Memories are fuzzy but in the summer of 1977, when heat-transfer T-shirts were a big deal along the boardwalks in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, the first T-shirt I bought on family vacation read: MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU. I was 14. My second T-shirt pictured a gleaming black samurai head against a field of stars along with these words: DARTH VADER LIVES.
Back then we weren’t so sure. Yes, some critic had cynically mentioned that the villain of this new summer movie, “Star Wars,” had managed to stop his ship from spinning “in order to be ready for the sequel,” but I had arguments against it. Hadn’t Darth been blasted into space in a small, limited-range fighter? And hadn’t his home base, the Death Star, been blown up? So where was he gonna go? The rebel base? He had nowhere to go. He was doomed.
Secretly, of course, I hoped otherwise. Thus: DARTH VADER LIVES. The ’60s had “Che Lives” and we had this. It was our generation’s great political statement.
Seductive qualities of the Dark Side
Why did Darth Vader appeal so much? In a time of detente, of nuance, there was a purity about “Star Wars,” and no one was more pure than Darth Vader. He was the biggest baddest man on the biggest baddest ship in the galaxy. He wore black. He was evil, but a cool kind of evil, not like the other men of the Empire, pasty white British guys with bad haircuts and flared nostrils who bickered needlessly and couldn’t pronounce “sorcerer’s ways” correctly. No, Darth got it. The movie was about spirituality over technology, but only three people were really aware of this spirituality enough to control it, and one was wise but old (Obi-wan Kenobi), and one was idealistic but young (Luke Skywalker), while the third, Darth, was just right. You believed him when he told Obi-wan, “Your powers are weak, old man.” If “Star Wars” is the first modern super hero movie then Darth is the only one who seems super in it. He even has the cape.
We imitated him. We argued over Luke or Han (I was a Luke guy, just as I was a Paul guy on the Beatles question), but Darth was the only one we imitated, cupping our hands over our mouths, breathing heavily, and trying out James Earl Jones’ basso profundo: “Do not underestimate the power of the Force.” We heard rumors. There would be nine films in all (wow!) and “Star Wars” was the fourth (huh?), and the films would follow the adventures of C3PO and R2D2.
And Darth? Would he live? During a winter re-release of “Star Wars” two years later, a friend and I were slowly filing out of the theater when, after the final credits, the screen suddenly filled with a preview for...oh my God...the new movie! Everyone who remained quickly sat down. Was this supposed to be here? Shut up! Did you know about this? Shut up! Images zipped by like X-wing fighters but one stayed in my mind: a door opening and revealing Darth Vader at the end of a long dining table. Coo-ullll! It took forever for summer to arrive.
I’ll say this for “The Empire Strikes Back”: It understands Darth Vader’s appeal. Leia was right in the first film — Governor Tarkin held Vader’s leash — but in the sequel he has no one to restrain him and subordinates fall like flies. No line is funnier than the Captain’s: “I shall assume full responsibility for losing them and apologize to Lord Vader.” HA! Bye-bye, Captain.
The other characters change but Darth becomes more himself. Leia loses her baby fat and wisecracks, and is easily caught by Han — like her mother, she’s drawn to the bad boy — while Han is a tamed rebel, and a recruiter to the cause. As Luke was to him in the first film, so he is to Lando in the second. And Luke? The unanswered question from the first film — would he get Leia? — suddenly becomes a non-issue. Plus he’s no longer pretty or happy or idealistic. Off a desert rock, he finds himself stuck in a swamp, upstaged by a muppet. Yoda has all the best lines. “Much anger in him, like his father.” Anger in Luke? When was he ever really angry? How about: “Much whining in him, like his father”? That’s actually a truer line but not the grand lesson George Lucas wants to impart.
The purity ends with “Empire.” The planets stay pure (desert, ice, swamp, forest), but light (Luke) and dark (Darth) are forever intertwined. Back then I was against it, and felt betrayed by George Lucas. I was a whiny teenager myself who craved absolutes. As an adult I appreciate the revelation. Luke’s dilemma is every boy’s dilemma. You mean my father’s not a great man? You mean my father’s a dick? You mean I might become like him? Purity is for children, and first films.
Darth diminishedIn the final film, “The Return of the Jedi,” Darth gets in an early good line: “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” Then to our horror we find out it’s true. Darth is a diminished figure here. The Emperor muzzles him, and Darth bows before this haggard, cackling creature. He has little to do until Luke arrives, and then Luke kicks his ass. Has Luke learned so much in the interim? When? Where? Their father-son discussions are interminable, not least because the son is a pipsqueak next to his old man. Shouldn’t they have similar body types? It’s as if every attempt Lucas makes to bind his universe together causes it to unravel. So if Leia is Luke’s sister, then in the first film Darth was...torturing his own daughter? Without a clue to her identity? What good is the Force if it can’t fathom that?
