Darth Vader Is Scary Again, And That Rules

Spoilers ahead through episode 3 of "Obi-Wan Kenobi." You've been warned.

As a little kid, someone doing the mouth-breathing noises of Darth Vader on the playground would scare the crap out of me. Back then, before Anakin Skywalker was redeemed by his son Luke, Vader was terrifying. We don't see him do a lot of physical damage in person, but he was a presence that menaced. He blew up a planet. He threatened to torture Princess Leia. He's got the voice of James Earl Jones (which can be both menacing and comforting), his physical presence is powerful, he can stop a rogue general in his tracks without even touching him. We know he wants to take over the galaxy, and to twist his son up until he joins the Dark Side. You can't overstate what a huge deal that was to children. 

Over the years though, Vader has turned into something of a Disneyland character, a mascot for those of us who love "Star Wars." I have been referred to as Darth Giggles before, if that gives you a look at his transformation. He was parodied in the 1987 movie "Spaceballs," and you can find plushies of his character at any Target. I currently own several pairs of Darth Vader earrings. I remember my nephew as a little kid saying, "I wuv Darf Vader," and this was before he even saw a movie. There is something about a recognizable character, one who has sort of been defanged by years of love for a film and his character's ending, that becomes almost comforting. We know, as Luke says, that there is good in him somewhere. Even the prequels, despite watching Anakin's turn to the Dark side, took away the menace as well. 

Heavy breathing

Not to rag on the prequels (they're not my favorite, but there are good films in there, somewhere), but Hayden Christensen's performance (which I feel was largely about direction, since he's been great in other things) was underwhelming. Those films gave us a chance to understand the character, who he is, why he turned, and knowing where he'd end up has allowed us all to find the heavy breathing comfortable and familiar. We know this villain and how he reacts. I think the only really disturbing part of the prequels was killing the younglings and the Tusken Raiders, but that sometimes gets lost in the rest of his story. Even seeing him at Disney parks and events isn't as scary these days. We have memes of him dancing, funny theme park interactions, and cuddly products with his face on them. I've heard younger fans talk about how his relationship with Padmé was romantic, and if that doesn't scare you, nothing will. 

Darth Vader, however, is a Sith Lord. He's a man (well, more machine now) who will do anything to stay in power and take his anger out on the galaxy. I think the first time that really hit me though, since childhood, was in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." That hallway battle sequence where Vader cuts down so many rebels is the first time since I was tiny, that I was scared of Darth Vader. It made us remember who he was before he was a Funko Pop! figure with cute little button eyes. 

A while after seeing that I did the in-person walk-through virtual reality experience "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire." You put on VR helmets and vests and walk through a real-looking environment, battling the Empire ... until the final moments, when Darth Vader advances towards you, wielding his red lightsaber. I cannot begin to explain the fear and panic I felt, and how much it surprised me. I mean, you know he's not actually there, but your nervous system doesn't believe you, and you feel the need to run screaming from the room. 

Rehabbing the evil

Now we have the Disney+ series "Obi-Wan Kenobi," and not only is Darth Vader back again, he's also terrifying. It was upsetting to see the helmet being put onto the burned face of Anakin in episode 2. If you, like me, saw the original trilogy first, you know that even that brief moment of seeing what was under that mask made audiences gasp. From the prequels, we know what he looked like after that last battle with Obi-Wan. We know about the loss of limbs, the burned face, the destruction of his whole body. Seeing him slowly put back together in episode 3 was more jarring because of it. All the terrible things that Obi-Wan did to him — understandably so — have come back to haunt the Jedi, now that he knows Anakin is alive. 

We're not getting a cuddly Vader plushie in this series. He's not some distant threat. He can sense Obi-Wan. Knowing that even thinking about him brings him closer is part of the fear. The thing, I think, that fully rehabs Vader's image into something to have nightmares about again though, is the killing of the people in the town in episode 3. He doesn't care about a child calling for his father. He only cares about finding Kenobi and destroying him. Add to that the fear that this brilliant little girl named Leia is his daughter, and that he could turn her, and you've got a recipe for pure terror. 

Now you will suffer!

There was a moment that I wondered, even while shuddering at the sound of his breath, and the voice of James Earl Jones, how dark they were going to go with him in a Disney+ series. That moment passed quickly as he burned Obi-Wan! He lit the ground and burned him! The anger, the hate, the suffering — it all led here. "Now you will suffer, Obi-Wan ... Your pain has just begun." I have chills down my spine. Even more frightening was that he didn't even pursue Obi-Wan. He let him go, knowing the chase is going to torture him more than a quick death. 

It's so easy for a unique design and decades since a film release to turn something scary into something comfortable. Our Darth Vader bed sheets and toasters and backpacks and bumper stickers make us forget that Darth Vader isn't a fun villain. He's a man who has turned to the Dark side. Padmé might have said that there is still good in him, but it's buried deep. He killed younglings and mothers. He ordered the death of all the Jedi. He was willing to destroy his own children if they decided not to follow him down a dark path. He murdered an entire planet and enforced fascism throughout the entire galaxy. He's not a good guy, and we're being reminded why he needed redemption in the first place. I may have an image of Darth Vader on my toast, but if you breath like him behind me, and I might just scream. 

I think I missed that.