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The Attraction of Evil: The Myth of Darth Vader in Pop Culture and the Star Wars Universe

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Three things have helped make Darth Vader a cinema icon: his design, the voice acting of James Earl Jones, and the physical acting of the actors, like David Prowse, Spencer Wilding, and Daniel Naprous.

Three things have helped make Darth Vader a cinema icon: his design, the voice acting of James Earl Jones, and the physical acting of the actors, like David Prowse, Spencer Wilding, and Daniel Naprous.

This is going to be something that is somewhere between a fanboy rant and an actual blog. Ever since Rogue One was announced, the most anticipated event of the movie was going to be Darth Vader. News of his appearance in the film excited everyone who heard about it, since he had not been seen since 2005's Revenge of the Sith. Even then, that was a young Vader, both before and after the cyborg implants.

The Vader that became the pop culture icon, that kids thought was cool and intimidating, had not been seen on screen since Return of the Jedi way back in ‘83. When I saw Rogue One, I was definitely excited to see classic Vader on screen and was not disappointed. In fact, if anything, the biggest thing that everyone who has seen the movie has talked about was Vader’s moment at the end. The praise and shock value were so high that people immediately began demanding a stand-alone film starring the Sith Lord. That’s major appeal and I thought it would be interesting to dive into the psychology of the villain and what that has to do with his cross-generational appeal.

Top of His Game

There are many classic villains in Hollywood history. There are also many villains trying to be classic villains: larger than life and many times trying too hard. It’s a mixture of chance and art form to catch that lightning in a bottle and that is where Darth Vader’s psychology on-screen comes into play.

From the first time he walks out onto the Tantive IV in A New Hope, his dark silhouette amongst all that white sucks in your attention like a black void. The all-black is then reinforced by his commanding strides, hinting at the intensity roiling inside of him. Vader was always very intense, even before the armor and when he was Anakin Skywalker. There is no middle setting with him: it’s all or nothing and he brings his ‘A-game all the time. That being said, he is also reserved about how he outwardly shows it.

Unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker, any initial indication of the internal fire is barely hinted at, but it seeps through just enough that other characters and the audience pick up on it immediately. He doesn’t try to be cool or intimidating, he just is. It oozes from his black form and the heavy sounds of footsteps and breathing.

Unlike many other classic villains, he is not a random killer. If he kills someone, whether it’s an officer who pissed him off or rebel soldiers or Jedi who got in his way, there is a point and a reason behind it. If he has no cause to kill you or torture you, then he won’t. Just don’t push your luck and let him pass.

However, the Sith Lord does have a kill switch, where that fire and rage inside of him is unleashed. On-screen this is seen three times. Once in Revenge of the Sith when he kills the Separatist leaders, the second towards the end of his duel with Luke when he stops toying with him in Empire Strikes Back, and the recent Rogue One with his hallway rampage. In fact, more than any other appearance prior, are we beholden to the intense violence that is actually there. There are no superiors or family connections to hold him in check.

This isn’t funny Vader or cute Vader where parents laugh at their kids wanting to show them someone cool from their childhoods. It’s the exact opposite and your kids will probably have nightmares after that sequence. Yet even then, once the soldiers are dead, the beast immediately goes back in the cage. When the survivors flee in Tantive IV, Darth Vader stands there looking intensely at the retreating ship, that simmering rage still seething as the red lightsaber disappears. The ferocity going tones back down.

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The Dark Knight

There’s more to this villain than his barely checked rage. The violent actions against Jedi and rebels are motivated by absolute loyalty to the Empire that Darth Vader views as the rightful heir to the Republic. That loyalty does not tolerate traitors or anyone else he views as a threat to its stability. If they are enemies, they are to be eliminated, unless it leads to him to a larger threat. And even then, they are still to be eliminated. Repeat: there is no halfway with this guy.

Interestingly, Vader is not loyal to the Emperor or for that matter even the dark side of the force. Anakin became Vader as a means to an end to save his wife and child. When he believes they are gone, he feels he has gone so far to achieve those failed goals that he can’t go back. It’s in that prison he feels trapped with his self-hatred. It’s that self-hate that causes him not to care about others’ opinions of him. As he says in Return of the Jedi, it’s already too late for him. That is what gives him the air of authority: he’s already lost everything, so he’s capable of doing anything, and everyone knows it.

Anakin is turned not because of an ambition for power but because he is trying to save his family,  Sidious was a means to an end for this.

Anakin is turned not because of an ambition for power but because he is trying to save his family, Sidious was a means to an end for this.

The Mystery Behind the Murder

While he was friends with the Emperor as Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader no longer trusts him after Revenge of the Sith. Sidious is a means to an end, whether that was saving his wife, or being an Imperial enforcer for a galaxy he feels loyalty to. Like his rage, Vader conceals this beneath his armor, both physically and mentally speaking. Not even Sidious is aware of his true allegiances. Any verbal claims of friendship between the two are exactly that, verbal. Vader serves him because he has to. Not because he wants to. So of course he’s going to play the game until the opportunity presents itself to kill him and rule himself.

In fact, almost everyone makes the wrong assumptions about Darth Vader’s intentions and machinations. The Jedi of the Old Republic thought the then-Anakin Skywalker was driven by lust for power and prestige. Later, Obi-Wan and Yoda considered him a simple killing machine that was unredeemable and needed to be eliminated. The Emperor considered Vader a shadow of the greatness he could have been before Obi-Wan crippled him. That the cyborg could rise up and kill him never once crossed Sidious’ mind. Luke Skywalker, though right about the goodness that remained in his father, was not aware of just how suppressed it was. Having a conversation with Vader was not going to convert him back to the light side.

These deeper complexities to the character are what make Darth Vader intriguing. For most of the screen time throughout the trilogies though, he plays his card close to his chest. In many ways, he is the ultimate introvert, a true mystery to everyone who deals with him.

From Rock Star to a Return to Villainy

Darth Vader is a source of fascination with pop culture because of the silent but powerful mystique that he commands. He’s the prowling predator in a cage. You can feel the power there, but don’t see it and don’t want to see it. But we do want its byproducts. Instant respect and badassery are things most of us want these days. They are considered empowering and make some sort of statement of self-importance and individuality to the world around us. Maybe we don’t want to go as far as child murder and becoming a cold-blooded killer to get it, but we do want that effect when we walk into a room.

For many people, Darth Vader is the representation of evil. We don’t want to be in the same room with someone with that kind of vibe, yet it is also appealing somehow because we attach a coolness and confidence to his intimidation and power. It is who he is and therefore as much as we don’t like his killer psychology, neither can we outright reject him because of what the psychology is cloaked in.

I think it is these things that have made Darth Vader the icon he is today. And if anything, his minimum but powerful appearances in Rogue One have reminded us just why we like him and why we shouldn’t like him.

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