But before we talk about Vader, I want to tell you a short story.
I was fairly young when Phantom Menace hit the screens. It was a big cultural event—twice so here in Russia. For the first time we had an opportunity not only to share in worldwide cultural phenomenon, but to do it…well, as it should be done. No illegal VHS with a bad voiceover; we could go to the cinema and watch it to our heart’s content.
So naturally it was quite a hot topic among kids. On school breaks we gathered to discuss the things we loved in the movie—because kids are not film critics and loved that film very much, I should say.
And as we talked about wow!-Space, and wow!-robots, and wow!-lightsabers and don’t forget about wow!-queen’s dresses, it was all right. But as soon as it came to discussing characters, something strange happened. While girls were torn between Amidala and Qui-Gon, the boys almost universally praised the one character young me thought was barely there.
Of course, I’m talking about Darth Maul.
Why him? That’s the question that bothered me when I was young and never stopped bothering me as I grew up.
Broading the picture
Several years passed since 1999 and I became older and more thoughtful. I learned enough English to venture onto the Internet and talk about things I like with people all over the world. Of course, my childish pink glasses were shattered quickly and mercilessly.
I learned that people detest the Prequel Trilogy.
Well, I was old enough to understand their ire (and I couldn’t make myself watch Revenge of the Sith to the end). But something, then again, was strange to me. It was the reason people didn’t like one character.
Here and there you’d read about Prequels ruining a fan-favourite character. You’d hear he was no way near himself, and it would even sound convincing…until you remember they were talking about Boba Fett. The guy with two or three lines and zero personality.
How did those movies ruin him, by the way? They showed him as a child, a boy of ten with curly hair and cherubic face.
And the puzzle starts solving itself
I grew up and I started asking around, trying to find the root of the problem. And it came to life suddenly, as if it was a satori.
People love those characters exactly because they lack any character.
What is a character, when we’re talking about an imagined person? It’s how it reflects in actions and thought.
It’s emotions we’re told or shown hero has, first and foremost, because to see motivation, we need to see emotion. Also, it means strengths and weaknesses. Mostly the latter, as it gives much more “meat” to the person we try to describe. So basically to create a character, we need to show him weak and emotional at least once.
The sad thing is, we live in the society where men are forbidden from being emotional or weak. They are taught it means being unmasculine—being less then they should’ve been. They are taught their only language of expression is violence.
But the focus is, no single person, unless they have a certain medical condition can be always ‘strong’ and lacking emotions.
Well, no single living person, of course. The imaginary ones, on the contrary, provided (bad-written or decorative) enough aspirational figures for poor guys. Figures that never emote, have no heart and generally are never weak and succeed in chosen kind of violence until someone stronger comes to kill them.
And now let’s talk about Vader at last
‘But why Vader?’, you may ask. Unlike those two he has a character—a well-conceived, if not always well-executed one, I must say. We know his weaknesses, we know his emotions…what is he even doing here?
Well, because when someone says “Vader” in most cases it means not a ruin of a person serving something he detests because he detests himself even more; it means cool guy in an iconic helmet.
And that cool guy is everywhere. For each spreadsheet or two of his living soul we get several issues of him being delightfully violent, slaughtering left and right and boasting his power and his darkness. He has few emotions—and those we are shown are mostly negative and never affect the course of the story, anyway.
And none the less he has the emotional part, which—however sidelined—allows him to be more than a cardboard hero figurine.
Last but not least
I’m not trying to say anything, really. Nor am I trying to imply Disney-Lucasarts are somehow bad. I’m just thinking why on Earth do we love such bland character and what it has to do with our upbringing. And what the kid-friendly, yet deliciously violent Vader (who is everywhere now, and in VR soon) can influence their view of life and themselves.
Oh, and maybe that it’s kinda strange—to promote both progressive values and that specific idea of manhood.