Most people learn about dramatic irony in high school English classes, albeit only by reading novels and plays that no teenager has willingly read since the 1830s. It’s an important storytelling tool. It puts the reader in a position to understand the context of a story in a way that isn’t possible for any of the characters, unless one of those characters happens to be Deadpool. By knowing what the characters can’t know or having already seen the sequel, the story takes on a new meaning. It can either enhance the subsequent stories or make them more needlessly complicated than the plot of the last Matrix movie.
Kieron Gillen has been attempting to accomplish the former and avoid the latter in Marvel’s Darth Vader series. And by nearly every measure, he has succeeded. In fact, he’s succeeded in measures nobody has expected.
He doesn’t expect the readers to rely the events of the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, two movies that have been effectively spoiled since 1983. He actually attempts to build a comprehensive story about Darth Vader in wake of the Death Star’s destruction. And he does it in a way that somehow makes Vader even more menacing. Even James Earl Jones’ voice might not do justice to the persona he’s crafted.
More than anything else, Kieron Gillen’s work on Darth Vader has crafted a story that laid the seeds for the events in Return of the Jedi. He succeeds where Revenge of the Sith failed so spectacularly in that he’s made Darth Vader more than the emperor’s puppet. He’s shown that unlike the character Hayden Christiansen played in the movies, Darth Vader is capable of following his own agenda. And he’s been doing so with help from a cast of surprisingly compelling characters in Aphra, BT, and Triple-0. But in Darth Vader #11, this agenda begins to clash with that of the emperor. Something has to give and it can’t give until Luke loses a hand and Han takes a carbonite bath.
This means the story has to unfold in a careful, tactful way. That’s not easy to do in a story that involves Darth Vader, an army of Stormtroopers, and a less-than-ethical archaeologist like Aphra. But somehow, Gillen manages to navigate this fragile narrative with the skill of a brain surgeon. He’s very careful to mix in details that will later show up in the Empire Strikes Back, but not to the point that it would trigger another Han/Greedo situation.
This kind of attention to detail is refreshing in an era where continuity gaffs and retcons happen every other Thursday. Gillen channels his inner Stanley Kubrick, making sure every major and minor detail is addressed. And he does this without creepy twins or Jack Nicholson. Even with all these details, he still finds a way to include battles involving Stormtroopers, blasters, and light sabres. With no gungans or pod racers in sight, classic Star Wars fans will find plenty to enjoy.
But it’s the use of dramatic irony that makes this story more satisfying than just seeing Stormtroopers get shot. This is where Thanoth, Darth Vader’s new nemesis/ally, shows more competence than the average Imperial officer. Throughout this series, Vader has been subverting the Emperor, pursuing his own private agenda with Aphra. Being Darth Vader, he’s made it look as easy as outsmarting Homer Simpson at times. That’s no longer the case with Thanoth.
He’s not Boba Fett. He’s not Jar Jar Binks either. Thanoth is a Star Wars anomaly of sorts in that he’s actually a competent bureaucrat. He’s not content to just check out at five o’clock and count down the days until he can collect a pension. He sensed there was something not right about Darth Vader’s latest covert mission and he’s been investigating it, much to Vader’s chagrin. It creates one of those situations where you know both of them can succeed without one of them being screwed over.
This marks the first time in this series where Darth Vader has to covertly help Aphra. He’s only partially successful. This makes for some powerful moments where Vader is genuinely torn between his private agenda and his loyalty to the Emperor. Were he not Darth Vader, he might get nervous like Lance Armstrong during a drug test.
But the fact remains he is Darth Vader. He is the menacing Sith Lord that’s destined to chop off Luke’s hand and kill the Emperor. And his ability to pull this off under the watchful eye of someone like Thanoth is most impressive, even by Darth Vader’s standards. He’s very careful and covert in his ability to manipulate the battle. So he’s not just a menacing Sith Lord with a light sabre. He’s a menacing Sith Lord that knows how to use deception and tact.
These aren’t just traits that neither Hayden Christiansen nor James Earl Jones can hope to capture. These are traits that add a complexity to Darth Vader that really didn’t show until Return of the Jedi. The fact that Darth Vader is willing to go to such lengths to deceive the Emperor makes it more believable that he will eventually turn on him. Sure, it still takes the near-murder of his son, but it helps it feel less forced.
Darth Vader #11 acts as a culmination of sorts where Darth Vader’s agenda finally clashes with that of the Emperor. It’s a clash that’s not quite on the level as the Battle of Hoth or the Battle of Endor. No planets blow up and nobody gets a hand chopped off. But it has all the necessary details. It conveys a refined, concise narrative that fits perfectly into the existing Star Wars mythos. And most importantly, it does this without gungans or Trade Federations.