, the cartoons, comics, and novels featuring Darth Vader portray him as the villain we built up in our heads over the last 42 years.
The most badass we’ve ever seen Darth Vader on the big screen. (Image: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Walt Disney Pictures)
But that’s also the sign of a true icon. We make them more than what they are. They start as something simple, like a robotic villain in a samurai helmet, and we turn them into titans of good or evil. It’s also why George Lucas’s assessment of Darth Vader doesn’t matter—Star Wars is bigger than its creator. Darth Vader isn’t a great villain because of anything George Lucas wrote or directed. He’s a great villain because we made him one.
(Featured Image: Star Wars: Darth Vader (2020) #1, Marvel Comics)
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.