Favorite Fictional Characters, #50: Darth Vader
The Empire Strikes Back is the first movie I can remember seeing in the theater. I was five years old, and it's hard to parse my actual reactions from the layers of Star Wars experience since. I do know this: Darth Vader was an enormous presence. He was the biggest, baddest villain in any galaxy, far, far away or not. He swaggered and bullied, astride the Empire like a shiny obsidian colossus. Tyro tyrant Kylo Ren's immature tantrums are in stark contrast to his grandfather's controlled rage. Vader was one of the most iconic antagonists on the big screen in a long time. When he announced he was Luke's father, it wasn't the cliche it would spawn; it was a thunderclap that came to define the young franchise.
I was eight by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, and eager to see what came next. Had Vader been lying? Was it true? How would it all end? The moment when Vader's helmet comes off was the most anticipated screen moment I can remember. This was before the internet and fan theories and production leaks (fanzines aside - I was too young for those). The fact that Vader sacrificed himself to destroy the Emperor in a long-delayed act of redemption was a satisfying climax to the narrative. The Jedi in the title wasn't Luke, or some restoration of the order. The Jedi Returning was Anakin, finding the last shred of heroism and humanity in his own corrupt soul.
The prequels were a disappointment on many levels, but most of all they failed in their primary storytelling function, which was to bring complexity and conflict to the early years of Anakin Skywalker. Bad casting, bad writing, and bad direction combined to fall far short on this measure. Anakin was uniformly whiny, petulant, and unlikable. I needed more hints of repressed evil like the slaughter of the Tusken Raiders and less Sweet Valley Naboo with Natalie Portman's sadly flat Amidala. The seduction by Palpatine is too easy, too sudden, too jarring. The last half-hour of Revenge of the Sith should have been a full movie, with more agonized descent into madness and evil for Vader. If the prequels succeed at anything, it's at demonstrating just how outstanding the original trilogy is.
Darth Vader is a tragic figure, but his denouement tells us that none of us are beyond saving. It's never too late to turn away from the dark side.