In the post-Breaking Bad era of popular culture, it’s not enough for our villains to just be villainous anymore. The qualities of overtly evil characters like Lex Luthor, Thanos, and every James Bond villain that ever existed are no longer sufficient. These characters deserve layers, personalities, and development every bit as much as the heroes, now. It seems like an unwarranted consideration for villains, but it’s one that helps craft more compelling narratives.
In this respect, Darth Vader is a character that was ahead of his time. When he shows up in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, he carries himself as a traditional bad-to-the-bone villain who will blow up a planet full of sick puppies in order to crush the rebels. Then, by the end of Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and the maligned prequels that followed, he becomes a more complex villain who does what he does for reasons beyond just enjoying the cries of dead Alderaneans.
Kieron Gillen takes this complexity and hits the ground running full speed when his Darth Vader series begins. He succeeds where three prequels with production budgets north of $100 million failed, building new layers to Darth Vader as a character and as a villain. Gillen never tries to make Vader an anti-hero. He doesn’t try to make him sympathetic, either. He just uses this series to m ake Darth Vader a more compelling character. As such, Darth Vader #25 acts as the cherry on top of a very delicious cake.
Make no mistake. Darth Vader does nothing remotely heroic in this issue. Darth Vader #25 still occurs within the context of the period before Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. This means he’s not remotely close to the character who sacrifices himself to save his son. He’s still on that path, but he’s going to dig himself into a deeper hole before he gets there.
For much of this series, Gillen has Darth Vader focus on a different goal, but one that’s more relevant for this particular part of the Star Wars story. It begins with him acknowledging that he failed to prevent the destruction of the Death Star. He gives Emperor Palpatine a valid reason beyond mustache-curling evil to question the competence of his apprentice. It’s Darth Vader’s job to prove himself again and, true to his devious legacy, he goes the extra parsec.
It doesn’t just involve Darth Vader confronting and defeating the Emperor’s efforts to defeat Cylo, who the Emperor taps as a possible replacement. It also involves Vader himself going behind the back of his Emperor, carrying out missions that undermine his blind obedience to his master. This is what led him to cross paths with Dr. Aphra, Triple-0, and BT, three characters that frequently steal the show in this series. There’s just something inherently charming about a murderous version of C-3P0.
These subversive efforts, alongside his efforts at redeeming himself, give extra weight to Darth Vader’s villainous legacy. It’s a legacy that doesn’t really need to be refined, especially in wake of the ill-fated, Gungan-filled prequels. However, this extra layer of complexity acts like the extra layer of frosting on a cake. It makes everything sweeter in the end.
The battle against Cylo comes to an end, one that involves a creative yet destructive use of the Jedi mind trick. Darth Vader’s dealings with Dr. Aphra come to a head as well. All the secrets and plotting create such a unique dynamic between Darth Vader and Dr. Aphra, making for a confrontation with the Emperor that carries a significant amount of dramatic weight.
Anyone hoping for Darth Vader to show mercy for Dr. Aphra after all she’s done for him will be disappointed. Within the context of this stage of the Star Wars mythos, nobody should be surprised, either. Darth Vader at this stage of development is willing to encase Han Solo in carbonite and cut his son’s hand off. He’s more than willing to toss a loyal ally like Dr. Aphra out of an airlock. If anything, that’s as merciful as he can possibly be at this point.
While not surprising, this moment carries weight because Gillen puts time and effort into crafting a unique relationship between Darth Vader and Dr. Aphra. Those efforts help give the moments in Darth Vader #25 the dramatic weight it needs to have an impact. It feels much more meaningful than Darth Vader just force choking an entire legion of Gungans, but is every bit as satisfying.
There’s no question that Darth Vader is still bad to the cybernetic bone. His battle against Cylo and his confrontation with Dr. Aphra prove that beyond any doubt. However, Gillen does offer some hints that the Darth Vader who goes onto sacrifice himself to save his son is starting to emerge.
These hints are somewhat subtle, sometimes excessively so. They show mostly through the crisp artwork of Salvador Larroca. It’s not as overt in Darth Vader #25 as it is in previous issues of this series, but the subtext is there. It doesn’t add much to the dramatic weight of the story, which does skew the balance more to the Dark Side. However, given the context of the story, it’s still appropriate.
Gillen didn’t set out to remake or redefine Darth Vader with this series. More than anything else, he works to reinforce the devious, villainous part of the character that the prequels tried too hard to circumvent. There’s still an internal struggle here that will manifest in the final minutes of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, but the tone of the narrative in Darth Vader #25 is clear. This narrative embraces the dark side and the results are impressive. Most impressive.