Vader's Villainy

This is the end, my friends. Finally, the last installment of the Star Wars saga arrives in a swirl of darkness this weekend. A momentous occasion for some, a relief for others. More than a series of films, the sextet has become a vast cultural edifice, and at the center, having supplanted the mewling puker Luke, stands big bad daddy Darth Vader. The fact that Vader has come to occupy the enterprise's central role is a curious development, since it requires that audiences have compassion for what is, arguably, a monster.

So how did we get here, Darth and us? We watched him grow from a towheaded munchkin in The Phantom Menace to a surly teenager in Attack of the Clones to full-grown towering evil in Revenge of the Sith. This final film, wherein we witness his embrace of the dark side, is played as tragedy.

But the moment that Anakin Skywalker becomes a monster has also been captured by Lego (the toymaker). Just the other day I bought my son Louis some Star Wars Lego, and after enduring the three hours it took to assemble, I looked at it closely. Here was Anakin, cut and bleeding, with a wobbly look -- like he was about to cry, but still demonstrably human. And there was Darth Vader -- underneath his helmet, he wore the same expression (as if he was about to burst into tears), but he'd turned an ashen gray.

Critics may rant and rave about why we ought to be entirely sick of the Star Wars ways, but Darth is, in fact everywhere -- hawking M&M's, Slurpees, and enough toys to sink a battleship. Every time a child pipes "I want that!" the cash register rings and cold cash pours into George Lucas' coffers. Star Wars merchandise is worth somewhere in the ballpark of $9 billion, and Lucas, having forgone his directing salary in exchange for a share of the merchandise, is sitting comfortably.

Lucas is sticking with Vader's proven success to lure in kiddies, despite the fact that this is the film in which evil triumphs. Even while Lucas is quoted saying that it isn't a film for young children, the entire world is deluged in Darth. But amid all the hype, one tiny bit of information seems to be lacking: Darth Vader is evil. He kills entire worlds, slaughters children, tortures his daughter, tries to kill his son. He's bad. It doesn't matter how he became bad, or that eventually he felt sorry -- he's a villain.

Watching the Downfall

But villainy isn't quite what it used to be, when in cases where the biggest villain of the 20th century gets some sympathy. In the recent film Downfall, which depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler, he is a man at the very end of his life, failing in body and mind, but unable to grasp that the end of the Third Reich is at hand. Of course, these two films are entirely different; one is inspired by the real events of history and the other has Jar Jar Binks in it. But there are strange echoes between the two, not the least of which is the figure at the center of each: Darth and Adolf, both tortured men who become something else over the course of history and mythmaking.

There are other parallels: in Downfall, Hitler hides his crippled palsied hand. So too, Darth Vader is a ruined human, propped up by his black suit. Each has suitable musical accompaniment: Hitler had Wagner and Vader has John Williams. Steven Moss writing in the Guardian sums it up succinctly: "Hitler adored Wagner and they shared a common ideal: that life is a disappointment, almost a delusion. That only in death and through sacrifice does man fulfill himself. It is a powerful credo, dressed up by Wagner in transcendent, soul-wrenching music. In Tristan und Isolde, who can resist the lure of the Liebestod, redemptive death through love?"

Deals With the Devil

This too, is the motif in the final Star Wars film -- that evil springs from love. In seeking to save his wife, Anakin makes a deal with the devil. And let us not forget that after the word Star is Wars, and the biggest influence on Lucas' films is, indeed, the Big One. World War II figures large as an informing element in the entire drama, from the consciously anachronistic screen wipes of '30s serials to the black-and-silver uniforms that recall the colors of the SS. Fascists have always had good fashion sense, with nice suits, well-pressed uniforms, and shiny rows of medals, as opposed to the ragged rebel forces that oppose them. Lucas has described his film series as the story of "how democratic society turns itself into a dictatorship," whereas Downfall shows what happens after that's occurred. It is not a pretty picture -- no dancing beams of light, no nobility or honor; war is just ugly and stupid.

Lucas' version has always been the dress-up-and-pretend version, hence its attractiveness to children. If Downfall seeks to make human what is monstrous, the intent of Star Wars is a perversion of that impulse, and its effect has become the opposite. The figure of Darth Vader takes the banality out of evil, making it larger than life, big, shiny, and oddly alluring. This glamorous figure is a useful sales tool more than anything else.

What Downfall seeks to make evident is that Hitler wasn't a monster as much as an ordinary, cunning man who took advantage of the opportunity that history handed him. Insisting that he was a monster is a way of evading the responsibility of understanding that ordinary humans can also become monsters. Star Wars, however, is a fantasy space opera. It's not smart enough to pose cogent questions about good and evil, but since its cultural impact is felt so deeply around the world, is it really more than the sum of its parts? And if so, what does Darth Vader's transformation teach us about the nature of evil? The wonder of war, the glory of remilitarization?

Now that the end has come, we can finally put away childish things and become adults. Adults know when they're being sold something; a toy or an ideology. Whether they choose to buy it, is another matter entirely.

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