In a strange reversal of how things normally go, today we’re going to be talking about something from the original trilogy improved by the prequels: Darth Vader’s status as a tragic villain.
The concept of a tragic villain is a simple one. The villain, the one acting against the hero or heroes, certainly does bad things, but his reasons for doing so stem from pain or tragedy. Perhaps the villain did something terrible and knows it. Perhaps the villain in question is being forced to fight the heroes, and either doesn’t want to or has no knowledge of his actions. Classic examples include Carrie‘s titular psychic (driven mad by teasing), Mr. Freeze (commits evil only as a way to heal his sick wife), and, of course, the vampire from Blacula (knows vampires are evil and regrets feeding on people, even if just to stay alive).
In the original Star Wars trilogy Darth Vader is presented as a dangerous adversary, a villain the heroes must defeat, and eventually is revealed to be Luke Skywalker’s father. His story ends at his death and his turn from the dark side to the light side, rebelling against the Emperor and dying as a Jedi. However, knowledge gained from the prequel changes this end from one where Darth Vader simply becomes a good guy, to one where he finds redemption in himself.
In the prequels, Darth Vader’s pre-armored stage goes from the chosen one, the Jedi destined to restore balance to the force, to a Sith warrior out for blood, blinded by anger and worry for his loved ones. He is so twisted by his fear, and by Emperor Palpatine, he is tricked into killing his wife (and believing he’s killed his child), murdering dozens or hundreds of Jedi, and fighting his mentor and greatest friend. After this event, and after his full transformation to Darth Vader, he is told his actions have resulted in Padme’s death — and they have, but not before his children are born. He joins the age of the growing Galactic Empire believing he has destroyed everything he sought to protect, and believes himself without redemption. It would be far too much from him, and without purpose, to become a good person once more.
So when not only is Darth Vader’s son revealed to be alive — not to mention his daughter — but the son fights him and begs him to become good once again, Darth Vader is paralyzed by choice. He makes his decision to throw down the Emperor, resulting in both of their deaths, because there is now something to fight for: his son’s life, his daughter’s life, and, he comes to realize, his life.
So Darth Vader is the series’ tragic villain, but how does this change the movie? For one, it places more of the burden of villainy on Emperor Palpatine. It makes his character much more evil, and at the same time makes Anakin’s fall to the dark side all the more sad. He believes he is beyond repair when he isn’t, but he has no idea.
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