Growing up, my father and I would have these long discussions about nerdy topics like Star Wars, Star Trek and Isaac Azimov (my dad's favorite author). I credit my dad with my love of reading and specifically the fantasy and science fiction genres. I grew up with Heinlein, Azimov, Herbert, Anthony and Eddings. These all had profound impacts on me and to this day I still use the word grok occasionally (which I have to explain to anyone under 40 that isn't a Heinlein fan). My dad wasn't an author, just a gregarious nerd that knew what he liked. He did have a prescient way of getting to the heart of why he liked what he did. I remember vividly one discussion where he told me that a hero is only as good as the villain they oppose. I'm sure others have said this. On its face, it is a simple and, in some ways, obvious statement. Why it struck me as profound is the example he used to illustrate his point. Luke Skywalker is an average hero elevated by an amazing villain. I won't bury the lead here. This post is really about Darth Vader and how he elevated Luke to the hero he became in the original trilogy.
For context, I got to see Return of the Jedi in theaters, having just missed Empire and the original Star Wars. I watched those on VHS tapes. Remember, be kind and rewind. I couldn’t look away, sitting in the theater transfixed by the moral dilemma Darth Vader faced as his son was being tortured by the Emperor. The mask didn't emote but the direction of the back and forth as he looked at the Emperor and then at Luke and back again let the audience imagine the anguish he was going through. Turn away from what he had worked for his entire life or reconnect with a son once lost to him. At the time, we had no real idea who Anakin Skywalker was, and our imaginations were left to fill in man behind the mask. He was a vessel for whatever the audience wanted to put into him. Finally, once revealed, he had had his redemption and could pass on knowing he had done one final good act. At this point we had no idea what kind of Jedi Anakin really was, nor did we know the story that George Lucas had in mind for him.
Crucially though, Darth Vader elevated Luke from a whiney, backwater farm boy to the hero he became. Once he finally took his stand against the Emperor and threw down his lightsaber, he was no longer Luke, simple farmer, but a Jedi, upholding the values of a dead order and striking back at their greatest foe. To redeem Vader and help him turn back to the light demonstrated how far he had come. In those first three movies, Vader is an enigma. Dark, terrifying and all powerful. He became the yardstick to measure Luke by. Campbell’s heroic journey on full display.
Before I continue, I want to be crystal clear. None of this will be a criticism of the story that Lucas eventually told, his vision for Anakin Skywalker. I have nothing but admiration for the universe he and his team created. Star Wars shaped a large part of my life and their creative influence impacts me today. These are just my thoughts of redemption and Anakin Skywalker makes and interesting example. More importantly, when his story changed, Luke’s did as well.
So what happened with the prequels? We discovered who Anakin Skywalker really was and learned why we should care about his redemption. The stories humanized Anakin. He was a slave, separated from his mother and then raised by a cloistered order that demanded he set aside all emotion while struggling with puberty and young adulthood. He falls in love with the first woman in his life not his mother, someone far older than him, a troubling power dynamic. When he discovers she is in danger, his fear at her loss is manipulated by a trusted mentor leading him to betray his current masters that forbid his love. His story is tragic and his redemption in Jedi is very personal. I would argue it is the only moment in his life where he gets to make a choice on his own. You could argue that it is the only choice he ever makes in his life that isn’t manipulated by an outside force. The audience is left to judge whether this one act at the end makes up for the pain and suffering he caused throughout the series.
Here's the issue I struggled with when I watched the prequels. Darth Vader is no longer a towering enigma, terrifying, an unstoppable force of malevolent evil. He is a broken old man, bitter and emotionally damaged. Angry, complicated, and ultimately pathetic. He follows the Emperor because that is all he knows after everything he had was destroyed. The destruction made even more tortured because he was complicit in it. He was woefully unprepared to deal with most of his life emotionally. All of this made him a more interesting character but, I would argue, does a disservice to the hero narrative of Luke. Luke is now reconciling with an aged, bitter parent. He was not defeating an unknowable, ultimate evil. The measuring stick we compared him to shrank.
It was a trade off in the end. The story of Anakin fleshed out the character at the expense of the earlier movies character arcs. I struggled for years to understand why the choice bothered me. Ultimately it came down to cognitive dissonance. I already had Darth Vader’s story, his rise and fall, written in my head. It did not matter that it was not my story to tell. When confronted with Lucas’s vision, I recoiled. Anakin wasn’t right. It took a long time for me to put aside that narrative I had written for him and take what the creator of the character had given me.
I don’t have to lose those ideas I put aside. I can write my own story, about a character’s rise and fall, that tells what I’ve had written in my head. Lucas’s has inspired me, like Azimov, Eddings and Heinlein. For that I am eternally grateful.