Is It Wrong to Like Darth Vader?

Copyright © 1980 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Well…

So, I’ve been reading up on a lot of Star Wars media. Obviously, the release of the ninth Star Wars film this Christmas has a lot to do with that, but I’ve always been a fanboy at heart.

And, yes, like so many fans, I’ve often admired the look, sound, and style of its iconic villain, Darth Vader. I mean, how can you not like him? Cool armor? Check. Voiced by James Earl Jones? Check. Wields a fiery red laser sword and strangles people with his mind? Check. Amazing leitmotif? Check and check.

Now, it’s easy to turn around and say, “Yeah, but isn’t he basically a space wizard Nazi general? Doesn’t he slaughter Rebel fighters and subjugate worlds for the Empire?”

Well, yes, Vader is all that, too. He is a villain, after all. “He’s more machine than man,” Obi-Wan Kenobi tells us, and we see most of that monstrous behavior in the original three movies. Vader is introduced standing among dead Rebel soldiers and then crushing the windpipe of a starship captain who won’t give up Princess Leia. In the Star Wars universe, Vader is more terrifying than inspiring. He’s not, say, a hero of the Clone Wars the way someone like Anakin Skywalker was.

But there’s the twist. Anakin is Vader. The hero fell, and the villain rose. Burned and scarred, unable to breathe on his own, smoldering in his hatred and pride, the great Jedi Knight has been rebuilt into the Emperor’s top enforcer. He sold out his family, his friends, and the galaxy as a whole for greater power and security. And he paid a price by losing the wife he loved, turning his children against him, and being kept in a brutal existence that leaves him powerless and dying outside his armor.

When I hear people talk about esteeming Vader, it’s always the iconic voice and the cool lightsaber and the ruthless power he wields. We never really talk about the dying old man inside the armor. We don’t talk about the conflict he experiences when introduced to his son Luke, or how he’s forced to confront the fear of losing his only son to his Master’s fury, which propels him to betray the Emperor as his final act in life. We might talk about Luke redeeming his father, but it’s always about the man Anakin was and not the man Vader has become.

Vader, for all his ominous aura and might, is far more interesting as a character with nuance. He can be brutal in one scene and regretful in another. He can be intimidating on the outside and weak on the inside.

I think that’s an issue we have with some of our esteemed characters, both good and bad. We revere superheroes like Superman and Batman, but we don’t want to be stuck with just Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. But without Clark or Bruce, we wouldn’t have those costumed heroes. We want our celebrities to be shiny and captivating, but throw in a scandal or a failure, and we’ll turn on them in a heartbeat. True, some celebrities deserve to lose their status (feel free to skip your defense of Spacey or Weinstein in the comments below), but it’s also a sign of what we expect from them, too.

Imagine if you were a kid living in the Star Wars universe. Imagine that you grew up on some small backwater planet, and you heard stories about Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Knight and Chosen One who could take down any enemy and look good doing it. Now imagine, years later, you learn that Anakin didn’t die heroically in battle, but he survived and became Darth Vader, the Emperor’s right-hand man and author of a thousand atrocities. Imagine looking outside your window and seeing stormtroopers patrolling your streets, knowing that the hero you worshipped became the villain who made all this possible. Even if you were told Vader was a hero to the Empire, would you believe it when your childhood friend, now a fleet officer, gets strangled for screwing up on the bridge of a Star Destroyer? Would you shrug and defend Vader if you knew he stood by while the planet Alderaan was annihilated? And even if you somehow heard, years later, that Vader turned on the Emperor and died as Anakin Skywalker once more, would you believe that, too? And would it be enough?

These aren’t easy questions. They’re not supposed to be easy. Even in a galaxy filled with space wizards, colorful robots and aliens, and faster-than-light travel, there are still hurdles to overcome. So, no, I don’t think it’s wrong to like Darth Vader. I don’t think it’s healthy to glorify him at the expense of his background as Anakin Skywalker, or to romanticize the Empire and erase Anakin’s final act of atonement in Return of the Jedi. That, after all, is what Vader’s successor Kylo Ren aims to do in the sequel trilogy.

Vader can be cool to dress up as, to quote, and to plaster all over Star Wars merchandise until the end of the world. So can a lot of other things that we enjoy. But when you get down to it, you have to remember that the image is being admired, but the character isn’t. Wrestling with character is key, but there’s nothing wrong with finding the image satisfying by itself.

