Even though Emo Kylo Ren is still making a mockery of the character on Twitter, Star Wars fans have actually begun to embrace the tortured, complicated character of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo as an antagonist to be reckoned with. Credit Rian Johnson and Adam Driver for taking the cartoonish Ren from The Force Awakens (remember Matt the Radar Technician?) and turning him into a more nuanced and more terrifyingly realistic villain. So, sure, I appreciate the way Johnson has rejuvenated the character, but is that reason enough to declare that Kylo Ren is an even better villain than Darth Vader himself? That Ben Solo’s story is everything Anakin Skywalker’s should have been?

Being a constant presence in the Star Wars fandom is enough to give one whiplash; it sometimes feels like every debate is a competition between two extremes. Either the prequel trilogy is the film version of the antichrist, or it is an emblem of cinematic perfection. Either Rian Johnson ruined Star Wars, or he revitalized it. Either Kylo Ren is the greatest Star Wars villain, or Darth Vader is. How about this crazy, hot take: they’re both pretty fantastic.

But I’d like to turn my attention to Darth Vader – or, more specifically, to Anakin Skywalker, the man within the machine – because there is so much more to the character than awkward Naboo picnics and diatribes about sand. And there are so many more Anakin Skywalker-centric stories to digest than the three prequel movies.

So join me, and together we will redeem the image of Anakin Skywalker.

Anakin vs. Ben vs. Vader vs. Kylo

It would be tempting to separate the man from the mask and proclaim that Darth Vader is a more iconic villain than Kylo Ren, while Ben Solo is a more compelling character than Anakin Skywalker. (Which is why The Last Jedi smartly shuns the Kylo Ren mask in order to dive deeper into Ben Solo.) An Empire article that puts Vader at the top of the list of the greatest movie villains of all time tries to do just that, insisting that Vader is an indelible part of pop culture history despite his much maligned backstory, not because of it.

Yet without all of the Anakin Skywalker context, Vader really isn’t much more than the Emperor’s rabid attack dog, to borrow Princess Leia’s phrasing from A New Hope. There is certainly something to be said for a villain that represents pure chaos, but a truly great villain – a character that goes beyond just character, one that also probes the darkest depths of humanity – is able to invoke empathy as well as revulsion and fear. (Think: Killmonger from Black Panther.) If we can understand where a character is coming from, if we can peek into their soul and witness the roiling mass of traumatic emotions and experiences, then we can begin to understand how a person might get to the breaking point – and, terrifyingly, how we might, too.

The Prequels

Allow me to channel Natalie Portman and say something nice about the muthafuckin’ prequels.

To begin with, I’ve never really understood what the big deal is with Jake Lloyd’s performance as young Anakin in The Phantom Menace. That blonde little mophead was goddamn adorable. And a little bit irritating, sure, but have you met a nine-year-old who isn’t? Plus, his interactions with Portman’s Padmé Amidala seem weird in retrospect mostly because our brains are trying to grapple with the Hollywood Time Dilation Theory of aging, which states that female characters age much more slowly than male characters do – Anakin ages 10 years in between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones (nine-year-old Jake Lloyd becomes 19-year-old Hayden Christensen), while Padmé ostensibly only ages two years (17-year-old Natalie Portman becomes 19-year-old Natalie Portman). Because of this, we tend to conflate Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker with Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker, hence the accusation of “whininess” that plagues Christensen’s representation as well as Lloyd’s.

And, yes: like that iconic Mean Girls character, Anakin Skywalker just has a lot of feelings. To be sure, his emotional outbursts in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are incredibly difficult to watch. Most would say that the reason they’re difficult to watch is because George Lucas is terrible at writing dialogue and Hayden Christensen is terrible at acting and the result is a cringetastic cheesefest that has been meme-ified a million times over.

But I don’t think that’s entirely fair to Lucas’ story or Christensen’s acting. When it comes to what Anakin is actually saying, there is always a deeper meaning: his “I hate sand” speech is a veiled cry for help regarding his inability to overcome the trauma of his youth, while his fumbled confession of love for Padmé as they gaze into each other’s eyes next to a crackling fireplace in a cozy, dimly lit room (I mean, seriously, girl? You’re sending a pretty clear message there) is exactly what you’d expect from an emotionally stunted teenager.

Viewed as part of the larger story of Anakin’s life, his savagely violent outbursts carry weight as well. After unleashing his fury over his mother’s death on the Tusken villagers, Anakin confesses to Padmé in an anguished whirlwind of misplaced rage, desperately attempting to justify his actions while knowing in his heart that they were wrong. Later, Anakin’s terrified “what have I done?!” exclamation after aiding in the murder (or not) of Mace Windu reflects his belief that he has arrived at the point of no return – that whatever spark of good he may have fostered has suddenly been snuffed out. And his tortured scream of “I HATE YOU” after his battle with Obi-Wan… Well, I don’t need to dig too deep for that one. Between those three words and Obi-Wan’s tearful response (“You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!”), there appears a boundless chasm of roiling, unspoken emotions. It breaks my heart every damn time.

There’s a fine line between drama and melodrama – and sometimes, the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker leans a little bit too much towards melodrama. These emotion-fueled scenes make us uncomfortable, but I’d argue that it’s because they feel so true – it’s because they’re so raw. After spending his childhood as a slave, Anakin is separated from his mother and the new father figure who promised to take care of him, and thrust into a life of stoic asceticism without ever learning how to manage his emotions. Which is how Anakin, the anointed “Chosen One,” becomes the living embodiment of the failure of the Jedi Order.

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