Welcome back to Why It's the Best, ComicBook.com's ongoing column explaining why a given TV show, Movie, Comic, Game, and more, is the best of its kind. In today's column, I am arguing definitively why Darth Vader is the best villain ever. In future columns, I will argue definitively why another character is (in the past, I made arguments for various TV shows and films – find our full archive here). Think of this as debate class, and today, I'm pro-Vader.
But that's an easy task, since Darth Vader is the best villain ever.
Who You're Watching
The star of screen, comic books, video games, and novels alike, Darth Vader is the principal villain of the original Star Wars trilogy, and in a nice twist, the principal hero of the prequel Star Wars trilogy. Thought by some on the Jedi council to be "The Chosen One" meant to bring balance to the Force, Anakin Skywalker was brought into the Jedi Order at an older-than-usual age. The temptation of the Dark Side was too much for the young Jedi, turning him into the Sith Lord Darth Vader, who along with his Master the Emperor would be a scourge upon the galaxy for more than two decades. Eventually, it took his own son, Luke's stronger will to break the Dark Side's hold and redeem Anakin.
What Makes Darth Vader Unique
As noted above, Darth Vader is the only villain who has anchored a trilogy of films each as the antagonist and as the protagonist. His own primary rivals are his former master and his son. And it can be argued that even when he did horrific, terrible things as Darth Vader, it was just Anakin Skywalker following the Will of the Force. He's a case study on destiny versus choice, on good versus evil (and the nature of each), on family ties and love and emotion and despair and mentorship and – well, you get the picture. It's his depth, and the way he went from hero to villain and back that makes him really special.
Why He's the Best
As with most of these columns, the reasons why Darth Vader is unique also reach into why he's the best. From the moment the black-caped and armored character marched onto the screen, surrounded in starkly contrasting white stormtroopers, you knew: this guy is bad. The idea that with only a little crawl of backstory, and just a few moments of establishing shots, a villain of this magnitude could be introduced in such a nonchalant yet impressive way is so foreign to modern cinema.
Once you've been introduced to the instantly imposing figure, his screentime is relatively brief in that first film. You don't usually see a villain held back quite that much anymore, either. When he's on screen, however, his presence is so strong that you feel it throughout the entire film. A force choke here, an angry one-liner there, and suddenly you're at the final battle. When Vader enters the fray, you can instantly tell he's different from the other pilots. He actually defeats and kills several of the heroes, letting us know this is really a war, and he's as powerful as he looks. While the Death Star is destroyed, Darth Vader survives, and with an expressionless helmet, you can still somehow see the seething anger and revenge build within him.
When you get to he second film, The Empire Strikes Back, this is Vader's time to shine. There's something especially terrifying about a villain who takes their time. Every movement Vader makes, especially in hand-to-hand combat, is slow and deliberate. When others would turn and run from him, Vader would walk toward them. When Luke strikes as hard and fast as he can, Vader looks like he's almost moving through water yet somehow easily deflecting every attack. Indeed, because of Darth Vader's uncanny speed-without-speed, I had a recurring nightmare as a child, where I was running as fast as I could, and he was just walking behind me, yet somehow keeping up. That kind of visceral fear is wholly unique, and when you find such a thing you've struck gold.
Of course, in Return of the Jedi we get Vader's redemption, and in the prequels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, we get his backstory. Through these moments of past and future, we see a side of the character that was unexpected during those fearsome moments: a relatable one. There's something twisted about someone's fall into the Dark Side being primarily precipitated by love. This boy who loved his mother, this man who loved his wife, this aging beacon of hate who still found love for his child; that was always his real, primary emotion, and thus could be the only source of his downside. It's one of the most frustrating and perplexing parts of the entire Star Wars mythos, the idea that Jedi must remain wholly detached. Most heroes are fighting for something or for someone, but the Jedi believe you must instead fight for everything and everyone, and if your focus is too narrow, you fall, either in battle or in standing to the Dark Side. Anakin Skywalker's fault was that he loved too strongly, and that's a hard, crazy twist that changes the way you look at everything he does from then on.
The other aspect of Darth Vader that makes him such an enduring villain is his constant struggle with destiny. When you're told from a young age that you're "the Chosen One" and meant to bring balance to the Force, that will undoubtedly take its toll. If you believe in your fate, then anything you do moves you toward that. When Anakin falls to the Dark Side, you can argue that at any point from there on, he brings balance to the Force. First it's evening things out, taking the Jedi down a few thousand pegs. Then there's the eventual killing of his master, who had amassed too much power for the Dark Side, bringing things back into a swing for the light side. Each move got things closer to a true balance, as his destiny intended.
The Final Word
Darth Vader's story of heroism, his fall, and his redemption, is the ultimate pop-culture interpretation of Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey," something George Lucas hasn't just readily admitted, but that he has spoken at length about. That alone makes him different than any other. The best villains are the heroes of their own story, but when it comes down to it, Darth Vader is arguably the hero of this story. The fact that you can take a villain, who you hate for the horrible ways he does his horrible deeds, and later learn to love him and appreciate him and sympathize with him. Deep down, Vader is terrifying, but then he's also heroic and sacrificial. The range of emotions one character, whose face you don't see for three films, can give you, is not just remarkable, it's why Darth Vader is the best villain ever.
Do you think Darth Vader is the best villain ever? If not, then who? Now, release your thoughts in the comments!