Because yesterday was May 4th, we were treated to a new trailer for the forthcoming Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obviously, the show will focus mainly on the adventures of Ewan McGregor’s noble Jedi warrior, but most viewers seemed far more excited about the appearance of another character. Yes, Darth Vader shows up in the trailer.
Several of the online stories covering the trailer’s release led with the Darth Vader tease, and it’s telling that the official Star Wars Twitter account simply referenced the character’s iconic breathing to get fans primed for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Truly, you’re an iconic villain if all we need to recognize you is the sound of you exhaling.
Of course, there are other reasons why the Sith Lord showing up in the trailer is a big deal. It signals that, soon, we’re going to see if Hayden Christensen will redeem himself in the role after being (not entirely fairly) pilloried for his performance as Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. But, really, the buzz mostly underscores how much fans still adore Darth Vader. Star Wars ebbs and flows in terms of its coolness — I’d argue it’s especially uncool at the moment — but Darth Vader transcends the franchise that made him famous. You can find a lot of things about Star Wars annoying — the endless Disney+ spinoffs, the fact that the movies are always on cable, the general disappointment with the recent trilogy — and still believe that Darth Vader is the greatest bad guy of the last 50 years. At this point, the franchise is lucky to have him.
It’s funny to think how Darth Vader has emerged as such a mythic figure, considering how, in the very first Star Wars, he wasn’t necessarily the main villain. When writer-director George Lucas initially conceived the character, Vader was supposed to be pretty minor, although Lucas knew that the name he’d come up with for him was pretty great — even if it took a little while to get there. “I had lots of Darth this and Darth that, and Dark Lord of the Sith,” Lucas once said. “The early name was actually Dark Water. Then I added lots of last names, Vaders and Wilsons and Smiths, and I just came up with the combination of Darth and Vader.”
In Star Wars, the principal antagonist was actually Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), who commanded the Death Star and called the shots. Voiced by veteran Oscar-nominated and Tony-winning actor James Earl Jones, with British actor David Prowse actually in the suit, Darth Vader takes orders from Tarkin, serving as the Emperor’s most formidable assassin and badass. Basically, he was a more fearsome Oddjob, although it was smart of Lucas not to kill him off like he did Tarkin and everybody else on the Death Star during that final battle.
Even though Darth Vader had the best scenes and the memorable lightsaber battle in the original film, he didn’t really become the Darth Vader we think of until the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, where he’s really in charge, checking in with the Emperor occasionally but largely making all the decisions and acting like a proper nemesis to our heroes. From there — confessing to Luke that he’s the boy’s father, sacrificing himself so that the Emperor can’t kill Luke — Vader’s stature only grew over the course of the trilogy. He was a collection of indelible images and sounds: That shiny black mask, that life-preserving suit, that flowing black cape and that metallic breathing all contributed to his ominous aura. And he had the best theme music, John Williams’ “Imperial March” soon becoming unofficially nicknamed “Darth Vader’s Theme.” Impossibly swaggering, “The Imperial March” captured everything that was unflappable, menacing and unknowable about Darth Vader.
Other franchises’ flamboyant bad guys made a whole meal out of their fiendish plans for world domination. By contrast, Darth Vader had ice water in his veins, dispassionately choking anyone who displeased him while barely moving his hand. Other parts of the Star Wars movies had quips and lighter moments, but he never tolerated such nonsense. (The closest Darth Vader got to a running joke was in The Empire Strikes Back when he keeps killing subordinates who fail him.) You didn’t mess with Darth Vader — although Rick Moranis tried his best when he played Dark Helmet in Mel Brooks’ 1987 Star Wars parody Spaceballs.
When Lucas came up with the ambitious idea for the prequels, he built it around Darth Vader, wondering how an innocent kid named Anakin could turn out to be such a monster. On its face, that’s a fantastic idea — brilliant, really — and part of the reason most people hate the prequels is because Lucas squandered that brainstorm on such leaden, unimaginative movies.
