Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Dark Side of Empires: Darth Vader #1

The following is my review of Darth Vader #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


When the Star Wars prequels were originally announced, the main appeal was that it would provide a context for how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. That is a story that's worth telling and one that helps cast the events of the later movies in a new light. However, the story failed make that new context all that compelling. Darth Vader really didn't become more interesting as a result of the prequels. Those movies just made Anakin Skywalker out to be a whiny, overly gullible kid with poor impulse control.

There's much more appeal in seeing Darth Vader as the sinister, intimidating villain he was when introduced. Darth Vader is a freshly mixed batch of ice cream while Anakin Skywalker is just the ingredients. There's little appeal in the ingredients on their own, but the ice cream that is Darth Vader has plenty of appeal.

He's a powerful Sith Lord who, unlike the far less imposing Emperor, is willing to get his hands dirty. He's not like Dr. Doom, who prefers letting his Doombots do the fighting. He's not even like Lex Luthor, who wastes time belittling and berating his enemies with his brilliance. Darth Vader speaks only as much as he needs to and in the most intimidating way possible. And when that's not enough, he'll finish the job no matter how many Stormtoopers or Death Stars it costs.

This is the version of Darth Vader we're given in Darth Vader #1. There's no elaborate effort to make him a more sympathetic character. There's no shocking revelations about who might be who's father. This is just Darth Vader, fresh off a humiliating defeat on the Death Star, looking to get back at those responsible. The end result is much more engaging than the prequels ever were. The lack of Jar Jar Binks is only a bonus.

The structure of the story is heavy with exposition and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The loss of a resource as big as the Death Star should definitely have some major ramifications and since Darth Vader was tasked with defending it, he should face some level of scrutiny. He's not some renegade official who took one too many bribes or got drunk at one too many office parties. He lost the Empire's greatest weapon. It would be like someone misplacing an atomic bomb during World War II. There should be some fallout.

The fallout in this story revolves around Emperor Palpatine holding Darth Vader personally responsible for the destruction of the Death Star. It's the kind of fallout that has genuine impact because the Emperor is one of the few characters who can berate Vader and live to tell about it. He provides a context for what the loss of the Death Star means. It's a context that was never explored in the movies, but it's one worth exploring because it portrays the Empire as something more complex than a standard GI Joe villain.

The Emperor lays out the plan that Darth Vader failed to uphold. The Death Star was just the culmination of 20 years of solidifying the Empire's rule. Losing it means the Empire is vulnerable in a way that'll make any Emperor feel uncomfortable. The consequence of that discomfort means Darth Vader gets a brief demotion and a new task that involves dealing with criminals like Jabba the Hut. In terms of a demotion, it's not quite the same as being given janitorial work, but it still sends a message.

That message brings out the tough, ruthless, force choking side of Darth Vader that Hayden Christensen never properly portrayed. When he visits Jabba the Hut, there's no elaborate deception or struggle. Nobody ends up in a chain bikini either. Darth Vader just tells Jabba what he wants and what he'll do to him if he doesn't give it to him. It's the kind of negotiation tactics that would make the John McClanes of the world smile.

It gives Darth Vader a chance to show off why he's much more interesting as a dark lord than he ever was a pod racing kid. Jabba still attempts to use the same tactics that will eventually get him killed in Return of the Jedi. Darth Vader easily fights them off. He doesn't end up fighting a Rankor or a Sarlac, but he gets his point across. It's the best action in the story and that might be somewhat of a problem.

There's never a real sense of struggle. Even the cave-dwellers who never saw Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi would never get the impression that there was any real struggle between Darth Vader and Jabba's thugs. The battle was extremely one-sided. If it were a football game, it would not be a game the NFL scheduled for prime time. It attempts to inject a little intensity into a story that's so heavy on exposition. It just doesn't succeed nearly enough. A Rankor would've helped, but even that wouldn't be a fair fight against Darth Vader.


In many ways, that's the challenge of a story like this. Darth Vader is so powerful and ruthless that it's hard to give him a challenge. Unless it involves protecting moon-sized battle stations, he makes it look easy. The real appeal in Darth Vader #1 involves putting his character in a difficult position where he has to regain his credibility with the Emperor. The added context of his failure to protect the Death Star and the challenges he now faces in making up for it make this story compelling. It'll appeal to fans of the West Wing, but not fans of Die Hard movies.

This story is deeper than Darth Vader being ruthless and that's one of its greatest strengths. However, the overall narrative has a few holes in it and won't put anybody on the edge of their seat. It still puts Darth Vader front and center in a story that explores his character in a way the prequels failed to do. And if it can do this without Gungans and pod racers, then it's definitely a story worth telling.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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