“Jedi” is the worst of the “Star Wars” movies because it illogically prolongs the obvious for imagined entertainment value. Thus Luke enters Jabba the Hutt’s lair without his light sabre so at the last instant R2D2 can shoot it to him and he can save the day. And thus, at the climactic moment — for, it turns out, the entire series — Darth Vader watches his son getting fried by the Emperor. What will he do? Oh, what will he do? Witness some of the worst editing in movie history:
CUT TO: The Emperor shooting lightning from his fingers. CUT TO: Luke writhing in pain. CUT TO: Darth in close-up, witnessing. CUT TO: Luke pleading for his father’s help. CUT TO: Long shot of scene. CUT TO: Luke writhing. CUT TO: Darth, in close-up. (Deciding?) CUT TO: The Emperor pausing to give his final speech: “And now young Skywalker, you will die.” CUT TO: Darth, glancing back at his son. CUT TO: Luke, in fetal position, with smoke coming off him. CUT TO: The Emperor attacking again. CUT TO: Darth witnessing. CUT TO: Luke writhing. CUT TO: Darth turning towards Emperor. CUT TO: Emperor’s furious face in close-up. CUT TO: Darth looking back at Luke.
Yes, it’s a long journey back from the dark side but the scene makes Darth appear about as quick-witted as Homer Simpson. Stupid! Pick him up! Throw him over the railing! There you go. Finally.
Seeing the cracked, eggshell face behind the mask couldn’t help but be a disappointment, and this was before he spoke the Queen’s English. So Darth Vader really was a pasty white British guy. No wonder he hung with them. But darkness had returned to light, and Anakin (Sebastian Shaw in the theatrical release, Hayden Christensen in George Lucas’ grubby-handed DVD release) joined Yoda and Obi-wan in a smiling, ghostly afterworld, while, in Luke’s world, Ewoks danced. The horror.
Little evil Ani?
The rumor throughout the 1980s — as much as I cared to listen — was that Lucas was done. Three and out. Game over. “Star Wars” became less a film series than a missile defense program proposed by an actor-president to protect us from “The Evil Empire.” Even as Reagan borrowed Hollywood’s language his subordinates trashed the place, eventually branding Hollywood as “the left coast”; yet whenever they held the White House, Washington D.C. became “the right coast,” a new kind of dream factory that played on our need for good guys and bad guys, that played on our ever-growing wish for purity. Sad when George Lucas is more of an adult than the President.
During this interregnum the other characters rose and fell with their actor-counterparts (good news for Han, less so for Luke and Leia), but Darth was a conglomerate of many actors and was thus untroubled by box office receipts. At baseball games, Darth Vader’s theme greeted burly hometown sluggers as they advanced to the plate. When the American Film Institute listed its 100 greatest heroes and villains, Luke and Leia didn’t make the cut, Han topped out at No. 14, while Darth landed at No. 3 on the bad guy chart. Oh yes, Darth Vader lived.
Which is when George Lucas returned to mess with his greatest creation. Darth Vader, it turned out, began life as a round-headed blonde boy named Anakin, cutefied to “Ani,” who was good at building machines like the one he would become. Get it? He was a slave on Tatooine — the right choice — but seems less slave than suburban kid with an after-school job. If only the Jedi Knights had found the kid living a miserable squalid existence, picked on and tortured, already broken by life, instead of this chirpy thing who likes adventure but has trouble “letting go of things,” in Lucas’ words. As if being unable to say good-bye to your mother forever is a sign of weakness. Increasingly, in interviews about his life’s work, Lucas feels detached and dehumanized, more machine now than man.
And what to make of the virgin birth? Darth/Anakin is once again revealed to be a father — first Luke, then Leia, now C3PO — but he himself has no father. If this is a Christ metaphor then George Lucas needs to re-read his New Testament. If it’s all midi-chlorians, as Qui-Gon suggests, then Darth/Anakin should be the most powerful Jedi of all and bow to no one. The reduction of the Force to the midi-chlorian level is sacrilegious anyway. The Force is magic and binds us all together. Midi-chlorians is science, something to put on a glass slide under a microscope. I never would have bought a T-shirt that read “May the Midi-Chlorians Be With You.”
End of angst-filled Anakin
George Lucas was an old man now and his powers were weak. Who knew that a room full of Jedi Knights could be so dull? And what’s with their training program? They take a super-intelligent kid, mature beyond his years, and after a decade’s worth of extensive one-on-one training he becomes, in “Attack of the Clones,” a stupid sulky teenager. Hell, I could’ve done that.
So after all this time, and all these permutations, does Darth Vader still appeal? I would argue that he does. I would argue it’s in the scene in “Clones” where he goes after the Tuscan Raiders who kidnapped his mother. When he silently drops into their camp we don’t — as we usually do watching such scenes — worry that the protagonist will be discovered and captured. Just the opposite. We think, “Those Tuscan Raiders took the wroooong Jedi Knight’s mom.” And that’s the appeal. It’s the appeal of Dirty Harry and the Corleone family and the Incredible Hulk. I have more power than you can possibly imagine and I will use it without mercy. We who sit in the audience are messed with all the time — in ways grand and petty — and we identify (sometimes secretly) with the characters on the screen who never get messed with. The other Jedi Knights have the problem of mercy, but Darth points his finger and people die.
The “Star Wars” saga, which originally felt like Luke’s, belongs to Darth Vader now. It’s his story: the rise and fall and semi-redemption of a bad-ass. Here’s the problem for George Lucas. Turning Anakin into Darth Vader, in “The Revenge of the Sith,” is supposed to be a tragedy, yet for most of us it’ll be a thrill, and a relief. No more precocious kid, or sulky teenager, or pasty white British guy. Just the mask and the breath and the voice. “Star Wars” is a morality play in which good triumphs over evil, but in another way George Lucas has shown us all the power of the dark side.