People blamed Christensen (and Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin in The Phantom Menace) for “ruining” Darth Vader, turning him into a whiny adolescent, but the truth is, they couldn’t diminish the character because nothing really could. When we finally saw Darth at the end of Revenge of the Sith, we saw all the character’s trademarks — the mask, the costume, the breathing, Jones’ voice — wholly separate from Christensen. As far as we were concerned, Darth Vader was somebody else, not that awkward manchild with the goofy ponytail. In fact, Darth Vader is so terrific that we actively willed ourselves to forget the embarrassing thing Lucas makes him do in his one and only scene in Revenge of the Sith. Seriously, don’t ever have the fiercest warrior in the universe yell “Noooooooooo!”
But while people mocked the prequels for a decade, Darth Vader maintained his luster. Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill — the stars of the original trilogy — got older, but Darth Vader didn’t age. (James Earl Jones’ voice never changed, so it didn’t matter if he reached senior-citizen status.) Vader remained culturally relevant, becoming the left’s preferred nickname for loathsome Dick Cheney during the George W. Bush years — an association Cheney came to love, by the way, embracing the meme for his own purposes. But even that didn’t sully the Sith Lord’s good/bad name — in fact, while another infamous cinematic villain, the Joker, has become an unironic hero for lots of very pathetic men, Darth Vader has mostly avoided that sort of irksome far-right association. Largely, I think that’s because it’s hard to dress up as him — after all, your face is totally obscured. Truth is, cosplaying Darth in public is adorable and wholesome, humanizing a seemingly indestructible bad guy by having him perform very un-Jedi-like tasks.
When you try to “be” Darth Vader — unlike those wannabe Jokers who believe they can harness that character’s nihilistic edginess — you always know you can’t measure up. You will never have his sense of style. You will never be able to imitate his preternatural, frightening calm. Your voice will never be as effortlessly epic. If anything, trying to be Darth Vader is the ultimate self-deprecating move, underlining your own shortcomings.
Not that we don’t sometimes do our best to make the Sith Lord more relatable. Children’s author Jeffrey Brown created a popular Darth Vader picturebook series that spoofed the character’s bulletproof cool, reimagining him as a harried single father to young Luke and Leia. “My original intent was I was just gonna write something to entertain people who were kinda in my shoes,” Brown said in 2016, “which is having grown up with Star Wars and then, now having kids of my own, just mixing the parenting and the Star Wars with kind of some funny observations of life.” And yet, Darth Vader doesn’t lose an ounce of his imposing authority in Brown’s books. We poke fun at Darth Vader because, deep down, we’re all actually kinda scared of him — just like you are with your dad.
The Star Wars braintrust no doubt grasps what a big deal Darth Vader remains, which is why they shove him into spinoff films like Rogue One or build an entire Obi-Wan Kenobi trailer around a couple seconds of Darth Vader footage. When Lucasfilm inserted a de-aged Mark Hamill into some of the Disney+ series, it’s mildly creepy because Luke Skywalker doesn’t look like that CGI abomination. But Darth Vader is always Darth Vader — even if, granted, you couldn’t help but notice Jones’ advanced age in his voice during Rogue One. Still, as opposed to bringing back beloved older (or deceased) actors to satisfy hardcore fans — a strategy that ends up being offputting and vaguely depressing — the timeless appeal of Darth Vader never grows old.
After all these years, Lucasfilm hasn’t figured out how to replace its greatest villain. Despite the recent big-screen trilogy casting a lot of exciting up-and-coming actors to play new characters meant to take the torch from the last generation, it was revealing that 1) none of them really captured the zeitgeist; and 2) Adam Driver’s nefarious Kylo Ren spent most of those movies trying to prove he was as cool as Darth Vader, failing badly in the process.
Kylo shouldn’t beat himself up too much, though: Star Wars itself isn’t as cool as Darth Vader. Really, none of us are.