Darth Vader isn’t the supervillain he once was. There was a time when he symbolized evil of nightmarish, galactic proportions. With jet black armor and a fiery red lightsaber, he killed without remorse and stood by as an entire planet was annihilated. But these days, Vader is softened, more relatable. You might even call him safe. Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown has won awards for his books depicting the Sith Lord as a put-upon dad, and for certain young fans, he might be better known for his dance moves than for being the fist of the Empire.
As the steward of the Star Wars mythos, Walt Disney Studios has embraced Darth Vader’s cuddlier side, but under the surface, there’s still a dark heart of pure molten evil, one being explored in books and comics. It’s a balancing act that shouldn’t work: a science fantasy mass murderer who’s also being turned into teddy bears and Christmas ornaments. With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in theaters, fans are about to see Darth Vader’s grand return to the big screen, and our relationship with the character has never been more complicated. How long can Disney have Darth Vader both ways?
When first introduced in the original 1977 Star Wars, Darth Vader was objectively terrifying. George Lucas gave us a portrait of evil in broad, easy-to-understand terms. The deep, booming voice, the skull-like black mask and cape: Vader was the kind of character who had no qualms about crushing somebody’s throat with his hands, and that was just in the first 15 minutes of the movie. The dark foil Luke Skywalker needed to confront on his hero’s journey, Vader was so nakedly badass that he didn’t even need much of a backstory at first. By the time it’s revealed that he’s Luke father in The Empire Strikes Back, he’d systematically crippled the Rebellion physically and emotionally. His redemption in Return of the Jedi was the purest expression of the Star Wars universe’s underlying truth that ultimately, good will triumph over evil.
All this growth was undermined by a prequel trilogy that depicted Anakin Skywalker as a whiny, petulant youth who didn’t care too much for sand. Any hint of the unholy terror Lord Vader represented was undone by a combination of bad characterization, bad direction, and bad acting, all culminating in that infamous “Nooooo!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
It’s hard not to see a link between Vader being so defanged in the prequels and how he’s become so much more approachable in pop culture. There he is selling family sedans in Super Bowl commercials. There he is in Star Wars parodies on Family Guy and Robot Chicken. There he is in webseries about Sith Lords running a grocery store. Just think of every meme showing Vader to be only ironically, amusingly evil, and you’ll see how far he’s fallen.
Relatively harmless bad guys are easy to sell when it comes to licensing and merchandising. But a supervillain can’t be a supervillain without real power. (Power is why Trump adviser Steve Bannon claims he admires Vader.) And even while Darth Vader has been working on his “Thriller” choreography, the studio and Lucasfilm have been quietly putting effort into returning the character to his roots. Vader is genuinely terrifying in the canonical side-stories told in the ancillary books, comics, and on television. In the 2015 novel Lords of the Sith, Lord Vader kills a child — and her village — at the Emperor’s behest. In the Rebels animated series, he oversees the Inquisitors, Force-sensitives he sends to root out and murder the remaining Jedi. And in Marvel’s Darth Vader comic series, Vader slaughters Tusken Raiders on Tatooine just to pass the time. In these works, Darth Vader is utterly horrifying, flying in the face of years of marketing that positions the character as cute and quasi-lovable.
Strategically, it makes sense for Disney to embrace the character on multiple levels. Vader is far too recognizable to not capitalize on in some major way, and Disney clearly understands that not all Star Wars stories need to be for all Star Wars fans. As with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which already exists on multiple platforms, the Star Wars franchise lets entire storylines take place on their own, without having any bearing on the overarching cinematic narrative. It’s no doubt by design that the general Star Wars-loving public still sees Vader as a grumbling uncle, while real devotees can find the depths of his darkness if they want to. In effect, Disney has turned Vader’s evil into a concern aimed at specific demographics, and it’s paying off. Rogue One lets viewers see Vader in action, which is exciting for anyone who’s ever seen the character on-screen. But fans who’ve absorbed how frightening he truly is will be that much more excited to buy a ticket.
There’s a kind of sinister genius to this divide-and-conquer strategy. The slaughter of the innocents should sound un-Disney-like on paper, especially when the Star Wars empire was built on toys. But even if the property is meant to be universal, certain aspects of it — particularly the ever-expanding universe of side stories — will always exist just outside the mainstream, safely away from overtly critical attention. Average consumers will continue to buy toys and toddler pajamas without really thinking about the fact that there’s a genocidal maniac on their child’s clothes. And fans will keep buying the excellent graphic novels, despite the disturbing commercialism of Darth Vader jelly beans. Disney wins regardless, so long as it keeps the quality of both the storytelling and the merchandising high enough for everyone involved.
But maybe we should be disturbed by Darth Vader’s status as such a powerful cultural artifact. There’s an obvious tension now between Vader as a character and Vader as a commodity, and it probably won’t ever be easy to resolve. Disney may have no choice but to balance both sides of its icon for its bottom line. But when he’s already so murderous and scary, at what point do the diehard fans who aren’t thrilled by the character’s badassery stop to say they can’t justify celebrating him?