On any list of the top movie villans of all time, Darth Vader routinely places among the top 5. For example, Vader is #3 in AFI’s top 50 villians, #1 in the Sunday Times’ top 50, and #2 at listverse.com. According to many sources, Darth Vader was conceived by George Lucas “as the epitomy of evil“.
He is the villian of the original Star Wars trilogy, despite his eventual turning against the Emperor. His redemption is the result of Luke Skywalker’s efforts and the exclamation point on Lukes development into a true hero.
However, if your child was born after the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, he or she most likely believes Anakin Skywalker is the hero of Star Wars. Yes, that Anakin Skywalker, the man behind Darth Vader’s mask.
As George Lucas continues to cash in on the Star Wars franchise, he has moved from original trilogy to prequel trilogy to Clone Wars saga, where Anakin Skywalker and his sidekick mentor Obi Wan Kenobi fight wave after wave of droids and bounty hunters. Star Wars has been reduced to a modern day version of the GI Joe cartoons from the 80s. Cartoon commercials pitting good vs. evil in weekly battles, with a handful of key characters having quirky qualities and strange sounding names: in place of Serpentor, Cobra Commandor, the Baroness, and Destro, we have the Emperor, Count Dooku, Asajj Ventress, and General Greivous. Instead of Duke, Flint, and the rest of the Joes, we have Obi Wan, Anakin, and a mix of Jedi and clone commanders.
About a year ago my co-host Elton McManus and I spent a podcast episode discussing with my 10 year old son who was the real hero of Star Wars. Not surprisingly, my son (born in 2000) believes Anakin to be the hero. Elton, being a 30-something die-hard fan of the original trilogy railed against the notion and lobbied for Luke. At 40 years old, I find myself siding with Elton, but I can completely understand why my son feels the way he does – and it saddens me.
The original trilogy clearly focuses on Luke, while the prequels are intended to follow Anakin as he makes choices which take him down the path to the dark side and he becomes Vader. Perhaps if it was executed better, I would have found myself rethinking who was the true hero of the set of six films. Unfortunately, Episode 1 gives us almost nothing in the origins of Vader. Episodes 2 and 3 begin to show his fall – but do so in such a clunky way that Anakin is more jerk than hero. In fact, I make a case in our podcast for Obi Wan to be considered the true hero of the prequels and as much a focus of the franchise as any other character.
Having bookended the main Star Wars storyline and left the before and after times for “expanded universe” writers to explore, Lucas has chosen to wring extra cash out of the franchise by fleshing out the time between Episodes 2 and 3. The first sanctioned Clone Wars expansion by Genndy Tartakovsky was more about story telling than selling products. This well executed microseries managed to show flashes of why Anakin Skywalker was considered a great Jedi before his fall without making him a hero. We still saw the glimpses of darkness in his persona that made Episodes 2 and 3 relevant.
On the other hand, the Clone Wars cartoon movie and current Cartoon Network seriesput Anakin Skywalker on a pedestal. He is ignorant and immature, not tainted and haunted. We are not watching a character walk the fine line between good and evil, constantly being pulled toward one side or the other, and with each episode… with each challenge overcome, Anakin seems more firmly entrenched on the side of good. We have no reason to think he might slip to the dark side, and the complete dissolution of his trust in Obi Wan in Epidose 3 is difficut to envision.
So, my son, his classmates, and nearly every person under the age of 12 (most likely under the age of 16) view Anakin Skywalker as a good guy. They do not even necessarily associate Darth Vader with being Anakin Skywalker. To them, it’s more like Anakin dies and his body (or what’s left of it) is reanimated and possessed by an evil presence. And again, why shouldn’t they? Lucas himself has revised explained the backstory of Vader to be that of “not a monster but instead as a sad man who made a deal with the Devil…and lost.” Lucas reinforced the youthful fans’ view in 2006 when he replaced Sebastian Shaw as the ghost of Anakin in Return of the Jedi with Hayden Christiansen on the DVD release of ROTJ. He would later explain that Anakin had died when he became Vader (I’m not paraphrasing it very well, but you can read a discussion of it Lucas’ justification for the switch here).
I’m sorry, but Anakin is NOT the hero of Star Wars. Of the prequels? Maybe. Of the Clone Wars? Sure. But of the original trilogy or the single film known as Star Wars? Absolutely not. And I feel badly for my son and his whole generation that they have been misled to think so.
If you have the time, please do check out Episode 43 of An Apotheosis of a Bombast and listen to the discussion we had about this topic. You can listen to the episode here on the show’s main website or through the various podcast aggregators - iTunes, Zune, etc., .