The tragedy of Darth Vader


The recent release of the entire Star Wars saga on Blu-Ray reminded me how differently I see that story now. I was 10 years old when the original Star Wars came out (later known as Episode IV, whereas the "first" film in chronological movie time, Star Wars Episode I, premiered in 1999). I was the perfect age for a boy to see a pioneering sci-fi movie that didn't fall prey to any of the traps of bad sci-fi writing, perhaps the chief of which is to forget that the humans watching it could care less about lasers and aliens if the plot stinks.

The plot didn't stink; it was brilliant. All the classic tropes were deployed: good vs. evil, a quest, the lovely damsel in distress, coming of age, David vs. Goliath, the last-second rescue. Add a touch of Shakespearean drama, a dash of Kurosawa's sweeping narrative, and a heavy dose of Sergio Leone cowboy swagger, and even this 10-year-old boy could see that here was something different.

Like every normal boy my age, I identified Luke Skywalker as the hero, and fell in love with Princess Leia, and assumed she and Luke would fall in love. I didn't understand then the painful reality, which is that most girls prefer Han Solo. Darth Vader, meanwhile, was a thrilling villain, the perfect epitome of evil.

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The second movie was less enthralling; Here was scruffy Han making time with my-I mean-Luke's girl, while Luke whined his way from one end of a Muppet's swamp to another, only to show up in time not to rescue anyone from Billy Dee William's love palace in the sky, but to get his hand loped off, occasioning still more whining.

By the time the third installment appeared, I had little interest, having discovered a creation far more mesmerizing than anything George Lucas could conjure. I'd gone from hating Han Solo to wanting to be him.

All along, though, I thought these movies were about Luke. But, of course, they aren't, and thank goodness for that, because if anyone showed less of the protagonist's necessary capacity for change it was Luke Skywalker, that simpering farm boy who was gradually automatized, the chief benefit of which was not his newfound Jedi powers, but the fact that he finally shut up.

No, Star Wars was always about Darth Vader, and I still can't decide if it's a tragedy or something else. Aristotle said a tragedy draws us in because we can relate to the protagonist, because we can see ourselves stumbling into the pit that has captured him. The tragic character has the capacity to do what is virtuous, but he does not; he is ensnared by his great flaw-the hubris of King Lear, say, or the fury of Othello.

I only half-watched the films depicting the transmogrification of Anakin into Darth; the story was more compelling than the dreadful dialogue and ridiculous characters, George Lucas having finally been empowered by technological advance to ruin his own creation. But it is the classic stuff of tragedy, the hero slowly darkening, doing what he thinks is right, failing to see what the rest of us see, which is that his vision is benighted, his judgment compromised. And so Anakin becomes Darth Vader, the looming, breathing villain.

And it occurred to me, as I pondered in good Aristotelian fashion how any of us can fall, how I have fallen and fallen again, that just about any scene in Anakin/Darth's life can be seen as a slice of tragic drama. And perhaps too many of the scenes from our own lives can be seen the same way, as evidence of our own tragic flaws, our own dark choices sending us spiraling ever downward, in spite of ourselves.

And yet, most of us know how the last movie of the series ends. Darth Vader turns from evil, recognizing within himself some spark of true and good love, and giving what remains of his life to save his son. And so I don't know if this story is a tragedy any more than I know if my own is a tragedy, or that of any other broken person. The thing is, if you were to take a snapshot of most of our lives, the viewer would be hard-pressed to discern the answer.

So I want to believe it's not a tragedy, this story. I want to believe that each of us can choose, under great pain sometimes, no doubt, to redeem, to be redeemed, to become a new song, to avert the soul's funeral dirge.


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