Short answer: No.
Long answer: Well…
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.