The distance between the hero and the villain is never that great. A misstep, too great of a reliance on pride and power and the so-called hero would be in the villain’s shoes. There have been a number of great villains in popular culture and literature but it’s hard to argue against the power of the greatest villain in the Star Wars universe for compelling and frightening villains. Since last week’s review covered the best Disney princess, it seemed like a good time to cover a series featuring her greatest nemesis: Darth Vader. Interesting villains are always complicated. The mustache-twirling, innately evil villains work only in the most black and white of stories and those are primarily for children. As I’ve grown older, more and more I’ve come to appreciate the villains (and the heroes) who live in the grey. Anakin Skywalker may have started with the best of intentions but he certainly didn’t end with them. That fall is what should have made the prequels interesting. Unfortunately, they never delivered. In the Darth Vader series written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Salvador Larocca, Marvel brings the villain to life as it explores the events after the destruction of the first Death Star, this time with Vader’s point of view. For Star Wars fans, it’s an intriguing look at the actions of Vader that we didn’t get to see on screen.
As mentioned above, this series takes place immediately after the destruction of the first Death Star, with Vader being punished by the Emperor for failing to prevent the destruction. Vader must now deal with a boss other than just the Emperor: Grand General Tagge. Tagge is almost a complete opposite. Obviously not Force sensitive, he relies on plans and small battles winning the war rather than the dangerous gambles of which Vader is so fond. And he aims to prove that it is he and not Vader who can be most valuable to the Emperor. In addition to this, the Emperor has warned Vader that other Force Sensitives are waiting in the wings to replace him should he fail again. A master of cybernetics named Cylo has created a number of abominations who have been training to beat Vader at his own game and he will have to prove himself to be the best if he wants to remain as the Emperor’s apprentice. Tagge, Vader, Cylo and his creations are all tasked with bringing down the pesky Rebellion by any means necessary. For Vader, that means creating his own private force, with the help of a mechanically talented young woman named Doctor Aphra and the droids which she brings under his control. Will it be enough to help Vader triumph over his rivals and bring the Rebellion to a halt?
The Darth Vader series is one of those that I think had a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it just never completely delivered on it. Gillen more than delivers on action with Vader being forced to covertly create his own forces in order to achieve both the Emperor’s aims and his own and then moving against his rivals one by one. Unfortunately, the further the series progressed, the more it seemed to have the same lack of heart as the prequels. I think I’ve made my opinion of the prequels pretty clear. They’re not without worth but they felt like wasted potential. While the writing for this series is 100% better than the awful writing in those movies, it still has that same feeling. Any challenges that Vader faces are mere speed bumps. Instead of feeling like a man who went down a dark path and lost everything and now cares about nothing but power, Vader feels like an unstoppable superman. Even while the story is suspenseful, after the first few issues, it’s hard to worry much about Vader who rarely has moments where he’s out of control or at a loss of what to do. He just wades through enemy after enemy and it begins to feel a bit rote instead of like the titanic struggle that it should be. Vader’s ally Doctor Aphra is amusing with a sharp wit and sarcastic sense of humor but it’s the addition of two evil versions of C-3PO and R2D2 (000 and BT-1 respectively) that really carry the series. 000 is the best combination of C-3PO’s constant chatter with the dark, anti-human humor of HK-47 from the Knights of the Old Republic videogame series. BT-1 communicates mostly as a foil for 000, much as R2D2 did for C-3PO, with 000 being the conduit for the astromech’s comments. While Vader is occasionally disappointing, these two never are. They provide the main humor for the series and their interactions with Aphra feel more intriguing than most human-droid interactions in the Star Wars universe.
Darth Vader seems to be a series meant for fans of the original trilogy as a bridge between the old and the new and a way to fill in the gaps between the movies so that we can see what Vader was up to all that time. For the most part, Kieron Gillen fulfills this role admirably, bringing suspense and intrigue even though readers know the ultimate destination. Unfortunately, much like the prequels, Gillen’s series lacks the emotional power of the most recent Star War movies, Rogue One. That movie succeeded because they made the characters so compelling that we couldn’t help but fall in love even knowing how it all had to end. If you’re a Star Wars fan, this series is a good read and an excellent look at Vader’s actions off screen if not quite as much as I was hoping for.