Darth Vader has become so iconic that audiences sort of forgive him for being a villain. Yes, he enforces the harsh regime of the unambiguously evil Galactic Empire, and yes, at one point in his life he butchered a bunch of children in cold blood -- but come on, they were kind of annoying! And he's such a cool bad guy. A memorable antagonist is pretty hard to come by; Marvel knows this all too well, considering their stable of forgettable movie one-offs like Thor 2's Malekith and The Incredible Hulk's uh, you know, the evil Hulk that kind of looks like Doomsday?
That being said, Marvel knows how to treat a good bad guy when they have one. Their line of Star Wars comics has been consistently awesome the past year, and Vader has been front and center for a good chunk of them. Several of the books, including Jason Aaron and John Cassaday's flagship series just called "Star Wars," takes place in the year and a half gap between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. That's a lot of adventures that we completely missed. Like the time Chewbacca tried to assassinate Darth Vader.
Now, we know that the status quo can't truly change in the middle of a trilogy that is always set in stone, so it's not like Chewie is going to score a headshot on Vader's wrinkled noggin. But the fun part is that we still care what happens here -- we don't want to see Vader die, and we especially want to see how the hell he survives an ambush of laser fire.
Hint: There other plenty of other nameless characters in the Star Wars universe who can die in Vader's stead.
Yikes. It's not like there weren't any other ways out of this one. This is the same guy who can and has used the Force for huge bursts of speed and monumental leaps. But nah, Vader just used what was handy, which happened to be the most expendable ground troops in any universe. Using his own men as laser sponges was absolutely not necessary, but that doesn't matter; it was the most convienent course of action. This is the Dark Side equivalent of drying your hands on your pants because the towel is too far away.
This outright disdain for humanity is pretty... evil. We love Vader for being such a good bad guy, but that means he has to actually be a bad guy sometimes. These comics are great about constantly reminding you that the sweet Darth Vader hanging above your bed was actually a sheet of fascist propaganda propping up a remorseless mass murderer.
Vader's vulnerabilities do make him more of a sympathetic figure, like when we got a glimpse of his scar-marbled dome in Empire Strikes Back. Something similar happens in the comic, when -- after he cuts down an AT-AT piloted by Han Solo -- the wreckage knocks off his helmet.
This is about more than vanity. Someone saw not the Dark Lord of the Sith but Anakin Skywalker, albino raisin head and all, and any record of that moment of weakness had to be wiped from the record. The ironic thing is, this was yet another worthless Stormtrooper, one that never have recognized the angsty adolescent Jedi from all those years ago. Vader shouldn't give a shit about what some blaster fodder thinks of him -- but the poor guy is instantly eviscerated all the same. It's not only ruthless but incredibly petty, and in more than one way reveals the petulant teen still simmering underneath the mask.
The Sith Lord that we see in Empire is quite a bit different than the one in A New Hope. When we're first introduced to Darth Vader, he's kind of just the Empire's muscle, a bouncer that hangs out with upper management. But by the time the attack on Hoth begins, Vader's a serious player with his own fleet and a pair of itchy choking fingers. The difference can be summed up in how other people address the Emperor's apprentice. In both films, Imperial Officers address him as "Lord Vader," but in New Hope it's more of a mocking tone, whereas the chuckleheads in Empire say his name with reverence drenched in terror sweat.
This new Vader is swift and confident, barreling towards his goals with real purpose. So what happened between movies to make this guy finally get off his ass and apply himself? Well, if the comics are any indication, it's when Skywalker Sr. finds out about the existence of his son, courtesy of Boba Fett.
As is the case for most of the Original Trilogy, we can't see what's going on under that helmet. We are left to merely imagine the gears turning, lighting a stove range that brings the water in a tea kettle to a screeching boil. Writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larocca do a great job of giving us enough to go on while still leaving room for us to fill in the gaps. A shot of Vader's static mask. A memory. A clenched fist.
Everything's coming back now. Padme. The pregnancy. And the man who lied for decades.
At this point that our man actually calls up Palpatine with the blue holographic FaceTime. It quickly becomes clear that Vader didn't really have a plan of attack going into their little chat.
In a moment of blind rage, Vader stopped thinking. The Emperor felt the burning hatred coming from his pupil, and carefully redirected it. Papa Palpatine no doubt likes his apprentice good and angry, but his blunt instrument should be pointed in the right direction. In an instant, Vader regains his composure and smartly backs down. If he's going to usurp his master and take the Empire as his own, it's going to require subtlety and careful planning.
Oh, and he's definitely going to take the Empire as his own.
Now Vader has a purpose, a reason for being. He has a man to kill, a son to claim and a galaxy to rule -- and also a large starship window to replace.