His black helmet is almost as recognizable as the sound of his breath. He appears on "best of" lists as often as "best known." He's the original villain of Star Wars, and the lynchpin that holds it together, sometimes as protagonist, sometimes as antagonist, and sometimes as aspiration. Darth Vader is without question one of the greatest villains of all time.
But something happened to Darth Vader over the decades. Somehow, the character grew somewhat stagnant. Whether it was simply that other villains like The Joker continually reinvented themselves and stepped up their game or just a lack of exposure (sure, a video game here and there, or a comic book miniseries, but nothing major), and even competition from other Sith Lords and an extended run as one of the "good guys" in his original Anakin Skywalker persona in three films and six seasons of a TV show, it seemed like Vader's reign may have been over.
Along came, of all companies, Disney, to save the day and make Darth Vader a badass again. Through the canon material that's come out in the last few years, we've seen Vader go from memory to feared superpower once more. Here's how they did it, with Major SPOILERS on for Star Wars Rebels, Marvel Comics, Novels, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story!
Marvel Comics' Darth Vader
In January 2015, Marvel Comics officially reintroduced Darth Vader to the world in the first new canon material with the character since Revenge of the Sith (as Darth Vader, of course, because Clone Wars dealt with Anakin). In Darth Vader #1 by Kieron Gillen and Sal Larocca, they started things off with a little light slaughter to really set the tone.
As Vader is sent back to Tatooine by the Emperor, partially as punishment for his bungling of the Death Star defense, he takes the opportunity to go slaughter an entire village of Sand People. Yes, it's a direct parallel to by far the best moment in Attack of the Clones - "I killed them. They're animals and I slaughtered them like animals."
There's something about the idea that even 20 years later, whenever Darth Vader returns to Tatooine he slaughters an entire tribe of Tuskan Raiders just out of his spite and grudge from over two decades earlier that says more about the nature of the Sith than just about anything else you could come up with. His continued story added nuance and reflection, but never ceased to say, "This is a guy who will kill you. For any reason."
Lords of the Sith
In April 2015, Vader's story continued in print in the novel Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp. In this story, set in the relatively early years of the Empire's dark times, around four or five years after it was established, Darth Vader and his master the Emperor are at the true height of their power, and boy does it show.
Vader has two particular moments in this novel that are so stunning and so cinematic, it's impossible to read them without closing your eyes and imagining the entire scene in your head.
In the first, Darth Vader takes on a squadron of starfighters alone. It's an absolutely ridiculous sequence, as he weaves in and out of other fighters, taking them out left and right; no one has any chance against him - he might as well be 50 men against a force of ten. It shows just how outclassed amateurs, which the Free Ryloth movement definitely were, are against someone like Vader. In the process, he Force chokes someone from the cockpit of his ship, tears open a ship with the Force, and all while not skipping a beat in flight.
Later, yup, it's another slaughter of an entire village, as a group of Twi'leks that actually help Vader and the Emperor have sadly seen too much. Vader is ordered by the Emperor to kill them all, and he does. It's brutal.
Star Wars Rebels
Darth Vader was front and center on season two of Star Wars Rebels, running from Summer 2015 to Spring 2016, and his impact was massive. Perhaps nothing was scarier, however, than his first appearance.
When the Rebels crew encounters the Sith Lord for the first time, he painfully outmatches them. He drops the Jedi Kanan and his padawan Ezra with such ease it looks like he could eat a sandwich and write a novel while doing it. When Sabine manages to blow up an AT-ST walker, dropping it on Darth Vader in a flame-filled explosion, it looks like they have the upper hand. Instead, we hear the "Force push" sound, and Vader rises from the ground, HOLDING THE ENTIRE AT-ST OVER HIS HEAD WITH THE FORCE. He drops it, reignites his lightsaber, and gets ready to bring the ruckus once more.
It only got worse when Vader finally confronted Anakin Skywalker's old padawan Ahsoka Tano, but that wound is still too fresh to write about without tears.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
SERIOUSLY - MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FILM HERE!
Darth Vader is only in about ten minutes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but his presence is felt... especially when it comes to the end.
His badassery is best summed up by Tarkin, who says simply as a throwaway line, "No, Lord Vader will handle the fleet." Yes, he literally has enough faith in Vader's abilities to say, "This ONE GUY is going to take on the Rebel Alliance fleet" and be confident that he'll get the job done.
And Vader very nearly does. In an incredible sequence, he makes his incursion onto the Mon Cala starship, and starts to cut down the Rebels who are trying to transfer the Death Star plans off the ship. Lightsaber ignited, he slashes, deflects, force chokes, crushes, throws, and stabs his way through an elite group of Rebels like they are nothing more than a bunch of trusting younglings in the Jedi Temple (that's a Revenge of the Sith reference, y'all). It's terrifying, and helps to further cement Vader's status as the ultimate badass of Star Wars. Here's hoping we have years to come of more.
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