With Rogue One now on general release, it’s worth looking a little closer at one of its main stars: Darth Vader. He may not be in it all that much, but the artist formerly known as Anakin Skywalker looms large over the film, dominating the handful of scenes he’s in and leaving you with plenty of questions. Why’s he on Mustafar? What’s he doing in that big old watery pod? How does he get his helmet so shiny black?
Valid questions, all (especially that last one: Polish? Turtle Wax? Does he have his own little waxing droid?). But what runs through my head whenever I see Vader appear in Rogue One or the TV series Rebels is: what’s he thinking? Come on, big guy…
Why? Because one of my biggest frustrations with Revenge of the Sith (my least favourite of all the Star Warses) is that I can’t reconcile the Vader at the end of that film with the one who appears at the start of A New Hope. The latter is so full of rage and hatred, while the former is pretty much just a scared boy who’s lost everything and is now stuck in a big black tin can. At what point did one become the other? And more importantly: how?
The re-emergence of the Star Wars franchise gives us a chance to find out, and I’m sure we will. The marketing for Rogue One teased Vader’s cameo perfectly, showing Lucasfilm and Disney are well aware of his continued impact on pop culture. There’s simply no way we won’t get a Vader standalone film, though I suspect it won’t be until Episode 9 is released as the character will likely continue to have a significant bearing on Kylo Ren in the new trilogy. This will hopefully give Lucasfilm plenty of time to think about how to approach the film, because it really isn’t easy.
The difficulty with making a Vader film is that the character works well when used in moderation. He’s a monster: the xenomorph from Alien, the shark from Jaws. Balance is everything. Show too much, and he loses his sense of mystery. Show too little, and the film loses its sense of threat (which is one of the problems I had with Rogue One). Vader exists on the edge of nightmare: always there, but just out of sight. We should’t know him too much: we should let our imagination run away with itself.
That said, there’s a fascinating character study to be had in a Vader film, one that shows the man behind the monster. Because the man is definitely still there. While watching him hack his way through rebel after rebel at the end of Rogue One, I didn’t just see a bad guy doing what bad guys do. That scene is one of the most thrilling in the movie because it’s utterly desperate: the Rebels are desperate to secure the Death Star plans, and Vader is desperate to get them back. At the end of the sequence, he looks on as the Rebels escape, not angry, not plotting their demise. He’s motionless, empty.
Again: what’s going on in his head? Whatcha thinkin’ Vadey!? My own interpretation is that everything he does in Rogue One, everything he did in the preceding, unseen 20 years after Sith, and everything he’ll continue to do is because of Padme. If his evil in the prequels was down to a love for her and a desire to protect her, isn’t it just as true that everything he does after the prequels is a bid to honour her memory? He wouldn’t just let that all go. The fact he’s still based on Mustafar, perhaps as some kind of weird tribute to Padme or act of self-punishment, shows that. Anakin Skywalker doesn’t simply let things go.
The Rebellion isn’t just political for Vader then; it’s deeply personal. Every sabotage, every insurgency, every attack is an affront to his efforts to preserve the memory of his lost love. So he would be pretty desperate in that final sequence: just as the Empire is close to completing something that could essentially end the Rebellion and secure the peace he’s been longing for since Padme died, these pathetic, treacherous Rebels have come along and ruined that. He’s desperate, he’s angry, he’s going to destroy every last one of them to get those plans back. He’s the hate-filled Vader we see at the start of A New Hope.
If a Vader standalone is made, I’d love to see it take that angle. To see Vader as a purely bad guy is to misunderstand the point of the series. Star Wars deals in broad strokes: good and evil, light and dark, Rebellion and Empire, but the dramatic core is the stuff in between them, the frailties and contradictions that make us human and drive us to do the things we do. For good and for evil. Rogue One hints at that complexity in Vader, but there’s still a lot to build on. Hopefully a standalone can take it even further.