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Why Darth Vader is Evil

January 6, 2013

This contains spoilers of the Star Wars prequels.

There are two majors failings of the Star Wars prequels. First, they were lacking in characterization. The characters weren’t as likable and the stories were less personality-driven. Second, the stories were too complicated. Watching hours of politics is not fun for kids, and the movies lacked proper pacing. Stories need a moment to enjoy the characters—bonding experiences, a moment to share stories, or a moment to be themselves. Consider that having three simultaneous action scenes would be unheard of back when the first Star Wars movies were made, and yet that happened in the prequels.

Other than those two major issues, we can nitpick by discussing many other smaller flaws:

  1. Midichlorians offered a distracting “sci-fi” explanation for the “spiritual” one of the original movies.
  2. Jar-Jar was a bit annoying and useless.
  3. The new stories weren’t based on samurai movies, but the old ones were.
  4. The master/apprentice relationships lacked the quality wisdom and learning experiences that we got in the original movies.
  5. A little kid is not “too old the begin the training.”
  6. The “bad guys” were bad for no reason.
  7. How Anakin Skywalker joined the dark side and became Darth Vader was absurd. His character development made no sense.

I will briefly discuss six and seven on this list.

It is important for us to know why villains of a story are evil at least to some extent, or the story will seem more like a cartoon. If people admit to being evil and have no qualms about it, then they will be completely silly. No one is proud to be evil, and very few would ever admit to being evil. That’s all the more reason to want to know why evil people decide to be evil. People generally have reasons for being evil and ruthless—they think they have good excuses for it.

Consider Darth Vader of the original movies. He started out with no explanation for his ruthless behavior. But eventually we find out that he thinks being ruthless is important to “bring order to the Galaxy.” This could be understood as a “Hobbsian” justification. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that we all need to agree to live in a society with rules because the alternative is to live in a “war of every man against every man.” Without rules our lives will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But if we want to live by rules, we need someone on top who can enforce the rules—who can use violence if necessary. Hobbes believed that person must be “above the law” and that questioning the authority of the sovereign could lead to civil war—we will be back to the horrible conditions of life that we want to avoid to begin with.

The prequels have various villains and we never find out why any of them are evil. They are like cartoon characters. As far as we can tell, they are evil for no reason. That is a far cry from what we got from Darth Vader in the original series. It is a big step backwards.

What’s worse is that the prequels were supposed to explain how Darth Vader became evil. You’d think that would mean that his motivation for being ruthless would be a major part of the story. You’d think that Darth Vader would be evil without knowing he’s evil—because he thinks being ruthless is necessary. You’d think Darth Vader would think being ruthless is necessary for some reason, just like he did in the original series. But the prequels say nothing about Darth Vader thinking that being ruthless is necessary. It says nothing about why he might think you need to be ruthless to “bring order to the Galaxy.”

Could it make sense to think that being ruthless is necessary? Hobbes thought so, and certain life experiences might lead someone to think Hobbes is right. As a child Darth Vader could have saw how ineffective the Jedi were. Perhaps the Jedi would be unwilling to stop evil everywhere it exists no matter the cost. For example, they might not be willing to “control the population” of a planet that legalizes slavery. Then Emperor Palpatine could show him that the Dark Side of the Force has a lot to offer. The Dark Side makes it possible to oppose certain evils in a ruthless way. It could be more effective at opposing various forms of injustice—except for the fact that the “solution” might also be unjust.

Darth Vader’s mother was supposedly a slave. Why didn’t he ever save her and the other slaves? Doesn’t slavery matter to the Jedi? Doesn’t it matter to the Jedi when the slaves are their own family members? This issue was never addressed in the prequels, and you’d think it would be the perfect opportunity to find out how “effective” the Dark Side can be. How effective being ruthless can be to oppose certain forms of injustice “no matter what the cost.”

What about what the actual movies showed as Skywalker’s reasons for joining the Dark Side? First, it was to protect Senator Palpatine from being “unjustly killed.” Somehow Skywalker took that as a quick reason to decide to kill little children. Second, it was to learn how to save Queen Amadala’s life. And he didn’t spend one second learning how to do that. He seemed to forget about that idea after about ten seconds and it was never mentioned again. And if he could use the Dark Side to bring her back to life, then why didn’t he? That would sure be a twist, and we would find out that the Dark Side could actually do something he cares about for a change.

I am familiar with many of the Star Wars stories that were not in the movies, and they suffer from similar problems as the sequels. Why the villains are so ruthless is pretty much not addressed at all. The “Dark Side of the Force” is taken to be the “evil way” and people want to be evil for pretty much no reason. It seems like the “Dark Jedi” and “Sith Lords” know they are evil and all want to be friends. That is not what real life is like. That’s another issue—why would evil people all want to be friends? Most evil people in real life hate each other.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2013 11:27 pm

    I agree with your analysis of banality of evil in films like the Star Wars prequels. It seems morality is least understood in film when it is addressed directly, as Lucas attempted to do. And I agree that much ancillary Star Wars content (books, games etc) makes the same mistake.

    I’ve played the MMO, The Old Republic, and in that the dark side is represented as cultivating psychopathy. Rather, I understood it as cultivating strength by tapping aggression and passion, often to feed the temptations of greed or powerlust. That’s not necessarily evil, but it is a moral weakness of a sort. Although, as you state, ruthlessness can sometimes be justified, and those who are ruthless often perceive themselves as doing the right, or necessary, thing.

    The light side, on the other hand, was more about calmness, low emotion, compassion and pacifism. That’s also not necessarily good, as it can lead to inaction in the face of injustice.

    The beauty of the original rendering of the Force is it was neutral, and could be utilised in different ways according to one’s view of morality. Instead, in the prequels, it was rendered as black and white, so to speak, as if the moral view underscoring the light side was uncritically accepted as being the only right one that anyone would take.

    Not to mention that Jar Jar Binks is a cinematic aberration that made already poor films even worse.

    • January 7, 2013 8:22 am

      Thank you for the comments. I didn’t realize they did that in the game. Can you say a little more about how they represent it as cultivating psychopathy?

      I would imagine very few people who would want to cultivate psychopathy without some sort of rationalization involved.

      • January 7, 2013 11:55 pm

        In the game, you take your character through an extensive story quest line (some of it well written, some of it less so). You’re often presented with three dialogue options that can steer your story in different directions, largely depending on whether you choose Light or Dark options. However, Light and Dark are very crudely conceived.

        The Light options, predictably, involve self sacrifice and helping others (even those who ought to be helping themselves) for no reward (although you soon find you always get rewarded for altruism anyway, thus encouraging a kind of Machiavellian altruism).

        The Dark options aren’t about ruthlessness, succumbing to temptation or seeking revenge against those who have wronged you. It’s about cruelty, wanton killing, a general lack of any empathy for others. That’s not how I feel the Force was represented in the (original) films.

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  1. Why Anakin’s Conversion To The Dark Side Made Sense

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