Thoughts on the Star Wars Episode 9 Trailer (And on the Whole Sequel Saga)

Copyright @ 2019 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

It’s been literal minutes since I watched the first teaser trailer for the long-awaited ninth installment in the Star Wars saga. It’s been quite a ride.

I mean, where do I start? How much the title (The Rise of Skywalker) sends chills down my spine? How every shot featuring Rey, Leia, Lando, Finn, Poe, or Kylo Ren makes me giddy? How that final ominous laugh really raises the stakes for this movie?

But honestly, watching the film feels both familiar and groundbreaking. That’s a good way to describe this series as a whole. From handing over the torch to J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson to letting the saga’s biggest heroes face their curtain call as a new generation takes the stage, there’s this sense of possibility and adventure that the films invoke. While other films challenge our sense of the familiar, from Rogue One‘s gritty flavor to Solo‘s indecisive comedy and crime drama, Episodes VII to IX seem to ride on a more persistent vision.

It’s the same galaxy, they tell us, but you’re going to visit some new places.

You can chase after the things you want, they tell us, but you’ll find something you never expected at the other end.

The war might look the same, they tell us, but the moves aren’t always what you thought they’d be.

And that’s something that I enjoyed about Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Rey isn’t Luke, Finn isn’t Han, and Kylo Ren isn’t Vader. The First Order looks and acts like the Empire, but it’s nowhere near the strength of the original. Rey’s parentage doesn’t have to be the same path that Luke’s heritage took. Kylo Ren really can stand between the light and dark sides of the Force, making him dangerous to just about everyone who’d see him as an ally. And, yes, the Jedi Knights can come back to life, but doing so means making our ideas about the Force and the Skywalker legacy bigger than ever.

Much like how Marvel fans felt after the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we’re stepping into uncharted waters. Things are wildly different now, but they’re also a touch familiar. Some faces changed, some unexpected alliances took place, and the threat has asserted itself in a brutal way that leaves our heroes starting over from Square One.

So, yes, I am excited about how this series ends. And I’m excited for Rian Johnson’s separate Star Wars trilogy in the works, and for seeing all kinds of new material from a galaxy far, far away. It’s different, and it’s easy to get lost in the hype or to start assuming the finished product won’t live up to our ideals, but that’s okay. So long as we’re willing to be challenged, to be given a chance for an adventure, good or bad, we can experience it together as moviegoers, as Star Wars fans, and as kids who like making lightsaber sounds whenever we swing a broom around our living rooms.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Need to Confront Change

Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

Never before has a line of dialogue so perfectly captured the spirit of a movie. And it came from the mouth of Luke Skywalker no less. A worn-down, bitter, cynical Luke Skywalker. Not the fresh-faced hero from yet another desert planet, but not exactly the edgy antihero of so much post-Nineties TV and cinema. This is a broken man tired of living up to his own legend.

This, then, is the new face of Star Wars. It’s what happens when we ask which legends are worth saving and which are worth losing.

In Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we find both our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the whole of the Resistance in a state of freefall. Rey has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but he’s neither the hero nor the mentor she wanted. He’s made too many mistakes with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and he won’t be responsible for her downfall, too. Meanwhile, the Resistance reaches its breaking point in a series of counterattacks by the First Order fleet, jumping from one system to another as new leaders like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) take command, leading to clashes with ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and subversive acts by Resistance loyalists like Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). All this, of course, only serves to empower the First Order’s leader, Snoke (played by Andy Serkis), as he and his apprentice Kylo Ren work to corner and eliminate the last Jedi Knight and the fire of resistance once and for all.

When it comes to the storytelling behind this new installment of Star Wars, I give a lot of credit to Rian Johnson’s writing and breathtaking use of colors in his cinematography, the script doctoring by the late Carrie Fisher, and to the performances of Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver. This movie has plenty of callbacks and echoes of the original three movies, but it’s also its own creature, complete with Kurosawa-style splashes of red, homages to Monte Carlo casinos and Rashomon, and plenty of comedic moments that keep the film alive.

