Within the context of most Star Wars movies, Darth Vader has been a figure that is both tragic and fearsome in equal measure. But in the decades since his first appearance, Vader’s reputation as a terrifying villain has been diminished by the other side of Star Wars: its equally petrifying ability to turn everything into merchandise.
It’s a skill that’s persisted even to this day, with Darth Vader toasters, Darth Vader Build-a-Bears, Darth Vader kettles, Darth Vader kids’ books, and so on. They’re still here, clogging up store shelves with the endless sea of Star Wars merchandise that’s only been made somehow more endless by Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise. But the merch-ification of Darth Vader in the modern era has had a distinctly different world to live in. Back when Revenge of the Sith was seemingly the last major Star Wars film, we had years to see Vader transform from a character of pathos and terror and into a jokey pop culture icon—you know, the one that starred in cute ads to make you go “Oh look, that thing from those movies I like,” where the last defining cinematic portrayal of Vader on screen was the world’s most memetic “NOOOOOOOOO!!!”
Over time, Vader transformed from the fearsome enforcer that he was of the original trilogy into the familiar icon of Star Wars’ place in the wider ephemera of popular culture. However, though under the auspices of Disney we’ll still have the aforementioned sea of toys depicting the Dark Lord of the Sith, the present Star Wars media we’re getting alongside that merchandise has reforged Vader back into the legitimately haunting figure he was when he first silently strode onto the deck of the Tantive IV in A New Hope.
There have been two primary vectors for this rebirth of a Vader to be feared: his brief yet all-consuming appearance in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and then his two comic series from Marvel, by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca, and Charles Soule and Giuseppe Camuncoli, respectively. As Vader’s true cinematic return to the big screen, Rogue One has perhaps had the greatest impact in this regard. His appearance in the climax as shadow-clad, relentless murder machine was talked about in hushed tones for months after the movie’s release, a masterful sequence in which Vader never had to utter a single word to strike abject terror in both the audience and the hapless rebel troopers in that crimson-streaked corridor. This wasn’t the pacified Vader you’d hear in your sat nav machine or shilling Volkswagens. It wasn’t even the tragic fallen Jedi he grew to be over the course of the Original Trilogy. This was a primal, rage-fueled, almost animalistic iteration of the character, more beast than machine (or man, for that matter). Or, if you wanted to be less poetic about it, it was Darth Vader, returning to form as a Capital-B-Badass.
Both excellent runs of the Darth Vader comic—themselves easily the highlights of Marvel’s solid range of Star Wars series—have also trafficked in this version of Vader, with plenty of moments highlighting the raw, intimidating power of a Vader who has little time for words or fools when he succumbs the roiling rage within him. But given that they have had a period of several years instead of the few minutes of Rogue One, they’ve had more time with the character to sharpen that fearsome image, otherwise this Vader would be just as hollow as the nostalgic, pop culture icon version was. So those moments of primal fury have been tempered by nuanced examinations of the man under the skull-like mask of Vader, ones that in turn further amplify the horror of those fearful moments by showing us what Vader can truly be like when he gives into the power inside himself.
Gillen and Larroca’s series, set shortly after the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope, sees Vader having to struggle with being diminished within the hierarchy of the Empire after the loss of the Death Star, forced to skulk and engage with underhanded alliances and petty politics to claw his way back into Palpatine’s good graces. Unseating Vader from that position of power not only allowed for some gloriously bitchy moments for the character, but it made the moments when the character snapped an equally horrifying loss of control and a glorious power fantasy. It positioned Vader being in his prime, as an unstoppable force, making the potency of the destruction wreaked upon his foes as chilling as it was viscerally satisfying to watch unfold.
Soule and Camuncoli’s more recent saga, meanwhile, has gone back to the early years of the Empire, just after Revenge of the Sith, which has had a two-fold impact on its take on Vader. The same figure of terror is there, but it is framed less so as an indulgence in power by Vader and more of as the former Jedi’s distinct loss of control, which is almost scarier. But it has also been tempered by a much more vulnerable portrayal of Vader that has both critically re-engaged with Revenge of the Sith to better examine the connections between the man Vader was to the man he is now, and painted his fearsome rage with a sense of pathos. Rooting its story so closely to the context of the prequels (a period of time that has otherwise by and large been left alone by both the Marvel Comics and the wider Star Wars universe since Disney’s acquisition) makes this version of Vader scary because of his rough edges—his vulnerability in being consigned to a new and unfamiliar form. And it has also lead to moments where the weaker aspects of Vader’s portrayal in Revenge of the Sith can be cast in a stronger, more tragically potent light.
And that, really, is why it’s never been a better time for stories about Darth Vader. Reinvigorating the Dark Lord as a character to be feared has required more than just moments of brutal badassery, as satisfying as those may be. It needed a nuance and understanding of the tragic core of Vader that was left unexamined and diluted over the years. The new era of Star Wars, especially through Marvel’s comics, has yet to lose sight of this...for now, at least. The Dark Lord of the Sith may still adorn a thousand pieces of merchandise, but he’s finally returned to what he originally was—terrifying. And Star Wars is much, much better for it.