If ever there was an iconic character in modern sci-fi movies, then clearly this character has been Darth Vader. From condom wrappers to candidacy in the Ukrainian Parliament as of recently, Darth Vader has clearly become an easily recognizable figure. This seems to hint that there is one, or perhaps more, general principle underlying the construction of this character that speaks way outside the narrow confines of the Star Wars saga. The aim of this brief article is precisely along these lines, namely, analyzing how Darth Vader embodies a plethora of the “myths” of agency in modern politics. As with previous incursions into the Star Wars saga (on theocracy and ethnicity), this brief overview rests on the expanded universe – books, movies and video-games.
Who exactly is Darth Vader?
Most of us probably remember him in the iconic words of Obi-Wan as “more machine than man. Twisted and Evil” (Return of the Jedi). In the less iconic depiction of the new trilogy, he is Anakin Skywalker, orphan conceived by the Force itself (some vague details that this might be the result of Plagueis’ and Sidious’ grand willing into action of the Dark Side are given, but do not put forward a coherent story), prophesized to bring balance between the Light and Dark sides (Ashla and Bogan for those familiar with J. Luceno’s Darth Plagueis, or with the animated series the Clone Wars). Displaying unparalleled raw ability for the Force, Anakin became a Clone Wars hero and the youngest member of the Jedi Council, until his fall to the Dark Side. Bypassing the Order’s vows of celibacy, Anakin married senator Amidala, with whom he will father Leia and Luke, the iconic heroes of the old trilogy. It is precisely around this love story and Anakin’s loss of his mother that Lucas’ tried to weave an intricate web of rise and fall within the new trilogy, as the final events of the Return of the Jedi saw Anakin destroying his Sith Master in order to save his son. After the devastating injuries in the Mustafar duel with Obi Wan, the details of Vader’s character development are fantastically well mapped out in James Luceno’s Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, where we see the inner torment of a character stripped of both the power he craved (which seems to be generally held as a Sith trait) and those he loved.
What does Vader show about agency in politics?
The two main themes of the trilogies are the prophesized savior and the rise-fall-redemption story. In a political sense the message is not at all veiled: when Yoda ponders about “a prophecy that misread might have been” (Revenge of the Sith) he in a way espousing an anti-authoritarian (i.e. personal authoritarianism) message. If one neglects the outrageously insipid conversation between Anakin and Grievous in Revenge of the Sith, and focuses just on the idea of how the Jedi’s reputation preceded him, then one is able to find yet another reference to modern populism. The whole scene sets up the story of a leader who can overcome harsh contingencies. Yet, the contrast is rather stark, as the old trilogy has Vader as some sort of a high-ranking enforcer to the Emperor, whom we find out in the James Luceno Dark Lord novel, seldom acknowledged his Sith nature. Quite clearly, this hints that there is always more behind the image of a political agent. This is all the more so, as the novel time and again depicts Vader’s anger at his Master, not in the general confines of the Sith Master-Apprentice tradition, but more along the lines of someone who felt used. The story of agency here is dual – a plea for self-betterment (as Anakin starts as an orphan slave) and a word of caution against populist leaders.
In the midst of all this, the story of lust for power destroying eventually the individual creeps in, as Vader’s Episode VI remarks on how he must obey his master hint at total submission for the sake of power. The trilogy is in this sense marvelous at mapping the entire spectrum of demons that can haunt an individual, as we see the former charismatic war hero, willing to sacrifice anything for “the greater good”, tormented by the prospect of destroying his son. Unable to follow the Sith credo of power qua enlightened rule, as most modern populist rulers also crave, Vader gets stuck with some sort of power for power’s sake – he is a Sith apprentice unable to overthrow his master, but indeed more powerful than any Jedi as he always desired (in this sense it is all the more intriguing how he returned as a Jedi Force Spirit, despite the Clone Wars series making it clear according to Yoda that was a pathway obscured to the Sith, thus making unlikely that Vader could have learned it from Sidious).
The rise-fall-redemption story, a trademark of heroic personalities more than iconic villains, is in my view more of a poetic insertion to the trilogy than an actual political metaphor. Granted, such PR campaigns have been used by modern populist leaders (particularly in post-socialism were transitions were sometimes monopolized by former communists). The trilogy is perhaps advocating tolerance and open-mindedness towards labelling political agents as “good” or “bad”, but does so through the well-known cliche of love as the ultimate goal, which draws attention away from politics.
What does this all have to say about the “Chosen Ones”? The message is somewhere in between accepting that there are remarkable political leaders and cautioning against personalized power. Since one can legitimately ask if Anakin brought balance to the Force, or whether his son’s own self-development into a Grand Jedi Master, solved the unbalance, this ultimately shows that analyzing politics requires much more than looking at the role agency.
Image Source: Real Clear