Everyone who came to the movie brought something unique, and I think that it’s connected to the film’s overall theme: that no one can change things by themselves, but by working in concert with others, however small their actions might be. Poe Dameron can’t fly in an X-wing and blow things up to save the day. Rey can’t find the reclusive Jedi Master and learn everything like in the old days. Finn and his new friend Rose can’t break the First Order’s weapons from within, or throw their lives away to stop the war machine’s relentless advance.

This movie, for the most part, is an action-driven and emotional ride that makes it the longest-running Star Wars film to date. I think it delivers the same dramatic punches as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with maybe one or two missteps. Some of the second act runs a bit overlong, especially with so much time given to the CGI love-fest that is Canto Bight, and some of the sequences on board Snoke’s flagship are one or two minutes drawn out for my liking. But apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi and I’m left breathless and excited for the next and final installment of this sequel trilogy.

I’m aware that there are plenty of criticisms about the movie, and that a number of fans have taken exception to the changes made by Rian Johnson and others in this new film. But as a longtime Star Wars fan myself, well-versed in the old Expanded Universe of decades past, I couldn’t help but love this. This movie is funny, exciting, dramatic, heartwrenching, affectionate, and downtrodden in so many ways. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s surprising. Yes, it’s tearing down the status quo.

But that’s exactly what Luke is trying to tell Rey, and it’s a lesson he needs to learn himself. Don’t make people into legends. Make your own journey instead.

At the time of this writing, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is currently in theaters everywhere.

Bibliography: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Directed by Rian Johnson. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman. Written by Rian Johnson. Based on characters created by George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 15, 2017.

Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn: Genius Wrapped in a New Uniform

Cover art by Two Dots. Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

If you know anything about my deep, abiding love for Star Wars, then you know that I’m more than just a fan of lightsabers and starfighter battles. I also adore some of the clever things that the saga has produced, such as sympathetic Imperial characters like the infamous Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thankfully, he’s canon once more, and his original author, Timothy Zahn, has graced us with a new novel that ties into the closing run of the animated series Star Wars Rebels. It’s also a great opportunity for us longtime fans of the old Expanded Universe to see how Thrawn made his mark and climbed the ranks of the Empire as an alien.

In the early years of the Empire, a task force comes across a lone Chiss warrior in the wilderness, one claiming to have been exiled. When Mitth’raw’nuruodo (better known to the galaxy at large by his core name “Thrawn”) crosses paths with a young Ensign and translator named Eli Vanto, their destinies become intertwined. Together, between Thrawn’s military genius and Eli’s number-crunching, they’ll ascend the ranks of the Empire and prove a thorn in the side of both the High Command and the rising tide of insurgent groups. As Thrawn works his way to becoming Grand Admiral, he has his own agenda to pursue, and standing in his way is an equally devious opponent, orchestrating one encounter after another under the alias “Nightswan.” In this foe, the Chiss warrior has finally found his match.

Eli Vanto is a nice addition to the series. He’s a relatable protagonist, since Thrawn is more the main character with his career arc laid out before him. Eli has to make more critical decisions in relation to the Chiss warrior and in terms of his own principles. On the one hand, he’s very much the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmes. But on the other hand, Eli is his own guy. He’s a loyal Imperial who’s fighting his status as a backwater rube destined to be a low-level supply officer—something he originally wanted to be, before our blue-skinned friend came by.

And speaking of characters who aren’t Thrawn, I was surprised to see Arihnda Pryce (the female Governor from Star Wars Rebels) make an appearance here. She’s basically the B-story in this novel, but it doesn’t diminish the book. Compared to Thrawn and Eli’s plot to maneuver the military chain of command, Pryce makes her own course on the civilian side. She’s earning and claiming favors in the political arena, fighting betrayals and stepping over others to get to the top rung of the ladder on Coruscant and Lothal. In effect, what we see here is the midpoint between Thrawn and Eli’s characters: another person from a backwater planet in the Empire, but one with enough political cunning and ruthlessness to snatch victory from every defeat.

I’ll also say that reading through Thrawn as a novel makes me appreciate the new canon in the Star Wars saga. Whereas the old Expanded Universe (now known as “Legends“) was a lot more disjointed and tried to cobble every story under the sun into the same timeline, the new canon is more streamlined and better constructed. Things are set up to tie into every other piece of media, from animated shows like Star Wars Rebels to movies like The Force Awakens and Rogue One to other novels like the Aftermath series. And it’s always a treat to see what Legends material authors like Zahn get to bring back, such as the Chiss Ascendancy and side characters like Voss Parck. I know those names don’t mean much to casual Star Wars audiences, but they help flesh out the universe a little bit more, blending the old with the new.

