Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
(2005, George Lucas, USA)
Revenge of the Sith (“RoS”) is by far the best film of the prequel trilogy. The film of course focuses on Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becoming Darth Vader and the Republic becoming the Empire (and thus the Chancellor becoming the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). I often wondered why Lucas chose to accomplish both of these tasks in a single film instead of spreading them out, but it definitely works out well in the end, as the film successfully sets up not one, but two classic movie villains.
The Emperor of course has been playing a double agent since Episode I, simultaneously controlling the Republic through the Senate and the Separatists through his apprentice, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Clearly his apprentices don’t last very long (Darth Maul (Ray Park) lasts at least an entire film whereas Count Dooku is only really in the second half of Episode II), but there is method to his madness in that he’s aiming for the apprentice he truly wants the entire time.
The Emperor fits a villain archetype of the grand schemer. Other examples include Blofeld from the James Bond series, Lex Luthor, and Michael Corleone. These are men with tremendous power and effect their will not through brute force but by shadowy manipulation. When compared to aforementioned villains, the Emperor is certainly a head above Blofeld (who’s over complicated schemes end up causing his undoing). As for Luthor, it depends what interpretation you’re going off of; with the modern interpretation certainly more on par with the Emperor than the Silver Age, mad scientist Luthor. Corleone is a good comparison. Even though he eventually repents in the Godfather Part III, his ruthlessness and meticulous scheming are certainly on par with the Emperor’s.
Darth Vader on the other hand is a villain as fallen hero. Certainly he can be compared to Hercules or Lancelot, but those comparisons really don’t fit. After all, Hercules was allowed to rectify his crimes through his twelve labors, so his fall to the proverbial “dark side” was only temporary (and caused by Hera for that matter).
The example of Lancelot is a bit closer to Vader, but still doesn’t work. After all, Lancelot did not intend to bring about the fall of Camelot, it was instead a consequence of his forbidden love affair with Guinevere. Still, it is never shown that Lancelot is a particularly bad or evil person, but rather a man who placed his own feelings above the needs of the kingdom at large. While this is certainly Sith-like, the lack of any ruthless malice on his part causes the example of his fall to be a bit short of Vader.
I think that the uniqueness in Vader is that he was first introduced as a villain and it was later revealed that he was once a hero. While the greatest plot twist in the history of cinema has been undone by the universal popularity of Star Wars, and later by the Prequel Trilogy, there is still value in approaching the Vader/Anakin dichotomy as Vader first. After all, it underscores the danger that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) faces in the Original Trilogy since it shows how extreme “falling to the dark side” really is. There is rarely a chance for redemption, and any good intentions that the individual once had are now completely nullified by the lengths they will go to pursue whatever it is that they want.
Vader is of course a far more interesting villain than the Emperor in this manner. The intricate web the Emperor weaves to come to power is far more interesting than the Emperor as a character, while Vader’s character and actions are both interesting to dissect. Still, both are classic villains and Revenge of the Sith succeeds at showcasing their rise as villains, or as in Anakin/Vader’s case, his fall as a hero.
(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe