Welcome to the first “official” entry in the “My heroes have always been villains” series. I had trouble deciding with which villain to inaugurate the project. Should I start with that quintessential Western villain, Satan, specifically as characterized in Milton’s Paradise Lost? He’s certainly one of the grandest and most impressive of malevolent creations, and Milton’s epic is undeniably one of the greatest works in the English language. But that might be rather rarefied as a beginning, and though Milton did a great job making Satan not only believable but even convincing and charismatic, there’s still a lack of depth to the character.
In the end, I decided to go for a “lower-brow” starting point and to begin with perhaps the most well-known of villains in all of modern literature*: Darth Vader.
For those of us who experienced the Star Wars phenomenon from its beginning, our understanding of the character of Darth Vader underwent a very drawn-out process of discovery. When we first met him, he seemed a superficially one-dimensional bad guy, but we quickly learned that he was not some essence of pure evil by nature, for early in the movie Obi-wan Kenobi says that Vader was once a Jedi knight, “before he turned to evil.”
If there is a pure and ultimate villain of the Star Wars saga, it is surely Emperor Palpatine, who seems to have been a bad seed right from the start. This makes him a great villain in a sense—you certainly don’t have to feel bad about opposing him, or about how he meets his end. But there’s also no deep humanity to him. No one but a psychopath could truly empathize with him, and psychopaths just aren’t very good at doing that.
Darth Vader, however, as we learn his life story in the prequels and on back through the original three Star Wars movies, is on par with the great, tragic villains of classical literature. His decline and fall and eventual redemption are arcs of character development worthy of Shakespeare (if nowhere near as well written). In fact, the villain whose story I find most reminiscent of Vader’s is MacBeth. He starts out truly heroic in character, brave and noble, serving the good of his society, as does MacBeth (Vader actually succeeds in being more complex than MacBeth, if only because he has six longish movies in which to explore his personal development, while MacBeth had only one relatively short play). Vader’s descent is not born of some innate tendency to evil but is the product of many attributes that we would rightly call virtues, but which are twisted to become classic, tragic flaws.
Anakin Skywalker is earnest and brave from the first moment we meet him. He is also loving and devoted, first to his mother, and then to Padme and Qui-gon Jinn, and even to Obi-wan. He desires to do good, that much is clear. Vader, despite his tendency to choke subordinates to death, never seems to be a sadist. Palpatine may gloat and laugh while he torments his enemies with “force lightning”, but Vader lashes out in anger, and that anger seems, to me at least, to be born of frustration. He’s trying to do “good”—to bring order to the galaxy, as he says—and his people keep screwing that up for him.
Anakin Skywalker’s tragic flaw is in that he loves too much; he can’t internalize the Jedi’s Buddhist-style ethos of non-attachment. This surely has at least something to do with his early life as a slave. A slave always lives in fear, as so wonderfully summarized by Roy Baty near the end of Blade Runner, because whatever a slave has or loses, including his life, is entirely out of his hands. Anything a slave loves can be taken from him, arbitrarily and capriciously, not merely by the vicissitudes of impersonal nature, but by the human whims of his owner. But even after Anakin gains freedom and great power as a Jedi, he cannot prevent the death of his mother, and that loss and frustration leads him to act out in rage, his first real act of darkness. But this is not an act of sadistic destruction, indulged in out of a love of suffering and death, but is an expression of loss and horrible grief. We can sympathize with Anakin’s feelings, even if we cannot condone his actions.
It is that very love and attachment—and the fear of loss that is such a strong part of it—that provides the opening for the true villain of the piece to manipulate Anakin, and to lead him to betray the Jedi. This ironically causes him to lose everything that he loves, and to become, finally, “more machine than man…twisted and evil.” In many ways, Anakin’s descent is more credible, and more sympathetic—as well as more tragic—than that of MacBeth. Those very aspects of character that make Anakin a great hero are the means by which he loses his mooring and becomes a figure of terror and hatred.
Unlike MacBeth—again, partly because he just has more stage time with which to work—Vader is able to achieve, in the end, a redemption from evil through the love of his recently-discovered son. At one point in Return of the Jedi, Vader says to Luke that Obi-wan was wise to hide from him the fact that Leia was his daughter, and presumably also that Luke was his son. I have to wonder if that’s true. Hiding the children from Palpatine was certainly wise, since he would have seen them as potential, powerful tools. But Vader’s embrace of violence and darkness is surely at least partly because he believes he truly has lost everything that has ever mattered to him. Thus, he surely sees the universe as a place of unmitigated shadow. If he had known that his children had survived—rather than dying with their mother, as he apparently believed—I think he would might have turned against the Emperor much earlier than he finally did. Maybe not. Maybe he would have been just as tragically afraid of loss as he had been before and would have willfully committed just as great acts of evil to protect himself from ever losing them. We can certainly imagine Palpatine deliberately engineering that loss for him, to draw him even more thoroughly into darkness, this time with no chance of redemption. But it’s also possible to imagine Vader turning on and destroying the Emperor much earlier, recognizing the threat that Palpatine would always be to his children, and striving to make a peaceful and benevolent life for them. Would he then have been able to escape the fearful attachment that led to his fall in the first place? It’s impossible to say.
In any case, Vader’s story arc is what it is, constrained by the necessities of epic story-telling. We would not be as satisfied with MacBeth if the title character had surrendered himself to MacDuff, shown repentance, and thrown himself on the mercy of his righteous avengers; he must be killed in battle, destroyed by the one to whom he has done the greatest harm. Vader’s end is, in many ways, better than that of most fictional antagonists. He gets to meet his lost children, and he finally turns on the real villain who has engineered much of his misery, helping to free the galaxy and then dying peacefully in the arms of his son. It’s an ending worthy of a place of honor among those grand and melodramatic tales that have stood out in the history of story-telling.
Star Wars has its clunkiness, especially when it comes to dialogue—George Lucas is no William Shakespeare, but then again, who among us is? But in that it revolves around the character development and descent—and then reclamation—of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, it achieves a level of sophistication that belies the superficial lightness of its entertainment form. There is real depth, pathos, and tragedy to the story of Darth Vader, the heart of the Star Wars saga, and this is probably why Vader is one of the most well-known and—dare I say it?—beloved villains in all of modern literature.
*in the definition of which I include not just written fiction, but also comic books, movies, and potentially, even video games