If I have one complaint about the novel (and really, it’s only one), it’s that the ultimate reveal and payoff of Nightswan didn’t thrill me like I hoped. I appreciated the connection that Thrawn had to this individual, but ultimately I was hoping for it to be a more established character from the franchise showing off their strategic prowess. Even so, this book is worth the price just to see Thrawn play intergalactic three-dimensional chess with such a worthy opponent, because that’s our Grand Admiral does best.

Star Wars: Thrawn is available for purchase from booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Books-A-Million.

Bibliography: Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Thrawn. New York: Del Rey, 2017.

4 Things That Make the Star Wars Saga Stand Out

Ever since 1977, the Star Wars films have captured the public’s imagination in a way that other studios and moviemakers have tried to recreate time and time again. As someone who studies fiction for a living, I can’t say I claim to have the answers myself, but I do notice a few consistent traits that almost each Star Wars movie and spinoff media has going for it (that is, if you don’t count the prequel trilogy from the early 2000’s). I think what makes Star Wars so memorable is the way it gives the audience a sense of just how big its universe is.

Here are 4 things that the whole saga exemplifies, from the Seventies to today.

1. War on a galactic scale

Copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Sounds obvious, I know, but Star Wars is very much a space opera when it comes to the scale and style of its battles. You don’t get just dogfights in outer space, but plucky freighters outrunning giant Star Destroyers or rebel troops going toe-to-toe with massive, four-legged Imperial tanks. You get trench runs through the sides of planet-sized space stations, as pilots execute daredevil maneuvers through a storm of cannonfire. Lightsaber battles are iconic to the saga, but just as thrilling to the imagination are the space and ground battles between resistance fighters and the Empire’s soldiers.

2. Life on the frontier

Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

For all the grandeur that a galaxy-spanning empire conjures up, it’s amazing how often the saga takes place in small, backwater worlds like Tatooine, Hoth, and Jakku. For me, it brings up what I like to call the “Hobbit effect.” In laymen’s terms, if you want to see how big a fictional setting is, show us through the eyes of the smallest people. When we see how farmers like Luke and scavengers like Rey get by on these out-of-the-way planets, we can only go up from there.

There’s also the appeal of outlaws like Han Solo and bounty hunters like Boba Fett, who give us a sense of how gritty and violent life under the Empire can be. It’s an element that clashes with the “cleaner” perspective of Jedi Knights and Rebel heroes.

3. Mythology that comes alive

Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

As big an impact as Darth Vader had when he first appeared onscreen, audiences were still ready for a classic sci-fi epic like Flash Gordon. But everything changes when we first met Obi-Wan Kenobi. We learn about the Jedi Knights, the Force, and the lure of the dark side that turns good men like Anakin Skywalker into vicious monsters like Vader.

Lucas might’ve tried to explain the Force with later additions like the midi-chlorians (ugh), but there’s always something mystical and otherworldly about the Force. It borrows from the Zen philosophy that many samurai followed, from which the Jedi Knights were mostly based on. And it clashes with the technologies that both the Empire and the Rebellion use. For all the starships and laser sword duels we get to see, it’s the mystical bonds of the Force that drives everything from behind the scenes.

4. Good vs. Evil clashing onscreen

Copyright © 1980 Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1980 Lucasfilm Ltd.

Compared to a science fiction franchise like Star Trek, which features the moral relativism of human beings encountering alien cultures, Star Wars has always been a little simpler in its conflicts. We get Good vs. Evil writ large. Fresh-faced, motley heroes fighting legions of faceless, armored shock troops. A ragtag, broken-down space freighter trading laser blasts with screaming starfighters and angular Star Destroyers. A young man with a blue laser sword fighting against a black-armored warrior with a red blade.

Even though every Star Wars film begins with an opening series of text to provide exposition, there’s almost no need. We can tell what’s happening just by the visual language alone.

So what else does Star Wars have that makes you love it? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. And, as always, thanks for reading.