Two Dark Knights In The Service Of The Law: Connecting Darth Vader And Batman As Characters (A Rhapsodist Analysis)

Batman and Vader as one. Artwork by Erin Fife.

When we think of a “Dark Knight,” we picture Batman, that classic Caped Crusader brought to us by DC Comics.  And when we think of the Dark Lord, we think of Darth Vader, fallen Jedi Knight and right-hand man to the evil Emperor in Star Wars.  Besides the fact that both wear black suits of armor, they’re cemented in the public consciousness as wish fulfillment figures.  At times, we wish we could be as courageous or as intelligent as Batman; at times, we wish we coul be as intimidating or as powerful as Vader.  By taking on their distinctive suits and names, they become larger-than-life figures onto which we can project our desires.

But beyond the obvious visual qualities, there are sociopolitical implications to both these characters.  Beyond satisfying the desires and entertainment of real-world audiences, the characters of Batman and Vader actually serve important roles of power and action within their own fictional universes.  It is my aim to show just how they represent a drive toward power while standing at opposite ends of the spectrum of justice.

Taking Up The Mantle Of Fear For The Law: Comparing Batman And Vader

Batman surveys his dominion, Gotham City. Copyright © 2008 by Warner Bros Pictures.

Let’s consider the background for both characters.  In the movie Batman Begins, we see Bruce Wayne lose his parents to an act of crime, become driven to avenge their deaths, learn about the corruption plaguing Gotham City, train under Ra’s al-Ghul, betray his mentor upon learning of his own corruption, and reinvent himself as Batman, defender of the innocent and foe to criminality.

Meanwhile, in Episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, we watch Anakin Skywalker grow up in slavery, become separated from his mother and being unable to prevent her death by a violent tribe of Tusken Raiders, learn the ways of the Force and the Jedi from Obi-Wan Kenobi, betray his friends and loved ones for the power offered by Darth Sidious, and reinvent himself as Darth Vader, champion of the Galactic Empire and destroyer of the legendary Jedi Knights.

In such backgrounds, we see two young men begin in desperate straits, only to overcome their respective tragedies and become men of power and action, taking on new personas by which they become known to the rest of the world.  It’s also important to note how both men side with the forces of Law and Order after reconstructing their identities, as Batman adopts a vigilante style that inspires action by the long-dormant Gotham City Police Department, while Vader sets down a standard for ruthless strikes against rebels and dissidents that becomes synonymous with the militaristic culture of the Empire.

Finally, besides their tragic pasts and self-appointed missions as protectors of the law, Batman and Vader also share a very important quality: both are willing to use fear as a weapon against their enemies.  Whether it’s the shadowy presence of Batman striking fear into the hearts of criminals or the iron fist of Vader smashing down on Rebel strongholds across the galaxy, both men understand the power ascribed to that which is feared and how to exploit such reactions to their advantage.  Beyond their distinctive black attire, the use of fear against their enemies is what defines Batman and Vader as “dark” figures, rendering Batman an antihero and Vader as a classic villain.

Hope Vs. Fear, Pain Vs. Suffering: Contrasting The Dark Knight With The Dark Lord

Vader surveys his own domain, the Galactic Empire. Copyright © 1980 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Yet for all their similarities in tragic backgrounds and tactics, there is a vital difference between Batman and Vader and that is the nature of their stories.  While Batman may be ruthless and intimidating, he is also trying to uphold justice in a city ruled more by fear of criminals than fear of the law, and he respects the role of the police and the existing government even if the latter two groups don’t share that respect for him.  Contrast this with Vader, who in his fall to darkness helps overthrow the Republic and replace it with a tyrannical Empire, with authoritarian edicts overtaking the rule of law and unchecked violence against all enemies, real or suspected.

In other words, Vader is the shadow archetype for Batman.  Batman must always fight the temptation to fight injustice with injustice and usurp power from the existing authorities of Gotham, whereas Vader has no problem doing just that with the Jedi and the Republic once he pledges allegiance to the Sith.  This is what I mean when I say that the two characters, despite their similar roles in their respective settings, stand on opposite ends on the spectrum of justice.

Interestingly enough, there is also another key quality that separates the Dark Knight of Gotham City from the Dark Lord of the Sith: their sense of family.  In this context, “family” refers to not just blood relatives, but to friends and loved ones in general.

Batman has quite a large family despite his terrifying image: his butler Alfred, his many sidekicks and proteges (e.g., Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing), and various other superheroes in the DC Comics universe.  These are people he has served and fought alongside for many years, people who can be trusted not only with his life but also trusted to keep him from crossing the line that separates Batman from his enemies.

Vader, on the other hand, has more or less alienated anyone who might have cared for him back when he identified as Anakin Skywalker.  His sole confidant is Emperor Palpatine, who not only encourages his ruthlessness, but also keeps Vader enslaved to his power on account of the latter’s injuries.  His perspective on “family” becomes so twisted that, upon learning that he has a son, his first task is to locate young Skywalker, beat him into submission, and tempt him into walking down the same self-destructive path he took.  Even so, it’s worth pointing out that Luke did fulfill the same role for his father that the “Bat-Family” does for Batman, helping the Dark Lord see how far he has fallen by both his words and his example, even if it means risking his life in the act.

Final Verdict: Dreaming Of Analyses Yet To Come

After decades of exposure to the public view, the characters of Batman and Darth Vader still have a strong influence in our imagination.  They’re men of mystery and might, of intimidation and intelligence, unafraid to do what they feel is right and determined to uphold the causes they believe in.  Yet they also serve as contradictory moral figures, as Batman is a positive example while Vader is a negative one.

Not to mention, both their archenemies are played by Mark Hamill. Source: JackMc, SoWhateverHappenedTo, 2011.

By no means should any of my aforementioned claims or analysis be taken anything more than a cursory glance over these complex characters.  Much more work and writing on their psychology and symbolism remains to be done in both academic and pop cultural fields.  I can only hope that those writers who do take on the subject do so with the same love for such stories as I feel.

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