There are two things I need you to understand here.
The first is there are many varieties of Star Wars fans, and I’m of the sort whose love for the whole thing is rooted solely to the original trilogy. I never got a proper introduction to the Expanded Universe, I haven’t read any of the new books or comics, and I remember the prequels with the clarity of a fever dream. I’ve seen maybe three episodes of The Clone Wars, which I would’ve adored as a kid but didn’t grab me as an adult. I’ve played the Old Republic games, and enjoyed them very much, but they served as something small and ancillary to the main event: The Millennium Falcon, the Battle of Hoth, philosophy lessons with Old Ben. The small amount of Star Wars tie-in stuff I’ve dabbled in was a good time. The original trilogy — and now, The Force Awakens, which my heart welcomed in with ease — I hold on a different level. That’s hallowed legend to me. That’s my canon.
That’s the first thing. The second is I’m about to throw down some Rogue One spoilers. You have been warned.
Rogue One was exactly what I wanted from it: a really fun Star Wars adventure. It didn’t blow my mind, and there were elements that bugged me, but overall, I dug it and would see it again. But though I do think this new story was worth telling, it was the ties to the old that resonated strongest with me. Tiny aesthetic details like the grated prison bars and the thumb-drive walkie talkies made me feel right at home. The sight of female Rebel pilots filled me with a joy that would make up an essay all on its own (which, thankfully, a friend of mine has already written). But the moment I haven’t been able to get out of my head involved a brief appearance by an iconic character, one who I was – at first – ambivalent about seeing again.
Everybody knew that ol’ buckethead was going to be in this flick, and indeed, I could sense who was waiting for us as we entered an honest-to-god volcano fortress in the company of Imperial flavor-of-the-month Director Krennic. It was a cameo, short and sweet. Darth Vader appears with a deserved amount of pomp, Krennic gets Force choked, the audience applauds. In the moment, excited though I was to see the biggest of the Big Bads, I didn’t find the scene necessary. It reminded us of the timeline and that Vader is alive and well here, but we knew that already. Vader was imposing because we know him from elsewhere, not because he gave us anything new. Force choke and volcano fortress aside, he felt like an empty threat.
That is, until we saw him again.
Rogue One is unique for being a Star Wars film without Jedi. There are no mind tricks, no brown robes, no dueling lightsabers. Chirrut Îmwe, the blind devotee of the Jedi Order, fights with a practice staff and uses combat moves that emulate those he idolizes, but somehow his quality of being almost-but-not-quite makes the absence of the Jedi all the more palpable. This story is the living embodiment of the words of Han Solo: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid. For two hours, we cheered on the exploits of people doing extraordinary things, but understandable things. Possible things. Things just about anyone could do with the right training and lots of practice.
And then Vader shows up and ravages a hallway full of Rebel Alliance mooks.
The scene lasts maybe a minute, but it rendered me wide-eyed and slack-jawed. These poor Rebel bastards — the same helmeted dudes we know from the opening moments of A New Hope — turn around to find themselves face-to-face with evil incarnate, burning red saber in hand. To use a gaming metaphor, it’s as if the end boss spawned in a starter zone. What followed was sudden, violent, and darkly exhilarating. The good guys become ragdolls, thrown and skewered. There’s a haunting shot as one of them pounds the window on the exit — a once-brave soldier screaming for help as death advances toward him. And Vader — Vader hardly even tries. This is nothing for him. This is a morning constitutional. I started laughing, but not out of delight. It was a nervous laugh, an oh shit laugh, the kind of laugh that happens when your brain has to reboot before it can process the unexpected.
Again, I have to emphasize this: I haven’t delved into the books and comics that detail Vader committing the horrible acts I’m sure take place there. And though I know they’re official canon, there’s something in me that has never been able to link the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels with the Darth Vader of my childhood. Perhaps it’s because I’d already come up with my own idea of who Anakin Skywalker was, based on the scraps Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan gave us and the appearance of the middle-aged ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi. Perhaps it’s because I’ve retained so little memory of the prequels at all. In any case, my Darth Vader was something of a closed entity, a mythological being that existed only on VHS tapes and the occasional limited release on a local big screen.
Given that context, I have never seen Darth Vader like I did the other night. In the originals, Vader is an omnipresent danger, but there’s a quality of distance to him. He has a penchant for strangling generals who displease him, but he does it with bloodless calm. His style of murder is quite literally hands off. He gets angry, but that rage is expressed through words — or more dangerously, through silence — rather than random violence (as opposed to, say, his grandson). Excepting a few X-Wing pilots in the trench run — which by definition is a detached type of killing — he doesn’t bother with cannon fodder. He’s not on the front lines. The only times we see him using his lightsaber are against other Jedi. Obi-Wan. Luke. That’s it. Around everyone else, his awesome prowess in the Dark Side is something expressed casually at most. He is frightening, but mainly because we’re forced (no pun intended) to imagine the things he’s done to get to this point. We are frightened of him because everyone under his command is frightened of him. We are frightened of him because of the pause in Obi-Wan’s voice when he speaks of him. We are frightened of him because of how he treats his children.
In Rogue One, I learned to fear Vader in a whole new way, and with an understanding I didn’t realize I lacked. There are no more Jedi. If you’re in a world where magic is dead and a good blaster at your side is all you’ve got, the power Vader wields is a complete nightmare. No one can fight him, no one can match him. No one can do what he can do. And by depriving the audience of the supernatural martial arts bonanzas we expect from this setting, we were put in the same shoes as the rest of the galaxy far, far away: we started to forget Jedi ever existed at all. When one appeared — or when a Sith appeared, if you prefer — we turned into that Rebel soldier, pounding on the glass in sheer panic. Somebody brought a lightsaber to a gun fight, and it was monstrously unfair. For me, that moment not only raised the grandmaster of pop culture villains to a whole new height, but it made Luke Skywalker — the character I admired most as a kid — all the more heroic. All the more necessary. I understood why he was our new hope. Rogue One’s intent was to flesh out an untold chapter of the Star Wars saga, and yes, it accomplished that. But in my eyes, the thing that movie achieved best was strengthening a story I already loved.