Darth Vader has been the personification of evil for several generations. Is the archetype he represents aging gracefully or not?
My first movie theater experience was The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. My mother and her best friend had to stuff their purses into the seat so it wouldn’t close up while I sat on it. I was blown away by all the explosions in space; fascinated by the snarky relationships between Luke, Leia, and Han; bemused by Yoda; and completely floored by this guy in a black suit and helmet with a deep voice. I loved Darth Vader so much that I had two action figures of him, purchasing the second after the first lost his cape and lightsaber in a particularly rough raid on a group of unsuspecting stuffed animals. I think he ended up in a mud pit after that one. Note that I never ever had a Han or Luke, although I had a Princess Leia, a C-3PO and two R2D2s. To be honest, I can’t imagine a world without Darth Vader because I’ve never had to live in one.
Lord Vader has endured, despite Hayden Christiansen’s ham-fisted portrayal of Anakin and the questionable scripts of the prequels. I never cared to see him humanized and I’m sure I’m not the only one that preferred him either evil, dying, or dead. I still get irritated when the ghost of Christiansen’s Anakin shows up in the reissued versions of the original movies. This isn’t really Christiansen’s fault, at least not entirely.
The most attractive and, at the same time, the most repulsive elements of Vader were his anonymity and his inhumanity, which turned out to be lies. These lies are what kept him alive even as they poisoned him and the entire galaxy around him. His helmet is perhaps the best symbol of all of this. It’s a mechanized, futuristic piece of work with just enough Mongol warrior and Samurai to root it in fearsome mythology and stir up archetypal references in the collective unconscious. Like the Nazi SS uniform, the Darth Vader suit and helmet have evil connotations. Maybe it is best that time erode and crack open that image even further than his heroic final act did. At any rate, nothing can stop that now.
Angsty teen Anakin may or may not have been a serious blow to the Vader image, but recent years have seen a far more interesting attack on the Vader helmet itself. Project Vader, put together by Dov Kelemer and Sarah Jo Marks of DKE Toys, reinterpreted the iconic image by sending helmet replicas to artists asking that them to create their own take on Darth Vader. In 2010, after being exhibited in the USA, Japan and England, one hundred helmets were auctioned off, each going for thousands of dollars. You will want to see all one hundred of them in this post from TotalFilm. Many are silly, some still verge on terrifying, but all represent cracks in the anonymity that initially made Vader scary.
Once a villain is deconstructed and recognized as human, he loses some of his iconic power, even as he gains our empathy. That doesn’t mean he, or she, is ultimately less frightening; it redirects fear from his image back into our own subconscious. We are afraid because we see ourselves reflected in him and we have to deal with the emotions that result. Project Vader does that beautifully.
Darth Vader was perhaps the first pop culture villain to allow himself to be dissected before our eyes, bravely paving the way for bad guys and girls like Gus Fring and Walter White or Francis and Claire Underwood, who are so much more than monsters. Thank you, Lord Vader.