Join us as we journey to the dark side and bow down to the greatest cinematic bad guy of all time.

By Chris Nashawaty
December 15, 2016 at 02:14 PM EST
Lucasfilm Ltd.

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Star Wars fans have been counting down the days until Rogue One since the moment it was first announced. But would any of us be this excited if the new film didn’t include Darth Vader? Not a chance. That’s because Darth Vader is, was and always will be the greatest movie villain of all time. I suppose some people could make a case for Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates or Dracula. Maybe even the Wicked Witch of the West or Lord Voldemort. But to paraphrase a certain Sith Lord, I find their lack of faith disturbing.

It was clear from his first appearance in 1977’s A New Hope (then just Star Wars) that Vader was operating on an entirely different plane of villainy than anyone who’d ever come before in the history of cinema—a plane of almost primeval myth, madness and metaphor. His indelible introduction comes just 41⁄2 minutes into the film—shockingly early considering that we don’t even know who the hero is at that point. The music on the soundtrack turns menacing (not quite “The Imperial March” but a close, equally harrowing cousin). And he emerges from the shadows and fog: a towering figure in black, like the sadistic gunslinger in some futuristic Western. His cloak, his gloves, his boots, all of it is as dark as obsidian—a stark contrast to the sterile white of both his surroundings and the fallen stormtroopers lying lifeless on the ground. Mostly, it’s his helmet that haunts us—a sci-fi riff on the Japanese samurai’s Kabuto. This swaggering onyx specter doesn’t speak . . . yet. His entrance is beyond language. All we hear is the echoing in-and-out rhythm of his breaths. As Obi-Wan will later say with sadness, he’s “more machine, now, than man.”

But soon Vader will speak. And when he does, the hairs on the back of our necks stand up and salute as that deceptively calm, British-inflected voice (delivered through James Earl Jones’s deep baritone) is summoned to interrogate a Rebel spy whom he clutches by the neck. Vader’s brute, sadistic strength is so great that he lifts the insurgent off the ground with one hand until he snaps his neck with a loud crunch that some Foley artist is probably still dining out on. Who is this person? Is this a person?

It’s the stuff of childhood nightmares. You can measure a movie villain by how deeply we feel his nefarious, looming presence even when he’s not onscreen. And Vader haunts every frame of the Star Wars series. He’s the bogeyman we see even when we don’t. Especially when we don’t.

If Vader’s black-on-black iconography is a bit on the nose, nothing else about him is. Over the course of the original trilogy (and at the tail end of Revenge of the Sith), the man/machine formerly known as Anakin Skywalker reveals layer upon layer of deep symbolic meaning. He was once a Jedi Knight (“the best star pilot in the galaxy,” according to Obi-Wan). He was seduced by the dark side, a power-mad ethos so ruthless that he allows the destruction of the peaceful planet of Alderaan just to make a point to Princess Leia. And most important, he was a father—a father whose impulsiveness and passion ran so deep that he’d rather embrace chaos than risk the pain of losing the ones he loves. It’s hard to imagine a more loaded Freudian backstory ever put on celluloid.

It’s often been said that Star Wars is Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey. And that’s true as far as it goes. But the hero at the heart of George Lucas’s intergalactic saga pales next to the story’s villain. Luke doesn’t have the same charisma or complexity. Vader is on a different and more seductive journey— the antihero’s journey. And it’s far more psychologically thrilling because it’s messy and murky and even more human. After all, before he was lured to the dark side, before he was Darth Vader, Anakin was one of us—a man wrestling with free will and destiny. He was the Chosen One meant to bring balance to the Force. Ultimately he has to make a choice—and he makes two. First, to become cinema’s ultimate fallen angel. Then, just before his death, as he reveals his hideously scarred face, he also reveals his humanity—finally. Even for someone as evil as Darth Vader, there’s a chance for redemption. The circle, as someone once said, is now complete.

This article originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly’s collector’s edition of The Ultimate Guide to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on newsstands now.